Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: "Lives of Indian Images" by Richard H. Davis

Central to the purpose of this book is the notion that the identities of Indian religious objects are not fixed or permanent but constructed and reconstructed by the religious, cultural, economic, and political circumstances in which they are found. Davis approaches this idea by adapting the reader-response theory of ‘interpretive communities’ into his notion of ‘communities of response’ in which one may consider “the plurality of ways viewers approach and encounter a visual object" [1, p. 9]. The location, presentation, and environment in which an object is encountered constitute a “frame” that guides the responses of a viewer in looking at and acting toward the object. The viewer also brings a second frame or “dispensation”, i.e. her own socially shared assumptions, ideas, needs, experiences, and hopes, to this encounter. This interaction between the icon and the viewer creates a series of responses or “reinterpretations” over time in which these objects may be animated as much by these encounters as by the deities they represent and support. By going beyond material creation, Davis argues for “an expanded frame for viewing Indian religious objects, one that accepts contingency, instability, and plurality in the identities of images" [1, p. 263]. This focus on the moment of creation restricts the meaningful possibilities of an object and distracts from the participation of the object in the ongoing social life of its communities.

To demonstrate his purpose, Davis examines a series of objects and sites to explore significant moments or shifts in response that affect these and other Indian objects. He begins with a bronze Siva to juxtapose how an American museum and its original temple setting would present this icon to the viewer. He then illustrates the range of rhetoric in the appropriation of select religious images such as the Calukya door-guardian by medieval Indian rulers. Next he uses Islamic iconoclasm and Hindu response to demonstrate the ways in which Indo-Muslim and Hindu texts narrated acts of image destruction and reconstruction, differing ways of interpretation and response to Indian religious icons, and the political and theological purposes behind them. After this Davis explores the transformation of Indian icons into ‘art’ vis-à-vis the acquisition of “Tipu’s Tiger” by British colonial forces and the altered political relationship of Britain and India. Next he traces the diachronical formations of meanings in relation to Somanatha and the efforts of diverse social groups to retell its story according to each group’s purpose. Finally he examines the current market in the West for ancient Indian art by following the bronze image of Siva Nataraja to illuminate the conflicting claims and views of Indian worshippers and Western collectors hold toward these objects.

In all of these “biographies” Davis demonstrates how historical, devotional, and cultural frames affect the meanings and interpretations of these objects by different viewers. I found his treatment of the bronze image of Siva Nataraja to be especially illuminating in that I also previously held the assumption with the Indian Government of “once a religious image always a religious image" [1, pg. 252]. By exploring the various layers of ‘the recovery of ritual selfhood’ he truly demonstrates the murky definitions of how we should approach these icons. The fluidity of how these ‘dispensations’ can subtly morph as well as the ever-changing environmental framework in which these icons are found truly form multiple complexities of the subjective imposed on the objective.

- Safari Bob

[1] Davis, R., H. (1997). Lives of Indian Images. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 0-691-00520-6

Monday, April 19, 2010

Depositum Fidei: Can Powerful Beliefs and Tolerance Coexist?

As I approach this question it appears to me that two major social contexts are being contested within scope of this problem, namely that of power and identity. Certainly the social conflicts are broad between cultures in a global environment and as we enter a pluralistic or multicultural setting, boundaries defined by proximity have become tighter or of little consequence. With temporal and spatial division shrinking, soon, it would seem, we may have to stop thinking of ourselves as a multicultural environment and more as one multiethnic culture. In order to survive within this context, issues of identity and power must be defined and addressed in the hopes that common ground may be found on which to live.


One could argue that the world is still languishing under the effects of colonialism, the product of the first worldwide capitalist endeavor, in that the old colonial powers still have much of the global wealth. Voices and faces, previously caricatured, imposed, and invented, are emerging to speak for themselves. The traditional centers of ‘Western’ or colonial power are becoming decentered or postcolonial. As technological advances in the transmission of ideas and transportation increase, the world seems smaller in that it now longer takes days to travel distances it now takes hours to cross. Ideas, once taking months to circulate via the printing press now take seconds via the Internet. Space and time are now of small consequence.

