In Memoriam: Clifford Geertz
posted by Frank Pasquale
I recently noticed an obituary for Clifford Geertz on PTDR. Law & the humanities have had an uneasy relationship for some time now, but one of the few humanists with an undisputed place in the canon was “anthropologist” Clifford Geertz. I use the scare quotes because Geertz appeared to me to be far more than a type of social scientist, but a scholar whose deep sense of the connections between belief and desire, knowledge and will, could reinvigorate whole fields.
For a taste of the possibilities, check out this review of Posner’s book Catastrophe in the NYRB:
Posner largely handles the problem of estimating danger via sheer postulation—weird and (one assumes, unintentionally) madcap burlesque. “Suppose the cost of extinction of the human race…can be very conservatively estimated at 600 trillion dollars [and there is] a 1 in 10 million annual probability of a strangelet disaster.”
Geertz could look at the fashions and fads of the modern academy with the same mixture of sympathy and detachment he brought to the customs of Berbers or Balinese villagers. This long essay on a “life of learning” can be inspirational to anyone who has chosen “science as a vocation.” After college, I was trapped in a very frustrating graduate program for a while, and I remember taking great comfort in the thought that someone like Geertz managed to transcend disciplinary boundaries while still finding a “home” in the academy.
Geertz offered us a vision of humanities informing law in the deepest sense, by showing us the inextricable intertwining of description and judgment (or, as lawyers often experience, fact and law). I particularly like this quote from Geertz’s essay, Deep Play in a Balinese Cockfight:
Any expressive form works (when it works) by disarranging semantic contexts in such a way that properties conventionally ascribed to certain things are unconventionally ascribed to others, which are then seen actually to possess them. To call the wind a cripple, as Stevens does, to fix tone and manipulate timbre, as Schoenberg does, or, closer to our case, to picture an art critic as a dissolute bear, as Hogarth does, is to cross conceptual wires; the established conjunctions between objects and their qualities are altered and phenomena—fall weather, melodic shape, or cultural journalism—are clothed in signifiers which normally point to other referents. Similarly, to connect—and connect, and connect—the collision of roosters with the divisiveness of status is to invite a transfer of perceptions from the former to the latter, a transfer which is at once a description and a judgment [emphasis added].
Some scholars have worked out the implications of thoughts like these with great power and precision–such as Balkin (and Levinson’s) work on Law and Music, or Bill Eskridge’s work on Gadamer and statutory interpretation, or some cyberscholars on metaphorical descriptions of cyberspace (like Cohen and Hunter). But I think there is still a rich vein of work to be inspired by Geertz’s classic elaborations of the idea that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”