Art and “Thick Description,” Part One



“Art, Clifford Geertz once remarked, “is notoriously hard to talk about.” However, Clifford Geertz provided art history with a way to talk about art through material culture. A term familiar to anthropology, “material culture” means the construction of what Geertz termed a “thick description” of a local culture by a detached observer, usually an anthropologist or sociologist, using—of course–the method developed by Geertz himself. A material analysis of a culture encompasses that culture’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts for the purpose of semiotically reading a particular event at a singular point in time. The semiotic reading, as Geertz said, cannot be accomplished without the creation of a “thick” or multilayered, “description” of the conditions that make not just the production of meaning but also meaning itself possible. The ultimate outcome of a “Thick Description,” a slice of a culture, goes beyond a thin or shallow semiotic linguistic reading and seeks to understand the way a society thinks. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz stated,

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.” In comparison “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Jacques Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study. For the study of art history and aesthetics, the word “local” becomes key in relation to a Geertzian understanding of art. In Local Knowledge, Geertz asserted that

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter..

But what is the significance of Material Culture to the study of the history and the philosophy of art? In the best Foucauldrian fashion, one must begin by noting what material culture is not. First, material culture is not connected in any way with Marxism. In fact, Marxism is never mentioned in the discourse of material culture, except to note in passing that Marxists object to Geertz’s lack of attention to issues of class and power.

Geertz 1

Marxism, whether vulgar, reflexive, neo, or what have you, is a theory, which analyzes a social system from the perspective of that determining engine, economics in general and capitalism in particular. Marxism is a critique of wealth, power, and class oppression. Second, an anthropologist never critiques or judges a culture, nor does s/he have a political or activist agenda—ideally—that is. Marxism also operates in terms of the dialectic: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, critiquing the teleological movement, the dynamic movement, of historical forces over time. Material culture, in contrast, is not a theory. As Geertz commented in his book Local Knowledge,

..purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life..

Geertz never worked out or revealed a theory; rather material culture is a method of study, observation, and elucidation. Finally, the Geertzian method must be synchronic and can never be diachronic or caught up in time. The importance of the synchronic was explained by William Sewell in his chapter on Geertz, “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in that the anthropologist,

..adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony. In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

Next, since material culture is a method, not a theory, the procedure stands apart from both modernist and postmodernist theories, while at the same time making use of their theoretical insights. The young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, began omnivorously consuming, appropriating, and employing a whole array of new ideas tumbling out of that 1960s merging of philosophy and literary theory. Long before the term “blurring the boundaries” of disciplines sunk to genuflected jargon in art history, Geertz found inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Michel Foucault. Geertz built a stratified, or thick description, of an object in culture in order to interpret it semiotically in a fixed fashion, but Geertz turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein who unfroze meaning by declaring, in Philosophical Investigations,

For a large class of cases–though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning,’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

Indeed Geertz attributed his position to

..that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.” The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

..cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.

The quotation on meaning and its “use” by Wittgenstein comes from his Philosophical Investigations, “Part 1, Section 43,” as published by Basil Blackwell in 1953. Elaborating upon the ideas of Geertz, Eric Kline Slverman’s essay, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?” noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture. In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text..His textual metaphor emerges from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations. Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework. He was particularly influenced by Susan Langer..Geertz defines cultural symbols as medals of and models for social reality.

Although Geertz was sometimes lumped together with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, his project is not to read texts but to write texts. Indeed Silverman stated that “Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.” Geertz said in Local Knowledge that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them..

