Tuesday 20 February 2024

A Review of 'Negara, the Theatre State' by CLIFF CUKIN GEERTZ


(Made by a friend who was reading the same book at the same time)

A book I read without much knowledge of the deeper context from which it sprang, and which I did not enjoy at all. It may have been worthwhile, but I did not enjoy it.

I got though this book partly on resentment, partly due to interest in the subject and partly on inertia. By the end I was reasonably sure that that Geertz was awful, that Bali was wonderful, that Geertzs' argument was correct and that he had totally failed to prove that. I will never read anything by Clifford Geertz again.

In 'the Theatre State' Geertz argues that in Bali ritual itself was the primary point, purpose and axis of the culture, that power, economic and spiritual, largely served ritual and not the other way aroud. In a sense its something of an anti-materialistic argument. While other writers peel back the skin of culture to show the 'real' power dynamics that drive it, Geertz tries to pull back the skin of power to show it driven itself by ritual.

He is probably right but he doesn't prove it here. Perhaps no-one could have but he definitely doesn't.

(Walter Spies excellent Bali paintings, which I only found out about because of this book)


It’s rare that I have hated a writer so much based merely on the *tenor of their thought*. I agree with the general drift of Geertzs' argument, I find Bali itself fascinating and am genuinely thankful for this introduction to an incredible subject, I just *really hate this fucking guy*.

He is a pompous sneak.

Reading Geertz gives one the impression of encountering a confidence trickster who tries to overwhelm you with volume of obscure detail, tendentious shifts in abstract analysis, vaguely made points in overcomplex form, regular dispellment of poor and shifting failings, before engaging in exactly those failings, (Geertz would lecture you intensely on the non-existence of feet before gaily dancing away), the avoidance and happenstance mention of actually-massively-important points, airy arguments from authority, (check the notes), and carefully not mentioning that his wife did a lot of the work.

My seething rage and frustration at this behaviour is not helped when, on assuming I am being Barnumed, I carefully read and re-read Geertzs' goat-footed prose and find, most times, that I cannot actually prove him wrong. Or at least I cannot prove him inconsistent.

Feeling like you are being scammed, not being able to find the scam, then having to reluctantly spit out that actually you agree, is a mentally distressing process.

A few things Geertz does, to give you a flavour;

- Goes on a long blather in the intro about this not being a book about kings and drama, then opens the actual book with a direct quote description of the extremely dramatic ritual suicide of the last Balinese king.

- Gets most of the way through the book before offhandedly mentioning that the chief Balinese import was opium. In the *notes* he confirms that most of Balis' economic surplus went on getting everyone high as shit, that everyone was baked throughout much of the book, that in the Royal palace the Opium smoke was so thick that the lizards were falling off the walls.

- "This too is probably the appropriate place to acknowledge that a good deal of the material upon which this study is based was gathered by my wife and coworker, Hildred Geertz, and some by an Indonesian assistant, E. Rukasah." (this hidden in the notes at the back of the book, though he does thank his wife in the intro.

- Doesn't really mention war or violence much as an axis of power in this book about power and ritual, until the notes where he allows that there was quite a lot of irregular violence and large ritualistic battles.

- Oh yeah there was slavery at some point, quite a lot of it. Oh and there were illegal wife burnings up to the 1920s. (again, hidden in the notes).

- "By means of a series of inferences, assumptions and outright guesses, which I will not relate for the simple reason that they cannot bear too much inspection, my own estimate of...."  So basically "I made it up"

- "The second approach, however, presents historical change as a relatively continuous social and cultural process, a process which shows few if any sharp breaks, but rather displays a slow but patterned alteration in which, though developmental phases may be discerned when the entire course of the process is viewed as a whole, it is nearly always very difficult, if not impossible, to put ones finger exactly on the point at which things stopped being what they were and became instead something else. This view of change or process, stresses not so much the annalistic chronicle of what people did, but rather the formal, or structural, patterns of cumulative activity. The period approach distributes clusters of concrete events along a time continuum in which the major distinction is earlier or later; the developmental approach distributes forms of organisation and patterns of culture along a time continuum in which the major distinction is perquisite and outcome. Time is a crucial element in both. In the first it is the thread along which specific happenings are strung; in the second it is a medium through which certain abstract processes move."

(Clifford Geertz explaining literally anything)

Now, once decoded, I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I'm not sure how useful it is and I find the manner in which it is said mindbreakingly discursive and suspicious.

This is a Geertzian argument. If you think you can handle it or, god fucking help you, that you might actually enjoy it, then dive in bro.


