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THE CHARMED CIRCLE OF GEER TZ’S

HERMENEUTICS
A Neo-Marxist Critique*

Bob Scholte - University of Amsterdam


1

I. 5

On two recent occasions (Shankman, 1984:692 and Taylor, 1985:167) my


name has been directly linked to Geertz’s. I am both flattered and
disturbed. Flattered to be mentioned in the same breath with one of
cultural anthropology’s most eloquent practitioners; disturbed because the
comparison rests on a mistaken (and no doubt exaggerated) assessment of
what he and I represent.
I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight, that is, to
express both my genuine respect for Geertz’s contribution and to detail my
very real differences with him.

/I.

Geertz’s theoretical contribution (and I shall limit myself to theory) is at


least three-fold: one, substantive, e.g., his emphasis on the diversity of
symbolic forms and human behavior and his attendant critique of
reductionist closure of any kind; two, epistemological, e.g., his
introduction of the hermeneutic circle to ethnographic praxis, including
description, narration, reflexivity and interpretation; and, three,
philosophical, e.g., his critique of scientific positivism and naive
empiricism and his advocacy of humanistic holism and descriptive
phenomenology.
Before detailing Geertz’s theoretical contribution, let me make it clear
that I fully concur only with his critique of scientifism and that I have
serious misgivings (to be discussed) about his ontological and
epistemological premises (see Scholte, 1984). To anticipate, Geertz is in
essence a Weberian (with Parson as the mediator, see Peacock, 1981 ); I am
in the final analysis a Marxist (with the humanists, especially Lukacs and
Sartre, as mentors). My misgivings, then, are to some extent predictable:
Geertz fails to join Marx with Weber, that is, production with meaning and
praxis with interpretation (compare to Ortner, 1984:147ff.).
Leaving my criticisms aside for the moment, Geertz’s theoretical
contribution is, as I’ve said, considerable and note-worthy. First of all,
Geertz has always and correctly refused to impose an arbitrary closure on
the nature of either human behavior or cultural analysis. The latter, he
says, ’is intrinsically incomplete’ (Geertz, 1973:29). Cultural analysis is (or
should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing
explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the
Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape’ (Geertz,
1973:20).
How can cultural analysis be otherwise if human beings themselves are
incomplete because historical? Persistent arguments in favor of a ’context-
independent concept of &dquo;Human Nature&dquo;’ or ’that other old friend, &dquo;The
6 Human Mind&dquo;’ (Geertz, 1984:267-268) are misguided efforts to insulate
anthropological theories from historical contingencies and cultural
diversity. The deconstruction of the concrete other is simply too high a
price to pay for an illusory and abstract Truth (see Geertz, 1984:274).
Anthropology’s prescriptive task, according to Geertz, lies elsewhere: ’It
has been the office of others to reassure; ours to unsettle.
Australopithicenes, Tricksters, Clicks, Megaliths - we hawk the
anomalous, peddle the strange. Merchants of astonishment’ (Geertz,
1984:275). Elsewhere, he says: ’If we want to discover what man amounts
to, we can only find it in what men are; and what men are, above all other
things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness - its range, its
nature, its basis, and its implications - that we shall come to construct a
concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow and less than
a primitive dream has both substance and truth’ (Geertz, 1973:52).
Geertz’s caution is, I think, entirely appropriate. Our discipline has far
too often stipulated abstract truths that in turn generated reductionistic
analyses and legitimized ethnocentric prejudices (see Scholte, 1983 and
1984 and especially Fabian, 1983). Geertz is resolutely relativistic in the
sophisticated sense that post-modern and post-structuralist anthropology
must be relativistic: By ’refusing both the Hegelian and the scientific fusion
of horizons, which reduces all traditions to the shape and interests of
Western discourse’ (Tyler, 1984:328).
Geertz’s articulation of a symbolic anthropology no doubt constitutes
his most dramatic contribution to anthropological theory (for an
historically informative analysis, see Keesing, 1974). It is also considered
by many to be the most controversial and problematic aspect of his work
(see below).
At the heart of Geertz’s ontology lies the semiotic category of meaning
with cultures the
as webs of significance that people spin (see Geertz,
1973:5). culture, in other words, ’is an ensemble of texts, themselves
A
ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of
those to whom they properly belong’ (Geertz, 1973:452).2
It is important to realize that cultural texts, ensembles, or symbolic
forms are not ideational abstractions, ideal types, or structural models.
Geertz’s semiotics has nothing in common with Levi-Strauss’
structuralism - at least not in this regard, though there might be other
parallels. In fact, Geertz might more profitably be compared with one of
Levi-Strauss’ major critics: Paul Ricoeur.
However that might be, it is important that culture, at least in theory, is
conceived in social and concrete terms rather than in logical or abstract
one:&dquo;... the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms
are social events like any other; they are as public as marriage and as
observable as agriculture’ (Geertz, 1973:45).
Still, symbolic forms are sufficiently unique in their composition and
status to require a hermeneutic rather than a positivistic method. Cultural
anthropology, Geertz asserts, ’is not an experimental science in search of 7
