Sunday, October 31, 2004

Deconstructing SE Asian history and archeology

I wonder if other history and archeological fans get the same uncomfortable feeling as I do concerning the "evidence" that are used in these two fields of investigations. In the development of these two disciplines, the need to be "scientific" becomes its Achilles' heel. Maybe if they could scientifically account for all the non-recoverable historical records and the undug, yet to be dug, and undiggable archeological finds, they might actually become scientific.

Meanwhile, their metanarrative goes on trying to justify itself and grows a few generations of children with distorted worldviews, whose sad misconceptions explodes as a social timebomb some 20-30 years in the future, as we incrasingly see going on around us in our present. Our wake-up call to how we write our history books and the ways it feeds segregations and alienation may come a bit too late. Very sadly, too late for those hundreds that have died in the south of Thailand since the beginning of this year.

"Pra Chao Paendin" not a God

Reading western text on the history of Thailand, the concept of Kings as Gods seems to crop up quite often. In my eagerness to digest what is said about the history, I've always tended to skip over the nagging feeling that is generated with this western interpretation of Kingship. As I've come to develop a sense of caution on the internal logic of each language, the question marks behind each concept that get translated across cultures have become bigger and bigger for me. This particular one hit me in the middle of my head, since I've had to intensively review books and articles about the history of Thailand in preparation for my paper.

We Thais highly revere our Kings, and willingly place them on top of our heads, but we've never conceptualized them as "God"! Come on, being Buddhists, we don't even believe in God, or gods. OK, so we pray to spirits, go to Indra and Brahmin shrines, but seriously, someone should make it clear, they are never related to as gods. Please, someone, dig in and explain, we don't have the concept of a sole creator who creates the universe, etc, etc., etc.

Our Kings, "Prachaopaendin" literally means "Lord of the Land". "Chao" which through lack of equivalent term in English is translated into "Lord" and then thought of as God. Going into the definition of this term "chao" needs a linguistic paper. A "Chao's" right to rule is sanctioned by what is known as "Tosapit Rajataam" or the 10 laws of Kingship. These are an expression of how centuries of rulership has been tested and what qualites of kingship are valued. Nothing in those rules says he's a god in the western sense that he is the descendant of a creator of the universe. A King's royalty and his power comes from his ability to command many qualities that allows him to rule for the benefit of the people.

I'm registering my protest against this unquestioned definition of a historical concept written in western languages that carelessly use this equation which actually comes from the western epistemology that God gives the Chruch the right to rule, and then the Church gives the right to Kings to rule. Well, that logic doesn't follow in our society. This way of looking at the history of our region through these lenses have written versions of history that somehow just doesn't seem to ring a bell.

Friday, October 29, 2004

My paper and blog: "Orality and Literacy in Thailand"

As part of a course, Comparative Orality and Literacy, that I'm auditing at the University of Toronto, I was asked to set up a blog: Orality and Literacy in Thailand as part of my research file for which I am producing a term paper. I will be developing my ideas about Thailand's oral tradition and some aspects of early literacy in that blog, so if anyone is interested, please give me a visit there....

My paper and blog on orality and literacy in Thailand

As part of a course, Comparative Orality and Literacy, that I'm auditing at the University of Toronto, I was asked to set up a blog: Orality and Literacy in Thailand as part of my research file for which I am producing a term paper. I will be developing my ideas about Thailand's oral tradition and some aspects of early literacy in that blog, so if anyone is interested, please give me a visit there....

Monday, October 25, 2004

The mistake of western epistemology

Its preoccupation with origins, the need for discovering and proving of the beginning of whatever they wish to classify, seems to come from its logic of linear cause and effect. What if reality actually exists in cycles of creation and recreation? Isn't it foolish to suppose that people who lived 2500 years ago were less advanced than we are? Can't we see that all of this bias in our view of history happens because we've put a beginning point at the year "0"? Separation of a few thousand years seems to excuse our insensitive ignorance and carelessness when we tend to overlook evidence that suggests a contrary picture of our past especially when it threatens our perception of our present.

Why can't we say frankly when we study our artifacts that the discoveries of archeology is based on chance, and by our decision of where we are going to chose to dig? What about all the evidence we haven't been able to dig up yet? Let's also declare clearly that history depends on who's writing it, it is usually written to justify the writer's point of view.

Maybe if we changed this basic and central assumption that there must be a single beginning, we can be released from the heavy burden of there having to be an end. Then we won't need to go into apocalyptic frenzy every a century or millennium ends, and we won't have to spend so much energy trying to prove that true or false beginning and actually start a much more engaging process of discovery.

