Tag Archives: academia

My office smells

I walked in the door of my office this morning, having trod across the Old Aberdeen landscape. Rotting leaves, frozen ponds, barking dogs. Having heaved one sack each of papers to be marked and proposals to be considered out of the trusty pack, I plopped the laptop onto its stand, connected a few wires, and went to do my office pūjā while it whirred into its usual bewildered state. Pungent incense from a Viet grocery in Orlando waved at the Tārā and raven on the door, at the various manifestations of the Three Jewels over my desk. A postgrad across the hallway looked a bit startled.

Incense stuck firmly into a ricepot, I ambled down the hall with a kettle and a filthy glass pot. I scrubbed the coffee stains out of the pot, filled the kettle, retreated into my office and fired up the wee espresso machine kindly sold to me by another lecturer. Now my office really stinks: incense and coffee smells pour out from under my door and fill up the whole hallway.

Either my neighbours are really polite, or it smells like home to them too. Not sure which. I know somebody must think de-odorizers are a good idea, but who?


Subversion, Conversion and so forth:

I’m on the train home after an intense conference on using anthropological and design tools to thwart planned obsolescence.

Another view of the conference used ThoughtMesh to build a picture based on the abstracts, and yet another was Daria Loi’s beautifully designed response, but neither of those is online yet. There were a number of good sessions and a few extraordinary papers and discussions. Precisely because it was a strongly interdisciplinary conference there were places where I lost the thread (and David Turnbull wants me to think about threads very carefully). I hope other views of the conference emerge that help make sense of it.

One of the simplest rewards for me was seeing projects that succeeded. I worked with lots of people and collectivities through the 80s and 90s to wrest control of ICT from defence and financial networks and give it to those people whom it usually served to disenfranchise. Jerome Lewis gave an understated presentation (here’s the paper) on icon-based PDAs for non-literate Congo Basin hunter-gathers that enabled them to negotiate with multinational logging interests and even to record illegal logging. The image of three young Mbengele gathered around a elderly man, all working together as they use the tool to protect the forest: perhaps not revolutionary, but it gives hope.

Some of these successes were also theoretically subtle. Jim Enote talked about the work that A:shiwi and the Cambridge Museum are doing together began with Jim talking about how much of the inventory being catalogued was set aside, not for public viewing. When he came to talk about the A:shiwi mapping project in Zuni, one of the initial decisions was which places and names not to put on the map. Marilyn Strathern, in her opening remarks, contrasted ICT networks to kinship networks. This useful tool was reused several times during the conference.

  • Resistance to neo-liberal flattening commodifying ‘openness’ that treats all records as equal and all nodes as the same
  • Attending to locality
  • Kinship-like networks rather than ethernet-like networks
  • Noncoherence (a useful notion introduced by Helen Verran : not incoherence, which is simply a species of coherence, but purposeful recognition of incommensurability, diversity, and resistance to global systematicization. See this article by John Law.)

…these topics resurfaced and were reworked and tossed back into the pot.

The thing/use or material/social divide resurfaced over and over again, and when overtly noticed it was refused. So too, the model of ICT as a (neutral) technology providing (free) access to (passive, external) information (whether that access is being mobilized by producers, consumers or prosumers (!)) was made visible and criticized. The best criticisms of the social/material or access-to-content models were not the discursive ones (like mine); people who really attended to the problem used the mode or style of their presentation to expose and interrogate the problem.

Thus the opening of the conference was a water ritual of connectedness, offered by gkisedtanamoogk, was offered through iChat from John Ippolito and Joline Blais’ home in Maine. He chose water as a ritual block in order to attend to the distance and its connectedness. Drinking water at the end of his ritual he remarked that even though we could not actually drink the water with him, it would eventually come to us. In the background of the iChat window people moved around, noises emerged and people in our room wondered if the sounds were here, there, intentional, accidental in the best Cageian tradition. That accidentality took the apparently controlled iChat sociotechnical frame and tore it open. Participants at both ends of the pipe did not know whether they were participants, did not know where noises were coming from, in exactly the same way that a shared space is defined by shared environmental uncertainties.

