Play on ontologies – Beetle contests in Thailand

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Beetle Market. (Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

 

Anthropology has been recently shaken by a so-called “ontological turn” that amends the central idea of sociocultural perspective of “one world, many worldviews” to invest the networking and the articulation of multiple worlds!  Drawing on my ethnography of uncanny games in which animals are the cornerstone, I would like to show that this alternative approach can give groundbreaking understandings of the relation Southeast Asian societies build with their environment, the new worlds they elaborate from within their milieu should I say in order to explicit the kind of methodological shift I advocate on the basis of pioneer works the like of Philippe Descola’s. As we shall see, his hypothetico-deductive apparatus can prove very valuable when it comes to specify that animals can act along human agents to participate to a community, a localized nature.

In order to start I would like to cite another very inspiring researcher, namely Gregory Bateson, whose thinking have been recently coined as a prelude to ontological anthropology by Tim Ingold. I am myself also very indebted to Bateson’s conception of communication. As he puts it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind,

“ Consider a blind man with a stick. Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion”. (in “The Cybernetics of “Self”: A Theory of Alcoholism”)

And as I shall try to develop, human are kind of quite blind in the perceived worlds of animals such as beetles, birds, fish … and reciprocally!

Interspecies game and ecological concerns

Actually Thailand is the scene of numerous games that build on uncanny cooperation between human beings and various other animal species. The competitions, very well institutionalized and organized, fall into two categories:

  • First of all there are a lot of fights: the list is quite long since one can witness duels involving rhinoceros beetle, crickets, fishes like wrestling halfbeaks and Siamese fighting fish, cocks off course, but also bulls and water buffaloes, etc.
  • Next we have signing contests for birds the kind of zebra doves and red whiskered bulbuls.

Beyond the great diversity of species involved what is remarkable is that each of these playful device is very popular and well institutionalized, even if at a different extent (cock>birds>fish>beetles)

As a social and cultural anthropologist I might have been prompt either:

1 to consider these objects to be of minor interests, I mean … games!

2 and/or to consider these objects mere mirrors in which the local society’s main values would be reflected upon! I could have thus considered animals as embedded in a human game and manipulated as symbols in a cultural text to which they are alien. It would have been like following the steps of the interpretative approach of Clifford Geertz and his Balinese cockfighting, to quote the most famous, (cockfighting embodies at least a part of what to be a Balinese means1. I could then have also built on the work of Stanley Tambiah that committed a famous and comprehensive study on animal symbolism in Thailand2. These works represent authentic landmarks to think how animals have a high potential for identification processes, how they may be used as screen on which to project human, sociocultural issues. I can’t say that these works didn’t influence or even helped me but I rapidly felt that I needed some more methodological tools to qualify what is actually at stakes in these games.

As a matter of fact, the first thing that I have been told in each case was how much the game do speak in favor of a local wisdom in the terms of a harmonious relationship built by human populations (here khon lanna, khon thai, …) with their natural environment (in opposition to a more predator like relation of the western model of development). So interestingly, in each case it isn’t so much a matter of animal symbolism as a question of what happens in the development of an elaborated relation between human beings and other animals and how these special relationships resonate the ecological disposition of Thai communities.

Rhinoceros beetles and “Thai nature’s” co-authorship in question

The competitions of “Rhinoceros beetles” (locally called kwaang) are for example exclusively encountered in Northern Thailand each year between September and December. This is the span of time during which these 3 inches horned beetles finally emerge from 8 months of growth in the soil as adults ready to breed in the open air.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)
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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)
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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)
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The entrance of the Museum of Life. (Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

Khun Prawat, who is the chairman of an International association of kwaang fighting he founded himself at the beginning of the 90’, likes to say that only people of Northern Thailand know the true and deep nature of the rhinoceros beetle! (thammachat thae khong kwaang). He was then actually following as much as instigating a folklorisation of that local traditional game. Along with academics of social sciences and biology he made of the special relation khon müang develop with kwaang a kind of symbol of local identity. They say that this long-established knowledge advocates the ability of traditional communities to nurture harmonious relations with their natural environment (singwetlom) and to embody sustainable development politics.

