Précis for "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" (Geertz 1973)

When Clifford Geertz and his wife first arrived in Bali, they were largely ignored by the villagers. This continued until the day of a raid on an illegal cockfight that they were attending. They ran and hid with a Balinese man and his wife, and when the police came to investigate, the man covered for them. After this incident, Geertz was widely accepted into the community, but beyond that, he had been made aware of the central importance of the cockfight itself.

In Bali, the cocks are only fighting symbolically--they are stand-ins for their trainers. The idea of a man being attached to his cock is a deliberate double entendre on Geertz’ part. The cocks are seen as extensions of the bodies of the men who own them. Balinese moral language is full of rooster images. Men are deeply attached to their cocks, taking great care of them, feeding them special food, spending time with them, grooming them and so on. The birds are also seen as the embodiment of what the Balinese see as the opposite of humanity--animality. The Balinese revile animalistic behavior, and so by identifying with a cock, the Balinese man is also identifying with what he most hates and fears. In this way, cockfighting is a blood sacrifice to these demons of animality, and they precede temple festivals and holidays in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. 

As you might expect of a practice that is so important to a people, the cockfight is highly controlled and tightly planned. Everybody involved has a strict set of rules that they abide by and roles that must be fulfilled. So the cockfight is at once a raging ball of animal chaos and a deeply regulated sociological entity. This defines the cockfight in the larger sense for Geertz.

Betting is central to the cockfight and just as deeply regulated as the rest of it. There are primary bets (between competitors) and side bets (between spectators). The primary bets are always even money, while the odds for side bets will change based on the amount of the primary bet. As the primary bet rises--the reasoning goes--the more likely it is that the match is in fact an even one, so the side bets go towards the short end of the spectrum. Matches with larger primary best are more interesting for everyone involved, and Geertz (borrowing a term from Bentham) terms these matches as “deep,” meaning that they involve a greater cost for the loser. 

The cost is not only monetary, however. Money in these bets is seen as a sort of stand-in for moral importance--status or prestige. Losing a cockfight is much like receiving a particularly nasty insult and losing a chunk of money as well. The stakes involved increase the meaningfulness of the fights, since everyone involved (both directly and indirectly) likely has some stake in the success of failure of a particular bird. Outside betters almost never bet against the cock of someone they are allied with or associated with, and are obligated to vote for the birds of their friends and family. Thus, the cockfight can be seen as a dramatization and embodiment of wider social dramas in Balinese life.

Two factors determine the “depth” of a match: 1. If the match is between near-status equals (and/or personal enemies) and 2. if the match is between high status individuals. The deeper the match, the higher the stakes for everyone involved, and the less the gambling becomes about money, and more about status.

Despite these high emotional stakes and drama, no one’s status ever changes as the direct result of a cockfight. The cockfight is a metaphor and a stand-in for the struggles going on in everyday social life. It displays social conflicts and tension. It transfers the selves of the men involved into their cocks, lending a sense of gravity to the fights, which Geertz sees as expressive of something unsettling in the way the Balinese live, or who they are. The fights are quick, isolated events, much in the same way that Balinese life is felt to be made up of short, isolated periods of “fullness” and “emptiness.” Even as it imitates Balinese life, its violence and brutality contradict it. It paints Balinese society as what it most does not want to be.

The fights are about social status and status relationships. The fights tell people that these relationships are matters of life and death. The cocks themselves represent everything evil and nasty to the Balinese, and placed in the context of the everyday, they are a reminder of what lies beneath every man and his social status. Cockfighting provides a metaphorical commentary on the whole practice of social stratification in Bali.

So it could be reasoned that cockfighting is an art form, an expressive use of human action. Geertz compares it to a text, one that can be analyzed and understood. He extends this notion, equating all aspects of culture to texts, with the culture as a whole being an “assemblage of texts.” 

Cockfighting benefits from this analysis in that this analysis brings into light its central feature--that it uses emotion for cognitive ends. Viewed over and over as either a central or sideline participant, the cockfight imparts its message, and simultaneously perpetuates it.

While cockfighting is not the only message or story that the Balinese tell themselves about themselves, it is an important one. Societies have these stories about themselves, and their own ways of seeing them. We, as anthropologists, must seek to access them.


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