Winks and turtles: another example of accessible and exceptional anthropology


I was reminded just now, thinking further about ‘accessible’ and ‘representative’ anthropological texts, of how enjoyable Clifford Geertz is to read.

These are two of the better known (and very clever) passages from The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) published by Basic Books, New York.


‘In anthropology, or anyway social anthropology, what the practitioners do is ethnography. And it is in understanding what ethnography is, or more exactly what doing ethnography is, that a start can be made toward grasping what anthropological analysis amounts to as a form of knowledge. This, it must immediately be said, is not a matter of methods. From one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things,techniques and received procedures, that define the enterprise.


What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, “thick description.”


Ryle’s discussion of “thick description” appears in two recent essays of his (now reprinted in the second volume of his Collected Papers addressed to the general question of what, as he puts it, “Le Penseur” is doing: “Thinking and Reflecting” and “The Thinking of Thoughts.” Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle points out, the winker has not done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and–voilà!–a gesture.


That, however, is just the beginning. Suppose, he continues, there is a third boy, who, “to give malicious amusement to his cronies,” parodies the first boy’s wink, as amateurish, clumsy, obvious, and so on. He, of course, does this in the same way the second boy winked and the first twitched: by contracting his right eyelids. Only this boy is neither winking nor twitching, he is parodying someone else’s, as he takes it, laughable, attempt at winking. Here, too, a socially established code exists (he will “wink” laboriously, over-obviously, perhaps adding a grimace—the usual artifices of the clown); and so also does a message. Only now it is not conspiracy but ridicule that is in the air. If the others think he is actually winking, his whole project misfires as completely, though with somewhat different results, as if they think he is twitching. One can go further: uncertain of his mimicking abilities, the would-be satirist may practice at home before the mirror, in which case he is not twitching, winking, or parodying, but rehearsing; though so far as what a camera, a radical behaviorist, or a believer in protocol sentences would record: he is just rapidly contracting his right eyelids like all the others. Complexities are possible, if not practically without end, at least logically so.


The original winker might, for example, actually have been fake-winking, say, to mislead outsiders into imagining there was a conspiracy afoot when there in fact was not, in which case our descriptions of what the parodist is parodying and the rehearser is rehearsing of course shift accordingly. But the point is that between what Ryle calls the “thin description” of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher . . .) is doing (“rapidly contracting his right eyelids”) and the “thick description” of what he is doing (“practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”) lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which, as a cultural category, are as much non-winks as winks are non-twitches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn’t do with his eyelids’  (from pp. 6-7).


This second excerpt is perhaps the most delightful passage in the book:


‘There is an Indian story – at least I heard it as an Indian story – about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”


Such indeed is the condition of things. I do not know how long it would be profitable to meditate on the encounter of Cohen, the sheikh, and ‘Dumari’ (the period has perhaps already been exceeded); but I do know that however long I did so I would not get anywhere near to the bottom of it’  (from pp. 28-29).




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