Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

No April fools: read Valeri’s “Rites and Annals”

A doomed genius taken before his time. One of the last line of ancient Roman noblemen revealing his secrets. Hidden writings once known only to an elite few, now revealed for all to see. It sounds so much like a Dan Brown novel that you mistake it for an April fools joke, but it’s  not. There were so many fake announcements and releases on April first this year that one thing got lost in the shuffle: the actually really real release of the second monograph in HAU’s “Classics of Ethnographic Theory”, Rites and Annals: Between History and Anthropology by Valerio Valeri. Valeri’s work deserves to be widely read today because of its own intrinsic quality, as well as for the kind of rigorous, sophisticated, and humanistic approach to anthropology it exemplifies. Valeri’s work combined ethnographic erudition with high-level theorizing, wrapped up with a sophisticated prose style and a commitment to scholarship that exploded American binaries of science versus the humanities, objectivity versus subjective expression. For that reason, the release of Rites and Annals gives us a chance not only to read Valeri’s work, but to think about how it fits into the current approaches our discipline is taking.

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Vale Stanley Tambiah

It was with a genuine sense of loss that I read over the weekend that Stanley Tambiah had passed away. Tambiah was a model anthropologist, a person whose personal life and work exemplified everything that our discipline can and should be. He was an area studies specialist whose monographs on life in rural Thailand expanded our ethnography of this area. He was a theorist who knit together British and American theories of symbolism and ritual at a key point in anthropological theory. And he also became a public intellectual who published substantive work on pressing issues of the day in books and articles about ethnic violence in India and Sri Lanka. Above all, he will be remembered by his colleagues as role model of the generous scholar and human being. His generosity, kindness, and humility seemed to combine the best of all the different cultures he lived in, from English gentleman to humble Buddhist to Sri Lankan Christian. His loss gives us a chance to reflect on the values he lived and that we, in turn, ought to continue to follow. Continue reading

Melancholy of Tribe?

[This month Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman are guest blogging about James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. This post is by Masao Imamura.]

James Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia [hereafter Anarchist History] presents a tragedy of hill tribes, who were “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities.” These upland anarchists were “over the course of two millennia … fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare” (ix). Living away from the state, they governed themselves—until they were defeated by the state. Reading Anarchist History is to mourn the death of tribal peoples as victims of the state and civilization.

Scott tells us that this tragedy of tribal peoples concerns all of us because it is in fact a story of humankind: “Not so very long ago … such self-governing peoples were the great majority of humankind” (ix). The tribal life represents the quality of autonomy and freedom that we humans once enjoyed. The hill anarchists were the last band of humans who fought valiantly against the state, the great villain, under whose rule we all live. Today, after this defeat, we live in “an era in which virtually the entire globe is ‘administered space’ and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant. … there can be not a shred of doubt” (324-325).

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Quizzical notes on Zomia

State evasion is over

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman, who offer individual takes on some issues raised by James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale U P, 2009). Kerim’s previous post on the book is here. This post is by Leif.]

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is an interesting read. If anthropology-readers are used to embarrassment regarding the gaze on tribal peoples, then here is a license to guilt-free gawking: These weren’t tribals but rather freedom-seeking secessionists from the lowlands. There were no real ethnic others, the book suggests. Instead, linguistic and cultural diversity and the profusion of ethnic labels are just markers of state-evading strategies. In my view this is all rather problematic, in that clueless western readers (people ignorant of, say, particular histories, cultures, societies, languages, peoples, or politics in Southeast Asia) are invited to feast on the identities and politics of the Southeast Asian hinterlands without any involvement.

The effect bears some resemblance to the fickle fascination with Indians of the Brazilian Amazon as natural allies of the rainforest, that evaporated once the noble Other was seen as somehow too modern. Scott draws explicitly on the work of Pierre Clastres regarding the Guayaki and other Indians of Latin America, that the Indians had run away from the state and hierarchy and all that. Clastres had been a student of Levi-Strauss, and his early tribalist work was deeply fatalistic regarding the looming disappearance of all indigenous peoples. Clastres’ shift in focus, from pre-contact- to ex-contact peoples does not remove the assumed purity of the tribal slot but instead relocates its source. The tribals aren’t pure because of their cultural- or other essence, but because they ran away from the source of all pollution (the state, with its inequality, taxation, sedentary lifestyles, and other contaminants).

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Illustrated Man, #6 – Burma Chronicles

Guy Delisle gets around, notably to places most of us don’t go. Pyongyang, perhaps his best known work, is a graphic memoir of his travels in North Korea. An animator by training Delisle was granted a two month work visa to oversee the production of a children’s cartoon in that isolated nation. A similar work situation found Delisle temporarily placed in Shenzhen, China, an experience that was also turned into a travelogue. Comic fans and other curious characters can find previews of these works over at Drawn and Quarterly, he also keeps his own website with a blog in French (the man is Quebecois).

