Animal Studies Bibliography

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (pp. 412-453). New York : Basic Books.

The cockfight is central to Balinese life. Balinese men have very close attachment with their cocks (same pun in Balinese as in English), spending significant amounts of time in their care. Cock terminology is applied to everything in Balinese culture, from political events to individual personalities. The Balinese have a strong fear and hatred for anything animal-like, and as such the men's identification with the cocks is both an exaggeration of the male ego and a connection to the feared. As such, cockfights are used in all festivals, with the cocks' blood offered to pacify evil spirits. The cockfight and care for the cocks are surrounded by both melodrama and elaborate rules enacted by umpires. The rules and rulings are never debated. The activity at the cockfight centers around the practice of gambling. Gambling involves large sums bet between owners of the cocks in the fight (larger bets indicating the match will be even) and smaller bets placed among onlookers (unbalanced bets more likely in even matches). The more interesting the match, the larger the center bet, but the money involved is not what makes the match interesting. These matches are deep, borrowed from Bentham's concept of deep play. Deep play according to Bentham was play in which all parties netted more pain than pleasure and was therefore immoral and should be illegal. The high-center-bet cockfight is deep play, but not because of the money involved. Instead, at stake is status (esteem, honor, dignity, respect), though only temporarily. No one actually changes status as a result of a cockfight--the win or loss serves only as a fleeting affirmation or insult to one's existing status. Thus the cockfight simulates the hierarchical social system of villages, kingroups, etc. It is fundamentally a dramatization of status concerns (437). Evidence for this thesis can be found in the betting, which always goes along with ones group's side of the fight, in the fact that every fight is sociologically relevant (represents some groups that are actually in opposition), and in people's greater interest in the matches with larger central bets. Since only men have social status, women and children do not participate in cockfighting. The cockfight can this be understood as playing with fire without getting burned (440). The Balinese stir up latent social hostilities through each cockfight, may at times overturn them for a moment if the underdog's cock wins, but since it is only a game, the real hierarchy is not threatened. The cockfight is as close as they can come to starting real aggressions between groups. We can further understand the cockfight as an art form which, as do all art forms, makes the social order comprehensible to members of the culture, and deals with important cultural themes like masculinity, death, and luck. The cockfight's main purpose, then, is to display social passions (444). The Balinese love of cockfights is particularly interesting since it is a highly aggressive sport, whereas the Balinese in all other aspects of their culture avoid any conflict. Understanding the cultural products like the cockfight as about storytelling, we can see the cockfight as how the Balinese portray themselves to themselves, imagining themselves as aggressive and vicious, a transfer which is at once both a description and a judgment (448). Thus it is not just about reinforcing status (there's no need for that) but rather an interpretation of the existing system. The cockfight serves as sentimental education, the way people learn the values and passions of their culture. Because of this role, the cockfight and other art forms both reflect existing sensibilities and recreate/perpetuate them. The cockfight is not the key to Balinese culture, nor is its meaning unchallenged by other Balinese cultural practices/texts. We must understand it as part of the collection of cultural practices that make up Balinese life; that is the only way to understand the individual practice or the culture.


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