Clifford Geertz

By: Tor Aarestad
August 23, 2009


The most widely known American anthropologist since Margaret Mead, CLIFFORD GEERTZ (1926-2006) was instrumental in turning anthropology into the respectable and (more importantly) theory-poachable discipline it became in the 1970s and ’80s. How? Though he turned out plenty of thorough monographs, Geertz was anthropology’s greatest stylist, tout court, and the essay form constrained him most productively. His throwaway lines are sheer magic: ethnography, say, is “a vitality phrased.” Though Geertz’s tone motored along at lettré avuncular, he was a master at slipping in the parenthetical blade: he introduces Lévi-Strauss, for example, as an “intellectual hero… as Susan Sontag, who is in charge of such matters, called him”; and in reference to Foucault’s “What is an Author?,” he writes, “(which in fact I agree with, save for its premises, its conclusions, and its cast of mind).” Geertz was delighted at the new authority of hermeneutical enterprises as legitimate heuristics: “As social theory turns from propulsive metaphors (the language of pistons) toward ludic ones (the language of pastimes), the humanities are connected to its arguments not in the fashion of skeptical bystanders but, as the source of its imagery, chargeable accomplices.” Yet, as the “accomplices” tag suggests, he recognized the obligation that this creates for hermenauts, forever drawn to postmodern solipsism, to act responsibly.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: | Paul Otlet | Allan Kaprow |

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).


HiLo Heroes, Theory