Monthly Archives: December 2006

What Motivates Scholarship?

The new scholarly blog, Tibeto-Logic, which I recently quoted on the topic of Cathedral Bell Diplomacy in Armenia and Tibet, articulated something else that has continued to resonate with me. The blogpost I cited begins with a quote from a well-known philosopher and mathematician given the ironical epithet, The Mysterious Whitehead, and ends with some reflexive rumination about the purpose of the blogger’s scholarship.

In considering the history of ideas, I maintain that the notion of ‘mere knowledge’ is a high abstraction which we should dismiss from our minds. Knowledge is always accompanied with accessories of emotion and purpose.

— Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 1933.

My present task as a Tibeto-logical thinker is a Tibeto-centric one. I hope I have succeeded in drawing up a small sketch that puts cracks in the stereotype of Tibet as a place cut off from the world. It’s a country right here with us on the ground, living and breathing in our times. Just so or, well, nearly so, it was an integral and meaningful part of Eurasia during the rule of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. Some degree and kind of globalisation was in process at that time. And that remains true even if, limiting ourselves to what has been said within the bounds of this essay, the international presence in Lhasa would seem to have been mostly mercantile and proselytizing in nature. If these interests were being played out on a less than even playing field, we cannot pretend that today that field is necessarily more even or equitable. We should not be quick to dismiss the past based on ill-considered assumptions that things have gotten better, or all that much better, meanwhile.

And finally, I hope Tibetans will find in these investigations a source of pride in the past and encouragement for the future. There is real reason to take pride in the pursuit of that admirable Buddhist virtue of tolerance (Tibetan zöpa, or kshanti in Sanskrit, one of those Paramitas that go far beyond the bounds of duty) that enabled Tibetan society in the 17th century to often welcome and sometimes embrace the strangers among them: the Armenians, the Muslims, and yes, the European Christian missionaries. Oh yes, you’re right, I neglected to mention the Chinese, Indians, Mongolians and Newars. Now that people from every culture are living in practically every country, it’s increasingly important that we look back to times like these and find out how, and just how well, they did it. It’s in our interests.

This resonates with me on one level because my academic work focuses on a small corner of Papua New Guinea, where my two primary concerns are (1) to document poorly described languages and (2) to demonstrate that the histories of tiny coastal villages there have never been either all that stagnant or all that isolated. My documentation efforts are far from complete, but have at least sufficed to qualify the village in which I did fieldwork to establish its own Tok Ples (village vernacular language) school, despite having no more than 300 native speakers. The initiative was all theirs; not mine. My host during my fieldwork (thirty years ago!) had been a schoolteacher and the village was using part of its timber royalties to further the education of its youth.

But the wrapper of self-examination on the “Mysterious Whitehead” blogpost resonates at an even more abstract level because it acknowledges that, while the means of scholarship are (ideally) rational, the initial motivations are (in general) not. The most coldly rational motivation for pursuing a particular line of academic research is the availability of funding sources whose allocations are very much dependent on the political goals of the granting agencies. Of course, many scholars take pride in biting the hands that feed them, while others pursue their own political agendas even without external material inducement.

In my experience, the prime motivator for the scholarly output of untenured academics is ambition/fear of failure. Since I’ve never had the carrot of academic tenure dangled in front of me, I’ve only experienced the level of paranoia typical of tenure-chasing academics vicariously, most notably in Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania, where similar levels of fear seemed to pervade not just academia, but the rest of society as well.

Meanwhile, the prime motivators for tenured academics seem to be (1) collegiality, (2) personal rivalry, and (3) guilt. At least that’s what motivates the fits and starts of my lackadaisical output as an academic hobbyist.

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A Contrarian Take on the Six-Party Talks

On Christmas Eve, the Wall Street Journal‘s Opinion Journal ran a short stocking stuffer of an op-ed by literary contrarian B. R. Myers, who wrote his dissertation on North Korean literature (reviewed here).

