erikwdavis

Reading

In Uncategorized on December 5, 2006 at 10:36 pm

Lots of reading this week: The new Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, almost completely on Cambodia; David Graeber’s big book on anthropological value, Thom Hartmann’s atrocious but well-intentioned eco-nightmare, and Alfie Kohn’s lovely caution against bribing your kids.

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Special Issue (almost completely) on Cambodia!

  • Hughes, Caroline, and Joakim Öjendal. 2006. Reassessing tradition in times of political change: post-war Cambodia reconsidered. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):415-420.

The introductory essay from these two scholars to an issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies that is (almost) entirely dedicated to Cambodia. They concentrate on the problems that have faced scholars of Cambodia in terms of access (the military and civil conflicts of the last half century), in terms of conception and approach (the ‘culturalism’ which reifies and otherizes the people into a homogenous and legible, but misrepresented whole), and attempts to re-center (a nod to my man Arif Dirlik) the notion of Cambodian culture in a way that emphasizes local agency and resistance, rather than merely a ‘passive’ withdrawal. The references in the text to Achille Mbembe, Arif Dirlik, and James Scott give one a real sense of a vital and politically-engaged academic project grounded in real lives rather than silly theory, and drew me in quickly. While not every essay in the issue lives up to expectations or hopes, most do!

  • Edwards, Penny. 2006. The tyranny of proximity: power and mobility in colonial Cambodia, 1863-1954. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):421-443.

A very nice review of colonial and even contemporary academic practices and discourses which attempted to create an image of Cambodians as stabile and immobile, in contrast to the active, progressing, and movement-oriented West, ranging from the creation of automobile roads (such as the hideous and murderous construction of the road to Bokor) under the French to the barely-disguised contempt (my feelings, not necessarily Edwards’) of many modern-day development workers who just don’t understand why Cambodians don’t want to ‘go their way.’ Against this, Edwards adduces lots of indications of long-standing habits of mobility, withdrawal, and agency.

  • Hinton, Alexander. 2006. Khmerness and the Thai ‘Other': violence, discourse, and symbolism in the 2003 Anti-Thai riots in Cambodia. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):445-468.

A review of an internet discussion board that unfolded on the Thai newspaper The Nation’s website while the riots occured, organized around the ways in which discourse on the site constructed the other in such a way as to make it amenable to morally-justified violence.

  • Hughes, Caroline. 2006. The politics of gifts: tradition and regimentation in contemporary Cambodia. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):469-489.

Despite being taken with a lot of the articles in this volume, Hughes’ article grabbed me the hardest – that’s probalby because I only recently finished my own piece on gift-giving in contemporary Cambodia, and came to many of the same conclusions and showed some of the same processes of resistance. Her thesis is that

It is argued that the hitching of traditions of giving to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion is widely rejected as lacking in any kind of cultural legitimacy, but that there are few opportunities available for the poor to make such rejection explicit. (469)

I agree completely, and show in my paper, as she does in hers, how peasants and those ‘on the bottom’ use the limited opportunities they have – from sullen silence to outright ridicule – to preserve their own dignity and sense of autonomous communities.

  • Marston, John. 2006. Death, memory and building: the non-cremation of a Cambodian monk. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):491-505.

I’ve read draft versions of this wonderful piece for a couple of years now, and have a great deal of respect for Marston’s take on it. We share the same Durkheimian approach to the topic, and some of the same reservations about that approach. I’m not sure where we would end up if we really took it in hand and decided to argue it out, but I have no doubt that John’s deep knowledge of Cambodian culture and ritual imagination would yield insights that appear like hard little kernels of truth – undeniable.

  • Öjendal, Joakim, and Kim Sedara. 2006. Korob, Kaud, Klach: in search of agency in rural Cambodia. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):507-526.

A dry but useful piece which starts from the accepted words of respect and submission to power and then attempts to unravel what agency would mean or look like in a culture like that of rural Cambodia, where the state has never really attempted to gain legitimacy.

  • Zucker, Eve Monique. 2006. Transcending time and terror: the re-emergence of Bon Dalien after Pol Pot and thirty years of civil war. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37 (3):527-546.

