TEACH: Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia

I’m very pleased that I have been awarded a grant from the Presidential Initiative on Curricular Renewal (PICR) here at Macalester College. The topic of this year’s PICR grants was ‘sustainability,’ and the class for which I received the grant is titled Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia.

Here’s the description of the class from the grant proposal (after the jump):

The proposed course addresses itself to one of the most important and influential intersections of religious and environmental studies: relationships between human culture-groups and ecosystems that are based not on scientific or pseudo-scientific reason, but instead on long-standing ritual practices and applications. The scholarly works of Gregory Bateson and Roy Rappaport ground much of the contemporary theoretical approach to this question, and students will be introduced in a substantive manner to this difficult and transformative theory.

Major questions addressed in the course are (a) the relationship between the evidence of experience, religious belief, and ritual practice, (b) analogical/shamanic thought in animist societies, (c) the growth of complex systems, and their collapse. While the exemplary literature in the course will focus exclusively on Southeast Asian culture-groups, a consistent generalizing impulse will insist that the students return in their analyses to more proximate situations and issues, such as watershed issues in the American Midwest, e.g.

The examples selected for examination in the course are selected for the variation they present in terms of their social organization, and the types of ecological or succession processes that emerge out of these complex interactions. These major examples will be:

  • New Guinean hunter-gatherer society of the Tsembaga analyzed by Roy Rappaport in his classic work Pigs for the ancestors: ritual in the ecology of a New Guinean people (Second Ed., 2000).
  • (Now-defunct) Angkorean Imperial agriculture and economy. The ancient Southeast Asian empire of Angkor once ruled nearly all of mainland Southeast Asia; it has been the source of theories of “Hydraulic Empire,” and is currently the focus of many scholars studying its collapse as an example of ecological overshoot. A wealth of materials is available to our students on this topic, and the great struggle will be to winnow the options.
  • The Hindu Balinese water temples founded around the 10th century, and still maintained by priestly ritual today, which are often held up as a model of homeostasis achieved by ritual practice, and presented in John Stephen Lansing’s 2006 book Perfect order: recognizing complexity in Bali.

In addition to the core notions and examples will provide structure to the class, activities and readings intended to provoke a deep engagement with the notions of complexity, and the practice of ‘ecological thinking’ (by which I mean thinking in terms of responsive complex systems, rather than ‘thinking about the ecology’), including engagements with Permacultural practices and thought, especially drawing from David Holmgren’s 2002 introduction to Permaculture, Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability.

I intend to offer this class for the first time in the Fall of 2012. In the meantime, enjoy this long lecture from Professor Lansing on the example of the Balinese Water Temples, which includes important questions (partly implied, but brought out into discussion here) about what is meant by ‘monocropping’ in an environment of diverse strains of the ‘single’ crop. (i.e., rice varietals in the Balinese case).


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