03 September 2010

Mommy, when I grow up can I be an Indologist?

One blog is key to my daily procrastination routine: Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish. Sullivan himself is taking his summer vacation but Conor Friedersdorf, one of his deputy bloggers--I know it's an odd idea that a blog branded for its writer can have an editorial team but Sullivan's defense of the practice is compelling--has solicited anonymous reader emails on the prompt "About My Job."

It's been a remarkable exercise (ever wondered what a mortician or a pharmacist really thinks about his/her job?) which has become that much more remarkable after an email from an Indologist was posted. An Indologist! Now I am not an Indologist because that term refers to someone who studies pre-Modern South Asia and my research focuses on the eighteenth century (what we call the "Early Modern" period), but all of the writer's experiences explaining the field to well-meaning but confused interlocutors exactly track with mine. The word "Indologist" isn't even in my web browser's spellchecker.

Instead of "Indologist," the anonymous emailer writes, people often hear "entomologist." When I have described my field as "South Asian Studies," I have sometimes received the follow up question, "so you study missionaries?" I was completely flummoxed until I figured out that people had been hearing "salvation studies." And of course what I really study is philology (the historical study of language and literature, more or less), but most people have no idea what that is and fill in either "philosophy" or less commonly "phlebotomy." (I would have assumed the writer was exaggerating with the last one except that I have experienced it myself.)

Even stranger is that fact that I think I have figured out who the writer is. I believe it's Professor Wendy Doniger of UChicago's Divinity School. I don't know her personally, though I've heard her speak and I've read a number of her articles, and I think the prose style is exactly right. It was clearly written by someone who is a senior academic because the writer has a certain poise that takes years to develop in a field as complicated and fascinating as Indology. There is a reference to knowing Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan, which also suggests someone who has been at it for years. The writing isn't gendered but I think I detect a women's voice which narrows the field to female Indologists. Lastly the writer states that her favorite author is Milan Kundera, whom Doniger has quoted in articles. I think the odds I have it right are pretty good (though if I'm wrong, please let me know).

I'll close with her eloquent case for why academics often study and teach subjects that seem to have no immediate social value:
But apart from terminology, most people have no idea why one would even do such a thing. The reconstruction and analysis of ancient India? To what possible end? What possible use could that be to us in the modern world? My answer can only be this: that ancient India is an exceptionally interesting subject, not an exceptionally “important” one. But what is important is that, through the disciplines of the Humanities, people  make the effort to look at other times and other places in order better to reflect upon themselves. ...
The purpose of my field, then, is to understand something about the ways of being human in the world. And if I could find a single term to convey all that I’d be home free!
If only...

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