Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

This is my third and final post on the Wahon Literacies workshop held at UCLA & UCSB a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in the previous posts, the workshop was dedicated largely to discussions of book history, and of shifts in scholarship towards a greater appreciation of not just the text (the content), but the book as a whole, in its production, circulation, usage, and material history otherwise. This last post begins with a few scattered different thoughts, but after that, I get into a discussion of what it is we should be doing in our university departments, in our graduate training.

We talked a little bit about connoisseurship skills, though I really would have liked to do more of this. One thing we did touch upon is how to look for damage or defects in the printing blocks. Most often these will appear as tiny gaps in the printed portions; they are especially easily noticeable in the solid black lines that frame every page. Finding such a defect shows that the book is from a later impression, after the blocks have gotten worn to some extent. Finding the same defect in the same place in another copy of the book shows that the two copies were printed with the same block. However, as was explained, finding a copy without that defect does not always mean it is an earlier impression, from a pre-damaged block. Rather, it could be from a later impression, from repaired or remade blocks. Through a technique called kabusebori, a printed page could be used to create new blocks, either as replacements for blocks lost in a fire, or as a means of creating blocks from which to publish pirate editions.

A break in the black frame around a page, indicating a damaged woodblock. Click through for the fuller image.

The workshop ended with each professor sharing some final words of wisdom, and/or anecdotal stories of how they got to be where they are, in terms of academic interests, or approach. Unno Keisuke-sensei shared with us that earlier in his academic career, he had five different advisors, advising him five different things. I share this because I think any graduate student can likely sympathize. Unno had one professor emphasizing that he had to focus especially on thinking about the historical context surrounding whatever text or object he was working on. Another said to focus in on the texts themselves, reading very closely, carefully, and deeply. Another told him to read broadly, surveying lots of texts. A fourth professor told him to focus most on his own purpose, the purpose of his research effort. Finally, his final advisor told him he simply had to do all four at once. This is certainly a pressure I feel myself, to read deeply, but also broadly, while keeping in mind my specific purpose (esp. in terms of theoretical, historiographical, or conceptual angles), but also the broader historical context.

The same page opening as above, loaded with kuzushiji.

Of the entire workshop, one of the things I think I found most stimulating and engaging was a final discussion (in English, thank god) about the role of “Wahon literacies,” in the sense of intense focus on kuzushiji and kanbun reading training, in Japan Studies scholarly training today. This is a narrow element of a broader issue I have been very much weighing and thinking about for years. The focus on theory and broader cross-cultural issues so privileged in American academia means that none of us can ever be truly as expert in our particular fields of specialty as we might be otherwise. This could very easily be the subject of an entire blog post unto itself, and it is certainly something I have spoken about with my officemate, and certain other colleagues, at length. I have been feeling for some time that I would likely be happier in an East Asian Studies department than a disciplinary one – whether History, or Art History – because as much as people love to talk about interdisciplinarity, we don’t actually practice it much, and indeed most of our seminars run along a different axis, trying to address a given theme, or Theoretical or conceptual issue, across many different periods & places, in the hopes I guess of (a) being accessible to as many History students as possible, and (b) because of some disciplinary privileging of thinking & working cross-culturally, cross-geographically, cross-period, as if each of our subjects of study is really just a case study for some broader, more global understanding of broader themes. Sure, there’s great validity to that, but what about moving along the other axis? How much more could we accomplish if we worked alongside fellow Japanologists, in a variety of disciplines, rather than so heavily alongside fellow Historians (or Art Historians) in a variety of geographical and chronological specialties? If we brought together experts on early modern Japanese art, architecture, literature, theatre, music, politics, economics…. now *that* would really be something. This is why the AAS (Association of Asian Studies) conference is so much more engaging and productive each year than the AHA (American Historical Association) or CAA (College Art Association). This is why these workshops at Cambridge, and at UCLA/UCSB the last couple months have been so invigorating. Don’t get me wrong, there is incredible value in just about everything we do, and I am immensely grateful for all that I have learned by TAing World History, Western Civilization, and Writing, and by doing field exams on Chinese history, Pacific & Hawaiian history, and Performance Studies; and I have also learned a lot from some of the random seminars I have taken, such as in travel literature, gender in theatre & music, and museum studies. Historiography was a waste of time. But, I cannot help but wonder where I would be, what kind of scholar I would be, if I had devoted all of that time to studying Japan and Okinawa more extensively, studying kanbun, sôrôbun, and kuzushiji more extensively, and perhaps even taking more courses across disciplines, not that anyone was really stopping me from doing the last.

When we spend so much of our time reading Marx and Foucault, and thinking about transnationalism, post-modernism, and identity politics, and taking courses along disciplinary lines rather than focusing on the cultural and historical context of our specialty, and especially at a university that offers travel funding only for conferences & research, and not for language or workshops, when and how am I supposed to learn how to read this? And to learn about the material culture, political events, and social constructs the text refers to?

The privileging of broader conceptual concerns also means that scholars in Literature and Art History are today discouraged from doing work on individual works, or individual writers/artists, which used to be the bread & butter of these fields. Obviously, it is for the better in many ways that these fields have expanded past that. But, despite post-modernism telling us that nothing is ever black & white, that all things are a bit of this and a bit of that – or perhaps precisely because post-modernism advocates this more complex view – we cannot seem to be tolerated to go do those kinds of focused studies, even if we do it alongside a broader discipline, or field, which continues to do the broader concepts. As one professor at the workshop pointed out, no one ever did write a focused study in English on Saikaku, the biggest name in the Edo period literary canon, and now that time is past, and it simply cannot be done in the current academic environment. As a result, I don’t really know, since this isn’t my field, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no single book, or body of books, that one can go to for anything approaching a “definitive” treatment of Saikaku’s biography or ouvre, but only essay after essay examining his works through this or that theoretical lens, within the broader context of this or that -ism or -ality.

Meanwhile, Japanese scholars continue to put out wonderfully thorough treatments of individual subjects, describing them in detail and depth, without the obligation of coloring the entire project through the lens of a particular capital-T Theoretical approach, or argumentative aim. It’s hard to write anything that can ever come even anywhere close to being the definitive book on a given subject, when every book has to leave out vast swaths of aspects of the subject, simply because they’re not relevant to one’s argument.

Thank god for movable type.

