There are two requisites one must fulfill to become an anthropologist: to go through an extended period of fieldwork, preferably in a remote place, and to grapple with the great authors of the discipline, usually in the cosy atmosphere of the seminar room. The later is deemed necessary to make sense and to extract meaning from the experience accumulated in the former. But whereas the methodology of fieldwork is the object of many comments and prescriptions, how to read an author, and how to become one, is rarely reflected upon.
No one is better equipped to guide us through the intricacies of authorship than Clifford Geertz. Himself the distinguished author of an oeuvre and an accomplished writer with a rare command of words (where else would you find mention of an "asseverational prose", or a "cassowary of a book"?), he applies tools from literary theory as well as a sharp critical mind to the works of four towering figures of modern anthropology: Levi-Strauss, Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, and Benedict. Borrowing from Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Roman Jakobson, he is interested in the "text-building strategies", the display of the "theater of language", the exposing of the "author-function" in the text, the solutions to the "signature dilemma" and the intertextuality references to other genres and narratives that make these authors "founders of discursivity" as opposed to mere producers of texts. In other words, he is interested in how they write, what they do in writing anthropology books, and how we should read them.
Clifford Geertz locates the tensions of authorship in the distance between the two scenes of anthropologists' works and lives: "being there" and "being here". As he writes in introduction, "the ability of anthropologists to get us to take what they say seriously has less to do with either a factual look or an air of conceptual elegance than it has with their capacity to convince us that what they say is a result of their having actually penetrated (or, if you prefer, been penetrated by) another form of life, of having, one way or another, truly 'been there'."
But the world that anthropologists inhabit is a world of "lecterns, libraries, blackboards, and seminars", not to mention culture wars, political upheavals, and fast internet access. This is the world that produces anthropologists, that licenses them to do the kind of work they do, and with which the kind of work they do must find a place if it is to count as worth attention. Anthropologists live a divided existence: "a few years, now and again, scuffling about with cattle herders or yam gardeners, a lifetime lecturing to classes and arguing with colleagues."
Geertz's key insight is that the issue of negotiating the passage from "there" to "here", from what the anthropologist has been through "out there" to what he or she says "back here", is in essence literary. The literary character of anthropological texts should be recognized explicitly: as he notes, "this does not make us into novelists any more than constructing hypotheses or writing formulas make us, as some seem to think, into physicists". The central methodological issues involved in ethnographic description are as much linked to narratological issues (how the author manifests himself in the text, what style and tone he adopts, how is the reader involved) as they reflect the problematics of field work or the philosophy of knowledge.
The chapters devoted to four remarkable anthropologists should therefore be read as literary critique, without however the jargon and pedantry now attached to the discipline. They are models of wit, insight, and clarity. A common theme running through them (besides the national typologizing; Levi-Strauss as the Parisian theorist, Evans-Pritchard as the Oxbridge gentleman, Malinowski as the wild-eyed Pole, Benedict as the rebellious American) is the reference to literary works which form the background against which these anthropologists' works should be read.
Besides reflecting the French travel literature he was supposedly reacting against, Levi-Strauss is concerned to place himself and his Tristes Tropiques in the literary tradition established by Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud, and Proust, as well as to reenact Rousseau's Social Contract among the Nambikwara in deepest Amazon. E-P's avowed model is colonial literature written with White-Man's-Burden certainty, Malinowski inaugurates diary-like author-saturated introspections, and Benedict is a modern Swift, complete with a rehabilitation of the satirist's Modest Proposal ("We have done scant justice to the reasonableness of cannibalism").The fifth character depicted throughout this short book is, of course, Clifford Geertz himself, whose place among the pantheon of great anthropologists-authors is very well deserved.