Edward Said and Clifford Geertz are not normally considered together as theorists as far as I know, and yet rereading both this semester I was struck by the similarities between them. They wrote at more or less the same time. They were both interested in literature. Neither were ashamed to write well. Despite their differences they seemed to share an tangible but elusive property that we’ve discussed on this blog before — they were both ‘evocative’ or ‘inspiring’.
Both opened up imaginative horizons for those who read them, not the least because they demonstrated the way that abstract theory such as the work of Foucault (Said) or Ricoeur (Geertz) could be applied ‘on the ground’ as it were. At yet at the same time neither of them were expositors of the philosophers who they drew on — they did not dryly draw out what a ‘Ricoeurian’ anthropology must look like in order to earn the ‘Ricoeur’ brand. At the same time, and despite the claims sometimes made of them (Geertz in particular), much of their work did not actually have a complex, articulated logic that articulated with high theory. Throughout the course of both careers, each author picked up different theorists, took bits and pieces that ‘did work’ for them, and moved on — a method of ‘doing theory’ that is perhaps still with us today.
Said and Geertz, I suggest, inspired because what we saw at work was their own personal visions — visions which we could then adopt and use in our own work. They didn’t have methodologies, research programs, formalized findings, they had a style of working with the data which was uniquely their own and yet resonated broadly with us. We could image how each would write if they wrote about ‘our’ topics.
At the same time, both authors are inimitable. Which is not to say that people have not tried. But imitations of Said and Geertz tend not to be successful — you don’t have to do anthropology too long before you run into “X as a cultural system” essay which doesn’t end up saying much at all. And the Saidian variant, “denunciation by numbers”, where the purpose of the analysis is to demonstrate how someone in the world has committed acts from the approved lists of sins (orientalism, denial of coevalness, and so forth) is just as unenlightening.
So in fact I would argue that Said and Geertz have quite a lot in common because they owe much of their intellectual notoriety to a similar structure of research — vague but inspiring, theoretically suggestive, they were masters of evocation whose influence is best felt not in an established program but in their ability to enable scholars to develop their own vision. Of course, they were not only evocative. But for me they are worth considering as a pair and as paradigms of how inspiration can be parlayed into long-lasting influence in a field.