The Galactic Polity and the Theater State: Pragmaticｓ of Actions
In this paper, I will discuss the two models of polity that both Stanley Tambiah and Clifford Geertz proposed as "a guide for the representation of similar institutions in Southeast Asia" (Tambiah). Interestingly, their models, the galactic polity and the theater state show a remarkable degree of similarity. First, I will illustrate focal features of the two models. The second section will elaborate Tambiah's critique on the theater state model, which lacks an explanation on the pragmatic of actions in mobilizing resources to construct the center as a radiant power.
In Negara: The Theater State in Nineteenth Century Bali, Clifford Geertz locates the theatrical performance as a central function to reify the state power. In the West, the notion of the state presumes the tyrannical model of the command and obedience through the monopoly of violence. The theatrical performance, such as military parades, merely mystifies the reality, seducing the audience into thinking that the state is enacting power for its people (Geertz, 122). On the other hand, Geertz points out the importance of symbolic forms of polity that radiates its power through rituals in the 19th-century Bali. In this model of the theater-state, the power of each kingdom depended on how well it can symbolically construct a king as the center of a state through expressive symbols of ceremonies, ritual performances and architectures. The model of this polity was all-inclusive because none of the kings resorted to rules or military power to control their territories.
There was another local-level system, called subak system, which consisted of irrigation cooperative units. While its members were tied with obligatory labor, the autonomy of each unit is guaranteed because of the specialized economic and social function it serves. While the subak system served as their own legislators, police and courts of law, its rice cult worshiped the king as a living-god. Therefore, "the king, court and negara were primarily engaged in 'expressive' ritual action (imaging the cosmic truth), whereas the lower orders in the countryside were engaged in 'practical' politics (and economics)" (Tambiah: 319). In Geertz's words " (t)he political center of gravity sat very low in the Balinese polity that culture came from the top down while power welled from the bottom" (1980: 84).
Tambiah employs the term "galactic polity," which is a translation of the concept mandala, to explain the precolonial geopolitics and administrative organizations in many parts of Southeast Asia. In this mandala conception of polity, one unit of kingdom or, in his term, "galaxy" consists of the central capital and its surrounding satellites that are smaller replications of the former and governed usually by relatives or close affiliates of the central king. Like the theater state, the center represents the unity of a whole by functioning as a starting point for the performance of annual cosmic rites (259). This performative validity coincides not only with the belief system but also with personal conducts of kings whose personal charisma are strengthened by special initiation rites or in aesthetic practices.
According to Tambiah, the political economy of this model depends on two bases. First, like subak system, the rice plains served as the primal economic system organized with particular relation of people to land and the patterns of mobilization of their services. Second basis, which Geertz does not mention in Negara, is the ruler's monopoly of foreign trade. Tambiah points to active trade exchanges between Central and Southeastern Asia that not only centralized wealth, technology and military force in the capital, but also facilitated expansion of new settlement and rice cultivation along with the development of the trading sector (275). As a result of interregional trade, each kingdom was able to incorporate minorities, waves of migrants, and groups of war captives without trauma because the centers provided privilege and status to fit them in their econ-political framework.
In sum, two points should be mentioned as paralleling phenomena between the theater state and the galactic polity. First, both models demonstrate the interdependency between the center and its surrounding sub-units. While the former allocates symbolic status to the latter and, thereby incorporate it into their own realm, the latter provides economic or even political functions to the former. Second, both Geertz and Tambiah argue that it is a colonial political system that destabilized these well-balanced polities by dominating the center, rigidifying group distinctions and making the problem of status competition.
Despite these similarities, Tambiah responded to my question by saying that "the theater state model fakes the mobilization of people, labor and capital to bring products to the center and construct a 'theater.'" In the following section, I will elaborate Tambiah's critiques on Geertz's theater state and clarify the focal point of the debate.
Theater State as a Galactic Polity
In his short article, A Reformulation of Geertz's Conception of the Theater State, Tambiah basically concurs with Geertz in that both Hinduism and Buddhism share cosmological schemes that creation spreads outward from a center, power radiates from the top to bottom, and each peripheral entity is a smaller replication of the central one (322). Differences between the two models do not lie in regional specificities in Bali and other Southeast Asian Indic States, but rather in the degree to which the two models attempt to dissolve the gap between ideology and practice. What Geertz failed to explain, Tambiah says, is the substantial gap between the expressive symbology of ritual and action at the level of court and instrumental pragmatics of politics and economics at the level of villages and regions (320).