No country today is as misunderstood as North Korea. Journalists still refer to it as a Stalinist or communist state, when in fact it espouses a race-based nationalism such as the West last confronted during the Pacific War. Pyongyang’s propaganda touts the moral superiority of the Korean race, condemns South Korea for allowing miscegenation, and stresses the need to defend the Dear Leader with kyeolsa, or dare-to-die spirit–the Korean version of the Japanese kamikaze slogan kesshi [決死]. The six-party talks are therefore less likely to replicate the successes of Cold War détente than the negotiating failures of the 1930s. According to early reports from Beijing, the North Korean delegation appears more confident than ever. It has clearly been emboldened not only by its accession to the nuclear club, but by the awareness that Seoul will continue providing food and financial support no matter what happens….

The ideological landscape of the peninsula defeats the reasoning that led to the six-party talks in the first place. North Korea is not a communist country with ideological and sentimental reasons to listen to China and Russia; it is a virulently nationalist state that distrusts all the other parties at the table. And though the rhetoric of a “concerted front” against North Korea has proved to be just that, it has sufficed to heighten South Korea’s sense of solidarity with the North. This will continue to mean plenty of aid money for Kim Jong Il with which to build weapons. The U.S. has urged Beijing to bring more pressure to bear on the North. But if America can do nothing with its own ally, it can hardly expect the Chinese to do more with theirs.

via The Marmot’s Hole

UPDATE: B. R. Myers responds to comments over at The Marmot’s Hole.

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Choose One, South Korea: Homogeneity or Unification

Volume 30 (2006) of Korean Studies (Project Muse subscription required) contains a perceptive book review by an antinationalist expat Korean of a perceptive book by an anthropologist of Africa who turned his attention to questions of national unity in the Korean peninsula.

The book maintains that South Koreans have patterned their identity in opposition to images of North Korea. For South Koreans, North Koreans are viewed ambiguously, both positively and negatively at the same time. On one hand, North Koreans are seen as being helplessly indoctrinated by their regime, and “uncivilized, heathen, and backward” (p. 8). At the same time, North Koreans are also praised for preserving old Korean traditions, which are considered to have been lost in South Korea through the process of modernization. In colonialist fashion, South Koreans actually define themselves by the “othering” of North Koreans.

South Koreans also consider unification as the recovery of national homogeneity, and thus as the “endgame.” The author argues that this very attitude and discourse actually hinders Korean unification, as overemphasis on national homogeneity would result in the denial of the diversity of the nation. He points out that the difference between North and South could be seen as “a foundation for new communities that bring together Koreans’ separate and yet shared experiences of division in a way that strengthens the nation” (p. xi). The book suggests an alternative future of diversity and heterogeneity rather than the homogeneous national future that most South Koreans imagine.

The book’s arguments are original and bold. According to the author, his not being a “true expert on Korea” made it possible for him to question the seemingly obvious issues of national homogeneity and unification. As an anthropologist studying the tribal groups of central Africa, the author came to be interested in the question of Korean unification after learning about the continued division within the minds of Koreans despite their alleged homogeneity. This contrasts with the two tribal groups of northern Zaire, who “are culturally, physically and linguistically distinct from each other, but live in the most intimate association with each other” (p. 16). The author may not be an expert on Korea, but this book reveals his great erudition.

The book contains many rich theoretical elaborations, thorough analyses, and useful analogies. The most important aspect of the book is its skillful and sharp analysis of the role of North Korea in the formation of South Korean identity, the problematic assumption of national homogeneity, and the South Korean “colonialist” view of their brothers in the North. Korean nationalism, developed in the twentieth century through the experiences of Japan’s colonization and national division, functioned as an ideology of liberation. However, the same ideology also worked as a “meta-narrative” and suppressed other narratives and thus hampered the development of a more democratic culture in Korea. The book’s argument that “unification will require a reckoning with difference, especially different conceptions of history, and a direct confrontation…. with South Korea’s master historical narrative and mythology of homogeneity” (p. 96) is an important message for all Koreans.

The book under review is Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War, by Roy Richard Grinker (St. Martin’s, 2000).

