Monday, 9 February 2015

'Colloquial Malay'

I bought Colloquial Malay, the book I'm using to study Jawi, for £3 at a second-hand bookshop in Oxford. I want to say a few words about it because it's like a magical window into a horribly unequal racist past where moustachioed white men shot elephants and surveyed the land while barking orders at sycophantic Malay trackers and house-boys. Colloquial Malay was written by renowned scholar of Malaya, R. O. Winstedt - or, as it says on the cover, 'Sir Richard Winstedt, KBE, CMG, DLitt (Oxon), Reader in Malay University of London' - and originally published in 1916 (my edition, 'new' and 'revised', was published in 1945). It has a very useful section on Jawi, although it's only twenty pages long and sandwiched between the main content of the book (bizarre parallel text conversations) and an addendum of 'technical terms for airmen', which, to put it mildly, isn't as useful these days as it once was.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Jawi Script

I'm learning classical Malay (that is to say, the language used in Melaka and the Malay world at the time of the Portuguese conquest) and I'm starting with the script, known as Jawi. It's a modified form of the Perso-Arabic abjad, with a few extra letters for velar nasals and other things Arabic doesn't have. I've studied Arabic script before, so I'm kind of familiar with it and it isn't especially hard going. On the other hand, the Arabic script is useless for writing languages that aren't Arabic.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Island Southeast Asian Geology & Volcanic Explosions

I've been trying to read as much as I can about the geological history of Southeast Asia for the book I'm working on. It's a fascinating topic: island Southeast Asia is tectonically complex and volcanically volatile in a way few regions are. There's a whole mess of plates crashing and bumping together between Malaysia and Australia, and some of the most famous and powerful eruptions in recent earth history happened in the area - Krakatoa (Indonesian: Krakatau) (1883), Tambora (1815), and Toba (c.70,000 years BP) in particular.

There are some crazy looking islands, like Sulawesi and Halmahera, that have resulted from different pieces of different plates coming together to form contiguous wholes, and there are some, like Timor, that were seabed until only a few tens of millions of years ago (in parts of Timor and New Guinea the uplift is so recent that different coral species can be identified from the exposed rocks).

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo

    Let's say some guy in a bar starts mouthing off against another patron's mother. He says she's a fat moose with a ginger beard, and it's funny because it's true or because of the way he says it or something, and a bunch of people laugh. He has a history of saying stuff like this and sometimes it isn't funny, but he calls out everyone, big or small, and he never calls for anyone to die or suffer violence. He just thinks everyone should be able to take a joke, even if it isn't funny, and they don't have to listen to him anyway.

    Then the guy with the bearded moose mother comes over and draws a knife and sticks it under the other guy's floating ribs, and after he's done gutting him he whoops hysterically about how his mother is avenged. Everyone condemns his actions, because they're fucking stupid, and he goes to gaol.

    Now let's say that the same thing happens - mouthing off, bearded elk, knife in the floating ribs, jubilation - except that there's a segment of the culture that sees mothers as sacred and inviolable, and a bunch of people start talking on social media about how angry the murderer must have felt, about how unacceptable the comments were. They say that you should never kill anyone, but also that they disapprove of the comments, implying that some kind of response would in any case have been required. They say, 'obviously I condemn the murder, but he was a prick' - not realising that everything before the 'but' is bullshit in a sentence like that.

    They focus on the comments instead of the absurd, extreme overreaction. They say that there are limits to free speech - in the context clearly implying that the comments were some kind of provocation. They say that their own incredibly insensitive comments are an attempt to look at the murder through more nuanced eyes, despite calling the joker a 'mother-hating asshole' within hours of his death. They exaggerate and misunderstand the nature of his past comments, too, to make him look like the mother-hating asshole they accuse him of being.

                            - - - - - - - - - - -   - - - - - - - - - - -

   Now, there are some differences between this and the Charlie Hebdo case. One is that mothers are real while prophets and gods are figments of the collective imagination, so while you might find mouthing off in a bar just cause for violence (I doubt that you do, but you never know), it's rather harder to justify killing someone, let alone a bunch of people, for insulting something that doesn't exist. It also seems easier to justify cartoons mocking fictions than verbal abuse of kin in a bar.

   I started to despair of some of my friends over the last week. I found many of their comments inexcusable, and that they would try to paint them as nuanced and sensible reactions to the atrocity in Paris... well, I felt the same way you'd feel if a bunch of people whose opinions you'd normally value discussed the offensive nature of the words spoken by a man killed in a barfight instead of the value of his life and senselessness of his death.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Assholes Damage Precious Line in the Nazca Region

I find it hard to believe that anybody would consciously wreck a famous and important archaeological site, but it seems that my incredulity is at odds with reality. We've had property developers in Peru knocking down pyramids at El Paraiso, Belizean road workers chopping away at pre-Classic Mayan ruins for construction materials, and now Greenpeace activists doodling an eye-searingly yellow message into the Sechura desert - right next to one of more famous Nazca lines. (Strictly speaking, the line itself wasn't damaged - but the footprints and other activities of the Greenpeace folk have created new marks next to it. It's not quite equivalent to the El Paraiso vandalism, but...)

This Greenpeace Stunt May Have Irreparably Damaged Peru's Nazca Site
THE FUTURE IS RENEWABLE. SO WHO CARES ABOUT THE PAST? GREENPEACE
Apart from the desecration of one of the most memorable and remarkable survivals from Peru's ancient past, there's also an environmental issue here. The Nazca desert sees almost no rainfall (although that is changing, for precisely the reasons Greenpeace ought to be highlighting). As I said in my post on the Nazca culture, the Nazca region is squeezed between two rain shadows - strong winds off the Pacific coast and the Andes mountain range. Any mark you make in the ground there can last about, I dunno, 2000 fucking years.