They established a museum of life (phiphithaphan chiwit) to celebrate this local wisdom. They choose to put the emphasis on the traditional fishing of plaa bük in the Mekong River and on the passion for beetle fighting! Considering the latter, the museum gives insight on the cycle of life of the animal and the material culture that emerged from the institutionalization of the game.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

 

 

They build actually on the numerous competitions held all over the 8 northern provinces for long time for sure, enough for local craftsmanship to develop in various esthetic and technical traditions.  Prawat organizes now for some more than 20 years a big competition that either starts or seal the end of the whole season of kwaang fighting.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

The game do really drive people crazy and it’s not surprising that It didn’t take many years before the governor of Chiang Mai saw the interest he had to patronize the event.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)
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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

I think that the best way to understand the political use of beetle fighting tradition is to go deeper on what it pragmatically stands: the uncanny coordination of action between human beings and insects. I follow Prawat footsteps when he says that kwaang remain a very mysterious animal. Actually, A kind of thorough ambiguity pervades in the network of kwaang fighting, from their collect up to the fights and through endless training and assessment sessions. One can never be sure when beetles are to appear, where, if they’ll be good at fighting, if they’ll be evenly aggressive throughout their 3 months’ career …  All the more the little animal resists all efforts done to try to breed him. As a matter of fact wild collected specimen will more than often be stronger that the one that are out of kwaang farms. Some of the farming experience is by the way documented in the museum of life.

What thus could be done out of Khun Prawat’s assertion? I shall try to build here on a double decentering of our thought that is departing from our respective ethnocentric and anthropocentric truisms:

1 First and so to speak as Descola, we have to open our mind to other cosmologies that organize solutions of continuities and discontinuities between physicalities and interiorities differently from the one that have outrageously dominated modern scientific thinking;  As we shall see kwaang players don’t separate so clearly sociocultural fact from biological ones for example. The games I have studied shed an interesting light on local cosmologies.

Players and their beetles are belonging to a localized and situated nature, not an objectified one: we speak here about the Thai idea of thammachat (order of what is), a nature that is not mentally constructed in contrast to culture but to disorder! Nature is a world in itself where everybody has to find its place so as everything, every phenomenon is in order … or not! The construction of Thainess or other local identity is thus articulated with a distinctive way of building one’s relationship with its own environment, be it cultural or natural or whatsoever… It’s a question of a Thai nature and obviously, it emerges from the relations Thai nurture with what is around them! What’s the reality being produced here with beetles?!

2 Beetles and players are belonging to a localized and situated nature like it has been thus said, but not only and this is my second point. We have to fight here not only with our ethnocentrism but with something which is cognitively even more powerful which is our predisposition to anthropocentrism : regarding and interpreting the world in terms of human values,  human experiences and human point of view.

Strangely enough it’s one of the forefather of social anthropology that conducted the first comprehensive monography of an animal to prove that every form of animal life share a common principle of free intelligence. In1868 Lewis Henry Morgan published The American Beaver and His Works. Not only the Beaver do adapt its behavior to its environment, writes Morgan, but it actually shapes its environment to meet its own needs! Beaver is ultimately part of the same American community of experience as much as the Iroquois communities that Morgan has previously studied.  Emulating Morgan’s approach I tried to scrutinize not only what Thai players did think they could share with their animals but what they actually do share or not. I thus try to escape that doomed heritage of the Cartesian dualism (that oppose spirit to matter, humans/animals…) that lead to see animals as mere reactive machines to stimuli, not master/owner of their action.

I undertook to be more sensible to the way the human players are forced to deal with beings that live in very different “subjective worlds” (umwelt) from ours!   I borrow here the famous expression of the German biologist Jakob Von Uexküll3. This ethologic methodological tool had helped me to take seriously what’s really happening there, the question I asked to myself in each case is how an interspecific coordination of action can be possibly established with animals that perceive the world and act upon it in quite a different way? How can we even communicate with them actually?  What can we share with them? Representations? Mental images? This is far from being self-evident! A joint attention framework may be?

How animal alterities force players and anthropologists to an estrangement experiment

In a way I limited myself to emulate the attitude of the players towards their champions. I rapidly acknowledged that the players not only spontaneously resort to anthropomorphism, namely to the attribution of human attributes to their animals. Amateurs need also, and above all should I add, to “become an (other) animal” and this is the kind of estrangement process that I am interested in figuring out.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)
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Fish fighting, here Plaa kaat, also drive amateurs into other ways of being to the world. (Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

In this respect each species meets a popular success that, this is the hypothesis I take on, has much to do with the solving of the problems raised by the necessary communication, even if restricted, between human players and other animals. The ambiguity that pervades as a consequence of bestowing to animals the central role makes these games really challenging. Let’s say that it is more complicated to communicate with an insect than with a mammal and one don’t communicate the same way with a bird and a cow.

