A Description and Analysis of Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (1973).
By Stuart Hardman
“Archimedes said that he could move the world if he could find a point whereon to rest his machine. Who has not felt the same aspirations…?”1 ([Wordsworth 1807] cited in Peritz 1993: 380)
This quote is from Wordsworth‟s supplementary note to “Ode: Intimations of Immorality.
In terms impact Geertz‟s (1973) collection of essays, The Interpretation of Cultures, marks a definite point of departure of the “interpretive” or” “literary turn” in contemporary anthropology (Bošković 2002: 1). “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (abbreviated to “Deep Play” from now on) (Geertz 1973: 412-453) as the last essay in this collection is a brilliant ethnographic example, in the essay form, of his theoretical shift from functionalism to interpretive anthropology. As such it has been characterised by being the site of sometimes heated and often polemical debates and is regarded as “indispensable reading for most of the anthropology courses throughout the world” (Bošković 2002: 1).
So as to explore why interpretive anthropology became popular when it did I situate Clifford Geertz's (1973) seminal essay within both the „historist‟ 2 and „presentist‟3 perspectives. Heretofore, in the „historicist‟ sense, I briefly explore Kuhn‟s (1962) notion of the paradigm, its impact on the social sciences and also the socio-political ferment in which it gained popularity. Then, in the „presentist‟ perspective, I analyse the descriptions, arguments and the meta narrative of the essay itself and refer principally to some theoretical developments in Dell Hymes‟s edited collection of essays, Reinventing Anthropology (1974), to show how Geertz‟s „thick description‟ was part of a ground swell of theoretical changes within anthropology and ultimately that “Deep Play” is very much more than an ethnographic essay about the Balinese villagers. It is also, I argue, exemplary of the overall theme of The Interpretation of Cultures (Geertz 1973), that is a theoretical shift towards interpretive anthropology. I conclude the discussion by reviewing three major criticisms (namely the posititivist, materialist and post modernist critiques respectively) of Geertz's (1973) essay and his Interpretive Anthropology over the years.
The historicist perspective was introduced to Anthropology by George Stocking (1965, 1992) and is an introduction of a second critique regarding the formulation of theories, namely not only the struggles within the discipline but also of the struggles around the discipline. Theoretical proclamations are therefore in this view embedded in the social milieu surrounding the discipline itself and not purely on factors within the discourse community or discipline (Kelly 2004) 3 The presentist perspective is an interpretation of the relevance of theoretical formulations of the past on present-day concerns within the discipline of Anthropology (Kelly 2004).
“down the rabbit hole”4
“Well! I‟ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It‟s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life!” (Carroll  1998).
Geertz's Interpretive anthropology is premised upon Saussurian semiology in which meaning (or representation) is possible, due to the arbitrariness of the sign, only within a “system of differences” (Boskovic 2005: 4). Meaning, therefore, can be interpreted because it is “only through differences that we are aware of different things, and [are] able to compare them” (Boskovic 2005: 4). Alice's, somewhat psychedelic, 'trip' into and subsequent adventures in Wonderland aptly demonstrates how signs are context specific. Geertz in his essay, “Deep Play,” responds to the „post colonial‟ fieldwork experience with an essentially constructionist theory of knowledge. This because it had become increasingly apparent to him that the ground supporting scientific positivism in the social sciences could no longer be imagined as „solid.‟ „Being There’5 The “epistemological” revolution in the social sciences was part of a growing conviction that questioned whether the natural science model of the classical period in anthropology was ever going to deliver on its lofty promises. This revolution was largely premised
Carroll, L. 1998. Aliice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Grosset and Dunlap Publishers. 5 „Being there‟ is a metonym for quite a few points of interest within this essay. Firstly the anthropological method of participant observation is premised upon the somatised presence of the individual field researcher among the subjects, as well as within their meaning frameworks. It is also about „being there‟ in the text because a constructionist standpoint necessitates an authorial presence in the text itself. This is contrary to the author vacated narrative style as followed by the empirical science model which presupposes a firm footing upon which the construction of knowledge can impel itself. In Works and Lives (Geertz 1988) Geertz analyses the construction of ethnographic validity through various narrative styles. His own narrative style implicitly acknowledges a constructionist theory of the construction of knowledge in “Deep Play” which in this essay I argue was necessitated by an increased need for reflexivity on the part of the ethnographer/anthropologist. In addition to this in this essay the presentist and historicist perspectives shift the analysis to the historical and contemporaneous disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and socio-political ferment within which Geertz‟s new theoretical pronouncements were postulated and became popular. „Being there‟ in this sense sensitises the analysis to factors outside of the academic discipline of anthropology and allows us to explore links between the society and the discipline of anthropology which is in keeping with the overall theme of this essay, namely a shift toward a constructionist theory of knowledge within anthropology. The last reference that I want to introduce here is that of the novel Being There by Jerzy Kosinki (1971). This is discussed in footnote 7 (which follows directly).
