Tuesday, 22 December 2015

More Anthropology Bullshit

       Anthropology is beyond parody these days. I don't know if young anthropologists realise how silly they look - I assume they don't, or they'd stop doing what they do.

      Take a look at some of these peculiar bits from a piece by University of Minnesota anthropologist Stuart McLean on the group anthropology blog, Savage Minds:
If anthropology too is an art, what kind of art is it? An amphibious and metamorphic one to be sure, an art that plays – with great absurdity and seriousness – at the interface between differentiated human worlds and at the theshold [sic] of their making and undoing. Far from being the holistically conceived study of humanity – as some would continue to have it – anthropology as a creative practice is marked by a constitutive inhumanity. [...]

As Saturday afternoon drew to a close, Rick, the festival’s Philosopher in Residence, asked Frog King whether he still subscribed to the view that Art is Life, Life is Art? Frog King – or was it Kwok Mang-ho, or both? – answered that he had once considered that to be the case – “But now I realize, Art is Frog.” Art is Frog. I can currently think of no better answer to the question: what is anthropology?
       I am convinced that nobody understands any of this, including the writer. It's just nonsense. And it's fairly typical of the insane bullshit you find among young anthropologists these days; the corporate culture of anthropology departments has turned them into bullshit-bots, incapable of expressing themselves clearly or even of having worthwhile ideas to express, clearly or otherwise. I know quite a few young anthropologists, of course, and they're not jabbering morons in person. They all struggled through bullshit like this when they were students, so they can identify and reject it. But there are powerful currents in the academy telling anthropologists not to do that, in the same way that junior employees in predatory corporate jobs know that what they're doing might be wrong but can't stop for fear of being pushed out.

       Anyway, if you can't think of a better answer to the question 'what is anthropology?' than 'Art is Frog', then perhaps you shouldn't be an anthropologist. And does anyone have an inkling what an 'amphibious and metamorphic' art might be?

       And, yes, this is a mean-spirited thing to post right before Christmas, but it really annoys me that a potentially valuable and worthwhile discipline is being turned into such a clown show, and in such a sanctimonious way. As I've said several times before, of course.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Name Change

       So I changed the name of my blog to West's Ancient World. I think that's a more accurate reflection of its contents. I thought about West's Ancient Indonesia, but I'm going to carry on posting about non-Indonesian topics in the near future and I already have plenty of non-Indonesian posts in the archive. The other big area to cover is Amazonia, which I've previously written about here, here, here, and here. I've also got some reviews to write, and I certainly won't restrict myself to books on Indonesia.

     Posts will slow down over Christmas and New Year, I expect, although I'll try to have more lined up for January. I'll see about putting up photos of my attempts at Jawi texts instead of just relying on Rumi transcription of Malay as well - I think my handwriting is getting pretty good now, and at least as good as some of the nineteenth-century Jawi letters I've seen.

     Speaking of Jawi, here's the latest blogpost by Annabel Gallop on the British Library Asian & African blog, on the Malay artist Datuk Muda Muhammad of Perlak.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Albuquerque on Lances vs War Elephants

       I'm reading Thomas Trautmann's new-ish book on war elephants, Elephants and Kings, on my Kindle. It's a brilliant book, full of well-written and totally reasonable analysis of historical texts, and I find Trautmann's fundamental thesis - that war elephants were 'invented' in Iron Age India alongside the institution of kingship - convincing. I think he's also right to see the use of war elephants in Southeast Asia and Africa/Europe as derivative of Indian practice. It also has worthwhile digressions on the history of chess and the Buddha's flight from his home. My readers would probably get a lot out of it.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Mongol Invasion of Java in the Desawarnana

      The main sources for the Mongol invasion of Java are the Chinese ones, primarily the dynastic history of the Yuan. However, as I noted before, the attempted conquest made ripples in Europe, and of course there are several mentions in Indonesian sources, most (naturally enough) in Javanese. This includes a brief mention in canto 44 of the Desawarnana, the Old Javanese poem written by Mpu Prapanca in 1365 detailing the extent and history of Majapahit.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

When Did Horses Come to Indonesia/ISEA?

