Djojo on the Corner
- After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist by Clifford Geertz
Harvard, 198 pp, £17.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 674 00871 5
More than almost all of its sister disciplines, anthropology in the modern sense has been – until very recently – linked to global imperial power. The big intra-European states of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their famous sociologists, economists, historians, linguists, philosophers and literary theorists, but only the global powers – Britain, France and the United States – produced the (figurative) ‘big men’ of anthropology who are still read seriously today. One can think of their production as coming in three distinct waves. The first generation came to maturity in the palmy days before the Great War, when the empires were assuming their final consolidated form, and colonialism seemed unchallengeable: in the long decade of 1872-84 were born Marcel Mauss (1872), Alfred Kroeber (1876), A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881), and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884), with Ruth Benedict (1887) at the tail end. The second generation were born in the decade 1901-11: Margaret Mead (1901), Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908), Edmund Leach (1910), Louis Dumont and Max Gluckman (1911). They were formed in the age of Hitler and Stalin, and, in the cases of France and Britain, of impending imperial decline. The last generation came to adulthood during World War Two, and made their careers during the Cold War, the zenith of American intercontinental power, when dying colonialisms were replaced by a vast congeries of ‘new nations’. Thus, between 1919 and 1930 were born the modern – one might also say pre-Post-Modern – masters: Jack Goody (1919), Victor Turner (1920), Mary Douglas (1921), and Marshall Sahlins (1930). Right in the middle came Clifford Geertz, who was born in San Francisco in 1926. In the quarter-century between 1960, when he published his masterly The Religion of Java, and the middle Eighties, he was, after Lévi-Strauss, the most widely-known and influential anthropologist around. After the Fact, a collection of his recent Jerusalem-Harvard lectures, is, as indicated by its subtitle, an informal, if personally reticent, retrospective on a remarkable career, and on the worlds that shaped its characteristic contours.
After teenage wartime service in the American Navy, Geertz went back to school at Antioch College, where he majored in philosophy and English. On graduation, following the advice of Margaret Mead among others, he enrolled for his doctorate at Harvard’s newly-formed, idiosyncratic Department of Social Relations, ruled by the conservative neo-Weberian social theorist Talcott Parsons. Guided by the sweet motto, ‘Toward a Common Language for the Areas of the Social Sciences’, the department attempted to incorporate as an integrated field of study the disciplines of sociology, social psychology, clinical psychology and anthropology. The resident grand maître in anthropology was Clyde Kluckhohn, who, in a manner characteristic of early Cold War imperial America, presided over two huge research projects. One was the comparative study of values in five adjacent, mostly colonised, cultures in the North American South-West. The other was the Russian Research Center, which, Geertz wryly recalls, employed ‘social scientific techniques (refugee interviewing, content analysis) in an effort to penetrate, and foil, Soviet intentions.’
Grandiose and expensive co-operative research projects being the Harvard thing, Geertz and his then wife Hildred found themselves recruited into a nine-person team heading off to study Indonesia, a country which had only just won its independence after a bitter four-year war against its Dutch colonial masters, and of which Geertz ruefully notes he knew little more than the geographical location. Over the next decades, Geertz did the remarkable fieldwork in Java and Bali which produced the five major books on which his long-term reputation rests: The Religion of Java (1960), Pedlars and Princes (1963), Agricultural Involution (1963), The Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965), and Negara (1980). This profusion led to a meteoric academic ascent to a full professorship, at the age of 38 and after only five years teaching, at the University of Chicago, then the most prestigious centre for anthropological studies in the United States. But Geertz’s arrival at Chicago did not occur through conventional disciplinary channels: he was initially recruited and financed by a typically grandiose Kennedy-era operation called the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations, organised by the Parsons-derived sociologist Edward Shils and the political scientist David Apter. Geertz quotes from Shils’s amusingly unself-conscious, Cold War-imperial foundational essay:
The categories we employ are the same as the ones we employ in our studies of our own societies, and they postulate the fundamental affinities of all human beings. Their persistent application in research and the diffusion of the results of research into the circles of influential opinion, will, it is hoped, further the process through which that sense of affinity, necessary for constructive policy, is nurtured. Our undertaking does not, however, intend to attain these moral effects through preaching, exhortation or manipulation. We seek to do it through enlightenment. Our chosen instrument of enlightenment is systematic research, conducted under the auspices of the best traditions of contemporary social science.
Vol. 17 No. 22 · 16 November 1995
Benedict Anderson has allowed his imagination to run away with him – at least in regard to that part of his review of Clifford Geertz’s After the Fact (LRB, 24 August) which refers to the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations. Since the initial idea for the Committee was mine, and I was instrumental in its founding, I would like to put the record straight.
