Chris Kelty as a cultural system

In my ethnography of the state class this semester we read both The Calligraphic State and Colonizing Egypt (guess which one I like better). In the course of our seminar we talked a little bit about Geertz and the shadow he casts (or not) over anthropology of the Middle East. Intrigued, I checked out Dale Eickelman’s brief essay “Clifford Geertz and Islam” in Clifford Geertz By His Colleagues and ended up reading the whole book. I was particularly struck by Geertz’s comment on Michael Fischer’s paper. Geertz writes (I’m editing heavily):

One of the advantages of living a long time is that you get to see, in the work of your younger colleagues something of what is to become of your work in the future. Now, when everything is coming up post, this can be a shaking experience. But it can also be, as with Micahel Fischer’s piece, a deeply reassuring one. I am warmed by the fact that one of the least tractable spirits in anthropology has found something to bounce off against in my work. Perhaps the the development that mosts interests me, and which I most regret not having done more with, is “science studies.” (p 114)

Fischer’s paper is, unfortunately, more or less unquotable due to the ’emerging form’ of his prose. But tucked away in the monstrous paragraph-sentence on page 83 between references to Bruno Latour and Rayna Rapp Fischer mentions “the anthropologies of Chris Kelty” as an example of “the rapidly burgeoning field of science studies” that Geertz so warmly endorsed.

As our blog’s assemblage continues to proliferate, I was surprised but happy to see that we had enrolled Geertz in our network. Now if we could just get The Napster to write a similar endorsement for Oneman…


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

5 thoughts on “Chris Kelty as a cultural system

  1. I like that: “emerging form of prose.” I’m grading student papers now and I just gave a D- to a student trying to sound smart by jibjamoring all the postmodern language he could into his paper describing a night on the toilet after a drinking spree. I followed your lead, and wrote the grade on the last page and wrote below it: “Too much emerging form of prose.”

  2. verm, you gave my paper a D-(!?). What’s happening to grade inflation standards around here. sheesh. and that was a rough nite.

    My dead father (apologies to barthelme, my hometown homie), which is G (and not MJ, who would be my very much alive uncle), is in fact correct when he references my cultural system as being “least tractable”– though it does not have so much bounce, at least not lately, given that the gym has been closed to accomodate a visit from the dalai lama, and the meetings have been scheduled during the time for bouncing. But he, (the dead father), is a terrible weight to bear sometimes, and capricious, and as he once said of his own prose, quoting dolly parton, it takes a lot of work to look this cheap… I too regret not having done more with science studies, but my regret does not have nearly the poignancy Geertz just barely summons.

    Actually, I’ll have nothing to do with fathers and fathers and fathers… What I love most about MJ is that he is not my mentor, nor my guide, though he was and remains an extraordinary advisor, spiritually tractable or no, and that I always thought of his relation to Geertz as similarly distant but close… which is another way of saying that some of us are not actually very good at carrying out programs, or skilled in the game of rebelling against our fathers, which may in fact result in a large and diverse array of emerging forms of prose on which no fathers are visiting their sins. But who am I really, but a lowly cultural system…

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