Reading Report

No real reviews here, but a short list on what I’ve been reading this Summer, and how I generally feel about the books or articles.  What have you been reading?  Anything I should know about?  Let me know in the comments.

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Reading: Haunting the Buddha

DeCaroli, Robert. 2004. Haunting the Buddha: Indian popular religions and the formation of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert DeCaroli, associate Art History professor at George Mason University, has written an exciting, direct, and convincing book of great relevance to my own work. Where I have compliments, I am indeed very impressed, since he clearly and persuasively argues points with which I am already very familiar. Where I have complaints, they should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, since my complaints here tend to be in precisely the areas that I am myself working and have strong opinions.
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Benjamin Dangl’s “Price of Fire”

After a period when I posted weekly reviews of my reading list to this blog, I’ve been falling off a bit of late, largely because my energies have been going to more appropriate places, like my work. I’m writing my dissertation now, and I’m actually writing. All good stuff.

But, since one eagle-eyed observer reminded me that I’d promised to review Benjamin Dangl‘s The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, I felt obliged to get around to actually reading the thing.

And I’m glad I did. It is fitting that the very first page of the first chapter references Eduardo Galeano‘s now-classic work, The Open Veins of Latin America.  Dangl’s work clearly owes a great deal to Galeano’s analysis, which combined a rigorous historical materialism with a reporter’s eye for a story, and a master synthesist’s ability to see the broad narrative underlying five centuries of oppression. And like that work, Dangl spends a lot of time in Potosi, the famous silver mines which made some of the Bolivian elites wealthy beyond measure, and simultaneously created the horrendous oppression which still exists in Bolivia today, long after the veins of silver have been bled dry. But where Galeano covers Latin America as a continent, and does so in a temporal frame of 500 years, Dangl’s aim is more focused, both in time and space.

Dangl’s narrative covers Bolivia’s woes, primarily in the last century (though he does talk about Tupac Amaru and Tupac Katari), and he does so by using a method that is dear to my own heart and work, something he has termed “The Price of Fire.” For Dangl, fire symbolizes not only that which burns, but that which is necessary for survival, and it is the elements of survival – air, water, food, fire, etc., which he references metonymically by his title. As elsewhere in our world, and certainly in Cambodia, fire is increasingly being given a price, and that price keeps getting higher and higher. This is, as Ambalavener Sivanandam points out (in a speech quoted by Asian Dub Foundation in their song “colour line“) the persistence of what old-school marxists considered merely a ‘stage’ in the development of capitalism: primitive exploitation (or, more classically, primitive accumulation). People are denied their ability to common, to be self-sufficient and subsist in traditional or even modern common modes, and are instead forced into dire poverty, transformed (ideally, for the capitalists) into a docile reserve army of labor, which keeps wages low, resistance at a malnourished minimum, and the gears of capital grinding away through the bones of poor.

And yet, Dangl’s book is no mere litany of complaints and indictments. Even if it were, there are certainly enough legitimate complaints to go around. But instead Dangl’s focus is on the efforts of those who resist the disapparition of the commons, who refuse to accept that ‘all that is solid melts into air.‘ Although for Marx, this constant disenchantment was a necessary and even laudable process through which the oppressed would come to their senses and realize the iron laws of history for what they were, it is increasingly clear that Marx’s iron laws of history are neither iron nor laws, let alone historical. We are indeed faced with the struggles of the oppressed for their survival, but to imagine that we can dictate the terms of these struggles, and define them from the perspective of the factory owner, such as Engels, seems now what it always was – sinister naivete.

These groups, from the piqueteros to the mujeres creando, to many others, are demanding that the world change in line with their needs and desires, and increasingly, they’re succeeding. Dangl’s book tells their stories well, and though I personally think he lets Morales off the hook a bit, I admit that I too was cheering when Morales won his victory. And the majority of the book doesn’t engage Morales or his victory, but instead deals with those at the forefront of common struggle. May they succeed in their every aspiration, and may the land itself roll back like a carpet, and take the criminals with it.


De Landa’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History

De Landa, Manuel. 2000. A thousand years of nonlinear history. New York: Zone Books.Is it serendipity or synchronicity? Just the other day, for instance, I was discussing the old holiday favorite “A Christmas Story,” and then yesterday the director and his adult son were killed in a collision with a drunk driver. Then, in a happier coincidence, “White Spade” asked me where to start reading Manuel De Landa (sometimes DeLanda), and I’d just finished the book above last night. Continue reading



It’s been a while since my last reading post, mostly because I’m busy writing, and doing other things. But I’d still like to keep comin’ at you with my recent reads:

Bizot, F. 1981. Le don de soi-même : recherches sur le bouddhisme Khmer III. Paris: Paris : École française d’Extrême-Orient.

