New Book Project Announcements

As my first book (Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, from Columbia University Press), gets ready for its projected released in November of this year, I’ve been preparing two new book projects, a couple of articles, and getting ready two begin a brand new research project based on new fieldwork beginning this Summer. The book projects have been in the planning stages for some time, and the bulk of each is already written. But, now, they have working titles.

How To Do Things With Dead People.
is a close examination of funerary practices in Contemporary Cambodia, which makes the argument that there is a powerful social power in the practices of legitimately caring for the dead. This book places that concept, deathpower, in the comparative perspective in which I actually developed it, and examines more fully the types of social practices and prestige that fall under the neologism ‘deathpower.’

Three primary case studies are used. The first case is that of political rituals at the Choeung Ek Memorial site in Cambodia, especially the “Day of Hate” on May 20, which I have attended off and on since 2002, and which has since grown into an enormously elaborate affair. The second case is that of the Concentration and Execution Camps in Auschwitz/Oświęcim, Poland, and the War of the Crosses. The final case study is that of the so-called ‘Kennewick Man,’ a 9,000 year old set of bones found in 1996 in Washington State that have pitted physical anthropologists and White Supremacist pagans against Native Americans and the US. Army Corps of Engineers. At stake is who gets to care for the remains, and on what basis.

Past Lives Present, Tense
There are few ethnographic studies of past-life memory today. Such accounts are more frequently found in sensationalist or religiously aspirational accounts. And yet, the assumption that individuals experience death and rebirth is a widely shared constant among most populations that identify as Buddhist in Southeast Asia. This book addresses the scholarly gap in our knowledge in three rebirth narratives collected from 2004-2008.

The first narrative involves a slight twist on the stereotype of Buddhist past life memory. Usually presented as the positive accomplishment of an ascetic, the awareness and knowledge of past lives is often even thought to be a precondition for Buddhist enlightenment. In this first narrative I discuss the case of a Buddhist lay-leader whom I got to know very well in 2005 and after. At the time he claimed to remember 1001 past lives, including an existence as the Cambodian Patriarch of the bulk of the Twentieth Century, Ven. Chuon Nath. He also claimed the existence of the birth of the ‘Buddha of the Future,’ Maitreya, in Cambodia. Later on he was at the center of a scandal in which he claimed to be Maitreya. The second narrative is of a young Cambodian woman whose past-life memory disturbed her parents, who took a series of actions intended to force her to forget the past life. This very usual response to the existence of past-life memory indicates that it is not always a good thing, or associated with ascetics. The third narrative is of a young woman whose past life memories were not only approved by the great patriarch named earlier, Ven. Chuon Nath, but who successfully put two family lines together as a consequence.

Throughout these narratives and my analysis of them, I discuss the ways in which they illuminate Buddhism and Cambodian culture, and challenge certain conventional views of these phenomena and their cultural meaning.


Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia

I’ve been delaying writing this review, and the reasons were obscure to me until this morning, when I suddenly realized what was blocking me: the review is unnecessary.

You see, I usually write up reviews of books that few people read, or know about, because they are on relatively obscure topics, or from particularly academic perspectives. As a consequence, there are few other reviews of the books I occasionally cover out there.

That is not the case with Sebastian Strangio’s Hun Sen’s Cambodia. The book has been a bit of a justified sensation in Cambodian-watching circles, going beyond the narrow sets of watchers, academics, NGO people, and Foreign Service officers. It’s received a lot of attention, and it has deserved it. So a review from me is unnecessary.

But here is a very short one, followed by a set of links that I think indicate an interesting, curated set of reviews, interviews, and extensions focused on the book. Continue reading


May Day – Choose Your May Day

May Day and the Creation of a New World

[Note: this was written for the 2006 MayDay march, which was organized around the direct action strikes taken by Latino workers in the USA – A “Day Without An immigrant.”]

Like anything else, May Day is at least partly what we make of it, and partly what it has been to other people in the past. Before Europe began its relentless conquest of the world, it was a celebration of Spring. During these ancient May Day celebrations, work was abolished in favor of play, dance, music, feasting, and love. The grim missionaries of early Christianity condemned the celebrations as pagan celebrations of vice, especially those of idleness and lust. They banned May Day and attempted to guilt and shame their subjects into postures of hard work and celibacy.

The modern celebrations of May Day as International Worker’s Day began in the United States at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Peasants from Europe forced off their traditional lands sought refuge and new chances in the United States; many immigrated to Chicago and found work in the factories there.

Being an immigrant demands the recreation of the world. An immigrant must carry her past with her, if she refuses to deny it. She must create a new world out of the memories of the old one, in the place of the new one. Because of their experience with different real societies, and in creating new worlds to live in, immigrants understand better than almost anyone that not all societies are the same, and that change is possible.

