A major statement against which is Geertz’s study geared might be “Ritual (symbolic) is a reflection of power relations (real) in a political state.”
Against the dichotomy between ritual and power, Geertz holds that ritual itself is powerful with its prescriptive function to shape the world. Specifically in the case of Bali, ritual is a way of competing for prestige and civilization (negara)---the very form of power, and the actualization of this competition comprises the performance of the king and the imitation to him by the lords and commoners. Thus, by competing for negara through theater performance, the Balinese state is politically structured.
This is my understanding of Geertz’s basic argument, and below are several thoughts about it.
First, Geertz does not negate the expressive function of ritual. “Theater is designed to EXPRESS a view of the ultimate nature of reality, and to SHAPE the existing conditions of life to be constant of that reality.”(104) There is a structure of supernatural order(divineness)-court ritual(kingship)-social order. Though ritual is not a representation of power, yet it is still one of something else. Does this fall into the meaning-practice dichotomy criticized by Bell?
Second, by attributing power to ritual itself, Geertz highlights ritual’s function of “shaping the world”. Bell discovers a similar function in defining ritualization as a process of “producing the ritualized agent”. Can we see the two of them as addressing the same function from different perspectives of society and individual person?
Third, Geertz continuously emphasizes that ritual is not a device to state but state to ritual, and that ritual itself is the very end. It encourages the reading that the Balinese ritual performers themselves are controlled by the ritual and their thinking constrained within it, while they are unable to conduct any reflective interpretation over their activity. If we consider this in the Chinese case, we can see that traditional China was also highly centered on “ritual” (rites) through all the social strata. However, for over two millennia, Chinese scholars have been devoted to the interpretation of these rituals in Confucian terms. For them, ritual itself should not be the very end, nor the only means by which to organize the society. If the Balinese people can voice their own thoughts, will they criticize Geertz’s study as over-simplification?
Again and still! I feel troubled by the cursed concept of “ritual”. So I say: some person A does something in some way, and is seen by some person B---this is merely something happening. When, however, person A or B discovers that this is something special done in a special way with a special meaning, a ritual arises. An interpretation of ritual is nothing but an effort to say how special it is. There can be a thousand social elements attached to this happening, and power is but one of them.