Eve’s lovely piece is a wonderful end to this volume. She wraps up the recurring themes of community, fragmentation, and re-emergence in a way that decides nothing, but allows for all sorts of possibilities, including most importantly perhaps, a lovely combination of agency and hope for the Khmer themselves, who after all, depend almost not at all on our minor academic insights (it is very much the other way around). Caught between theories of moral community of communal cohesion that emphasize the post-war atomism and fragmentation of Cambodian society (Ovesen et al.) and those which emphasize continuity but have not yet adequately explained how that is achieved [Ebihara and Ledgerwood ((It must be said that references to labor exchange, etc., point to a direction of the answer to how, but these articles do not, in my opinion, yet sufficiently theorize or create a model for the re-creation of community after an undeniable destruction)) ], Zucker does a lovely job of showing how these realities might actually not only co-exist, but do so in periodic time that is disrupted by the enactment of a possible, imagined community. This is done in ritual time, a ‘time outside of time,’ ((which makes me think of Bakhtin’s chronotopes, of course)) and Zucker draws on Turner’s ideas of communitas in ritual to discuss both the positive effects and their limits.

Non Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Readings This Week

  • Graeber, David. 2001. Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our own dreams. New York: Palgrave.

This is an absolutely excellent book. Graeber has managed to synthesize a broad set of theories about value and relate them in a way which is deeply compelling. Indeed, we need an anthropological theory of value, and there’s no good excuse for not having one. Graeber starts from this presupposition and then moves methodically through the steps needed to get the ball rolling. While I have occasional criticisms here and there, I recognize that ‘getting the ball rolling,’ and not ‘definining once and for all’ is the reason why he titled the book “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value,” not “An Anthropological Theory of Value.”

The first two chapters are an excellent, no-nonsense, and compelling reading of previous attempts at precisely this. Graeber delineates the various schools of thought on value, shows the promises each might have had, and why each one failed to succeed. I’d recommend these two chapters to anyone teaching a course on value, especially in anthropology.

Chapters three through seven move away from the review and criticism and toward building a new theory of value. This new theory is built on a view of reality as inherently dynamic and transforming/transformative, what Graeber calls a ‘Heraclitean’ view, opposed to the more common ‘Parminidean’ view of a reality composed of arrangements of static essences. (this, in turn, owes a great deal to Roy Bhaskar et al.’s ‘critical realism’) Then, deeply inspired by Terry Turner’s work, Graeber procedes to wed a Marxist anthropology (the ‘production of society’) to a Maussian anthropology (‘the creation of society through giving’). This leads to a constant spinning of the axes of structure verus action, society versus individual, which makes perfect sense given the premises of the book.

Graeber comes to a few wonderful preliminary conclusions: society is an unstable, dynamic thing which is created in action. Action is the important thing, not belief, not ‘structure,’ or any of the other things which are proposed as a basis. Action is related to imaginary totalities, which are prefigurative of society through the embedding of desire. These can best be seen and brought into existence through the fetish itself. The metaphor used is one of fetishes as pivots which can motivate action to transform imaginary totalities into realistic products of social action.

I have some complaints about the way that Graeber deals with desire (I think he’s justifiably flip with Lacan, and possibly unjustifiably so with Deleuze; regardless, he’s more dismissive than argumentative, and the case isn’t made sufficiently), and his distinction between a potentially unfetishized consciousness regarding magic (as opposed, I presume, to a fetishized consciousness regarding religion) doesn’t really add anything new and seems downright wrong to me. Nevertheless, I think this book is likely to be one of the most important and valuable contributions to anthropological theory in a very very long time.

One last thing are some notes about the way in which the work was conceived – thank goodness Graeber had the presence of mind to formulate this work not as a dual madagascar ethnography/theory of value. Instead, he returns again and again to the sources used by Mauss (and others following Mauss and Marx) rather than primarily to his own excellent work. This gives the work a frame and applicability which if combined with an ethnography it would not have possessed. Similarly, Graeber’s down-to-earth language and use of easily-comprehended examples consistently refuses to slip away into the ether, as so many theory-focused books tend to do. The focus remains, and is taken more seriously than rhetoric. (But hey: Palgrave! Better copy-editing!) Buy this book.

  • Gaiman, Neil. 2001. American Gods. New York: William Morrow.

Fiction. Awesome. Really. Read. Now.

  • Hartmann, Thom. 2000. Last hours of ancient sunlight. Three Rivers Press.