law but an interpretive one in search of meaning’ (Geertz, 1973:5).
What Geertz’s interpretive turn specifically means is not always clear
and the controversies that surround concepts such as ’thick description’,
’interpretive verstehen’, etc. are understandable. I do not want to go into a
detailed account of my own position here (I already did so in my debate
with Shankman), though I shall have some further comments to make later
on. For the moment, I simply want to say what interpretive anthropology is
definitely not - subjectivistic and formalistic - and what I think its unique
strengths are - a partially reflexive turn and an awareness of anthropology’s
narrative structure. Again, my critique will follow later.
When no-nonsense empiricists (who like to call themselves realists)
encounter terms like interpretation and verstehen, their immediate reflex is
usually negative. Their reflexes and prejudices tend to make them think of
what they take to be analogous terms: empathy, communion, surrender,
subjectivity, intuition, mystique, etc. That is definitely not what Geertz
(nor for that matter, Weber, Dilthey, Gadamer, Ricoeur and numerous
others) has in mind: ’Nothing will discredit a semiotic approach to culture
more quickly than allowing it to drift into a combination of intuitionism
and alchemy, no matter how elegantly the intuitions or how modern the
alchemy is made to look’ (Geertz, 1973:30).
What Geertz does have in mind is explained as follows: ’The trick is not
to achieve some inner correspondence of spirit with your informants;
preferring, like the rest of us, to call their souls their own, they are not going
to be altogether keen about such an effort anyhow. The trick is to figure out
what the devil they think they are up to’ (Geertz, 1975:48).
How the trick is actually carried out is not principally a theoretical issue
and I shall not address it here despite its obvious ethnographic importance.
Balinese and Morrocan specialists are in a better position than I to assess
Geertz’s analytic successes and failures, his empirical adequacy or
partiality, etc. What interests me instead is the explicitly self-referential
turn that the hermeneutic circle and thick description entail.
I would like to single out in this regard Geertz’s famous remark about
Levi-Strauss’ Tristes tropiques: ’All ethnography is part philosophy, and a
good deal of the rest is confession’ (Geertz, 1973:346). I ’read’ Geertz’s
remark as follows: he realizes, though he does not act upon it (see below),
that a crucial positivist premise - the discontinuity between experience and
reality - is not and never was tenable; that, in other words, ’authentic
ethnography can no longer in good positivist faith efface the diary from the
account’ (Webster, 1982:92).3 Anthropological knowledge, including and
perhaps especially ethnographic knowledge, are constitutive, that is,
ecological. They involve, among other things, a co-defining and creative
role for the knowledge constituting anthropologist, describer, inscriber.
Ethnography, Geertz dramatically and, I think, correctly claims is
fiction (not falsehood!): ’something made’ or ’something fashioned’
8 (Geertz, 1973:15). It crucially involves, he adds, an act of writing
( 1973:19). A significant afterthought, incidently, and one to which I shall
return momentarily. For now, I merely want to reiterate the importance of
Geertz’s explicit recognition of ethnography as narrative (see also Webster,
1982) - a fact whose far-reaching implications are now beginning to be felt
(see, for example, Clifford, 1983; Marcus & Cushman, 1982, or Marcus &
Clifford, 1985).
But why should the recognition of anthropology as narrative or
ethnography as fiction be so important? For several reasons, only one of
which will concern me here: the critique of positivism.
Like Kuhn (to whom he has been explicitly compared by Walters,
1980:547f~, Geertz prefers to talk in terms of interpretive genres rather
than Scientific Method (the capital letters are intended). Not because, as
Shankman absurdly claims (1984:692), people like Geertz (and Scholte)
are ’engaged in a form of literary criticism that rejects science altogether’,
but because people like Geertz and Kuhn (and Scholte in part thanks to
them) realize that sciencing, too, is an activity or genre (see Boon, 1982) in
which assumptions, premises, theories and interpretations, etc. actually
precede events, facts, data and observations, etc. In ethnography, for
instance, ’far from descriptions supporting theory, the explicitly
interpretive parts of a text work to support the descriptions, which are the
crucial, unstable focus of rhetorical energy’ (Marcus & Clifford, 1985:269).
The positivist assumption that one merely interprets on the basis of pre-
existing evidence is utterly naive. More often than not, ’the interpretation
determines what will count as evidence for it, and the evidence is able to be
picked out only because the interpretation has already been assumed’
(Fish, 1979:246). That, too, is the meaning of the hermeneutic circle - an
ecological epistemology par excellence (see Bateson, 1972; Scholte, 1976,
or Wilden, 1972). To quote Fish once again: ’We are never not in a
situation. Because we are never not in a situation, we are never not in the
act of interpreting. Because we are never not in the act of interpreting, there
is possibility of reaching a
no level of meaning beyond or below
interpretation’ (Fish, 1979:250).4
Geertz’s singular contribution, it seems to me, is to have made the
situational and interpretive characteristics of ethnographic description and
ethnological understanding central to the discipline as a whole.
Anthropology’s rock-bottom is not made of those brute facts of which
hard-nosed empiricists are so fond. Anthropology’s rock-bottom is made
and re-made...