The immigrants who made Chicago the center of Midwestern America’s industrial belt had this practical experience in creating a new society, and maybe this is what made them see possibilities beyond the limits of what they were told was ‘possible.’ Injustice was not limited to the lands from which they came, but was rampant in the United States as well.

Workers were told to choose between working unbearably long hours for dismal compensation under cruel managers, or starving. They were told that their world was a world of hard work and celibacy, in which idleness necessarily meant starvation, and love was a waste of time.

But these immigrants, like those of today, refused this logic and insisted on the revolutionary possibilities of love and idleness.  They founded the mass movement that won the eight-hour day. The state responded with deadly violence, murdering four innocent men. Without these Chicago martyrs the eight-hour workday might never have been established.

The Chicago martyrs were Anarchist and socialist immigrants who fought for their rights by choosing their values: idleness and love,  instead of labor, shame, and isolation. And they didn’t stop by choosing  their values – they seized the power to make their values a reality. They forced the bosses and the state to accept less work from each worker. Radical workers have followed in their tradition ever since. We choose the May Day of love and life, where our relationships with our families, friends, and fellow workers are the yardstick against  which the value of hard work must be measured.

The United States insists that “Labor Day” happens in September, and renamed May 1st as both “Law Day” and “Loyalty Day.” The missionaries never left: they are still calling us to hard work and celibacy, away from our games, our society, and our love. They tell us that  unless we allow them to isolate us and treat us as machines in their never- ending quest for more, our lives will have no meaning. But we choose our May Day, not theirs, and we have the power to make our values a reality.


A Garland of Alev Stories

I’ve decided to post my translation of the Khmer language “A Garland of Alev Stories” that I helped collect as part of a group folklore and publication project out of the Buddhist Institute of Cambodia, which resulted in four illustrated, published volumes, that we worked hard to make affordable to everyday Cambodians (about $1 each at the time of publication, which isn’t ‘affordable’ but better than the alternative of publishing one single volume primarily aimed at non-Cambodians). Those volumes are also available for free PDF downloads from my BePress site.

Alev is a trickster character (this story can be found in Vol. 3 of the Folktales Collection, “Tricksters.”

The short stories included in this ‘Garland of  Alev Stories’ are “Dogshit Cakes,” “Alev Kills His Parents For Soup,” “Alev Pimps Out A Monk,” “Alev Sells Farts,” and “Alev Steals The Girl.” Please enjoy.

Continue reading


RIP, Martin Riesebrodt

I found out late.

I guess that’s the first thing to say. I found out months after he’d passed. I was out of touch, focusing on my own family, local contacts, and particular field of study. It’s the lateness that increases my sadness that Martin is gone, an indication that I failed to maintain my relationship with him in the way I had wished.

Martin Riesebrodt passed away from cancer at his home in Berlin on December 6, 2014. I hadn’t known he was ill. He is survived by his wife, the artist Brigitte Riesebrodt, and their son, Max. I knew them for a period, while I was a student in residence at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School (2000-2003), and his research assistant (2001-2003). In passing, I taught his son the rudiments of guitar (he wanted to learn heavy metal, but all I knew was fingerstyle acoustic; he suffered patiently and is now, I believe, I devoted Heavy Metal musician who I hope would look indulgently on my old-fashioned love of Black Sabbath, and my current love of Mastodon), and got to know the family a bit. They were, without a doubt, the kindest and most coherent social grouping I met during my time in Chicago, and I will forever be grateful for the space they made for me in their lives, and the role modeling that Martin was to me. Continue reading


Publication announcement; also: my C.V. moving to BePress


Having recently acquired tenure at my position, I’ve gone ahead and begun to move my archive of articles and c.v., including links to downloads for the same, to my institutionally-hosted BePress page, which you can get here.

I’ll leave my old publications page up, but won’t be updating it anymore. It will eventually disappear or turn into something else.

My latest published article, “Kinship Beyond Death: Ambiguous Relations and Autonomous Children in Contemporary Cambodia,” published in the journal of Contemporary Buddhism, already has been downloaded 50 times (I get fifty free downloads to share), which is encouraging. But it you want to read about why most Cambodian parents consider past-birth memory in the children a disaster and didn’t get to the link, you can read the pre-print version of the article on my bepress page.



Andrew Mertha’s Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid To The Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979

I’ve been gone awhile, but I haven’t stopped working. Instead, I’ve been building up a backlog. I’ll be returning here, hopefully, more frequently in the coming months. I have book reviews on Ian Harris’ new book on Cambodian Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge, discussions about the progress of my own book project, coming out from Columbia University Press this year, and lots more.