Still hegemony exists in the form of capitalist interests, no longer only for the colonial powers but also a possibility for territories that once were occupied by these colonial powers. By offering the Western idea of success many former colonies see the possibility of wealth and education for themselves as a viable reality. This ideological control can even be seen in the idea of tolerance, which carries with it the notion of a position of power that deigns to grant clemency out of magnanimity rather than acceptance out of graciousness as a coequal. One problem seems to be that hegemony no longer is working and control, as recent events demonstrate, must be re-exerted by means of arms. The western ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of the ubiquitous Big Mac no longer offer the same allure for those former colonies. Why not?


Although I do not accept all the finer points of Mary Douglas’ system of understanding social pressures, I do find her model of Grid/Group useful in describing and understanding the social conditions in which we find ourselves [1, p. 60]:

Within this system we can see that we have an increasingly privatized system of classification with the construction of democracy and the and an increasing amount of group as the world gets smaller and we are confronted other people’s beliefs as well as social pressures of style, consumerism, and whatnot. Those that identify with this egalitarian worldview fit in and feel accepted. Those that do not are marginalized and isolated from the culture. These isolates are unpredictable in that their voice is not heard within the context of the prevalent culture. These isolates are not necessarily counter-cultural, they are just unheard, invisible, and unpredictable. This environment of isolation, I believe, allows for the formation of views that within the prevailing social context seem counter-cultural and extremist. Here is the pool of persons waiting to be exploited as human bombs in terrorism as well as any other counter-cultural activity whether violent or not.

We are, of course, speaking in broad sweeping generalities with this or any other model but I believe that it does allow a means for study. The question now becomes what happens when different cultures compete for the same space? Or even, what happens when a new idea or personality is introduced into the grid/group ratio of a given culture?

Adversarial Mode

When different or competing cultures or systems of beliefs encounter on another, a mad scramble for power ensues, often in the form of what Bourdieu [2] would describe as ‘cultural capital’ or perhaps those items that constitute each culture’s idea of the moral high ground. This perception of risk or threat often gets focused into political and religious sayings such as “God is on our side” or “Don’t tread on me!” This heightened sense of defense allows for a period of justification, accusation and social galvanization against the other culture. This can also happen within the same culture with the introduction of a new idea into a socially charged environment ready for its acceptance to create division and social revolution.

We can certainly see this at work in the broad reformations that swept Western Europe in the sixteenth-century. The competing factions will feel threatened, defensive, and will justify acts that may not have been thinkable earlier in the name of religion or politics. This is also the context for war in an egalitarian society such as the West. Because our values, interests, and worldview are threatened, aggression can be justified even when dialogue could be able to solve matters. Liberal views, hitherto seen as socially progressive, are criticized as idealistic and weak. Conservative viewpoints, hitherto criticized as narrow-minded and mean, can be seen as practical and necessary.


So can powerful beliefs and tolerance coexist? I believe that they can if they exist outside of an adversarial mode under the aegis of commonality. In a religious context, I am not speaking necessarily of ecumenism or as Westhelle describes as a depositum fidei in which an imaginary cathedral works to store and display all “proofs of faith" [3, p. 7]. And politically, I am not speaking of a ‘one-world government’, of which the mere thought would inspire revolutions, both political and religious, the world over. So how do we do we provide an environment where all beliefs and cultures can coexist, perhaps even peaceably?

I believe that we have to address the notion of power to include gracious acceptance in coequal terms. A universal ‘live and let live’ must be adopted and practiced by all cultures in this increasingly shrinking world, in which all inhabitants can practice systems of belief without infringing or being infringed on by others. Within a given culture the social isolates must be given the opportunity to express their voices if they so chose. The problem is that this is practically untenable. As borders constrict conflict arises until one cultural identity is fashioned.

I suppose the only answer to this question is yes it can but not until everyone’s powerful beliefs include the notion that every person has the right to hold divergent positions and ideas. This position of difference cannot be perceived as threatening or conflict, war, and terrorism will always exist. The Catholic and Protestant institutions that battled within the reformations have made a quiet peace with only minor hostilities in the form of bigotry from the extreme fundamentalists in each camp. Each has its own identity and each respects the differences in the other. With Vatican II the Catholic Church even made major overtures toward a lasting, peaceful respect. Perhaps the rest of the competing cultures can do the same.

-Safari Bob


[1] Douglas, M. (1996). Natural Symbols. New York: Routledge.

