The Lands below the Winds

My vow to read more non-fiction from actual experts instead of popular science stuff came across the barrier of accessibility. For instance, I’ve always had a thing for Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory so I went to look for one of its foremost applications, Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. The public library only has a copy in its reference section, so I can’t borrow it, and while a classic in intellectual history it’s not a popular book like Guns, Germs, and Steel so it’s kind of pricey. Plus I don’t even want a copy – I’m not a big book collector and I don’t even have copies of my favourite works of fiction, much less academic works. But such is the lot of certain classic works of non-fiction.

Still, I was already in the middle of reading A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads by Anthony Reid and this is definitely the stuff I was wanting. It synthesizes the current state of academic thinking about the region across multiple fields: history and archaeology primarily with a bit of linguistics and comparative theology, but it pulls together sources culled from like ten different languages so it’s a pretty impressive intellectual effort.

So far I’ve gotten through the prehistory of Southeast Asia, with the initial human settlement of the area (including arrival of other human species before Homo sapiens), the dispersal and probable driving out of Austronesians from southern China and Taiwan (which at the time was part of the mainland) into the most geographically-dispersed diaspora before modern times (from Madagascar to Easter Island), the simultaneous spread of speakers of the Tai language family (for example, Thai and Khmer) on the mainland, the early Buddhist polities (including the central role maritime Malay cities had in spreading Buddhism to China), the veneration of Shiva by early kings, the spread of Islam, and now I’ve reached the Ming dynasty expeditions of Zheng He and the modern colonial era.

Anyway, yeah, I’m enjoying this a lot more than a popular science book.

P.S.S. (Popular Science Sucks)

Sometime last year I read The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong. It’s a somewhat interesting popular science book about the perceptual limitations of the modern worldview and its consequences on the world: for example, limitations imposed by the imposition of time measured by clocks, limitations on freedom by the constriction placed by property, and so on. It’s basically interesting tidbits and anecdotes connected together by various themes.

It’s pretty well-written but is basically just a vehicle for sharing those tidbits and anecdotes. My big frustration is when it goes into the issues of environmental devastation but only mentions capitalism kind of near the end of the book and then just stops there. So yeah, capitalism sucks, but what else should we be trying? Any ideas on that front? No? Okay then, guess we’re just screwed.

Honestly, I’m giving up on reading non-fiction recommendations from journalists and book reviewers, at least for books that cover technical subjects. I’m starting to think journalists are actually morons. “This book is incredible, this book blew my mind, I learned so much” etc. Then I pick it up and it turns out to be the kind of popular science book that’s decently written but intellectually light and covers too much of the writer’s personal experiences. Look, if I wanted personal crap in non-fiction I’d read a memoir, just give me the freaking science.

First it was Too Dumb for Democracy, then it was The Reality Bubble. And now I’m three for three in disappointment for popular science books with Languages Are Good For Us by Sophie Hardach. It’s about, uh, it’s actually kind of hard to explain because it goes all over the place. I guess it’s an overview of how humans use language and writing, but not in any systematic sense. It basically covers interesting language stuff from the author’s research interests.

And don’t get me wrong, there actually is interesting stuff here that I didn’t know about before or never looked into too deeply. It covers the development and use of cuneiform writing as well as the story of its decipherment, it examines the story of Hernan Cortes’ translator Malinche and her role in the conquest of the Aztecs, it covers the creation of the secret language Unserdeutsch by children who spoke the Tok Pisin creole but were forced to speak only German at missionary boarding school, and maybe some other stuff I’m forgetting.

But there’s also stuff in there that I don’t really care about and I can’t even justify as forming necessary connective tissue in the book since the book doesn’t really have an intellectual framework. There’s a chapter about how the word “kamunun” in Akkadian over the millennia became “cumin” in English and the networks of trade by which the spice was spread around the world, there’s a part about how multilingual London’s children are which contains a lament from the German immigrant author about Brexit, there’s another chapter about the Eskimo-Aleut language family which mentions the author’s fears over COVID-19 and her wish that she could make a research trip to Canada instead of just reading about these languages, there’s a whole thing about Japanese sensitivity to the seasons and their relationship to seasonal foods which comes across to me as too Orientalist.

