Archive for the ‘comment’ Category

Who Shall Bind …

In comment on April 5, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Who Shall Bind the Infinite? – William Blake

Making great progress on my manuscript, so instead of writing more substantive work, let me leave you with this quote from William Blake, which for me encapsulates so much about my work on deathpower:

I bring forth from my teeming bosom myriads of flames,
And thou dost stamp them with a signet; then they roam abroad,
And leave me void as death.
Ah! I am drown’d in shady woe and visionary joy.

‘And who shall bind the Infinite with an eternal band
To compass it with swaddling bands? and who shall cherish it
With milk and honey?
I see it smile, and I roll inward, and my voice is past.’

She ceas’d, and roll’d her shady clouds
Into the secret place.

Architecture, especially funerary architecture, is ritual materialized and perfected

In comment on April 3, 2013 at 10:19 am

Architecture, especially funerary architecture, is ritual materialized and perfected.

Peter J. Wilson, 1991. The domestication of the human species. Yale UP, p. 130. cited in Bailey and Mabbett, The Sociology of Early Buddhismp. 96.

Great Coverage of Samdech Euv (King-Father) Norodom Sihanouk’s Funeral

In comment on April 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

I’m working great guns on my manuscript and the associated Book Proposal for publishers that I’m sending out in the next week. The book has a working title of Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, though the only thing I really care about in there is the word “Deathpower.” 

I’m also teaching and doing other stuff. Did I mention the kids had Spring Break last week and so were home all week while I was teaching, and then my eldest got some sort of pukey-flu that kept him home yesterday, too?

While I do that, I’m not writing on Sihanouk’s funeral, yet. I did promise to do so, and do plan on it.  In the meantime, let me recommend the single-best web-coverage in English I’ve found on the funeral, including day-to-day coverage and reports, and collections of newspaper links, over at LTO Cambodia. LTO stands for Long Time Observer, and his stories, photos, and commentary are worth regular attention.

The Rohingya, Buddhism, and anti-Muslim sentiment

In comment on March 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

I’ve been constantly checking my twitter feed lately. #RohingyaNOW Why? Because it’s almost the only place I can find news about what appears to be a straight-up genocidal attempt by some Burmese fascists. I’m not using that word metaphorically or rhetorically; I believe they qualify as fascists under most standard definitions of the word. These people are attempting to provoke a mass movement to expel or murder all non-Burmese and non-Buddhists from the country. Facing its own long-running Muslim minority problems in the South, Buddhist Thailand is doing its bit, too. Long the cooperative beneficiary of human trafficking from Burma into Thailand, security forces from both Thailand and Burma have attacked boats full of Muslim refugees fleeing the violence, sometimes drowning all those on board, other times pushing them away from Thailand’s coastlines, refusing them the obligatory offerings to refugees under International Law.

I do not have time at the moment for an extensive commentary on these issues, but want to add my voice to those who are pleading with the media, the United Nations, and others, to increase coverage, stand up for the victims of communal violence, and begin a process of restoration for victims of genocidal violence. A few points:

1. These are indeed “Burmese Buddhist Fascists.” They are opposed, apparently, first to the Rohingya, an ethnic minority and Muslim group largely in Western Burma.  The fascists consider them illegal immigrants, though they have been in the area for many generations. They are not opposed to the Rohingya solely for reasons of ethnic difference, either: they are explicitly opposed to Muslims in general. Moreover, much of the most vocal leadership, and according to pictures from the most recent riots and murders, much of the on-the-ground leadership, is by Buddhist monks. Here’s Buddhist monk Wirathu, founder of the newly-formed Buddhist Fascist group “969″, sermonizing against Muslims and encouraging a financial boycott of Muslim enterprises, while stoking fears of a Muslim takeover of Burma. It’s chilling:

Additionally, while the violence against Burma’s Rohingya and Muslims existed prior to the recent steps toward democratization indicated by the new participation of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in politics (so lambasted in the monk’s speech, above), it seems to have worsened significantly since then. I do not have enough knowledge of the situation first-hand to confirm this, and am basing my perception here on discussions I had with various people who study Burma (both Burmese and non-Burmese) recently. If correct, it would be interesting to read Burma’s current case against the recent work of sociologist Michael Mann, Democracy’s Dark Side: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. In that book, Mann (whose companion volume on Fascists is also compelling) argues that sudden democratization, mediated by a number of other necessary preconditions, can actually drive ethnic cleansing. I don’t necessarily endorse his views in either book, though I have found much of them compelling and very “good to think with.”

