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.
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.
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.
Read the rest of this entry »
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, 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. Read the rest of this entry »
Another installment in the too-short ‘reading’ posts of late. Short, because I’m busy writing for upcoming conferences, and therefore have not been reading as much as normal, and also because I have less time (same reason) to write up my notes. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a very very busy few weeks, for reasons I won’t go into here, but I’m hoping to be back in busy and productive form starting right now. Some of the titles I’m currently working my way through are really exciting: Nancy Eberhardt’s Imagining the Course of Life: Self-Tranformation in a Shan Buddhist Community, Reiko Ohnuma’s excellent-looking Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood, and a new reading of Paul Mus’ classic “India seen from the East.” A sudden glut of teaching responsibilities (expected and otherwise) have cut into my reading time, but here’s some of the stuff I’ve been getting through.
Ding-dang people! Everybody ought to read this book. An amazing and well-documented history of the importance of the transatlantic to the birth of the modern world, this book eschews the typical approach – looking at history from the perspective of constitutions, upper-class business concerns, and the passage of laws, and instead examines this period from the perspective of struggle. Truly astonishing. If you ever felt that your history books were not making sense, or that something important was being left out, it might be in this book. Best all-around ‘American’ history book I’ve read since Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.
Another book, this time an Umberto Eco-style novel written by 4 pseudonymous Italian authors (available for free download as well). Not a ‘beautiful’ novel, in terms of prose, etc. (not reading Italian, I can’t tell whether this is a function of the original or the translation), but the rush of history and ideas is compelling and very exciting. A story of an anabaptist radical who just happens to find himself in the middle of nearly every major religio-political battle in the first half of the sixteenth century, and his anonymous opponent, the mysterious Q, who supplies intelligence to the most oppressive and reactionary elements of the Vatican hierarchy.
This book qualifies as an amazing accomplishment: Casey’s breadth and depth of knowledge dazzle in combination throughout the book, and his facile and graceful exposition of the ideas, their differences and his resolutions make the book an ease and a pleasure to read. It is not, nevertheless, an ‘easy’ book to read: the ideas surrounding the imagination seem to be at the bleeding edge of theories about the mind, and indeed, to have been there since the very first formulation of the idea of imagination. Therefore, much of the writing deals with technical ideas and terminology, most of which is very well introduced and artfully deployed by Casey. As a description of the individual act of imagining I’m not sure it can be surpassed. As a description of the individual faculty of imagination – or, since he disavows the idea of a ‘faculty’ of imagination, we can refer here to the ‘possibility’ of individual imagination – he is less successful, though still quite generally convincing. The problem here comes from the limits contained within Casey’s approach to the imagination in general.
Casey’s approach to the imagination is very much rooted in the individual imagination, and as a individualist phenomenologist, he sees no other possibility. The fundamental problem with phenomenology, it seems to me, is, First, that it has constructed one of the most astonishingly refined vocabularies and system for discussing perception and experience, first by disavowing any knowledge of what the thing experienced “is” in favor of a detailed and laser-like focus on how it “appears.” Second, it refuses to consistently apply this form of thought to the question of what experiences or perceives. Although the phenomenology of the self appears to be a big field (any corrections out there?), many phenomenological studies seem to bypass this crucial point. It would be unfair to the thought of many phenomenologists, and especially venerable masters such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, to say that they don’t take the question of the one-and-the-many seriously – that is often precisely the problem which drives many phenomenologists. What I am saying, rather, is that there is not a sufficient attention paid in the general trend of phenomenological studies to the issue of what it is that perceives and experiences. Instead, that thorny, fundamental problem is normally discarded as uninteresting, insoluble, or a distraction. An example might be the phenomenological study of religious experience.
