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How book launches should be
from Press News, posted 08/05/2011 - 16:08

 The Arab Spring sweeping North Africa and the Middle East has commanded much media attention. However, elsewhere in the Islamic world can be found numerous civil society organisations, movements and reform-minded professionals working towards a more democratic, less corrupt and brighter future. Not least recently we have seen the launch of the global protest movement, Bersih (meaning ‘clean’ in Malay), calling for electoral reform in Malaysia.

Against this background and just days earlier than the mass arrest in KL of ‘Bersih 2.0’ demonstrators, Gerhard Hoffstaedter’s book Modern Muslim Identities: Negotiating Religion and Ethnicity in Malaysia was launched at the latest conference of the Australian Anthropological Society, held in Perth.

Although the two events were not linked, much that Gerhard describes in his study is highly pertinent to current events in Malaysia. The book explains why so few reforms have been implemented and it traces the role of reactionary politics in the fusing of ethnic and religious identity to control and patrol the populace at large. It thus provides a contemporary reading of not just identity politics but also wider political developments in Malaysia.

Generous in his appraisal of the book, Melbourne University’s Future Generation Professor in Anthropology and Social Theory, Ghassan Hage, said he learnt a lot from the book. He especially praised the newly coined concept of Islamicity, which is a welcome addition to the social theory that looks to explain Muslim societies. In particular, he commended the use of Husserl and Heidegger, their integration throughout the book weaving concepts like being-in-the-world into the overarching argument and providing ethnographic examples to flesh it out.

The launch was attended by anthropologists of all kinds, from Malaysianists to Indonesianists, from people studying religion to identity. Over a glass of wine, books were bought and views exchanged. This was like how book launches should be.


 

Not an issue going away soon
from Press News, posted 06/22/2011 - 09:21

Sometimes, tardy reviews of books published long ago are still hugely relevant  – especially when they concern issues that keep raising their ugly heads. Here is a case in point.

The review in question appeared in the latest issue of the International Quarterly for Asian Studies (a.k.a. Internationales Asienforum) and assessed the 2006 NIAS Press book edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thøgersen, Doing Fieldwork in China.

In his review, Andreas Fulda praises the volume; it is, he writes, ‘essential reading for anyone conducting research on contemporary China’. But, after a lengthy paean of the book’s virtues, he adds:

This excellent volume has one failing: the lack of courage by contributors to address the fundamental question of academic autonomy. … By depoliticizing their China engagement, academics try to neutralize the presence of the party-state, solve the issue of access, and overcome the difficulties associated with collaboration. This pragmatic strategy, however understandable from the vantage point of an individual researcher engaging with China, comes at a high cost to the field of contemporary Chinese studies as a whole: it ultimately leads to a tacit acceptance of the official party-state discourse, a strong alignment with party-state controlled research organisations and a collaboration with some of the most conservative academics in the field.

This is not the first time that Andreas Fulda has aired these views (nor perhaps the last). But however old or new they are (or the volume being reviewed), the terms of academic engagement in different parts of the world is not an issue that is going to go away soon.


 

What a refreshing book!
from Press News, posted 05/26/2011 - 21:10

 The glass ceiling for women in Danish academia remains in place, according to a recently published study. The same is probably true around the world. I wonder, is a similar glass ceiling is operating with book prizes?

At the time we published Trudy Jacobsen’s Lost Goddesses back in 2008, I commented to Trudy, ‘Well, this is going to win the Benda.’ But, when the AAS book prizes were dished out in Philadelphia last year, the Harry J. Benda Prize went to someone else.

Blaming this outcome on the glass ceiling is somewhat difficult; plenty of women have won various Asian Studies book prizes. And yet I am at a loss to understand why such a ground-breaking study has not been showered with awards.

All the same, my conviction that Lost Goddesses was one of the best works that NIAS Press has published has been borne out in the reviews – not least in this recent review by Katherine A. Bowie (Wisconsin-Madison) appearing in latest issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (Vol. 42 (2), 2011, pp. 354–355).

‘What a refreshing book!’, she exclaims at the beginning, before delving into the details of the study.

Jacobsen’s book is divided into 12 chapters, each providing a careful exploration of the available evidence for different historical periods. Her remarkable breadth is made possible by her interdisciplinary training in both history and anthropology. Not only is she able to draw upon language training in Sanskrit and Old Khmer, she has extended first-hand experience living in Cambodia first as a teenager during the eventful period of 1988–95 and subsequently while conducting fieldwork after 2001. Driven by a rare intellectual curiosity, Jacobsen draws upon an impressive array of sources, ranging from historical sources – such as stone inscriptions, Chinese dynastic histories, court chronicles, court literature, popular folktales, foreign travel accounts and French colonial records – to anthropological sources based upon participant-observation and interviews.

