‘Tortoises all the way down’: Geertz, cybernetics and ‘culture' during the Cold War

Speaker: Poornima Paidipaty # London School of Economics

22nd Oct 2018

15:30 - 17:00

Staff Room, 6th floor, Crystal Macmillan Building, George Square, University of Edinburgh

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Abstract

In his essay ‘The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man’, Clifford Geertz asserts that contemporary social science must ‘look for systematic relationships among diverse phenomena’. Geertz credits his approach to developments in the field of cybernetics, which pioneered the study of modern information systems in order to understand everything from computer systems to biological networks to human organization. Geertz’s early formulation of culture, as a set of publicly traded symbols and their meanings, relied upon cybernetic theories of ‘control mechanisms’, as discreet, ordered instructions and operational codes. In locating Geertz and the notion of culture within the historical developments and transformation of cyborg science, this paper also seeks to understand the expansive transformation of American anthropology in the Cold War period, as it shifts from the study of primitive to complex societies in the context of America’s growing global ambitions. Repositioning Geertz in this way helps contemporary readers understand Geertzian ‘culture’ beyond the limits of the cultural turn. More crucially, it better situates current anthropological interest in contingency, ontology and emergence within a broader historical and intellectual genealogy.

Poornima Paidipaty is at London School of Economics