Regardless, Aung San Suu Kyi has been almost completely silent about the multi-year attack on Burmese Muslims. Some reports point out the great overlap between the primary sources of her political support (Buddhist monks) and the primary sources of these anti-Muslim fascists (Buddhist monks), such as this article, headlined, Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Saffron Monks” Stalk Streets With Machetes – Mass Slaughtering Refugees.

2. This is a political conflict about ethnicity and religion, not a religious conflict that has become political. This is a key distinction. When it is presented as ‘ethnic violence,’ or ‘communal violence,’ in the international media, or by UN officers, we imagine different lines than may actually exist.  Watch the following video, which covers the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Meiktila on March 22. You’ll see two Burmese Buddhist laypeople interviewed. Read the rest of this entry »

Primitive Accumulation heats up in Cambodia

In cambodia, comment on February 24, 2012 at 9:21 am

The process of primitive accumulation – the robbing and looting that precedes industrial development and the emergence of a large class of waged-laborers, according to Marxist development theory – is heating up in Cambodia. I’ve written about primitive accumulation in Cambodia previously, and have been working on applying the theory of primitive accumulation (especially through the influences of David Harvey and Silvia Federici) to the contemporary Cambodian situation for several years.

Extremely clear in the Cambodian situation (though the logic appears universal and non-particular) is that indigenous groups are often the first to experience the depredations of primitive accumulation. Look at the American example: first, Native peoples were forced off of the land deemed most valuable at the time – agricultural lands. They were forced onto lands agriculturally non-productive.  Those lands, tragically, were agriculturally nonproductive partly because they hold the world’s majority of valuable, industrial economy inputs – things like uranium, oil, and metals. So now, in the American Southwest, Native groups experience exposure to uranium mining and what some have called radioactive genocide.

In Cambodia, the relationship between upland indigenous groups and lowland peasants is significantly different. But much of the logic remains intact – it is in the agriculturally improductive lands of the highlands that much of today’s industrial wealth is created – mining, logging, and rubber plantations. As those lands are expropriated from indigenous groups by government-offered concessions, indigenous groups become profoundly ‘modern.’ My sense – I do not have the statistics (anyone?) – is that upland groups are now more proletarianized, proportionally (that is, they subsist primarily on wages from wage labor) than lowland Khmer. Read the rest of this entry »

Cambodia, Slavery, and Not Buying People

In comment on November 17, 2011 at 10:06 am

Slavery in Cambodia – an enormous problem existing at all levels – has been receiving increased attention: here’s a good article in the Phnom Penh Post, and here’s an article from CNN. Gratefully, the new attention is not solely focused on the sexual slave trade. That trade needs lots of attention and needs to be eliminated, but an exclusive focus on that simply normalizes the slavery of men, who are also widely trafficked.  I’m grateful that these ‘separate’ problems are increasingly being seen as linked.

Unfortunately, those who continue to profit from slavery – slavers and their customers – continue to unwittingly conspire together. In a recent raid on a brothel, journalist and professional op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof live-tweeted the event. I’ve discussed Kristoff on this blog before: I consider him a human trafficker whose ‘good intentions’ have led him not only to purchase two human beings (he made sure to get a receipt so he could be reimbursed by the New York Times newspaper), but to create an image of himself as a ‘saint’ as a result.  It’s a disturbing synergy, where Kristoff performs the role of a John, allows the slaver to profit financially from the transaction, and where Kristof then is also allowed to profit from the transaction. Thankfully, journalists are now starting to note the self-serving sanctimony, and question its efficiency, including good articles at, “Nick Kristof To The Rescue!

If you are interested in eliminating slavery in the world today – and you should be – I suggest you join a local abolitionst movement, such as Not for Sale.  I am a local and founding member of a group called Historians Against Slavery, an open group to academics and others who wish to more intentionally attack slavery and its causes. But please – don’t buy people, and don’t encourage those who do.