This focus on disciplinary and theoretical training, over intensive linguistic or culture-specific training, explains in part the reason why, to a very significant extent, scholars in the West relied heavily upon Japanese scholars to transcribe manuscripts into movable-type published texts, and to otherwise catalog and detail the complexities of the historical subject. Western scholars, whose language abilities and cultural/historical knowledge paled in comparison to those of these Japanese scholars, then simply read the Japanese scholarship, and based their analytical, conceptual, or theoretical arguments on these secondary sources, combined of course with at least some direct in-person examination of primary sources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I find myself doing much the same. Things have surely changed dramatically from many decades ago, when many of the top scholars in East Asian Studies didn’t even read Japanese or Chinese at all, or read modern but not classical, and/or had never traveled to Asia. But, I’m not sure they’ve really changed completely; such, after all, is the conversation we’re having here right now. Here I am, so many decades later, and the resources to learn kuzushiji, kanbun, etc., not to mention to develop true fluency in Japanese like many scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries couldn’t even imagine, are so much greater, more widespread, more easily accessible. And travel and lengthy research stays in Japan are likewise quite accessible compared to the days of yore. And yet, here I am, with theory classes, TAing, and all sorts of other things getting in the way of me developing a more truly expert, deep, thorough, expertise in these things. After this workshop, I truly have a renewed drive to get to Japan, and to spend as much time as I can over there from now on, whether in diss research, or as a post-doc. The US system simply does not prepare students adequately in a depth of historical/cultural knowledge, let alone in language skills.

Right: The mission statement of the University of the Ryukyus, emphasizing the search for truth, making contributions to regional and international society, and pursuing peace and cooperation. Things that Shimomura Hakubun and all too many others, with their narrow-minded focus on engineering and corporate competitiveness, would like to see eliminated from Japan’s universities.

Some of the professors at the workshop suggested that as Western scholars have continued to take greater and greater advantage of access to Japan, and as the average level of ability among Western scholars has risen – combined with the demographic shifts in Japan, political shifts de-valuing and even seeking to gut entirely the humanities, and cultural shifts such that fewer and fewer students are interested in historical research – the modes of Western scholarship have come to become more powerful in the field overall. This division of labor has broken down, and Japanese scholars have either chosen, or felt pressure, to really begin paying attention to Western scholarship, perhaps even emulating our more argument- and Theory-driven philosophy. And yet, most Japanese scholars still retain a level of expert knowledge and skill that we do not – having handled hundreds more historical objects than us, having read hundreds more manuscripts, having engaged so much more deeply, in so much greater detail, than we have. For all of these reasons, and others, Japanese universities continue (at least for the moment, under the current trends) to shift towards bringing in more and more international students, and international lecturers. This is a good thing for someone like myself, as I think I’d really like one of those lecturer positions. But it also means you have an increasing body of students who are even less thoroughly familiar with Japanese history & culture, and less skilled in Japanese language, than their native Japanese counterparts. It means that for there to be next generations of scholars who are highly skilled in kuzushiji, and highly experienced in handling historical objects and examining them with a connoisseurial eye (for age, damage, earlier vs. later printings, forgeries, etc.), as the last generations of scholars have been, there is an increased need for engagement between Western scholars & students and these Japanese masters (and not only for Theory!). It is with this in mind that UCLA organized to bring these three professors from Tokyo for this event, and that UCLA is planning additional similar events in coming academic quarters / years.

All photos my own.

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A letter from the great Kyoto painter Maruyama Ôkyo to Oku Dôei. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
The Wahon Literacies workshop at UCLA/UCSB a few weeks ago, to my surprise, did not spend any time on learning or practicing how to read calligraphy. But, we did spend some time thinking about the aesthetic appreciation of it. I actually took a whole graduate seminar devoted to the subject of Chinese calligraphy some years ago, and I must admit I still really struggle with how to appreciate it, aesthetically. But, what Prof. Ogawa Yasuhiko had to say shifted my thinking about this – it really put me over a threshold, towards thinking about this differently.

We are often told, particularly in Art History courses, art museums, and similar venues, that one does not need to be able to read the calligraphy, at all, and can still appreciate the formal qualities of a piece, overall. That is to say, we can look at a work of calligraphy – i.e. a rectangular space of black ink against a white background – and judge overall its balance of dark and light, its use of negative space, and so forth, as if it were an abstract work of modernist art. Okay, yes, true. One can do that.

But, the cry comes out, there is so much to be gained by reading the text! How can you claim to understand or appreciate a piece without reading the text that’s right there in front of you? It could be a poem about winter, or spring, about food, about birth or life or death, or it can be a joke about someone’s dick. Or, it could be something really mundane, like a letter or even a shopping list, treasured and preserved and hung up as an artwork simply because of its calligraphic quality – or the fame of the author – and not for its content. I would agree with this too: reading the actual content of what is written can make a huge difference towards understanding, and thus appreciating, a piece.

But, we did a hands-on activity with Prof. Ogawa that made me realize how to appreciate calligraphy in a new and different way, which strangely never did occur to me before – that reading it is not only about the actual content, but also about appreciating a work of calligraphy not as a formal aesthetic whole, but rather one character at a time, in order. Ogawa had us use tracing paper and regular pencils to trace over famous works of calligraphy, thus moving through the text one character at a time. Even with only minimal experience with calligraphy, atrocious skill at the real thing, and a near-total inability to read the text for meaning, tracing over the characters gave me a real sense of the flow of the thing. Did it flow quickly and smoothly from one character to the next? Did it stop and break after each stroke of a kanji, in sharp energetic movements, or in slow, deliberate ones? Did the characters run long and thin, or wide, and how did these alternate? Did the column of characters run straight down, or did it veer off to the right?

Some of this is, I suppose, what I’ve been told about calligraphy all along, in terms of trying to get a sense for the shape of the characters, their balance, the horizontality or verticality of them, the thinness or thickness of line. But I don’t think anyone ever before suggested examining the work one character at a time, from the beginning to the end, or tracing over it, either physically or in one’s mind. And this makes all the difference. If I remember to do so, I definitely think that the next time I teach Japanese (art) history I would love to have the students actually trace the calligraphy, like this, with pencil and tracing paper. Hopefully, maybe, this will give them a different insight into the art of it. I know I certainly got intrigued – I’m hopeless with a brush, and in large part because I’m left-handed and calligraphy, like all traditional arts, has to be done with the right. But, as I traced these characters with the pencil, and felt the energy and flow of it, even I became allured, tempted, to want to pick up calligraphy, and learn to play and explore in this world of quick & flowing, or slow & deliberate, or sharp and energetic, brushwork.

This could also be a great activity for learning how to think about kuzushiji and how to read them. I wish we had done tracing during the Cambridge program. I wonder if that would have helped. The key thing, though, to remember (this is basically a note to myself right here), is that especially if doing this kind of activity with students completely new to it, is to encourage them to think about reproducing the process, and not the product, of how it was actually written. When tracing a character, don’t do an outline of its shape and then fill it in, and don’t come at it from just any angle, any direction, to try to draw it. Start from the top, and the left, try to lift up your pencil as little as possible, and try to think about how a calligrapher with a brush would flow through the characters, darting or looping back to get to the next part, sometimes without leaving a mark, but most of the time still following along a line – not removing the brush entirely, and bringing it back to the page elsewhere.

