Anthro Classics Online: Geertz’s Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

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.

13 thoughts on “Anthro Classics Online: Geertz’s Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

  1. Wow — that HyperGeertz website has got to be one of the most useful websites I’ve seen in a long time — and also one of the most dodgy in terms of copright law. I guess ‘fair use’ in Austria means “reprint the entire thing without getting permission from the author and publisher”? Not that I’m complaining.

    Like a lot of people I read the Balinese cockfight article in my anthropological youth and I remember enjoying it (although the Person, Time, and Conduct essay in that same volume was the one that really captured my attention). Since then, however, I’ve really come to wonder about this article — what is it actually _about_? There’s something intangibly vague about that article that I can’t quite put my finger on.

  2. Rex, I’ve had exactly the same thoughts. For me, it was rather more dramatic than an “intangible vagueness”, though — I was teaching my Intro class and discussing the different “schools” of anthropological thought. When I got to “Symbolic anthro”, I started talking about the Balinese cockfight and said something like “For Geertz, the cockfight was a symbolic event that meant…” and I realized that I really didn’t know. I mean, I knew the whole drama of social status and all that — I know what Geertz says — but I suddenly couldn’t figure out the “big picture” meaning. I thought it was just memory failing, but when I looked at the article, I realized that what I wanted to be there just wasn’t.

  3. To me most of the articles in Understanding Culture share a common feature: Geertz notices, articulates, and illustrates a conceptual problem then ends with no how-to program for solving the problem he raises. “Thick description” is a beautiful example. He persuades me that thick description is better than the thin explanations that anthropologist typically provide but offers no criteria for deciding when one description is better than another.

    The same is true of “deep play.” The idea is fascinating and points to a well known phenomena, the way in which human beings sometimes get so wrapped up in what they are doing (be it writing a poem, playing tennis, or trading in hog futures) that they “lose themselves” in what they are doing. To learn that Balinese lose themselves in cockfights, which are, at least from one perspective, exemplars of selves they want to be, victors in short, bloody, violent conflicts that elevate status may contribute to our understanding of why Bali, now normally seen as a beautiful tourist trap inhabited by lovely people with an extraordinary level of self-control, was, shortly after WWII, the scene of massacres that killed (I need to check the numbers) around 80,000 people. Comparisons with, for example, Cambodia leap to mind, together with the memory that amok was imported into English from Malay. But as with “thick description,” we are left with a typical Geertzian maneuver, a gesture that says, “You see” and no help at all if you don’t, especially if you’re someone who asks questions like, “How deep is deep?”

  4. For me, the most staggering thing about Geertz’s essay is the last footnote, where he writes

    That what the cockfight has to say about Bali is not altogether without perception and the disquiet it expresses about the general pattern of Balinese life is not wholly without reason is attested by the fact [what a marvellous example of passive voice and absence of the author] that in two weeks of December 1965, during the upheavals following the unsuccessful coup in Djakarta, between forty and eighty thousand Balinese (in a population of about two million) were killed, largely by one another–the worst outburst in the country. (p. 452n43)

    So here we have a massive event (where 2-4% of the population has been killed by sectarian violence) which provides crucial context for the events Geertz describes (for example, perhaps explaining more fully the responses of the people fleeing the police) consigned to a footnote.

    Now, I’m not complaining so much about Geertz, because he’s quite clear about his biases and emphases. I find it particularly troubling that Roseberry, ostensibly a political economist, also manages to elide this political context of the contemporary cockfights in favour of some of the economic aspects of their history (which I grant is important, but no more important than the contemporary context). His discussion of the role of sexual [gender?] differentiation in markets, of the colonial attempts to end cockfights, and of Geertz’s failure to link cockfighting and caste and status in a material way are interesting, and potentially important contributions, but he manages to avoid the implications of the footnote as well (because, certainly, the massacre of up to 4% of a population by various factions of it will have serious material implications for it).

    In my own research I’m finding (and this is a generalisation but one which nonetheless is generally true) that the materialist anthropologists, working in a frame developed largely by Julian Steward and trained by him or his students (and I am including Roseberry in this group based on his working in the “tradition” of Eric Wolf) have a good deal of difficulty in dealing with implications of actually existing political situations, particularly the ongoing attempts at colonising Indigenous peoples in North America.

  5. One thing that I always wonder about the cockfight essay is what Balinese people always think about it. Has an Indonesian scholar written a reaction to the piece?

  6. Rola brings up an interesting point. One of this things that has struck me about Geertz’s work is how utterly oblivious he was — at least in his writing — to the massive social, political, and yes military upheavals that shaped Indonesia during the years he was working there. He doesn’t really get into any of that until his last two books, decades after the fact (or should I say _After the Fact_, a particularly apt title).

    I had Roseberry as a teacher, so it’s hard for me to separate what I know of him from his writing and from informal knowledge, but I think he’d agree with your critique. I don’t think he ignores the implications of that footnote, though in that piece he’s not very explicit. I’ve heard him say some pretty fiece things about Geertz’ apparently conscious elision of the revolutionary violence simmering around him.