So if I take the stuff that I liked and balance it against stuff that I was lukewarm on then my final opinion on this book is that I wish I’d read something more technical about languages. Anyway, that’s it, no more popular science books for me.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourist in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.

Summer Reading List

Over on Rough Theory, N. Pepperrell and I have been wallowing in our guilt over not being well-read enough (is anyone in academia ever satisfied by how much they know?).  Anyway, now seems like an opportune time to share my summer reading list.  These are the books I hope to read after I finish my thesis.  I know, I’m guilty of counting chickens before they’ve hatched, but I think it’s good to be optimisitic about the future.  I don’t list novels because I tend to consume them at a really high pace and I pretty much just read whatever catches my eye when I’m at the library, the bookstore, or spy something lying around the house.  Anyway, the books I want to read:

  1. Southeast Asia Over Three Generations: Essays Presented to Benedict R. O’G. Anderson.  I just bought this a couple of weeks ago and I’ll probably just skim it.
  2. Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia by Renato Rosaldo.  This one I bought a couple of months ago and I’ve also yet to read it.  I’ll probably just skim it too.
  3. Friction by Anna Tsing.  Something I got for myself Christmas 2005 which I actually have cracked open, but I’ve never really, you know, read it per se (more like randomly flipped through and lingered on occasional interesting bits).
  4. Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf.  Again, I’ve flipped through it, I’ve gotten the gist of it, but damned if I’ve ever actually read it through.  Another book from 2005.
  5. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jurgen Habermass.  I’ve actually read the introduction but not much else beyond that.  It’s yet another two year old book that I still haven’t gotten around to reading.  Damn you, graduate school!  Why can I never have the time to read all these books?  Confession: Sometimes I’m tempted to shelve it beside Madness and Civilization just to see what will happen.
  6. A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.  I keep reading about this book in various articles and such so I figured I might as well see what it actually says.  One book review I read says that it builds upon the dynamic duo’s previous work, so does that mean I’ll have to read their other books before I get to this one?  I know I’ll probably have to read Capitalism and Schizophrenia at the very least.  I wonder, is that enough of a grounding to not feel lost?  I admit, I want to read D&G partly because the anime Ghost in the Shell: The Stand Alone Complex is apparently written by Deleuzians.  In one episode, a sentient robotic tank is seen reading a copy of Anti-Oedipus.  I’d really like to watch this series and get the Deleuzian references.

You know what?  This is more of a 2007 reading list, in which case I should have written this list in January.  The summer can’t be long enough for me to read all these meaty books.  Oh well, yet another reason for me to finish my thesis soon.

How to Do Theory

I was looking through Blackwell Publishing’s website for its series on anthropology – The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, The Anthropology of Media, The Anthropology of the State, and so on.  Then I came across this book by Wolfgang Iser, How to Do Theory:

This succinct introduction to modern theories of literature and the arts demonstrates how each theory is built and what it can accomplish.

  • Represents a wide variety of theories, including phenomenological theory, hermeneutical theory, gestalt theory, reception theory, semiotic theory, Marxist theory, deconstruction, anthropological theory, and feminist theory.
  • Uses classic literary texts, such as Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calender and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to illustrate his explanations.
  • Includes key statements by the major proponents of each theory.
  • Presents the different theories objectively, allowing students to decide which if any, they subscribe to.
  • Gives students a sense of the potential of theory.
  • Includes a glossary of technical terms.

The table of contents lists this:

8. Anthropological Theory
Basics of Generative Anthropology
An Anthropological View of Literature

Say what?  A lot of contemporary anthropological theory actually comes from outside anthropology (my work, for instance, draws quite a bit from Stuart Hall and Benedict Anderson, a smidgen more from Sasskia Sassen, and just a dash of Foucault), but specifically anthropological critiques tend to rely ultimately on familiarity with ethnographic literature.  Which is to say that an anthropological view of anything is in the end predicated on having a certain body of knowledge and not on specific analytical techniques, with the techniques used by anthropologists actually being quite diverse.

So what would a literary theorist tell readers to give them an idea of what an anthropological view of literature is?  Not only that, since the book is about How to Do Theory, what would the author tell readers to have them be able to conduct anthropological critiques of literature?  Suddenly I want to read chapter eight of this book.  Surely one chapter isn’t enough to list the anthropological knowledge even a third year undergrad should possess.