However, Geertz embraced the postmodern notion that academic and scientific writing is a form of literature or écriture, and he wrote deliberately in a metaphorical style, embracing the Lyotardian concept of the “figure” in the “discourse.” It not that Geertz read Derrida, it is that one can do a Derridan reading of a Geertzian text. Certainly, there is a degree of Kristvian intertextuality in Geertz, but, for a field ethnographer, a word far more suitable than “intertextuality,” would be “connections” or what historian Wilhelm Dilthy called “connectedness” or “context” (Zusammenhand) or Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” among cultural elements. Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness..are contextual. One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death. One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning. On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts. Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Geertz accepted the postmodern concept of a consciousness that is socially and linguistically constructed, but he did so via Emmanuel Kant by way of Ernst Cassirer with a drive-by for Foucault. For Geertz, the individual, or Foucault’s fictive “Man,” was never the object of study. A person is but an actor situated within a thick cultural matrix, acting and reacting, with limited agency, out of pre-existing cognitive structures, a priori producing culture. Marxists, feminists, postcolonial critics have, rightly, criticized Geertz for not including the voices of the dispossessed. The voices of women, for example, cannot be retroactively added to field research for each thick description is bound up in a synchronic moment in time. It can be stated with or without kindness that Geertz was creating his notion of “thick description” in a time in which women and people of color were silenced in philosophy at the very time when they were vocalizing loudly in the streets. It is possible that, with later anthropologists, once silent voices can be included only in a later thick description. That said, at the time, the scholars who surrounded Geertz or who commented on his theories seem to be more interested in the theory than in the practices. According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

..thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it. A thick description thus could be exceedingly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames..Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Clearly, Geertz, like many of his generation was formed from a mélange of cultural forces swirling around during the 1960s. During this fertile period, decades of thinking coalesced and philosophical ideas that dated back to the beginning of the century began to be assimilated and, having been digested, began to emit descendants in further thought. In his way, Clifford Geertz was a prototypical Postmodern thinker who assembled a coalition of concepts that allowed him to further anthropology and to take the new field in new directions, combining field work with philosophy, specifically semiotics. Material culture became a way to “read” a society like a text, but part of any society is its works of culture–art objets. Given a broad mandate as an anthropologist, Geertz would turn his attention to art and delved into the links between art history, art historians, philosophy and semiotics and philosophy–a complex combination of text and image, discussed in the next post.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part Two


Part Two: The Late Work

Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.”

from The Blue Book

When he finished the Tractatus, Ludwig Wittgenstein assumed that he had finished with philosophy, gave away his wealth, and retreated into private life and followed various pursuits, from being a hermit in a hut in Norway, to being a school teacher, to being an architect, and a visitor to the Soviet Union. In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to England, became a citizen in 1938, and joined the faculty at Cambridge where he taught to a select group of students who wrote down everything he said. The Blue Book and The Brown Book (published in 1958) are a collection of his thoughts on the way to Philosophical Investigations. During the Second World War, he was an orderly in a London hospital, and, in 1947, he resigned from teaching, only to return in 1949 until his death from cancer in 1951.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is a very special book to read because it was, like all the books printed after his death, based on his lectures to his attentive students at Cambridge. Each page is a series of statements or paragraphs, and, as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, each is carefully numbered. The blocks give the reader a glimpse into the organized and adventurous mind of of the philosopher. Early on, he discusses the problem of “naming,” a problem left over from his early work. In Philosophical Investigations,he traced the progress from a “primitive” language of one-word commands which designate or denote substantive meaning from the one who speaks and to the one who hears to more complex forms of communication. As for our mode of communication, naming a thing, noting a noun, Wittgenstein muses, “Naming appears as queer connexion of a word with an object.” Then he slips in a phrase, not even a real sentence, that has become one of his most famous sayings: “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” After which he discusses the slippage that occurs when a sword is named “Excalibur,” rendering any sentence with the name without meaning. His solution is that the name “Excalibur” must be eliminated and replaced by what Wittgenstein calls “simples.” <“It is reasonable to call these words the real names.”

Tractatus restricted philosophy to that which could reasonably be said, but language and the way people used it tended to “go on holiday,” calling to question the normal everyday language people, not philosophers, employ to communicate. If one spoke of pictures, using names, then how does the philosopher deal with the issue of understanding a language? This reconsideration of how language makes meaning resulted the lectures that were edited and printed in Philosophical Investigations (1953). Older and wiser, Wittgenstein was drawn back into the argument of meaning. A friend challenged him to explain what a “gesture” meant in term of picture theory: what did an abstract gesture “picture?” Or to put it another way how did an abstract gesture provide an image or a picture of a thought? He returned to philosophy and took a position closer to that of Friedrich Nietzsche who reduced language to metaphor. By admitting that the notion of an ideal language was an illusion, Wittgenstein moved closer to the idea of language as being more inventive or artistic than precise and analytic. If Nietzsche unraveled language to become a nihilist, Wittgenstein explored language to become a pessimist.