To my knowledge, virtually everything he says about the New Nations Committee is wrong. Take just one comment: ‘Geertz’s arrival at Chicago did not occur through conventional disciplinary channels: he was initially recruited and financed by a typically grandiose Kennedy-era operation.’ In fact this‘Kennedy-era operation’ was conceived of and started up in the Eisenhower era. At the time, 1958-9, Clifford Geertz, Edward Shils, Lloyd Fallers, Morris Janowitz and I were at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Shils and I on leave from Chicago, Geertz and Fallers from Berkeley, and Janowitz from Michigan. What drew us together was a common interest in ‘new’ countries struggling to create states, civil societies, and induce development while trying to control the consequences. We believed that to understand what was involved required interdisciplinary work, something to which, at the time, the University of Chicago was peculiarly and institutionally sympathetic. As well, it had vacancies in the several disciplines we regarded as the most relevant.
I suppose a $250,000 grant for five years from the Carnegie Corporation was in those days a substantial sum, but ‘grandiose’? As for ‘operations’, they took place in two basement rooms which served as a Committee common room for students and faculty whose primary activities consisted of talking and discussing over coffee, holding seminars, an occasional conference, i.e. what one normally considers the stuff of academic life. As far as I knew no one had anything whatever to do with anything other than teaching, analysing and research. Since I never engaged in spying, either for my country or on my colleagues, 1 cannot say more than that. All faculty had regular departmental appointments made in the normal way. In Geertz’s case, I went to the chair of the anthropology department and asked if there might be interest in considering him for an appointment along with Lloyd Fallers. While regular procedures were different then from what they are now, they were followed. Nor would it have occurred to anyone to do otherwise. Neither Geertz nor any other scholar except graduate students and visitors was ‘financed’ by the Committee.
The reference to Edmund Shils as a ‘Parsons-derived sociologist’ is laughable. Whatever else Shils was – opinionated, politically reactionary, cranky, fussy, perverse – he was also brilliant, idiosyncratic, provocative, stimulating, and above all extraordinarily literate. If he ‘derived’ from anyone it was Weber, some of whose work he had translated. While it is true that Shils collaborated with Parsons, he regretted it and said so, often, loudly and clearly. His own work had nothing to do with the latter’s schemas, which he regarded as hopelessly entangled (and entangling) webs of categories, ambitious beyond measure and impossible to work with.
As for ‘preaching, exhorting and manipulating’, there may have been individuals so inclined, as in any academic body, but as far as I could tell, it certainly did not characterise the Committee as such. Other faculty of distinction joined it, like Harry Johnson in economics, Max Rheinstein in law, and Leonard Binder in political science. It drew together a very diverse body of graduate students. And when it had nothing more to say it was terminated. To ‘reinterpret’ the Committee as simply a Cold Warrior shop both underestimates the integrity and the scholarly commitment of those engaged in its work and casts doubt on the integrity of the re-interpreter. Certainly some of its work looks pretty quaint today, but so does a good deal of the so-called Marxism that succeeded it; not a few of whose more arrogant and pious practitioners were pretty adept at preaching, exhorting and manipulation – as this review illustrates.
Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995
David Apter (Letters, 16 November) is quite right in insisting that the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations was founded in the late Eisenhower rather than the Kennedy era. He may well be right in claiming to have thought the Committee up, although its first chairman and major spokesman was the late Edward Shils. In all other respects, I think Apter has worked himself up into a needless tizz by not reading carefully what I wrote. It is nice to learn from him that the Committee’s start-up capital was $250,000 – something over a million pounds sterling today, and definitely not chicken feed – but I used the word ‘grandiose’ to describe not the Committee’s bank balance but its amusing programme. I did not say that the Committee as a whole was a ‘Cold Warrior’ shop (I certainly do not think of Clifford Geertz as a scholar of this type), I simply described Shils’s foundational essay as ‘Cold War-imperial’. Since his old friend Apter describes Shils as ‘politically reactionary’, as well as ‘cranky, fussy, perverse’, I think that in a calmer mood he might agree with me. It might refresh his memory to look at such typical Committee-era Shilsean texts as his hilarious ‘Asian Intellectuals’, which is full of such ‘quaint’ Cold War dicta as: ‘Fellow-travelling is certainly common among Asian intellectuals – it is in a sense the “natural” political outlook of the Asian intellectual.’ At no point did I say, or even imply, that Apter was a spy for his country or on his colleagues.
Apter finds my shorthand description of Shils as Parsons-derived ‘laughable’. In fact, the old reactionary is described as a ‘wayward Parsonian’ in a standard account of his career by an admiring fellow sociologist. In any case, the intent of my shorthand was to indicate that Shils became nationally prominent in the United States only after Talcott Parsons brought him to Harvard in 1949 to assist in the production of the huge tome Towards a General Theory of Action (1951). Parsons was a man of commanding intellect and broad culture, who profoundly influenced American sociological thinking between the late Thirties and the end of the Fifties; by comparison Shils was a very minor figure.
Finally, Apter insists that ‘neither Geertz nor any other scholar except graduate students and visitors were financed by the Committee.’ Geertz himself says that ‘for the first five years at the University [of Chicago], I was wholly on the Committee budget.’