The Anthropologist as Author: Geertz's 'Works and Lives' Michael Carrithers Anthropology Today, VoL 4, No.4 (Aug., 1988), 19-22.

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tions, not for reasons of ethnic origin; and he must have known perfectly well the difference between antiSemitic prejudice in the USA and extermination of Jews in Europe. Only after Wittfogel's death did I learn that, having been an active Communist Party member in his youth in Germany, he testified in 1951, to the U.S. Senate's McCarran sub-committee on internal security, that

Owen Lattimore had followed a line favourable to the Communists. His anecdote now seems laden not only with the history that Wittfogel lived through, but also with the uneasiness in his own position as a German Marxist who as a naturalized American citizen was ready to lend his name to the McCarthyite purging of Un-American Activities. Jonathan Benthall

Geertz' s 'Works and Lives'

The Anthropologist as Author
Works and Lives: the Anthropologist as Author (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1988) is a fluent and evasively rhetorical book which puts forward a completely literary argument: ethnography is a kind of writing, very like the writing of fiction. While setting out this notion Geertz says many fascinating things, and the book is worth reading for the incessant and extravagant parenthetical remarks alone. But the notion itself is, I think, wrong. It seriously misrepresents the activity of ethnography. I want first to show how Geertz seeks to persuade us of this idea, and then to suggest how much more complex and interesting ethnography actually is. Geertz asserts that the problem of the validity of ethnographic knowledge lies not, as has been thought, in field work, nor in theory, but in writing. By using one writerly stratagem or another-a tone of high scientific objectivity, or the heaping of one fact on another, or sheer good writing, or evoking a set of shared assumptions-anthropologists have repeatedly convinced their readership of their authority, of 'their having actually penetrated ...another form of life, of having ...truly "been there". ' Among these devices one is central, and that is the construction of an authoritative authorial persona, a 'writerly identity.' From this all other devices follow, for they are just 'a matter of developing a way of putting things-a vocabulary, a rhetoric, a pattern of argumentthat is connected to that identity in such a way that it seems to come from it as a remark from a mind.' In this, and indeed in other ways, ethnography resembles fiction:
... like quantum mechanics or the Italian opera, [ethnoless extravagant than graphy] is a work of the imagination, for ethnography,


Michael Carrithers is lecturer in anthropology at the University of Durham. He specializes in South Asia.

the first, less methodical than the second. The responsibility or the credit, can be placed at no other of the door than that of the romancers [great anthropologists past] who have dreamt it up.

Yet, avers Geertz, the disappearance of direct colonialism, the crumbling of pseudo-scientific arrogance, and the growth of a partly salutary but also destructive self-consciousness have led anthropologists into doubt and confusion. We are now 'harassed by grave inner uncertainties, amounting almost to a sort of epistemological hypochondria, concerning how one can know that anything one says about other forms of life is as a matter of fact so.' The shadow that falls between the works of the ethnographers and the lives of those studied-I suppose that to be the significance of the title-may not now easily, or ever, be dispelled again. Though I am shortly to disagree completely with these theses, I should stress that in pursuit of them Geertz writes a great deal which has the interest and insight we have come to expect of him. For example, he evokes ANTHROPOLOGY

very well the peculiar quality of evidence in ethnography, 'the oddity of constructing texts ostensibly scientific out of experiences broadly biographical'. He writes evocatively of Symbolist poets' influence on Levi-Strauss, and of Evans-Pritchard's ability to depict Africa as 'a logical and prudential place-orderly, straightforward and levelheaded, firmly modelled and open to view' in such a way as to confer those virtues on his readers as well. In these and in many other passages Geertz shows a freshly phrased appreciation of ethnographic forebears. But for the most part he takes a tone of deconstruction and iconoclasm. This is certainly not original, for many others have written in a similar vein recently. Geertz himself has been the object of deconstruction, and deconstructors have themselves been deconstructed. At best such works have brought philosophical clarity and literary critical acumen to long neglected comers of anthropology ...but not always. Geertz is especially good at making literary remarks seem devastating and portentous. Geertz supports this avowedly revolutionary view by the swift fluency of his writing, but more importantly, by a partial selection of illustrative texts, and by a sterile representation of the features of ethnography that are not sheerly literary. Consider the supposedly ethnographic texts whose analysis forms the bulk of the book. Geertz begins with Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, a book which has never been regarded as ethnography by an author not chiefly concerned with ethnographic research. EvansPritchard is next: Geertz dissects at considerable length a short memoir of Evans-Pritchard's military service written very late in his life for a readership of veterans and soldiers, 'Operations on the Akobo and Gila Rivers, 1940-41 '. Then the chapter on Malinowski begins with more than two pages quoted from A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. And the chapter on Benedict begins with three and half pages of an early, solemn and stiff satirical recommendation of cannibalism found among Ruth Benedict's papers and published after her death by Margaret Mead. These are, in other words, not ethnography proper, but subsidiary works living in the shadow of ethnography. The justification for using them seems to be that they evidence with special clarity how the authors establish their authority by rhetorical means. Geertz finds, for example, that Levi-Strauss writes to various already established and persuasive genres, that Benedict depends persistently on an implicit comparison of them and us, and that Malinowski tried schizophrenically to emphasize both the scientific validity of his 'observations' and the personal authority of the anthropologist as having 19