Bali is an island you have probably already heard of as a holiday destination. On the Westward edge of Indonesia it has a balmy climate, fruitful wet rice cultivation and a large population for its size.

Bali has a lot of culture. Its large, dense population is very highly organised and it is on the boundary of several big culture zones; the Indonesian Archipelago, the great sweep eastward of Indian-continent, Hindu or 'Indic' culture in the historical past, influences from Oceana, western colonisation at the hands of the Dutch in quite recent history.

The West crashing into Bali relatively recently means that Western ethnography has 'access' via many travellers and scholars who just had to spend some in the wonderful climate and surrounded by the beautiful people of Balie for research and colonisation purposes, we must know more about this tropical island of hot babes and cheap opium. That is was recent means Bali is still weird as shit and there is a lot lot lot to go on about.

There is more. In fact with Balinese culture there is "always more". It is a  gumbo of multitudinous cultural, ritual, organisation, religious and governmental forms. Added to this its neatly  If ethnologists and anthropologists had a PornHub it would be Bali 24/7. It might be the most interesting place ever.

(There may be a pleasingly sinister Aryan connection. Bali was 'Indicised' by cultural outflow from India, absorbing a lot of Hindu/Indian culture. I did wonder if the ritual wife-burnings described were a distant echo of an origin culture that also lead to the slave burning witnessed by Ibn Fadlan when he encountered the Rus in the European dark age. I don't know if there is any confirmation of the Indo-Europeans spreading wife/servant/dependant ritual burnings at funerals, but it does seem like the kind of thing they would be into. It would be nuts if the Vikings and Balinese were culturally related.)

Is Bali really that much more complex than an equivalent Western/European polity? Its hard for me to tell. Some of the overwhelming nature of the discussion of political groups, ritual groups, rice growing hydraulic groups, family/houseyard groups, temples, rituals, conflicts, layer upon layer of organisation, obligation, lords here, priests there, pass the Opium, is simply because the terms and concepts are unfamiliar. Bali has a lot of things that are a bit like the western version but none of them are actually like that, so a discussion of *anything* Balinese starts with; "this is a bit like a lord/peasant relationship, so we use those words, except not really, and actually totally different, but we don't really have words for exactly what it was....."

But this isn't actually more-dense complexity but only perceived complexity.

Bali has a large and *dense* population by western norms, due to having a really nice climate and wet rice cultivation. (Like java the volcanoes probably mean very continuously fertile fields). So there are a lot of people in very close communication, dealing and interacting with each other in a huge variety of ways. (But no cities as we would understand them).

But this may not be any more complex proportionate to population than the western version, with the same total of people more widely spread.

(Of course many close dense interconnections and relationships can increase complexity purely due to that density.)

Bali is also a hyper-studied place for all the reasons given above, so the simple weight of scholarship, reportage and analysis almost feeds upon itself, producing more analysis and thus more perceived complexity.

Bali is represented here as a very deeply contextual society where the folkways/religion/government/rituals/society are all very deeply interrelated almost all of the time. As Geertz would put it, the culture is woven into every fabric, object, design element, artwork, ritual, temple, house, clothing item, Kriss, rice paddy.. it’s everywhere and everything. Because everything feels so deeply integrated into the directly experienced human lifeworld, it might be actually impossible to understand Bali. To understand it you would need to actually live in it, to breath it, be absorbed by it, in order to drink in the deep context. If you are absorbed in it you cannot truly observe it from outside. So the only person who could really understand Bali is someone born there, growing up and living in the centre of its culture as a natural intuitive insider, AND, who was also born far away and had an entirely different set of values and came to Bali from the outside, learning everything about it from there and carefully observing.

This person cannot exist so perhaps Bali cannot be studied.

One idea that kept coming to mind as I read was the concept of Bali as a living antifossil. (Of course we are not meant to treat Bali as a living fossil of an 'Indic' culture as it would have been before the modern age all over Indonesia, as Geertz argues quite a bit, before typically tacitly doing exactly that).

But Bali as an example of what a post-singularity or post-scarcity human future might look like after mass genetic engineering and the creation of 'human optimal' biomes and plant and animal forms; dense, warm, full of insanely complex groupings and stratification, deeply absorbed in rituals, with some passing trade, not that much interest in things outside the culture, no deep sense of mission but one of continuity, some semi-regular violence. Is this what the 'human optimum' might look like? A dense, warm, relatively static culture where most human basic needs are met?

