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How Life is Hard: Marginal Notes on Meaning and Order

Abstract of paper to be presented by David Crawford, Fairfield University, at the conference "Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco"

At the end of one of the most influential essays in the history of anthropology Clifford Geertz wrote that "The danger that cultural analysis... will lose touch with the hard surfaces of life -with the political, economic, stratificatory realities within which [people] are everywhere contained -is an ever-present one.  The only defense against it, and against, thus, turning cultural analysis into a kind of sociological aestheticism, is to train such analysis on such realities and such necessities in the first place" (1973:30). 

Rural Morocco has no shortage of "hard surfaces," and this is apparent to most people who live there.  The word for "hard" (ishqa in Tashelhit) is a somber refrain and key analytical framework in formal interviews and everyday conversation.  People are "hard" when they are ruthless or unkind, steep mountains, drought, and cold winters are hard, the government can be hard.  Most certainly, life is hard.  How life is hard is not a purely existential question, however.  It is not something that is stable through individual lives, households, or broader history, nor can it be neatly summarized by an algebra of lack ("poverty") or division of labor ("gender discrimination").  Cultural analysis can be usefully trained on immiseration, the complicatedly evolving "stratificatory realities" from which rural Moroccans wrest hard scrabble lives.

Center for Near Eastern Studies