This past week, I’ve had to read Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description” and “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” for the, third, maybe fourth time. And while preparing to sound at least somewhat intelligent and well-thought on the issues presented, I found myself stumbling not over Cohen and sheep-stealing, or the interpretation of the wink, or even what culture is. Nor did I find myself hanging up on the ritual of the cockfight or the psychological underpinings of metaphorical and double entrendre of Balinese men and their cocks. What did jump out to me is what feels like the excessive eroticization and exotization that Geertz perpetrates upon the Balinese. Perhaps the most lurid example of this writing is the following excerpt,
Aside from cocks and a few domestic animals – oxen, ducks – of no emotional significane, the Balinese are averse to animals and treat their large number of fogs not merely callously but with a phobic cruelty. In identifying with his cock(1), the Balinese man is identifying not just with his ideal self, or even his penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates, and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by – “The Powers of Darkness”(2)
In his breathless descriptives of the male cockfighting society and his almost juvenile delight in the supposed double entendre’s available in posture and identification with the roosters, Geertz appears to perpetuate the myth of the passionate, animalist and sexualized, orientalized Other.
And it would be all well and good to be outraged at this perpetuation of the eroticized Other if it weren’t for a subsequent essay, “Being Here”, in which Geertz sits down and systematically ferrets out many of the problems facing contemporary anthropology and enthnography. He acknowledges that which James Clifford has said, that it “is no longer the other, but [the] cultural description itself” which has become curious.
Geertz also quotes an absolutely brilliant passage by that worst of all creatures, the literary critic, referrencing that
The urge to conform to the canons of scientific rhetoric has made the easy realism of natural history the dominant mode of ethnographic prose, but it has been an illusory realism, promoting on the one hand, the absurdity of “describing” nonentities such as “culture” or “society”, as if they were fully observable, though somewhat ungainly, bugs, and, on the other, the equally ridiculous behaviorist pretense of “describing” reptitive patterns of action in isolation from the discourse that actors use in constituting and situating their action, and all in simpleminded surety that the observers’ grounding discourse is itself an objective form sufficient to the task of describing acts. (3)
Whew – a mouthful. But I think Tyler is basicallly saying (in an essay whose title alone I love, “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document”) anthropology has harboured, under the “Dr. Livingstone I presume” version of itself, the belief that one can discover and possess a group of people, and in that discovery and possession proceed to know them to the point of reporting objective field facts of culture as if it were a static entity, as well as believing itself capable of taking some action or sign and removing it from the webs of signification that embed said action/sign. (You know, I’m not certain that sentence helped break down the quote. At all. In fact, I strongly suspect that it didn’t.)
Geertz agrees with this position, saying that
[t]o argue…that the writing of ethnography involves telling stories, making pictures, concosting symbolisms, and deploying tropes is commonly resisted, often fiercely, because of a confusion, endemic in the West since Plato at least, of the imagined with the imaginary, the fictional with the false, making things out with making them up. The strange idea that reality has an idiom in which is prefers to be described, that its very nature demands we talk about it without a fuss – a spade is a spade, a rose a rose – on pain of illusion, trumpery, and self-betwitchment, leads on to the even stranger idea that, if literalism is lost, so is fact.
“All ethnographical descriptions are homemade.” If he truly believes this, then is the value in the enthnography that he has recorded about a culture, or is it in what he chooses to record about the culture? Is it the Balinese who are erotic and exotic, or is it Geertz’s lense on the Balinese Orientalizing them into erotic exotic beings? Or, perhaps more to the point, is this Geertz’s positionality, or our own?
(1)You can almost hear Geertz giggling as he types this.
(2) “The Powers of Darkness” are the animalistic demons that constantly threaten to invade the cleared-off and sanctified space in which the Balinese have built their lives.
(3) “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document”