Although the full measure of the book is in its audacity to consider the longue durée, each chapter is engaging in its own right and reveals noticeable shifts.

Katherine Bowie’s enthusiasm for the study is not just a response to great scholarship; Lost Goddesses also ‘talks’ to the concerns and experience of many scholars.

All of us who have been interested in the status of women in Southeast Asia have found ourselves caught in an unresolved tension between a contemporary literature on sex workers and a historical literature suggesting that women held high status. Jacobsen resolves this tension by outlining a chronological transformation in the status of women over the course of two millennia.

It is not without reason, then, that Professor Bowie concludes:

This book is a major breakthrough in studies of the position of women not just in Cambodia, but also in Southeast Asia more broadly. Well researched, well argued, well written and clearly organised, Jacobsen’s book reveals the rich treasures possible from a feminist reading of traditional historical sources. I am looking forward to the debates this book is sure to provoke.

Debate would certainly be welcome. In the meantime, however, we recently posted an interview with Trudy Jacobsen recorded at the AAS in Philadelphia. Here, she talks about the background to her book and her own personal experiences. You can view this interview here.


 

Speaking out on women in Thai Buddhism
from Press News, posted 05/12/2011 - 10:29

The issue of the place of women in Buddhism is not going away, not least in the rather patriarchal Thai sangha. It is quite pertinent, then, that the 12th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women will be held in Bangkok on 12-18 June. And speaking at this conference will be one of our authors, Monica Lindberg Falk.

If you don’t have time to attend the conference and listen to Monica’s paper on Buddhist nuns and educational reform in Thailand, then you might instead be interested to view a short interview that we filmed in August 2010 at the Euroseas conference in Gothenburg. Here, the author of the Making Fields of Merit discusses the place of women in Buddhism, the growing push for female ordination and how Thai Buddhism is much more patriarchal than Buddhism per se. Monica also recounts how she became interested in this subject.


 

Lots of pictures, some moving
from Press News, posted 05/06/2011 - 17:58

A year ago, with much pleasure we announced our forthcoming publication of Plaited Arts of the Borneo Rainforest, a mammoth work edited by Bernard Sellato. At the time it seemed extraordinary that the volume would contain about 600 illustrations, most of them in colour. Now we hear that the volume’s 552 pages will contain 1,200 illustrations (930 in colour, 270 b&w). Wow.

(Such undertakings do not come cheap. As such, we note with thanks the crucial financial support of Total E&P Indonésie as part of its corporate social responsibility programme for preserving Indonesian cultural heritage.)

Anyway, for those of you impatiently waiting, we’d like to report that layout of the volume is almost finished and printing should commence soon.

While you are waiting, you might like to watch an interview we filmed with Bernard at the 2010 Euroseas conference in Gothenburg last August. This has just been output as 3 short films and posted today on our website and on YouTube:

1) Bernard recounts how first he came to know and love Borneo as a geologist (in 1973), later becoming a renowned anthropologist working on this land. Click here to view this interview.

2) He then describes how modernity is changing (often destroying) the world of Borneo's hunter-gatherers, the subject of his co-edited work, Beyond the Green Myth. Click here to view this interview.

3) Finally, he describes the incredible richness of Borneo's material culture, not least the basketry drawn from the products of the island's rainforest. This is the subject of Plaited Arts. Click here to view this interview.

This is the latest in a stream of author videos being released by NIAS Press. Expect more to follow in the next few days.


 

Talking directly to readers
from Press News, posted 05/05/2011 - 08:15

Books have many virtues but they don’t often scratch their nose or look the reader straight in the eye. One of the ways that NIAS Press is working to change that in a small way is by filming interviews with authors, letting them speak directly to their readers. These will be posted on the author’s web page as well as on YouTube.

Recently, at the ICAS-AAS conference in Honolulu, we were pleased to film quite a few authors and these will be coming online soon. Meantime, a series of interviews filmed at the 2010 Euroseas conference in Gothenburg last August will be rolled out in the next few days.

First up is Gerhard Hoffstaedter, who discusses the complex issue of Islam and identity in Malaysia and recounts how he became interested in this subject. His book, Modern Muslim Identities, was released recently in hardback. The paperback is currently being printed and will be available soon. Meantime, here is Gerhard’s interview.


 

How much theory?
from Press News, posted 05/04/2011 - 12:06

A publisher once said, ‘Whenever I see theory, I reach for my knife.’ That might have been me, maybe not, but certainly this is not an uncommon viewpoint. The problem is not with theory as such but how much. Eighty pages of theory is not unusual in a Ph.D. dissertation but normally such detail is unnecessary in a monograph.