[2] Bourdieu, P. (1998). The State of Nobility. Lauretta C. Clough (trans.). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

[3] Westhelle, V. (2003). “Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism, and The Apocalyptic” in Theology and The Religious: a Dialogue, Viggo Mortensen (ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, pp. 3-14.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I have been wrestling with this question: How would a rhetorician approach Metaphors We Live By? Certainly, the various approaches possible to rhetoricians is as diverse as the number of rhetoricians who interpret. After some time, I find myself wondering about the role of rhetoric in myth construction. I wonder if rhetoric functions to shape mythos—in the construction of gestalt. The one problem I see with this book is what happens when a culture constructs competing gestalts; in other words, what happens when a culture understands a metaphor in such a way as to construct two (or more) opposed interpretations of experience?

Certainly, metaphors can allow two people or groups of people to understand individual views of reality. The essence of metaphor is to understand one concept in the light of another [1, p. 5] and this comparison is best realized within a given culture. Still, within a given culture, conflicts can arise and these conflicts can produce competing metaphors [1, p. 23]. The authors argue that although individuals and sub-groups place priority on metaphors that reflect ways that are good and virtuous to them, “individual value systems are coherent with the major orientation metaphors of the main-stream culture” [1, p. 26]. So, one way to determine cohesion in a given culture is to explore the orientation metaphors (ie active is up) and the ontological metaphors (ie entity and substance) of a given social group. Thus, metaphors tend to be coherent across social strata [1, p. 44] and reflect may reflect a common conceptual system in which metaphors grounded by “virtue of systematic correlates within our experience” [1, p. 58]. This cohesion allows metaphors to emerge naturally in a given culture because what it highlights corresponds to what the members of a given culture collectively experience [1, p. 68].

At this point in the book, the authors introduce the notion of a gestalt: a whole construct of meaning that humans find more basic than the parts [1, p. 70]. This is a basic tenant of prototype theory, which examines the way that different social groups understand or place value on the world in which they exist. For instance, when one is presented with the category of ‘snake’ people from different cultures would react differently. In some cultures a snake is a symbol of evil while in others it is a symbol of wisdom. The authors eventually complicate this idea with the notion of ‘truth’ by which they reject the ‘myths’ of objective category and subjective interpretation. Rather, they advocate that categories such as truth are best understood within the “interactional [sic.] properties that make sense only relative to human functioning” [1, p. 164]. Interaction properties and experiential gestalts form the “experientialist myth” that can best explain how humans understand and function in their world [1, p. 228]. This understanding “emerges from interaction, from constant negotiation with the environment and other people” [1, p. 230]. Meaning is negotiated and metaphor is crucial to create rapport and to communicate the nature of unshared experience [1, p. 231].

My question is still unanswered by the “experientialist myth”, however. I think that, in this theory, rhetoric is instrumental in the negotiation of meaning between competing views but I am not sure that the authors address a possibility that one culture may actually hold competing and inconsistent experiential gestalts. They seem to assume that a culture is more cohesive than a pluralistic entity like the United States. Earlier [1, pp. 22-24] they give lip service to cultural difference only to move to a more basic (or universal) understanding of metaphor. What happens when competing gestalts, within a given culture, exist (or emerge) to explain categories such as truth?

-Safari Bob


[1] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-46801-1

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tobacco Review: Vauen Black Pepper

When I was at Just For Him, I actually tried to blend a black pepper pipe tobacco but I just could not get the flavor to unfold. I could get spicy, hot, and even a greenish kind of sweet pepper once (I never could replicate it, however) but I never could nail down the black pepper taste. So when I spied Vauen Black Pepper, I immediately placed an order and started counting off days on the calendar until the UPS guy showed. I don't know too much about Vauen Pipe Co. other than it is German and is purported to have been in the pipe business since 1848. I do not know who makes these tobaccos for Vauen or if they manufacture it themselves (I doubt it). Still, this blend is tasty, it is made in Germany, and does not disappoint. The tin has no manufacturer's description, but here is what says about it:

The double-fermented Black Cavendish based on Virginia and Burley tobaccos delivers a unique smooth smoking experience with a distinct aroma of black pepper. MSRP: $14.10; 50gm tin.