Ill.

Having detailed my respect for Geertz’s theoretical contribution, especially


his philosophy of anthropological science, it is time to clarify my
differences with him. They are, as I have said, both ontological and 9
epistemological and they must in large part be attributed to Geertz’s
Weberianism in contrast to my own Marxism.
Most anthropologists - Geertz and I included - would heartily agree
with Keesing that in our descriptions and interpretations ’cultures must...

be situated, placed in a context - historically, economically, politically’


(Keesing, n.d.:4). Geertz, in fact, is unequivocal on the matter: ’If
anthropological interpretation is constructing a reading of what happens,
then to divorce it from what happens - from what, at this time or that
place, specific people say, what they do, what is done to them, from the
whole vast business of the world - is to divorce it from its applications and
render it vacant’ (Geertz, 1973:18).
The real question, then, is not that you situate cultures in your
descriptions and analyses. We all do that. The real question, rather, is how
you do or not do it and to what end. That is why Keesing’s remark is not
merely stating the obvious. In fact, he goes on to deliver a very telling
critique of Geertz’s actual contextualization procedures and concludes his
argument with a cryptic but equally telling observation: ’Where feminists
and Marxists find oppression, symbolists find meaning’ (Keesing, n.d.: 19).
Why the difference? Because, I think, symbolic anthropology lacks the
totalizing concept of context or situation that is proper to the Marxist
tradition.5Ortner, a former student of Geertz’s, has put the matter
succinctly. She complains of ’symbolic anthropology’s lack ... of a
systematic sociology; underdeveloped
its sense of the politics culture;
of
and its lack of curiosity concerning the production and maintenance of
symbolic systems’ (Ortner, 1984:131-132; my italics). Let us briefly look at
these three key terms.
Geertz has made us understand that there is, indeed, a ’poetics of power’
(Geertz, 1980:13, 123). But there is also the politics of power and, of
course, power politics. Geertz is as eloquent about the former as he is silent
about the other two. In both the Morrocan and Balinese ethnographies, for
instance, colonial violence, domination and exploitation are scarcely
mentioned (see Foster, 1981 or Roseberry, 1982). The reason, I think, is
precisely the one Ortner mentions: Geertz’s real concern is with the
symbolic meaning of cultural texts, not with their production nor with
their maintenance. Since Geertz is primarily interested in meaning, he is
only incidently concerned with praxis.
Symbolic anthropology is a sign theory of culture. It is a theory ’of
representation, not of production; of exchange or &dquo;traffic&dquo;, not of creation;
of meaning, not of praxis’ (Fabian, 1983:233). That is far too one-sided,
however. Geertz fails to ask precisely those questions that are central to
praxis theory: not only ’What is considered meaningful?’ But also, ’How is
meaning constituted? By whom? For whom? At whose expense?’ (see
Scholte, 1981 ). And how is meaning maintained, distributed, controlled?
By consensus or by force? Keesing makes a crucial point in this regard: ’...
10 cultures are webs of mystification as well as signification’ (Keesing, n.d.:3;
my italics). Hence the importance of asking not only what cultures -
symbolic forms, discourses, ensembles of texts, etc. - mean, but ’... how
different forms of discourse come to be materially produced and
maintained as authoritative systems’ (Asad, 1979:619; my italics).
In a very real sense, Geertz has put the cart before the horse: ’Instead of
taking the production of &dquo;essential meanings&dquo; (in the form of authoritative
discourse) in given historical societies as the problem to be explained,
[Geerts] takes the existence of essential meanings (in the form of
&dquo;authentic discourse&dquo;) as the basic concept for defining and explaining
historical societies’ (Asad, 1979:623).
Geertz should have wedded Marx to Weber. Dialectical theories of
culture, while certainly not denying the importance of meaning, have
always functioned as important antidotes to exclusively interpretive
viewpoints by insisting ’on the inerradicable tension between the human
urges for coherent life and thought and the limitation forced on us by our
involvement in bodily, social, historical existence’ (Rabinow & Sullivan,
1979:15). The transcending issue, in other words, is not meaning or praxis,
but the meaning of constitutive practices and the praxis of constituted
meanings.
My epistemological differences with Geertz parallel my substantive
misgivings. Again questions of praxis, production, creation, etc. are
crucial. Just as Geertz fails to properly tie meaning to practice, so he fails to
adequately relate interpretations to praxis. Just as he works with a
disembodied concept of meaning, so he works with a hermeneutic circle
that isn’t concrete enough (epistemologically, ontologically, and
politically). Let me explain.