    My earlier comment got cut short because I had to leave suddenly, but I had wanted to point out something else. For Geertz, culture is mainly psychological and personal. The idea of culture as a set of symbols that we share back and forth seems almost custom-designed to avoid the kinds of political economic analysis Rola (and myself) would like to see. The only place power comes into play in this formulation is in who has access to particular symbols. If the Balinese cockfight has meaning, though, it’s not because it is a symbol but because people living under an incredibly oppressive regime and in a particularly tumultuous miliarized environment are *making* symbols, they’re creating meanings that are directly counter to the “official” symbology of the Indonesian police state. Before the Balinese peasant can lose his identity in the violent contest of the cockfight, there’s the fact that he is breaking the law by even participating, whether his cock is the winner or loser or however bloody the match is. Geertz describes some of the consequences (though what were the consequences for those who *didn’t* escape?) but despite his thick description, the drama for Geertz is the drama within the cockfight performance. I don’t think that’s an irrelevant part of the story, but it is still only *part* of the story (and here Geertz would pr’y nod and say “of course” — one of the benefits of insisting all accounts are partial is that it very effectively deflects criticism for being only partial…).

  7. One of this things that has struck me about Geertz’s work is how utterly oblivious he was—at least in his writing—to the massive social, political, and yes military upheavals that shaped Indonesia during the years he was working there. He doesn’t really get into any of that until his last two books, decades after the fact (or should I say After the Fact, a particularly apt title).

    To come round full circle, it may be worth remembering the material and political conditions of fieldwork in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The native is not the only one affected by this context. Think Cold War, Vietnam War, anti-colonial struggles, rampant (and sometimes justified) suspicion that anthropologists were CIA agents up to God knows what. In Taiwan, when Ruth and I were doing fieldwork in 1969-70, the first thing we did when arriving in Puli was report to the foreign affairs policeman (who seemed, in fact, a very pleasant person…but anyway). It was, moreover, still possible for people who talked too openly about certain topics to get a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Doing fieldwork in Taiwan in those years meant, among other things, being constantly aware that certain topics were off-limits. Traditional kinship and popular religion and ritual, fine; Taiwanese-mainlander relations, local views of **Guangfudalu** (“Recover the mainland!)…not OK. It isn’t hard for me to imagine that even including that footnote was, for Geertz, a rather daring act.

  8. For Geertz, culture is mainly psychological and personal.

    Much as I respect oneman, this is just plain wrong. In The Interpretation of Cultures Geertz explicitly contrasts his position that symbols are found in public behavior with public meanings to psychological approaches that equate culture with mental models (Ward Goodenough) or subconscious emotions (Culture and Personality studies influenced by Freud), thus making culture invisible or a theoretical artifact created by the observer. When he talks about culture as text, the text is fully material, like words printed in a book. The problem is to learn how to read them, not to decipher something else going on behind the scenes.

  9. I had meant to explain that more thoroughly and I forgot…

    Psychological was a sloppy choice of words — I don’t mean culture in Geertz’s world happens in the mind, or solely in the mind; it’s clearly an interactive phenomena. But it’s not *structural*, in the way that culture is in, say, Wolf’s — or, indeed, Roseberry’s — work. People take in and interpret symbols, and they “pass them around”, so to speak, but the process is strangely dissociated. I suppose Geertz would admit that the interpretive process is heavily determined by all sort of outside factors, but he rarely makes this a factor in his writing. So, for instance, there’s no sense of “interest” at work in Deep Play — whose interest is the peasant’s interpretation in, and how does it fulfill that interest, and what are the forces arrayed against that interpreetation, and how do they function? What happens when symbols are mis-interpreted (and can they be, in Geertz’s world)? In “Thick Description” we have some clue towards this, a case where symbols aren’t misinterpreted so much as not even recognized as symbols, but what about the Balinese peasant who sees in the cockfight the victor as dictatorial state and the losing cock as the Balinese peasant? How does this one of the multitude of possible interpretations become hegemonic in Geertz’s world? I agree that the problem is how to read them, but it seems to me that Geertz’s readings are rather too limited to the text, with too little consideration of how the reader is created, and how the reader happens to come before that particular text.

  10. I agree that the problem is how to read them, but it seems to me that Geertz’s readings are rather too limited to the text, with too little consideration of how the reader is created, and how the reader happens to come before that particular text.

    That makes a lot more sense, and, in my case, explains why, when I went looking for how to produce a thick description, I turned to Victor Turner.

  11. Is any of what Roseberry is saying new? Maybe no one took the time to write this about the Balinese Cockfight before, but don’t we know that already?

    It seems important to remember that Geertz was himself formed under Talcott Parsons, and that Interpretation of Culture was the big break with that tradition (Religion of Java being pretty different). Sure, we can find plenty of things wrong with it now, but it remains pretty incredible: Geertz proposes that the “ritual” of the cockfight is itself an interpretation of Balinese life, so the essay is the interpretation of an interpretation! He wasn’t going to lay it all out, drily…he was proposing a new kind of anthropology. But I don’t think that suggests he was ‘oblivious’ to what was going on around him, especially not if you consider that one essay in the context of the rest of his work on Morocco and on Indonesia.

    We may have moved away from the type of culturalism that ignores the political and economic context, but it seems pretty banal to point this out, at least in American anthropology (French anthropology being another story). If it seems that Geertz has less of an influence now, it’s because it has been a generation, and so many anthropologists have appropriated so much from Interpretation into their own micro-macro-political economy work.

  12. It’s not new *now*, but when Roseberry originally wrote the article, I think it was. Here’s the first footnote from the article as it appears in _Anthropologies and Histories_ (1989):

    During the 1980s, commentaries on the Balinese cockfight essay have become quite common, developing, for the most part, in apparent independence….At the time the original version of this chapter was published, in 1982, this academic industry was undeveloped. Unlike osme of the more recent commentaries, this essay is directed at a more political understanding of culture.

    I think, too, the goal of Kerim’s series is to provide links and explanations that may not be new to the discipline but are new to many non-anthropologists. ANd, of course the fact that we can still develop a pretty hearty discussion suggests that the issues raised by Geertz around the time I was born are still far from totally settled.

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