He was a magnificently clear writer, and, in this, a little like the poet laureate of anthropology, Clifford Geertz. Both Levitt and Geertz wrote so well, they made the reader feel smarter by 20 IQ points. Ideas seemed to move from mind to mind without intermediary, so transparent was the prose.
Geertz has the unhappy tendency of pretending that he is the only anthropologist. His perfect little essay have a solipsistic quality. Geertz does not cite other scholars and indeed he admits the data to his little crystal palaces only if they conduct themselves in strict conformity to the school master’s direction. Yes, Geertz lets you think more…about less.
Levitt gave us clarity as a way to contend with messiness. He wrote a disciplined prose for a chaotic world. He blessed us with questions and strategies that improved our ability to manage what threatens now to be an imponderable world.
In the Marketing Imagination, he gave us the most compelling question of the profession: "what business are we in." What a simple little question. And how deceptive. Ask this question and suddenly all bets are off, all data welcome, every intepretive frame now possible. Not so much a crystal palace as an English garden. Not so much an English garden as a Ghanaian one.
Levitt prepared us for a world turned upside down. "What business are we in," invites extravagant acts of intellect and imagination. And not a moment too soon. For this is what markets demand of us too. (It’s worth noting that Levitt founded this question well before the sheer dynamism of the new capitalism can have been evident.)
More importantly, ‘what business are we in" anticipates a world in which things change so much and so suddenly that capitalism is no simple act of value extraction, with capitalists as mere miners, truding down the same shafts to the same coal faces in search of the same substance for exchange on the same markets. Contemporary markets are now so liquid that the Levittian question is called for every day…because something crucial may have changed as we slept.
Theodore Levitt, rest in peace.