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The World as a Stage

Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali

by Clifford Geertz
Princeton University Press, 295 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The term “negara” in Professor Geertz’s title refers to the pattern of supreme political authority that prevailed over much of Southeast Asia in the precolonial period. The main purpose of Geertz’s study is to delineate the general structure of the negara by focusing on one particularly well-documented case, that of Bali in the era preceding the Dutch invasion of 1906. The outcome is a fascinating and remarkable book, in which the detailed ethnography is presented with exemplary skill, while the wider implications of the investigation for an understanding of political life are explored at the same time with rare sensitivity and intelligence.

Before turning to the general significance of Geertz’s findings, I will try to reproduce his portrait of the negara itself, even though any such attempt is bound to suffer from being overexplicit as well as oversimplified. The political system Geertz describes was grounded on the assumption that the achievement of good order in political life is essentially a matter of mirroring the divine order of the universe. When the Balinese reflected on the character of this divine order, they arrived at two connected beliefs which in turn served to underpin the fabric of their social world. The first was a view about the nature of divinity itself. The cosmos was pictured as a hierarchy in which Siva, the supreme God, sits enthroned at the axis in a state of utter immobility. He is surrounded at each of the cardinal points by lesser powers, the whole tableau conveying the idea that the highest divinity consists in being the still center of a turning world.

The other relevant belief concerned the relationship between mankind and the gods. This was held to be one of descent in both meanings of the term: not merely a genealogical descent but also a decline in status from a pristine level of divine worth. However, it was further believed that this process of decay had developed unevenly, so that the sublunary world still contained a small number of families that retained some closeness to their divine origins, as well as a vastly larger number that had fallen away more grievously from the core and apex of divine excellence.

The most important institution which these assumptions helped to sustain was, as one might expect, a form of “divine right” kingship. The point of creating a negara was, as Geertz puts it, to establish “a cosmologically based exemplary state”; therefore such an ideal of monarchy could scarcely have failed to become central to Balinese political life. However, the actual conduct of Bali’s kings could hardly have been more unexpected or indeed more paradoxical from the point of view of Western theories about the religious basis of sovereignty. Since politics in Bali was conceived as the art of mirroring the cosmos, the king’s principal task became that of offering an earthly analogy for Siva’s rule over the universe. But as we have seen, Siva’s supremacy was expressed in the form of a blank and unending passivity. So the Balinese kings were felt to be successful rulers only if they abandoned their individual identities in order to present themselves as pure ritual objects, as images of kingship. And they were felt to be successful political actors only if they ceased to perform any actions in the ordinary sense at all.

The other major institution which drew its legitimacy—and hence its strength—from the religious bedrock of Balinese political theory was the so-called dadia system, an intricate and peculiar structure of kinship and descent. It was owing to this system that Balinese society maintained its distinctive and pervasively hierarchical character. Each dadia or kin-group occupied a particular rank within the social order, a rank determined by the rate at which it had fallen away from its pristine condition of excellence, a rate in turn measured by its proximity to the royal line. At the same time, it was owing to these kinship groupings that political authority was distributed in the Balinese state. Each dadia was linked with its equals by alliances, with its inferiors by clientage, and with those outside the system by essentially economic ties. As a result, the entire structure exhibited just that pattern of movement outward and downward from a divine apex and core which the underlying metaphysic required.

One might suppose that such a social system would be bound to yield a highly centralized form of domination and control, a conclusion which has in fact been defended by the exponents of Karl Wittfogel’s theory of “Oriental Despotism.” But as Geertz convincingly demonstrates, such arguments tend to ignore the implications of the role that the rulers of the negara were expected to discharge. As ritual objects, immobilized within their own courts, they were not in a position to concern themselves with the ordinary business of government. As a result, this was largely carried on at the level of the village communities, and lay in the hands of various hierarchically organized and resonantly named lords and functionaries—the punggawas, the perbekels, and the mass of lowlier kawulas who served them. Geertz completes his political anatomy of the negara by explaining, in meticulous and almost bewildering detail, the relative status and responsibilities of these different groups. He shows that they maintained a type of administration that was wholly confederate rather than despotic in nature.

