Monday, 29 July 2013

'The Social' and the Philosophy of Action

A post I wrote a while ago is getting a lot of hits (a lot for this blog, anyway!) and the source isn't showing up in my stats.  It was a bit of a throwaway post about the idea of economic transactions and any other interpersonal activity being 'embedded' in 'the social', an idea I have a number of problems with.  I said that what I find objectionable about the concept is not the predictions it makes (that, for instance, markets will be found at the boundaries between groups) or the idea that interpersonal relations are an important variable in determining human actions of most kinds, but rather the idea that 'the social', whatever that is, is something of a different order to other human actions and is not reducible to beliefs and desires, making it a defiantly non-naturalistic attempt at understanding how people work.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Tibetan Empire - A Brief Overview

The formatting was poor on the earlier version, due to my having copied and pasted from a Word document (which blogger always seems to find problematic).  It was necessary to repost the whole thing, unfortunately.

In this brief overview of the Tibetan empire, I am mostly relying on the works of Matthew Kapstein and Christopher Beckwith, and I've therefore decided to use Kapstein's (unorthodox but easy to read) transliteration of the Tibetan language.  In addition, I have provided the Wylie transliteration (the harder-to-read but more accurate one, in terms of replicating the written form of Tibetan) where possible.

        The image of Tibet portrayed in various media these days, of a small and peaceful nation of Buddhists unfairly in thrall to China, has no correlate in the ancient past.  In the late seventh century a Tibetan-speaking government wrested control of the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau – a 200 million-year-old swathe of extreme highland larger than the entire Republic of India – and beyond, into Xinjiang, Gansu, and Shanxi, even briefly capturing the capital of Tang China at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in 763.

Tibetan armies campaigned in Ladakh, in present-day Jammu and Kashmir, and in Bihar, present day India, even going so far as to rescue a Tang diplomatic mission lost near Tirabhukti (now named Tirhut) in 648.  Nepal, or at least the Kathmandu valley, which had been under the control of the Licchavi from the early first millennium CE, also fell to Tibet’s rulers.  And for a time, Tibet struggled against both China and the Arabs for control of the trade routes to the north of the Plateau, the ‘Silk Road’, a contest ultimately decided in the mid-eighth century in favour of the Arabs at the battle of Talas (or Taraz).

How this came about gives a small insight into the rise of states in general, and is of course an interesting story all of its own.  It also says a lot about inner Asia in the late first millennium CE.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Blowguns and Migrations

One of the many pieces of evidence employed in advancing theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact is the peculiar distribution of blowguns, or blowpipes, in Eurasia and the Americas.  Within Eurasia, blowguns are limited primarily to southeast Asia, where they are/were most commonly used to shoot darts of varying lengths.  They were more widely distributed in more recent times, reaching Europe by the middle ages, but they were probably restricted to southeast Asia in prehistory.  In the Americas, they were found throughout the tropical lowlands of South America, in the circum-Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and what is now the southeastern United States.  These regions are separated by earth's largest ocean, but some people like to claim a prehistoric connection between the two on the basis of the blowgun evidence.  This doesn't quite work, as I hope to show below.

Freedom and Guns

There's been a lot of talk about the Martin/Zimmerman case since the verdict.  It's everywhere - of course it's everywhere, it's a big story.  Much of the discussion has, naturally, focused on race.  Trayvon Martin's was a death that resulted in part from racism, as well as from macho swagger and the presence of firearms, and it is clearly true that a young white man would not have aroused George Zimmerman's suspicions in the same way as Martin did simply through being black.  This is a terrible thing and it is right to bring it up.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Reductionism Again

I was in Turkey for all of last week and part of the week before, which is why I haven't posted anything in a while.  I've got some posts lined up, however, and shall be back to regular posting soon.  Istanbul, by the way, is an amazing city, perhaps the most amazing I've ever visited, and I hope to put up a few photos from inside the Hagia Sophia when I have the time.

I've recently been reading, among many other books (including The Oxford History of Byzantium and the latest edition of Coe and Koontz's fabulous Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs), Roderick McIntosh's Ancient Middle Niger: Urbanism and the Self-Organizing Landscape (CUP 2005).  My aim in purchasing the book was to find out more about the ancient history of the west African savanna, and it fulfills that aim tolerably well.  Unfortunately, there are two problems: First, McIntosh, an eminent Africanist and archaeologist, uses far, far too many exclamation marks!  Second, he repeats a number of frankly silly claims about reductionism.