Using your Eyeballs on Text

Well, it’s a more interesting title than ‘reading,’ which is all this post is about.

This last week I was bound up with a larger than usual share of non-dissertation duties, but I still managed to get through two wonderful, wonderful new books on Buddhism, and a very fun book on Zombies (and therefore about deathpower, and therefore work-related). All highly recommended.

This is really an excellent book, perhaps the best ethnographic Buddhism book I’ve read since Tannenbaum’s “Who can compete against the world?” Her basic argument is that Shan culture (presumably like others) has a standard way of representing and symbolizing what is meant by an individual, and the course of that individual life; more importantly, in order to understand the Shan, we ought to attempt to understand them through their own representations of subjecthood/personhood, and the way in which that self interacts with the representation of society. In her conclusion, she says that

“I have argued that people’s understandings of themselves and others are linked to local assumptions and beliefs about the life course, and that a person cannot properly study one without studying the other.” (172).

The bulk of the book, then, is a lovingly written and expertly (and almost invisibly) organized set of thematic illustrations of exactly what the Shan do assume and believe about the course of life, and the notions that both undergird and challenge these assumptions. She perfectly locates the importance of death in Buddhist culture as a powerful moment of personal transformation leading to a reconfiguration of social relations, and tells this story with (as throughout the book) expertly and humanly told examples from her fieldwork in the Shan village. Her own life weaves in and out of the book, as well it should: her earlier stint at fieldwork in this same village was with a previous husband, now passed away, and her later fieldwork with a new husband and child. At one point, she is confronted with a Shan boy who is believed to be her former husband’s rebirth; I would have loved more discussion about that, if there was one to be had. I had a few complaints, but they are so minor and particular to me that I hestitate to even mention them, and so will relegate them to a footnote. (( One of the few complaints I have about the book is unlikely to bother others. The use of the word ‘imagining’ and its cognates has become something of an industry (much like ‘memory’ was a few years ago), and few authors bother to make their use of it explicit or operational. For most it is rather a way of rebranding basic notions of the culture concept. That’s fine, though one would prefer in such cases to leave ‘culture’ well enough alone. For others, like myself, who believe there is something crucially important in the concept of imagination, the collapse of imagining into a classification and explication of cultural symbols, or as in Eberhardt’s case, a method that replicates earlier forms of ‘intuitive ethnography’ is disappointing. It should not prevent anyone from reading and learning from this excellent work, however. )) Like the Tannenbaum book mentioned above, this is one of the best ethnographies of Southeast Asian Buddhist culture in years.

This is a brand-spanking fresh book: I pre-ordered it on Amazon, having previously read Ohnuma’s doctoral dissertation and two excellent articles that emerged out of the same work. I was not disappointed. Ohnuma’s excellent work focuses on a particular genre of Buddhist literature, the gift of the body in Jataka and Avadana literatures. She demonstrates how this genre is in some ways one of the central genres of Buddhist literature. Jataka literatures are stories of the previous births of the Buddha, on his way towards the perfect state which he realized in his enlightenment. Ohnuma makes the compelling argument that Jataka and Avadana tales can be distinguished from each other on a rather binary principle:

Jataka:Buddha:Perfections:Life of the Buddha :: Avadana:Laity:Devotions:Ritual of the Buddhist

Her analysis of this important genre goes beyond demonstrating that this bizarre subgenre of the jataka tales, in which the budding Buddha literally gives away parts of his body, is crucial to an understanding of Buddhist literature and the Buddhist imagination (although she doesn’t use the word imagination herself): she provides two additional areas of progress for Buddhist studies as a field. I might add that her method has applications which might extend profitably far beyond Buddhist studies. First, she provides a detailed examination of these stories as a genre, and then examines the different conventions which define the genre. Second, she draws on anthropological and some post-structural theory to profitably analyze these stories’ concerns in such a way that the reader is quickly empowered to read these stories with new imaginative lenses, and to see what concerns, strategies, and ethical values might be encoded in these concrescences of text.

Her writing style is clear, colloquial in the best of ways: straightforward and vernacular, avoiding fatuous verbiage without sacrificing specificity. I grumbled a bit about the organization of the book’s chapters: the introduction to Jataka tales as a genre seems overlong, and placing the genre and its conventions studies before any analysis of the concerns of the book seems unlikely to draw in non-Buddhist studies folks who might reallly benefit from the latter chapters. But I certainly can’t think of a better way of organizing this excellent book offhand, and would not want to see the genre study section reduced or eliminated.

This is an excellent, and probably an important, book, for Buddhist studies. I was lucky to have ordered it for day-of-release shipping, and am grateful to Ms. Ohnuma for writing it.

I have a theory that you should always be reading something just for fun: most of the insights that have become foundational to my work have come to me while doing something quite different from work itself. To that end, both of my readers may have noticed that my reading lists almost always have a few books that seem rather far afield from my dissertation. This weeks’ fun book is a bit closer than usual: it’s about zombies. The living dead: those whose deathpower has been alienated from their consciousness but not from their bodies, and which turns against those they loved and lived with only a day prior. Max Brooks, who probably hates being identified as the son of the legendary, saintly, and inspiring Mel Brooks, clearly loves his zombies, much like his hero George Romero, who claims zombies are the only humans he doesn’t get tired of. This book is a Studs Terkel-esque (another saint) history of those Zombie wars which have ravaged our planet and civilization in the last few years, and from which none of us emerged unscathed. The horrors of the living dead – most of those interviewed for this book refer to them by nicknames, my favorite of which is ‘Zack,’ – will be with the survivors forever. But what about those who, thank god, will grow up in the future without having to worry about the dead reanimating? For them, Brooks has compiled this history from the very words and experiences of those who lived through it, from presidents and generals to blind garderners in Hokkaido. It’s an excellent read which shoudl be on every historian’s shelf. ‘Nuff said.


  • Holland, John H. 1995. Hidden order. How adaptation builds complexity. Cambridge (MA): Perseus Press

How did I manage to forget this gem when writing up my reading list earlier today? Another recommendation gleaned from the blogosphere, this time courtesy of Jeff Vail, it’s another example of a tme when these sorts of recommendations live up to their hype. This is an excellent, clearly written introduction (and serious contribution, apparently) to the world of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), which basically refers to anything that is multi-parted (but not ‘polythetic,’ as in polythetic definitions of difficult-to-define phenomena), reproductive, and adaptive. Holland has a charming sense for examples, and a clear style of writing, which is crucial in a book like this, especially if it is going to appeal to non-specialists like myself. Holland succeeds in almost every chapter to communicate his main points with specificity and flair, while simultaneously making it clear that his approach does have limits. Perhaps the most important caveat throughout is that he is not describing how CAS actually work, but creating models which can illustrate their workings. This is, as he points out, a very different, but not necessarily less useful, endeavor. It’s a magnificent accomplishment that should be taken more seriously by folks who deal with such Complex Adaptive Systems as culture, economics, and history, and not just those interested in gene replication, markets, and physics.


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