Sometimes, however, the main purpose of a monograph may be to challenge or otherwise extend existing theory. Here, a more detailed theoretical discussion will be necessary. Such was the case with Mona Lilja’s study, Power, Resistance and Women Politicians in Cambodia, which focuses on the concept of resistance and is perhaps less focused on its Cambodian setting than die-hard empiricists would like.

This distinction is certainly appreciated by Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway, University of London). In her recent review for the International Feminist Journal of Politics, she writes:

While having some inherent deficiencies, the book nevertheless makes a much needed analytical contribution to studies of ‘power’ in Cambodia and in doing so, complements the more historically oriented work of Trudy Jacobsen (2008) on this topic (also published by NIAS Press). Lilja’s work is conceptually rigorous, using in a sophisticated manner the work of theorists such as Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler and Bhabha. In this way, Power, Resistance and Women Politicians in Cambodia is an important corrective to much work on Cambodia that has failed to connect its analyses to mainstream and current developments in theory.

Quite.

For a longer extract from this review, take a look at the reviews page for Mona’s book.


 

Sai Baba is dead
from Press News, posted 04/26/2011 - 12:42

During the weekend we heard of the death of the godman, mystic, saint and charismatic religious leader, Shri Sathya Sai Baba, a neo-Hindu guru famed for his miracle-working. Credited with being was one of the significant constituents of modern Hinduism in contemporary India, Sai Baba also attracted a world-wide following of devotees. He was however a controversial figure, among other things accused of sorcery, trickery and uttering platitudes.

These aspects are nicely reflected in a study by Alexandra Kent of the Sai Baba phenomenon in Malaysia, published a few years ago by NIAS Press: Divinity and Diversity: A Hindu Revitalization Movement in Malaysia. More details and a free sample chapter can be found on the book’s webpage.


 

Launching the political future of China
from Press News, posted 04/19/2011 - 10:31

Academic book launches come in all shapes and sizes but four types are common: the public launch often held in a bookshop; the conference launch often squeezed desperately into a coffee or lunch break and forced to compete with conference-goers’ desire to network and generally make a noise; the after-work launch often laced with wine and barely disguised collegial rivalries; and the formal scholarly launch, often couched in the form of a seminar.

The recent launching of Mikael Mattlin’s new book, Politicized Society: The Long Shadow of Taiwan’s One-Party Legacy (recently published by NIAS Press), was just such a formal scholarly launch. Held at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki, the seminar addressed the “Transformation of a one-party system: What the Taiwan case tells about the political future of China”. Here, Dr Mattlin, a research fellow at FIIA, gave a presentation based on his book. This was followed by another presentation by the discussant, Dr Lauri Paltemaa, research fellow at the East-Asia Research Centre at the University of Turku. After the presentations, the audience participated in a discussion moderated by Dr Matti Nojonen of FIIA. Some 35 people attended the seminar.

The seminar examined what similarities and lessons the protracted political transformation of Taiwan could offer when considering different scenarios for Mainland China’s political future. Taiwan’s transition away from one-party rule beginning in 1987 and the societal and institutional changes that followed can be seen as a testing laboratory for what might be ahead in Mainland China if the Chinese Communist Party gradually relaxes its monopolistic hold on power, Dr Mattlin argued.

Dr Paltemaa was especially pleased about the solid groundwork for the book, and the fact that it explored a less researched area of Taiwan’s transition, namely what happens when the political transition formally has been completed. According to Dr Paltemaa, the initial push for transforming a political system is usually prompted by a crisis; in Taiwan it was the foreign policy crisis after the United States changed the course of its China policy towards the People’s Republic. If the leaders of Mainland China some day come to the conclusion that they have to loosen up one-party politics, Dr Paltemaa agreed that they were most likely to follow Taiwan’s path.

Of course, the book is new and review copies are only now being sent out. But down track it will be interesting to see how the book is received – and how much that events on the ground in China match the Taiwanese experience.


 

No book prize this time
from Press News, posted 04/14/2011 - 21:13

 The huge AAS-ICAS conference in Honolulu is over and the city’s balmy warmth just a fading memory. This was not a year that NIAS Press walked off with one of the book prizes but our old colleague Stein Tønnesson did win the ICAS prize (and we are talking with him seriously about his next project. Time will tell).

Otherwise, it was a busy and successful week in Honolulu with many sessions to sit in on and my own presentation (on coping with rejection) delivered to a gratifyingly large audience. More important perhaps were the potential new authors to court and old authors to catch up with. In total maybe two hours of author interviews were filmed. Expect to see these online in the near future.

Then of course there was a reception, a joint “Hawai‘i” affair involving all the publishers like NIAS exhibiting at the conference and distributed in the Americas by our friends at the University of Hawai‘i Press. Books were shoved aside and an enormous sticky, rich chocolate cake plonked on our stand.

It took forever to eat, thankfully not by me.


 

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