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The famous function circle (feedback loop ancestor) of Jakob Von Uexküll

Without going into detail here, one can assume that in each case the devices are different, the communicational and sensory clutches vary following the species: auditive and optical for birds, haptic and vibratory with beetles. Fighting fish present a peculiar configuration, at the same time simpler and more complicated since the players are supposed not to interfere or influence the result from the beginning of the duel up to its term. It is barely a question of perception of animal action.

This is the very reason why I decided to focus first on the competitions involving the species that mean a priori the biggest challenge since they wander far away from us on the phylogenetic tree: beetle, fish and bird competitions4.

How do the players conform themselves to the specific ways each species perceives its environment and act upon it according to its particular physiological, perceptive and cognitive characteristics?

Let’s focus on our favorite insect:

Male rhinoceros beetle specimens are said to be quite mutually aggressive as they would be obsessed with the idea of getting the right to disseminate their genes! They are also regarded as highly sensible animals, mostly sensible to vibrations actually. In fact, the players try to communicate with their beetles thanks to a notched stylus that properly manipulated can produce vibrations to which the insects seem to be interested in. By doing so, the players follow a well-documented ability to vibratory communication among arthropods. Beetles, notably, can produce, various kind of stridulation considering the different species (by scraping their protothorax against their mesothorax as far as Rhinoceros Beetle are concerned).  Making the most of these two putative ethological features, players developed strategies to enhance the aggressiveness of their insects, not only during the fight but also throughout a real training process that take weeks to enable a kwaang to be eligible to walk up the ring! As a result, the drama inherent to these duels attracts the attention of many amateurs and produces an intensive gambling economy!

Let’s go further in these intimate tactile relations. The kwaang fight set-up can actually appear rudimentary at first glance. Two male beetles are placed on a wooden log that serves as the combat area.

This log has two small holes containing females whose pheromone is expected to excite the two males. Beforehand the beetles have been closely looked after for weeks. First all they have been nurtured with high intakes of sugar cane on which they dwell night and day. They are also sometimes given a real glucose dope (sugar cane juice) to boost them when needed, a few minutes before a fight for example. Secondly they have been well trained, that is stimulated on a daily basis with the following techniques.

From a pure technical pointof view, players can influence the behavior of their insects in three ways:

1 – Through direct contact.

      • Players can touch their beetles with their fingers.
      • By means of a notched stylus that can be operated in two different ways. Players can stimulate the beetle by touching it directly with the stylus. [Video 1]

2 – Through indirect contact by pressing the stylus against the log and nimbly rolling it between their thumb and middle finger so as to produce vibrations. [Video   2 et 6]


3 – By turning the log around its longitudinal axis—the player’s goal being to help his beetle find the best position in which to grab its opponent or escape its opponent’s grip. [Video combat]

The observation of the game shows that it’s neither a natural nor a pure human balance of power device. We can thus learn a double lesson from the coordination attempted in this game:

1 We cannot limit ourselves to an “etho-naturalistic” understanding of the process. Males fight each other only for the right to cover the females indeed. But kwaang enthusiasts can’t solely bank on the insect’s ability to stimulate itself. We know that in the wild, most meetings between two beetle  males end in either avoidance or a relatively quick fight; in any case, the fight does not last long enough to produce a spectacle that kwaang players would consider worthy of that name. A “mono-specific” setup that would only involve releasing two males onto a log would not provide the same quality of fun as an “interspecific” setup in which players pit their skills against one another, as is the present case, stimulating their protégés, sustaining their combativeness. Kwaang amateurs have chosen to move away from the configuration found in the wild through a clever cooperative system that allows them to extend the fight, which can last as long as twenty or even thirty minutes.

2 If it is not a so called “natural” set up, similarly the game cannot be reduced to a pure technical device that would see human players confronting one another through insects. The beetles actually don’t answer to player’s commands with high fidelity. It’s is not a remote-control relation. Once the beetles have been released, the players are no longer allowed to touch their champions directly, except when the game has been stopped because at least one of the opponents is no longer in a combat position, having either backed away or left the combat area. It means that the players choose to let their beetle free, to loosen the relation of control, to let their insect go wild! If kwaang are quite responsive when directly touch, the least we can say is that it seems  they do what they want when the players have to reduce their hazardous influence on the game by rolling one’s notched stylus on the wooden log! At no point can kwaang fighting be reduced to a mechanical system, to a remote-control or string-puppet apparatus.