TODAY Vol 4 No 4, August 1988

'been there'. But while Geertz deconstructs rhetoric in the foreground, in the background he is effectively erecting another rhetorical scaffolding to support his literary thesis. So very literary a notion can be built only on such selfconsciously literary material: Tristes Tropiques, Malinowski's Diary, Benedict's satire. The use of EvansPritchard's slight war memoir, on the other hand, enables Geertz to stress that colonialist authority underlies Evans-Pritchard's ethnographic authority. And above all, these choices let him avoid confronting the dense, vivid evocativeness of Evans-Pritchard's ...or Malinowski's, or anyone else's ...actual substantive writings. This continues to be true when, later, he considers the presentation of the writer in those more modem ethnographies which have placed the ethnographer's personal dilemmas centre stage, such as that by Kenneth Read, or those by Vincent Crapanzano, Paul Rabinow, and Kevin Dwyer. With these writers too he considers only their presentation of themselves, not of those studied. The stuff itself, the ethnography, is still missing: Works and Lives is all about works, and not about lives. Geertz does however briefly caricature substantive ethnographic writing in the interest of bolstering his literary thesis. If one accepted his view, he writes, then might be difficult to defend the view that ethnographic texts convince ...through substantiality. which the sheer power of their factual of a very large number of vraisemblance. induces in the The marshaling

as effectively to support a case? Geertz is right to suggest, as he does, that our notions of scholarly evidence and scientific truth have made us nervous about such a claim. And from what he says about other texts, it seems likely that his own answer would be a qualified no. One qualification would be that to use personal experience is now extremely difficult, even if it was once easier. The second might be that whatever confidence might be achieved by such evidence is based upon literary or rhetorical, not veridical or interpretive success. But I think that by looking directly at ethnographic writing, rather than at its peripheral appurtenances, we can arrive at a more optimistic answer. Let me consider two relatively recent ethnographies which use personal experience well and with confidence. The first passage is from Schieffelin's The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, concerning the Kaluli, who live near Mount Bosavi in Papua New Guinea. The passage is presented to help establish the general thesis that among the Kaluli 'interest in food is not due to a lack of it...Rather, food is important because it is a vehicle of social relationship.' He goes on:
I became aware of this as soon as I entered a longhouse on the plateau for the first time. I sat down wearily on the edge of the men's sleeping platforms and was pulling the leeches out of my socks when a man approached with a blackened, loaf-shaped handed me packet in his hand. He broke off a piece and a chalky-looking substance covered with

highly specific cultural details has been the major way in the look of truth-verisimilitude, of the material wahrschetnlichkett-aes been sought in such texts. What-

grayish, rubbery skin. There was a pause while the people of the longhouse watched to see what I would do. Reluctantly, I took a bite. The flavor was strongly reminiscent of plaster of paris. "Nata?" ("Good?") asked one of my hosts hopefully ... "Nata," I answered when I could get some saliva back in my mouth. "Ah," said my host, looking around to the others. They relaxed. Having eaten sago, I was established as a fellow creature.

ever doubts the oddness

reader are to be overcome by its sheer abundance.

Of this passage two things can be said. First, 'sheer abundance' of facts does not now count, and has not very recently counted if it ever did, as a measure of veracity in anthropology or in any other social science. Second, 'verisimilitude' is a measure appropriate to fiction, not to ethnography, which should be measured better by accuracy, or fidelity, or interpretive validity, or explanatory power. Whatever substantive ethnographic writing looks like, it does not look like this. Geertz's propensity to caricature is even more marked when he considers anthropological research itself:
"Being There" authorially, palpably on the page, is in any case as difficult a trick to bring off as "being there" personally, which after all demands at the minimum hardly more than a travel booking and permission to land; a willingness to endure a certain amount of loneliness, vacy, and physical discomfort; a relaxed growths and unexplained invasion of priway with odd

fevers; a capacity to stand still for

artistic insults, and the sort of patience that can support an endless search for invisible needles in infinite haystacks.

