Rumors are a major preoccupation in Cambodia, and are usually spread in the context of giving necessary advice to friends. During my three years doing fieldwork in Cambodia, the best ones I witnessed were the following:
- Don’t buy off-brand cooking oil in the markets, because the crematorium at a local temple was rendering human bodies into fat and selling it in the markets (instead of rendered pig fat).
- Don’t eat seafood (this was right after the tsunami), because many of the fish have been eating the corpses of those killed by the tsunami.
Over the last few days, a new rumor has been spreading among garment factory workers in Phnom Penh:
- Stay away from nightshift work, since powerful men are abducting workers during nightshifts and harvesting their organs (specifically corneas and kidneys) for sale to international clients.
There’s a couple of interesting aspects to all of this. First, in general about rumors: rumors are fun; that’s something that people who study them rarely take explicit notice of. There is a genuine buzz and sense of community (Victor Turner might have called it communitas) caused by being part of a rumor. It’s something you can use to talk to anyone: like making small talk about sports in America, rumor talk (similar to ‘trouble talk’ among Western women) binds the conversationalists into a complicit relationship, where the rumorists are helping each other out, against the evil forces which both create this unjust world and control its workings.
I want to find a way to distinguish between rumors and informal news, though that may be difficult (any suggestions?). In trying to classify the most common types of rumors, I came up originally with this list:
- Clandestine sexual relations of politicians
- Political or military alliances, vendettas, etc.
- Ingestion of dangerous substances
However, the difficulty with this very heterogenous list is that the rumors that spread about the first two tend to be extremely accurate, while the latter two tend to be closer to what we would normally call rumor, especially in the absolute inability to either confirm or deny.
Of these latter two, note that witchcraft in Cambodia is almost always associated with ingestion – either of prepared substances, or the secret spiking of a lover or enemy’s food, or in the ingestion of an enemy’s organs (especially the liver). Witches in Cambodia are often said to need to drink the decomposing fluids of a powerful man’s corpse at least once a year in order to retain their power, a fact which makes the display of powerful men’s corpses (relatively common in Cambodia, especially with abbots, who are particularly efficacious for witches) an attractive nuisance, of sorts.
Finally, note the particular nature of this last rumor, about organ harvesting. The rumor about the cooking oil destroyed the local market in cheap cooking oil for almost a year, to the extent that very poor people were spending ridiculous amounts of money on branded cooking oil. A professor of mine indicated that it seemed to be a standard anti-capitalist rumor, similar to the stuff you can read about in Michael Taussig’s early work on The Devil and Commodity Fetishism.
But the organ harvesting of nightworkers would seem rather to be a transposition of one type of real vampirism into another type of specular vampirism. Note that only a few weeks ago, the rate for nightshift work was cut from 200% to 120%, to the vociferous objections of the independent unions and a few oppositional political parties. No matter what the wage, workers produce all the wealth that the garment factory bosses keep for themselves. There is always a real vampirism involved in capitalism, when the bosses, seemingly by magic, summon hordes of human beings to their castle factories. Once there, the bosses suck value and wealth out of the workers’ bodies and lives, and return just enough to make sure that they’ll survive until the next shift.
The unions certainly had nothing to do with this rumor – it is not in the interests of a union to terrify the workforce and create panic. Unions win when their members feel strong, united, and can act directly against the real forces that oppress them. Organ harvesters may exist, but it seems more likely that this rumor is a spectacular version of real history.