In 1958, Clifford and Hildred Geertz arrived in a small Indonesian village of about five hundred.
Decolonisation had not yet raised questions about cultural exploitation, objectification and the othering of non-Western peoples. In a pre-globalised world, far-away locations still presented an attractive object of study for Western researchers, and so the Geertzes were about to conduct their fieldwork in Bali.
Despite a difficult start to the trip, Clifford Geertz ended up collecting data which allowed him to produce his seminal work — an essay titled “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”. It delights (and deludes) anthropology students to this day, and nearly a decade ago I was one of them, holding my breath while reading the opening paragraphs which recount being chased by police after attending an illegal cockfight.
Still, offending the law was not the most dangerous aspect of wagering on fighting birds. The animals fought in a battle for status, masculinity and money, both for the owners and those who bet on them. The cultural and symbolic significance of the gamble was huge (much greater than the financial one) and Geertz reached for a concept created by an 18th century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, to describe it: deep play.
Coining the term, Bentham had in mind a risk too great to be undertaken by any sensible person, and branded it undesirable and irrational. (He used gambling money and risking one’s wealth as a primary example). Geertz flipped his idea around and proposed that the higher the stakes, the greater the gamble’s value or significance, and “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence”.
The complicated game rules and intrinsic customs surrounding cockfighting in Bali made it one of the pillar of Balinese culture and community. According to Geertz, the game was made important and meaningful because of its symbolism and its place in the life of the villagers.
The idea of a high-stakes wager inspired the title of a climbing memoir by a British climber, Paul Pritchard. In his youth, he was often involved in the kind of trad or alpine climbing which can see the climber either topping out or dying (or, at the very least walking away with a serious injury). Pritchard saw deep play as a game in which no less than one’s life was on the line and, precisely because he had no death wish, it was this high wager which made the game meaningful.
As for myself, I am not much of a gambler and, especially when it comes to my health and life, I take a decidedly Benthamesque view on the matter — the returns are not worth the risk. At the same time, reading the preface to Pritchard’s book, I formed a very loose idea of what deep play could mean to me, and that the stakes could indeed be quite high.
Instead of wagering one’s life in the sense of risking its termination... read more now →