upon an interpretation of Thomas Kuhn‟s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which “seemed to provide a blueprint for reconstitution any practice as a science” (Fuller 1992: 241).6
Fuller (1994) sardonically compares Thomas Kuhn with the ambivalently comical Chance or Chauncey Gardner (played by late Peter Sellers in his last role) from the film Being There (1979) (one of my favourite films). The book (1971) and the screenplay for the film of the same title were both written by Jerzy Kosinski. Fuller uses this comparison because Kuhn is notorious for disavowing most of the consequences wrought by his text insofar as these consequences have appeared “radical” and “anti-positivist” (Fuller 1994: 241). The central character of the film Being There, Chance who later is mistakenly called Chauncey Gardner, is the ward of a wealthy Washingtonian recluse. In the beginning of the movie, Chance, a kindly man of childlike simplicity, is cast out onto the streets of Washington following the death of his employer. After a secluded life of gardening and watching television Chance is thrust into a new world in which he cannot „find his feet‟. Almost everything he does in the film is a subject to misunderstanding. For example his references to gardening are misinterpreted as sage-like economic pontifications and his references to television, „I like to watch‟, as a kinky a sexual innuendo (Rothschild 1988: 57-59). These misunderstandings are poetically interpreted and reinterpreted by the other protagonists in the film as Taoist-like koans until he is eventually put forward as a candidate for the presidency of the United States at the end of the film. Herein lies the comic element of the film (besides a fairly blatant comment on the American Political system), Chauncey (Chances public persona) never quite realises what it is that he is saying that makes all the bigwigs hold him in such high regard. His periodic protestations relating to his mistaken identity are, needless to say, ignored or reinterpreted. It is significant that his obscure past and peculiar manner (in which his attention is child-like because he is totally engaged with the present and in this world of surfaces he is interpreted as being pure and innocent) are glossed over by all the protagonists of the misunderstanding. For a wonderful analysis of the novel I recommend Herbert B. Rothschild, Jr‟s (1988) Jerzy Kosinski‟s “Being There: Coriolanus” in Post Modern Dress. Rothschild (1988) suggests that Kosinski intended for us to regard Chance as a biblical “Adam, a prehistorical, pre-self-conscious being” who is expelled form “the garden” (i.e. the Garden of Eden) (Rothschild 1988: 54). What makes Kosinski‟s American Adam, Chance, an interesting protagonist is the analysis of the character‟s self reflective consciousness through his love for “the garden” and television. For Chance, “[s]witching channels is like wandering in the garden, defying temporal sequence and isolating [himself] in a reality without ethical structure” (Ibid). He goes on to suggest that the protagonist “[i]n his manifestation as Chance the gardener, he embodies our vestigial consciousness of undifferentiated existence. In his manifestation as Chauncey Gardner he seems a completed being, the end of longing. The in-between state, the realm of becoming, the domain of history and ethics has been finessed. The possibility of that act of avoidance, that jump from undifferentiation to self-completion, is the illusion of freedom in advanced capitalistic societies” (Ibid: 62). This is exemplified in the character of Rand‟s delight in taking Chance‟s metaphor a „gardener‟ to be a perfect description of a „real businessman‟ (Ibid: 59). As the following analysis reiterates: “Onto Chance‟s undivided language Rand projects his desire to view his activities as primarily undivided. For him, momentarily, advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from subsistence agriculture: no division of labour, no
“Kuhn discuss[ed]… the special character of the scientific community, …converting cognitive virtues into moral ones, qualities of understanding to qualities of trust. Thus in the place of scientists holding beliefs on the basis of defeasible evidence, Kuhn finds scientists committed to a vision of reality on the basis of intuitive judgement (Fuller 1992: 260).