Journalist Faine Greenwood in Cambodia wrote on Kristof’s recent live-tweeting of the raid, and took a moderate, but critical, position. She also graciously linked to my brief previous discussion of the topic. I encourage you to read it, here:

Sounding Cambodia for November 16, 2011

In comment on November 17, 2011 at 9:55 am

The floods and their impact are disheartening, to say the least. It’s been distressing to see the extent to which Cambodia has been neglected in the international – and even Cambodian! – press, in favor solely of stories and photos of a flooded Bangkok.

Asian Media Lab created this great little video of, yes, images of urban Bangkok, but at least they are particularly good images, and accompanied by some great Isaan beats. You’ll have to click through to see it; I can’t get it to embed here.

Ieng Tirith has been found unfit for trial, but Brother Number 2, Nuon Chea, will stand trial.

The Prey Lang forest conflict continues to heat up. Here’s a background video, and an article from the Phnom Penh Post about the challenges – both legal and physical, including death threats – faced by those attempting to save the forests.

And here’s a short 2 minute report from Al Jazeera on the conflict:

A massive statue found in the Ta Prohm temple! Whoa:

It’s getting tense over at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC)

In comment on August 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm

So, Things are getting a bit intense over at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia).  Newish Co-Investigating Judge Siegfried Blunk, whose go-it-alone style and brusque treatment of pre-existing staff at the courts has not made him a lot of friends there, talked in his typical style to the Phnom Penh Post yesterday.  He had this to say about Professor Steve Heder’s departure from the staff of the Extraordinary Chambers:

After the contract of this consultant was not renewed by our Office for certain reasons, he obviously had an axe to grind, and in a toxic letter tried to portray the termination of his contract as his “resignation” levelling all sorts of allegations at our Office. He would be well advised to bear in mind his post-contractual obligations.

This is a very serious accusation against Professor Steve Heder.  Judge Blunk essentially accuses Heder of attempting to sabotage the progress of the tribunal for reasons limited to personal satisfaction of employment. Not cool, if true.  But Heder deserves a great deal of confidence here.  Heder is the author, along with Brian Tittemore, of “Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge.” Published in 2001, this paper must be considered the most influential and significant published contribution to the prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders prior to the convening of the ECCC.

The departure appears to have something to do with the way in which the important term “those most responsible” for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. This term is important because “those most responsible” are the ones who will be charged. So the way in which the term is defined for the purposes of the court will determine how many people will eventually be tried in the courts.  Heder discusses this obliquely in a short article here, and in a longer article titled A Review of the Negotiations Leading to the Establishment of the Personal Jurisdiction of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, available here.

Heder’s contributions are significant, in other words. That’s not just my opinion, but obviously shared not only by historians of the Khmer Rouge, but also by other ECCC observers, like David Scheffer, here.

Whatever the actual situation behind Heder’s departure from the Chambers, his response to Blunk’s public shot across the bow probably didn’t lower the temperature. After rehearsing his account of the events behind his departure, he responds directly to Blunk’s threat:

As for my post-contractual obligations, I continue to reserve the right of reply to any inaccurate or misleading information published about my work for the ECCC, such as this statement by Judge Blunk, who would be well advised to get his facts straight.

The whole letter is here, and worth a read.


Quote: A Few Nice Thoughts From Roy Rappaport

In comment on August 10, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Working on some of my thoughts on Ritual and Imagination right now, and it’s always good to go back to Mr. Rappaport. Here are some good quotes from, and about, his thought:

“The nature of humanity…is that of a species that lives and can only live, in terms of meanings it itself must fabricate in a world devoid of intrinsic meanings but subject to physical law.” (Ritual and Religion, 451)

Roy defines ritual as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.” (Ritual and Religion, 24)

“The meaning of ritual’s informationlessness is certainty.” (Ritual and Religion, 285)

According to Rappaport, social truths are hierarchically organized so that “the ultimately sacred forms an unchanging ground upon which all else in adaptive social structures can change continuously without loss of orderliness.” (Ritual and Religion, 427)

“Rituals create conventional states of affairs and conventional understandings. Magic is the extension of the process ‘beyond the domain of the conventional in which it is effective into the domain of the physical where it is not.; A war can be ended by a properly conducted ritual of peace, but a drought cannot. However, the domains are hard to distinguish: ‘people occasionally die of witchcraft.’” (Ecology, meaning, religion, 191).