The obvious question to ask about this system is why the Balinese should have thought it crucial to present their political life as a microcosm of the universe. The answer brings us to what Geertz calls the “controlling political idea” that underlay and animated all the negara’s arrangements. The Balinese believed that if only they could succeed in producing here on earth a model of the hierarchy that ensures the harmony of the heavens, the outcome would be a similar harmony in the conduct of earthly affairs. The whole extraordinary structure was thus held in place by an intensely practical belief: the belief that, as Geertz expresses it, “to mirror a reality is to become it,” and thus that to reflect the order of the universe is to promote the welfare of the state. And one gathers from Geertz’s account that the culture of precolonial Bali did remain in a tense kind of equilibrium.

We can now begin to appreciate the very strange terms in which the problem of effective political action presented itself to those with the highest stake in the negara’s affairs. Given that the goal of statecraft was to uphold the social rankings on which the well-being of the community depended, it followed that what the kings and principal dadias most of all needed to know was how to attain this goal. How could a king best hope to emphasize his centrality? How could a leading dadia best hope to stave off any loss of leadership? How could a noble punggawa best hope to declare and enforce his supremacy over those lower down the social scale?

The startling but logical answer was this: by putting on the costliest, most elaborate, most frequent displays of status that could possibly be staged, acting in a fashion that one’s inferiors could never hope to emulate, and thereby confirming one’s position in the social hierarchy by insistently proclaiming it. The contrast at this point between the Balinese and the European traditions of “divine right” kingship could scarcely be more marked. The rituals and ceremonials of the European courts and aristocracies were rarely perceived as anything more than trappings of the political order. But in classical Bali they actually constituted its substance. Moreover, the business of statecraft in the “hierocratic” monarchies of Western Europe was always a matter of mobilizing enough resources to maintain a system of domination over a given territory. But in Bali the same skills were chiefly employed to mobilize enough men—and secure their loyalties for a long enough time—to guarantee that the ceremonials on which the prestige (and hence the power) of the state depended were staged in a convincing way.

In his subtitle Geertz refers to Bali as a “theatre state,” and the aptness of this description will by now be obvious. Geertz himself comments at some length on the image of the state as a theater, and to round off this outline of his argument it is worth quoting the whole passage in which he first introduces and explains the metaphor—partly because he does so with such panache, but also because he succeeds at the same time in summarizing so much of his case. Geertz writes:

The expressive nature of the Balinese state was apparent through the whole of its known history, for it was always pointed not toward tyranny, whose systematic concentration of power it was incompetent to effect, and not even very methodically toward government, which it pursued indifferently and hesitantly, but rather toward spectacle, toward ceremony, toward the public dramatization of the ruling obsessions of Balinese culture: social inequality and status pride. It was a theatre state in which the kings and princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew, and audience. The stupendous cremations, tooth filings, temple dedications, pilgrimages and blood sacrifices, mobilizing hundreds and even thousands of people and great quantities of wealth, were not means to political ends: they were the ends themselves, they were what the state was for. Court ceremonialism was the driving force of court politics; and mass ritual was not a device to shore up the state, but rather the state, even in its final gasp, was a device for the enactment of mass ritual. Power served pomp, not pomp power.

Hearing about this remote world, an impatient reader might well feel inclined to ask why Geertz thinks it worth describing with such attentiveness. The question is of course a philistine one, for the story Geertz tells is deeply absorbing in itself, and he tells it with superb literary as well as technical skill. However, it is clear that Geertz himself would not be at all satisfied with such a retort. Risking the charge of ethnocentrism, he shows himself very anxious to consider what his study of the negara may be capable of telling us about ourselves. And when he turns to this question in his final chapter on “Bali and Political Theory,” he produces an answer which deserves to be seriously pondered by anyone in the least interested in the basic questions of social science and political philosophy.

Geertz takes as his point of departure one of the governing assumptions of Western political thought. Politics, we tend to suppose, is basically about power, and power is basically about mastery. To see how deeply these assumptions have indeed become embedded in our tradition, we need only to look at a work such as Steven Lukes’s recent and influential study, Power: A Radical View. Lukes concludes his analysis with a definition: “to use the vocabulary of power,” he asserts, is essentially to speak of human agents “significantly affecting the thoughts or actions of others (specifically, in a manner contrary to their interests).” Supreme political power thus comes to be viewed—very much in the manner of Max Weber—as a capacity to deploy a monopoly of legitimate violence.