I’ve spent most of my reading time lately undertaking a very close re-examination of this work by one of the most famous Khmer Buddhologists, François Bizot. His recent novel The Gate is the reason for his more general fame, but it’s his foundational, careful, and rather idiosyncratic work on Khmer Buddhism which underpins his lasting and largely deserved scholarly reputation.

This book is vastly important for my own work: it deals with the rite of the Pansukula (Kh: បង្សុកូល). Bizot begins in a rather common-sensical location for the traditional study of Buddhism: texts. The word Pansukul seems to originally mean a cast-off or abandoned rag, which some monks vow to take and use as monastic robes. More specifically, it seems to have over time taken on the meaning of a shroud taken from a corpse or cemetary for monastic use. Bizot begins from here and attempts to answer important questions about the symbolism, ritual (and moral) import of the practice, etc.

His attention to the practices is careful. His research took place in the late 60s and early 70s, and apparently in a rather idiosyncratic region. It has been difficult for subsequent researchers, such as myself, to find replications of many of the ‘tantric’ initiatory practices he discusses in this and other works, though that is not necessarily a reason for doubting their veracity (and it must be admitted that such practices are not of great concern to me and my efforts were limited). He also undertakes a careful examination of a Khmer text related to some of these practices, and includes a photostat of the original along with his translation and wonderful photos.

Unfortunately, the reading feels ultimately somewhat misbegotten: the profoundly fertile examination, analysis, and questioning that Bizot does throughout the bulk of the work is largely subordinated to what is a longer and more controversial project in Bizot’s career – attempting to prove the existence of a strange and unorthodox ‘Tantric Buddhism’ in Cambodia. I have neither the knowledge nor expertise to deal with this question. Few do, in fact, and those who do have launched themselves into the fray, from Kate Crosby (who is generously sending me a copy of a review article she’s done on this issue, and whose fine work can also be seen here, if you have Springerlink access) to Peter Skilling, Heinz Bechert, and many others.

For myself, however, the question of institutional origin is of much less interest that the question of what makes the ritual meaningful and effective (interpret however you like) to those who continue to reproduce it. I must assume that the ritual contains no ‘essential’ and ‘unchanging’ meaning or magical efficacy with origins coterminal with its institutional origins. Therefore, the sectarian origin of the sect is of little interest to me, (since nobody in modern Cambodia of whom I’m aware claims lineal descent from the Abhayagirivihara-nikaya), though it may be important for others.

Still, this is an excellent book, and will remain useful for a wide range of students of Buddhism and Khmer culture. I’m currently writing a conference paper which will end up being a condensed version of most of Chapter Two of the dissertation, and which will involve a more thorough discussion of these issues. Keep watching for that.

Hyde, L. 1998. Trickster makes this world: mischief, myth, and art. New York: North Point Press.

My ‘fun’ book for the moment. I love Hyde’s writing. I must say that I find this book less convincing that his work on the Gift, despite its greater popularity. However, there are moments in this work of sheer brilliance. As I remarked to a more-learned friend than myself, it’s perhaps a mark of Hyde brilliance that even when you disagree with his conclusions, the reading of his work stimulates you to thoughts you might never have otherwise been able to think. Cheers, Mr. Hyde, wherever you may be.

Lopez, D. S., Jr. Editor. 2005. Critical terms for the study of Buddhism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This is a wonderful collection of essays. I wish that instead of a single book, we could create a periodical of this idea: “Critical Terms,” so that we might have not merely one wonderful entry on ‘ritual’ by Robert Sharf, but three or four, contesting and competing with one another (though really, I like Sharf’s take for the most part!). Reiko Ohnuma has a very good and clear entry on ‘Gift’, which draws almost exclusively on her excellent book. There’s much to love about each of the entries, but let me select just a few for special attention, beyond those mentioned above. Gustavo Benavides’ essay on ‘Economy’ is clear, forceful, unapologetic, and dead-on. It’s placement in front of Ohnuma’s essay on the Gift is also perfect, and Lopez deserves still more praise for the ordering of the essays. I was also taken with Jacqueline Stone’s essay on Death, which of course is important to me, and which I embarrassingly had not read! I was also very impressed (but not surprised to be impressed) by Timothy Brook’s fine essay on Institution. Finally, Janet Gyatso’s entry on Sex is tremendous, insightful, and equally unapologetic.

I am now debating whether to attempt to use this book in classes on Buddhism. I worry about the level, but think it might very well be manageable for undergraduates and would allow for a pleasant thematization, perhaps in conjunction with ethnographies.


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. Continue reading