Example – Against the casual phenomenologists
An imaginary opponent fitting that description has now entered the clean white room where you, the reader, and I, the writer, are having this discussion. She opens the door and walks in. We both notice that there is now a third plain wooden chair by the white table at which we are sitting. Without a word, she comes in and sits down. She lights her cigarette and asks us to repeat our objection to phenomenology:
“So, you see,” I say (are you nodding? I can’t tell), “I’m proposing that much phenomenology skips the essential problem of questioning what it is that is experiencing or perceiving a phenomenon, and thereby ends up assuming a function or type of subject.”
“Of course phenomenologists are interested in the question of the phenomenology of the self: it’s a big field, actually. But you can’t expect us all to concentrate on that one issue. I, for instance, am really interested in varieties of religious experience, not in the question of the self. What’s wrong with me focusing on a sub-branch of my field?”
“Nothing, I reply, except that, although a few casual denials are tossed out, most studies seem not only not to address the question of the phenomenon of the self, but to then assume the existence of a common-sense self to whom experience is limited and bound.” I pause, because I want her to really absorb that question. Don’t you have anything to say to her?
“Moreover,” I continue, “by writing about individual experience in such a way, studies like Casey’s reaffirm the notion of a bounded, isolated, liberal self, which is incapable of true sharing, co-experiencing, or exchange with another except through the mutual approximation of meaning through the use of highly restricted symbols.”
“Well, exactly!” She smiles, for that is indeed the brave notion she and her friends espouse, much of the time. There is a dualism in this attitude, which asserts two seemingly contradictory things at once: First, that there is no possibility of shared knowledge, perception, experience: we are in fact isolated and trapped in our solipsistic universes. Second, the positive side of this equation is the ability to more fully appreciate the experience of life itself, the fact of it from moment to moment. One doesn’t have to stretch one’s mind too far to see that a defeatist notion of the self is proposed here.
The application of the phenomenological method to the phenomenon of the self is in a way what much of Buddhist doctrine and meditation attempts to do. In Buddhist doctrine and the reports of Buddhist meditators, such analyses (“attempts to actually find the ‘self’”) always result in failure. The self, for Buddhism, does not exist. Being neither a Buddhist nor friendly to missionaries, I distrust ‘witness’ testimony regarding religious ‘truths.’ I won’t speak for the religious ‘truth’ of Buddhism, but I have engaged in a long and only rarely rigorous practice of meditation. I can report that I have never been able to actually identify a self with which I can fully identify or exists without change. In fact, it appears to me, in line with Buddhism, that the very idea of the self seems to refer to something that cannot be described as a phenomenon, since it is not perceived or experienced.
If experience and perception are phenomena, and since I do experience and perceive, then what is implied when we realize that the I that is experiencing and perceiving might not exist? In what are experience and perception bound, or to what could they possibly be limited? The phenomenology of the self retrieves the value of other phenomenologies, but returns us to what appears at first to be an even more isolated and impotent state. Except that if we take the insight of non-self (Pali: anatta) seriously, ‘we’ aren’t returned at all. Indeed, this double reduction (of external phenomena and the subject self) seems to unravel phenomenology: if there is no self, what can it possibly mean to ‘perceive’ or ‘experience’ something? Who is doing this perceiving or experiencing? It also doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘perceptions’ and ‘experiences,’ for the same reason. At this point, we are talking about a view of reality in which the world is both de-realized and truly existent.
And that’s my problem with Casey’s book. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a thorough and detailed discussion of the concept of the imagination, although that crowd might very well be content with the first chapter. For those interested in some of the more récherché theory in which the concept of the imagination is bound, and a phenomenological formulation, the rest of the book is also excellent. The shortfalls are not particular to Casey but to the tradition to which he belongs. Phenomenology does an excellent job, it seems to me, in describing how people feel about their experience and how it seems to happen to them, and an equally excellent job in insisting that the only relationship people can have to reality is through muddled direct experience, and never with each other.
Lots of reading this week: The new Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, almost completely on Cambodia; David Graeber’s big book on anthropological value, Thom Hartmann’s atrocious but well-intentioned eco-nightmare, and Alfie Kohn’s lovely caution against bribing your kids.