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The Location of Meaning in Cultural Anthropology

The Location of Meaning in Cultural Anthropology

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Published by Bryce Peake
Anthropology qualifying exam, question 2.
Anthropology qualifying exam, question 2.

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Published by: Bryce Peake on Jul 17, 2013
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The problem of meaning, representation, and culture
specifically their relationship andsynonymic potential
is the source of numerous epistemological issues across the social sciencesand humanities, but this is especially the case in symbolic and interpretive anthropology. Debatesoften take the form of a polemic against Geertzian thought in a species-for-genus synecdoche. Inthis essay, I will address the debate of locating, and thus the mediation of, meaning. I begin with an
outline of Geertz‟s thought as represented in „Deep Play‟. From this I split into two separatecritiques and solutions. First, I examine Crapanzano‟s critique of Geertz, targeted at the Geertz‟s
reliance on the Hamlet-
like „stories they tell
to themselves about themselves‟. I find solu
tion to thisin the phenomenological anthropology of Jackson. The second critique is made of the temporaldimension and power dynamics lacking in
Geertz‟s model: Keesing asks why Geertz failed to
address time (not that he failed in his answer, but that he failed to address the issue at all). Toexamine this, I turn to Rabinow 
‟s existentialis
-Marxist ethnohistory of colonialism in Morocco.The appeals to the solutions are then summarized in a conclusion that directly addresses thelocation of meaning in body and time.
In „Notes on a Balinese Cockfight‟, Geertz
applies "thick description" to the "deep play" of theBalinese Cockfight, in order to show that "the fight is at once a convulsive surge of animal hatred, a mock war of symbolical selves, and a formal simulation of status tensions, and its aesthetic powerderives from its capacity to force together these diverse realities...joining pride to selfhood,selfhood to cocks, and cocks to destruction, it brings to imaginative realization a dimension of Balinese experience normally well obscured from view," (444). Most significant for Geertz is the way in which the social drama, or a social game, acts as a piece of art, where subjectivity is bothembedded in and created by observance. The cockfight is, in these terms, a representation of how society should function for society.
Geertz‟s beliefs are pulled from thick description, a methodology that attempts to engage with
the seemingly contradictory existence between what is done and what is said is done, or as it is truly practiced, the disjunction between what is known is done and what is unknowingly known is doneby insiders."Believing, as Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimentalscience in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning," (5). Culture is the 'code' that motivates actions, and it is through thick description of the quotidian that we uncover these codes."...the point is that between what Ryle calls the
in description‟
of what the rehearser is doing 
and the „thick description‟
of what he is doing lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsal of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not in fact exist,no matter what anyone did or didn't do with his eyelids," (7)."Culture, this acted document, thus is public, like a burlesqued wink or a mock sheep raid.Though ideational, it does not exist in someone's head," (10). In this, Geertz believes that culturelies outside of the head, and is a text written through the interactions of people; opposed to theschool of thought that suggests that culture is composed of psychological structures that guideindividual's behaviors. Culture, because it is semiotic, is public, because it is only by convention,and thus in public space, that symbolic mediums, through which our interactions take place, exist."As interworked systems of construable signs, culture is not a power, something to which socialevents, behaviors, institutions can be causally attributed; it is a context, something within which they can be intelligibly- that is thickly- described, (14).
Communication & Body Language: 
Crapanzano (1986) suggests that 
much of Geertz‟s analysis is
skewed by 
his rhetorical strategy of connecting with the „audience‟, which
simultaneously undoeshis interpretive authority.
“Interpretation has been understood as a phallic, a phallic
-aggressive, a cruel and violent, a destructive act, and as a fertile, a fertilizing, a fruitful, and a creative one. Wesay a text, a culture even, is pregnant with meaning. Do the ethnographer's presentations becomepregnant with meaning because of his interpretive, his phallic fertilizations" (52). This quote callsattention to the fact that what is in the culture-text is put there by Geertz, and reflects better his owndispositions than the Balinese he writes about. Geertz uses connections in the western canon tohighlight and hermeneutically decipher the Balinese cockfight, but his
colorless, abstract metaphors subvert both his description and his interpretation. Indeed, they subvert his authority.[...] Geertz offers no specifiable evidence for his attributions of intention, his assertions of subjectivity, his declarations of experience. His constructions of constructions of constructionsappear to be little more than projections, or at least blurrings, of his point of view, his subjectivity, with that of the native, or, more accurately, of the constructed native" (74).Crapanzano (1992) further
attacks Geertz‟s theoretical apparatus
in the book 
Hermes Dileema 
& Hamlet‟s Desire 
 Where Hermes‟
dilemma was that, as noted by Benjamin (1923), translation is
about a deeper understanding of ones‟ own text and not the one being translated, Hamlet‟s desire
is to be heard not by himself, but by an existent audience. For Geertz, should we consider culture a Shakespearian soliloquy, then the stories are not really for ourselves; Hamlet speaks to himself not for himself, but for a missing audience. Who would that missing audience be, but Geertz himself (or his wife is who is all but missing from his narratives). Such a critique returns us to Crapanza 
earlier statement on the pregnancy of symbols. To this end, Schneider (1987) has noted in
