Volume II, Number 2, Fall 2006

"A Temporality Twice Disrupted" by Irén Annus

Irén Annus is Associate Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail: “iannus@lit.u-szeged.hu”:mailto:iannus@lit.u-szeged.hu.

The academic environment creates a temporal reality that often seems to work quite differently from that of the rest of the world. Working time seems to be measured in terms of weeks rather than days, semesters rather than calendar years. It creates a space and time that prompts those involved to remain youthful and ever inquisitive.

Probably the most powerful disruption in this seemingly permanent state of temporality that makes us all realize that time does go by is the death of a colleague, a master, a great scholar. In recent months, two eminent academics have passed away: Clifford James Geertz and Seymour Martin Lipset.


Clifford James Geertz: The Father of Interpretive Anthropology

(August 23, 1926 – October 30, 2006)

Clifford James Geertz

Geertz was already considered among the most influential cultural anthropologists in his lifetime as the founder of symbolic or interpretive anthropology. A keen researcher and prolific writer, he entered the limelight with his ethnographic studies of cultures in Java and Bali, Indonesia. His most influential work, The Interpretation of Cultures, appeared in 1973, earning him immediate international recognition. During his later years, however, he was often criticized for being disillusioned with his field and never following up by publishing an overarching, grand theory. In fact, the latter was an unjustified expectation: a careful reading of his works testifies to his post-structuralist position that, by definition, would reject such a theorization.

After serving in the US Navy for two years during World War II (1943-45), he studied at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he earned his BA in 1950. He received his PhD six years later, at Harvard. He was a professor at Berkeley (1958-60) and held a permanent position at the University of Chicago (1960-70) and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ (1970-2000). He wrote 17 books in addition to co-authoring and editing many more, most of which have been translated into numerous languages. He received a number of awards and honors, including the Social Science Prize, the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Prize.

His research on Javanese and Balinese cultures in the late 1950s and early 1960s raised his interest in the issues of theory and method in anthropological research and writing. Conceptualizing man as an animal caught in “webs of significance” which he identified as culture, he regarded it as the purpose of anthropology to interpret the underlying system of meanings, embedded in symbols, through the method of thick description. Thus, during his professorship at the University of Chicago, he earned a reputation as the founder of symbolic or interpretive anthropology, the most elaborate presentation of which is offered in his The Interpretation of Cultures.

Most of his academic work, however, was the outcome of his fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco, which was concerned with religion – primarily Islam – as well as village and family life, rituals and organization, agricultural practices and economic activities, such as bazaar trade. His 1988 book, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as an Author, offered new interpretations of the works and theories of four major classics in anthropology (Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, Edward Evans-Prichard and Claude Levi-Strauss), while his later work, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (1995) is his self-reflective memoir as a field worker, an academic and a theorist.

Geertz’s legacy expands the boundaries of anthropology and ethnography. His ideas have cut across disciplines and influenced generations of scholars. The shift he introduced to new understandings of culture as well as its interpretation with the acknowledgement of and respect for cultural particulars along with the recognition of the highly colonizing nature of traditional anthropology and its destructive impact opened new perspectives in the social sciences as well as in the humanities.

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Seymour Martin Lipset: An Exceptional American

(March 18, 1922 – December 31, 2006)

Seymour Martin Lipset

Lipset was among the most controversial academic and public figures of the second half of the last century in the US. He was versatile scholar, a leading sociologist and political scientist, a respected and influential public figure, described as “one of America’s most useful intellectuals” by English journalist Martin Walker in 1996.

He was a professor at leading American universities: Columbia (1950-56), Berkeley (1956-66), Harvard (1966-75), Stanford (1975-90), and George Mason University (1990-2006). He wrote, co-authored and edited some fifty books and published over four hundred articles. In recognition of his achievements, he was honored with a number of awards: he received the MacIver Prize, the Gunnar Myrdal Prize and the Marshall Sklare Award, among others. He was a member, and served as a president, of various professional societies, including the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, the International Society of Political Psychology and the World Association for Public Opinion Research. His active presence in the public sphere was marked by his chairing of a number of organizations, such as the US Institute of Peace, the Committee for Labor Law Reform, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East.

He was born in New York to a working-class Russian Jewish immigrant family, which left him with a cultural legacy that would influence his academic pursuits. He received his BS from the City College of New York in 1943 and his PhD from Columbia in 1949. He was ardently involved in politics at the time as a noted Trotskyite, serving as the national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League. Later on into his career, however, he was most often referred to as a neo-conservative, especially in relation to his work on American exceptionalism.

His whole life was devoted to the study of American democracy and American exceptionalism, to mapping the particular ways in which the US differed from other Western societies in Europe and North America. During his early years as a scholar at Columbia, his work focused on finding out why the US, unlike all other industrial nations, lacks a major socialist party. He explained this by pointing to the nature of a political system that insisted on a bi-party system and resented socialist ideology, as well as to such American values as equality, individualism and self-reliance which would discourage collective solutions to common social problems.

The location of a set of particular American values as decisive forces that shape political discourse and public action gradually became the focus of his investigations, whether he was researching American trade unions, class structure, elections and voter behavior, the role of religion, the power of academia and the student body, life and institutions in Canada and the US, or Jewish existence in the late 20th century.

The work in which he summarized his propositions on American exceptionalism in a systematic way is his book with the same title: American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: Norton, 1996). He claimed that “the nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire” (31), values which have shaped American realities since the War of Independence and have accounted not only for the country’s successes, but also its shortcomings.

Lipset spent the last five years of his life in an undignified condition. Disabled by a severe brain hemorrhage which developed during heart valve surgery, he could only see but not explain what, in some readings, American exceptionalism brought about on 9/11. His legacy is not so much in an intellectual school that he established but rather in the ways many Americans think about themselves and their place in the world.

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