Monday, June 28, 2010

Geertz and Foucault: Culture and Symbolic Anthropology

Mukesh Williams

The interrogation of alien cultures from the standpoint of the west was further aided by the rise of symbolic anthropology in the 1970s and 1980s. Symbolic anthropology significantly influenced cultural poetics which later came to be known as new historicism. American anthropologist and liberal humanist Clifford Geertz simultaneously confronted the data collecting approach in social sciences and the universalizing discourses of Marxism. He explained culture as symbolic "patterns of meaning" that men and women employ to communicate and develop "attitudes toward life." His ethnographic model employed "thick description" to explain social expressions of an alien culture that were somewhat confusing and enigmatical to the Western mind.

In the opening essay, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture," Geertz remarks, "Analysis is sorting out the structures of signification--what Ryle called established codes, a somewhat misleading expression, for it makes the enterprise sound too much like that of the cipher clerk when it is much more like that of the literary critic--and determining their social ground and import"(p. 9). This statement had a great impact upon the method and procedures of both anthropologists and literary critics in the middle of 1970s (Geertz, 1973 9).

Geertz in After the Fact elaborates upon the post-positivist critique of empirical realism, which questioned the traditional theories of truth and knowledge and introduced an indefinite "quest" after the fact in anthropology (Geertz, 1996 168). In the beginning symbolic anthropology was "suspected as European, literary, or worse, philosophical." And to quite an extent these suspicions were well founded. In an attempt to restructure anthropology and formulate graduate programs in it, anthropologists overhauled curricula driven beyond the boundaries of their discipline into an area of new intellectual practices arising out of a combination of "the linguistic, the interpretative, the social constructionist, the new historicist, the rhetorical, or the semiotic"(Geertz 1996 114).

Now the ethnographer's task was not only to re-conceptualize his discipline but to adapt the new methodologies to his discipline. In Available Light, Geertz explores issues in political philosophy, religion and psychology through a postmodernist and multi-cultural perspective. Here he brings to the surface the symbolic significance of the concepts of nation, country, identity or self and how their unstable meanings change through time and place. But he makes an interesting remark in the beginning of the book, which would gladden the hearts of literary critics. Geertz wrote,

A lot of people don't quite know where they are going, I suppose; but I don't even know, for certain, where I have been. But all right already. I've tried virtually every other literary genre at one time or another. I might as well try Bildungsroman (Geertz, 2000 3).

Geertz's light-hearted statement of becoming a novelist and writing a bildungsroman has far-reaching implication both for anthropology and literature. A bildungsroman narrates the story of the psychological development and moral education of its protagonist, and now anthropology is called upon to do the same. The thin margin that once separated the imaginative text of a writer and the scientific text of an anthropologist has almost disappeared by now.

The interpretative and exhaustive method of anthropology was quickly appropriated by cultural historians, and subsequently by literary critics, more as a narrating practice than as a cultural theory. Literary critics particularly employed the interpretative narrative technique of this ethnographic model to understand literary culture and the literary ethos. Interestingly Geertz's interpretative ethnography was criticized within the field of anthropology by fellow anthropologists as reducing economic and material conflicts in society to impressionistic understanding of local cultures. His use of thick description failed to relate "cultural texts" to a larger tradition of literary, economic and social change.

The Geertzian method of finding indigenous cultural significance to the exclusion of social laws has drawn criticism from critics such as Roger Keesing, Dominick La Capra, Vincent Pecora and Aletta Biersack (Pecora, 1989 243-276). These critics point out that culture can be both mazes of "mystification" or streets of signification. It all depends on who constructs cultural meaning and interprets culture; and what are his ulterior motives.

Naturally new historicist practices have also come under attack. Hayden White in Tropics of Discourse sees literary conventions and linguistic constraints impacting on the writing of history (White, 1978; 1987). The historical discourse now becomes a narrative prose discourse that represents past structures as models in order to explain their meaning. In Metahistory, White sees the historian functioning as a chronicler of events that happened in the past and constructing a story from it (White, 1973). The controversy about the new methodology continues. The linguistic turn towards culture in history, sociology and anthropology has been dealt with exhaustively in Beyond the Cultural Turn which analyses different aspects of the narrative mode and offers a postmodernist critique of knowledge seeing the body and self as important sites intersecting culture and society (Bonnell and Hunt, 1999). Walter Cohen sees the new historicist reliance on "arbitrary connectedness" between different aspects of social reality as a significant lack of an "organizing principle" (Cohen, 1987 34).

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