Clifford Geertz Commemorative Lecture: Jonathan Spencer

Event Description

The Trouble with Golden Ages: Anthropology and the Spirit of Revolutionary Times

Abstract: ‘The trouble with golden ages,’ as Clifford Geertz, quoting Randall Jarrell, once said, ‘is that the people in them go about complaining that everything looks yellow.’ In this lecture Professor Jonathan Spencer will seek to evoke the spirit of what, in retrospect, might seem an unexpectedly golden age, the period of revolutionary experiment in the global South that took off in the 1960s and maintained its momentum up to the end of the 1980s. At the heart of his presentation will be the recollections of once-young Sri Lankan radicals, interviewed as part of a collaborative history of dissent, a history Spencer is writing with his friends Sidharthan Maunaguru and Harini Amarasuriya. The spark and promise of revolutionary times burns bright in their testimony. Yet anthropologists have on the whole found revolution to be a somewhat opaque category. Why, to a young ethnographer in the middle of the period in question, did the world look so yellow, and what do we now need to do to recognize its revolutionary spirit for what it was?

Jonathan Spencer has carried out fieldwork in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, concentrating at first on rural change and local politics, but writing more recently on ethnic conflict, political violence and political non-violence. His current research looks at the history of dissent in Sri Lanka, and at the politics of access to the grid for poor communities in cities in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.

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Clifford Geertz
Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist who is remembered mostly for his strong support for and influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology, and who was considered "for three decades...the single most influential cultural anthropologist in the United States."[1] He served until his death as professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.


1. Geertz, Clifford, Shweder, R. A., & Good, B. (2005). Clifford Geertz by his colleagues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.