erikwdavis

Archive for the ‘comment’ Category

Read: Bruce Lincoln’s “Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars”

In comment, read on May 22, 2013 at 10:54 am

I received my copy of Bruce Lincoln‘s latest book, titled Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religionsand finished it last night (See here for a short review of a previous book of his). It is an excellent book, full of the sort of provocative, clearly-argued, and most-often compelling arguments about the field of religious studies, its methods, and, to a slightly lesser extent, application. These subjects have been at the heart of Lincoln’s academic project for quite awhile, and it is not an accident that this volume, which is a collection of essays and articles, many of which have been published in journals previously, begins with a piece of writing that is one of Lincoln’s most famous and provocative: his “Theses on Method.” These theses have provoked much response and discussion by those who challenge Lincoln as overly reductive, or hostile, to religion, though I have never seen his approach in that way. You can read Timothy Fitzgerald’s criticism of this piece, and Lincoln’s response, here and here.

I studied under and worked with Lincoln for a few years as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity school. Having taken several classes with him, met with him as an advisee, and attended many public talks, I never found him hostile to religion as such. He might have been occasionally reductive, but only in the sense that he was willing to examine phenomena very closely, which I take as a characteristic of scholarship, and indeed, language.

Two pieces (Chapters Two and Twelve) offer straightforward advice on how to accomplish particular tasks within Religious Studies (“How to Read a Religious Text” and “Theses on Comparison”). Others deal with cosmogonic (universe-creation) myths, modern and ancient science and how they dealt with phenomena that don’t confirm their cosmologies, differently-characterized types of mythic discourse, World Religions as a discourse of its own, as well as the traditional themes of sanctified violence. His final essay, “On the (Un)discipline of Religious Studies,” begins with an anecdote – and an essay unpacking that anecdote’s relevance – of an argument between Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith on whether chaos or order should be prioritized in time (i.e., ‘which comes first, order or chaos?’). Each essay is worth careful study.

I will be using parts of this book for my first version of my “Introduction to Theory and Method” course, which I’ll be teaching this fall. At a minimum, I intend to have us

  1. Work through “Theses on Method” and its responses
  2. Read “How to read a religious text,” and apply those rules to both (a) a religious text, and (b) the essay itself
  3. The (Un)discipline of Religious Studies, with a discussion on the importance of institutions that study Religion, such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which Lincoln discusses in this chapter.

I recommend this book to all those who study Religion, especially those for whom the primary goal of Religious Studies is something other than the celebration of religion as sacred and beyond interrogation. As Lincoln phrases it, “As it happens, with the possible exception of Economics, ours [Religious Studies] is the only academic field that is effectively organized to protect its (putative) object of study against critical examination.” (in his response to Fitzgerald, p. 167).

Archaeology Dissertation on Iron Age Cambodia Available

In comment on May 15, 2013 at 9:28 am

It’s been out there for a while, but I’d be deeply remiss if I failed to draw your attention to Dr. Alison Carter’s (UW-Madison) dissertation. In the spirit of actual intellectual exchange (sometimes called ‘Open Access’), she’s placed her dissertation online for download.  

The dissertation is called “Trade, exchange, and socio-­political development in Iron Age (500 BC -­ AD 500) mainland Southeast Asia: An examination of stone and glass beads from Cambodia and Thailand,” and it’s available here for download in various formats.

Dr. Carter has been doing archaeological research in Cambodia for years, and focuses on Iron Age trade objects – specifically beads. Through the analysis of these beads, she’s able to hypothesize about the geographical origins of the beads (because of the materials out of which they are made). Through understanding the geographical origins, she illuminates early trade networks – both within and beyond the boundaries of mainland Southeast Asia. Her work is deeply important to scholarship on a region, the prehistory of which is difficult to know because of a lack of preserved written texts (excepting inscriptions in stone).

Go! Read!  And when you’re done, check out her great blog.

Introducing Castoriadis for Religion and Anthropology. A First Attempt

In comment on April 12, 2013 at 11:45 am

ImageI’ve often been frustrated by the lack of prior attention to Castoriadis’ thought in anthropology: good work has been begun by Alain Touraine (sociology) and Nancy Munn and David Graeber (anthropology), but nothing really systematic and explicit has been done.[1]  That’s not a criticism, just a complaint that the work’s not already done.

Here are some thoughts I’m working through today, from Castoriadis’ foundational The Imaginary Institution of Society, all from Chapter Three: “The Institution and the Imaginary. A First Approach” (Castoriadis 1975, 114ff.)

If you’re not familiar with Cornelius Castoriadis, I highly recommend becoming familiar. He was a founder of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in France, a Greek Communist who fled Greece chased by both the Stalinists (for his then-Trotskyism) and the Fascists, and who was one of the very first marxists to mount a critique of the USSR, a critique he made by criticizing its bureaucratization and its alienation from the revolutionary social groups that attempted to institute it. Often called either the “Philosopher of the Imagination,” or the “Philosopher of Autonomy,” his influence has been deep in some fields (radical political thought, psychoanalysis) but negligible in its reception in other fields and disciplines, including my own. He is sometimes credited with inspiring the 1968 worldwide rebellion, though it is certainly both more accurate and more modest to say rather that his writings influenced some of those revolutionaries in way that significantly altered their approach. Here’s a Wikipedia article, and here’s a link to the Cornelius Castoriadis/Agora International Webpage.

A first word of introduction: Castoriadis’ use of the word ‘institution’ refers to any shared object created by society, ranging from concepts, gestures, and symbols, to organizations and governments, those things which we more commonly use the word to refer to in everyday American English. These institutions are created by groups of people – that is, they are instituted, and, in a way that replicates much of Weber’s analysis of routinization and the creation of bureaucracies, become alienated from these groups, an alienation that signals the institution’s autonomy from society: the institution has gained its own life, its own force in the social world. One might almost call this the creation of a form of social agency, or as David Graeber wrote of the concept of the fetish in an essay that references Castoriadis, “Gods in the process of construction” (Graeber 2005)

More after the jump…. Read the rest of this entry »

LTO Cambodia: Wat Bo: Scenes of daily life

In comment on April 11, 2013 at 8:38 am

You really need to head over to LTO Cambodia: Wat Bo: Scenes of daily life, to examine the closeup images of Wat Bo’s mural of olden-days, everyday Cambodian life (colonial period, about 100 years old, at monks’ estimation).  There are a lot of images, and LTO is a fine photographer. But what really makes this collection of photos wonderful is his description and surmises about what is going on, all done with reports to what the local monks had told him, and his own thoughts.  I’ll reblog one image to get you over there:

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 Salon.com, “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:

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 935 other followers