This is why we can't have nice things, Greenpeace.

Links:
io9 (the io9 article claims the lines had astronomical significance, but there's no reason to believe this and it's not the consensus)

The Guardian
BBC

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Racism in 'Exodus' Casting

The new Ridley Scott movie, Exodus, is attracting criticism because of the racial background of its stars. Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver are white people playing ancient Egyptians (and/or Hebrews) in the film, which is an interpretation of the second book of the Bible, and a lot of people are upset about this. They say that ancient Egyptians weren't white, which is true.

The first point to be made is that ancient Egypt seems to have been reasonably diverse in ancient times, as you might expect of a river valley, a delta, and several large oases situated in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Lots of groups would have made their mark on the population. I'm not too interested in debating the genetics of ancient Egypt; it is sufficient to note that, in their own depictions, some ancient Egyptian people have fair-ish complexions and some have dark complexions (although there are good reasons not to trust such depictions implicitly, based as they were on longstanding artistic convention as much as reality).

Christian Bale would probably have looked out of place in the time of Ramesses II, and so, probably, would Chiwetel Ejiofor (although perhaps less out of place than Bale). We shouldn't impose modern American racial dichotomies on the radically different situation of Bronze Age Egypt. There's a pop-breakdown of academics' views on race in ancient Egypt on Slate, if you're interested (it's actually a less interesting topic than it seems).

The second point is that Exodus (the book of the Bible) is a work of fiction. The film may be set in ancient Egypt, and that's enough justification to question the casting of northern Europeans in the central roles, but there's little reason to believe that anything in Exodus actually happened. Moses isn't attested outside of the Bible and there's no archaeological evidence of any great Hebrew march through the desert. As there's no independent evidence of Moses's existence, the idea that Christian Bale doesn't match the 'reality' of Moses seems odd. This whole fuss is about a Ridley Scott interpretation of an ancient work of fiction and fantasy, and it appears ridiculous on the surface that there are complaints about its historical veracity.

And it would indeed be ridiculous, if race and racial discrimination weren't prominent aspects of American culture and society. Whitening Egyptians to make them match modern Europeans and Euro-Americans is an established tradition, presumably based on the notion that dark-skinned people couldn't possibly have produced innovations ancestral to our fundamental technologies (like writing). It's good that there's been a response to this whitewashing and to the attempts at defending it, and it's unfortunate - shameful? - that the studios don't trust the cinema-going public enough to let a dark-complexioned actor carry an epic film like Exodus.

Hopefully, the backlash we're seeing is a sign of the times.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Remarkable Plants' by Bynum & Bynum, 'The History of Central Asia' by Baumer

It was my birthday last week, so I've got some new books to read, including volume two of Christoph Baumer's The History of Central Asia (I B Tauris), dealing with the first millennium CE, and a book about important and useful plants by the medical historians Helen and William Bynum, Remarkable Plants that Shape our World (Thames & Hudson). They're both lovely to look at - Baumer's photographs are excellent, and the illustrations used in the Bynum & Bynum book, drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century publications in the Kew Gardens collection, function perfectly as enhancers of the text.
 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Salon: "Why we’re obsessed with glamorizing archaeologists"

There's an interesting article on Salon right now on archaeologists and their profession, tied in with a new book, Lives in Ruins, by Marilyn Johnson, about the same subject. The gist is that archaeologists are funded poorly but they bring some semblance of meaning and fascination to the world through their efforts, which is why the public glamourises them.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ethnological Method

Applying the comparative method in historical linguistics is relatively straightforward and academics habitually apply it to any language they come across at some point or other. But the comparative ethnology attached to linguistic constructions isn't so straightforward or quite so reflexively applied, presumably because 'ethnology' is a word reminiscent of the nineteenth century and because there is no academic department devoted solely or even primarily to such things.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bruno Latour: Imperialist?

    I recently saw a blogpost that took Bruno Latour and his disciples/fellow travellers to task for being colonialist ('An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism'). Latour is celebrated in modern social/cultural anthropology for his absurd views on the nature of the world and the place of people in it. He has been mocked outside of the social sciences for decades by sceptics, philosophers, scientists, and rationalists because of his philosophy, if you can call it that, which amounts to little more than the denial of the existence of a single world outside of our heads and the ridiculous repercussions of this. Latour has spelled out his views in plenty of books and articles, and presumably because of the force of novelty and the Abilene paradox he continues to be listened to and lauded. Anthropologists seem to like the idea that anything goes.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Nazca Culture

    The south coast of Peru is home to one of the more famous ancient South American archaeological cultures, the Nazca/Nasca. The reason it's such a celebrated tradition has little to do with its inherent importance in South American cultural history and more to do with the Nazca lines, a set of enormous lines and cartoons found in the desert in the Nazca region, visible from the air and preserved since the ancient period. The lines are truly enigmatic, and their purpose has yet to be firmly established (there are clues in the ethnographic and ethnohistoric record, though). This means, as you might expect, that the lines have been interpreted in frankly pseudoscientific ways. They are a favourite of von Daeniken, Tsoukalos, & co, and have even been featured in an Indiana Jones movie. That's the pop-prehistory super-leagues (in terms of public awareness - it's obviously not a good thing overall). There's much more to the Nazca culture than these dirt scratches, though.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Invest your emotion elsewhere

People tend to call me a rationalist, and that's not really something I have a problem with. I don't think philosophical ideas should be a matter of identity ('being' a rationalist, as opposed to merely espousing rationalism), so in that sense I object to the label. But aside from that, I do think it is good to be rational. It is better to think, and to attempt to come to terms with what is true, rather than merely to feel and accept whatever is intuitive or emotionally-appealling.