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  • The Photogenic Cannot Be Tamed:Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson's Trance and Dance in Bali
  • Fatimah Tobing Rony (bio)


I watch the bodies in trance in Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead's ethnographic film Trance and Dance in Bali projected on a screen in a dormitory at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It is 1982. The film is a vision of extreme otherness: young bare-breasted women with rippling black hair and slim young men in loincloths gyrate as they stab themselves in trance with the jagged swords of the Balinese kris. Astonishingly no blood is drawn. Funded by the Committee for Dementia Praecox (or schizophrenia), the film was shot in 1936-39 in the town of Pagoetan, on the island of Bali, in what is now Indonesia.1 The Balinese are represented as pathological, creatures of an erotic, exotic past, presented by the camera and the voiceover from a geographical and temporal distance. There is an odd tension between the comforting but dry, matter-of-fact nature of Margaret Mead's voiceover and the ritual violence shown in the film.

I am the only Indonesian in a darkened room full of Indonesianists, gamelan heads, and anthropologists (although I am in masquerade: one of my fellow classmates assumes that I am "a quadroon!" (his term). Like the other students I am here to learn [End Page 5] the Indonesian language and hear an explanation given by a distinguished scholar, who in his crisp short-sleeve shirt is the antithesis of the other historians of my life, my card-playing chain-smoking uncles and aunties back in Jakarta.

The question that I am trying to formulate, then as a 19-year-old American-born Indonesian who is only learning to speak the language, surrounded by older PhD candidates from universities like Chicago or Michigan, is quite simple. Why is it that nobody in the room asks about the possibility that the Balinese men and women in the film are indeed inhabited by spirits or gods? In other words, I seek an explanation for why trance, to use Dipesh Chakraborty's term, is anthropologized away, "that is, converted into somebody's belief or made into an object of anthropological analysis."2 Chakraborty writes: ". . . these are pasts that resist historicization, just as there may be moments in ethnographic research that resist the doing of ethnography."3

These moments are intractable because they challenge the historian's sense of a linear, teleological, measurable sense of time. After all, if a madman's narrative cannot be history, then neither can that of a Balinese dancer whose body is inhabited by a god or spirit. Chakraborty continues:

Subaltern pasts remind us that a relation of contemporaneity between the nonmodern and the modern, a shared and constant "now," which expresses itself on the historical plane but the character of which is ontological, is what allows historical time to unfold. This ontological "now" precedes the historical gap that the historian's methods both assume and posit between the "there-and-then" and the "here-and-now." Thus what underlies our capacity to historicize is our capacity not to. What gives us a point of entry into the times of gods and spirits-—times that are seemingly very different from the empty, secular, and homogenous time of history-—is that they are never completely alien; we inhabit them to begin with.4

It's this last point which illuminates that impasse that I felt 25 years ago: what will give us entry into the times of people inhabited by spirits is to notice that those times are "never completely alien; we inhabit them to begin with."

The Western notion of a Self that is individual and autonomous is seen as being at odds with the Balinese notion of a Self that may be possessed by Spirits. It was a difference in viewing that the Balinese themselves made note of, for according to anthropologist Margaret Wiener, the Balinese referred to the Dutch as having "white eyes": meaning, with a bluish cast like an old person who has difficulty seeing, but also, meaning blind to the world of the divine.5 Wiener argues that differing notions of what was...


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