Sunday, 26 June 2005

How to Open an Academic Essay, Part VI: The Balinese Cockfight [Cross-posted over yonder.] [Episodes I, II, II/II, III, IV and V have been catalogued for your convenience. Now I present the promised installment on The Balinese Cockfight.] The origins of the cockfight in literary studies are shrouded in mystery. No mention of the cockfight appears in Stephen Greenblatt’s formulaic introduction to “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance” (Genre 15: 1-2). (Of that other New Historical tic, the one not involving dead chickens, i.e. the chiasmus, the same cannot be said.) The first appearance of the cockfight as “meta-social commentary” occurs in Houston Baker’s “To Move without Moving: An Analaysis of Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison’s Trueblood Episode.” Baker quotes the following passage from Clifford Geertz’s seminal “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”: Like any art form--for that, finally, is what we are dealing with--the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived. Why Geertz felt the need to travel to Bali to discover the inherent meta-social commentary of a cockfight is curious. A famous American orator and former cockfight referee once said that “as long as the Almighty permits intelligent men, created in His image and likeness, to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it is not for me to deprive the chicken of the same privilege.” Ol’ Honest Abe nailed this whole metaphorical meta-social meta-commentary meta-long before Geertz wrote one word about cockfights. Since Mr. Lincoln lacks the scholarly credentials of a Clifford Geertz, Baker quotes Geertz instead. He doesn’t attempt to out-cockfight-cite the locus primus of the cockfight-cite. We’re looking for someone who opens an essay with the cockfight-cite and unsurpisingly, that someone is Stephen Greenblatt. In 1994. From “The Eating of the Soul": I have seen Balinese cockfights, and I can assure you that a resemblance to Shakespeare’s work of art is not immediately apparent. No doubt the losing cock, bleeding in the dirt, feels the tragedy of the occasion...but the structure and duration of the cockfight, not to mention the expressive limitations of the cocks themselves, preclude the dignity and weight of tragedy. Opening an essay with two colliding anecdotes draws attention to the structural similarities between, in this case, cockfighting and Shakespearean tragedy. The effect of Geertz’s original juxtaposition of cockfighting and Macbeth, according to Greenblatt, is such that Balinese cockfighting and the Shakespearean spectacle of treachery and damnation--apparently so distant from one another in their symbolic stakes and their cultural position--are made to touch and resonate. The immediate result for the anthropologist is an air of dignity conferred upon Balinese cockfighting; that, and a kind of hermeneutical license linked to this dignity: cockfighting is a complex, symbolically charged text that can be profitably read by a gifted interpreter. Greenblatt’s emphasis on the word “text” reveals the rhetoric for what it is: rhetoric....
Fluffy Puppies, Kittens and Bunnies Armed to the Fucking Teeth, and Something About Breakfast Heads Where have I gone? Nowhere. But the intellectual substance of what I've been reading lately hasn't warranted much writing. At least, popular perception of what I've been reading hasn't. For example, I finished Grant Morrison's excellent comic series WE3. It follows the adventures of the three cuddly animals--cover pictured on the left--as they escape from the super-secret containment government facility and make their way home. Now, I think the book quite good in the same way that I thought Buffy the Vampire Slayer quite good: it plays pinballs with entirely distinct generic conventions. Over the course of this short, relatively dialogue-free graphic novel, Morrison creates a compellingly convincing account of the logic behind "war without casualties" initiatives without betraying the cloying narrative conventions of landmarks of Hollywood cinema like Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. (Attentive readers will note the similarities between the cover of the Michael J. Fox and Sally Fields-voiced fare and Frank Quitely's. I don't think that's a coincidence, nor do I think it all that clever.) What's interesting about the book is how, for example, when the animal rights advocate who created the trio responds to their imminent departure from this world--"decommisioned" in the book's lingo, but euphemisms like "puppy heaven" and "put to sleep" also apply--by releasing them into the wild. Her concern, as that of all animal lovers would be, is with the destruction of the animals. She cares not a whit what the implications of releasing these cuddly killing machines into the wild are. The fact that they demolish raw most of what they encounter doesn't bother her. Moral conundrums ensue. What, after all, should we think about the poor owner of Tinker whose "hand-made" sign graces the cover of one of the unbound issues? Surely he or she misses Tinker, and surely Tinker would rather not have become a cat equipped with ground-to-air missiles. Surely? Surely. So, for those who wonder why I haven't been posting with regularity, now you know. Were I to post, I'd be writing about comic books and science fiction...but I wouldn't be writing all that intelligently about either. The most I can say about John Clute's exceptional and exceptionally dense Appleseed is that it defies xeno- and technological compulsions of hard sci-fi in refreshingly confusing ways. I could pull numerous examples from the book, but that'd bore you to tears and cause the ever-increasing knot in the small of my back to tangle more ferociously. So you'll have to settle for a singular example about an apparently multiple headed creature that's doing some that has something to do with maintaing a safe orbit: ...he allowed himself to forgive the teeth and their head (this once!) and let his brainless breakfast head sink its hollow jowls (starvation eat all liars!) into a trough of loyal wrigglies, which it wolfed down. He adjusted the twining of his tails within the cart, settled into command posture over the great lunch bucket, and--white it continued slowly to starve half to death awaiting...

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