The goals of understanding and partial truths therefore began to seem more realistic than explanation and prediction. The socio-political turmoil of the sixties was also a catalyst for this apparent paradigmatic shift. In this atmosphere of academic reflexivity the connections between the academy and the larger society began to be consciously explored. Penetrating questions about the ethics of America‟s societal values7 and the legitimacy of political authority8 inevitably spread to a scrutiny of previously unexamined assumptions in New Criticism9 in the humanities and, simultaneously, within Anthropology in the social
division of interests, no division of ethical claims. Kosinski‟s joke on Rand undercuts Rand‟s brief for capitalism and the desire to escape history and ethics that has lain at the heart of the capitalist apologetic from its beginnings” (Ibid: 59). What interests me here is that for the ethnographer it is the world of relationships (or intersubjectivity), not a world of being that must be the grounds for the production of knowledge. In such a world to eliminate relativity is tantamount to destroying it altogether (Ibid: 53). In his interpretive anthropology it is Geertz the ethnographer who “commits himself to a condition of becoming, with all its attendant risks” (Ibid) with regard to the validity of knowledge. This is because it is only a social science which is committed to reflexively analysing power, history and ethics which can survive in a 'post modern' (and post-colonial) world. 7 Sewell (1997) compares Cliffod Geertz with Ruth Benedict for their social and moral philosophical involvement in current social problems (within the U.S.A) (Sewell 1997: 35). 8 This era is characterised by the ending of the MCcarthy era and the start of the into the Kennedy era. 9 Geertz, as we can see in Interpretation of Cultures (1973), was influenced by Kenneth Burke who‟s insight that “wherever you find a doctrine of „nonpolitical‟ [a]esthetics affirmed with fervor, look for its politics” ([Burke 1969: 28] cited in Clifford 1987: 6) suggests the ethos of behind this apparent ground swell which swept through Academia, at least within the Humanities in America. Clifford (1987) argues that Burke was also reacting to “[t]he public loss of faith in America‟s institutional values [which] had a ripple effect that eventually found its way into the university, casting doubt on the neutrality and ethical status of our critical and rhetorical dogma [in English Studies]. In retrospect, the flood of theoretical articles and books in both fields during this time is cogently explained by Elizabeth Bruss‟ observation that theories proliferate only when established rationales are in doubt, when traditional guidelines have broken down. Bruss goes on to list the social causes for this disenchantment: a sense of personal isolation, frustration with aloof social structures, mysterious politics and a valueless technological pursuit of mastery. She notes that intellectuals were suspicious of “fixed hierarchies, received traditions and covert understandings of all
sciences. Geertz, because he had started out in the humanities (English and Philosophy), was perfectly situated, as a scholar, to take full of advantage of the turmoil around him. The „literary turn‟ in anthropology caused “in Foucault‟s sense, a rupture - not simply a sudden leap in thinking but a radically new way of looking at knowledge” (Clifford 1987: 6). In Local Knowledge (1983) Geertz “clearly explains that he is not interested in cultural understanding alone - ethnographic understanding of a Balinese custom, say” (Kleine 1990: 4). Geertz instead, as we can see in The Interpretation of Culture (1973), “began to explore, hermeneutically, a new country: the nature of understanding itself” (Ibid). In his quest to understand understanding, Geertz joins other social constructionists in asserting that knowledge is socially constructed by means of human discourse, and that knowledge is inter-subjective and dynamic rather than objective and static”
has helped map the changes that 'postmodern' life and thought have entailed. As an articulate scholar whose work transcends the boundaries of his own discipline, he is also a self-conscious stylist who has been insistent on his call to confront that “divorce between sense and sensibility” (Geertz 2000: 41).
“Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” „Focusing on the text.‟
The polemical title of The Interpretation Cultures (Geertz 1973), contrary to many of his statements subsequently, suggests a rejection of general theorising about culture, and a rejection too of broad comparative claims. This is because the overall theme of the book,
sorts” (Bruss 1982: 18). It is not hard to see explicit parallels between these social grievances and the discourse of English studies in 1965” (Clifford 1987: 6).
“Developing such a discourse is, as Bakhtin notes, not a project for a single voice, crying in the wilderness: “Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker‟s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated - with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one‟s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process” (Bakhtin 1981: 294)” (Clifford 1987: 6).
as mentioned earlier, is of a transition from functionalism to semiotics. Geertz's Interpretive Anthropology finds a bridging aphorism in stating that symbols in cultural behaviour are “models of” culture rather than “models for” culture ([Geertz, 1973: 89123] cited in Gusfeld and Michalowicz 1984: 427). In other words, from a cultural standpoint, symbolic activities represent performances and representations expressing perceptions of social life (Ibid). They however do not necessarily affect behaviour (Ibid). Symbols therefore provide the “basic categories for recognising, expressing and understanding society” (Ibid).
Functionalism in this view lacks depth in particularity about why cultures differ. As Levi-Strauss has remarked in his famous critique of the functionalist theories of totemism: “natural species are chosen not because they are good to eat, but because they are good to think [with]” ([Levi-Strauss, 1963: 89] cited in Gusfeld and Michalowicz 1984: 427). Geertz argues that functionalism is a reductive formula that cannot professes to account the substance of phenomena (Geertz 1973: 453). Throughout “Deep Play” he compares functionalist explanations to symbolic interpretations. To this end he sets up the ethnographic site as a perfect model for a standard functionalist monograph: “A small [Balinese town], about five hundred people, and relatively remote, it was its own world” (Geertz 1973: 412).
Then - while describing the difficulties he and his wife (Hildred Geertz) experienced prior to 'breaking the ice' with their ethnographic subjects, he hints that he rejects psychological understandings too (Geertz 1973: 413) He does so when states that he has never, in psychological terms, been quite able to fathom the crossing of “some moral or metaphysical shadow line” into inter-subjectivity (i.e. friendship/rapport) (Geertz 1973: 413). Earlier, in the opening essay of the collection: “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” he argued that the theory of culture proposed as in “ethnoscience, componential analysis or cognitive anthropology, [which] holds that culture is composed of psychological structures by means of which individuals or groups of individuals guide their behaviour, [is] the main source of theoretical muddlement in contemporary anthropology [circa 1973]” (Ibid: 11). He argues that the cognitivist aim to
analyse these psychological structures by the “formal methods similar to those of mathematics and logic”…is as destructive…use of a concept as are the behaviourist and idealist fallacies to which it is a misdrawn correction” (Ibid).
Criticisms of functional, cognitivist and structural theoretical issues implicitly lurk in the under tow of Geertz's thick prose and link the meta-narrative of the essay to the aforementioned theme of the collection of essays. Geertz's critique of Structuralism will be introduced later after a describing of the police raid, the events preceding it and the Geertz's reaction to it. This serves in “Deep Play” to highlight the some of problems inherent in conducting fieldwork in a post-colonial situation. I‟ll get back to those issues directly after describing the police raid.
At their first cockfight, while in the crowd, Geertz describes how he and his wife were “fused into a single body around the ring, a superorganism in the literal sense” (Ibid: 414). Then upon the arrival of the police they instinctively acted as a member of that „superorganism‟ by joining in “[a]s its components scattered in all directions” (Ibid). Later they again sided with the villagers against a police interrogator when they pretended, along with the inhabitants of a household who were also escaping from the police, not to have been at the cockfight (Ibid). Only after this enactment (or performance) of their “solidarity” (Ibid: 416) with the villagers against a „common enemy‟ was the village was a “completely different world” for them (Ibid). In performing meaningful acts they were instantly transformed from “non-entit[ies],” into accepted members of village life. (Ibid: 414). It is “rapport” achieved in this public fashion which is posited by Geertz as allowing him a “kind of immediate, inside-view grasp of an aspect of peasant mentality” (Ibid: 416).
