Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)

Daniel Miller, Anthropology UCL
My impression is that students coming into anthropology today, at least in Britain, are not necessarily expecting to read very much of the writings of Clifford Geertz, compared to my time as a student. But his death on Monday should remind us of just how much a loss that is. I have spent my academic life enamoured of fieldwork and ethnography and I suspect the single biggest influence on this was the sheer pleasure of reading Geertz. As far as I know he never would have described himself as particularly associated with material culture per se, (please comment if you know otherwise) but he was the quintessential cultural anthropologist, and his work shows how much that American tradition of cultural anthropology, (to some degree as opposed to European social anthropology) provided in its heyday an almost seamless acceptance of the materiality of peoples lives and the need to give due credit to the form of cultural order and life.
So many of his works could serve as examples of this. Agricultural Involution (1963) provided a wonderful example of how the propensities of rice itself and the agricultural systems associated with it could be the critical determinant of populations and ways of life, and this was long before the idea of an agency of things became popular with the work of Gell and Latour. Both Peddlers and Princes (1963) and his work on the Moroccan market were invaluable studies of trade and exchange. His classic paper Art as a Cultural System in combination with other essays in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) was one of a series of essays that complement Bourdieu as a basic introduction to the significance of cultural order as embedded and expressed through the order of the material world. Perhaps above all though his book Negara (1980) provides one of the most radical attempts to construct an anthropology based around the potential of aesthetic systems to become the foundational cosmologies of states and peoples. These were my influences and I would be interested to hear from others who may have taken inspiration from different aspects of his work, for example the task of interpretation. I would think for such a consummate scholar the most proper way to pay homage at this point is to read some of his classic works that one might have missed over the years and remind ourselves of the possibility of an anthropological style that was as elegant as it was profound.