The tobacco is black Cavendish and stoved ribbons that burns well into a mottled gray and white ash--a hint that different kinds of tobacco are blended here. Perhaps it is a Virginia (maybe Red Virginia?) and Burley mixture. Certainly, one notices a distinct black pepper aroma as the tin is cracked and I definitely enjoyed this flavor throughout the smoke which is accompanied by a subtle sweetness, although it does fade a bit in the heel. This tobacco is not moist--maybe a shade drier than I like--nor does it feel oily. The room note seems woodsy rather than sweet and I swear I can still smell the black paper 15 minutes after the smoke.

This is a good, smooth aromatic that has some complexity in the smoke and certainly delivers a black pepper flavor without the bite. For some reason, it reminds me quite a bit of C&D Autumn Evening but with a different flavor. Interestingly, Autumn Evening is a cased Red Virgina; perhaps this is why Vauen Black Pepper reminds me of it so. I thoroughly enjoy this blend and am working on my second tin. If you like Lane's BCA, you might find it a little dry, but overall this is a great all-day blend with an unusual flavor.

Rating: 4 Puffs out of 5

-Safari Bob

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review: "Colors of the Robe" by Ananda Abeysekara

Central to this book is a “study of the formations and deformations of contingent relations between ‘religious’ identity and difference" [1, p. 4]. Here Abeysekara seeks to demonstrate how the relation between what comes to count as religion or difference alters in varying “minute contingent conjunctures” in which diverse persons, practices, discourses, and institutions conjoin to form competing definitions of self/other identities within a period of a few years, months, or days. In order to do so, one needs to “locate the central visibility of the emergence and submergence, authorization and unauthorization [sic] of specific knowledges [sic] about what does and does not count as [identity] in conjunctures of debates" [1, p. 4]. Disciplinary deconstructions of colonial knowledge of Indian religion, culture, and difference result in a static conception of Indian identity and therefore propagate colonial assumptions. It is only “the examination of such contingent conjunctures that should form the basis for disciplinary works seeking to understand religion, identity, and difference as historically varying ideas" [1, p. 16]. In fact Abeysekara wants to demonstrate that “if we can have no a priori epistemological guarantee of, a privileged access to, the altering relation between religious identity and difference, we must explore those conjunctions of debates in which authoritative persons, practices, and institutions that counted as religious identity yesterday become vulnerable to being thwarted, deauthorized [sic], as difference today" [1, p. 25].

By exploring the volatile political landscape of Sri Lanka and the prominence of Theravada Buddhism centered there, Abeysekara explores his thesis. First he demonstrates that authoritative narratives that contend to represent Buddhism should not be used as “readily available ethnographic examples” of the relation between religion and society as they are part of “altering ideological conjunctures” by investigating competing narratives about Dhammananda. Next by using the debate surrounding the construction of the BPU he demonstrates how “different conceptions of Buddhism and politics, the religious and the secular, religious identity and difference, become authorized and deauthorized [sic], come into central sight and disappear from sight, in contingent conjuctures of debates" [1, p. 107]. Next by examining Sri Lanka’s economic relationship with Japan and the ensuing construction of a ‘new economy’ that authorized a particular image of Buddhism and monkhood, Abeysekara locates the “dynamics of a particular epistemic space" [1, p. 27] in which debate as to the relations of self (Theravada) and other (Mahayana) “came into central view and faded from view” through competing discourses. He affirms this phenomenon in his explorations of religion and violence and how these categories are “discursively produced, and hence shift within the conjunctures of different debates" [1, p. 234].

I found his argument to be compelling in that categories I had held to be, more or less, static, such as ‘Buddhism’ or more specifically ‘Theravada Buddhism’, are not self-evident but continually being contested in “specific conjunctures of debates” that define and recast these terms. His insightful use of Foucault in defining identity as not only an effect but also as an instrument of discourse/power helps in establishing the notion of movement and shifting in the meanings of identity in religion and society.

-Safari Bob

[1] Abeysekara, A. (2002). Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN: 1-57003-467-2

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Science 2.0: Open Science via Web 2.0 Technologies (Intro)

Last week I presented a paper at the College English Association 2010 Conference in San Antonio Texas. For some strange reason, I actually received three or four requests for copies of the paper I presented. Although I decided to not offer the full text in this forum, I have decided to publish the introduction here on the blog. If you would like to read it, I will be happy to send you a copy via the eerie power of the Internets. So if you are suffering from insomnia, here is your treatment. Enjoy!

