Thick Description

James Peacock

  • Negara: The Theatre State in 19th-Century Bali by Clifford Geertz
    Princeton, 297 pp, £13.10, December 1980, ISBN 0 691 05316 2

Anthropology must say more than it tells. Ethnography, at any rate, must do so. The archaeologist and the physical anthropologist make news by digging up the dead, for our Darwinian world-view permits us to greet old bones as Missing Links, or old stones as Lost Cities. The living, merely described, attract little interest unless they happen to be ourselves. To be heard or read, the ethnographic description of out-of-the-way behaviours must imply. Clifford Geertz once said, concerning the particularised, exotically localised microscopic reports of ethnographers: ‘small facts’ must be made to ‘speak to large issues’.

The points to which Negara is made to speak are two. The first, which primarily addresses the historian of Asia, is that the classical Balinese negara, or state, can, if properly reconstructed and understood, aid reconstruction and understanding of the numerous other negaras once central to Indic civilisation in South-East Asia. The second, which addresses everyone, is that by understanding the Balinese negara we enrich our understanding of political life. Since the end of the Middle Ages, Geertz argues, ‘we’ (presumably Western or Westernised people) have assumed that the primary function of the state is to govern – to administer, legislate, stay in power. Symbol and ceremony are seen, at best, as mere instruments of these ends and, at worst, as a fraudulent mystification of the masses (the Royal Wedding as ploy to divert attention from unemployment, inflation and violence). In the classical Balinese state, symbol and ceremony were not means but end: ‘power serves pomp, not pomp power,’ Encountering this pattern through the immediacy of ethnographic portrayal, we enrich our impoverished notion of the state.

Geertz proceeds to unsheath his formidable weaponry of detailed scholarship, vivid style and analytical acumen in order to describe thickly – an expression he uses elsewhere – the Balinese theatre state. While some may object to his occasional rhetorical overkill or methodological vagueness, most would, I think, agree that this work is a masterpiece of a kind. Geertz succeeds perhaps better than anyone else could in achieving the ends he seeks: dissecting and depicting Bali in such a way as to penetrate our thought world and enrich our understanding of the state. He also informs us about Bali. Behind the theatre state lies what Geertz terms the ‘myth of the exemplary centre’. Of Indie root, this myth turns on the distinction between the widest spiritual reality, the macrocosm, and the tangible exemplification of that reality, the microcosm. Through ceremony, macrocosm becomes microcosm, the spiritual tangible. But ‘ceremony’ includes more than the bounded rituals, such as cremation: in Bali it includes everything.

The myth of the exemplary centre is countered by the concept of sinking status. According to this view, the state’s power to exemplify the macrocosmos has relentlessly declined since the creation, by a god-king, of the Balinese civilisation, and this decline in the symbolic power of the state is correlated with a reduction in the sacred character of the royalty of the island. Yet, paradoxically (for reasons Geertz fails to explain), the assumption of sinking status breeds, not despair, but exuberant efforts directed at a ceremonial recreation of the centre.

Geertz’s portrayal climaxes with the apical ceremony – the cremation of the king in a towering inferno into which leap his consorts. Noting the difficulty of reducing so horrifying yet dazzling a performance to pattern, Geertz nevertheless offers some exegesis. This is both revealing and incomplete (in explicating the performance itself and in forging links to the rest of the culture). It deals with the symbols of the lotus seat and the phallus, and with the distinction between outer and inner worlds – a distinction which tantalisingly promises a glimpse of Balinese subjectivity. For the most part, however, Geertz, like other Balinists, leaves this domain buried beneath the glitter of the ceremonial.

Contrary to what the subtitle, ‘The Theatre State’, may suggest, the larger part of the analysis is not devoted to the great public performances. Instead it concentrates on backstage machinery: the hierarchy of castes; the criss-crossing systems of irrigation, ritual and community which constitute village society; the geographical, ecological and economic arrangements; the treaties which ambivalently connect the clans competing for centre-stage. Passing polemic destroys the stereotype of the hydraulic system in which the oriental despot lounges on top of the closed village: such a system Bali is not. More importantly, Geertz concludes with polemic against those who would confine symbolic interpretation to the obviously symbolic. For him, the theatrical is embodied as much in ecology and social organisation as in the cremation ceremony: ‘the real is as imagined as the imaginary’ (the concluding sentence of his next-to-last paragraph). But finally the imagined is as real as the real: ‘The dramas of the theatre state, mimetic of themselves, were, in the end, neither illusions nor lies, neither sleight of hand nor make-believe. They were what there was.’

Seven years before Negara, Geertz thoughtfully provided a model in terms of which the present work can be assessed. A 1973 essay, ‘Thick Description’, set out a programme which Negara would seem to exemplify. Thick description is a way of interpreting culture. What is culture? It sounds strikingly like Bali as a theatre state: it is ‘public ... though ideational, it does not exist in someone’s head.’ And what is cultural interpretation? It entails ‘rescuing the “said” from its perishing occasions to fix it in perusable forms’. Those perishing occasions (now perished) that were 19th-century Bali have certainly been rescued by Geertz and made perusable, not by description in the simple-minded and impossible sense of literal recording, but by thick description: the exegesis of the said, and its occasions, through their relation to guiding concepts and systemic contexts. The 1973 programme continues: the validity of cultural interpretation is to be determined, not by the fit of portrait to person, of ethnography to some objectively existing body of fact, but by the extent to which the portrait is at once scientifically plausible and artistically convincing, by virtue of ‘the power of the scientific imagination to bring us into touch with the lives of strangers’. By this standard, if it is accepted, Negara gets high marks. And generality – the addressing of large issues – is to be achieved, not by statistical survey or mechanistic laws, but by embodying the universal in the particular case. The Balinese teach us about politics, not in the manner that fruitflies teach us about genetics, but in the manner of a poem or parable. Negara should not be reduced to a case which illustrates a method. But it is at least that, and, as such, it succeeds brilliantly.