In this installment of Illustrated Man, we turn our attention to Burma Chronicles, Delisle’s most recent foray into the graphic representation of a westerner’s encounter with an Asian culture. Why Burma Chronicles you ask? They shuttered our local Borders Books and I got it on clearance, that’s why. I for one am not thrilled at that company’s implosion (unlike some snarky others). Shit man! I live in a city of 180,000 and now we have one bookstore left, a Barnes and Nobles. Okay, two if you count the used store that specializes in romance novels.

Back to the comic. Guy’s wife, Nadege, is an admin for Medecins Sans Frontières, and she brings them to Rangoon while MSF attempts to reach a remote and stigmatized ethnic group who reside along the border with Thailand. While Nadege is away Guy spends a lot of time caring for their infant son Louis, socializing with the NGO crowd, trying to squeeze in a little work on the side, and making wry observations about everyday life under the military junta.

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Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case

I just finished James Scott’s 2009 book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, and I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to introduce the book to those not familiar with it. I quite enjoyed his last book, Seeing Like a State, which I wrote about back in 2007, and this book picks up where that book left off. Whereas Seeing Like a State discussed the strategies by which states exert bureaucratic control over unruly populations, The Art of Not Being Governed looks instead at the strategies people adopt to resist centralized state control. [The title of this post comes from one of the chapters in the book.]

His focus is on Southeast Asia, specifically a region he calls “Zomia” which, to quote Martin Lewis:

denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.


In chapter after chapter he lays out his argument, showing how virtually every aspect of Zomia hill society exists as a means of resisting state authority: If states like the flat plains, people move to the hills to avoid the state. If states like cultivating rice because it concentrates much needed manpower where it can easily be tapped, people adopt shifting cultivation for the very same reason. If states employ writing as a way of keeping track of who’s who, people ditch their books and rely upon easily modified oral genealogies instead. If states like organized religion, people engage in heterodox traditions that defy centralized control. And, perhaps most strikingly, if the state wishes to impose a shared ethnic identity upon its subjects, people choose “tribal” identities as a way of avoiding such ethnic ties.

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Open Access Austronesians

The Comparative Austronesian Project at the Australian National Universe has released “a whole series of its books”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/titles/austronesians.htm online as open access resources at the “ANU’s cutting-edge Epress”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/. Those of you up to your neck in All Things Austronesian know that there are viewpoints on Austronesia other than those of “Peter Bellwood”:http://rspas.anu.edu.au/people/personal/bellp_anh.php, one of the main people involved in the project. That said, it is hard to turn down volumes edited by people like Bellwood, James Fox, and Cliff Sather. My favorite, “Sharing The Earth, Dividing The Land”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/sharing_citation.htm is particularly relevant for my own work on indigenous land tenure and features artices on the concepty of -honua- fonua in Tonga and a piece by Mark “Chaos Theory”:http://www.berghahnbooks.com/title.php?rowtag=MoskoOrder Mosko on Mekeo.

Anthro Classics Online: Geertz’s Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

Perhaps one of the most widely read anthropological essays, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz is available online in standard HTML format, as well as a PDF file. The continued popularity of this piece is due in no small part to Geertz’s fluid prose, sharp observation, and self-depreciating humor. (Self-mockery seems to be an essential ingredient for making an anthropological classic.) But I think the real appeal of this article is the way the reader is drawn into the process of anthropological discovery.

The article starts with a heart-pounding chase. Cockfights are illegal and the sudden appearance of the police during one of the first fights Geertz and his wife witnessed sent everyone scurrying home:

On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northward, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. About half-way down another fugitive ducked suddenly into a compound-his own, it turned out-and we, seeing nothing ahead of us but rice fields, open country, and a very high volcano, followed him. As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves.

This story serves two purposes: The first is to draw the audience into the society along with the anthropologist. Just as this event led to Geertz making the transition from “outsider” to “participant,” so too does it make the audience feel as if they are active participants in the drama. The other purpose is to establish the subjective authority of Geertz’s account. Geertz can tell us what this ritual “really means” because he was there. Not only was he there, but he was embraced by the members of the society who loved his clumsy ways.

Does Geertz’s effective prose lull us into a false sense of interpretive complacency?
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The Fino-Filipino Text Connection

I know that many of our readers are interested in new information technology, and so I thought I would point out that you can read the free, full text of “Txt-ing Selves: Cellphones and Phillipine Modernity“:http://www.finlandembassy.ph/texting1.htm (I found the bibliography particularly useful, but perhaps that’s because I don’t know anything about the Phillpines or cellphones). The study was paid for by in part by Nokia and it appears, fittngly enough, on the webpage of the “Finnish Embassy in Manilla”:http://www.finlandembassy.ph/. Now that’s globalization for you!

Tracking Uma Adang

Somewhere between my undergraduate and two graduate programs, I lost a bundle of anthropology books. Before my short and unsuccessful stint as a salaryman in Tokyo a decade ago, I gave my small library away, thinking I would never enter a doctorate program.

But when I in fact did become a Ph.D. student, some of those books were required reading for my core classes. I should have kept those books, I told myself (all those margin notes and underlines!), but decided against buying them again. Except for the classics in anthro theory, I thought it was foolish to make the same purchase twice. Especially ethnographies.