I think this calligraphy activity, as well as activities like making our own yotsume-toji (sewn-bound) books, could be a great tool for Japanese history and culture classes, to get students interested and excited in traditional culture and history. We are fortunate in Japanese Studies that we have many students who are genuinely interested in the subject to begin with. Students who are primarily there for the anime & manga, for stories of cool/badass samurai and ninja often are open to at least some degree of interest in Kabuki, Ukiyo-e, geisha, and so forth. Our upper-division history course on “The Samurai” here at UCSB always fills up quick. But, even so, if my own personal journey can be taken as any indication of others’ attitudes, I think it really helps to have some thing, whether it’s activities, or whether it’s just certain readings, certain lectures, whatever, something that really grabs students, that really makes your class memorable out of their whole college career. I don’t know about students these days, who come in with so much drive, and so much pressure, to do college in the most efficient and career-effective manner possible, but at least for me, it was rather up in the air what I was going to major in, and my entire academic/career path since then was very heavily influenced by simply having the professors I did, including a medieval history professor who was widely regarded one of the most fun, must-hear, lecturers in the whole university, a Japanese language teacher who was strict but incredibly caring and nurturing, and a Japanese history professor who assigned Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, which, for all its flaws, provided the kind of romantic view of Japan that clinched my decision to study abroad, and the rest was history. So, I take these activities as tools which might, hopefully, allow me to inspire my own future students similarly, to think that my class stood out, made an impression, and that Japanese history & culture might be something to pursue further.

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Having finished going through reviews of books & articles I read for my exam field in Pacific Islands history, we now finally come around to the China readings. I promise we’ll get to Japan before too much longer.

For now, we begin with a summary / synthesis / response to a pair of articles on the so-called “Chinese World Order” and “tribute system” of traditional East Asian international trade relations.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.
*Zhang, Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.

The East China Sea, where so much of this tribute trade was centered. As seen on a map at Pearl Harbor.

These two articles by Zhang Feng and Angela Schottenhammer are only two, chosen admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, from the body of recent scholarship on the so-called Sinocentric world order and tribute system. However, after reading them, they seem to present a good cross-section representation of the discourse. Further, Zhang and Schottenhammer draw extensively on a handful of other significant recent works on the subject, giving a sense of the key arguments and ideas of James Hevia, John Wills, Peter Perdue, Guo Yinjing (see book chapter), Cheng Wei-chung, Wang Gungwu, and Zheng Yongnian, among others.

Zhang summarizes and critiques the scholarship on the “tribute system” which has developed largely out of the work of John K. Fairbank, and essays published by a handful of other scholars in the landmark 1968 volume Chinese World Order, edited by Fairbank and published by Harvard University Press. Zhang emphasizes that the “tribute system” is first and foremost “a Western invention for descriptive purposes,” an analytical tool that even Fairbank himself thought should be revisited and revised in each generation. He explains that only since the 1980s have scholars begun to critique this model, “exposing hidden assumptions and bringing to light new historical evidence that contradicts existing interpretations.” Yet, even as more recent scholarship of the 2000s and 2010s (including numerous conference proceedings & edited volumes edited by Schottenhammer) has continued to explore the history of pre-modern / early modern East Asian foreign relations, few of these critiques have disproven or significantly revised Fairbank’s model, or offered satisfactory alternative models. Zhang admits he is guilty of the same, and writes that “Only James Hevia has set out to bypass it and construct his own analysis from a postmodern perspective.” In practice, however, I would counter that Hevia does not actually significantly depart from the tribute system model, but merely builds upon it, elucidating the conceptual and ritual (logistical) workings somewhat more deeply, and offering additional or alternative language for talking about it. His idea that the emperor “initiates” and the foreign envoy “completes” a ritual action, or ritual relationship, for example, while thought-provoking and evocative, does not substantially alter our fundamental notion that the Chinese emperor takes a superior position, requiring ritual submission from envoys from foreign lands if they wish to enter into formal relations. I expect I will cover Hevia’s book in greater detail in a future blog post.

Zhang, too, admits that the tributary/investiture relationship, and the Confucian/cosmological rhetoric and ritual practices associated with it, was “a prominent feature of historical East Asian politics,” but suggests that “overemphasis on it over the years has created biases in conceptual and empirical enquiries.” As we continue, endlessly, to struggle with the legacies of Orientalism, this is something we must take very seriously – to be guilty of perpetuating or reifying the artificial construction of a conceptual “Asia” that differs from reality is essentially the very crime which Said railed against. At its core, Zhang’s argument is simply that which dominates scholars’ outlooks and methodology today more broadly, regardless of chronological or geographic specialty (and quite rightfully so): the world is complicated, and no single model is sufficient to explain everything; it is imperative to acknowledge complexity, nuance, and difference. The tribute system, Sinocentric attitudes, and so forth, are not the beginning and end of East Asian attitudes or practices of foreign relations, but merely one of a number of institutions operating within the region.

Zhang devotes the majority of his article to summarizing Fairbank’s model, and offering critiques. Fairbank and Teng Ssu-Yu, in that 1968 volume, describe the system as “the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy” and “a scheme of things entire … the mechanism by which barbarous non-Chinese regions were given their place in the all-embracing Chinese political, and therefore ethical, scheme of things.” It was based on an extension of China’s internal hierarchies, with the Son of Heaven at the center, and at the peak of the hierarchy, and all others subordinate to the central, awe-inspiring, person of the emperor, from whom virtue and civilization emanated. “Respect for this hierarchy and acknowledgment of Chinese superiority were absolute requirements for opening relations with China.” China’s participation in the system was motivated chiefly by prestige, and that of foreign countries chiefly by desire for trade, according to this traditional interpretation. This model connects into Confucian and cosmological notions of the Son of Heaven as the source of all civilization and virtue, and the idea that foreign envoys come to pay homage and tribute in recognition of the Emperor’s virtue, which has extended even so far as their corner of the world. “Non-Chinese rulers participated in the Chinese world order by observing the appropriate forms and ceremonies (禮) in their contact with the Son of Heaven.”

A Chinese investiture ship, and to the left, Chinese investiture envoys being welcomed at Naha harbor, in a scroll owned by the University of Hawaii Library. Investiture was a crucial part of the so-called tribute system.

Zhang describes two alternate views of the system, but ultimately goes on to critique all three. His “Second View” (Fairbank’s model itself being the first) focuses on examining the rules and procedures of the Chinese system, while the “Third View” takes the tribute system and ideas of Sinocentrism as an “institution,” well-established and widely understood and agreed upon throughout the region. Zhang categorizes these things apart, but really they seem all just facets of the same thing, and with other facets, other approaches, possible – including the idea still popular among too many scholars that all ritual is merely symbolic, and can be (or must be) ignored, in order to examine the “real” underlying political motivations.

