This is a representative selection of courses that I have taught at both undergraduate and graduate level at the University of Chicago, Williams College and Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. These are lecture courses, seminars and tutorials on a range of topics, including mass media and religious violence, textual issues in the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic traditions of South and Southeast Asia, critical theory for historians of religion, theoretical problems in ethnographic writing, and the study of material culture. Links to PDF versions of the complete syllabi have been provided at the end of each course description below. These include:
- Thinking Anthropologically through Indonesian Cinema
- Anthropology and the Idea of Translation
- Islam and Public Culture in Indonesia
- The Uses and Consequences of Writing
- Power and the Agglutinative Soul
- Ethnography and the Problem of Complexity
- Practical Matters, a course on material culture
- Why Media Matter
- Contemporary Theory for the History of Religions
- Religion and Performance in Java and Bali
- Mass Media and Religious Violence
- Gender, Religion and the State
- Hindu Traditions
Thinking Anthropologically through Indonesian Cinema
What is the nature of human freedom? And what conditions are most conducive to its cultivation? How has the Islamic reform movement affected Indonesian conceptions of personal ambition, romantic intimacy and political participation? To what extent have local conceptions of sexuality, gender and social class been shaped by more global trends? And, more specifically, how have ideals of human flourishing and collective life been transformed by developments in new media, international travel and the rise of transnational capital and consumerism? These are some of the questions informing the current anthropological study of Indonesia. But they are also questions that lie at the center of several recent Indonesian films. This seminar puts anthropological scholarship in conversation with Indonesian cinema to explore their respective styles of enquiry, and compare their responses. All films will be presented with English subtitles. Click here for syllabus.
Anthropology and the Idea of Translation
Much of what we take to be the subject matter of anthropology presupposes an act of translation. This includes most proximately our own translations from ethnographic encounters, literature and other media. But even our so-called ‘primary materials’ themselves often already engender an act of translation, a point emphasized in much of the recent scholarship on South and Southeast Asia (e.g., Pollock, Hunter, Ricci). Regional specifics aside, it seems clear more generally that translation is a crucial factor in our ability to engage critically with the complexity of other people’s lives. This course explores some of the central issues by juxtaposing ethnographic studies with critical readings in translation theory. Representative authors include Schleiermacher, Ortega y Gasset, Benjamin, Bakhtin, Becker, Asad and Quine. Click here for syllabus.
Islam and Public Culture in Indonesia
Indonesia is often described as the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But where do we find Islam in contemporary Indonesia? And how is it best approached as a topic of anthropological enquiry? Is it to be sought in the mosques and Qur’anic schools of rural Java? Or perhaps in the transnational networks that link Indonesia with the wider Islamic world? Alternatively should we look to the local ballot box and the work of Islamic civil society groups? Or to popular Islamic programming on television and in the cinema, and in the vibrant discussions taking place through social media? This course examines the relationship between Islam and public culture with an eye to questions of broader theoretical import. Issues of piety, ethics and bodily comportment will be examined vis-à-vis public debates on such topics as Islamic attire, educational reform, economics, polygamy and pornography. In addition to readings from the current scholarship, the course will examine materials (in translation) from the Indonesian press, television and film, as well as social media. Click here for syllabus.
The Uses and Consequences of Writing
From the ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’ to the ‘Lettered City’ of colonial Peru, it has been argued that the advent of writing has had a transformative effect on collective life. A range of concepts has been deployed in efforts to grasp the nature of this transformation—including such notions as, e.g., ‘religious literacy’, ‘print capitalism’ and ‘language ecology’. Yet, despite sustained scholarly attention, the social effects of script and writing have remained elusive. Taking the question of materiality as its point of departure, this course employs the findings from a recent study conducted on the Indonesian island of Bali to explore ethnographic, historical and philosophical accounts of writing and its uses. Special emphasis will be placed on scriptural practices associated with architecture, healing and the manipulation of unseen beings and forces.
