Tag Archives: optimism

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?

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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.

What, so what, what for?

I discover with delight that my stated purpose here has aroused comment – over at Jinajik I’ve been chided for an apparent attack of despair. Now, Jinajik himself should know better than to question the relevance of ethnoecology to Newar Buddhism. As I will argue in Heidelberg in May, there are important and very deep connections between the landscape of Newar Vajrayāna and its praxis. The goad makes sense, though, and with apologies to him for using it as an excuse I will try to justify recent developments in my research. In short, both my recent criticisms of certain, but not all, conservative strands in Newar Vajrayāna and my return to work in ethnobiology are nothing more than owning up to the responsibilities of my particular ethical predicament.

Here in Aberdeen we’re supervising undergraduate and postgraduate research on Himalayan Buddhism, including ‘high’ Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhism, as well as lived Gurung, Ladakhi, Tamang or Newar Buddhism. I use ethnographic and textual sources to make it abundantly clear to the students here, and anyone else who will listen, that Newar Vajrayāna is alive, kicking, and must be accorded equal status as a distinctive type of Buddhism if we are to understand Vajrayāna. In research, I’m working on a series of articles, under the ‘Shared Shrines’ rubric spearheaded by Glenn Bowman at Kent, on the way in which Pharping Newars manage the refusal, by recently arrived Tibetans, to ‘do’ inclusive religion – why they reject ‘polytropy’ as defined by Carrithers; and still plodding on with work on Mahāyāna texts used in Newar Vajrayāna. Other lines of research—on ritualized literacy, on the regional identity of 7th-13th century Himalayan Buddhism, on trade in animal and plant materials—all derive from Newar material put into comparison or relation with neighbouring societies.

So when I declare myself to be working on Anthropology of Religion, things Himalayan, and ethnobiology I certainly don’t mean that I’ve abandoned work on Newar Vajrayāna. Fieldwork in that community is frustrating, certainly; and along with others (Todd Lewis in the 1998 Conference on the Preservation of the Buddhist Culture of Nepal Mandala; Rev. Takaoka in the 2004 conference of the same name) I have publicly deplored a particular conservative strain in Newar Vajrayāna. (For the curious, that deploration is in a 2007 issue of Matinā.). As a practising Buddhist with insider/outsider relations to the Newar Vajrayāna tradition, I deeply regret the hidebound failure of some of the Newar Vajrācāryas to leave behind the brutalities of caste, gender and race. As an anthropologist and historian of Newar Buddhism, those same prejudices are historical features of Newar society which ‘make sense’, but as a Buddhist scholar in conversation with the Newar Vajrayāna tradition it’s my moral duty to reject those attitudes.

There are problems in the Western academy as well. Where Jinajik worries about me, I grumble about the AAR panel on Tibetan and Himalayan Religions or the mission statement of the Aris Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies – neither of which appeared to notice that the Himalayas is much, much bigger and more complex than ‘Tibet’. To that end Lauren Leve, may Jñānaḍakiṇī magically multiply her research funding!, has roped several of us into a panel at the AAR asking just why the North American academy seems so very determined to marginalize Newar Buddhism as a domain of enquiry.

On a different front, some Western scholars of Newar Buddhism have hung on to the rather Victorian idea that the problem is the Vajrayāna of it. Thus studies of Newar Theravāda often contain explicit or implicit comparisons of the Buddhist-ness of Newar Theravāda versus the Vajrayāna: the Theravāda is more egalitarian, a purer form of Buddhism, what have you. This seems to me a tragic failure of scholarship, insider, outsider or otherwise.

But let me get back to the question: why ethnobiology in particular? Four reasons, at least for now:

(1) Because it’s a return to a beloved domain of research: I was a ‘biologist’ playing with bones and learning to graft long before I was an ‘anthropologist’, ‘Himalayan specialist’ or even, so far as I understood the label, ‘Buddhist’. One of the privileges of working at a research university is, unsurprisingly, having the freedom to widen one’s research—and here I am retrieving an interest I had to suppress in order to get through writitng the DPhil, publishing the book and landing a proper job.
(2) It’s a natural development of my long involvement with Engaged Buddhism. When Franz Metcalf asked me why I was working on ethnobiology I cheerfully borrowed the title of his own book as an explanation. Would a Buddha these days teach Buddhism in a university? Somehow I think that’s just asking to be swallowed whole by the necessary hypocrisy of language – just the sort of thing Nāgārjuna meant by prapañca — and since I do actually teach Buddhism in a university, and mutter vows about somehow becoming a Buddha some æon, then it seems to me necessary to do find a way to do engaged research as part of a life teaching Buddhism—just as it seems to me necessary to refuse the automobile, to oppose wars, and all those other other obvious decisions.
(3) Because an anthropology which refuses to draw lines between human society and the wider community of which it is part is the first step towards a properly Buddhist anthropology.
(4) Actually, you can’t possibly understand Newar religion at all without a clear understanding of how it is situated in its ecology and its landscape. Where else are swifts considered gods? So it’s not despair—it’s delight.

Blue Monday?

Actually, I like blue. Apparently today is ‘Blue Monday’—when debt, grim weather and failed resolutions combine to produce the maximum depressive force on the rubbery huamn psyche. Well, I’m no different: snapped awake this morning fretting about money we owe the plumbers, and skeetered across brittle ice for the morning trot in the dark. Yesterday’s self-assessment counts as a catalogue of resolutions. Time for a little perverse happiness.