Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Subrahmanyam’s critique of fixed ‘area studies’ (versus perhaps, adaptable ‘regional studies’)

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1997) “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia” in Lieberman, Victor (ed) Connected Histories: Early Modern Eurasia, Modern Asian Studies 31, 3 (1997), pp. 735-762.

In this paper, Sanjay Subrahmanyam is not enamored with Southeast Asia as a focal point for early modern historical scholarship. He throws into question the practice of producing collections of papers, surveys, courses, or whole academic programs focused on different aspects of "Southeast Asia". It is not an entirely destructive enterprise though. Although he doesn't explicitly name it as such, he does develop a notion of adaptable regional studies (my term) with regions that adapt to research questions rather than research questions artifically adapting to fixed regions.

To give some concrete examples from my experience, when studying the 16th century Portuguese maritime empire, isn't a focus merely on Southeast Asia artificial, shouldn't coastal Africa, India, the Middle East, Japan, China, and Indonesia be included in the picture? The same goes for indigenous inland history. During the early modern period, the southern part of Yunnan is arguably part of Burma's and Vietnam's history, but Southeast Asian history? From 1406-27 mutually interdependent events are happening in Yunnan, Vietnam, and Burma, to label something as only Burmese, Vietnamese, or Southeast Asian during this time period is to intentionally blind yourself to this mutual inderdependence. That's why this weblog is named: “Burma-Yunnan-Bay of Bengal: 1350-1600”.

As Professor Lieberman of University of Michigan has shown in his work Strange Parallels, comparative history doesn't require geographical nearness. If we throw away common geography as an essential condition, shouldn't we also question the necessity of a common time period or era. In fact, the meteoric rise of Maori states during the Maori Musket Wars of the early 19th century was quite similar to Bayinnaung’s mid-16th century gunpowder empire. It was also witnessed by many Europeans. Java and Burma might provide good comparisons for early modern river warfare, but why restrict the comparison to Southeast Asia. The same kinds of warboats were not doubt used in Africa and South Asia [Maori Musket War Links: link1,link2,link3,link4, link5] .

It is not ‘studying a region’ or ‘area studies’ that Subrahmanyam objects to in the paper cited above; it is fixed ideas about what regions are relevant to a study:

“’Area studies’ can very rapidly become parochialism, and we often see an insistence, taken to the limits of the absurd, concerning the unity of ‘Southeast Asia’, ‘South Asia’ or whatever one happens to study…It is as if these conventional geographical units of analysis, fortuitously defined as givens for the intellectually slothful, and the result of complex (even murky) processes of academic and non-academic engagement, somehow become real and overwhelming. Having helped create these Frankenstein monsters, we are obliged to praise them for their beauty, rather than grudgingly acknowledge their limited functional utility” (pp. 742-743).

Subrahmanyam provides a challenge:

“Contrary to what ‘area studies’ implicitly presumes, a good part of the dynamic in early modern history was provided by the interface between the local and regional…and the supra-regional, at times even global…. For the historian who is willing to scratch below the surface of his sources, nothing turns out to be quite what it seems to be in terms of fixity and local rootedness” (749).

He tries to open the readers mind to broader possible uses of this idea of regionalism. India, for one, is obviously connected to Southeast Asia: “it makes little sense, to my mind, to talk of mainland Southeast Asia in this period [early modern] as if it were isolated from the Indian world” (746). It also makes little sense to talk of Yunnan as if it was isolated, at least that is what I am trying to get at in my paper Fernquest (2005) “Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan invasions of Ava (1524-27, and the beginnings of expansionary warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005. [Link1, Link2]

Subrahmanyman points out that the Bay of Bengal, a body of water, not land, is a medium of interaction and connects Burma, Ayutthaya, Arakan, as well as Sumatra and India:

“How might the local and specific have interacted with the supralocal in our terms? Consider the Bay of Bengal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although not a closed sea, the littoral areas of the Bay are a far more tightly knit unit of interaction in this period than the Indian Ocean taken as a whole. Within this zone, we can witness on the one hand the development of networks of commercial exchange (trade between the Coromandel coast of of south-eastern India and Bengal, and Burma, Mergui and the Malay coast), and on the other hand a significant nexus by which military elites, courtiers, and religious specialists crossed the Bay on a regular basis” (745-746).

Although it might mean having to marshall a wide variety of linguistic and other skills 'adaptable regional studies' probably have more potential for a more 'scientific history' because there are simply more examples to falsify a hypothesis with through comparison, than there is by artifically restricting oneself to "Southeast Asia".