Ever since James C. Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak,” the concept of the remembered village has been a powerful notion with which to critique the all-too-cynical understandings of those who hearken to a past to critique the present. ((Most famously, perhaps, Hobsbawm and Ranger’s annoying and still-influential Invention of Tradition. Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger. 1983. The invention of tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
)) It may be a ‘conservative’ move, but that is never the only thing it is. In an era of rapid mechanization of agriculture and the attendant landlessness and poverty that produced in Malaysia, Scott conceived of the ‘remembered village,’ a possibly romanticized vision of the village prior to the ravages of the Green Revolution, as a way of offending against and criticizing the rise of mechanized, feral capitalism by those who were suffering most from it. After all, in that situation, it was hardly those who were profiting the most who made the most frequent appeals to the order of the past (though they did so as well, usually to indicate that the respect they were due was no longer coming, as a result of the poor morals of the poor).
A similar thing happened to me in my fieldwork in Cambodia. Early on, I was teaching classes at a local research institution. I arrogantly would always trot out the notion of the Angkor Empire in my examples. Angkor was, in my opinion then as now, a horrendous deformation of humanity, where slave labor and mass dehumanization resulted in the piling of rocks into beautiful monuments. The vast majority of modern Cambodians, however, for a host of reasons which are increasingly well understood ((thanks to the excellent work of folks like the late great Ingrid Muan and the not late but great Penny Edwards, see Muan, Ingrid, “Citing Angkor”, Ph.D. Diss.; Edwards, Penny. 1999. Cambodge: the cultivation of a nation 1860-1945, Monash University.
)) think of the Angkorean regime as the golden age of Cambodia. Historically, this cannot have been true, at least not for the masses of people who lived under Angkor’s rule. Instead, modern Cambodians appeal to Angkor primarily as an offense against the constriction of the Cambodian nation (in terms of territory, glory, and regional power), a notion explored very well by Thongchai Winichakul for Thailand. ((Winichakul, Thongchai. 1994. Siam mapped: a history of the geo-body of a nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.))
In my classes, I would ask people if they would want to have lived during the Angkor era. All my students smiled beatifically and replied that yes, they would.
I then asked them if they were under the impression that they would have been kings, queens, or if they would have been the slaves who built the palaces. Their smiles dropped, and their responses were a combination of shame and sullen silence. I was frustrated too. I supposed I had expected some sort of ‘a-ha’ moment where their eyes would suddenly open onto a vista of oppression and slavery of which they were unaware. This is what I mean by referring to my previous arrogance.
I eventually learned, in spite of my own blinders and thanks to the generous patience and tutelage of my students, that few Cambodians are unaware of the modes of production in which monuments like Angkor must have required. They know that slavery occurred. The image of Angkor that they appeal to is not a historical one, by and large. Middle class and upper class Khmers in particular may indeed have unfortunate tendencies to combine a moral and imaginary consciousness of Angkor with a historical understanding of the violence required to achieve that level of regional power and prestige. Many of them want this again, and are willing to ‘break a few eggs’ to make their omlettes. This tendency is rightly condemned, and I join in that chorus. Those who have ambitions to rule over others, be they Khmer or non-Khmer, are like those with similar ambitions everywhere, and are frankly unpleasant at best.
But again, it seems to me to be the height of arrogance to assume that all Khmers who appeal to the remembered village that is Angkor are engaging in this sort of national chauvinism. Perhaps they never ‘remembered’ the village of Angkor before they were told to be a combination of French colonists and Cambodian elites. But they know very well what they want when they remember this Angkorean village.
And we can understand this ourselves, I think, by talking to people about the lives they lead now. Like James Scott’s remembered village in the Malaysia of the late 1970s, the remembered empire of Angkor in present-day Cambodia is an offense against the conditions of the present. And the vast majority of modern-day Cambodians have no serious ambitions to rule over others. Indeed, what they remember and desire most about the remembered empire is not the extent and expanse of the empire, the wars conducted by its kings, or the tribute that flowed into its center. What they miss is something that they themselves know quite well might never have existed – a just king, who rules over them with a just and righteous touch.
We do ourselves as students of cultures that are not our own no favors through cynically attributing ‘false consciousness’ or any of its latter-day bastard notions to the people who exist in conditions of misrule today. Obviously, we do them no favors either. Their desires may be coordinated by others – colonial ideologies of rule and nationhood, elite notions of modern-day nationalism and territorial expansion, etc. – but most Cambodians today are not comparing these things. Their adulation of the figure of Jayavarman VII is not an adulation of his power to conquer or rule, but his imagined refusal to oppress. Forget for the moment that his building campaign was the most elaborate and intensive in the history of Angkor, or that it may itself have contributed to the empire’s fall. What Cambodians today imagine about the past when they make moral comparisons across time, is that he was a god-king in a way that no contemporary Cambodian ruler is. They don’t want to rule as much as they want to be unruled, to live in a state of peace under a state which is not the one of today.