This is a striking thumbnail sketch of field work, but it could as well refer to the travel which prefaces travel writing. Where are those other more fruitful features of field work, such as learning a language and a way of life, learning to know and live with people, and exchanging ideas of, or even arguing over, values and interpretations? Where is the painful but inescapable dialectic of mistake and correction that is so inevitable a part of successful field work? On Geertz's showing research seems only a frustrating and solipsistic appendage of the supreme act itself, writing. Ethnography Itself Because the book is around ethnography without being about it, Geertz leaves us with a fundamental question unanswered: is it possible for the personal experience of a field worker to appear in an ethnography in such a way

Certainly this passage, taken in isolation, could illustrate everything that Geertz would wish. There are plentiful details which establish the anthropologist's presence in the field, from the leeches in the socks to the taste of the sago. The passage is written with skill, and through that skill the anthropologist himself comes alive as a character. But a little attention to the context can improve on that reading. First, Schieffelin goes on to emphasize that the eating of offered food actually is a vehicle for establishing social relations. To eat food in this way, he writes, 'made us friends.' The sense of relief among the onlookers which he mentions thereby gains ethnographic sense, for it refers to their commonly felt concern with food. Then, in example after example, Schieffelin goes on to explore just how the sharing of food creates this or that relationship-between siblings, between exchange partners, between husband and wife, between mother and child. He shows how formal restrictions on eating certain kinds of food, and therefore on sharing them, creates barriers, as between unmarried and married men, or between women and men. And these same points had also been prepared in preceding chapters, where reciprocity as a theme in Kaluli life and in New Guinea in general had been laid out. As Schieffelin works back and forth across the texture of Kaluli society his own experience loses its saliency, and becomes just another example, in this case of how strangers are integrated into Kaluli society. No single example, no single feature of the prose, and no single blanket assertion about the Kaluli bears the burden of plausibility here, but only the whole dense and craftsmanlike structure. A few of the examples are incidents in which the presence of the anthropologist is stressed,



TODAY Vol 4 No 4, August 1988

but in many more he is absent. Morever, the illustrations of Schieffelin's basic argument are of very varied kinds: not only incidents witnessed, but stories commonly told, patterns of speech and imagery, and of dance and music, and even things counted, such as the population of a longhouse and the distance between longhouses. Not the sheer number, but the reasoned connection of different sorts of illustration bears the weight. The sense of exploration which such an ethnography conveys-each illustration connected to the last, each assertion evoking another nuance of Kaluli life, the whole moving with care and concentration over a territory of human possibility-persuades us not so much that the anthropologist was there, but that the Kaluli are there in their ineluctable particularity. Schieffelin' sown presence is routine and unremarkable, effective in itself but not the single factor which creates credibility. Or, to put it another way, we do not believe in the Kaluli because we believe in Schieffelin, but we believe in Schieffelin because we believe in the Kaluli. The force of this example is that the veridical and interpretive success of personal experience and of the presentation of the ethnographer is only one part of a larger success created by welding very different sorts of illustrative and evidential material into a coherent whole. Yet in ethnography personal experience does have some privileged status, though not merely the privilege of rhetoric. Let me illustrate from an ethnography which makes rather different use of the person of the ethnographer. In her Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, Juliet du Boulay explores among other matters the sense and significance of community in an isolated and rapidly declining village. Let us take up the argument somewhere in the middle:
This sense of community than undermined is, in Ambeli, reinforced rather by the knowledge that these values and

customs do not prevail everywhere ... awareness of locality simply lends an edge to the statement often heard about, for instance, heating water and washing clothes on a Wednesday or a Friday, failing to change clothes after being with anyone as they die, sending unmarried girls out to work, and so on, 'We take exception to that here' ...

Du Boulay then goes on to discuss at some length the precariousness of the villagers' sense of an undying past: ' ...Young women, with their refined way of speaking and their smart sleeveless dresses, will say to me, 'You don't want to pay any attention to backward old women.' But she carries on to certify many villagers' still vivid and implicit sense of community with this:
All this is not to say that there are no secondary or other standards of behaviour to which people may appeal... But it is to emphasize the moral solidarity of such a community in the main body of its own where a central self-confidence

traditional values system still survives ... The individual who is speaking or acting does so in his capacity not as a solitary individual but as a member of the total community. was preparing to layout In illustration of this I quote an incident at which a young woman the [special sweets] for a nameday, and put the whole box on the tray. It was an untidy box with ragged bits of paper hanging out, and I said I thought she ought to take out the bits of [sweet] and put them on a dish. 'No,' she said, 'that's not as it should be.' 'I don't agree,' said 1. 'It's not that you don't agree, it's that you don't know,' she replied, with finality.