       Horses (Equus ferus caballus) are not native to Indonesia or Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) and their bones are not commonly found at archaeological sites in the archipelago. They were first domesticated on the Eurasian steppe, with the earliest known sites discovered in Kazakhstan, and were introduced to Indonesia at some point in the last few thousand years. Precisely when is difficult to ascertain, although horses appear in inscriptions and texts from fairly early periods.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Eastern Indonesia in the Desawarnana

       The earliest written documentation of several Indonesian islands occurs in canto 14 of the Desawarnana, the East Javanese topogenic poem of 1365. There's been a lot of academic discussion about which names refer to which places, especially in the case of some particularly obscure ones, but it's generally easy to tell which part of Indonesia or Malaysia is being described. It's rather harder to tell whether the text accurately depicts the actual realm of Majapahit, though. In any case, the full text of the fifth stanza of the fourteenth canto goes like this (Robson's 1995 translation):
Taking them island by island: Makasar, Butun and Banggawi,
Kunir, Galiyahu and Salaya, Sumba, Solot and Muwar,
As well as Wa
an, Ambwan, Maloko and Wwanin,
Seran and Timur as the main ones among the various islands that remember their duty.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

An Armenian Source on Medieval Sumatra/Srivijaya

        There aren't many Eastern Christian sources on ancient Indo-Malaysia/Nusantara, but there's no reason to neglect them nor to believe that they're less valuable than Marco Polo. In a short article written in 1998 and published in the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde (a journal familiar to all Indonesianists), Vladimir Braginsky, one of the world's foremost experts on classical Malay literature, highlighted two such eastern Christian sources, one in Armenian ('Description of cities, Indian and Persian') and one in Old Russian ('A Journey Beyond the Three Seas' (Хождение за три моря) by the relatively famous fifteenth-century Russian explorer Afanasiy Nikitin). I want to take a look first at the Armenian text - I'll leave Nikitin for another post. I'm not going to do much more than summarise part of the article this time, so if you have JSTOR access I'd recommend reading the whole piece there.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Arrival of the Portuguese - Malay Annals

       You may remember that I've been working on my Jawi script - the Perso-Arabic-based writing system used by Malay speakers to write their language from the fourteenth century up to the twentieth. The main book I'm using is A Handbook of Malay Script by M. B. Lewis (London: Macmillan, 1954), which was written when Malaysia was still part of the British empire and when the script was still in use. It isn't an easy script to learn because the structure of Malay is nothing like that of Arabic and the writing system is, for that reason, not terribly good at recording the sounds of Malay. The best way to learn it is to read a lot of it and get used to the peculiarities 
of the spelling.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Pigafetta on the Cannons of 'Burne'

        Antonio Pigafetta visited Borneo in July 1521 during the first circumnavigation of the world, immediately after Magellan's fatal encounter with the Filipino chieftain Lapu-Lapu at Mactan in the Visayas (where Mactan-Cebu International Airport now stands). Given that Pigafetta was one of the first Europeans to document the islands of Indonesia in real detail (at least those parts of them that he visited), as opposed to the rather vague hints found in other European texts and the martial orientation of Afonso de Albuquerque, his is one of the more vital and illuminating European pieces for understanding Indonesia on the cusp of serious European influence. Pigafetta's manuscript was finished in 1525; there are three extant versions in French and one in Italian, Pigafetta's native language. I'll mostly be using the Italian one, because that's the one I've got.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Ralph Fitch on Malays

      Ralph Fitch was one of the first English people to visit Melaka in the late sixteenth century. His plan had been to voyage further east by sea, to China and eastern Indonesia, but his account (which you can find in Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation (1589-1600)) tells us that the Portuguese officials in Melaka stopped him from proceeding (it's notable that other English adventurers got to eastern Indonesia by going the other way, across the Pacific). In any case, Fitch was one of the more methodical and cautious adventurers of the sixteenth century, taking notes on the prices of goods in different ports and not getting into too many scrapes with the locals.