First, both twentieth century thinkers had given up on any pretense of finding “truth.” For Nietzsche, all that humans have is metaphor and there is no truth, universal or otherwise, only the trap of symbolic metaphorical thinking. More optimistically both Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and Wittgenstein look to language as being the only source of knowledge of the world. The world, to put it another way, is shaped and conditioned by language and language represents the world. Saussure was more ready than Wittgenstein to accept the arbitrary nature of the (non) link between the word and the thing. A few decades later, Wittgenstein was ready to give up on his picture theory of language in which words made a “picture” of the world. If there is no universal language that can be used with rigor, then philosophy must become a practical study of ordinary language that is understood through what Wittgenstein called “language games.” combining the similarities among words (games), which is he calls “family resemblances.” “And I shall say, ‘games’ form a family,” he declared.

Language, then, is nothing more than relationships. In contrast to the inherent complexity of relating words one to another, Wittgenstein had sought order through his “picture theory of language.” In the Tractatus, language was grounded in a world of accessible experience in which discrete facts are mirrored in the language. “A proposition is a picture of reality,” Wittgenstein wrote confidently, assuming the transparency of word to thing. If the Wittgensteinian rules are followed, meaning is univocal and knowledge is certain. Once this certainty is abandoned, as it had to be in the 1930s, Wittgenstein changed his philosophical investigations into a search for the basis of knowledge. Language for both Saussure and Wittgenstein is not a window on reality or a mirror but a network of established significations or family resemblances linked by Nietzsche’s metaphors.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein had moved towards an analysis of how language works rather than a critique of what it does when it works. For Wittgenstein, language is part of a system, and the system of language is a game with rules or social conventions that are agreed upon by mutual consent among the players. For the Structuralists who came after Saussure, the “players” had to know how to play the game: the players had to be “competent” or have savoir faire. Players have to know how language functions within the network of games, and, as Wittgenstein was recorded as saying, “To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique.”

Just as Wittgenstein’s language games operate by rules which are subject to change, knowledge is structured by systems of metaphor or code, which is the classification, and organization of experience. Note that “code” or the signifier in the twentieth century replaces the transcendent and universal a priori of Kant. With Wittgenstein, language and orders of representation (language games and their rules) replaces the transcendental. Wittgenstein who once jettisoned “interpretation,” now acknowledged that interpretation is not a quest for the truth but a fundamental search for order and intelligibility. As Wittgenstein said, “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.”

Words have no fixed meaning and the meaning of any term is contextual,differential, and relative. The early Structuralists had no interest in the diachronic implications of language and Wittgenstein is interested in the diachronic only in terms of function, that is, he realized language arises in a particular social context and that the test of “meaningfulness” is the success of language in accomplishing what it sets out to accomplish. For the Structuralists, the synchronic aspects of language of of little interest; for Wittgenstein language was an ever-evolving part of a culture. His commonsense approach to “ordinary” language was revolutionary. Language games form a family, and the words in the family acquire meaning in everyday use. In contrast to the picture theory, which was a belief in universals, Philosophical Investigations contemplates the actual use of language and concludes that the meaning of a word is its use. In paragraph 43, Wittgenstein stated, “For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”

In arguing that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”, Wittgenstein argued against the precision of concepts and acknowledged that new rules could be made up when needed, as long as the players were in collective agreement. Definitions and rules are nothing but signposts and can change location, so to speak, having an open character. In the second half of his life, Wittgenstein declared that the attempt to locate an unambiguous meaning in language was a form of illness and that the only purpose of logic was to understand how everyday language functions. For the philosopher, all seeing is “langufied” and is relative to “frames.” There is a paradox: we see the frame and realize we are looking only at the picture. Wittgenstein could not resolve this paradox. Nietzsche was ready to give up on truth but Wittgenstein was not. He saw language as a form of life that expressed the social group. We are trapped in language but we can free. In paragraph 309 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein asked himself, “What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Part One on Wittgenstein discusses his Early Work.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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