Comments on Julie Zimmerman Holt – Cahokia and the Theatre State

The big question – Western scholars have almost certainly always approached Native political organization from a purely Occidental mindset ( read Said’s Orientalism). Greece, Rome, and Camelot all weigh heavily in the mythological landscape of American adolescence.  Here power is wielded by the sword  and armies of gilded knights patrol the empires of patriarchal kings. In an evocative new article, Julie Holt revisits Geertzs notion of the Theater State (those interested in the performative aspects of space should look to Lars Fogelin) and the means by which power is manifest in ritual behavior. Rather than unification through power and domination, she suggests Cahokia coalesced under unifying themes of ritual and myth. In this formulation, people wanted to participate in the centralizing group dynamics making Cahokia. She proposes a willing populace embodying a shared worldview helped to construct the monuments making the site, much as in the same way Gibson proposes Poverty Point was built.  This perspective is incredibly useful for thinking about group labor in the past, and more comments will follow on this concept, but one point of contention is in the dichotomous thinking that characterizes the chiefdom/state dialectic.  This kind of thinking is essentialist, forming breaks and categories where none such natural divisions exist.  But nevertheless,  a great, inspiring article.  More comments on the Geertz to follow.


1 Comment

Filed under Academic Ramblings

One response to “Comments on Julie Zimmerman Holt – Cahokia and the Theatre State

  1. Edward Henry


    I liked reading Holt’s article as well. However, being raised solely by processual archaeologists I find that the idea of Cahokia’s rise to power can not be attributable to any one single causality (sans Pauketat’s idea of Historical Processualism). As archaeologists how can we look to one line of evidence and suggest that said evidence is THE reason chiefdom’s rise or fall, or institutional inequalities are implemented and sustained. The recent article by Benson et al. (2009) proposes that Cahokia’s agricultural boom and bust followed significant climate shifts. Can we “cut and paste” such theoretical and veritable evidence as those mentioned here to create a “grand theory” of cultural development seen in the likes of Mississippian society, particularly the rise of Cahokia?
    Finally, I look forward to the application of Geertz’s “Theatre State” in the rise of Hopewellian or Middle Woodland power relationships. I think there is also room to explore and apply Davis-Salazar and Wells’ theories of Ritual Economy to the rise of Middle Woodland cultures.
    Hope all is well in NO. Look forward to seeing you in Mobile. Take Care!




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