Among the issues which are implicit in the events described above are firstly, the performativity of the act of solidarity. Geertz later on calls cockfights “an example of ...Burke‟s definition of a symbolic act, as “the dancing of an attitude,”” (Ibid: 451). Describing their acceptance as being achieved through this same kind of performitivity, I feel, is part of Geertz‟s cunning. Using this example in such a way foregrounds his later
emphasis of how social acceptance is gained through performitivity. Prior to this fortuitous event the lack of social acceptance of the ethnographers would have posed major problems for research premised upon participant observation.
Secondly, it follows that this passage of events also serves to highlight the difficulties of conducting objective research in the post-colonial milieu. The problem of access to ethnographic subjects is addressed within the essay. Geertz shows that the Balinese villagers, as ethnographic subjects, were exercising their agency. They had detailed and accurate knowledge of his identity and his project and showed this effectively by conspiring to conceal that knowledge from him. This changed only after the police raid.
The agency of ethnographic subjects is directly linked some of the reasons why functionalism has come under criticism. The hegemonic fashion in which a positivist theory of the construction of knowledge deprives the subjects of ethnographic research representation is addressed by Geertz in “Deep Play”. A few of those issues will be introduced at this point by linking them to arguments introduced by Dell Hymes' (1974) collection of essays entitled Reinventing Anthropology. Hymes (1974), in Reinventing Anthropology, explains that “scientific colonialism is a process whereby the center of gravity for acquisition of knowledge about a people is located elsewhere” ([Hymes, 1974: 49] cited in Kleine 1990: 5)). In other words, anthropologists who study alien cultures in an effort to know about them must inevitably construct that knowledge within the discourses of their own cultures (Ibid). Thus what traditional anthropologists know about the knowledge of the natives is known not through the discourse studied but through a meta-discourse with the natives and ultimately through a written discourse with other colonial scientists (Ibid). In terms of the colonization metaphor traditional anthropologists, despite good-intentions and correctives like triangulation, end up exporting and distributing their own versions of the native knowledge that they study, and in doing so they distort it (Ibid). Hymes (1974) suggests that because traditional anthropology is a colonial institution, “each anthropologist must
reinvent it, as a general field for him or herself‟ ([Hymes, 1974: 48] cited in Kleine 1990: 5). In “Up the Anthropologist- Perspectives Gained from Studying Up,” also in Hymes (1974), Laura Nader suggests that the kind of scientific colonialism that concerns Hymes is the result of a power imbalance between anthropologists and natives (Kleine 1990: 6). In “Deep Play” Geertz says that after the police raid the villagers asked why they had not “simply pulled out their distinguished visitor status passes” (Geertz 1973: 416). This clearly shows that the villagers have a sense of the power structures involved with the ethnography being undertaken. As a corrective Nader (1974) suggested that anthropologists begin to study “up” (Kleine 1990: 6). She points out that when anthropologists begin to study “up,” they quickly discover that they are relatively powerless and that participant observation becomes difficult, if not impossible (Ibid). Before moving onto the “thick description” of the Balinese cockfight, I will outline Geertz‟s criticisms of structuralism as this 'sets the scene' for his interpretive model because, as Geertz would argue, knowing the limits of knowledge is still a form of knowledge. In “Deep Play” Geertz says that “Levi-Strauss‟ Structuralism is not the same thing” as symbolic or interpretive anthropology (Ibid: 449). Instead of using myths, totem rites, marriage rules, etc. “as texts to interpret, Levi-Strauss takes them as ciphers to solve, which is very much not the same thing” (Ibid). Geertz argues that Levi-Strauss seeks not to
“understand symbolic forms in terms of how they function in concrete situations to organise perceptions (meanings, emotions, concepts and attitudes); [instead] he seeks to understand them entirely in terms of their internal structure” (Ibid)
Geertz argued that “culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviors, institutions, or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context, something they can be intelligibly – that is thickly described” (Ibid: 14). The analysis of culture, he
argues, is not an “experimental science in search of law but an interpretive on in search of meaning” (Ibid). Levi-Strauss‟ Structuralism raises new issues precisely because it is not predicated on the ethnographic research. In “Anthropology in Question” Stanley Diamond argues that both anthropologist and native are victims of “contemporary, imperial civilization” ([Hymes 1974: 401] cited in Klein 1990: 7)). Diamond associates the scientific relativism of Claude Levi-Strauss with a dehumanizing social discourse (Ibid). Levi-Strauss reduces his subjects to objects by claiming objective structural knowledge of alien cultures (Ibid). Diamond argues that when this happens the anthropologist is also reduced to an object (Ibid). As a result, he or she too becomes an alienated victim (Ibid). In other words, Diamond believes that “objective” structural anthropology is a dehumanizing construct of our own civilization that must be radically critiqued:
“Unless the anthropologist confronts his own alienation, which is only a special instance of a general condition, and seeks to understand its roots, and subsequently matures as a relentless critic of his own civilization, the very civilization which objectifies man, he cannot understand or even recognize himself in the other or the other in himself.” ([Hymes 1975: 40] cited in Klein 1990: 7).