“[A]s Rappaport himself so ably argues, precisely because the cooperative act of symbolic communication enables – indeed demands (cf. Wagner 1981) – individuals’ continual invention of new meanings, ritual’s speechless form and performance persist within already established systems of symbolic communication as a way of defending ourselves from the arbitrary power of our own symbolic formulations to imagine alternatives, sanctify the inappropriate, and intentionally lie.” Watanabe and Smuts, (“Explaining Religion without….” 105)

Why am I interested?  I find in ritual a far less ‘noisy’ set of cultural ‘rules’ or ‘norms’ (I’m not being at all precise in my language here) than the discourses about such rituals – either emic or etic – could ever provide.  I am convinced that these basic sets of meaning, or certainty, are extremely generative and powerful, and construct themselves around particular sets of social closure, a topic I’ve begun to address – also unfortunately elliptically, which seems to be my curse – here.

The Role of Metrics in Racist Science

In comment on July 29, 2011 at 4:19 pm

**Trigger Warning for those who find the predatory collection and scientific examination of human remains disturbing.**

Stephen J. Gould’s enormously influential book, The Mismeasure of Man, took on the most influential examples of racist science, ranging from IQ tests to phrenology. In this excellent book, he demolished the racist preconceptions of such science, and demonstrated convincingly that these pseudoscientific measures of racial intelligence (how big is cranial capacity, what’s the shape of the skull, etc.) were not only wrong in the details, but far more importantly, useless in proving their points: that intelligence is influenced by racial inheritance.

With the current rise in extreme right-wing, racialist ideology in the United States, and its increasing acceptance and popularity in the mass media, some academics have predictably joined the bandwagon, and are attempting to recuperate some of the most egregious examples of racist science.  Murray and Herrnstein tried this with IQ tests back in the 90s with their wildly popular and now debunked book The Bell Curve. Even stranger, these current academics are attempting to recuperate the work of Samuel G. Morton, grand head-collector of the racist science.

In earlier work of mine on the collection of Native American remains by museums and private collectors, I had an opportunity to examine an original edition of Morton’s Crania Americana, which included a hand-written note from Morton, encouraging the recipient of the book to collect as many Indian skulls as he could get his hands on, for Morton’s collection.

The report in question is “The mismeasure of science: Stephen J. Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias.” published by PLoS Biology.  In this article, funded by the University of Philadelphia, whose museum houses Morton’s collection, the curators and physical anthropologists, almost all of whom currently work for the university or have a significant connection to it, remeasured the skulls in Morton’s collection.

Ignoring for a moment that these skulls should not be in this collection, but be repatriated to their descendants, their argument is both interesting and facile.  Having re-measured the skulls, they determine that Morton’s measurements were indeed correct.  They acknowledge that Morton was a racist, but argue that his measurements and science were sound, that Gould was the hostage of his own ‘anti-racist ideology’ (a strange phrase, that), and that his book should be repudiated.

Hogwash. I accept that Gould’s measurements may have been inaccurate, but that’s really neither here nor there: the larger point is that these measurements are understood to not have a relationship to intelligence.  The seemingly sympathetic statements made by these folks, including Janet Monge in the video below, are loaded with assertions and implications that ought to disturb not only other ‘anti-racist ideologists (like myself), but also scientists and teachers who would like to help people distinguish between evidence and conclusions.

There’s so much to say about this, but I’ll attempt to let this be enough.

In watching this, I *almost* feel sorry for Monge, who is standing in the front here, trying to defend racist conclusions from irrelevant metrics without sounding like a racist.  On the other hand, like Murray and Herrnstein’s best-seller The Bell Curve, the article has received enormously positive responses from academics and non-academics alike.

Now that it has apparently been shown that all non-African peoples are partially descended from Neanderthals, I wonder if the racists will adjust their positions, so that neanderthals will suddenly start to appear somehow smarter and more superior than full homo sapiens sapiens.


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