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Reading Response to Pollock and Ricci

1. Pollock, Sheldon. 1998. "The Cosmopolitan Vernacular". The Journal of Asian Studies. 57 (1): 6.

2. Ricci, Ronit. 2010. "Islamic Literary Networks in South and Southeast Asia". Journal of Islamic Studies. 21 (1): 1-28.

In this week’s readings, both pieces discuss the issue of foreign influences and their “ripples” in Southeast Asia. Different from people’s common perception that cultural diffusion follows a “central-periphery” pattern, the three authors offered alternative interpretations of such process—in one way or another, while cosmopolitan cultures (Sanskrit, Islam and colonialism) were exported from the places of origins through certain networks, Southeast Asia, which was usually identified as objects of cultural diffusion, didn’t necessarily always play the role of passive receivers. Instead, there were constant and simultaneous processes going on across vast geographical spaces, where these foreign influences were not only adopted locally, but also vernacularized, modified, reshaped or even recreated.

Ricci brilliantly used Pollock’s model of “Sanskrit cosmopolis” and demonstrated a very similar process of Islamization in South and Southeast Asia and the close interactions between the cosmopolitan and the vernaculars. She further pointed out that “Not only was the Muslim-Arabic cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia discussed here shifting according to the specifics of time and place but it was also never a singular entity in the region: overlapping, intertwining, waxing and waning cosmopolitan worlds developed and were not mutually exclusive.” (26) This subtly echoed with Wolters’ idea of “local” and “localization”, which not only illustrated that SEA has flexibilities in absorbing foreign influences, but also the fact that originality (or primordiality?) and continuity did exist. In this sense, before the Hindunization and Islamization took place in SEA, was the Mandala-style political culture in SEA a sort of small-scale cosmopolis too? Further, the model also reminds me of Webb Keane’s book <em>Christian Modern, in which he demonstrated the encounter of Christianity with vernacular beliefs on outer islands of Indonesia, which exactly reiterated the concept of “cosmopolitan vernacular”. Similarly, it seems that the model can be also used to discuss the diffusion of Marxism and even contemporary globalization. So, is the idea of “cosmopolis” really universally applicable? Irrefutably, the model is useful to deepen our understanding in macro issues and major transformations of SEA such as Islamization and colonization, but I doubt it is not sufficient to explain all the particularities of details in the micro sphere.

After all, I am not very satisfied with the explanations offered by “cosmopolitan vernacular”, as it doesn’t answer the very basic question: why SEA is always subject to—rather than a subject of—cosmopolitanism.

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