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Interpretation and the Limits of Interpretability: On Clifford Geertz’ Semiotics of Religious Experience

Abstract of paper to be presented by Jason Throop, UCLA, at the conference "Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco"

In this paper I will seek to critically interrogate Geertz’ analysis of religious belief as it relates to both his broader semiotics of culture and in reference to his views on how such beliefs are implicated in the formation of particular dispositions, propensities, and habits informing social action.  Taking his critique of William James’ “subjectivist” account of religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience as the lens through which to examine some of his earlier writings, I will discuss the extent to which Geertz’ account of religious belief and practice are deeply revealing of some of the most central assumptions of his social theory, his hermeneutics of culture, and his philosophy of action.  In addition, I will use Geertz’ critical appraisal of James to speak to different understandings of the cultural constitution of particular subjectivities in contemporary culture theory, a discussion that will lead me to draw upon some of Michael Foucault’s later writings on forms of subjectivation and the formation of particular ethical subjectivities.  In the end, I hope to make a case for the significance of extending Geertz’ perspective on two fronts.  On the one hand, as Geertz himself called for, toward a more nuanced understanding of subjective experience as evidenced in James’ original writings on the philosophical psychology of religious experience.  And on the other hand, toward a micro-analytic understanding of subject formation, power, and truth as suggested in Foucault’s last and most mature lectures on The Hermeneutics of the Subject.

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