Perhaps one of the most widely read anthropological essays, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz is available online in standard HTML format, as well as a PDF file. The continued popularity of this piece is due in no small part to Geertz’s fluid prose, sharp observation, and self-depreciating humor. (Self-mockery seems to be an essential ingredient for making an anthropological classic.) But I think the real appeal of this article is the way the reader is drawn into the process of anthropological discovery.
The article starts with a heart-pounding chase. Cockfights are illegal and the sudden appearance of the police during one of the first fights Geertz and his wife witnessed sent everyone scurrying home:
On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves.
This story serves two purposes: The first is to draw the audience into the society along with the anthropologist. Just as this event led to Geertz making the transition from “outsider” to “participant,” so too does it make the audience feel as if they are active participants in the drama. The other purpose is to establish the subjective authority of Geertz’s account. Geertz can tell us what this ritual “really means” because he was there. Not only was he there, but he was embraced by the members of the society who loved his clumsy ways.
Does Geertz’s effective prose lull us into a false sense of interpretive complacency?
William Roseberry thinks so. In his article, “Balinese Cockfights and the Seduction of Anthropology,” (ProQuest link – thanks to Rex), Roseberry draws from Geertz’s own footnotes to suggest that Geertz overlooks the importance of women (“traditional markets [where the fights were held] were ‘staffed almost entirely by women'”), political economy (“the sport has been one of the main agencies of the island’s monetization”), and post-colonial nationalism (“Balinese regard the island as taking the shape of ‘a small, proud cock, poised, neck extended, back taut, tail raised, in eternal challenge to large, feckless, Java.'”) Nor do we ever really learn the social origins of status in Balinese society – crucial information if these fights are symbolic battles over status.
Roseberry is not simply saying that Geertz’ thick description isn’t thick enough. Rather, he is arguing that there is a limitation to the whole culture-as-text approach advocated by Geertz’s interpretive anthropology. Roseberry argues that Geertz’s treatment of culture-as-text ignores the crucial questions of how texts are created?
To ask of any cultural text, be it a cockfight or a folktale, who is talking, who is being talked to, what is being talked about, and what form of action is being called for, is to move cultural analysis to a new level that renders the old antinomies of materialism and idealism irrelevant.
In some ways Geertz is one of the most well known anthropologists outside of the discipline, but my sense is that his influence within the discipline itself has waned. Still, Geertz’s essay is of more than purely historical interest. His excellent writing and the way in which he captures the spirit of the anthropological process ensures that “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” remains one of the most widely used texts in introductory anthropology courses.
More Geertz online at HyperGeertz.
Works cited in this post:
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In The Interpretation of Cultures, New York, NY: Basic Books.
Roseberry, William. 1982. Balinese Cockfights and the Seduction of Anthropology. Social Research 49 1013-28.