Local Knowledge by Clifford Geertz, Chapters 5 & 7 Summary

By Maximilian Brichta | To Sense | 29 Mar 2021

In the chapters 5 & 7 of Local Knowledge, Geertz discusses art as an object of anthropological study, assesses issues with "modern" notions of "thought," and offers critiques the elitism and disciplinary boundaries within the academy. 

Chapter 5 – “Art as a Cultural System”

Geertz starts off this section with a simple pronouncement: “Art is notoriously hard to talk about” because it speaks “for itself” (94). Yet, people talk about it (critique, theorize, judge it) incessantly. In this chapter Geertz is interested with investigating the significance of this social activity. He asserts that, in the modern age, aesthetic value tends to be understood technically, that is, by describing its formal relations. But if art is understood as a cultural system, and we are to interpret it as such, feeling, both of the individual and collective, must be brought into the way we talk about art. It also must be acknowledged that every instance of art should be interpreted for its local significance. Doing so allows us to compare art across cultures, not for their formal judgments based on Western standards, but for their cultural sensibilities. In the words of the author: “to study an art form is to explore a sensibility” that is “essentially a collective formation, and that the foundations of such a formation are as wide as social existence and as deep” (99). This formulation of aesthetic analysis still considers form insofar as a particular people use it as a means to articulate content and such a formalization is considered a local, cultural achievement.

In the following section, Geertz refutes the false assumption that modern art is distinct from “unlettered” cultures in its ability to represent an individual or cultural experience. It appears Geertz is arguing against the idea that, because there is more of a technical or applied impulse behind modern artistic creations, it is less representative of the artist’s experience than art created in illiterate, unindustrialized cultures. Instead he argues that, in both cases, the meaning of art is a “product of collective experience which far transcends” the work itself (109-10). For Geertz, it is necessary to consider the localized cultural import of a particular artwork rather than interpret it through the technical language developed to analyze form in modern art. “A theory of art is thus at the same time a theory of culture, not an autonomous enterprise” (109).

Geertz rounds out the chapter by explaining that any work of art is informed by the semiotic systems and moral substance endemic to a particular culture. He demonstrates how one might go about such an analysis by considering Arabic poetry within the Arabic culture of Morocco (what appears to be an example selected for its clear importance within the culture). To try to spin Geertz’s method of gauging the cultural significance of art into questions, we might ask these questions: What is the peculiar nature or status of a particular type of art in a culture? How is it performed or displayed and what is the importance of such a context? What is the general use of it or relationship people have with such an art form in their culture? Differently, how suffused is it into everyday life? What does its creation and recitation/display do for the persons involved on both ends? What relationships do artists working within a form have to one another (i.e. competitive, communal)? What moral substance does it convey? How does the artist work with her audience (how does she “understand” her audience)? All these questions help get at how art signifies the culture they are created within. Such a semiotic approach calls for “an ethnography of the vehicles of meaning” (118). Under this rubric, form becomes important insofar as its roots can be traced and transformations can be made sense of in light of cultural transformations. He concludes by suggesting, “To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as a means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted” (120).

Chapter 7 – “The Way We Think Now: Toward an Ethnography of Modern Thought”

In this chapter, Geertz considers two modern trends in the epistemology of “thought,” namely a psychologistic, “unific” view of human thought (the “primitive thought” formulation) and the pluralistic, cultural view of thought (the “cognitive relativism” formulation). He argues that the attempt “to interpret cultural materials as though they are individual expressions rather than social institutions” is misguided. But the cognitive relativist claim that people of various cultures have different mental processes is also problematic. What this approach did contribute was a recognition of how the vehicles a culture uses to perceive their world shape the cultural products within it. It’s here that Geertz positions himself as a symbolic action theorist, which holds “thinking to be a matter of the intentional manipulation of cultural forms” (151). Such a position recognized the paradox between thought as both a collective process and individual product and aims to interpret this tension.

Thought (ideas) are thus a cultural artifact that are “to be characterized by construing… expressions in terms of the activities that sustain them” (152). In other words, it calls for an ethnography of symbolic forms within social affairs. Geertz anticipates and refutes two charges aimed at this epistemological view, subjectivism (which undermines claims about hierarchy and value) and idealism (which undermines claims of objective reality). He responds to these charges with this passage that is worth quoting at length:

"But there is a great deal more to say [than mere relativistic observations]. A great deal more about, as I mentioned, translation, how meaning gets moved, or does not, reasonable intact from one sort of discourse to the next; about intersubjectivity, how separate individuals come to conceive, or do not, reasonably similarly similar things; about how thought frames change (revolutions and all that), how thought provinces are demarcated (“today we have naming of fields”), how thought norms are maintained, thought models acquired, thought labor divided. The ethnography of thinking, like any other sort of ethnography… is an attempt not to exalt diversity but to take it seriously as an object in itself of analytic description and interpretive reflection." (154)

In short, taking diversity of culture as an object of study tells us about the “unity” of thought amongst cultures. (Here we can see the philosophical anthropology of Cassirer reimagined as a cultural anthropology.) Geertz introduces three methodological themes to inform this ethnography of thought:

  1. The Use of Convergent Data. In a word: interdisciplinarity. The various forms of data used and interpreted by distinct fields of study are valuable to hold in association with one another. Different aspects of culture are interrelated and should be analyzed as such. (In Burkean parlance we can summarize this as Geertz’s warning about “occupational psychosis.)
  2. Explication of Linguistic Classifications. Interdisciplinarity seeks linguistic commensurability. In other words, blending disciplines means reflecting on the nomenclatures used to describe their objects of study. Geertz suggests a meta-reflection on the mingling nomenclatures of disparate disciplines.
  3. Examination of the (Academic) Life Cycle. Academics in each discipline are a small group of people that are produced by top-tier universities – “induction into the community takes place at or near the top or center,” which Geertz suggests ossifies this occupational psychosis. He levels a sort of “ivory tower” critique suggesting that the induction and maturation cycle of academia creates vocational insularity and prevents people from mingling disciplinary approaches.

Geertz, Clifford. Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretive anthropology. Basic books, 2008.

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Maximilian Brichta
Maximilian Brichta

PhD Student in Communication at University of Southern California. Writer/Editor of Coinside and To Sense.

To Sense
To Sense

Graduate students write papers every week that we share with our professors and a small group of colleagues. We're lucky if we get 10 sets of eyes on work that we put hours, sometimes weeks of effort into. To Sense is an outlet where I'll post my past and future Communication and Cultural Studies essays that would otherwise never be read again. For my friends, family, professors, fellow scholars and the generally curious - enjoy. Maximilian Brichta

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