But there were a few exceptions, and one was Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, a work that takes you right into the Bornean rain forests of South Kalimantan. I read this ethnography in 1994 and I remember falling in love it. At the time I didn’t quite understand her arguments, but I enjoyed the way she wrote about her encounter with Uma Adang, a shamaness, a local leader, and her main “informant” in the book. The photo of this Meratus Dayak woman, smiling while cradling a white doll, was for me what Tsing described as “a disorienting caricature of motherhood.”

That image of Uma Adang came to me when I read Tsing’s latest book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connections. Prompted by a comment by Savage Minds regular Colin Danby, I thought I might post something on Tsing’s nuanced perspective on the way globalization is interpreted in South Kalimantan (The book is an on-the-ground look at the way different groups, such as conservationists, logging companies, and local communities, talk with and past one another in their relationship to the rain forest). But when I opened the book, all I could do was to recall the powerful image of Uma Adang holding a white doll.

Like her earlier book, Friction also presents Uma Adang as a marginal voice that embodies Tsing’s critique of the global political and economic network of power. Although the Meratus Dayak shamaness has a much less prominent role in the new book than in Diamond Queen, I could not help but fixate on this figure.

For one, the way I imagined Uma Adang has now changed. The younger image of her now evokes a different set of emotions for me when juxtaposed against the photograph of her in the new book: she is sitting in what looks like a bar and her expression is solemn — broken but defiant. Behind her is a cigarette ad that has the word “BOMB” in huge letters. The caption reads “Better you had brought me a bomb…” Her explosive anger is directed against the deforestation of the jungle by the logging companies, which by her account is stripping away Meratak culture itself. The smiling figure in the first book now looks to me as one of naivete, expressing truimphant exuberance in carving out a political space for herself and other Meratus Dayak.

But Uma Adang and Tsing also retain their playfulness in the new book, especially in the chapter on biodiversity. And it makes for a nice comparison with a chapter in her earlier book.

In “The History of the World” chapter of Diamond Queen, Tsing writes about her friend’s version of global history, all in fragments, in different narrative forms and temporal registers, and full of parodic mimicry of the dominant discourse. This history, which Tsing treats as an “official” history, is to be read for its coherent unity and political message. But rather than celebrating it wholesale as a moment of political resistance, the anthropologist also recognizes aspects of the shamaness’s historiography that ends up serving the national interest of the Indonesian state. At the end of the chapter this nuanced examination of a local story leads the author to reflect upon the state of identity politics in the U.S., and writes that “the cutting edge of political organizing often is the simultaneously dissociating and validating effect of parroting dominant discourse out of context.”

In the new book Friction, she examines the concept “biodiversity” in a chapter titled ““This earth, this island Borneo” [Biodiversity assessment as a multicultural exercise].” In it she relies on a similar move of parody as a critical endeavor in which she too takes part. Citing both proponents and critics of the promotion of “biodiversity,” Tsing brings to this discussion an ethnographic account of what it means to make a list. Here Uma Adang lists all the flowers and mushrooms and the fish and lizards, in disregard of Linnaean nomenclature and full of strange and non-scientific markers of identification. This, however, is not a simple case of a local critique of Western discourse. Instead, they both acknowledge the pleasure of listing, of writing down and numbering, and hence, of having that very power to picture the world course through their veins.

Uma Adang loved the idea that I was writing down the list and enumerating each item. […] The list took on all the pleasures of writing, counting, and classifying: Uma Adang and I were pretending to be bureaucrats with the authority of state and international codification. We were ordering the world by naming it. As Uma Adang explained to me, “Everyone knows these names; but not everyone knows how to organize them properly.” (168)

Tsing’s virtuosity as a writer shines forth — a partial list of fauna and flora runs down the page margins — and it reminds me of the discipline’s excitement over “the poetics and politics” of experimental ethnographic writing (and readers of Levi-Strauss and Derrida will perhaps recall here “The Writing Lesson” in Tristes Tropique). There are some risks, in my opinion and acknowledged by Tsing herself, of investing in a figure such as Uma Adang a certain subjectivity that by virtue of representing her in an ethnography domesticates the marginal within our own political agenda [footnote 1]. Yet this issue is repeatedly taken up in the book, not only in Borneo but also in other parts of the world. And this moment of parody — playful but also serious — is at least a partial answer to the question surrounding the politics of representation.

I am sure there are other compelling “informants” who span multiple books (I invite readers to comment on who might be other such figures in the annals of anthropology), but for some reason Uma Adang has made an impression on me. There are, I think, many possibilities in writing about the same person in different books over time. At the end of the first book there was a sense of a closure for my understanding of Uma Adang; when the new books takes her up again, it for me opened up new avenues of thought. This opening and closing of someone’s character is a rhetorical strategy I think might warrant some further discussion.

Postscript: As I work on my dissertation, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to good ethnographic writing as models for my own work. So in hindsight, I really wish I hadn’t given away my ethnographies!

[footnote 1: I am thinking here Vicente Rafael’s comments on Tsing’s earlier writings, but I think it equally applies to Friction.]