Saturday, April 18, 2015

Binding Culture Exhibition

It has been an exciting week since the Museum opened our Spring 2015 exhibition, “Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines.” Our opening celebration featured a curatorial talk by anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider and an address by Rey Pascua about the Filippino-American community of the Yakima Valley; we also heard from a student representative of the Filippino American Student Association (FAS).

I have been fascinated watching our visitors of varied ages engage with the exhibition. It is a show that rewards close looking and we are gratified that many have been going through the gallery carefully, taking the time to ponder the beautiful baskets and textiles and digest the thought-provoking signage that Ellen authored in conversation with Lynn
The exhibition is organized around the heuristic value of the metaphor of “binding” for making sense of many aspects of the material culture of the diverse indigenous communities of the Cordillera. Basket makers and weavers engage in a range of sophisticated techniques for achieving joins that integrate technical proficiency and aesthetic value; in contrast to a western design philosophy that relegates joins or seams to “off stage” or behind the scenes locales, these artisans tend to call proud attention to their seams or points of inter-connection, through embroidering the seam that links together two thin strips of woven cloth or through rattan binds around the most vulnerable point on a spiraling lip of a rice winnowing tray. As one of Ellen’s label puts it, “Celebrate Seams!

In a broader sense, the binding metaphor applies to the function of material objects in binding together families and diverse communities, a point anthropologists have been pondering since the time of Marcel Mauss; to receive a gift is to be pulled into a relationship of obligation with the donor, and the exchanged object becomes a complex ‘map’ of the social relationship between donor and recipient.  To wear a ceremonial garment produced by one's in laws is to become increasingly bound to them.

Ga'dang garments
Ga'dang garments; other textiles in background
rice winnowing and storage baskets
Many of the articles of clothing and the intimate personal objects on display are exchanged during the marriage process, gradually binding together in laws over time to create broader family networks that cut across lines of rivalry and suspicion.   The binding function of material form is intensified when the exchange object contains food, which is perhaps to most delicate barometer of human social connectedness.

Although the exhibition only touches on the point obliquely, one of the most intriguing objects of binding in the Cordillera is the captured human head, obtained classically in head hunting raids. Nearly all our students are familiar with Renato Rosaldo’s remarkable essay, Grief and the Headhunters’ Rage, which in the spirit of Mauss demonstrates the gradual replacement of the raging agony of loss with more socially productive sentiments, mediated through the changing trajectory of a material object, the taken human head. Over time the mandible of a human head, taken in warfare, is incorporated into a local shrine, that becomes the benevolent guardian of a village boundary. (There are not human remains in the show, although there is one weapon, from an early museum collection, identified in our collections note as a "head hunting axe."

ceremonial tapis (raps) and wooden presentation bowls

Although tattooing is initially an act of cutting, the complex tattoo designs of Kalinga, Ifuago, Bontoc and other mountain communities displayed in the show similarly serve vital binding functions. A fully mature women and man wears tattoos that integrate diverse moments in the life cycle, from warfare to motherhood, into a coherent pattern that also signal geographical  location and sites of affiliation.  Tattooing also signals connectedness to ancestral lines of potency and power and links to the invisible powers of the universe. The net effect is a kind of spatiotemporal binding that is foundational to the tradition-based life giving economies of the Cordillera. We are please to have permission to use some of the remarkable photographs of "tattoo anthropologists" Lars Krutak, especially his images of venerable woman tattoo artist Whang-Od.

Our intern Barbara is in the process of  creating an online version of the exhibition, so please stay tuned as the virtual show develops, at:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Comfort Women Panel

For the past week, many faculty and students at Central Washington University have been concerned over the planned screenings of the ultra-rightist Japanese film, “Scottsboro Girls”, directed by rightist activist Junjiro Taniyama, scheduled for Tuesday, April 28 and Wednesday, April 29. The film, in keeping with a great deal of recent far rightist  discourse in Japan, seeks to deny the historical truth that the Japanese Imperial military sponsored a system of sexual slavery (the euphemistically termed “Comfort Women” system) in brothels and encampments across the Asia-Pacific region during World War II.  The filmmaker is scheduled to speak at both screenings on campus.

The film screenings are not sponsored by any department or unit at Central; rather they are taking place at the behest of an individual faculty member, a Japanese language instructor.

ADDENDUM: There has been a great deal of discussion back and forth about whether or not an academic unit at CWU is "sponsoring" the screenings of Scottsboro Girls. Our understanding is that while no department considers itself to be a "sponsor," the faculty member in question scheduled the screening venues through her home department and that scheduling arrangement continues. The semantic distinctions between "sponsoring" and "scheduling" are a matter of continued discussion.