Having commented on the meta-discourse, which addresses Geertz's criticisms of functionalism, cognitivism and structuralism, it should be evident that Geertz‟s 'thick descriptions' and doubly 'thick'. He is able to critique other theories and increase our understanding of another culture in one, excuse the pun but it is irresistible and intended, „fowl‟ swoop! Now “in” (i.e. having achieved a degree of intersubjectivity) Geertz could set about writing about the semiotics of the Balinese cockfight. His method, “thick description”, had been theoretically premised in the opening chapter of The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). What is important about Geertz‟s “thick description” is that it positions the ethnographer, through the cockfight, to look at Balinese life “as the Balinese themselves do – also through the medium of its cockfight” (Geertz 1973: 452). Geertz saw the other
models or theories of cultural analysis as “intrinsically incomplete” (Ibid: 29). He argued that:
turning culture into folklore and collecting it, turning it into traits and counting it, turning it into institutions and classifying it, turning it into structures and toying with it…are escapes. The fact is that to commit oneself to a semiotic concept of culture and an interpretive approach to the study of it is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as… „essentially contestable.‟ Anthropology, or at least interpretive anthropology, is a science whose progress is marked less by a perfection of the consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other.” (Ibid)
This statement is premised an earlier and now famous statement on his understanding of culture:
“Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expression on their surface enigmatical.” (Ibid: 5)
This clearly shows that he believes the aim of anthropological inquiry, and its representation in ethnography, is the understanding of the local forms and frames of understanding, the symbolic codes and meaningful conventions that make life possible. “Thick Description” is a term borrowed by Geertz from Gilbert Ryle to describe and define the aim of interpretive anthropology (Ibid: 6). Starting from the assumption that culture is based on the symbols that guide community behaviour and that those very symbols obtain meaning from the role which they play in the patterned behaviour of social life, “thick description” is developed by looking at both the whole culture and the parts of the culture (such as laws). They cannot be studied separately because of the intertwined nature of culture and behaviour. By analyzing culture, one develops a “thick description” of a culture which details „what the natives think they are up to.‟ This “thick description” is therefore an interpretation of what the natives are thinking, made by an outsider who cannot think like a native (Murphy 2005).
