Geertz, biography, and… Geertz

It has been a long time since I enjoyed reading anything by Clifford Geertz, so I was gratified last night to discover “A Life In Learning”:, the biographical reminiscences that Geertz gave the American Council of Learned Socities for their 1999 Charles Homer Haskins lecture (I guess it also appears in Available Light as well). It’s not the first autobiographical piece by him that I’ve read, but it is relatively more front-loaded than some of the other ones and I was able to find some pleasure in his prose that I just can’t locate in Balinese Cockfight or Thick Description any more. His description of the energy of Harvard’s Social Relations Department when it first got rolling — “stand back, the science is starting!” — is, for instance, very charming indeed.

Like many academic celebrities (I think here of the differently-fated Althusser) Geertz portrays his rise to hegemony as a series of accidents perpetuated on an man who just happened to stumble onto his vocation. When some people pull this trick it seems like a lousy attempt to cover up their blatant careerism, for others this sort of thing just reaffirms your faith that their work is just smoke and mirrors, while for yet others is successfully reinforces their appearence of effortless domination of their field. In this essay I get the feeling that Geertz manages to do all three of these things at once.

But compare this to a very different biographical statement — Paul Rabinow’s “Steps Towards An Anthropological Laboratory”: It’s not that Rabinow’s spare, almost noir prose style — “just the -facts- biopower, ma’am” — doesn’t ramify out into clauses in the same way Geertz’s does, but it manages to do so in a compeltely different key. And most interestingly, Rabinow’s own take on Geertz is quite a bit different from that of Geertz himself.

Or is it? Rabinow is quite blunt in accusing Geertz of bowing out of the Interpretive Turn and retreating into feuilletonism, but I suspect Geertz would be surprised that anyone expected him to do otherwise. At any rate they’re two great — and greatly different — pieces to read and think about.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

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