The film’s on line previews:

and the announcement of the screening:

suggest that the film is an appallingly shoddy, sexist and racist piece of propaganda, without any serious scholarly content.  It repeats many of the standard talking points of far rightist Japanese activists denying official complicity in the "Comfort Women" system during the war period.

For those who read Japanese, the letter of invitation by the Japanese language lecturer and the response by the director, are at:

Their correspondence refers to the possibility that Korean (or Korea-associated) faculty might interfere with the screening.  (This appear to be a thinly veiled attack on our colleague, the political scientist Dr. Bang-Soon Yoon, who has published extensively on wartime sexual slavery and  "Comfort Women," and who some years ago brought a surviving witness to speak on campus. )The film preview makes absurd, unfounded allegations against serious scholars of the "Comfort Women" issue, such as Katharine Moon.

The timing of the screenings would appear planned to coincide with the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his address on April 29 a the joint meeting of Congress.  (Addendum: Thanks to a comment poster below for noting that April 28 is the 114th birthday of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito.) Abe has of course been notable for his denial of Japanese state complicity in wartime human rights atrocities, including state-sponsorship of the sexual slavery or “Comfort Women” system.

All of this is consistent with what appears to be a general campaign waged by Japanese rightists, in conjunction with reported efforts by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to pressure US and Japanese academics from engaging in critical research and publishing on the "Comfort Women" or wartime sexual slavery issue. See an important letter by prominent US Japan historians on this crisis:

And see the rebuttal points to the major ultra-rightist  nationalist claims on the "Comfort Women" issue.

In this context, my colleague the historian Chong Eun Ahn and I, in consultation with many scholars here and elsewhere, have organized an academic symposium on the "Comfort Women"issue and related struggles over historical memory in Japan and the Pacific, to take place on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:00 pm in the SURC ballroom.  We’re calling the gathering, “Sexual Slavery in the Wartime Japanese Empire: The Historical Record and the Politics of Memory: A Panel of Concerned Scholars.” Panelists are
  • Dr. Bang-Soon Yoon (Political Science)
  • Chong Eun Ahn (History)
  • Dr. Anne CubiliĆ©  (Douglas Honors College)
  • Dr.  Yukiko Shigeto (Foreign Languages and Literatures, Whitman College)
  • Dr.  Davinder Bhowmik  (Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington)
  • Dr. Justin Jesty (Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington)
  • Dr. Mark Auslander (Anthropology and Museum Studies)
  • Moderator: Dr. Stacey Robertson (Dean, College of Arts and Humanities)
We are especially grateful to Yuki, Davinder, and Justin for coming in from other campuses to speak on this important panel. Before the panel,  at 6:00 pm, we'll gather in the SURC pit as students read aloud first person testimony by persons euphemistically termed "Comfort Women" (this event is being organized by our colleague Jay Ball in Theater.)

Details at:

Some of our colleagues initially suggested it would be better not to dignify this poisonous film with a scholarly response, but on reflection, it seems to us that not to organize a counter-point would be, in a sense, to be complicit with the screening.  I’m especially mindful, overseeing a Museum Studies program that teaches our students how to tackle with difficult dialogues about history, belonging and memory, that we have a special pedagogic responsibility to model effective and thoughtful academic responses to these kinds of traumatic fault-lines.

It has been a painful process for so many of us--realizing that our campus is in a sense under assault from those who would seek to repress these horrific chapters in collective terror and injustice; these efforts do strike many of us as akin to Holocaust denial.  It is also distressing to see the cynical way that the language of “academic freedom” is used to defend discourse that really is tantamount to un-scholarly hate speech.  For a scholar of African American Studies it is especially galling to see the cynical appropriation of the "Scottsboro Boys" case in entitling the film (quite ludicrously) "Scottsboro Girls," evidently implying that the Japanese military has been falsely accused of mass rape during wartime.

 At the same time, it has been heartening to experience so much support from conscientious colleagues and students here, and around the world, who have been helping us think about how best to respond to this dreadful film in a way that turns this assault on historical truth into a "teachable moment."

ADDENDUM: While I appreciate the intensity of interest this matter has generated, especially from conservative bloggers, it does now strike me as counter-productive to continue comments for this post, especially since a couple of commentators out there are posting ad hominen attacks on individuals (deleted) or posting rather generic, well rehearsed  pieces, reproduced from other sources, on the broader Comfort Women issue.  So comments are closed for this specific post.