In the dialectical relation between producer, production and product
(see Fabian, 1971 ), Geertz reifies the product (separating what the natives
are up to from the ’tricks’ used by anthropologists to get at it); hides the
producer (he or she takes a back-seat while reading over the natives’
shoulders); and he fails to concretize the production process (we hear
nothing about the historical and political contexts in which
anthropological texts are produced).
The results are ironic. Geertz wants to transcend an anthropology based
exclusively on observation and analysis and design one instead that
engages in description and interpretation (see Geertz, 1973:9). Yet by
removing his concrete self from the interpretive process, he is bound to
remain a distant observer, one ’condemned to see all practice as a spectacle’
(Bourdieu, 1977:1 ) and culture as a map or, if you will, a web. Neither
Geertz the constituting person nor his constituted fictions and the proces-
ses that created them are epistemologically grounded or anthropologically
situated.
Even more ironically, Geertz’s arrested dialectic condemns him to the
very Cartesian dichotomies (subject and object, text and context, etc.) that
his philosophy of science sought in principle to transcend. As Webster 11
notes: ’The excising of the hermeneutic circle from the historical whole of
which it is a part continues the objectivist episteme under a hermeneutic
guise, begging the questions of the political, economic and personal context
of research by reifying that of its subject-matter’ (Webster, n.d.:31-32; see
also Webster, 1982 & 1983). The reason, again, is the failure to tie
interpretation to praxis - to the practicality and particularity of inter-
subjective and knowledge-constitutive coevalness (see Fabian, 1983).
Let me concretize the above with reference to Geertz’s notion of
ethnographic writing (see Geertz, 1973:19ff). The emphasis on writing is
significant, far more so than one would suspect from the obvious fact that
ethnographers write. For one, it implies a choice in favor of a textual rather
that a dialogical mode of ethnographic representation (see Marcus &
Cushman, 1982:42-43). For another, the choice of writing entails a number
of related questions, foremost among them the issue of the past and present
relation between power and writing, including the politics of representa-
tion (see, for instance, Lemaire, 1984). Anticipating what I shall detail
momentarily, both the choice of the textual mode and Geertz’s silence
about writing and power again reveal his inability to relate interpretation to
praxis, that is, textual and analogical discourse to actual and dialogical
speech or texts as written products to the political contexts of their
production and consumption.
The choice of an exclusively textual mode of ethnographic representa-
tion prevents the hermeneutic circle from actualizing both its proper self-
referential location and its open-ended spiral effect. Writing protects and
even hides the self, denying the anthropologist ’an active role ... in the
direct encounter with the other’ (Dwyer, 1982:263; see also Crapanzano,
1977). The written mode also implies that the other never actually speaks.
Thick description is in a certain sense ’a gag rule on native discourse’
(Tedlock, 1983:337). It is therefore difficult to know what Geertz concrete-
ly means with his claim that ’the aim of anthropology is the enlargement of
the universe of human discourse’ (Geertz, 1973:14).
The actual knowledge-constitutive process remains hidden in the narra-
tive style of thick description. In Geertz’s ’Deep Play ...’ article, for
instance, ’we are seldom made aware of the fact that an essential part of the
cockfight’s construction as a text is dialogical, talking face-to-face with
particular Balinese rather than reading culture &dquo;over their shoulders’&dquo;
(Clifford, 1983:131-132). There is, in other words, no ethnography as
speaking (Fabian, 1979:3) in Geertz’s work, though he has made a substan-
tial contribution to the ethnography of speaking (e.g., Geertz 1960:248ff.).6
The point is important because it once again shows how abstract
Geertz’s interpretive anthropology really is - his good intentions not-with-
standing. We are presented with an end-product; the production process
that mediates between the initial experience and the final product remains
vague, even hidden7
12 Contemporary anthropology has moved progressively in the direction
of a discursive (dialogical) mode of ethnographic representation rather
than an exclusively textual (analogical) one. It thus ’brings into prominen-
ce the intersubjectivity of all speech, along with its immediate performative
context’ (Clifford, 1983:133). The implications for ethnographic writing
are or should be clear: ’Every use of the &dquo;I&dquo; presupposes a &dquo;you&dquo;, and every
instance of discourse is immediately linked to a specific, shared situation.
No discursive meaning, then, without interlocation and context ... The
words of ethnographic writing cannot be construed as monological, as
...