Power and the Agglutinative Soul
Contemporary trends in cultural anthropology owe much to poststructuralist insights regarding the relationship between language, the subject and power. Taking this relationship as its point of departure, we will be asking whether the nature of power, and of the subject, depend in any significant way on the sort of language being spoken. It is often noted that the languages of Southeast Asia differ in important ways – ‘structurally’ – from their Indo-European counterparts. But what of the subject and power? As we shall see, the ethnographic literature on Southeast Asia provides several examples of what might be described as a decentered, or internally complex, human subject. Here agency tends to be understood as the product of sustained endeavor, and often ceremonial work. As with the rites of ngulapan in Bali, the pralung in Cambodia, and the kwhan among the Thai-Lao, one’s well-being is closely tied to the comings and goings of a certain spirit, or ‘soul stuff’ that is more amenable to quantification than simple absence or presence. Its relative concentration, or dissipation, is seen to determine health and illness, vigor and lassitude, serenity and distress. Accordingly, the gathering-up of these constituents is at the center of a series of rites directed to healing and invigoration, safety and protection. This seminar sets out to explore the role of language in articulating a relationship between this understanding of the human subject and its concomitant theories of power. Key ethnographic concepts under discussion will include sakti, sumangé, atma, roh, nyawa, mandala, karya, theatricality, exemplary centers, men of prowess, animism and spirits of the place. These ideals will be juxtaposed critically with debates on the relationship between language, the subject and power in broadly poststructuralist thought and some of its more important precursors. Click here for syllabus.
Ethnography and the Problem of Complexity
This course explores the problem of complexity in the religious traditions of Southeast Asia. Scholars and observers have long recognized that unifying terms such as ‘Buddhism’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Islam’ and ‘animism’ do not adequately reflect the heterogeneity of the region’s history and culture. Yet prevailing attempts to account for this complexity — in terms of ‘great and little traditions’, ‘syncretism’, ‘hybridity’ etc. — often do little more than to defer the moment of essentialization; and, as a result, these approaches often appear as uncritical as the oversimplified terminology they wish to call into question. Given its long history of interaction with India, China and the Arabian peninsula, Southeast Asia offers a series of uniquely well-suited case studies for addressing the theoretical questions at stake. This course will explore these questions through a close reading of ethnographies from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and the Indonesian archipelago. Click here for syllabus.
Europe has long cultivated an ambivalent relationship to matter. Our religious traditions warn against the dangers of the material world, tending to favor the more etherial pleasures of the transcendent. Yet we harbor a suspicion that everything, from aesthetics to romantic love, might be explained through reference to one sort of material or another—from the economic foundations of production to brain chemistry and DNA. So what is this thing called matter? And why should we care? (Why does it matter?) Under what conditions might matter, or material, become intelligible to us as an object of study, or critical frame of reference? Is its analysis properly part of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften)? The human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften)? Perhaps both? Or could it be that a more nuanced approach would challenge our received assumptions regarding the dichotomy of minds versus material bodies? The anthropological study of ‘material culture’ has tried to address these questions, drawing on fields as diverse as museum studies and the philosophy of the natural sciences. This course offers a critical introduction to the central issues. Click here for syllabus.
Why Media Matter
Why do media matter? It is hardly controversial to suggest that the analysis of media should be a priority for the human sciences. But, in approaching media, what precisely is our object of study? Is it to be sought in the structure of institutions? In the signification of texts? Perhaps in the actions of individuals? Or even, somehow, in the totality of society itself? The central term in the problem—namely, ‘media’— seems curiously overdetermined, and so ambivalent. One finds for instance that, in the singular, the medium tends either to be idealized as an inert conduit for the transmission of a substantialized message (‘communication’) or, alternatively, decried as the source of ideological distortion (‘alienation’). The medium is implicitly extrinsic to its content. But we have also been told that it participates in the very substance of that which it conveys (‘the medium is the message’). We have learned that novels and newspapers provided the ground on which national communities were first imagined. And yet, in the plural, ‘the media’ comprise that mysteriously unified agent that is said to mollify the masses through commodification and individualization. Media are at once the locus of grass roots organization and the perpetuation of bourgeois mythologie. They facilitate both the exercise of Public Reason as well as the effects of discursive infantilization. As an organ of free speech, the media are a bastion of democracy. As an instrument of the Culture Industry (or the Military Industrial Complex, Big Oil, etc.) they act as handmaiden to Capital. Seemingly, it is—or they are—simultaneously a metaphysical category, an institution, an instrument and an agent. It would behoove us to disentangle these associations. For as the Oxford philosopher and historian, R.G. Collingwood, once said of the various theories of Man, treatment of any one of them would easily fill a book. But which if any might help us to elucidate the social import of their ostensible object? This course offers a practical introduction to key developments in cultural and media studies as a first step toward trying to answer this question. Click here for syllabus.
Contemporary Theory for the History of Religions
This course addresses the central theoretical issues and developments informing contemporary scholarship in the History of Religions. It is designed not so much as a survey, but rather as a practical training in thinking critically about the questions that currently define the field, and that are opening new directions for future inquiry. Click here for syllabus.