Of course Bali has scarcity. My observation comes from seeing it from European eyes where, to us, it has everything Europe doesn't, and everything we might wish for in terms of climate, manageable size, a ridiculously productive agricultural system, relative peace and human flourishing in the way that most psychologically average humans would probably conceive it.

If you went back in time, put a European peasant in coma, took them to Bali & woke them up, they might actually think they were in heaven. It has everything a peasant wants from heaven.

I do not really believe in a 'final', optimum, or zero-scarcity human culture as humans create scarcity through their desires regardless of what is or isn’t materially available. But its interesting to try to imagine 'plateau' cultures or 'optimal' cultures we might inhabit on our journey.



Ritual and power interweave at every juncture, so like any complex argument from the human lifeworld where behaviours interweave and support each other and where each is to some extent an expression of the other, the question is less 'which of these things is this behaviour *really* about? But more; in this web of feedback, which of these elements is *more* dominant, and *which* times and under what conditions?

Can we find times in Bali where power and ritual were in conflict and Ritual clearly won? (this would be hard because by definition, whichever aspect of society was behind the Ritual answer, turned out to be more "powerful" because they "won". You can’t disprove the rule of power since whatever does rule, is power.


Something familiar to most of us from Television;  experienced Judges witnessing a dance and offering opinions on which of the dancers is really leading at which times.

The dancers in this case are Power and Ritual in Bali.

How useful is this metaphor? The more into the weeds of actual dancing the less useful

but some concepts to consider might be;

- The *complexity* of the *whole* situation with the judges watching the dance and the dancers responding to each other. Multiple observers observing elements that are mutually-observing.

- How genuinely hard it is to judge matters of dominance in complex feedback behaviours. The dynamics existed in-the-moment, between two maximally-engaged and highly responsive sophonts in a flow state. What happened between them might not be 'knowable' by an observer.

- the complexity of the judges *response* to the dance and how they might argue with each other afterwards, each basing their points on what they saw (all slightly different), what they themselves know of dancing (all slightly different) and any contextual knowledge they might have of these dancers in particular.

If you imagine the depth of this imagined situation, the differences of opinion, limits of evidence and some things that maybe even maximal evidence and knowledge can't reveal, then that is perhaps a rough guide to the level of difficulty, complexity of witnessing, evidence and judgement we engage in when we try to untangle these relationships like for instance Geertz's argument that in Bali Ritual was (more) dominant over Power (most of the time).

In Geertzs' defence the thing he is trying to prove is immeasurably complex ad subtle and about an immeasurably complex society, so proving, or even arguing it properly would be a staggering synthesis of rigour, subtlety and vast arcologies of detail. It would be an absolutely peak academic argument, if it could be done.

Few could do it and Geertz is not among them. He writes the wrap-up synthesis at the end but that belongs at the end of a much longer, much better, and paradoxically, much easier to read book.

Geertz is probably right in that in Bali, ritual was a power of its own, its own centre of 'not-power' to which what we commonly think of as 'real power'; guns, money, sex and taxes, was subservient.

But he doesn't prove it. He puts a lot of arguments in the air, considers a lot of things, gestures towards his final summation and then runs for it, like a magician fleeing the stage while the plates are spinning.


  1. Think I'll give Geertz a miss, then.

    Artaud had a much better take on Bali in his Théâtre et son double. When I read it back in my uni days, I proclaimed it the only book of DMing advice I'd ever need (though that was more for the theatre of cruelty bits).

  2. Okay but what are the other "plateau" cultures that you can imagine people moving through. Something like a post scarcity future with self contained bubble societies in the asteroid belt designed by the benevolent AIs as places of rest. Do we have to imagine completely eradicating modernity in order to provide a human optimal state of affairs? Wait is this what the Avatar movies were about?

    1. I was thinking relatively nice arcologies, boutique Eloi-style anarcho-syndicalist communities powered by hidden technology, interstellar century ships, the asteroid bubbles sounds nice too

  3. Don't know if I'm late to the party, but two great books on a particular aspect of Balinese culture are Rangda: The Legendary Goddess of Bali by Brandon Spars and Journey of the Goddess: Durga by Ni Wayan Pasek Ariati. They are books delving into beliefs about religion, black magic, and patriarchy, focusing on the figure of Rangda. A Goddess that is a demonic form of the Goddess Durga. Rangda is essentially if you crossed Kali and Baba Yaga together and gave that Goddess amalgamation a whole load of acid and steroids. Journey of the Goddess Durga is available for free at Charles Darwin University https://researchers.cdu.edu.au/en/studentTheses/the-journey-of-a-goddess
    Sorry for the long post, I'm a anthropologist and I am in love with Bali.