Laura Watts performed her presentation—well, all presentations are performances, aren’t they—but she read a poem in four parts against the slides moving by themselves. Given the locality and intimacy of the Orkney places and communities she was describing it worked very well. As she pointed out later, there’s an active poetry writing community in Orkney.

It’s also true, though, that we all listened. Various members of the conference, especially when talking as or about First Peoples, had emphasized the importance of respect. The organizers regretted that gkisedtanamoogk had not been able to come and actually begin the conference as a talking circle; but perhaps because there was heaps of good will, or because James and Lee took a huge risk in opening the conference with gkisedtanamoogk’s ritual, or perhaps because many of us had learned enough to know when respect is appropriate, we listened to Laura’s performed piece with the same care as we did the more traditionally delivered presentations.

When gkisedtanamoogk closed the conference with a ritual—a travelling song, he said—that really was the end of the conference. There was no felt need for an additional frame closure, a ‘ok now we’re turning the computer off and thank you’. We all thanked each other, including gkisedtanamoogk and that was the end. In the same way people stood up from their seats and fuffled their papers, the iChat link was turned off and Joline and gkisedtanamoogk left the conference through the dimming screen.

Ancient lunch

I just discovered this article on the foraging habits of early humans at Niah Cave in Sarawak. Modern humans there eat bats and even use them for wedding feasts – one of the rare explicitly ritual uses of bats. WIth luck further contact with the Cambridge zooarchaeologists behind this work will shed more light on early human uses of small vertebrates.There has been a very long history of humans and bats sharing dwelling spaces. In the beginning, we would have discovered new dwellings by seeing the whirling clouds of bat emerging from a cave at dusk. Now they depend on us for bat-friendly structures.I only wish the Schwegler bat houses were a little cheaper – £74 is a bit dear for my budget. Otherwise I’m sure we’d have a few along the walls of Yeti Nivas already.

Forward in all directions

While I strongly doubt anyone actually reads this blog, I’ve re-loaded lots of old entries that got lost as a way of marking time today. They date back to March 2007.

I admit, I thought twice—well, seven or eight times—before re/committing to the GoogleBorg. I may yet find another home for all this; the very principle of inserting advertising into your ordinary socialization, as happens on Google searches or Facebook, disgusts me. It is not enough to commodify our own internal, and perfectly ordinary, sufferings and call them neuroses in order to extract payment for their remedy (Freud the bourgeois capitalist!); now our own ‘face’ in cyberspace has been colonized by adverts. But for now there is now choice; I can’t afford to pay for yet another subscription cyber-service.

Do we pay to have a face? Do we subscribe to our clothing? To be able to speak? But we pay for premium online presence, for programming tools, for ringtones. Late capitalism indeed. FOSS it all! Though even that has infelicities

It’s been a few months since I was at the British Library. They’ve instituted a bag search at the door. Given the recent brouhaha over British Transport police searching Scottish of some other sort, I began to wonder if the BL was being viewed as a target or as a hotbed of dissension. It could go either way, really; the BL of necessity employs a wonderful range of people – over lunch I had a lively conversation with Ramesh Dhungel about the Hodgson archives in Nepali and heard the usual two dozen languages around me in the Africa and Asia reading room. So is it the priceless holdings of the BL, or the suspicious foreigners that hang around there? At this point I am so confused and ashamed by the anti-terrorism mania that I cannot guess.

Now, my university—Aberdeen—has developed a habit of hiring ex-BL staff to major appointments – both the new head of IT and the new head of the library are ex-BL people. Hmm. I will have to watch the security policy at the new library verrrry carefuly indeed.

Frustrating then, to find that of all the books and articles I needed, almost none of them were available, even at the BL!. If anyone out there has issues of Maha Bodhi, the journal of the Maha Bodhi society, from 1955-65, do please let me know. Otherwise I will have to go begging for funds to buy them on microfilm.

