Said and Geertz

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.


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

3 thoughts on “Said and Geertz

  1. Very nice. Very nice, indeed. But where do we go from here? To me that is precisely the question that Geertz never answered. And there, to me, is the opportunity missed by those who try to imitate Geertz instead of starting where he leaves off.

    To borrow an analogy from the history of science it is as if, persuaded by Copernicus that Ptolemy was wrong in positing a geocentric cosmology instead of a solar system, Kepler and Newton had lost their way and continued to debate the merits of Copernicus’ approach instead instead of seeking to improve it, which led Kepler to oval instead of circular orbits, and Newton to the calculus and gravity.

    Or, shifting to the field where I’ve earned my living, it’s as if one tried to run an advertising agency composed of nothing but copywriters and art directors, the idea spinners, with no production people to ask, “How are we supposed to be able to do that?”– and figure out how: from location, casting and equipment to editing, recording and mixing and getting the tapes to the networks, within budget and on time.

    Thus, returning to anthropology, Geertz convinced me of the value of thick description. But what should I do to produce one? His only answer was to write. His examples suggested the value of vivid details, which for me dovetailed nicely with Levi-Strauss’ injunction to see “the logic in tangible qualities.” So far, so good. But then?

    Geertz never told us. His modus operandi was to set up an intellectual problem, trot out some ethnographic detail and say, in effect, “You see, don’t you.” If you didn’t, that was too bad. He was already off in another direction, reframing another problem.

    Suppose, however, that we didn’t just take one of his essays, read it, admire it, and finally recognize the hollowness at its core. Suppose we asked ourselves how we would fill that hole. Things might get interesting.

  2. I think if one wanted to find grounds on which to contrast Said and Geertz, it would have to be their attitude towards-to use an ugly term neither would ever sanction-individual agency.

    Geertz loves subsuming frameworks, though he ultimately doesn’t use them: even someone like Sukarno is ultimately a part of a puzzle larger than himself, an Indonesian response to history. This is probably part of why Geertz seems above politics most of the time even though he wrote on it endlessly.
    Geertz also had an axe to grind, about enlightenment humanism, which he called “a primitive faith whose moral beauty is still apparent but from which both relevance and credibility have long since departed.”

    In contrast, for Said, every Orientalist, or every anti-Imperialist, has signed their name to what they have written and could have said something else, even though we know how the whole mess has come out. That’s the grounds of their historical responsibility. That’s why so many people find Said to be, in the last instance, an ‘anti-theoretical’ writer: in the last instance any attempt at generalizing about why history has come out the way it has is foiled by the caveat that there are many differences among individuals and everything could have come out differently from the way it has.

  3. NB-Said took a pickaxe to Foucault on several occasions. He stopped short of calling him an advocate of nihilism and despair (which, in a way, would have been true) but the antipathy is pretty clearly there.

    I think the immediate reason for this was personal exasperation. Hayden White’s ‘the historiography of anti-humanism’ almost manages the act of assassination, i.e. ‘characterizing the style of Foucault’s discourse.’

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