Anthropology is a discipline without discipline. "At once broad and general, wildly aspiring ("The Study of Man"), and particular and miscellaneous, strangely obsessive (puberty rites, gift exchange, kin terminology), it has always had, both to itself and to outsiders, a blurry image. Neither method nor subject matter very exactly defines it. ("Ethnography" has been often proposed with respect to the first, "primitive society" with respect to the second. But the one is as diffuse an idea as that it is supposed to clarify and the other is misconceived.)"
What, then, defines the anthropologist? In Clifford Geertz's case, as for many of his peers, entry into the profession was determined by their having gone through fieldwork. Academic lectures and the acquaintance with great authors had to be complemented with learning-by-going. In-depth knowledge of a particular place at a particular time then allows the anthropologist to claim some authority in addressing more general issues: social change, the logic of politics, cultural identities. The description is enriched and the knowledge deepened by the use of the comparative method: having studied two cities--Sefrou in Morocco and Pare in Indonesia--at various points in time provides Geertz with a richer perspective, deepened further by his engagement with methodological issues.
Even so, the task is not easy. The anthropologist has to guard himself against two pitfalls: the "telephone book" syndrome, where the accumulation of facts and detail substitute for meaningful analysis, and the temptation of the grand historical opera, where the views are so broad and general as to lose sight of the concrete. In addition, there is always the twin risks of impressionism ("invocations of camels and minarets, rice terraces and shadow puppets") and of stereotyping ("the megalomanic Kwakiutl, the stalwart Nuer, the disciplined Japanese, the family-prisoned Southern Italians").
The essential task, then, is to "tell it like it is". Despite the claims to objectivity, this is a matter of art as much as of science. "Footnotes help, verbatim texts help even more, detail impresses, numbers usually carry the day. But, in anthropology anyway, they remain somehow ancillary: necessary of course, but insufficient, not quite the point." The important point here is to "devise systems of discourse that can keep up, more or less, with what, perhaps, is going on." In the end, anthropology is not much different from myths, which according to Northrop Frye describe not what has happened but what happens. Both are stories about stories, views about views, with the power to conjure other accounts and to strengthen our hold on the real.
Organized into thematic chapters, Clifford Geertz's After the Facts--half personal memories, half meditation about the discipline--is a brilliant account of what anthropology is all about. The author starts with a tale of two cities revealing their inner core to the observer: Pare as a political battlefield on the brink of a bloodbath, leaving the author with a sense of having come too late and leaving too early ("between a turbulence somehow got through and another one obscurely looming"); Sefrou as a moral landscape ideally suited for the ethnographer ("the place was not only suited for a monograph; it sorted itself into chapters").
He then proceeds with comparing Indonesia and Morocco, going beyond the cliches (a precipitate of the present, a relic from the past) to find some truth in the opposition between what he labels a politics of sedq, of the radical personalism and patronage networks of Moroccan politics, and a politics of suku, which describes Indonesia's attempt to reconcile group diversity and national unity. These categories-- political drama and moral landscape, sedq and suku-- are not absolutes and should only be valued for their capacity to "lead on to extended accounts which, intersecting other accounts of other matters, widen their implications and deepen their hold". They help the author understand "what all the shouting is about; what sort of quarrel is going on."
Geertz also attempts to characterize the two cultures, noting first that during his early attempts to learn the language, Javanese instructors dutifully corrected him for any errors he made in status marking and let gender errors more or less go, while his Moroccan instructors never let a gender mistake pass uncorrected and seemed hardly interested in status distinctions. This is partly due to the fact that Javanese has no inflection for gender but is grammatically stratified into minutely graded, hierarchical speech registers, while Moroccan Arabic has gender inflections for just about every part of speech, but no status form at all. More fundamentally, languages have "disparate tendencies to notice some things about the world rather more than others and to make more fuss about them."
Some issues also make more fuss and impose themselves on the anthropologist's agenda. Such is the case with Islam, a religion joining the two geographical extremes of Indonesia and Morocco. As Geertz notes, "everyone now seems to have a view about it". Although he himself offers no definitive interpretation, the titles of the books he devoted to the subject offer some indications on where he stands. For an anthropologist, Islam has to be observed, starting with religious development in situated places, as opposed to an essentialist approach that would draw general lessons from the reading of canonical texts. And religion in places like Java is a pluralistic phenomenon, open to conflicts of interpretation as to what constitutes its true nature.
Contrary to a younger generation of anthropologists, Clifford Geertz doesn't try to impose his political agenda upon the reader, nor does he discard anything Western as ethnocentric and imperialistic. He is however well conscious of his own country's political and cultural hegemony: "there was never a time when "the West" in general, and the United States in particular, did not intrude in one way or another upon my daily encounters, to say nothing of my state of mind". But he choses to treat the issue in a mildly ironic mode, through a succession of snapshots that describe his encounters with "sputniks, foreign bases, diplomatic adventures, international conferences, aid missions, and cultural exchanges".
Finally, Clifford Geertz is a virtuoso of the English language. He writes in a style that is both highly accurate and richly evocative. He refrains from using the jargon that so often plagues the discipline, and he refers more often to literary works than to theoretical texts. I had to check the names and works of Richard Wilbur and Theodore Roethke, who both received a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and whose quotations are woven in the text. If you want to get an idea of his prose, just access the first three pages of the book through the "Look Inside" function on Amazon. They are absolutely stunning.