Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali

Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali

J. Stephen Lansing
Series: Princeton Studies in Complexity
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 248
Stable URL:
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4586-6
    Subjects: Anthropology, Environmental Science, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction (pp. 1-19)

    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...

  5. 2 Origins of Subaks and Water Temples (pp. 20-66)

    In an afterword he wrote to an earlier book of mine about Balinese water temples, Valerio Valeri commented on the apparent detachment of the princes of Bali from the productive system of irrigated rice terraces. Why didn’t the kings claim these important resources for themselves? Valeri observed that “the puzzle exists because we do not understand a political ideology that discourages the indefinite expansion of kingly power, especially in the direction of the basic grounds of its existence.”

    This question recurs in the literature on Balinese kingship and society. In 1932 the great Dutch ethnographer V. E. Korn described “the...

  6. 3 The Emergence of Cooperation on Water Mountains (pp. 67-87)

    The irrigation system that provides the water to flood the Sebatu water mountain begins at a dam several kilometers upstream, deep in a valley carved by the Petanu River. The dam allows a third of the river to flow downstream, where it is captured by other subaks, and shunts the rest into a tunnel. The tunnel parallels the river but gains a little elevation, so that when it emerges a few kilometers downstream, it is at the top of the Sebatu water mountain. The flow from the tunnel is immediately divided in two: one canal floods the Sebatu rice terraces;...

  7. 4 Tyrants, Sorcerers, and Democrats (pp. 88-121)

    One afternoon about fifteen years ago, a group of farmers stormed angrily out of a meeting in the village of Kedisan and declared that they would no longer participate in subak affairs. The reason for their anger was the refusal of their neighbors to agree to call them by an honorific title. This title had recently been adopted by some of their relatives in other villages, as a prerogative based on the hierarchical rank or “caste” of their descent group. Their neighbors, however, were inclined to view the title not as the restoration of an ancient prerogative but rather as...

  8. 5 Hieroglyphs of Reason (pp. 122-152)

    The Kebayan-kings of Pujung were merely the latest in a long list of stray elements that had so far eluded capture in our simulation models, videotapes, and questionnaires. Witches, sorcerers, Blerong spirits, and for that matter the entire panoply of rituals at the water temples had been spared our attentions; it was much easier to catch leafhoppers—or gossip, for that matter. But while supernatural beings are usually left untroubled by scientists, the one exception is anthropologists. While my colleagues were gathering factual data with their flowmeters and surveys, when left to myself I often reverted to old habits, asking...

  9. 6 Demigods at the Summit (pp. 153-189)

    Perched dramatically on the rim of Mount Batur overlooking the crater lake, the supreme water temple Ulun Danu Batur is a collection of nested stone courtyards enclosing an array of towering shrines and pavilions, dedicated to the worship of a pantheon of forty-five deities, foremost among them the Goddess of the Lake, who is said to make the rivers flow and bring prosperity to the land (figure 26). From an architectural standpoint the temple seems ageless and serene, but for the past half century it has been a site of almost continuous turmoil. The explanation for this instability, I suggest...

  10. 7 Achieving Perfect Order (pp. 190-212)

    The initial impetus for the research that led to this book was the discovery that computer simulations of Balinese water temple networks will self-organize, provided each node of the network is given the capacity to adapt to its local environment. As simulated networks coalesce, their ability to solve problems expands from the level of individual nodes to that of the network as a whole. In this way, the whole becomes something more than the sum of all the parts, a phenomenon noted by Aristotle.¹ Viewing the water temples from this perspective offered an opportunity to make use of the mathematical...

  11. Additional Publications from the Subak Research Projects (pp. 213-216)
  12. Index (pp. 217-226)
  13. Back Matter (pp. 227-227)

You are not currently logged in.

Login through your institution for access.


Log in to your personal account or through your institution.