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Thursday, February 15, 2018 at 12:00pm to 1:30pm
640 Stewart Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA
"The Peoples of the World, Compared: A New Subject of Knowledge and Its Local Roots in Early Bangkok"
Matt Reeder, PhD Candidate, Department of History, Cornell University
Nineteenth-century efforts to categorize and comparatively describe the peoples of the world are often associated with Orientalists and colonial regimes. Yet, in the early nineteenth century, and especially from the 1820s to the 1850s, Bangkok officials and literati also began to treat the peoples of the world as a new subject of comparative study. They produced sets of painted typological portraits (as in the accompanying image), a prose treatise whose introductory pages considered different ways to categorize peoples, two Thai-Thai dictionaries with entries for ethnic labels, and verses and sculptures distinguishing 32 ethnic types. Although engagement with foreigners hastened this new body of work, this is not a simple story about foreign knowledge displacing local knowledge. Court officials, monks, and anonymous writers and artists began these projects of comparative description, depiction, and categorization in response to local trends in governance and political rhetoric. Some of them explored this new subject of knowledge through conventional topics of scholarship such as cosmology, prosody, and statecraft. They experimented with pre-existing vocabulary, implying that ethnic categories were shaped by a karmic social hierarchy. Artists tapped traditional markers to depict static ethnic types. Even the early dictionaries, written by “native assistants” hired by missionaries, complemented local trends in reading and the composition of works of reference. Yet, in many ways these early Bangkok attempts to achieve intellectual control over categories of peoples resembled similar projects undertaken in China, the West, and its colonies. This talk challenges existing accounts of nineteenth-century intellectual change in Siam (and elsewhere in the region) which stress the “violence” of confrontations between two distinct forms of knowledge: indigenous and Western. By foregrounding local motivations, practitioners, and forms of expression, I argue that knowledge about the peoples of the world was neither static, nor derivative, nor fundamentally incompatible with contemporaneous Western approaches.