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Bobkabata kabatabobbus et cetera

Scientists who name newly discovered species often name them after their mentors or colleagues, but some have more than a little bit of fun in the process. Take, for example, these two species of parasitic copepods:

Bobkabata kabatabobbus Hogans & Benz, 1990 (parasitic copepod) Named after parasitologist Bob Kabata [whose real given name is Zbigniew!].

Hoia hoi Avdeev & Kazatchenko, 1986 (parasitic copepod) Named after Ju-Shey Ho.

But sometimes they name new species after well-known figures of popular culture.

Funkotriplogynium iagobadius Seeman & Walter, 1997 (mite) from Iago, “James” and badius, “brown,” named after James Brown, the King of Funk.

Mastophora dizzydeani Eberhard, 1984 (spider) Named after a baseball player. The spider uses a sticky ball on the end of a thread to catch its prey.

Strigiphilus garylarsoni Clayton, ~1989 (owl louse) “I considered this an extreme honor. Besides, I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come along.” – Gary Larson

Newly discovered species of dinosaurs seem to arouse extra large doses of taxonomic whimsy:

Dracorex hogwartsia Bakker et al. 2006 (pachycephalosaur dinosaur) Named for Hogwarts School of Harry Potter fame. The genus means “dragon king.” J. K. Rowling wrote, “I am absolutely thrilled to think that Hogwarts has made a small (claw?) mark upon the fascinating world of dinosaurs.” The skull is on display at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

Drinker nisti Bakker et al., 1990 (ornithopod dinosaur) after the National Institute of Standards and Technology (of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce). “It’s the only dinosaur named after an arm of the federal government. Someday I’m going to name one after the I.R.S.” – Robert Bakker.

Qantassaurus Rich & Vickers-Rich, 1999 (Ornithopod dinosaur) Named after Qantas Airlines.

Quetzalcoatlus northropi Lawson, 1975 (Texas pterosaur) Named after an Aztec god and an aircraft designer. The pterosaur was as large as an ultra-light plane.

New strains of bacteria often seem to be discovered in labs, rather than in the field, and quite a few end up named after institutional acronyms.

Afipia (bacterium) after AFIP: Armed Force[s] Institute of Pathology.

Cedecea (bacterium) after CDC: Centers for Disease Control.

Desemzia (bacterium) after DSMZ: Deutsche Sammlung von Mikroorganismen und Zellkulturen.

These examples come to you courtesy of Mark Isaak, whose Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature is worth perusing at greater length—and multiple times.

And with that, I leave you to the fish genus Sayonara Jordan & Steele, 1906

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A Korean Worker’s Take on Korea, Japan, & China

Four or five years ago I was asked by one work site manager to make the “direct commute” (as we day laborers say) to a job that I had originally obtained through the Center. I did this for about ten days running. Two Koreans, one about fifty and the other in his mid twenties, were working there, and they would chat with me in their broken Japanese during rest periods and the noon break. I couldn’t figure out their relationship. That they were not parent and child was obvious I enough. I decided that they were two men of differing ages who just happened to be getting work, illegally (or so I surmised), with the same firm. That peculiar rule in Korean society of deference by the junior party to the senior (something I learned from my reading), which would have applied had they been acquaintances from the same village and come to work in Japan together, was not in effect between them. If the older man were indeed fifty, he would have been just a couple of years older than I, yet he had a commanding presence that made him seem for all the world like my father. When I got to talking with him, I realized that he was a fervent patriot. Somehow I was not surprised. He said his name was Shin.

“We go ahead of Japan. This I am sure. Less than ten years.” These are the kinds of things he liked to say. The younger Korean appeared to be uninterested in talk of this sort and simply wolfed down his boxed lunch. For ten days I teamed up with this Korean duo and took orders along with them from the site manager. The older Korean assumed the role of team leader and told us what to do. He was far more proficient at Japanese than his young compatriot, and it was possible to carry on an extensive conversation with him.

“I am not man who works like this. I was company president. Do you understand? My company closed. I was forced to come to Japan and earn money.” As he spoke, Kim, the younger Korean, would look on with an ironic smile without really listening. (He rarely spoke a word; indeed, it’s possible that he understood no Japanese.) Kim did not have the face of an educated person—that much was certain.

