Academic journal article The Historian

The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia

Academic journal article The Historian

The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia

Article excerpt

The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia. By Christopher Kaplonski. (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2014. Pp. xvii, 259. $54.00.)

This account of the first two decades of socialism in Mongolia is an anthropological history of how the new Mongolian socialist government wrested control from the Tibetan Buddhist lamas. The author seeks patterns of behavior in historical events rather than reporting the events alone. He finds inspiration for these patterns in the political philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Michel Foucault, who treated segments of the population (Jews and homosexuals in Nazi Germany, Guantanamo Bay prisoners) who suffered violence at the hands of Western states as noncitizens and therefore not deserving of legal protection. Thus states are free to treat them as they wish, even killing them.

Exploring a totally different situation--the conversion of 1920s-1930s Mongolia from a Tibetan Buddhist theocracy to a Soviet-influenced socialist state--Christopher Kaplonski refines the philosophers' conception of state violence to fit more universal patterns of governmentality. While the philosophers define, Kaplonski explains how the new government tried several policies and practices before resorting (his word) to treating high-ranking lamas as noncitizens and killing tens of thousands after trying more moderate means. He calls these methods "technologies of exception."

Until the 1919 revolution and its aftermath, the monasteries scattered over the country were the foci of trade, healing, and ideology; they advised, if not directed, the secular ruling class as well. Mongolia was a theocracy in every sense of the word. Following the death of the head lama, the Bogd Khan, the socialist government had to break the lamas' power-hold over the country in order to rule. …

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