Remember that I no longer share links and news here, which accounts for the sudden drop in posts. Instead, those are found at my twitter account. But since that account combines all my interests, many of which may not be yours, you can also search for Cambodia-related, Buddhism-related, or other types of material by searching twitter for those hashtag-noted subjects (e.g., #Cambodia, #Buddhism), or restricting your view of my tweets to those with those two hashtags.

But today, I want to talk briefly about Andrew Mertha’s book, Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.

This is an excellent book which fills a significant gap in both general and particular knowledges about the period of Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979, during which period DK had state-to-state relations with the People’s Republic of China, among others.  Mertha, whose previous scholarship focused on the PRC itself, brings the Chinese data to the historical void that is much of the KR period.

In filling the general gap in knowledge about the period of DK, my feeling is that Mertha’s greatest accomplishment here is to demonstrate with great clarity that the Khmer Rouge were not only not autarkic and self-isolating, but actively looking for, and needing, funding and assistance from outside of Cambodia. The stereotype of the period is of a country of Tbackwards peasant savages (<-not descriptions I would ever endorse) forced into a sort of pre-modern dark age; Mertha’s meticulous descriptions of the extensive relationships and widespread and important presence of Chinese advisors in DK Cambodia should put an end to that stereotype definitively.

In filling the particular knowledge gaps about DK, my favorite part, and the most provocative and interesting (as well as, for those terrible human beings concerned primarily with ‘policy,’ a good indication of how long the PRC has pursued its international funding and aid strategies), is about how ineffectual the PRC advisors and aid regime was in convincing the DK leadership to do things the way the PRC wanted. Amazingly, given the huge asymmetries in the relationship, DK leadership managed to continue to receive enormous amounts of aid and advice without really giving the PRC much of anything in return (this aspect of the book is also highlighted by Milton Osborne in his review of the book, linked below).

The first three chapters of the book set up the various parties involved and introduce them nicely. For those of us without expertise in historic PRC bureaucracies, Mertha’s flowcharts and graphs in Chapter Three are particularly helpful. Chapters Four through Six detail the histories of individual joint projects: the Kraing Leav Airfield, The Kompong Som Petroleum Refinery Project, and the development of markets and trade between the PRC and DK. Each of these case studies make slightly different and complementary points. The DK ability to accept aid while rebuffing PRC demands regarding the airfield was just amazing to me, despite having seen countless Cambodian perform smaller-scale feats of resistance, planned incomprehension, and foot-dragging (see James Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak,” please). The sheer bravado and confidence of the DK leadership appears stunning. The almost total failure of the Refinery Project was, in contrast, the result of a continual refusal by DK leadership to take PRC advisors’ advice seriously – real training and logistics are necessary to make a refinery. Since the DK leadership refused, the refinery failed. Finally, in Chapter Six, Mertha details how the PRC development of DK markets was actually on an upward trajectory, and potentially a success, had Vietnam not then invaded and ‘liberated’ Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge.

I do have one complaint, which I’ve made to Andrew in person, and will rehash here. Many will see it as unimportant, or even narcissistic, given that I myself do identify and organize as an anarchist. Mertha uses the term ‘anarchy’ three times in the first three paragraphs, to refer to devastation, death, and the negative space of life. Certainly he will be within the long history of Gentlemen’s Historians using this word in this poetic way, to refer to the absence of any order. However, Mertha is also aware that ‘anarchy’ is a worldwide, historic, current, and expanding set of ideologies that insist on the ability of human precisely to organize society without oppression and hierarchy.Mertha is, finally, aware, that the word for anarchy in Khmer, អនាធិបតេយ្យ (from the Pāli “anādhipateyya,” meaning “unruled) has become a government accusation against a whole range of those who protest for various forms of social justice. Most commonly, the government accuses those who are being kicked off lands a private businessman is about to grab, of living there “in anarchy.” That is, in the last fifteen years, the government’s abusive use of the word has been largely about land-grabs. But just recently, the government accused a union of acting ‘anarchically,’ indicating an expansion of this word to categorize citizens as outcasts, and then treat them accordingly. Given this set of situations, I’m disappointed that he chose the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and ‘death.’

Regardless of my complaint, this is an excellent book which fills enormously significant gaps in knowledge about the period, advances knowledge regarding both the PRC and DK, and remains significant to those interested in the present and immediate future. Mertha should be proud of this book.

Other Reviews of the Book

Ian Storey at New Mandala

Milton Osborne at Contemporary Southeast Asia

Andy Brouwer at Andy’s Cambodia