“I have three children,” Shin said. “Oldest one in college. ——— University. You know it?” When I shook my head, he continued, “Good school. He join elite. Give orders. We three here take orders. This is difficult thing.”

Shin may have had a problem with Japanese at the level of nuance, not being able to inflect his emotions correctly, but his very direct and open manner of expressing his desire to advance in the world definitely got my attention.

Shin asked me how old I was and learned that I was a bachelor and living alone. “You have no family at your age?” he proclaimed haughtily. “That shameful! You should not tell it to others. I feel sorry for you.”

Sometimes I would get into arguments with Shin.

“Japan not apologize for things they did to us. This no good. One day maybe we attack Japan. But we not do to you what you do to us. We are moral people. We are most moral and most superior people in Asia. This I am sure.” …

“Japan number one in Asia now, Korea number two. some day Korea number one.” The hierarchy featured in these pronouncements appeared to have nothing to do with morality, however, and everything to do with economic and political power in the global pecking order.

“That’s not true at all,” I countered. “China’s number one in Asia now, if you ask me.

Shin immediately shook his head. “No, very wrong—very wrong!” he snapped, curling his lips in contempt of China. “Look at Chinese. They fall behind. Long ago they were teacher. Now they are backward country. Their income less than one tenth of Koreans. That country is lowest country. It is dirty country.” …

And so I learned that not only was Shin a stalwart anticommunist, he also had no love, as I’d heard most Koreans had, for China, the country that Korea once recognized as its master.

SOURCE: A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer, by Ōyama Shirō, trans. by Edward Fowler (Cornell U. Press, 2005), pp. 92-95

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Anglosphere Navies vs. Cuban Pirates, 1820s

The United States sent out a second pirate-hunting squadron in 1823, this time under the command of Commodore David Porter, a naval hero who had captured the first British warship taken in the War of 1812. There had been a debate during the winter as to the best method of combating the pirates and it was decided that, to be fully effective, the squadron ‘will require a particular kind of force, capable of pursuing them into the shallow waters to which they retire’, as President Monroe informed the Senate. And so, in addition to the ships which had sailed with Biddle in 1822, Commodore Porter was supplied with a fleet of vessels specifically tailored to the task in hand, the first time that such a sensible policy had been adopted in pirate-hunting history. These included ten fast schooners, with a draught of less than seven feet and fitted with twenty or twenty-four sweeps, and five light double-bank cutters or barges, each to row twenty oars and adapted to carry forty men, well armed with muskets, pistols, boarding pikes and cutlasses. The squadron was also graced by the presence of the US steam brig Sea Gull the first naval steamer of any country to serve in action. She was originally built as a New Jersey ferry and ‘the croakers predicted that she would founder at sea in the first blow’, as Porter told his son who later wrote his biography. But in fact the Sea Gull did good service, mainly as a mother ship to the rowing vessels, though she had a chance to use her powerful guns on occasion and in May 1825 was reported to have sunk a pirate ship after a two-hour gun battle off Matanzas.

Porter chose as his base Key West, American since 1819 and only a hundred miles from the coast of Cuba. The United States was now at last getting cooperation from the Spanish authorities in Cuba and his orders permitted him to pursue pirates ashore, having first given notice of his intentions, orders which shared the ambiguity of those given to the British commanders. American relations with these British counterparts were excellent, the British going so far as to replace the normal admiral commanding the Jamaica station by a commodore so that Porter would not be outranked and ‘we might meet on equal terms’, as the American commodore recorded with gratitude. There was a certain amount of division of labour, the British concentrating their searches on the south coast of Cuba and the Americans on the north, but men of the two navies also hunted together, as in March 1825 when the boats from the British frigate Dartmouth and the schooners Union and Lion joined up with boat crews from the Sea Gull in a successful pursuit of the pirate schooner Socorro. ‘I am happy to say,’ reported the British commodore Sir Lawrence Halsted, ‘the greatest harmony prevailed throughout the service, the men of either nation receiving orders from the officers of the other and obeying each with equal alacrity.’ This harmony was echoed by Lt. Com. McKeever of the Sea Gull who praised ‘the handsome manner in which we were seconded by the officers and crews of the boats of HMS Dartmouth. There had been a certain amount of cooperation between the British and French in previous anti-pirate campaigns, in both the Leeward Islands and West Africa, but nothing on the scale of this Anglo-American camaraderie, this being nicely epitomised by the kind and friendly treatment given to sick British sailors at Key West which included taking convalescent men for a trip round the Florida Keys in the steam brig.