All of these interpretations, Zhang points out, run the risks of:

  • being terribly Sinocentric, focusing only on Chinese perceptions, attitudes, and constructions, to the detriment of an examination of what other polities thought of the system, and of their participation within it,
  • reifying a view of the system as fixed, as static and unchanging across the centuries, and finally
  • reifying the centrality of the “tribute system” and failing to recognize or incorporate other aspects of foreign relations attitudes, practices and developments. Further, these last two problems also tie into the risk of assuming the preeminence of the rigid structures and ideological beliefs of the system, denying the Chinese rulers agency and rationality, thinking them blinded or restricted by ideology or tradition, and thus overlooking or ignoring the pragmatism and flexibility with which the Court very often was able to act.
  • focusing too much on the forms, on the granting of royal seals and patents, the receiving of tributary goods, the performance of obeisances, and so forth, leaving the reader (or the scholar herself) wondering if the Chinese were capable of thinking, or doing, anything beyond just “going through the motions” of practicing the formalities.
  • ignoring relations that take place outside of the tribute system. Are military conflicts not “relations”? Are official communications between courts (or pretenders) outside of the tribute system – such as Yongle’s commands that the Ashikaga do something about the wakō, the Ashikaga’s response that they have no power to do so, and no responsibility over those independent non-state actors, and Prince Kanenaga’s execution of Ming ambassadors, not count as “relations,” or at least incidents in the history of foreign interactions?
  • taking Sinocentrism and the tribute system as givens, without questioning, problematizing, or investigating their actual meanings and functions. Zhang quotes John Wills as writing: “Sinocentrism might be the wrong place to begin the analysis of Chinese foreign policy, because it short-circuits the necessity of paying attention to all the evidence, to all institutions and patterns of action…” Scholars such as Angela Schottenhammer have done much to begin to complicate this picture, giving wonderfully vibrant and nuanced descriptions of the complex and very busy scene of the world of East Asian (and Southeast Asia) maritime trade.

Meanwhile, Adam Bohnet, who I will also talk about in a future blog post, is but one of a number of scholars whose work on Chosŏn Korea helps unpack and illuminate the meanings and functioning of “Sinocentrism.” In an article on “Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages,” Bohnet examines how the Chosŏn Court deployed its loyalty to the Ming to bolster its own legitimacy, and how the court’s views and treatment of the descendants of Ming subjects resident in Korea changed over the course of the 18th century. As David Kang emphasizes, the system was never about Chinese political domination or control over tributary countries, and indeed China did not interfere at all in the domestic policies of Korea or Ryukyu, let alone Japan. Rather, it was always about cultural superiority, and more than that, centrality.

“Confucianism is thus a set of ideas based on ancient Chinese classic philosophical texts about the proper ways by which government and society were to be organized,” and Korean elites “saw their relationship to China as more than a political arrangement; it was a confirmation of their membership in Confucian civilization.”

Thus, following on Kang’s argument, we begin to get a sense that it wasn’t so much “Chinese” culture as an arbitrary choice in a cultural relativist world of equal options that was considered “superior,” so much as a recognition of Confucianism as the most enlightened, civilized, proper, and successful guide to ethics and governance there was. This gives additional force to the idea of the performance of membership in Confucian civilization. A comparison to court fashions in Europe seems apt, though it is not one Kang or Zhang address. While French language, court protocols, fashion, and so forth were for a time employed throughout much of Europe, as French culture was seen to be the peak of cultural refinement, this was at its core merely an aesthetic, cultural, fashion choice – France had no more claim to being “civilized,” let alone the source of civilization, than England or any of the Italian city-states. Chinese culture, however, from calligraphy and painting to music and language, to court costume, ranks, offices, and protocols, were all intimately tied into the ideas of Confucian government, Confucian society, and the arts of the refined Confucian gentleman. Thus, again, the emulation of Chinese, in particular Ming, norms in fashion and the arts was, arguably, perhaps, not merely a culturally arbitrary choice – e.g. to think that this style hat is somehow more culturally superior, more civilized, than that style of hat – but, rather, it is tied into a demonstration of the performance of Confucian civilization, as manifested in its most mature, fully-developed, form in the Ming Dynasty Court.

There’s nothing like the main hall of Shuri castle, seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, for an example of a court demonstrating its membership in high (Ming Confucian) civilization.

Returning to Zhang’s argument, one weakness in his assertions about the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is, ironically, an element of Sinocentrism on his part. One prominent element of his argument for the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is that relations with nomadic peoples (e.g. Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus) and peoples & polities to the west (e.g. Uyghurs and Tibet) followed different patterns from the “tribute system,” and that thus there are multiple other institutions at play. From the Chinese Studies or History of China point of view, this is a very valuable and valid point. However, from the maritime East Asia point of view, and in particular for studies of Korean and Ryukyuan history, the nomads and Tibet are irrelevant. Korea and Ryukyu were the two most loyal tributaries to Ming & Qing China, and the two treated the most highly, the most beneficially, by China. The tribute system, or whatever we want to call it, however we want to envision it, along with the notion of Confucian (and Chinese, especially Ming, cultural) centrality, were fundamental to both Sino-Korean and Sino-Ryukyuan relations in this period. Schottenhammer’s essay lends support to this critique of Zhang’s otherwise important arguments, as she opens by saying “analysing Qing China’s relations with her neighbours, a distinction between her continental and maritime border space is evident.” While the Qing were vigilant towards threats from the continental border regions to the north and west, and often treated these regions with military force, “maritime space was viewed differently, but as we want to show, not simply as a distant periphery nor as frontier as it is often claimed.”

Zhang ends by reiterating that 朝貢體系 (cháogòng tǐxì) is a translation of the English “tribute system” – it is a neologism in Chinese, and so however the Chinese may have thought of this at the time, the “tribute system” as a model remains a Western construct. The chief task at hand, Zhang proposes, is to try to understand what lay behind these tributary relations, and to try to get a broader, and more nuanced, complex, picture of the full range of China’s foreign relations.

In summary, he critiques the Sinocentric tribute system model quite roundly, and well-deservedly, it would seem. It is important to keep in mind these critiques, and in the post-modern fashion, to keep in mind nuance and complexity – nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Motivations and means are myriad and multifarious. But Zhang does not dismiss the model entirely, in the end. He merely suggests that it needs to be taken as one element among many, and as less of a starting point than has generally been the case in scholarship up until now. We can keep the model, but we need to work around it, continuing to look for nuance and complexity, other models or institutions working alongside it (or at cross-purposes), and other viewpoints – we need to pay closer attention to the motivations, attitudes, and perceptions of other countries, and not just of China.