Could I be any more frustrated? I’ve been told for years now that this is one of the most important books many people I deeply respect have ever read. For me, it was the final straw in my increasing frustration with what I think of as ‘white-boy primitivism': a combination of correct ecological thinking, a generalized valorization of indigenous cultures, and really bad arguments. Let me break it down: the world is going to hell in an ecological handbasket, largely because we’re greedily sucking up all the ancient sunlight (compressed and sedimented carbon, such as oil, trees, etc.). This is the result of our culture, and the stories we tell ourselves (the values we live by). The world is divided into older cultures (indigenous folks living in relative harmony with the earth) and younger cultures (greedy capitalist and agriculturalist folks drinking the blood fo the earth through a big metal straw). Actually, I have little problem with any of this.

In fact, Hartmann’s right on most accounts. The big picture is correctly presented, as are most of the solutions. My issue isn’t with any of those. Rather, it’s with the radical ignorance of real indigenous folks. Hartmann consistently relies on magical portraits of indigenous groups, often getting the anthropology dead wrong (for instance, when he says that the earliest migration to the Americas were the Inuit – yikes!). His evidence rarely actually lives up to his arguments. I agree with the arguments. But instead of suggesting that we learn from and support actual indigenous groups in their struggle, he instead proposes ‘personal and social transformation’ for (presumably) white boys. As a ‘white boy,’ I find it offensive that the only thing I can do to save the knowledge that Hartmann correctly identifies as crucial for living with the earth is to affect social transformation. Instead, how about we swallow our pride for a goddamned minute and acknowledge that not only do we have lessons to learn, but but these lessons may require us to take a back seat and simply support the struggles for self-determination of others? (Similar complaints have been articulated about ‘white tolerance:’ I can’t remember off-hand who made the point, but it was said that white people often imagine that racial equality means merely allowing black people into the living room; they find it harder to accept that black people might want to re-arrange the furniture!). Primitivists, survivalists, peak-oil gloom and doomers all seem to share a simultaneous fetishization of indigeneity with a lack of real-world commitment to actually supporting the real, living struggles of indigenous groups. Instead, having adopted a generalized valorization of an unspecified ‘indigenous ethic,’ these folks get right back on their high horse and start judging the complicated and heart-wrenching choices that real indigenous folks are making every day about how to survive in the face of feral capitalism (which Hartmann does precisely with his example of the Kayapo, saying that the oppressed have become the oppressors, since they’ve been forced-in their need for food, for christ’s sake-to engage in the predatory structure of capitalism and its decimation of the forests). I know there are people out there who aren’t like this and still consider themselves primitivists, but I wish they’d speak up more. For me, I’m just going to disavow the whole movement and head back towards the indigenist camp.

Basta.

(note: I did not read the revised 2004 edition, but the original 2000 edition. Maybe Hartmann fixed all the problems. I doubt it)

  • Kohn, Alfie. Unconditional Parenting.

A good note to end on. Go read it. It’s great.

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  1. [...] On my work blog, I got angry in an earlier posting about what I saw as the generally ethnocentric and self-isolating perspective of a lot of primitivists. Normally, primitivism as it is discussed has little to do with parenting methods, though that is changing a bit, from what I can tell (continuum concept, etc.), and generally in good ways. My anger towards primitivists, just to recap, is that most of them are white men who fetishize indigenous communities as a means of appropriating their moral position. Once they’ve appropriated that moral position, just like white folks have appropriated the land, many tend to start lobbing attacks against modern indigenous folks as well. This was all instigated by my recent reading of Thom Hartmann’s famous and tremendously disappointing “Last hours of ancient sunlight.” [...]

  2. [...] This is one of those books, like Thom Hartmann’s horrible Hours of ancient sunlight, that I read on the recommendation of people whose blogs I read regularly. After the Hartmann fiasco, I was suspicious of this one, unnecessarily. This is a beautiful, and probably important book. Or at least, the first three chapters are. After those brilliant, and beautifully written chapters (the whole book is a testament to the possibility and power of lucid, gorgeous prose) on phenomenology, ecology, and perception, the argument goes off into a specific discussion of the role of literacy in the degradation of natural awareness. The main argument doesn’t hold too well, in my opinion, though many of the sub-arguments do, and are fascinating and worth reading in their own right. Regardless, I keep looking for ways to bring it up in conversation. It’s a great read, and clarified many things for me. It’s also, not coincidentally, a wonderful way to introduce others to the difficult philosophy of phenomenology and especially to the ideas of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. [...]

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