Such cooperation, along with Spanish assistance and the choice of the right sort of vessels for the job, was to prove the doom of the Cuban pirates, but the service was quite incredibly arduous for the British and American sailors and marines involved. Nearly all the close-up work was done by men rowing in open boats who pursued the elusive pirates from cay to cay, through shoals and reefs and into hidden passages through the mangrove swamps, such close pursuit often being done under fire from the retreating pirates. Captain Godfrey of HMS Tyne reported a successful cruise by his men who had chased pirates ‘in open boats without any kind of shelter for thirty days and thirty nights’, a record beaten by Lieutenant Platt of the United States Navy who was employed for sixty-eight successive days in an open boat on the north-west coast of Cuba, ‘in the examination of the inlets, bays, keys, and other places of piratical resort’. A report to the House of Representatives in January 1825 stressed the perilous service being imposed on Americans engaged in anti-pirate duty, who faced disease as well as danger in vessels too small to maintain health on long cruises. But such sacrifice was justified by the result. ‘They enabled the commanders to scour the coast, to penetrate into the shoal waters of the creeks and inlets, to the very margin of the land.’ No pirate hunters in the past had ever shown such zeal, determination and courage as these truly professional British and American sailors and marines.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 242-244

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Tobi, the Aristocrats among Day Laborers

Tobi [鳶 ‘kite (bird)’, or ‘steeplejack‘, the latter short for 鳶職 tobishoku ‘high-rise scaffolding work’] are the aristocrats of San’ya. In the same way that it is possible, in Europe, to distinguish the aristocracy from the common folk by how they look, so it is possible to distinguish tobi from common day laborers by their appearance (their faces more than their physique). The training required to nurture their skills to a level worthy of their calling and the confidence gained through having those skills recognized by their peers give them a commanding presence and bestow on their countenances a certain poise. All in all they cut a very dashing figure. There is a certain crispness about their movements and indeed about their entire demeanor. I would imagine that their individual abilities vary considerably, but the best have a truly unmistakable aura about them. One can tell at a glance: yes, this man, without question, is a tobi.

Carpenters and ironworkers are not employed as day laborers or as contract laborers, so there are none in San’ya. Here, the word shokunin—skilled worker—means only one thing, and that is tobi. Men like Saito (Mr. “One-Man Salvation Army”) and Ikeno (the former stockbroker) are exceptions; you could never surmise from their characters what the typical tobi is like. I have never actually met a tobi who treats laborers like slaves, barking at them and driving them into the ground; I have, however, run across several who were proud to the point of arrogance—so much so that they never paid us laborers any heed. (It was as if we never even entered their field of vision.) And I must say that I was not necessarily put off by their arrogant pride.

My hatred of working as a tobi’s assistant and being hounded on the job lives side by side with my admiration for the tobi “race.” Yet when all is said and done, it seems to me far preferable that the haughty arrogance of these men live on than that it wither away—these men who work closer to death’s door than any other group of skilled workers in Japan. There are among tobi some men (although admittedly few in number) who actually consider themselves works of art. I would much rather that such men never vanish from the scene. More and more of late I hear stories of this or that tobi doing the work of a common laborer. I fervently hope that these men—San’ya’s very own aristocrats—will be able to ride out this terrible recession. Speaking as a common laborer from San’ya’s “plebeian class,” I pray that San’ya’s spiritual patricians, defending their manly pride and honing their reputations in the face of great danger, manage to survive these hard times and live another day.

SOURCE: A Man with No Talents: Memoirs of a Tokyo Day Laborer, by Ōyama Shirō, trans. by Edward Fowler (Cornell U. Press, 2005), pp. 61-62

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