Thus, it can be suggested that the fundamental difference between the two models is in the balance between the totality of the cosmological scheme and the politico-economic reality. From Tambiah's point of view, the Balinese negara still exemplifies the conventional Marxist notion of "ideology," although Geertz argues that European ideological debate has reduced political symbology to political ideology and to class hypocrisy (Geertz, 167, Tambiah, 319). For Tambiah, the ceremonies and rituals of state are merely mystifying an illusionary unity among village communities and spiritualizing material interests of the ruler. Therefore, Tambiah equalizes the two dimensions: "the galactic polity as a totalization represents man's imposition of a conception upon the world while it is also a reflection of the contours of the politico-economic reality" (1985:319). Instead of dichotomizing into expressive actions in high order and the instrumental actions in low order, Tambiah attempts to overcome classical dichotomy between ideology and practice, and to show that "'practices' in fact exemplify the 'ideological constructs,' and vise versa" (322). I will sketch focal points of his critique on the theater state in the following few paragraphs.
First of all, Tambiah points out that Bali manifested the same pulsations as in the galactic polity model. By a pulsating nature, Tambiah means that regional arena was "a part of filed of coexisting galaxies which mutually inflected one another, and thus expanded or shrank their outer frontiers according to their success in attracting, and then keeping, the outermost satellites within their orbits" (324). Although Geertz illustrates interregional conflicts and shifting alliances among smaller blocks existing at borders of eight different kingdoms in Bali, Tambiah criticizes him of leaving it ambiguous how the center of each kingdom could gravitate these blocks only by ritualistic performances. In order to deal with this pulsating situation, there must have been pragmatic actions and rules that mobilized resources and services at the margins of each realm.
Second, Tambiah agues that "divine kingship" was not ensured by exogamous, patrilineal line, but involved with succession disputes and factional conflicts that shifted power dynamics within the court and between regions (324). Geertz does not clarify rules and norms in succession of kingship in any realm of Balinese kingdom. By citing examples of Thailand and Burmese, where "the multiple ranked marriages and concubinages" functioned as the pattern of political relations that linked the central and the peripheral domains, Tambiah hypothesizes that the central rulership depended on matrimonial kinship relations with its regional partners.
The third critique, which is related to the second one, is that Geertz depicted the king as an immobile and passive sign rather than a human agency that actively improves his personal charisma and seeks for moral legitimacy of the rulership. Again, Tambiah illustrates examples in Thailand and Sri Lanka in which kings were engaged in personal achievement and commitment to Buddhist norms of kingship, such as donation to the Buddhist temple and to works in public welfare (326). He also points out that each king sought for the royal legitimacy through the possession of palladia, regalia, and other sacra "which are enduring sedimentations of power and virtue" (327). Similarly, there were various sacra associated with the capacity and legitimacy of kingship in Bali, and their travels served as the genealogy of kingdom (327). Therefore, Tambiah insists that Geertz's portrayal of kings omitted their personal conducts to approach the norms of ideal kingship or to acquire channels of power by possessing sacred emblems that ratified their rulership. In other words, "(t)he higher their position and the greater their kingdom's glory and prosperity, the more they were reduced to mere signs among signs" (321).
Convincingly enough, Tambiah articulates intermingled connections between the expressive actions at the center and instrumental actions at the periphery: contested succession to the throne, political alliance between the center and its regions through matrimonial relations, kings' conducts in enhancing his personal charisma, and possessions of regalia, sacra or palladia to validate the rulership. His argument, which reminds us of Bourdieu's theory of practice (Bourdieu, 1972), restores individual kings' agencies and interests in "pulsating" relations between the center and the periphery, but at the same time, their practice reproduces the same scheme of a polity through expressive symbology of rituals and performances.
The Poetics of a Polity?
Did Geertz reduce the Balinese polity into a poetics? Certainly not. I agree with Tambiah in that Geertz failed to articulate the pragmatics of actions, that is, resource mobilization to translate categories into practical use, or to organize relationships between actions and signs in a shifting political and economical context. However, this critique deflects the central point of Geertz's argument. What Geertz is aiming to clarify in Negara is the social nature of charisma, that is, not only power but also culture came from bellow. He would argue that both sings and meanings of the rulership are publicly shared between the center and its regions, and the performative actions in the center are merely to accrue the signs and thicken the meanings. This is why he emphasizes the cosmological tie between the king and the subak system. The rice cult in the subak system centered the king as a living god, and the cultivation of rice ritually became sacrificial labor for the king. Therefore, there was a unified system of symbology before any action takes place. A question that Geertz would pose to Tambiah is, "so why did people recognize a sacra as the symbol of the Balinese rulership in the first hand? Where did the common understanding come from?"
In Centers, Kings, Charisma: Reflections on Symbolics of Power, he articulates the social nature of charisma. Similar to the individual agency that Tambiah discusses, Geertz says, "Charisma is (individual) involvement, even oppositional involvement, with arenas where the events that most vitally affect its member's lives take place" (Geertz, 123). In other words, there needs to be a connection between such an individual process and the symbolic values that constitute the social order. Therefore, he agues, charisma is not psychological state but a particular cultural phenomena that an individual constructs from "the inherent sacredness of sovereign power" (Ibid, 124).