Science 2.0: Open Science via Web 2.0 Technologies

In his article, “Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?” for Scientific American, M. Mitchell Waldrop (2008, January 9) experiments with ‘networked journalism’ by allowing the readers of this article to contribute to his understanding of Science 2.0. He describes this article as a “particularly apt candidate” for this kind of collaborative journalism due to the subject of Science 2.0, which he describes as “how researchers are beginning to harness wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies as a potentially transformative way of doing science” (p. 1). This iteration of his article is a draft and the contributions of readers were assimilated into the final product published in the following April edition. In other words, Waldrop (2008) is using the platforms that allow Science 2.0 to exist to inform his future article about Science 2.0.

Certainly, the World Wide Web (WWW) has transformed the ways many people today approach business, conduct journalism, connect with friends, and receive education. Web 2.0 technologies are reinventing the identity of educational institutions across the world. Social web tools, such as Weblogs, wikis, and podcasts, are changing the ways businesses, libraries and universities conduct commerce, define education and information literacy (Richardson, 2007, p. 62; Kraft, 2007, p. 34). Real Simple Syndication (RSS) tools allow users to create and subscribe to every kind of information (and misinformation) imaginable (Marsh, 2006, p. 340). As Richard Berry (2006) describes it, Web 2.0 tools “allow anyone—individual or corporate—to produce content for audiences who do not particularly care where it comes from” (p. 158).

Science, and specifically how research is conducted, has also noticed the potential and the pitfalls associated with the appropriation of Web 2.0 technologies into its processes of inquiry and publication. Advocates of incorporating these technologies into scientific research argue for “openness as cooperation” while opponents warn that this openness is dangerous: “using blogs and social networks for your serious work feels like an open invitation to have your online lab notebooks vandalized--or worse, have your best ideas stolen and published by a rival” (Waldrop, 2008, p. 2). Although these reservations in the scientific community are often understood as the conflict between “public science” and corporate “industrial profit-goals” (David, 1998, p. 15), Daryl E. Chubin (1985) warns against this over simplification of the ‘scientific community’ as ignoring “the subtleties that characterize [scientific] practice and defy ideal-types” (p. 74).

This paper seeks to examine these subtleties that characterize the practices of the scientific community by exploring this one question: How have the tools of Web 2.0 changed or influenced the way scientists conduct their research? In order to understand how these tools are used in science today, this paper will first examine the concept of Open Science and how it relates to Science 2.0. After examining the context in which Open Science operates, a set of criteria will be offered in order to describe the practice of Science 2.0. Next, this paper will examine how some practitioners of science use Science 2.0 tools to conduct research. Specifically, this paper will contain a cursory rhetorical analysis of The Mimulus Community, a discussion group in OpenWetWare—a wiki dedicated to open research using Science 2.0 tools—in order to understand how some scientific researchers are using Science 2.0 to cooperate with each other’s research and to publish their results. Ultimately, this paper seeks to provide a more complete understanding of how some scientists are shaping research through the new software technologies that enable the practice of Science 2.0.

(Copies of complete text is available upon request)

-Safari Bob

References for this Post

  • Berry, R. (2006). Will the iPod kill the radio star? Profiling podcasting as radio. The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 12 (2), 143-162.

  • Chubin, D. E. (1985). Open science and closed science: Tradeoffs in a democracy. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 10 (2), 79-81.

  • David, P. A. (1998). CLIO and the economic organization of science: Common agency
    contracting and the emergence of “open science” institutions. AEA Papers and Proceedings, 88 (2), 15-21.

  • Kraft, M. (2007). Integrating and promoting medical podcasts into the library collection. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 26 (1), 27-35.

  • Marsh, C. (2006). Aristotelian ethos and the new orality: Implications for media literacy and media ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 21 (4), 338-352.

  • Richardson, W. (2007). The online edge: Online-powered school libraries. District Administration, 43 (1), 62-63.

  • Waldrop, M. M. (2008, January 9). Science 2.0: Great new tool, or great new risk? Scientific American. Retrieved April 19, 2008, from

  • Waldrop, M. M. (2008, April 21). Science 2.0—Is open Access Science the Future? Scientific American. Retrieved April 23, 2008, from