Shortly after the election, I taught “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” to my Anthropological Theory class, as I always do, at that point in the semester. By then we had covered “old ideas” – anthropologists who saw societies as bodies that successfully regulated themselves into homeostasis, cultures as cauldrons that take all that is natural and transform it into all that is social. Then, in the timeline of the history of anthropological thought, we consider the idea of culture as a manuscript, a palimpsest of layered stories, endlessly rich in meaning – stories that work both like horcruxes, where the soul of the culture is encoded, and as mirrors, reflecting how life is lived back to the ones that live it.
“The Balinese Cockfight” is, as every anthropologist knows, a classic article written in 1972 by Clifford Geertz, who observed cockfighting during his fieldwork in Indonesia. The cockfights are illegal but widespread, with cocks – roosters – serving as proxies for powerful men and their status competition. Geertz wrote that “the cockfight is the story the Balinese tell themselves about themselves.” When I teach this article, I always start the class by saying out loud what I’ve learned students are wondering and giggling about – I tell them, “yes, the whole article is basically one protracted dirty joke. Yes, he writes about cocks exactly for the reason you think. He even notes that the wordplay where a cock is both a rooster and a penis exists in Balinese just as it does in English.”
Intellectuals have an interesting critical relationship with archetypes, especially when they appear as instances of synecdoche – they are such concentrated semiotic clusters that when they are intentionally deployed in fiction, we are taught to read them as allegory.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.