Schottenhammer may be doing more or less exactly what Zhang advocates. The Sinocentric model is not entirely mistaken, it is not entirely false, and so it cannot be thrown out altogether. In her essay “Empire and Periphery?” Schottenhammer focuses on the changing attitudes of mid-Qing emperors, as circumstances change, and in accordance with practical concerns, concluding that “Chinese ruling elites … were flexible enough to overcome traditional concepts and Sino-centric attitudes if they really considered it necessary.” When China was (or seemed, looked, felt) strong, there was less need to worry about dangers from outside; when China was less firm on its feet, Chinese rulers were not delusional, and absolutely took in real information about the outside world – albeit, information sometimes colored by traditional Sinocentric rhetoric (e.g. when the Tokugawa bakufu had no intentions of invading China, and pirates were few, Qing agents reported to their court that Japan was a small, weak, barbarian island country on the peripheries). Schottenhammer also closely examines motivations by foreign countries.

Perhaps the problem is simply in where one is looking. When Schottenhammer and Zhang allege that the field of scholarship is too focused on a Sinocentric perspective, are they speaking only of scholarship in Chinese Studies? I have no doubt that the field of Chinese History is largely focused on China, and, to be sure, works on the whole region could afford to be less Sinocentric in their analysis. I think Schottenhammer does a decent job of being less Sinocentric in her work. But, if one looks at the Japan Studies scholarship, and Korea Studies scholarship, there is no doubt that the interests, motivations, attitudes of non-Chinese courts *are* being examined and taken into account. Robert Hellyer’s book is just one of many that considers Japanese attitudes on foreign relations deeply; Greg Smits’ offers similarly for Ryukyu, albeit more in the intellectual history vein than economic/diplomatic policy.

So, what is the answer? What is the new framework? Maybe it’s just not time yet (still). Work on this topic has only just begun to really grow in the last decade or so, and so maybe someday, maybe soon, someone will be able to better synthesize the work of Zhang, Hevia, Schottenhammer, Oba Osamu, Smits, Hellyer, James Lewis, and all the rest, to come up with something new from which to work. But in the meantime, I think it’s going to continue to be a multitude of voices, a complex of different bits and pieces, and we just have to work within that…

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The reviews I have been posting for the last few months, centering on Pacific history, come out of my exam reading for a field in Pacific History. However, it was not actually strictly a field in Pacific History, but rather incorporated a component of consideration of how to incorporate the Pacific – so frequently overlooked – into World History. Or, simply, to do a Pacific field in order to not only have it (a) inform my Japanese & Okinawan studies, and (b) allow me to hopefully be able to teach Pacific History courses in future, but also (c) to have a deeper knowledge of the Pacific to incorporate into my World History courses.

So, getting to the point, here is a response essay I wrote some time ago, with some just very preliminary thoughts on how to approach thinking about, and organizing, a World History course. I’ve TAed for a Global Survey of Art History, and for World History 1000-1700 CE, as well as for Western Civ 1000-1700 & 1700-present, alongside numerous East Asia-centered courses, but I have yet to teach World History myself in any form. So, I imagine that if/when I get to TA for the first third or the last third of World History (Prehistory to 1000, or 1700-present), I’ll have more thoughts… But, for now:

The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in Queens NY, erected for the 1964 World’s Fair.

What is “world history?” What is the intention, goal, or aim of a “world history” course?

Is it (1) to convey some kind of narrative of the history of human societies that encapsulates in some fashion all human societies in history, whether in general or on average? Whether by way of a linear sense of progress, or a less straightforward approach, this could be a narrative of the development of kinship groups into clans or villages, then into chiefdoms, with some societies later becoming kingdoms, empires, republics of one sort or another, also addressing the matter of the modern “nation-state.” Is the goal of world history to cover some broad-ranging all-encompassing narrative such as that?

Or is it (2) to discuss more specific historical themes which emerge in specific periods, such as nationalism, Orientalism & racism, colonialism & imperialism, and modernity, with the particular aim of combating old stereotypes, Eurocentric worldviews, and the like, in order to produce more racially/culturally sensitive, critically-thinking, and globally-minded citizens?

Or, is world history about (3) providing a glimpse into a number of different cultures, so as to both inform students about the peoples, places, and cultures of the world they live in and inspire them to perhaps develop a deeper interest and to seek further knowledge?

The first type of class might be the best of the three for providing some historical background and context for courses in social sciences which might focus overmuch on more recent and contemporary events and political/economic/societal structures. The second might be the best of the three for preparing students for History and other courses which require critical thinking and which engage in difficult or complex socio-political issues, such as race and historiographical issues; such a course would, ideally, also help prepare students to be good global citizens more broadly, less racist, less US- and Euro-centric, and more nuanced and critical in their thinking about political, cultural, and social issues both domestically and internationally, and in interactions in their own lives. Finally, the third type of course, I can imagine, might best prepare students for knowing which upper-division courses they wish to take in History (or Art History, Music, Theatre, Politics, Economics, or a number of other disciplines), and might inspire them to travel, to take up interest in particular art forms or historical topics, perhaps even to pursue a job or career related to a particular culture (e.g. cultural or arts organizations, diplomacy, etc.).

A portion of a timeline of Korean-American history, at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. An important history all too overlooked, and not actually representative of the kind of core canon I’m talking about here. But, visually, I think it’s evocative of the idea of a timeline of canonical events to memorize.

A fourth approach, once standard but now widely rejected, involves teaching a particular canon of names, dates, events – in short, facts – with the chief outcome of instilling in students a basic, common, shared knowledge of key referents, allowing them to understand, or “get,” references made in popular culture, the news, and the like. There is, admittedly, some appeal to this approach, insofar as there is a certain fear or disappointment that our students should be going out into the world with no idea (or, only a distorted, pop media informed idea) of who Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror were, or what is meant by “Elizabethan.” The impact of this is very clear already, as we look back at older sources – pop media, literature, news – and see them making reference to things that we ourselves aren’t very clear on. And what historical referents we do share today are so watered down into stereotypes that few can really be expected to know anything proper about the history of that subject. To take just one example, let us hope that the average person on the street (or the average student on our campus) has at least some vague sense of that Henry VIII had a lot of wives, and that he killed several/many of them (hilarious!). But do they know anything at all more than that? Is Henry VIII a historical figure, or a caricature? In any case, this fourth approach is lambasted by nearly all of the historians in Ross E. Dunn’s The New World History, and rightfully so. Such a canon, as it already stands, is terribly Eurocentric, and even if some more global canon were to be conceived, by what criteria are we to choose? And unless there is consensus in the choosing, it won’t serve the purpose of being a commonly shared knowledge. And, in any case, a course that focuses too overmuch on simply trying to cover everything certainly cannot cover everything – it’s impossible – and so would just become unwieldy, fractured, and confusing.