response to Geertz‟s “Art as a Cultural System”, that turning cockfights into stories that Balinese
tell themselves about themselves extends the realm of textuality beyond public codes, and into a 
realm where „cracking the code‟ is only truly done by the ethnographer.
 This issue arises from a double synecdoche made by Geertz: first that of trading culture asrepresentation (part for whole), and thus (according to Aristotle argument against iconic doubles)outside of the represented, and second reducing culture to meaning (whole-for-part). But, thequestion we must then ask, is whether meaning lies outside of the individual or their actions
that is, are actions, ess
ential in „doing‟ the cockfight, part of the individual or outside of themselves?
 Are they habitus? Jackson (1983) recognizes such a problem in this type of understanding meaning, and insteadlocates meaning within action in his analysis of ritual
. “Bodily 
a personalrealization of social values, an immediate grasp of general precepts as sensible truths. Such a view is consistent with the tendency to effect understanding through bodily techniques, to proceedthrough bodily awareness to verbal skills and ethical views. Bodily self-mastery is thus everywhere
the basis for social and intellectual mastery” (329).
 As such, Jackson writes against anthropologicaldiscourses that define culture in terms of language or cognition (as is done by interpretiveanthropology as a whole), and that leave bodily praxis as a secondary effect.
 Jackson mounts this critique through an analysis of women‟s initiation ritual in Zulu,
“ritual meanings are not often verbalized and perhaps cannot be becaus
e they surpass
and confound language” (
). Ritual “does not necessarily involve verbal or conceptual
knowledge; rather, we might say that people are informed by and give form to a habitus which only an uninformed outside observer would take to be an obje
ct of knowledge. […] Initiation rites[among Zulu women] involve a „practical mimesis‟ in which are bodied forth and recombined
elements from several domains, yet without script, sayings, promptings, conscious purposes, or
even emotions. No notion of „copying‟ can explain the naturalness with which the mimetic features
appear. […]
This is not to say that all mental forms should be reduced to bodily practices; rather,that within the unitary field of body-mind-habitus it is possible to intervene and affect changes fromany one of these points
” (
336). This mimesis, Jackson suggests, is circumscribed by the habitus, but ritual action allows people to realize
potential for something not wholly expressible. By 
approaching cognition through the „backdoor‟ of action, it is possible to see that what the Kurako
articulate about ritual is always only partial, but that they are fully aware of the action itself. Likeritual itself, the body is beyond the expression of words. Similarly, bodily practices are always opento interpretation; they are not, however, in themsel
 ves interpretations of anything. “In this sense,techniques of the body… transport us from the quotidian world of verbal distinctions and
categorical separations into a world where boundaries are blurred and experience transformed.
Dance… move us to participate in a world beyond our accustomed roles…” (
338). Actions not only speak in a different register than words, but they enable a different truth;
semantic truths, established by others at other times, but experiential truths which seem to issuefrom within our own Being when we break the momentum of the discursive mind or throw ourselves into some collective activity in which we each find our own meaning yet sustain the
impression of having a common cause and giving common consent” (
339). Such a project leads toa radical re-conceptualization of anthropological understanding of ritual action as a way of acquiring social and practical skills without an a priori significance about their significance orfunction.For Jacks
on, then, Geertz‟s assessment relies too much on minds without bodies; there isnothing present to mediate the event to consciousness in Geertz‟s
analysis. We find a solution to
his is in Jackson‟s emphasis on the body as a separate domain, as something not simply textual.
For Geertz, it is simply the habitus that affects change in the mind-body-habitus construct, while Jackson demonstrates that any of these three affect change. An analysis that considers the role of 
embodiment in the Cock Fight would allow for a compromise in Crapanzano‟s critique; it would
locate meaning both inside and outside. Outside meaning would be that meaning for those outsidethe event, not to be confused with, but always in discourse with, the embodied meaning of ritualactors acting in ritual. This problem might also be fixed by moving beyond interpretive
anthropology‟s infatuation with, and constant reducing 
of events to, text and language.
 Jackson‟s a 
pproach allow us to transcend the problem of meaning external to the body andexternal to time by addressing the meaning-in-now, the meaning that exists in what Heidegger(1927) called
, through the body. This appeal resonates best in Schneider‟s (
1987) response
to the sacrality of text among interpretive anthropologists: “Stripped of the metaphorics of 
textuality, culture often turns out to be saying very little. In mistaking meaning-as-significance formeaning-as-signification, we threaten to find that cultural pr
actices… acquire an integrity 
profundity normally reserved for art” (826), that is, culture resembles something other than the
being-as-Being of its technological world (Heidegger 1927); it pretends to show us that there aredifferent ways of being-in-the-world while denying that we are only one being among many beingsin Being-ness.
Time & Power: 
Keesing (1987) argues that 
“views of cultures as collective phenomena, of symbols
and meanings as public and shared, need to be qualified by a view of knowledge as distributed and
controlled” (259). This is based on Asad‟s
(1973, 1979) critique that symbolic anthropology hasfailed to account for what produces texts and how change occurs. Going further, Keesing suggeststhat we must understand culture not solely as webs of meaning, but webs of mystification that allow some people to know more than others.
Meanings, we might better say, are not in the cultural
texts, not inherent in cultural symbols, but evoked by them… what symbols mean to native actors

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