Within this tradition, the idea of invoking the theater as a metaphor for the state would obviously make no sense. This is not—in spite of what we sometimes like to think—because we analyze our political arrangements in such a hardheaded fashion that the element of imagery never intrudes at all. On the contrary, the terms in which we habitually talk about the powers of the state are densely metaphorical in texture. The point is rather that the metaphors we favor all tend to support the idea of politics as a realm of domination, subordination, and the exercise of force. We speak in particular of the body politic and the ship of state, invoking two images that immediately suggest the centrality of command and compliance. A ship has a captain to give orders, hands to obey them; a body has a head to direct its limbs or members, and only functions effectively when the head (of state) governs the members (of the community) in such a way that the body (of the people) has arms to defend it (is “well-armed”) and enough hands to labor on its behalf.

As soon as we recognize the pervasiveness of these metaphors, as well as the partisan view of politics they uphold, the point of studying the negara begins to come sharply into focus. For it offers us—in Geertz’s phrase—“an alternative conception of what politics is about and what power comes to.” By showing us a political system entirely absorbed in the ritual preservation of status and inequality, Geertz’s account shows us that the holding of supreme political power need not in the least be connected with the capacity to employ coercive force, or with the ability to make people act contrary to their interests.

So far Geertz’s point is, in general terms, a familiar one to intellectual historians as well as social anthropologists. His underlying suggestion is that, because we can hardly avoid investing our own concepts and beliefs with a special weight and dignity, the value of studying an alien culture or a remote historical period lies in helping us to offset this natural parochialism. We achieve this heightened self-awareness by confronting our sense of how the world must be classified and conceptualized with an account of the very different ways in which this has in fact been done in different places and at different times.

However, Geertz also has a much stronger and more specific thesis to advance about our inherited traditions of political thought. These traditions are liable to mislead us, he claims, not merely by confusing the parochial with the perennial, but also because—as a study of the negara reveals—they embody at least one assumption which is straightforwardly false. The assumption Geertz has in mind relates, of course, to the place of ceremonial in public life. As he rightly emphasizes, Western political theorists have generally supposed that the rituals of politics are altogether ancillary to the real business of the state. To a liberal, a disciple of Locke, the state is an expression of the people’s will; so its rituals are usually seen as little more than incidental celebrations of the people’s sovereignty. To an absolutist, the state is (in Hobbes’s phrase) “that great Leviathan, the king of the proud”; so its rituals are generally treated simply as dramatic reminders of its power to coerce. To a Marxist, the state is the executive arm of the ruling class; so its rituals are easily dismissed as nothing but tricks to prevent us from seeing its underlying exploitative character.

Geertz contends that, insofar as these traditions propose a general theory about the place of ceremonial in public life, the theory they propose is a threadbare and indeed a mistaken one. They all contrive to suggest that rituals are merely the trappings of power, whereas the example of the negara shows us that they are equally capable of forming its substance. For Geertz, therefore, the final point of studying the negara is that it provides us with a counter-example to one of our most deeply rooted political beliefs. Inclined as we are to suppose that ceremonial is external to the workings of political power, a study of the negara “restores our sense of the ordering force of display, regard and drama.”

This conclusion hints at a further question of deep concern to political theorists. The question is whether our inherited traditions of political analysis may now be serving to inhibit rather than clarify our understanding not merely of alien cultures but also of ourselves. Several Marxist writers on the state have lately revived and developed this suggestion, notably Nikos Poulantzas in Political Power and Social Classes. The same problem of ideology has also been analyzed from a different perspective by such leading theorists as Charles Taylor, who has focused on prevailing ideas about democracy, and John Dunn, who has broadened the attack in his brilliant and devastating survey, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future. Dunn’s analysis culminates in the suggestion that our existing conceptions not merely of democracy but also of justice, welfare, and liberty are all equally unable to make sense of our present political world.

It is part of the fascination of Geertz’s work that he seems to be pointing to yet another case in which the same obfuscation of our current experience by our inherited theories may be taking place. Our theories tell us that the ceremonies of public life are merely the trappings of power. But it may be that such contentions are no less misleading about our own society than they are about classical Bali. Perhaps our own rituals are far more than drapery; perhaps they too play an altogether different and more substantial role in political affairs. It is of course no part of Geertz’s present purpose to investigate such possibilities. But it is part of the achievement of his book to make it seem obvious that they ought now to be seriously investigated.

The device of treating distant societies as mirrors in which to see ourselves reflected more clearly is very hard to employ without intellectual vulgarity. The traps of anachronistic readings, misleading analogies, and false contrasts are liable to ensnare even the wariest. But Geertz has avoided all these pitfalls, and has used the device with tact, subtlety, and immense perceptiveness. As a result, he has not only produced a monograph of great importance to a wide range of social scientists and political philosophers; he has also produced a work of political philosophy in its own right.

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