A model of a Dutch East India Company vessel at the National Museum of Japanese History. Are narratives of travel, trade, and so forth the most necessarily central themes of world history?

So, of the previous three, which should we be aiming for? Is there a way to balance these effectively? Most of the essays in The New World History seem to be focusing on the first two, and especially on political and economic narratives of cultural & economic interactions, the growth of trade routes & economic interconnectedness, leading eventually into colonialism & imperialism, and from there into other issues. Yet, is this the only narrative we can or should be telling?

A chapter on cultural history in Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History seems at first to offer a way towards a different approach, one which might more strongly forefront questions about the role of cultural practices (visual, material, and expressive/performative culture) and aspects of reflective culture (religion, ideology) in different (macro)cultures. Moving beyond the stylistic & formal obsessions of art history, and the disciplinary/departmental divides of art history, ethnomusicology, and theatre & dance, Manning suggests a cultural history approach which might focus on “what sustains traditions over time, and what brings about major innovations,” the role or meaning of arts and traditions in human societies, the different forms cultural practices or cultural production takes in different cultures, as well as how they developed and changed over time due to both internal forces and intercultural interactions. Manning stops short, however, of providing a clear way forward, by way of either examples of how a “world cultural history” course, or even a single lecture, might be conceptualized or organized, instead providing as he does throughout much of the book a dense, thorough, and at times extremely useful and interesting account of the historiography of cultural history as a set of approaches.

The Great Hall at Christchurch College, Oxford. What is the place of tradition in history? How do tradition and history lead to different parts of the world being what they are today?

Art historians, of course, wrestle with similar issues in their attempts to conceive and construct a more global/world approach to art history. As essays in James Elkins’ Is Art History Global? suggest, Eurocentrism presents even more of a difficulty for art historians than for historians. Not only is the master narrative of a Western-centered art history (from classical forms to their re-emergence in the Renaissance, the advent of perspective, the rise of realism, moving to abstraction in “modern” art, and so on) very powerful, but the very concept of “art,” at least as conceived by “art historians” in the Western tradition, is very much a Western invention. Even societies such as those of the Chinese literati, who have a written tradition of art criticism going back to the 5th or 6th century CE, did not conceive of “art” or “the arts” in the same way that Europeans did, and had to adopt new terms in the 19th century to refer to these new concepts adopted from the West (meishu 美術 and yishu 藝術, meaning roughly “fine arts” and “performing arts,” respectively, from the Japanese bijutsu and geijutsu, who engaged with these issues of modernity more directly first, and coined the terms first).

Many scholars of museum studies and of the art history of non-Western cultures have suggested frameworks for approaching the cultural products or practices of non-Western cultures not through the lens of Western aesthetic concerns (incl. form, symmetry, proportion, lines, taking the object in isolation as aesthetic object) but through a focus on its meaning within its native cultural context. However, while Elkins himself suggests the need for a “consistently non-Eurocentric art history” which instead of merely infusing Western art history with native concepts and categories, would instead abandon reliance on Western interpretive methods, Ladislav Kesner’s essay “Is a Truly Global Art History Possible?” reveals that many scholars (including Kesner himself) remain (perhaps problematically) attached to Eurocentric approaches and attitudes. Even as he suggests that art historians must consider objects within specific cultural context, asking “Why does it look the way it does? What did it mean to the people who made and used it? Why was it special or valuable for them?,” he also asserts that “only Western art history – unlike the Chinese antiquarian tradition or other culturally specific discourses on art and images – has been in a position to continually develop and be enriched by contact with other cultures and non-European art.” This of course ignores both China’s long history of intercultural interactions and the failure of Western art history theory to adequately adapt or change away from its own Eurocentrism. Further, while Kesner’s critique of culturally specific frameworks (e.g. categorizing a wide variety of things under the single umbrella of “Chinese art,” and then analyzing them using distinctively Chinese terms and concepts) as being “essentializing” may contain some merit, and is worth further thought, he then returns to assertions of the universal applicability of Western/European critical theory, psychology, sociology and the like, based on the notion that all people are people, and that therefore the understandings provided by these disciplines should apply universally – thus repeating, or reinforcing, the Eurocentrism fundamental to the issue.

The relevance of these art historical discourses for the cultural historian attempting to conceive of approaches to “world history” (within the History discipline/department) is not entirely clear. But, it has nevertheless given me much to think about. While I certainly have some ideas for which aspects or elements of the histories of particular non-Western cultures I might use to illustrate particular concepts within a world history class, and how their use can contribute to presenting a more powerfully non-Eurocentric or even anti-Eurocentric vision of the histories of the peoples of the world, much about the structure of such a course, the main themes or narratives, remain unclear.

All photos my own.

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Eugene Savage (1883-1978, American), A God Appears, 1940, oils on canvas. Seen at Art Deco Hawaii exhibition, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

Adding to the heated debate between Sahlins and Obeyesekere are a number of interpretations and responses to that debate, to which I have now added my own.

For the most part, I think I come down in between Sahlins and Obeyesekere; as I said in my previous post, I quite like Dening’s interpretation of the encounter between the HMS Dolphin and the people of Tahiti, and am much more inclined towards imagining a Hawaiian rationality within a distinctive (non-Western) worldview, and structuring of knowledge, of their own. Sahlins is far too strict within his structures, asserting that since the symbols line up, that must be the explanation, straightforwardly and definitively. He leaves no room for interpretive nuance, and suggests the Hawaiians believed, perfectly, Cook to be the god Lono. Obeyesekere, to the contrary, argues against any distinctive Hawaiian sensibility, and attributes Western Enlightenment rationality to all peoples. But, where Western rationality draws a hard line and dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual, or the rational and the superstitious, I think the Polynesian peoples can offer us an example of how to incorporate the two, an example of how to think differently, yet not irrationally. I think there is a possibility for the Hawaiians having seen Captain Cook as possessing of great mana, and thus as being semi-divine, and having seen the momentous event as imbued in some way either with the spirit of Lono, or with the mood of the Makahiki, because of its timing, all while at the same time, simultaneously without it being a contradiction, recognizing Cook as a living, breathing, mortal human being from another land, with plain, practical, intentions and desires.

Crash Course World History does a nice job on the subject. John Green does not merely repeat the standard story – as Sahlins does, and as I might have expected from a basic intro survey YouTube series sort of approach – but explains both Sahlins’ and Obeyesekere’s arguments, and the difficulties with both, ending with a few questions as to the far broader, more profound implications.

Here are some other voices:

*Scott MacLeod of the World University and School offers a brief but in-depth defense of Obeyesekere’s position, asserting a universal human rationality, and attacking cultural relativism. To be sure, there are elements of Sahlins’ narrative where the Hawaiians seem decidedly trapped by their guiding cultural structures, behaving purely according to obligation to act out the myth, rather than freely and pragmatically. Where Sahlins writes that “The killing of Captain Cook was … the Makahiki in an historical form,” and that “Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands just [after the Makahiki could] . . . . be described as [a] . . . ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality,” MacLeod summarizes Obeyesekere as arguing that the Hawaiians may have deified Cook after his death, retroactively inventing the myth, for practical, pragmatic, political purposes related to the assertion of legitimacy of one political faction over another.