The Concept of the Thai Spirit

“Spirit is a power that causes, through its working from outside, changes and engenders unequal, asymmetrical relations within the individual as well as social groups. It is an ambiguous, external power, and affects directly or indirectly the individual and social relations, irrespective of whether it is institutionalized or not. This power of spirit is explicit when it attacks a person unpredictably or punishes him in response to his neglect of ritual duties. Such workings of spirit can cause instability, or destruction or, even worse, tatal collapse of internal equilibrium, which normally is believed to be maintained within the individual and social groups.

A person intrinsically has his or her own internal equilibrium, constituted of the relationship between khwan (soul) and rangkai (soul), which is always vulnerable and exposed to external power represented by various forms of spirit. …khwan as a popular notion refers to the collective soul entity believed to be firmly located within the person’s body. The firm unity of the soul entity and body provides health, while the drifting away of soul from body that could occur upon intrusion of external power, or through interference from other influential forces, can result in ill-health or even death. It is this idea of unity of soul and body which forms the basis of the stability of the equilibrium and its breakdown in association with external forces.”

from "Thai Construction of Knowledge,

ed. by Manas Chitakasem and Andrew Turton, London: SOAS, 1991."

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Cornell's collection of Southeast Asian books

In this beautiful on-line "book"produced by Cornell University, you will be able to find some beautiful images of ancient manuscripts and old books of Souteast Asia. The site draws attention to what official history books have omitted to tell us, that ancient ancestors of Southeast Asia were avid readers, literate, and collectors of precious manuscripts, dating as far back as 1st century AD.

I quote from this site: "In the first centuries A.D., the earliest foreign visitors to Southeast Asia remarked on the books of the region, which were incised into palm leaves or written into mulberry- or bark-paper manuscripts, usually employing alphabets derived from Indian scripts or, in Vietnam, using Chinese characters. The first libraries of the region were at royal capitals such as Angkor in ancient Cambodia. Then with the advent of Theravada Buddhism and Islam from the thirteenth century onwards, handwritten books were found almost everywhere.".

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Knowing and doing

(For the guy with square glasses who spoke about the distinction between knowing and doing)

We’re in a process of writing to speak better,

We used to write to record what we spoke,

Before that we just spoke.

At some point in the future we will revert back to just speaking,

Where speech is an action and not simply an externalized thought.

“Si che dal fatto

il dir non sia diverso”

Dante’s Inferno 32.12

Friday, October 15, 2004

Ann Galloway on "Drexlerian dreams and other politics of science"

Anne Galloway provided some interesting links on"Drexlerian dreams and other politics of science".

Some weeks ago, I subscribed Howard Lovy's Nanobot with Bloglines. Interesting reads, excellent coverage of the nano-world. Just for records, I stumbled on this field because of my son's declaration that he wanted to study nanotechnology when he goes to university in 4 years time. At about the same time, a Thai friend recommended the book "As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth" by Juan Enriquez showing me his "Thai!" version of the book. Digging in, I found that I had to check out the incredulous things this guy was saying. That took me to "Nanocosm" by William Illsey Atkinson. That was followed by a read of this very interesting: Atkinson-Phoenix Nanotech Debate With that I was convinced that I'd have to follow this microcosm.

What is the reversal of McLuhan’s tetrad?

Last night, I attended a session of Mcluhan Extreme which is part of the McLuhan Festival of the Future in Toronto. The above thought provoking question was raised at the end of the session. I'm attempting an answer, "a la McLuhan", by suggesting that one then needs to ask, what did the tetrad retrieve?

My answer to that question is that it retrieves the I-Ching, a philosophy of change. The Tetrad is a different form of this philosophy of change designed by McLuahn. I believe that they carry the same message.

Why do I say it retrieves the I-Ching? The I-Ching is based on the concept of reversals of 2 major forces: the Yin and the Yang. Too much yin “accelerates”, or flips into yang, too much yang moves into yin. Nothing quantitative about the process, it’s all qualitative. It becomes possible to divine at what point of change one finds oneself in because the underlying philosophy in this world of change is that everything is connected. Hence, the development of the 64 symbols of change. However, reading that process of change correctly is an art form.

So if the tetrad retrieves this knowledge of change, once it accelerates, it reverses into… an amalgation, a re-wholing of all knowledges of change, in some newer form of understanding change in relevance to our times. It could appear in the form of a complex computer program. It could just as well appear as a human social structure where individuals understand their connection with the unknowable whole and act in the context of their valuable place in a complex complexity. I’m not selling the idea of a utopia, but saying that we can find perfection in imperfection.