Thick description is possible because, as Geertz argued, “Culture is public because meaning is” (Ibid: 12). Meanings are therefore the collective property of a particular people. We cannot discover what is of significance for a culture or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “[w]e cannot find our feet with them.” (Ibid: 13). The ethnographer must therefore attempt to grasp and interpret those meanings by striving to understand how and why behaviour is shaped in particular contexts, and not others. This can best be achieved through participant observation (i.e. being there). What Geertz's penetrating analysis of the Balinese villagers‟ social milieu shows them to be is contrary to what they appear to based upon surface appearances. On the surface the Balinese villagers appear as “the world‟s most poised people” and who in mutual social friendships tend to be “warm, gay, sensitive, sympathetic, though being Balinese, always precisely controlled” (Ibid: 413). What the Balinese imaginatively experience is however what Goffman (1961) has termed “a status bloodbath” (Ibid: 436). It is because of “the Balinese talent for practical fantasy... [that] the blood ...spilled is only figuratively human” (Ibid). Geertz calls this status hierarchy “[a] peculiar fusion of Polynesian title ranks and Hindu castes” in which “the hierarchy of pride is the moral backbone of the society” (Ibid: 447). “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, is then a “thick description” which sets out to primarily describe how the Balinese villages make sense (or imaginatively feel) their frameworks of status hierarchy. Geertz, in this regard, says that “[t]o connect – and connect, and connect – the collision of roosters with the divisiveness of status is to invite a transfer of perceptions from the latter, a transfer which is at once a description and a judgement” (Ibid: 448). This is possible because the cockfight is a significant symbol in which the rules that govern behaviour are discernable to the outsider through observing the behaviour of the participants. This observed behaviour is not arbitrary; it is thickly coded by rules experienced as sentiments by the Balinese villagers. Reading these codes like texts, the anthropologist is able to gain access into the meaning frameworks of the Balinese villagers. Geertz can therefore describe the cultural institutions and
sentiments that would otherwise be hidden through interpreting the experiences and behaviours of the Balinese villagers and linking them to the contingent contexts in which these actions are meaningful. The Balinese, Geertz also shows, live their life in a different temporal „atmosphere‟ than (it is presumed) most westerners do:
“Life [for them] …is less a flow, a directional movement out of the past, through the present, toward the future than an on-off pulsation of meaning and vacuity, an arrhythmic alteration of short periods when “something (that is, something significant) is happening, and equally short ones where “nothing” …is [happening]” (Ibid: 445).
The cockfight, for Geertz, is not “an imitation of the punctuateness of Balinese social life, nor a depiction of it, nor even an expression of it; it is an example of it, carefully prepared” (Ibid: 446). He therefore describes the cockfight as a kind of “sentimental education” which shows what “the cultures ethos and his private sensibility...[would] look like when spelled out externally in a collective text” (Ibid: 449). Benthams concept of “deep play,” which describes “play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all” (Ibid: 432), is the key in the essay which opens lock to reading the cockfight as a significant text to be thickly described. Viewed in utilitarian or functionalist terms the actual behaviour of the participants would simply seem irrational. However when thickly described in context, the behaviour of the bettors reveals they are not irrational. As Geertz says:
“the cockfight is … deliberately made to be a ...simulation of the social matrix, the involved system of cross-cutting, overlapping, highly corporate groups – villages, kin groups, irrigation societies, temple congregations, “castes” – in which its devotees live. And as prestige, the necessity to affirm it, defend it, celebrate it, justify it, and just plain bask in it (but not given the strong ascriptive character of Balinese stratification, to seek it), it is perhaps the central driving force in the society, so also – ambulant penises, blood sacrifices, and monetary exchanges aside – is it of the cockfight”. (Ibid: 436).
The evidence for this is displayed through “the graduated correlation of “status gambling” with “deeper fights,” in contrast to ““money gambling” with shallower ones. …. Bettors themselves form a sociomoral hierarchy in these terms.” (Ibid: 435). Therefore reading the sociomoral hierarchy through the dramatisation of status concerns becomes possible and Geertz cites many of the rules showing this. The rules cited range from “1) A man virtually never bets against a cock owned by a member of his own kin group…[to] …17) Finally, the Balinese peasants ...[are aware of the activation of]... village and kin group rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form” (Ibid: 437-440). Geertz therefore has ingeniously shown that the „function‟ of the cockfight is interpretive “it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves” (Geertz 1973: 448). He has done this by avoiding all the pit falls of the methods which that he earlier critiqued. He also argues that his method is applicable in western cultures too when he states that the cockfight allows the Balinese individual, as art does for us, to “see dimension his own subjectivity [often] with their bodies as with their eyes” (Ibid: 451). It is “an example of ...Burke‟s definition of a symbolic act as “the dancing of an attitude”” (Ibid). Therefore to understand the Balinese as only “enveloped in etiquette, a thick cloud of euphemism and ceremony, gesture and illusion,” is to partially misunderstand them, for “[j]ealousy is as much part of Bali as poise, envy as grace, brutality as charm” (Ibid: 447). Without “the slaughter in the ring... a depiction of how they imaginatively are” (Ibid: 446-7) to themselves would be less complete. “Literary Turns, Slippery Bends”11 Having completed the textual analysis of “Deep Play” I now to discuss three major theoretical positions from which Geertz's essay, and interpretive model, have been criticised.