*Clifford Geertz offered his own thoughts on the debate, in a 1995 article in the New York Review of Books, which I am still trying to get my hands on, since my university apparently can’t be bothered to subscribe to online access.

*Anthropologist Chris Kavanagh gives a lengthy summary and analysis of the debate on his blog, God Knows What…. In two parts: The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse, Part 1, and Part 2.

With apologies for getting a bit silly, I think the Drunk History segment on Captain Cook is one of my favorites ever. Keep an eye (ear?) out for my favorite line. Can you guess which it is?

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Following up on my review of Stacy Kamehiro’s The Arts of Kingship, the next of my reviews written in the course of studying for comprehensive exams.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992; revised ed. 1997)

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, 1995

The debate between Obeyesekere and Sahlins over whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a “god” is described by Borofsky as one of the greatest recent disputes among scholars of the Pacific. At issue is the question of how “natives” think, with each scholar launching virulent attacks on one another for their approaches.

Obeyesekere’s book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook comes as a harsh response and critique of Sahlins’ Islands of History, published several years earlier, and which I have admittedly not yet read. Sahlins then responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in How “Natives” Think.

In a nutshell, Obeyesekere alleges that all humanity is united in its ability for commonsense “practical rationality,” arguing that the Hawaiians could not have been so foolish as to genuinely mistake Captain Cook for being a “god,” that the myth of Cook being taken to be a god was constructed and perpetuated by Europeans (and later adopted by Hawaiians, though it was not originally their idea), and that to suggest otherwise is terribly Eurocentric and does discursive violence of an imperialistic nature. Sahlins responds that treating Western conceptions of rationality as universal and ignoring cultural particularities is a Eurocentric, Orientalist, and anti-anthropological approach. Further, that not all non-whites think alike, or possess the same culture, and so Obeyesekere’s assertions from the position of “authority” as a fellow “native,” a fellow non-white, despite his lack of expertise in Pacific (let alone Hawaiian) history, is a deeply flawed and damaging claim of “authority.”

I have not been to the Big Island, let alone to Kealakekua Bay, so I’m including some of my photos of Oʻahu here. This one, a view from Makapuʻu

Both accuse the other of misinterpreting or misusing the sources – chiefly journals and the like written by members of Cook’s crew, and histories written by Hawaiians beginning in the 1820s (thirty years after the events). Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of being insufficiently critical of these Hawaiian sources, the most prominent of which were written by students at the Lāhainā missionary school, and present the events of Cook’s coming through a powerfully Christian and anti-pagan lens. Further, he alleges that these writers have adopted the European-created myth of Cook’s apotheosis (deification), and are merely repeating the myth, not recording what “actually” happened (or how those events were actually perceived at the time, in 1779). He also argues that much of the sequence of the ritual protocols of the Makahiki rite were not formalized until the reign of Kamehameha I (r. 1810-1819), and that Sahlins is anachronistically applying these sequences and dating backwards to an earlier time when such things were not yet systematized in such a form. Sahlins counters that, in countless places, Obeyesekere’s account simply does not accord with the documentary sources, or with what is known of Hawaiian beliefs and practices. He writes that Obeyesekere invents much of what he asserts whole cloth, “interpret[ing] the historical events by notions concocted out of commonsense realism and a kind of pop nativism” (Sahlins, 60). Obeyesekere’s narrative has Captain Cook being installed as a high chief, not welcomed as a god, and offers interpretations for the meaning of each step of the ritual within the context of this “installation ritual,” which he claims was invented on the spot in order to deal with this unprecedented event. He also claims that Sahlins is unconvincing in pressing that each episode of Cook’s time at Kealakekua so perfectly aligns with the ritual sequences of the Makahiki. Why should the Hawaiians take the British Cook, who neither speaks their language nor demonstrates knowledge of the proper ritual protocols, to be a Hawaiian god? Obeyesekere asserts that Cook and his men were not (accidentally) performing the sequence of the rituals of the Makahiki, but rather quite to the contrary, they were violating the kapu (taboos) the entire time (Ob. 101).

Sahlins counters that Obeyesekere’s interpretation shows little understanding or appreciation for Hawaiian cosmologies, politics, or customs. To begin, it is typical throughout Polynesia that the “gods” are regarded as foreign, as coming from across the sea (and specifically from the heavenly place / distant island known as Kahiki), and their forms, language, and thoughts as unknown or unknowable. Thus, Cook coming in ships with white banners, like the white banners associated with Lono, circling the islands before landing at Kealakekua as the Lono image does in ritual procession, and saying he is coming from Tahiti (H: Kahiki), matches quite well with Hawaiian conceptions – as do his foreign appearance and language.

The view from the Pali Lookout.

There is a lot more that could be said by way of summarizing or analyzing the various aspects or elements of these two scholars’ arguments, but the most important is what has already been said, above. The debate has resonances and importance far beyond our interpretation of Cook, however, and even beyond Hawaiian or Pacific Studies alone. I think if I ever teach a grad seminar in Historiography, I will assign this debate. Robert Borofsky has a nice summary of it, so that one does not actually have to read entire books; his summary is available on Scribd here, as well as on JSTOR.

The most fundamental of these broader issues is the very fact that this is a debate over the validity of sources, and of interpretations. This makes it particularly difficult as a reader to determine what to believe. All told, I am much more inclined to believe Sahlins, as he is an experienced and prominent expert in the field, intimately familiar not only with these sources in particular, but with Hawaiian cosmologies and cultural practices more broadly. Obeyesekere is, of course, a very experienced and intelligent scholar in his own right, but Hawaiʻi/Polynesia is not his field of expertise. As Sahlins points out in his point-by-point dismantling of Obeyesekere’s book, there are numerous places in which Obeyesekere makes assertions about ritual significances or practices, or about “native” conceptions of divinity, that simply do not mesh with what the scholarly consensus – or with Hawaiian traditional practitioners both today and writing in the past – indicate. Further, Sahlins points out numerous places where Obeyesekere contradicts himself, or where his arguments otherwise fail to hold water.

