geertz, Kings, Centers, and Charisma

“Cultural Politics”

“We interpret motives in terms of their consummations, but we interpret moods in terms of their sources. We say that a person is industrious because he wishes to succeed; we say that a person is worried because he is conscious of the hanging threat of nuclear holocaust. And this is no less case when interpretations are ultimate. Charity becomes Christian charity when it is enclosed in the conception of God’s purposes; optimism is Christian optimism when it is grounded in a particular conception of God’s nature.” – Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures

Renowned sociologist/anthropologist Clifford Geertz points to the importance of cultural context when examing the interpretation of mood in cultures. Geertz’s work in the field of anthropology, specifically The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), offers incredible insight into the manifestations of cultures in such areas as mood, motives, and charisma. In “Centers, Kings, and Charisma”, Geertz delves into the cultures of three distinct peoples, Elizabeth’s England, Hayam Wuruk’s Java, and Mulay Hasan’s Morocco examining their perspectives on charisma and its legitimizing forces. Using Max Weber’s landmark essay on charisma as a departure point for a more comparative study, Geertz explores charisma and how cultures legitimate it and what actions a leader must take to maintain it. As Geertz argues above, cultures have specific contexts, thus each perceives concepts through their own particular cultural lens. Therefore, charisma and the conditions or actions needed to ensure a leader’s legitimacy differ according to the cultural constructs in which this charisma must reside.
According to Geertz, Weber’s analysis of charisma has been oversimplified, ultimately reduced, to a psychological interpretation, “In more recent and less heroic times, however, the tendency has been to ease the weight of his thought by collapsing it into one of its dimensions, most commonly the psychological, and nowhere has this been more true than its connection with charisma,” (13). Continuing along these lines, Geertz argues that many current interpretations regard charisma as a product of social disintegration, “the main interpretation of the rather more genuine upsurge of charismatic leadership in the New States has been that it is a product of psychopathology encouraged by social disorder,” (13). Geertz finds these perceptions of charisma simplistic and flawed. Additionally, Geertz realizes the western interpretations of charisma that have dominated. Geertz skillfully lays out the comparative differences of charisma between cultures.
However, Geertz does not find all current scholarship on the subject of charisma as inaccurate. Edward Shils work strikes a particular chord with Geertz’s own thought. According to Geertz, Shils avoids the Neo-Freudian interpretation, pinpointing the numerous themes present in Weber’s conception, “A few scholars, among them prominently Edward Shils, have, however, sought to avoid this reduction of difficult richness to neo-Freudian cliché by facing up to the fact that there are multiple themes in Weber’s concept of charisma, that almost all of them are more stated than developed, and that the preservation of the force of the concept depends upon developing them and uncovering thereby the exact dynamics of their interplay,” (14). It is this interplay of multiple themes that interests Geertz and his discussion of charisma. Yet, Geertz outlines Shils’s argument more explicitly, in order to reveal the structure of his own investigation:
In Shils’s case, the lost dimensions of charisma have been restored by stressing the connection between the symbolic value individuals possess and their relation to the active centers of the social order. Such centers, which have “nothing to do with geometry and little with geography” are essentially concentrated loci of serious acts; they consist in the point or points in a society where its leading ideas come together with its leading institutions to create an arena in which the events that most vitally effect its members’ lives take place. It is an involvement, even oppositional involvement, with such arenas and with the momentous events that occur in them that confers charisma. It is a sign, not of popular appeal or inventive craziness, but of being near the heart of things. (14)
Following Shils’s argument Geertz desires an exploration of “the inherent sacredness of sovereign power”. Linking the properties of rulers and gods, Geertz formulates his argument around Shils’s reformulations, “if charisma is a sign of involvement with the animating centers of society, and if such centers are cultural phenomena, and thus historically constructed, investigations into the symbolics of power and into its nature are similar endeavors. The easy distinction between the trappings of rule and its substance becomes less sharp, even less real; what counts is the manner in which, a bit like mass and energy, they are transformed into each other,” (15).
All organized societies have a political center. This political center has both a ruling elite and a collection of symbols made to legitimize those ruling. Essentially, rulers must justify themselves, “they justify their existence and order their actions in terms of a collection of stories, ceremonies, insignia, formalities … that they have either inherited or, in more revolutionary situations, invented. It is these … that mark the center as center and give what goes on there is aura of being not merely important but in some odd fashion connected with the way the world is built,” (15). Geertz utilizes the royal progresses of three distinct cultures to illustrate this point, “ In particular royal progresses (of which, where it exists, coronation is but the first) locate the society’s center and affirm its connection with transcendent things by stamping a territory with ritual signs of dominance,” (16).