Ontologic volatility and play upon cosmologies

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

Ambiguity pervades indeed. Not only do the control of the game seems distributed in the whole cybernetic loop linking together the beetles with the players and all the technical apparatus, different ontologies of the kwaang do also confront themselves among players. Interestingly when it comes to interpret the result of such fight, the ponderation in between natural characteristics (either genetics and or morphology), psychology, training, player’s technicity on the log etc. vary a lot from one player to another.

For example, while some player would attribute victory to animal characteristics for 20%; insect brave heart 10 %; training 50% and  player’s technicity 30% others would rather explain it at 30% by animal characteristics; 30 % insect brave heart; 20% training and 10% player’s technicity.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

Behind these different rationales we find alternative ways of considering beetle’s ontology. Some will see them as very sensible animal, a kind of nerves bundle that has no central nervous system and that has to be stimulated and controlled as much as possible. Others at the very other end of the spectrum will not only attribute a brain but also a will and a heart (jit jai), some feelings, moods and even souls (kwan and even winjaan when it comes to special champions!). If the ones who view kwaang as sensible machines prefer stocky beetles with large horns and try to weight as much as possible during the fight, the latter favor slimmer beetles that come with long lower horn that are supposed more intelligent than their massive counterparts, and most important, they are more prone to not interfere that much once the insect are freed on the log, they actually delegate the control of the match to the beetle to a greater extent.

This is the strength of this game, I mean to enable the cohabitation between different species but also between very various conceptions of continuities and discontinuities between these species. The device upholds a kind of vast network of analogic correspondences between diverse dimensions: connections, meaningfull analogic links can be done and undone endlessly, can be tested infinitely between the insect physicality, its interiority, its behavior, the result of the fights, etc.

In this context, at what point can it be said that players communicate with their kwaang? The beetle ultimately imposes its sensory universe while leaving humans the possibility of appending code, meaning, and technique. Yet, the final ranking of kwaang competitions does not celebrate one beetle over the others or a player over the others but interspecific couples. The major tournaments are made like this: the winner is a couple man+beetle that is the winner of the match that raised the highest sum of bets among gamblers. Thus the game is ultimately oriented toward the greatest confidence players  can inspire with their champions to the gamblers. And there all players agree on one thing, kwaang cannot be tamed, a good player build assurance along with the insects he selects and patiently takes care of on a daily basis. They call it a co habituation process (hai khoei chin kan), a reciprocal move where both parties have to learn to mutually acknowledge the other as accurately as possible.

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(Photo: Stéphane Rennesson)

How can we finally interpret Prawat assertion “we Thai know the true and deep nature of the kwaang”? As an anthropologist who is interested in building a familiarity with other ways of engaging with one’s environment,  I can’t help seeing from the close observation of practice a kind of co-production of a culture of negotiation where continuities and discontinuities between human beings and beetles are being constantly investigated. Both parties accept to be affected by the other and to experience as a consequence a kind of transformation, always open to new possibilities, potencies. I assume that this is an attitude that take us to the very root of how these people think and act the “harmonious” relations they foster not with but from within their environment.

Cite this article as: RENNESSON Stéphane,  “Play on ontologies – Beetle contests in Thailand”, in nature.hypotheses.org, December 16, 2016, (https://nature.hypotheses.org/214).

  1. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, Daedalus, Vol. 101, No. 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture (Winter, 1972), pp. 1-37 []
  2. “Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit”, Ethnology, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Oct., 1969), pp. 423-459 []
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_von_Uexk%C3%BCll []
  4. About beetle fighting I published in english an article  (Insect Magnetism. The communication circuits of Rhinoceros beetle fighting in Thailand, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2012 2 (2): 257–86,http://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/article/view/hau2.2.014/208) and a film (Kings of the Beetle, ARTMAP-CNRS, 2011, https://archive.org/details/KwaangVA).

    There are also 2 other documentaries about fish fighting but the subtitles are in french, english version is on its way (Murky Waters, ARTMAP-CNRS, 2011, https://archive.org/details/EauTrouble []


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