Life as an Extreme Sport

Geertz, Eroticization and Exoticization of the Balinese

This past week, I’ve had to read Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description” and “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” for the, third, maybe fourth time. And while preparing to sound at least somewhat intelligent and well-thought on the issues presented, I found myself stumbling not over Cohen and sheep-stealing, or the interpretation of the wink, or even what culture is. Nor did I find myself hanging up on the ritual of the cockfight or the psychological underpinings of metaphorical and double entrendre of Balinese men and their cocks. What did jump out to me is what feels like the excessive eroticization and exotization that Geertz perpetrates upon the Balinese. Perhaps the most lurid example of this writing is the following excerpt,

Aside from cocks and a few domestic animals – oxen, ducks – of no emotional significane, the Balinese are averse to animals and treat their large number of fogs not merely callously but with a phobic cruelty. In identifying with his cock(1), the Balinese man is identifying not just with his ideal self, or even his penis, but also, and at the same time, with what he most fears, hates, and ambivalence being what it is, is fascinated by – “The Powers of Darkness”(2)

In his breathless descriptives of the male cockfighting society and his almost juvenile delight in the supposed double entendre’s available in posture and identification with the roosters, Geertz appears to perpetuate the myth of the passionate, animalist and sexualized, orientalized Other.

And it would be all well and good to be outraged at this perpetuation of the eroticized Other if it weren’t for a subsequent essay, “Being Here”, in which Geertz sits down and systematically ferrets out many of the problems facing contemporary anthropology and enthnography. He acknowledges that which James Clifford has said, that it “is no longer the other, but [the] cultural description itself” which has become curious.

Geertz also quotes an absolutely brilliant passage by that worst of all creatures, the literary critic, referrencing that

The urge to conform to the canons of scientific rhetoric has made the easy realism of natural history the dominant mode of ethnographic prose, but it has been an illusory realism, promoting on the one hand, the absurdity of “describing” nonentities such as “culture” or “society”, as if they were fully observable, though somewhat ungainly, bugs, and, on the other, the equally ridiculous behaviorist pretense of “describing” reptitive patterns of action in isolation from the discourse that actors use in constituting and situating their action, and all in simpleminded surety that the observers’ grounding discourse is itself an objective form sufficient to the task of describing acts. (3)

Whew – a mouthful. But I think Tyler is basicallly saying (in an essay whose title alone I love, “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document”) anthropology has harboured, under the “Dr. Livingstone I presume” version of itself, the belief that one can discover and possess a group of people, and in that discovery and possession proceed to know them to the point of reporting objective field facts of culture as if it were a static entity, as well as believing itself capable of taking some action or sign and removing it from the webs of signification that embed said action/sign. (You know, I’m not certain that sentence helped break down the quote. At all. In fact, I strongly suspect that it didn’t.)

Geertz agrees with this position, saying that

[t]o argue…that the writing of ethnography involves telling stories, making pictures, concosting symbolisms, and deploying tropes is commonly resisted, often fiercely, because of a confusion, endemic in the West since Plato at least, of the imagined with the imaginary, the fictional with the false, making things out with making them up. The strange idea that reality has an idiom in which is prefers to be described, that its very nature demands we talk about it without a fuss – a spade is a spade, a rose a rose – on pain of illusion, trumpery, and self-betwitchment, leads on to the even stranger idea that, if literalism is lost, so is fact.

“All ethnographical descriptions are homemade.” If he truly believes this, then is the value in the enthnography that he has recorded about a culture, or is it in what he chooses to record about the culture? Is it the Balinese who are erotic and exotic, or is it Geertz’s lense on the Balinese Orientalizing them into erotic exotic beings? Or, perhaps more to the point, is this Geertz’s positionality, or our own?

(1)You can almost hear Geertz giggling as he types this.
(2) “The Powers of Darkness” are the animalistic demons that constantly threaten to invade the cleared-off and sanctified space in which the Balinese have built their lives.
(3) “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document”

Comcast Sucks

So, I got home to find Comcast prompting for installation of software, which I take issue with, having successfully used the service nearly two years now and not needing to do that. Of course, I couldn’t find any actual open number to call for help, so I’m sitting in Bauhaus catching up on paperwork, and trying to be committed to the idea of typing in this thing every evening. (Technically, I acknowledge I’ve already posted here today, but habit is habit.)

I’ve spent the last hour getting a message board together for 390, sending out information about the focus group, modifying the mailing list, and posting a few different items to said message board. I’m always surprised at how much additional work PFing* is; it’s not just doing the readings to the point that you can discuss them confidently, it’s the grading and the communicating and the… ohyeah, I’d wanted to create a smaller mailing list for “my” students. Gotta remember to do that before heading home.

But, oddly, I’m on top of things right now, which is an odd feeling. Then again, Phillip and I sat down today and knocked out a reading list for the next two quarters, and I have authors like Locke, Bentham, Mill, Spinoza, Deleuze, Hayles, Massumi, Serres, and so on starring at me. Being the glutton for punishment I am, I’m starting chronologically; this will be the quarter of philosophical backgrounds to autonomy. Thankfully, I can combine at least one reading with my intellectual history class, so that’ll be a small load off.

Where was I? Oh right. Comcast sucks. And because they suck, I don’t have my course reader for 390 with me, which means I won’t be posting my thoughts on Geertz, exoticization, eroticization, The Other and positionality. Perhaps tomorrow, when I’m tired of beating my head against a computer screen at work.

*PFing – shorthand for Peer Facillitating, which is basically an undergraduate student functioning as a teacher’s assistant. We create lesson plans, lead discussions, grade papers, and give feedback to the prof. It’s just that instead of being paid, we pay for the privilege. But it’s great experience; this is the third time I’ve done it, and I’m hoping for at least one more course this year. It’s weird, but it’s something I really and truly love to do.

Weir’s Semiotics 101

So, in the grand tradition of my own adviser, I’m offering 101 short courses during my teaching time. Today I’m planning on Semiotics 101, since Geertz uses the word a few times in the course of the readings assigned for this week, and Tuesday’s class suggested that most of the students hadn’t encountered the term in any sort of “need to know” sense before.

I am nothing if not thorough when about to get in front of a group of students and teach them something they’ll remember for the rest of their academic careers (well, if I do it right), so I opted to spend a few minutes refreshing my own familiarity with semiotics, referrents, signs and signifiers. For a lark, I punched “Semiotics 101” into Google, and it spit back Robert Weir’s “Semiotics 101 for Freshmen” post at Inside Higher Ed. His message sent/heard interpretations are remarkably accurate, and well worth the read. I particularly liked:

Messege Sent:
“I work full-time, care for small children, and am involved in community charity groups. It’s hard to find time to juggle all of this.”

Message Heard:
“I work full-time, care for small children, and am involved in community charity groups. It’s hard to find time to juggle all of this.”

“Unlike slothful bums like you who just show up to class, put in an occasional office hour, and then bugger off to drink coffee, and nap in the faculty lounge.”

He ends the article saying

I could go on, but these humble examples should suffice to make first-year students realize that all utterances are texts and that they cannot privilege their interpretations over those of their professors.

I know I’m eyeballs deep in this right now, and it’s probably making it funnier than it is, but given that I’ve already had two students not hand in papers because “they didn’t realize they were due today”, I find Weir’s essay just damned funny.