The Tetrad reverses into a new understanding of the processes of change. That understanding may be the herald of a new renaissance of human discoveries.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Wiang Goom Gaam, Chiang Mai's Ancient City

This excellent article, "From Beneath the Sands of Time", was published by 'Welcome to Chiangmai & Chiangrai' magazine. Reminds me that there are archeological sites we tend to miss, because they are not so well publicized. It was a happy discovery for me to see this visual proof of our legendary King Mengrai's ancient abode. One day, I've promised myself to read more extensively about the Chiang Mai Chronicles. For now let's just enjoy the following picture:

I also found Jing Reed's musings about the site, another nice read with a few more pictures.

Treasure trove

White Lotus's books on Thailand.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Ancient Isaan alphabets to go high-tech

From MCOT News:Tuesday 12 October 2004, through

UBON RATCHATHANI, Oct 6 (TNA) - A lecturer at a college in Thailand's Northeast has invented a computer font for two ancient Isaan alphabets which are in danger of dying out.

The new high-tech inventions mark a huge change in the life of the 'Tai Noi' and 'Dharm' alphabets.

According to Asst. Prof. Sanit Phokaphan from the Faculty of Science and Technology at the Rajabhat University's Ubon Ratchathani campus, the Tai Noi alphabet was originally written on palm leaves as a mean of recording events relating to merit-making ceremonies and other local traditions, as well as local folk tales and medical formulas.

The 'Dharm' alphabet, meanwhile, was regarded as a high-ranking mean of recording issues relating to Buddhism.

It was not until the 19th century, when government legislation insisted on the use of the Thai alphabet, that the two alphabets slipped into disuse.

Asst. Prof. Sanit, who invented the computer fonts, says that the alphabets are now only taught at the Rajabhat University, and among Buddhist monks wanting to read ancient manuscripts.

The lecturer hopes that his inventions will lead to a resurgence of interest in the ancient scripts, and prevent their extinction.

The fonts will also make it easier for researchers to learn about national historical events written on palm leaves.

The fonts can be downloaded for free at the Rjabhat University's website.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

Orality and Communications, the short way

Orality and communications is new stuff for me. I'm trying to make sense of the confusion I've launched myself in again with this new McLuhan course. I've been give a bunch of reading materials, about five inches of photocpied materials written by academics several decades ago. (Anybody tried the frustrating task of trying to make sense out of old English?) We're expected to read at least 4-5 'theorists' in 7 days, doesn't matter what else you do in your day to day life. Sigh, the pace of academics. I'm taking shortcuts. I don't know, maybe there're actually long cuts. I google the guys' names and try to read what other people have gisted about what these guys have been thinking about. At least on the net, they use simple English. What's really important for me is to understand the context (social, intellectual, cultural environment) of which these intellectual giants have shaped their thoughts.

Some links that really helped clarify stuff for me, for future references:

Theories of Communication -Wikipedia

Oral History - Wikipedia

"Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power" by Marshall Soules

"Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word" Ong, Methuen

" Towards an Ecology of Understanding:

Semiotics, Medium Theory, and the Uses of Meaning"
by Marc Leverette

"From Orality to Teleliteracy" by Steven Mizrach

A much delayed essay: "Emerging Paradigm", promised to a friend

This is something I promised a friend I would write for her. It's still, maybe, a first draft. I feel as if I keep repeating myself, but since I've started taking this class on orality, I understand that its common practice in this tradition, so no sea mi culpa. Also everytime I tell this story it always gets said in a different way.

A fundamental shift in perspective has been happening in the world of scientific theories. In 1687, Newton’s “Principia” laid the ground rules for scientific inquiry. These rules stated that “(1) we are to admit no more causes of natural things such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances, (2) the same natural effects must be assigned to the same causes, (3) qualities of bodies are to be esteemed as universal, and (4) propositions deduced from observation of phenomena should be viewed as accurate until other phenomena contradict them.” To understand how he came about these rules, one has to understand Newton’s time, environment, the evolution of philosophy and science before that.

Newton put firmly into place a “scientific method”. His three laws of motion: inertia, action and reaction, and acceleration proportional to force was a crystallization of a linear worldview that had begun to take shape since the Greek invention of the western phonetic alphabet. In the following four hundred years, this “scientific” methodology influenced the birth of some new scholarly line of thoughts, such as, evolutionary theory, economics, marxism, (just to name the few I am somwhat familiar with).

This linear worldview included concepts such as, independent agents, reductionism, individuality, privacy, and specialization. It sprouted numerous specialists and specialties. For 400 years, competition, survival of the fittest led us to a point of near total annihilation with the two World Wars, and the subsequent Cold War. The world became increasingly complex, chaotic, and interdependent.

Everything became linked through communications, supported by the new electric medium. A scholar who invented world famous clichés such as “the global village”, “the media is the message”, Marshall McLuhan, saw how electricity produced a revolutionary effect in transforming our world, and tells us that with the acceleration of our print and media oriented culture, there comes a reversal into a new oral culture.

