Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali

Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali

Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali

Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali


Along rivers in Bali, small groups of farmers meet regularly in water temples to manage their irrigation systems. They have done so for a thousand years. Over the centuries, water temple networks have expanded to manage the ecology of rice terraces at the scale of whole watersheds. Although each group focuses on its own problems, a global solution nonetheless emerges that optimizes irrigation flows for everyone. Did someone have to design Bali's water temple networks, or could they have emerged from a self-organizing process?

Perfect Order --a groundbreaking work at the nexus of conservation, complexity theory, and anthropology--describes a series of fieldwork projects triggered by this question, ranging from the archaeology of the water temples to their ecological functions and their place in Balinese cosmology. Stephen Lansing shows that the temple networks are fragile, vulnerable to the cross-currents produced by competition among male descent groups. But the feminine rites of water temples mirror the farmers' awareness that when they act in unison, small miracles of order occur regularly, as the jewel-like perfection of the rice terraces produces general prosperity. Much of this is barely visible from within the horizons of Western social theory.

The fruit of a decade of multidisciplinary research, this absorbing book shows that even as researchers probe the foundations of cooperation in the water temple networks, the very existence of the traditional farming techniques they represent is threatened by large-scale development projects.


The transition from myth to reason remains a problem even for
those who recognize that myth too contains reason.

—Marcel Detienne, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece

When anthropologists try to evoke an exotic non-Western society like that of Bali, the result may look like a dance of marionettes. Customarily we begin by highlighting the unusual, the strange symbols and beliefs that are most unlike our own. Through the alchemy of our own words we imprint these symbols on our subjects’ minds, and then they are made to dance. This approach can sometimes be fruitful: the celebrated French theater director Antonin Artaud wrote that he drew much of his inspiration from Balinese performances that he witnessed at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937, and saw no need to complicate his first impressions by further study. But if we are interested in a less superficial encounter there is an alternative. Suppose, in a playful spirit, we turn the question around and ask what Western social science might look like from a “magical” Balinese perspective?

Picture a scene in a griya, the residence of a Balinese high priest. Inside a walled stone courtyard, he sits engrossed in transcribing a fourteenthcentury manuscript borrowed from a colleague, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his daily rituals: silver bowls and bells, jars filled with holy water, and woven baskets filled with flower petals used to make offerings. To become a high priest, he has undergone years of apprenticeship to a senior Brahmin priest, reading and discussing the ancient literature of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. When the mentor believes that the student is ready, a funeral ceremony is performed in which the student symbolically undergoes his own death, cutting his ties to ordinary human life so that he can concentrate on the cultivation of his mind. But not all of his studies are directed toward personal enlightenment; the apprentice . . .

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