Presidential Address & Awards Ceremony

Katherine Bowie, AAS President, University of Wisconsin-Madison   

Friday, March 23, 9:00am - 10:15am

Palimpsests of the Past: Oral History and the Art of Pointillism 

Between Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1946 description of India as “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed” and Mao Zedong’s 1957 vision of China as a “blank sheet of paper” on which “the most beautiful pictures can be painted” lie intriguing differences in political historiography. The mural on this year’s AAS program cover depicts happy scenes paralleling moments in the life of Kruba Srivichai (1878-1939), the most famous monk of northern Thailand. However, this mural also illustrates processes of historiographical erasure, ignoring his temple arrests, his investigations in the capital city of Bangkok in 1920 and 1935, the mass disrobings of over 400 of his disciples, and other key events in his life in order to create a more joyous biography which facilitates a narrative of national harmony. As elsewhere across Asia, Thai archival records typically consist of accounts by native elites or foreign residents. The historical realities of the lives of Kruba Srivichai and other villagers are fading. Although once met with skepticism, scholars are increasingly realizing that oral histories can enable a more fulsome, more democratic understanding of the past. As a historical anthropologist, my research combines archival sources with hundreds of oral histories. Each of the oral histories, much like the individual dots which comprise a pointillist painting, combine to enrich palimpsests of the past. In this keynote, I will reflect on the interplay of archival accounts and oral histories, noting how oral histories can lead to reanalyses of hegemonic historiographical paradigms

BIOGRAPHY:  Katherine Bowie is the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a BA with Distinction from Stanford University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. She has conducted extended fieldwork in Thailand, with primary interests in historical anthropology, political anthropology, gender and Theravada Buddhism. She has served as Eisenhower Fellow to Thailand, Fulbright Scholar, President of the Midwest Conference of Asian Affairs (MCAA), and multiple years on the organizing committees for the Council of Thai Studies (COTS). She twice served as Director of UW-Madison’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, receiving an International Institute Outstanding Service Award in 2009. Her publications include Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand (Columbia University Press, 1997); Voices from the Thai Countryside: The Necklace and Other Short Stories of Samruam Singh (University of Wisconsin Southeast Asia Series, 1998), and her most recent book, Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). Her articles have appeared in such journals as American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, and Comparative Studies in Society and History.  She is currently conducting research on Thailand’s famous northern monk, Kruba Srivichai, about whom she has recently published in the Journal of Asian Studies (2014).

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