(Handelman 1994: 341)
Firstly the positivists have criticised him for “abandoning the scientific values of predictability, replicability, verifiability and law-generating capacity” ([Shankman 1984] in Sewell 1997: 35) in favour of the more “glamorous” and “alluring” qualities of the interpretive method (Ibid). Many believe that Geertz stands or falls on his style of expression. For example Colson (1975) argues that “[h]is anthropology is an art, not a science” (Colson 1975: 637) and that he is therefore not a good model for lessor talent anthropologists. Still other apologists see an important place for „humanistic anthropologists‟ descended from the „idealist‟ tradition in anthropology (Boas, Benedict, Sapir). Although I agree that Geertz‟s style is a significant factor in his authority, I believe for a scientist authority is the key – placing this authority beyond criticism doesn't solve anything. I find the interpretive versus scientific polemic unconvincing because “[r]ealising that interpretation and judgement are inherent in all science, [Feyerabend] advocates more criticism – not the construction of interpretive analyses that are beyond criticism” (O‟Mera 1989: 359). Besides all this, describing himself as an “inveterate fox,”(Ede 1992: 5) I believe, with O‟Mera (1989), that Geertz often distorts the English language with euphemisms, “circumlocutions and his programmatic statements to the contrary, however, Geertz gives believable explanations of much of Balinese behaviour” (O‟Mera 1989: 364). Secondly the materialists have criticised him for neglecting history, power and social conflict (e.g. Roseberry 1982; Asad 1989). Marxism however reflects historically specific Western assumptions about material and economic needs and therefore cannot be properly applied to non-Western societies in which utilitarianism has not become as dominant ([Sahlins 1976; Spencer 1996: 538] cited in Murphy 2005).
Lastly, for the purposes of this discussion, the postmodernists have accused him of not pushing his own interpretive ethnographies to critical interpretation (e.g. [Crapanzano] in Clifford and Marcus (eds) (1986); Clifford 1988; etc.) (Sewell 1997: 35). Handelman (1994) in his brilliant essay, “Critiques of Anthropology: Literary Turns and Slippery Bends,” argues that disciplines in the humanities, hungry for theory and power, have called into question “the very game of anthropology” ([Spivak commenting of Lavie
(1990)] cited in Handelman 1994: 365). He however insists that ethnography or „being there‟ is what marks anthropology apart not only from the humanities but also other social sciences (Ibid: 366). In other words anthropological research necessarily starts with somatic experiences and should therefore resist usurpation from disciplines solely predicated on existing texts, like history and cultural criticism. The power of history and literary theory to unconditionally deconstruct ethnographic practices arises out of their “ability to appropriate the past, turning objects into subjects… [- his] temporal displacement [empowers them] to master the past” (Ibid). For anthropology to be able to deconstruct itself from within, a move away from synchronic models (e.g. functionalism), increased historical sensitivity and an increased focus on textuality have been necessary. To this end I believe that Geertz‟s work has rather saved anthropology than opened the door to so called „postmodernism‟ which will lead to the demise of anthropology. The following quotation highlights how the post modernist tendency to extend reflexivity to its logical extreme has its own attendant problems:
“A postmodern anthropologist is interviewing her informant. [F]inally the informant says: „Okay, that‟s enough about you; now‟ let‟s talk about me.‟” (Goldman-Segall 1995: 3).
This discussion has, I trust, shown how and why “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” has become a seminal work of ethnographic writing. Geertz, with his dense and prosaic writing style, has drawn attention to subtle meta-discourses and the issues they raised within contemporary anthropology at that time. He is the master of the caress as opposed to the push – where, as Emmanuel Levinas describes, the caress is a nonobjectifying gesture (Crosswhite 1992: 15). Geertz‟s work is an example of how to hold the tension between the absolute objectification of positivism and the collapse into “postmodernism” and its paralyzing relativism. He is an anti-anti-relativist who believes that "if we wanted home truths, we should have stayed at home." (Geertz 2000: 65). Words: 6372 (excluding references) References:
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