This reversal and signs of its shifted paradigm started to emerge in the public mind only after nearly one hundred years since its discovery by the quantum sciences in the 20s. These scientists discovered that in the world of the subatomic level, particles (aka, matter) were paradoxically behaving as waves (aka, energy). Since then, new multidisciplinary studies developed new theories of Chaos (50s), Complexity (late 80s), Nanotechnology (70s), Genomics (80s).... During the 80s, and 90s, an emerging group of writers made such scientific insights popular: Fritjof Capra, Steven Hawkings, James Gleick, etc. Research Institutions and some open-minded institutions were already applying the new discoveries into management, forum organization, structuring of information.

This new worldview, or as some choose to call it ‘paradigm”, informs us that life is basically non-linear, complex, interdependent, and ever changing. The implications of this new worldview clash against outdated strategies and policy attitude of an industrial linear world. How does one reorganize factories to take into account of small effects causing big influences, if they want to reorganize at all? Or how does one reconcile that 1+1 does not necessarily equal to 2? What happens to economic models when equations do no need to equalize in 0?

We are at last awakening from the sleep of linearity, that alphabets, literacy and Newton’s deterministic laws has given us.

The perspective that is demanded by this new worldview is frightening to many, mostly for those who have invested heavily in the old worldview, the status quo. It implies letting go the old ways of doing things. It requires that we try to understand laws of chaos and complexity. This is a world of seemingly endless possibilities, and every changing change, what can we use as guides?

The prophet of this effect, McLuhan, may have pointed to us the direction to find answers for these questions. Maybe collaboration, listening to each other, and orality, the reversal of literacy can help us find a way. Oral cultures taught us that redefining ourselves moment for moment, revisioning ourselves with each new perspective gained could be a good way to move with change. This does not necessarily mean that we must wipe the board clean. Values that have proven themselves may needed to be reworded, those that cannot apply may need to be discarded or put in secondary place, understanding the circumstances when we can use which values. Most important of all, maybe it can teach us to let go of dichotomy, of duality and allow us to be more comfortable with paradox. Strangely enough, the philosophies of the East seem to be quite familiar with these modalities of being.

During these coming years, it seems to me that what will be most crucial of all will be constant and intense conversations among many and all, to reword, to create new vocabularies, to speak in many different ways this new worldview until we are all well acquainted with it. Those cultures that adjust faster will gain an advantage, just as those that understand it deeply will be ones who bring it forward farther.

For Thailand:

I shudder in horror when I listen to news that Thailand’s leaders sometimes go all out in support of Western modernity, blindly applauding its technological advances, and overeager to buy into whatever lowly crumbs so-called high tech multinationals throw out at us. I am afraid that we will end up locking our future capacities by being dependant on rapidly going out of date technologies and science. The beauty of such this pioneer world of new sciences is that information is the key advantage. We do not need to follow the linear footsteps of Newtonian science in order to advance. We can jumpstart from things that have been tested and disproved as not working. Science is an undeniable future necessity, but let’s use discrimination. Our Buddhist philosophy proves familiar in this new paradigm. Its core values have always stressed the eternal nature change and the highest of learning by one’s own experience. We don’t need to drop all of the old ways to adopt new ones. We need to explore what old baggage might actually fit with new ideas and if they don’t, to see them clearly for what they are. What can be done to raise generations who will be able to quickly deconstruct the underlying assumptions of what used to be and reconstruct a successful vision for the moment that will eventually affect our future?

Friday, October 1, 2004

Not blogging means I'm doing too much

When I'm not blogging it means that I'm doing too much and am overstressed. Actually, I should make an effort to blog during these times because it's when I get lots of inputs and ideas. Too many and too fast that I don't know how to write them all down. What's going on? I'm taking another McLhuhan Program course, Comparative Orality and Literacy. It's three hours of intensive lecture-discussion on Thursday evenings. It has a pretty demanding reading program as well as tough expectations for a paper/presentation. Then I also passed my French exam that placed me in the intermediate level, and I'm doing two classes of French a week. I like the groups I'm studying with, but meeting too many people at once gives me a lot of new information to digest, so that ups my stress level. My kids also started school. My son entered Grade 9, which in Canada is seperated from Gr 1-8, and he had locate to a different school. It was exciting to help him adjust to another stage of life. (I don't know who was more excited, me or him?) When I'm doing too many things outside of the house, I don't get the housework done the way I like, ... that makes me grumpy. One of the things I do not enjoy with life in Canada is that maids are expensive and not practicle, you've just got to do your own housework.