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deep play


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A term adapted by anthropologist Clifford Geertz from the writings of Jeremy Bentham in The Theory of Legislation (1802, French translation; English retranslation 1840, 1864), and used in his influential study of the meaning of the Balinese cock-fight. Bentham employs the term in a footnote to a section concerned with the relationship between equality, wealth, and the chance of happiness. Bentham was examining the proposition that a loss of a portion of wealth would produce a level of defalcation (reduction) of the loser's total happiness, ‘according to the proportion of the part lost to the part which remains’. His footnote cites a gaming/gambling example:If you have just a thousand pounds and the stake is five hundred and you lose, your fortune is diminished by a half; but if you win, the gain is only a third. If the stake is a thousand pounds, and you win, the doubling of the gain in fortune is not matched by a doubling of happiness; but if you lose, your happiness is destroyed;…[you] are reduced to indigence.For Bentham, this all-or-nothing stake constitutes ‘the evils of deep play’, undesirable in its high-risk threat to the condition of pleasure or happiness; his liberal-reformist position, therefore, would exclude deep play from the ‘principles of the civil code’ (the overall chapter heading). Geertz recognizes something more than evil in the way that higher amounts of money are staked in the Balinese cock-fight, creating a deep play element in which symbolic status and not just money is also on the line, in a very public context. So for Geertz the deep play is not so much a practice that threatens the culture; rather, it enriches it, symbolizing ‘the dramatization of status concerns’. For Bentham, then, deep play is irrational; for Geertz, citing Max Weber, it is about creating significant meaning. Uses of the term have too often ignored the specific nature of the ‘deep’ element, using the term deep play as an unsubstantiated rationale for arguments supporting the notion of the seriousness of play-forms, sport or leisure.

If you have just a thousand pounds and the stake is five hundred and you lose, your fortune is diminished by a half; but if you win, the gain is only a third. If the stake is a thousand pounds, and you win, the doubling of the gain in fortune is not matched by a doubling of happiness; but if you lose, your happiness is destroyed;…[you] are reduced to indigence.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.


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