Religion and Performance in Java and Bali
This course examines the relationship between religion and performance through an analysis of theatrical and related traditions of Java and Bali. In addition to classical forms of masked drama, dance opera and shadow theatre, we will also consider more recent developments in popular music and television with a special emphasis on their importance for our understanding of religion, power and the nation. Although focused primarily on materials from Java and Bali, this course is explicitly directed to a broader series of pressing theoretical issues for scholars working in the human sciences. Click here for syllabus.
Mass Media and Religious Violence
The importance of analyzing public representations of religion-related violence has become more obvious, indeed urgent, following the explosion of public commentary in the mass media on the causes and circumstances of 9.11 and other recent ‘terrorist attacks’. Representations of conflict in Asia and the Middle East have increasingly been cast in terms of religion, with mainstream Euro-American media commentators often attributing the threat of regional unrest to a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations. Although imagining the situation in these terms does, perhaps ironically, collude with the rhetoric of some of the more militant (and marginal) Islamist opposition, such accounts seem somewhat at odds with the day-to-day circumstances in which the vast majority of ordinary Muslim men, women and children are living their lives in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Furthermore, these accounts ignore — and perhaps even preclude an engagement with — the complex differentiation of the societies to which they are addressed and the sophistication of their own debates on, e.g., the balance between security and human rights, whether religion is a private or public matter, the problematic relationship to — and differences from — ‘the West’, and the nature of civil society. Organized around a series of media sessions and seminar discussions, this course will examine specific conflicts and outbreaks of violence as represented in mainstream Euro-American and Asian mass media, with a special emphasis on their respective assumptions regarding the nature of religion and religious difference. Click here for syllabus.
Gender, Religion and the State
What is power and under what conditions is it susceptible to analysis? Can current debates on questions of gender, sexuality and the law be understood without reference to religion? Are race and class relevant to these debates? And what might be the implications of exporting Euro-American understandings of oppression and progressive politics to Asian and African contexts? This course challenges students to think critically about the nature of power and the possibility of resistance, evasion and/or subversion. Although the materials covered are broadly ethnographic in nature — focusing on examples from Egypt, India, Indonesia, Europe and the United States — our discussion will be driven by a series of critical questions to which we shall return each week in addressing our regional foci. Click here for syllabus.
What is Hinduism? Whether or not the unity implied by the word ‘Hinduism’ reflected existing conditions on the South Asian subcontinent when it was first coined in the nineteenth century, the idea of an all-embracing ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Hindu religion’ has now long been in use among those who count themselves as members of self-recognized Hindu communities around the world. For many years, scholars, religious practitioners and others have tried to define Hinduism and to isolate what might count as its essential characteristics. For some, it was a matter of emphasizing a single defining feature, such as caste-membership or acceptance of the ancient scriptural tradition of the Vedas. For others, more elaborate scholarly approaches — including, e.g., ‘prototype theory’ or a variation on the Wittgensteinian notion of ‘family resemblance’ — were deployed in the pursuit of a conceptual unity underpinning the diversity of practices that are commonly considered to be part of the Hindu tradition. Finally, still others — taking what might be considered the Forrest Gump approach — have held that Hinduism is simply what Hindus do. Each of these approaches calls for a somewhat different method in the pursuit of an answer to the question What is Hinduism? Unfortunately, to date, none of them have rendered terribly satisfying answers. And, in part, this has probably been the result of their reliance on assumptions that land up on closer examination to be profoundly ethnocentric, essentialist, teleological and ultimately anachronistic. That is to say, scholars have often: employed western categories — such as the idea of ‘religion’ itself — in trying to understand the practices they encountered in South Asia – (ethnocentric); used the notion of ‘Hinduism’ to make sweeping generalizations about the lives of the some 700 million non-Christian, non-Muslim people living there – (essentialist); approached ancient thought in terms of what they considered to be its subsequent — and inevitable — development into later ‘classical’ forms – (teleological); and projected subsequently emerging categories — such as ‘Hinduism’ — back onto the beliefs and practices of historical periods when such notions probably wouldn’t have made much sense – (anachronistic). So what are we to do? On the one hand we’re faced with a broad range of ‘Hindu’ practices, many of which exhibit no obvious commonality. On the other, we have numerous accounts of the commonality underpinning ‘Hinduism’, not all of which are in agreement. Arguably, the question ‘What is Hinduism?’ is a critical dead end. But is there a viable alternative? Click here for syllabus.