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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

“What the hell is going on here?”


“What the hell is going on here?” The question, by many attributed to the famous American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is at present one of my most beloved quotations. It represents a deep curiosity which I think is vital for anyone trying to understand anything of the world we live in.



“What the hell is going on here?” It is a simple and straightforward question. That makes it powerful. The best questions are simple. Heidegger wondered why there is Something and not rather Nothing. Galileo wondered whether or not the Earth is the centre of the universe. And so on and so forth. If you are interested in research, the trick is probably to find a simple basic question. A question that triggers you, that fascinates you. And then stick to that question.

“What the hell is going on here?” It is the question I ask myself all the time when I see people involved with music. A musician on the street. Singing at a birthday party. A guy with a walkman on his head racing on his bike through town. An Icelandic folk metal band. A youth orchestra performing Tchaikovsky. A shanty choir. The audience of the open air festival Zwarte Cross. What the hell is going on? Nothing is straightforward. And, equally important: everything is worthwhile.

And then a little postscript. As I said, the question “What the hell is going on here?” is attributed to Clifford Geertz. But is the attribution correct? When quoted, the reference is in most cases very vague – like (Geertz). More concrete references are his well-known first chapter of “The Interpretation of Cultures” (1973) – but there he speaks about the devil and not about hell; and an interview he once gave to Gary Olson, published in 1991 in the periodical JAC – hell is in it, but not the exact quote. And at least one author attributes the quote to sociologist Erving Goffman.

Who helps me out?

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