at the end, in which the anthropologist herself loses an argument with a traditional young woman yet gains a priceless insight into the foundations of the woman's life. There are the implied incidents of her conversations with less traditional young women. There are the traditional, perhaps older, women and men who provided sententious commentary on washing clothes on Friday. The best way to describe du Boulay's ethnography might be as 'dialogic', to capture the sense of continual interaction and interchange. And that sense is carried over from Greeks talking among themselves, to Greeks talking to du Boulay, to the implied academic interlocutor of the following phrases: 'This sense of community is ...reinforced rather than undermined by the knowledge that these values and customs do not prevail everywhere ...' Or: 'All this is not to say that there are no secondary or other standards of behaviour to which people may appeal...' These are conventional moves of scholarly writing, but among the multitude of sensed voices in du Boulay's writing it adds another layer, that of an implied dialogue with a fellow English-speaker. The representation or suggestion of persons in dialogue-including herself-in du Boulay's ethnography is no doubt evocative, but it has a veridical and interpretive function as well. The substance of du Boulay's writing is about relationships as they are imagined, desiderated, practised, achieved or ruined. That is not accidental to du Boulay's ethnography, for in fact relationships are what ethnography is about. And the reason for that is that relationships are what human life is about. Greeks have one style of social life, the Kaluli another, but social life is in any case the sum and substance of human existence. In this radically social field the relationship between du Boulay and one Greek interlocutor is no less evidence than any other relationship. The disagreement over the sweets is the very material on which ethnography is based, as surely as it is based on genealogies or censuses or translations of myth. Moreover du Boulay's account of social life, and Schieffelin's, point beyond their immediate concerns with Greeks or Kaluli. Neither Schieffelin nor Du Boulay make grand generalizations, but it is implicit in the conception and practice of their ethnography that some grander view is possible. Indeed they could not have written with such discipline and clarity, or conceived of an interested readership, were it not. And pivotal to any such grander view is the sheer fact of the relationship between anthropologist and informant-not because such relationships have any special quality in themselves, but because they testify to the larger human capacity, call it sociality, which is so powerful that it allows the forging of bonds even with strangers. Food provided the physical substrate of both encounters, but each encounter points beyond, to a more general, transcultural, social character in the human species ...evidenced for du Boulay in the capacity to disagree so greatly and yet so meaningfully. Ethnography need not explore this general human character explicitly, but good ethnography must implicitly rest on it as on a foundation. More Works and Lives More could be said about such works as Schieffelin's and du Boulay's, for there is a mystery in such excellence that will bear a good deal of study. I have used them here only to suggest how relatively sterile Geertz's deconstructionist reading is. He is right to fasten on the peculiarity of ethnography as a discipline using personal experience in dispassionate discourse, but he is wrong to make mere literature of ethnography. Schieffelin and du Boulay are both skilled writers, their works have a 21

Du Boulay is more an active interlocutor than Schieffelin, and indeed her ethnography is full of a sense of conversations, of different voices met and overheard, of a multitude of characters squabbling, gossiping, and pontificating to each other. There is the telling incident ANTHROPOLOGY

TODAY Vol 4 No 4, August 1988

quality of literature, and that is part of their accomplishment. But whereas the canon of a fictional realist might be to achieve verisimilitude, ethnographers adhere to quite a different standard. In their writing the touchstone must be fidelity to what they experienced and learned about others, and much of what they write has to be verifiably true ...a very different matter than the plausibility or inner harmony we ask of realist fiction. Ethnographic scholarship possesses a standard to which individuals may respond with different capacities, but it possesses a standard all the same. Yet what is really missing from Works and Lives is not just this sense of ethnography as a principled discipline, but of anthropology as a larger view of human nature. In the closing pages Geertz sails out of the stiff wind of deconstruction into calmer and more reflective

waters, and suggests that anthropology could have a greater purpose than just literary self-enlargement.
It is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse bein a world tween people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained where, tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other's way.'

This aim is in itself admirable and probably expresses the hope of many anthropologists. But it is difficult to see it as achieving more than might good travel writing if it is not grounded in some thought about what is generally true of humans. Fine ethnography such as Schieffelin's and du Boulay's implicitly points to what might generally be true, and their success as ethnographers makes us hope that we might succeed as anthropologists as well.

ANTHROPOLOGICAL INDEX, the Royal Anthropological Institute's bibliographical quarterly, enters its 26th year of publication in 1988. It covers nearly all the articles in the periodical literature received by the Museum of Mankind Library in London, which incorporates the former RAI Library. It is an official organ of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, which recommends that all institutions where anthropology is taught should subscribe to ANTHROPOLOGICAL INDEX. Periodicals from all countries and in all major languages are indexed. The INDEX is arranged geographically with sub-divisions by broad subject, the easiest method of access for the area specialist. At the beginning is a General section, also broken down by sub-division. Within the divisions (General, Physical Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology and Ethnography, Linguistics), entry is alphabetical by author. An annual author index also contains brief subject entries for obituaries and anonymous articles. Photocopies of articles may be ordered from the Museum of Mankind. The subscription for 1988 is £48 (US$77), from the RAI Distribution Centre (same address as A.T.), or from the usual subscription agencies. Most back volumes are available.

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