Each of Geertz’s case studies produce two forces interacting with one another. Elizabeth Tudor’s England utilized virtue and allegory. Her legitimacy and charisma rested on her ability to become the living representation of virtue, “The center of the center, Elizabeth not only accepted its transformation of her into a moral idea, she actively cooperated in it. It was out of this—her willingness to stand proxy, not for God, but for the virtues he ordained, and especially for the protestant version of them – that her charisma grew,” (19). This virtue was maintained through allegory, “It was allegory that lent her magic, and allegory repeated that sustained it,” (16). By traveling throughout the English kingdom, through royal progresses, and the ceremonies and rituals contained within, Elizabeth reinforced her legitimacy, “The charisma that the center had fashioned for her out of the popular symbolisms of virtue, faith, and authority she carried … to the countryside, making London as much the capital of Britain’s political imagination as it was of its government,” (16).
In contrast, Hayam Wuruk’s Indonesia featured the forces of splendor and hierarchy. Indic culture of the 1300’s regarded the world as a “less than improvable place and royal pageantry was hierarchical and mystical in spirit, not pious and didactic,” (20). This difference results from differing cultural constructs. The Indonesian State was to be a replica of the cosmos. The king existed as a mediator between gods and men. When laid out into a schematic form, this structure resembles a collection of nested circles, with the king at the center, “At the center and apex the king; around him and at his feet, the palace; around the palace, the capital ‘reliable, submissive’; around the capital, the realm, ‘helpless, bowed, stooping, humble’; around the realm, ‘getting ready to show obedience,’ the outside world – disposed in compass-point order, a configuration of nested circles that depicts not just the structure of society but, a political mandala, that of the universe as a whole,” (20). As with the English example, royal progresses brought the ruling elite to the people, carrying with them the appropriate structure that society was to replicate, “In fourteenth-century Java, the center was the point at which such tension disappeared in a blaze of cosmic symmetry; and the symbolism was, consequently, exemplary and mimetic: the king displayed and the subjects copied,” (23). While differing greatly with Elizabeth’s virtue and allegory, similar processes and ideas are at work in the Indonesian model, “Like the Elizabethan, the Majapahit progress set forth the regnant themes of political thought—the court mirrors the world the world should imitate; society flourishes to the degree that it assimilates this fact; and it is the office of the king, wielder of the mirror, to assure that it does,” (23). However, unlike Elizabethan England, Indonesia’s structure incorporates analogy and not allegory, “ It is analogy, not allegory, that lends magic here,” (23). Thus the aesthetic splendor of the progress lends Gajah Mada charisma, but what sustains this charisma is the hierarchy it produces, which is nothing more than an analogy of the larger cosmos.
Geertz’s third and final example of Morocco exploits the political forces of movement and energy. According to Geertz’s description, Morocco’s process of charisma and its sustenance resembled the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, “In traditional Morocco … personal power, the ability to make things happen the way one wants them to happen – to prevail – was itself the surest sign of grace,” (23). Unlike the previous two examples, the center in Morocco did not reside in one place. Instead, the center constantly searched for a new location, “The kings did not even keep a single capital but instead shifted the court restlessly among the so-called Imperial Cities – Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, and Rabat – in which none they were really home. Motion was the rule, not the exception; and though a king could not, like God, quite be everywhere at once, he could try …” (25). This structure saw conflict as a pure expression of the natural order, “Political life is a clash of personalities everywhere, and in even the most focused of states lesser figures resist the center, but in Morocco such struggle was looked upon not as something in conflict with the order of things, disruptive of form or subversive of virtue, but as its purest expression. Society was agnostic – a tournament of wills; so then was kingship and the symbolism exalting it,” (24). Thus, the king’s center needed to constantly engage other smaller centers (local rulers), “The mobility of the king was thus a central element in his power; the realm was unified— the very partial degree that it was unified and was a realm – by a restless searching-out of contact, mostly agonistic, with literally hundreds of lesser centers of power within it,” (26). This charisma lasted as long as the king’s energy could sustain him. Once the energy is spent, movement is lost. Once movement is lost, the claim to kingship vanishes, “What chastity was to Elizabeth, and magnificence to Hayam Wuruk, energy was to Mulay Ismail or Mulay Hasan; as long as he could keep moving, chastening an opponent here, advancing an ally there, the king could make believable his claim to a sovereignty conferred by God. But only that long,” (26).
