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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Indology, Orientalism, South Asian and other Areal Studies

I tend to think that shifting from Indology to South Asian studies was a mistake, because the latter label is even more geographically bound than the former. "Indology" meant "everything written in Sanskrit", which is vague, but at least entails some loose sort of a shared cultural background. "South Asian studies" just means "whatever happened in South Asia", which is hardly more than a non-sense, since many things happen in South Asia, which have no link at all.
Try, for instance, types "South Asian studies" in a conference alerter and you will get alerts about conferences on technology, IT, cinema, etc. etc.
The same applies to "Oriental Studies". Apart from Said's (sound, at least in part) criticisms, "Orientalism" had a cultural connotation, which is (entirely or partly) lacking in "Asian studies".

In sum: I am not entirely against Indology and Oriental Studies. I think these labels just cannot be used for historical reasons (they are no longer politically correct and hurt other people's sensibilities). On the contrary, I am frankly against "South Asian studies", because I do not believe geography is a sensible reason to draw a boundary and build a label.
Of course, one might reply that areal studies have a meaning, insofar as they enable experts of different aspects of a given culture to cooperate. A colleague of mine here in Oxford pointed out the fact that her work on classical Arabian literature has been enhanced by colleagues working on Arabic philosophy and law.
  1. 1. I think this tends to be the case when the link is not purely geographical (as in the case of the Arabic world, which shares the same language and the same religion and not just the same area);
  2. 2. Working together with people who focus on Arabic law might be useful, but would not it be even more useful to work with people who focus on literary theories?
What do readers think? We need labels, but let they be as 'intelligent' as possible!


Dominik Wujastyk said...

"South Asian Studies" is fine, because it means what people working in South Asian Studies think it means. Think usage, not etymological purism.

elisa freschi said...

That's not totally true, since there are many people who are not Indologists and who call their fields "South Asian Studies". Again, have a look at the results you get with keyword "South Asian Studies" in a conference alerter.
But what about the other part of the question? Do you feel more at home with historians of medecine who know about Indian medecine or with South Asian scholars working on contemporary Bengali drama or on Indus Valley archaeology?

Aleix said...

Hi Elisa,
Today I was reading Phayre's History of Burma and I was thinking like Dominik, because historically Indology and South Asian Studies are both geographically bound, the difference is that India is just an Enlish (or European) term or "section" of this geography. I mean: if you apply a geographical category, I prefer the physical map (South Asian studies) than the political syncronic map (India).

What is India, by the way?

My starting point was that South Asian Studies label was meaningless, but after reading Phayre's book I think it is a fair category.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Aleix,
I see your point about Indology. As I said, I am not in favour of this label (actually, I am not in favour of any geographically-based label). I just meant to say that South Asian studies is broader and, hence, runs the risk to be even more meaningless. Could you summarize why Phayre's book made you change your mind?

Aleix said...

Hi Elisa,

It changed my mind because I realized the history of Burma is part of Indology studies, but actually one would not say Burma is India (again, what is India?). Similar things happen with Tibet, Sri Lanka...

Anyway, I never liked the label "Indology" so much... How would it sound "Europeology" or "Western Studies"? That looks really meaningless to me.

I agree geographical based labels are risky. But then, what shall we do?

elisa freschi said...

Dear Aleix,
well the case of Burma is a very telling one, insofar as Burma is outside "South Asia" from a geographical point of view, but within "Indian culture". Hence, it shows that geographical labels are heavily politically determined (that's why we speak of "South Asia" as a unity, excluding so much which is closely related to the Indian world and including elements which have little to do with it).
To put it short: geography claims to be neutral but is not. Would it not be better, hence, to use historically-based labels, such as "Śāstric India"? Or "history of grammars"? Yes, the latter would include Elius Donatus and many other people one might have never heard about –but are we sure we would not benefit from 'meeting' them?

More in general, do we really need labels so much?

On a different level: I came to know that you are going to study here. Congratulations! (my email address in on academia if you want to know more).

Aleix said...

Dear Elisa,

I agree with you. I guess there are major reasons to use labels and, simultaneously, forget about their hypothetical limitations.

I thought South East Asia belonged to South Asia. You are right: tecnically it does not. I find it amusing...

Lutero Beatitudinet said...

Why the hell is no problem to use the terms German / Slavonic / Ancient Greek Studies and/or Departments, and it should be a problem to use South Asian /Japanese / Chinese Studies and so on? Come on, people, do not be politically correct, please. Oriental Studies is perfectly okay, the same applies for South Asian Studies. I am not working on South American Pre-Columbian manuscripts, but on South Asian manuscripts -- that is to say, not only from India, but from other regions of the subcontinent. This means that if you want to use labels, you can combine them and speak of "Indological/South Asian palaeography/archeology/anthropology" and so on. I am for areal studies and against it. Crossing boundaries, going beyond them means that we need them. Or am I wrong?

elisa freschi said...

Yes, more than correct. If only we were not trapped in faculties, conferences, journals… according to the principal label (or perhaps according to the first one).

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