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. When an archetype is virtually merged with that which it signifies, to the point of word slippage around a homonym, we have critical skills training to acknowledge that a point is being made, and symbolically exaggerated, for effect. I am afraid that critical perspective, where our eye is trained to see exaggeration for symbolic purpose, spills over into “reading” (the way Geertz, who thought of culture as a manuscript that had to be “read”) real culture, real life – when the cesspool from which the ugliest archetypal values arise is rendered legible and transparent, we don’t register that it’s not exaggerated representation for effect, that it’s not a literary device.
If the narrative of this election were written as a short story, with actual events and quotes worked into the plot, an English class somewhere would analyze it as a feminist commentary – where the sexism of mainstream society is made visible through ongoing instances of explicit phallocentrism. They would write five-paragraph essays and, as the three examples, required by the five-paragraph essay format, they would point to Trump bragging about the size of his penis, the accusation so many women, myself included, experienced that we were voting “with our vaginas,” and the fact that at the last, crucial moment before the election, it was Anthony Weiner’s, pardon my technical term, dick pics, that triggered Comey’s announcement about the re-opening of the investigation. The man could not have been more appropriately named if we were in a medieval morality play (and at times it felt like we were). They would write in the conclusion that through these explicit, and perhaps hyperbolic examples, the author aims to make visible the underlying sexism of our political discourse and praxis.
Except this is not a short story. This is not hyperbole. This is what actually happened in this election. Each of those three examples is real – it does not “stand” for anything, it *is* – we simply just experienced an election where the sexist and literally phallocentric subtext of American politics finally manifested as text, with Jungian synchronicity providing a man named Weiner as the proximate trigger for the final denouement of the character trashing of Hillary Clinton. The cocks are both symbolic and real. This election is the story America told itself about itself.
Ironically, given my application here, Geertz’s article has been critiqued, for example by William Roseberry in his article “Balinese Cockfights and the Seduction of Anthropology” for its interpretive neglect of the role of women in his story about the Balinese society. The women are there, in his footnotes (and in the traditional markets appended to the cockfights), but their omission itself is obfuscated, as Geertz’s famous generalization jumps scale to a universalizing scope. A story that the Balinese men tell themselves about themselves becomes the story of and by “the Balinese” in general. In our election, the woman made it into the competition ring, and yet the interpretive frameworks that I see circulating are already de-centering gender, instead centering the issue of the working class, represented in the media through figures located in domains that are usually gendered as “male” – automotive workers, coal miners. So, the election then becomes not just a story America told itself about itself – but also a story about how America tells itself stories about itself, which lenses it reaches for, which interpretive framework it relegates to the footnotes.
In another classic essay, “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” Claude Levi-Strauss explores the power resultant from the merging of a substance and a symbol. In ritualistic moments of such synthesis, magical power can be deployed. One could write a separate essay on Trump’s occult online supporters who believe that “meme magic” got him elected, or on Marina Abramovic’s “spirit cooking” art project that, due to the public’s inability to differentiate between literal vs. metaphorical framing, precipitated Pizzagate and a widespread belief that the DNC was involved in Satanic dinners, and that Hillary Clinton ran a child pornography ring, as hyperbolic apex moments of the symbolic wars that constituted this election. But it also behooves us to think about the consequences in the material reality of such alignment between substance and symbol, cock and cock, man and ideology, Trump and the patriarchy. The effectiveness of symbols is not only for the kind of shamanic healing Levi-Strauss describes – it is also for undoing the material infrastructure and fabric of reality, particularly its fraught and contested patches. Americans told this story to themselves about themselves – but suddenly it is no longer a story. On the second day of Congress reconvening, two weeks out from the inauguration, Republican lawmakers have already initiated a push to defund Planned Parenthood. Women’s body sovereignty is under increased threat in a number of states. State Department employees are fearful that they are being targeted for work on gender related staffing, programming, and funding. “Grab’em by the pussy” T-shirts are available from online retailers in a number of designs and colors. Just like in the Balinese cockfight, symbolic, or at least proxy fighting, has real-world consequences in terms of financial stakes and recognition of status. The election has illuminated our cultural pecking order. A man who admits to and brags about sexual assault is about to be inaugurated instead of a woman widely considered the most qualified presidential candidate in history. Now that the symbolic hierarchy has been re-affirmed in the arena, the material, legal, epistemological consequences follow, both as a massive attack on women’s rights, and the obscuring of gender as an analytical framework in explanatory discourses about an election characterized by misogyny more than anything else.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” Daedalus (1972): 1-37.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural anthropology. Vol. 1. Basic Books, 1963.
Roseberry, William. “Balinese cockfights and the seduction of anthropology.” Social Research (1982): 1013-1028.
Dr. Veronica Davidov is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Monmouth University. Her research focuses on human-nature relations, with a specific emphasis on how natural resources are constructed and contested. She has conducted fieldwork in Ecuador and Northern Russia. She co-edits the journal Laboratorium: Russian Review of Social Research, and co-directs the Ecology and Culture University Seminar at Columbia University.