However, Sahlins’ own account is disappointingly standard, and to my mind insufficiently nuanced, and insufficiently critical of itself. I had hoped to see Sahlins more explicitly reject the standard interpretation of Cook as Lono, Cook as god, replacing it with a more nuanced or more culturally specific account. I would have much preferred to see Sahlins declaring boldly that the standard story of Cook’s apotheosis is a myth, deriving from a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, of traditional Hawaiian modes of historical understandings, and then presenting us instead with a new and different interpretation. Something along the lines of saying that of course the Hawaiians did not think that Cook was Lono, but perhaps thought that his coming was somehow blessed by Lono, that Cook’s coming was seen as occurring in concert with the Makahiki “coming of Lono,” rather than being the coming of Lono. I don’t know nearly enough about Hawaiian mythology and traditional beliefs to know what explanation precisely would or would not fit in to those beliefs – I’m basically just spitballing, as Obeyesekere was. But, still, I would have liked to see Sahlins give a more nuanced and revisionist interpretation, rather than simply reiterating exactly the myth that we all learned in elementary school (or wherever), the same myth that Obeyesekere is so critical of, asserting so straightforwardly that Cook was seen as the god Lono, and that just about everything Cook did coincided with the ritual schedule of the Makahiki.

Plaque in honor of Capt. Cook, at Westminster Abbey.

We are left believing Sahlins’ account based solely on one of two possible bases, both of which are potentially quite problematic. We can believe Sahlins on the basis of his experience and prominence in the field, taking his assertions more or less at face value because of his presumed expertise, which is essentially an argument from authority, one of the classic logical fallacies. Or, we can believe (or disbelieve) Sahlins based on whether we find ourselves convinced, by whatever combination of logic (reason) and intuition. Yet, this judgment based on Western rationality and on intuition based on Western cultural assumptions, is very much what Sahlins lambasts Obeyesekere for doing; he points out that Obeyesekere’s argument relies heavily on what “seems strange” or “hard to believe,” versus what seems “more natural to suppose,” inserting Western rationality for an understanding of Hawaiian beliefs (Sahlins 9). As a result, I am left with no idea what to believe.

Returning to the question, or the issue, of practical rationality versus culturally particular understandings, I think Greg Dening, in his article “Possessing Tahiti,” does a far better job of balancing and nuancing the two, than either Obeyesekere or Sahlins. Where Sahlins simply takes the standard narrative, reifying it wholesale and explaining out how this works according to certain frameworks or structures of traditional beliefs, Dening explores the interaction between “literal” (rational, practical) and “metaphoric” (cultural, cosmological) understandings, asserting that they can be overlapping or concurrent, and not contradictory. He notes that Europeans perform “rituals,” too, and understand actions as having metaphorical or symbolic efficacy, pointing to the example of the planting of a flag as a means of claiming possession of a land. Further, Dening speaks of the ways in which the Tahitians could view the coming of the HMS Dolphin as a sacred event simply because of its momentousness, its unprecedented nature, without thinking the captain, crew, or ship to be, explicitly, “a god,” and without thinking the events, at that time, to have been prophesied or to fit into expectations. Rather, by contrast, he suggests that the mythic associations surrounding the coming of the Dolphin were created in consequence of the event, with that approach to the marae (temple/treasure house) coming to be considered a particularly sacred path – or merely of historic significance – because the Dolphin entered via that path, and not the other way around.

Right: A statue of Capt. James Cook at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (England).

Certainly, I am no expert in Hawaiian cosmologies, and for all I know, Sahlins may be perfectly correct. We may never know. However, given the scarcity and unreliability of the sources available on this subject, the fact that Sahlins does not wrestle with multiple possible interpretations, nor entertain the possibility of alternative notions, not even in order to refute them, seems suspect. Perhaps rather than Cook being Lono, he was merely accompanied by Lono in an abstract, incorporeal form, the momentousness, the historic nature of the event in and of itself making it “sacred.” Or perhaps there is some more concrete way to explain more precisely what kind of manifestation or instantiation of Lono Cook was believed to be, and how exactly that particular manifestation relates to “the” Lono. Obeyesekere’s attitude and approach are deeply problematic in a number of ways, and I find Sahlins’ dismantling of Obeyesekere’s narrative quite convincing. Yet, neither am I convinced that Sahlins’ narrative is definitively, and flawlessly, “accurate” or “true.” Even if for nothing else, Obeyesekere’s efforts to cast doubt on Sahlins’ interpretation, and to call for the possibility of “plausible alternatives,” is therefore quite valuable.

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Today, just my thoughts/response on something a friend posted.

A few years ago, there was an interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

Emphasis my own.

A friend then posted a link to a recent commentary/response which includes the following:

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

Hm. I dunno. On the one hand, yes, when it comes to opinions and interpretations, absolutely, it’s good to have a constant reminder that the news is biased, that it comes from an agenda, and that it can, simply put, be flat out mistaken sometimes. “Because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly.”

And, certainly, as one of the commenters wrote, “Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.” But, even putting aside the idea that a PhD, or any professional credentials, does mean that you have more extensive knowledge, experience, or training, that you understand certain types of matters better than most, or simply that you have more experience & training in critical thinking, and even acknowledging the post-modern turn that says there is no truth, that everything is multiple perspectives, etc etc., I think that there is absolutely a need for credible, reliable, trustworthy sources. If those sources are no longer the professional media, so be it. But, whether it’s on Wikipedia, or on a blog, the implication is that we should go check the sources ourselves. But, what about those sources? Are they reliable? And what about the sources those guys are drawing upon? This is what the news is for. This is what scholarship is for. To have qualified professionals do the research, do the analysis, sum it up so that the rest of us can consume it. If everyone had to double-check every fact for themselves, all the time, a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do the job due diligence.

Yes, I take the point that in many cases, when it comes to discussion, perspective, social and political commentary, an amateur might very well be more insightful, more experienced in that particular thing, might offer a more valuable perspective in whatever way or for whatever reason than a professional. But let us not go too far down the rabbit hole of believing that absolutely everything everything is relative, that absolutely everything everything is just opinion or perspective. By all means, if some blogger talks about, say, feminism, in a new and different way, or just in a more insightful way, puts a valuable spin on it, or just makes a point more eloquently than another source does, then by all means, regardless of who that blogger is, or their professional credentials, that’s great. But if a blogger, or a news agency, or a scholar, says that 42% of women are in X situation, I want to believe that I can trust that source, because of professional credentials, or because of citation to something that has professional credentials, without me having to go double-check the numbers myself, for every single fact or figure anyone ever cites on any platform.

I do think we need to be more circumspect about the corporate agendas and rampant lack of professionalism throughout the “professional” media which cause all kinds of biases and mistakes and problems. And I do think we need to be aware that “accountability” doesn’t do nearly as much as we might wish it did. But, even so, I do think that Sorkin has a very valid point when he says that “When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.” We need to be able to trust some sources over others. We need to know that a given newsman, or scholar, is professional and trustworthy and reliable. And we need to trust professional credentials to at least some extent over others. Because the alternative is every man’s word against every other man’s word, and absolutely no certainty on anything whatsoever unless you’ve researched it yourself.

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