So what purpose does Geertz’s study serve since he himself notes its limitations at the articles’ conclusion, “All the golden grasshoppers and bees are gone; monarchy, in the true sense of the word, was ritually destroyed on one scaffold in Whitehall in 1649 and on another in the Place de la Revolution in 1793; the few fragments left in the third world are just that – fragments …” (30). Geertz argues that while social structures and their expressions alter over time, the driving forces that give them life have not, “Thrones may be out of fashion, and pageantry too; but political authority still requires a cultural frame in which to define itself and advance its claims, and so does opposition to it,” (30). Geertz’s arguments hold incredible saliency. He has an incredible ability of perception across cultures. Geertz conceptualizes and contextualizes structures, social and political, so convincingly and thoroughly that often the reader is left amazed rather than inquisitive. However, how would Geertz explain the charisma of revolutionaries or separatist movements? Undoubtedly, he points to a section contained in the articles’ conclusion, “This is the paradox of charisma; that though it is rooted in the sense of being near the heart of things, of being caught up in the realm of the serious, a sentiment that is felt most characteristically and continuously by those who in fact dominate social affairs, who ride in the progresses and grant the audiences, its most flamboyant expressions tend to appear among people at some distance from the center, indeed often enough at a rather enormous distance, who want very much to be closer,” (31). However, does this passage refer to such movements or does it refer to protests and uprisings, which differ, greatly from revolution or separation? Moreover, would not a separatist movement signal a desire to be farther away from a political center that it considers illegitimate? Additionally, if Geertz were to apply such a study to today’s cultures, what would replace the royal progress as the focus of study?
What about Geertz’s ideas applied to the French Revolution? One would assume that France would share a similar structure to that of England, however its Catholic background and “masculine” political culture (as Lynn Hunt would describe it) seemingly make France an altogether different beast. What two forces are at interplay? Chartier might argue that the sacralization of the king might fit into this discussion, while Lefebvre might point to a slightly less then rigid class hierarchy.
The revolution’s complexity complicates the application of Geertz’s theory; however, Geertz’s framework applies to the French example. Perhaps, as noted by Professor Darlene Levy, the two forces at play in revolutionary France are Republic and Virtue. Yet, unlike the English example, which bases its conceptions of virtue on a Protestant model, the revolution’s virtue displays a personality imbued with secularism. Virtue is derived not from the monarch, but rather the “nation” as a collective whole. Since the Revolution moves in stages the center ultimately shifts. Moreover, the changing nature of the Revolution and its own uncertainty about its identity make applying Geertz’s framework more difficult. While those close to the political center at the Revolution’s outset are the Bourgousie, by the time of the Terror, it has shifted to Robiespierre (The Incorruptible, the ultimate symbol of virtue) and the Committee of Public Safety. Instead of royal progresses, one of two ritualistic ceremonies may be substituted. During the Revolution’s initial stages, oration and public assembly serve as the political compass for determining the center. As Timothy Tackett pointed out in his work Becoming a Revolutionary, those who could be heard over the din in the National Assembly were the individuals wielding political power. The ability to speak effectively in the public sphere, whether through a speech or public debate in the Assembly, distinguished the political leaders of the early revolution.
However, as the Terror unfolds, the political compass points in a new direction. The emphasis on virtue and the need to sacrifice for this virtue may be located in the guillotine. Michael Foucalt discusses the traditions and implications of torture and execution in his groundbreaking work, Discipline and Punishment. As Foucalt points out, execution and torture had been public events for sometime, however in the French case when the guillotine spills blood, it is for the sake of the nation’s virtue. Crowds witnessing these events represent the “republic” or the indivisible nation made up of many, yet consisting in a solitary “general will” or single body, that being France. This violence purifies France. The Revolutionaries argue that the Terror’s bloodletting will cleanse and regenerate France into a new virtious country with a new political center. However, one could argue that popular violence served as the “royal progress”, thus allowing the “nation” to exert its “virtue” through its actions as a collective entity, therefore representing its second force “republic”. This conception places more agency on the masses, since executions were determined by revolutionary tribunals, not necessarily reflective of the popular masses.
While Paris failed to serve as a polarizing political force before the Revolution, once the Revolution begins, like London in the English example, Paris becomes the physical political center. Differences remain between the provinces and Paris, yet political power flows outward from Paris (from the center to the periphery). The changing nature of the political center reflects the changing nature of the French Revolution. Without an established identity a political center is difficult to create.
While some might argue that Geertz examples are antiquated, Geertz answers such criticisms adequately, “no matter how peripheral, ephemeral, or free-floating the charismatic figure we may be concerned with … we must begin with the center and the symbols and conceptions that prevail there if we are to understand him and what he means … the enfoldment of political life in general conceptions of how reality is put together did not disappear with dynastic continuity and divine right. Who gets What, When, Where and How is as culturally distinctive a view of what politics is, and in its own way as transcendental, as the defense of ‘wisdom and rightwiseness,’ the celebration of ‘The Daymaker’s Equal’ or the capricious flow of baraka,” (31). Societies and cultures change but these sorts of structures reinvent and rebuild themselves. The French Revolution embodies this reinvention. Geertz’s model provides a reliable methodology to determine such structures. Moreover, his worldview deserves acknowledgement, since often writers limit themselves to Western constructs and thought. However he places such emphasis on the royal progresses that one is left wondering how accurate assertions can be coming from what seems such an obscure source. Yet, this sounds quite modernist, since royal progresses were in all likelihood of great importance considering the lack of media, communication, and transportation of the historical periods discussed. Ultimately, Geertz’s arguments are convincing and compelling.

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