Notes on the University Cockfight

ILLUSTRATION: Rejected from the Stanford Freedom Project #1: George Michael at the Alamo • watercolor on paper • 5×7″

It’s the end of the quarter at Stanford which means that it’s time for final papers. A close friend of mine lectures at Stanford teaching literature, philosophy, languages, etc.—fields of study on that lovely campus that are akin, as far as I can tell, to leprosy for many undergraduates. The faster that you can churn out a paper on Wallace Stevens, the sooner you can focus on your Symbolic Systems or MS&E problem set (or maybe just play Call of Duty). STEM, baby, STEM!

The first drafts are always my favorite to read. It often feels like the students are aliens sent on a mission to learn about Earth and report their findings in 1,000 words. How else can you explain sentences such as “Freedom for the humans is contingent on the acceptance of the free will of the humans?” You can imagine some high school English teacher suggesting that students should replace “man” with “human” throughout their papers to avoid thorny gender debates. And the student adds extra articles to get closer and closer to that 1,000 word goal. By the end of their initial thrashing, the students sound like Kang and Kodos.

I told my friend, “At least they’re still kind of trying. Freshmen don’t know yet that that every college paper can be the same paper.”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“I don’t think they know about Clifford Geertz yet.”

“I’ve heard the name.”

“He wrote Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Metasocial commentary. You know, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

“Okay. So?”

“You can get a B+ on every undergraduate paper with Clifford Geertz.”

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight is a 1972 essay by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. It’s a fun read, if you can separate yourself from the whole rooster-on-rooster violence thing. Instead of taking a more traditional anthropological / scientific approach to dissecting Balinese culture, Geertz researches its cockfights as one would close read a literary text. He investigates the cockfight’s implicit societal rules: how fights are organized, how cocks are matched for equal battles, how odds are determined, how kinsmen and alliances bet with each other, how money is exchanged, and what that all means for the Balinese.

“What sets the cockfight apart from the ordinary course of life, lifts it from the realm of practical affairs, and surrounds it with an aura of enlarged importance is … that it provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment. Its function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive: it is a Balinese reading of a Balinese experience; a story they tell themselves about themselves.”

By caring deeply about cockfights of all things, the Geertz essay allows one to take any cultural artifact—high, low, or middlebrow—find its implicit rules of order and imbue them with significance. It provides the perfect hackneyed end to the B+ undergraduate essay. Construct an argument. Find some quotes. Put them in order. Add your transition sentences. And then conclude with Geertz.

Irish myths? Metasocial commentary.

The Day of the Dead? Metasocial commentary.

Listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989? Metasocial commentary.

It won’t be a good essay per se. It may not really say anything. And it might even totally get Clifford Geertz wrong. But you’ll probably get through the class with a B+.

Because after all, writing crappy undergraduate essays that just pass muster are what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call a “metasocial commentary”—a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. The process of trying to pass one’s poor argument off as lucid and meaningful to frustrated, often disempowered, humanities professors shows us what our “culture’s ethos and… private sensibility (or anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally.” Namely, that pretending to care is a perfectly acceptable B+ path in American life.

P.S. I recommend Mark Slouka’s essay Dehumanized published in Harper’s in 2009 for anyone else on the very lonely #TeamHumanities.