Out there, where we belong; near here, where I cannot go.

In my planned talk, not delivered, for the Newa Pasa Puca Guthi last night, I had intended to return again to the question of locality as a key determinant of Newar culture and identity. Even though Newars can be found everywhere, and indeed there were economically significant settlements of Newars in Lhasa and Calcutta, nonetheless even now Newars in London pine for the Kathmandu Valley. They do so for two reasons. First, it is the centre of Newar culture, where being Newar is neither strange nor trivial. In London or Edinburgh, Newars are just another kind of Asian. Their culture and language codes a specific difference in Nepal generally and especially in the Kathmandu Valley, where others recognize them as a specific group and Newars feel a sense of solidarity (towards outsiders). Moreover, rivalry among the many different Newar castes and locality groups is a basic feature of Newar life in the Valley, but it is an experience that is unattainable outside dense Newar settlements.

Second, it is the only place where the embodied and highly social experience of being Newar is possible. The ritual and religious architecture is there, such that it is possible to perform routine daily rituals as well as less frequent rituals such as digu dyaḥ pūjā or ihi and bārha.

Third, it is not just the availability of deities and shrines, but the actual urban space that Newars miss. The architecture of the cities and towns of the Kathmandu Valley supports a very high population density, while enabling specific purity rules concerning food and public gestures. It also allows for chance social meetings and routine ritual behaviours that are impossible in a scattered community.

Where ever Newars have actually settled they understand themselves to be from Nepāl Maṇḍala. This is unlike, for example, Punjabis or Gujaratis, who retain a sense of identity in diaspora through music and so forth.

Areas of the UK are mapped out has ‘having Newars’ or not noticed; so Manchester, Birmingham, London and even our humble Aberdeen are on the map.

Now as I passed from the Richmond/Hounslow border, where Arjun’s new house is, through to Kings’ Cross and then on up the line, I’ve realized that I map places in a different us/them continuum. For me it’s a question of dividing the world into
• University towns where I might live and work
• Urban or peri-urban areas, with no university, that I find implictly unwelcoming, such as Stevenage or Peterborough
• Urban areas with fieldwork possibilities, like Hammersmith or Bradford
• Rural areas, which seem welcoming and soothing.

So the most inaccessible and alienating places to me are the suburbs and new towns, places where I would never choose to live, nor am likely to know anyone. Nothing new there, then.

Editing myself

It is strange to edit one’s self. In reviewing the galley proofs for Remaking Buddhism for Mediæval Nepal the question of being pointedly British (ise or ize), of responding to current debates in Newar nationalism (Newari or Newar for the language), and of odd corrections (towards for my toward) have made me wonder who I am. I chose to use the ize that I write naturally. My accent shifts out from under me whether I like it or not—here in Aberdeen my r is changing to a flap or trill, and I can hear my vowels changing quality. Grey will remain grey, but so too will recognize.

As to the vexed question of Newari, the weight of my bookshelf bears on the question. Ever single dictionary I have, whether in German or English, uses some form of Newari; and the ISO code gives Newari as the official name of the language. Thus while I sympathise with Daya Shakya and his desires as expressed on the Nepal lists, it seems to me that we are stuck with Newari as the accepted name for Nepāl Bhāṣā for the forseeable future.

Ossified professor syndrome

During the lecture series offered by an Extremely Famous professor some while back, a number of us at Aberdeen got to talking. Why was it that by the time an academic had become the invited star at a famous lecture series they had absolutely nothing new to say?

Theories included:

1) By the time you’ve got to that stage you’ve got nothing new left to say. This is a version of the ‘all mathematicians do their good work before they are 25’ theory.

2) The Committees That Be would never have the courage to invite someone exciting to give a lecture. The more paranoid version of this is the suspicion that only the toothless are put forward for high profile public roles. Even Zizek, much as I enjoy his snarls, is clearly a pet beast.