the authoritative statement about, or interpretation of, an abstracted,


textualized reality’ (Clifford, 1983:133). Yet Geertz does precisely that and
it simply will not do: ’The ultimate implications of dialogue can be
postponed by eaves-dropping on the discourse of others [or by reading over
their shoulders]. But if such a discourse is to be translated and interpreted,
then the ethnographer of speaking must sooner or later become a speaking
ethnographer’ (Tedlock, 1983:338).
Finally, Geertz is not only a writing and not a speaking ethnographer,
he is also curiously silent about situating his writing - or writing tout court -
within ’the larger contexts of systematic power inequality’ (Marcus &
Clifford, 1985:267). But surely after Barthes, Foucault or Said’s Orienta-
lism (which Geertz must have read), we simply cannot overlook or remain
silent about the politics of cross-cultural representation. Yet Geertz is. And
it, too, is symptomatic of what I have repeatedly called Geertz’s failure to
wed Marx to Weber, context to text and praxis to interpretation.

*
This essay was originally written for a conference on Geertz’s theoretical contnbution to
cultural anthropology organized by the Dutch Anthropological Association. The conference
conveners considered it too long to be presented at the meeting (it is not, of course, surprising
that in a country that gave us capitalism, counting and evaluating should be considered
synonymous). The strain of trying to keep it short shows. The ending is far too abrupt. I hope to
elaborate on the last few paragraphs at some future time.
NOTES
1. To Tommy Nieuwenhuis - a unique bureaucrat who actually saved instead of costing me
time.
2. Though the topic is beyond the scope of this paper, Geertz’s definition of culture is
important to his critique of biological reductionism as well. His well-phrased criticism of socio-
biology, for instance, is as amusing as it is devastating:’... in human beings sexuality is not, like
the opposable thumb, a biological fact with some cultural implications, but, like speech, a
cultural activity sustaining a biological process’ (Geertz, 1980:4).
3. For a more detailed explanation of the social scientific and anthropological importance
of the continuity/discontinuity positions, see Bernstein, 1983; Fabian, 1971; or Scholte, 1979.
4. This raises, of course, the issue of epistemological relativism - a topic Geertz in part
addressed in his Distinguished Lecture (1984). I do not want to enter the argument here - it
would take me too far afield. I have addressed the issue on numerous occasions (e.g., 1980,
1983, 1984) and still find Merleau-Ponty’s position the most viable. He says: ’If history envelops
us all, it is up to us to understand that whatever we can have of the truth is not to be obtained in
13
spite of our historical situation but because of it. Considered superficially, history destroys all
truth, though considered radically it founds a new idea of truth. As long as I hold the ideal of an
absolute spectator before me, of knowledge without a point of view, I can see my situation only
as a principle of error. But having once recognized that through this situation I have become part
of all action and all knowledge that can be meaningful for me, and that it contains, in gradually
widening horizons, all that canbe for me, then my contact with the social in the finitude of my
situation reveals itself as the origin of all truth, including that of science; and since we have an
idea of truth, since we are in the truth and cannot escape it, then the only thing left for us to do is
to define a truth within a situation’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1951:501).

5. I cannot judge the feminist literature and I am well aware that the issue is problematic in
the Marxist tradition. But that is not the point here.
6. Though irrelevant to my argument, I cannot resist quoting Jakobson’s pointed
distinction between sociology and anthropology: ’... anthropology is the science of man as a
talking ammal and sociology is the science of man as a writing animal’ (Jakobson, 1971:663).
7. Tedlock’s comparison between analogical and dialogical anthropology is germane here:
’Analogical anthropology ... involves the replacement of one discourse with another. It is
claimed that this new discourse, however far removed it may seem to be, is equivalent or
proportionate, in a quasi-mathematical sense, to the previous discourse. Ana-logos, in Greek,
literally means ’talking above’, ’talking beyond’, or’talking later’, as contrasted with the talking
back and forth of dialogue. The dialogue is a continuing process and itself illustrates process and
change; the analogue, on the other hand, is a product, a result’ (Tedlock, 1983:324).

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