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Pretas (again) and Deathpower

I received a wonderful response to my recent Pretas paper from a friend, which inspired me to write this response. I’m posting it here because these thoughts need to go into the reworking of this paper into an early chapter on death and giving, and also because it allowed me to state some preliminary thoughts on what I mean by Deathpower, which is, after all, the name of this blog. Here it is:

As things stand now, it is the germ of a larger, early chapter on flows of life-energy, value, and social power as these things stand in relationship to indigenous concepts of death. It’s pretty important, since the concept I’m trying to create and render operational in the dissertation is what I’m calling deathpower: the social power which is made accessible and results from the act of death, and towards which funerary and memorial rituals are oriented. The introduction of gift economy theory here, and especially Bataille’s engagement with it, is my attempt to indicate the ways such flows are imagined, and how the imagined flows (what C. Castoriadis would call the ‘instituted social imaginary’ rather than the ‘instituting social imaginary’) are reinforced and contested at different levels.

Regarding some of your specific concerns, I agree wholeheartedly that young city-dwellers would not be called pretas – this would invert the logic of the situation entirely too far. The elder-younger (ancestor-descendant) dichotomy remains primary. The difference is that where the official ritual of Pchum Ben inverts standard logic (flows should come from ancestors to descendants, but in Pchum Ben flows go from descendants to ancestors, thus making a cycle of exchange with the dead possible), calling people from the city inverts social logic (whereby ritual givers are respected as a function of their gifts, and thus assimilated to ancestors, or the ancestral position in exchange). The figure of the preta spans both of these, by denigrating the ancestor or the city-dweller. But in neither case, as you correctly point out, is the age component denied. This is useful to me in another way: right now the fastest-growing area of inequity is at the village level, often as a direct result of either (a) political connections and funding from outside the village, and (b) wage remittances from girls in factories. The age of the pretas prevents the latter from being denigrated in this way, but allows the former (politicians) to be precisely so denigrated.

I also had some questions concerning the relationship between Buddhism
(and Monks) and the idea of the Preta. The contrast between the pansukul
and bawh bay ben reminded me of the high religion/low religion distinction
Ortner makes, and also made me wonder about the local understanding of
Monks with respect to Pretas and Beggars. I have no concrete suggestions
here, but seem to recall that some Buddhist monks beg and so wondered how
they were viewed by the villagers.

In Theravada Buddhism, ALL monks are assimilated to beggars. The very word is a sociological term, literally meaning “the one who wants a share”. The reason, in my theory (not terribly controversial, I think), is that the Buddhist monk is assimilated (consecrated?) to death. What the body of the monk represents, therefore, is the bare power of the world. This requires a bit more explanation. A fundamental concept in Buddhism is that of anatta, or non-self. This doctrine denies the perdurance of a permanent unchanging person, such as the self, in favor of a mere miscognition of multiple causal processes as a ‘self’. The body of the monk is the result of karma undertaken by the ‘self’ in previous existences, which have necessary results. But the enlightened monk’s body engages in no further karmic acts, and is therefore completely non-reproductive. There will be, for him (almost always him, even in literature) no future birth, no future self or ‘self.’ His body is the final phenomenon in a cycle of power that is at the threshold of demise. This is symbolically and practically engaged through the ascesis of celibacy, the shaving of heads, and the practice of pansukul. I don’t go into this in detail in the article, but the pansukul has a primary meaning of ‘mortuary rag turned into monks’ robes.’ The practice of pansukul, which is usually held to be elective and part of more intensive asceticism, is the practice of taking discarded clothes of corpses and wearing them as your monastic robes.

This rendering of the ‘self’ to death is a form of sacrifice: what is being sacrificed is precisely the social self. The self is renounced in favor of an assimilation to death that is beyond death. This is, among other things, a refusal to convert bare life (cf Agamben) into social or political life. This analysis gets poetic precisely because it deals with one of Buddhism’s ultimate aporias: normally death leads immediately to rebirth. The monastic refusal of reproduction vis-a-vis celibacy does not assimilate itself to normal death, but to the non-death, non-life that is nirvana. The most common metaphor of nirvana with which I am familiar is that of a flame or a lamp: life is like this flame. When it is ultimately (finally) blown out, can we say that the flame has gone somewhere? No. Either the fuel has been exhausted (i.e., Karma), or the flame has been otherwise extinguished, but it is logically incorrect to say that the flame has gone anywhere or retains existence of any sort.

The social power of the monk to mediate exchange with the dead comes, therefore, from the logical and ontological primacy they gain over both the living and the dead by assimilating themselves precisely to the background (what some philosophers, such as Latour and Agamben might call the ‘nomos’) in which this process occurs. This is in no way to romantically assert that Buddhist monks and institutions are not intricately bound up with social forms of power. Instead, this assimilation to death is the precondition by which their social power is rendered accessible to further exchanges and flows. Buddhist monks are the ground on which deathpower is created, but not necessarily where it remains.

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One thought on “Pretas (again) and Deathpower

  1. Pingback: Deathpower in Cambodia » Blog Archive » Cambodian monks prevented from performing funeral ritual

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