Ontologies Project

My work has recently taken me into conversation with various disciplines about the nature of ‘ontology,’ by which different people, even within single disciplines, often mean quite different things (often without realizing it, apparently, and thus much of the discourse speaks past its interlocutors). Some of the work is fascinating, some infuriating, most of it knotty and complicated in ways I either love or loathe, depending on my energy and mood. Much of it is also unnecessarily ornately written, which I never appreciate, and will attempt to avoid, despite recognizing the value of technical jargon.

So, for myself, and intended as a fragment beginning of a project, here is a bibliography of things I have or intend to read, and about which I will eventually probably post a fair number of notes (or at least which will result in some writing of some sort). I’ll edit this as I go, not note the updates within this post [heads up!], and welcome suggestions and critiques in the comments. Continue reading


Review: Andrew Johnson’s “Ghosts of the New City”

Johnson, Andrew Alan. 2014. Ghosts of the new city: spirits, urbanity, and the ruins of progress in Chiang Mai. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

University of Hawai’i Link

Amazon Link

Review by Erik W. Davis

This book is about the idea of the city as a space similarly ‘haunted’ by magico-religious notions of charismatic power—power that retains its significance even in the face of Thailand’s transformation into a nation-state and current entrance into the neoliberal economic moment. (1)

This book is also an anthropologist’s response to Tony Day’s (2002) call for historical studies that take culture into account and draw connections between premodern ways of interpreting new forms of power and modern ones (see also Kapferer 1988). (2)

The quotes above indicate the thematic relations between such topics as the city, ghosts, urban development, and economic fluctuations. Another related question is asked a bit later: “What makes urbanity in Southeast Asia distinct from how it has been conceived in the West? How might the legacy of the city as a vehicle for articulating religious notions of power come to articulate ‘secular’ notions of power and progress?” (4) As such, Johnson sets his work in conversation with multiple disciplines, intersecting at his site: urban studies, postcolonial studies, development, religious studies, and of course anthropology.

Continue reading


Talk at UC Berkeley on October 19: “Past Lives Present, Tense”

I am very excited to be giving a talk on my next book project, titled “Past Lives Present, Tense,” at UC Berkeley’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies on Monday, October 19th, 4-5:30, in the Doe Library. [link]

While my first book, Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, is not quite out yet (December), I’m looking forward to sharing my current ongoing work, receive feedback, and keep this new project moving forward.

Hope to see you there.

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.


Deathpower Book Announcement

Cover of my book

I have many things I hope to post at this site soon, including a length review of Andrew Alan Johnson’s (excellent) book Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanity, and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai, a discussion linking that work to Bruce and Martha Lincoln’s recent hauntological article, “Toward a critical hauntology: Bare afterlife and the ghosts of Ba Chúc.” All of this results in me rethinking some thing about ghosts and their institution in Southeast Asia (and perhaps more broadly). But for the moment,

Columbia UP has produced a flyer promoting my book Deathpower, which will be released in the next two months, which means two things: the cover can now be seen, and there is a 30% off promotional code if you order it online from CUP. For more information click here.


Notes Towards a “Mustache of Understanding” [Parody] Piece

Without comment, but completely in the character and tone of voice of Thomas Friedman (he who possesses the Mustache of Understanding), I begin in media res in the back of a Taxi, where a taxi driver asks me my opinion of Cambodia’s development. (this stuff writes itself, I’m just holding back the funny parts). I respond, and a brief but illuminating discussion follows, full of bizarre and inappropriate metaphors that lead me to conclude something something i have neoliberal critiques but think everything is going as well as possible.

Extract from the above section:

As he began to speak about development, I could feel a bead of sweat moving through my mustache. I begin to feel precisely how this hard-working neo-liberal citizen of Cambodia’s future felt. I understood him.”

Second Vignette, but this time in three different tuk-tuks going to karaoke, dance, and hostess bars. What is development in this discussion? I respond, and a brief but illuminating discussion follows, full of bizarre and inappropriate metaphors that lead me to conclude Cambodian culture something something i have neoliberal critiques but think everything is going as well as possible.

Third Vignette, but this time on a dark road just outside Anlong Veng in 2001. Tone drastically changed to simple reportage. I walk alone back in the dark toward the large Australian dominated NGO center where I’ve shacked up for a few days. It seems like the old man keeps changing his trajectory to intersect with me as he and I move towards each other in the dark.  As I pass, he looks up roughly two-thirds of a meter, straight into my eyes, and says “Joi Mae.”


See you in Cambodia

I don’t ever announce that I’m coming to Cambodia more than a day or so ahead of arriving; maybe that will change someday, but for now I still largely feel that the possible advantages of advance warning (possible or scheduled meetings, contacts, etc.) rarely materialize (Cambodia is still largely a face-to-face culture of getting things done, it seems), and the potential negatives (unwanted attention) too common.

So here I am, in the United States. Tomorrow morning I head to Cambodia to begin a new research project. I can’t tell you how weird (and mostly great) that feels. I’ve been working on roughly the same set of interlocking projects since 1997, and while I still have many things to publish from that period, it’s also wonderful to be able to begin a wholly new project.

This new project focuses on social change and religious creativity, including a number of key questions that are not limited to Cambodia or any particular situation:

  1. What is creativity, and how do we recognize it?
  2. What is the particular force (mode, technique, power, etc.) through which “religion” is locally imagined to relate to creativity?
    I.e., did God create the heavens and the earth, it is that just a natural thing unrelated to gods? Similarly, racist scholars of Religious Studies and Orientalist fields frequently attributed special creativity to racial characteristics, such that “Aryan” was creative and “Jewish” was uncreative, which in a classic moment of intersectional oppression was collapsed into ritual, such that rituals, Jews, and lack of creativity were opposed to myths,  Christians (especially Protestants), and creativity.
  3. How does this creativity challenge or attempt reform of existing situations?

Perhaps obviously, each of these questions can be broken out into multiple addition questions. Each could pose the basis for a book on its own. But I intend to focus on creativity, ritual, and social protest in contemporary urban Cambodia. This allows me to focus on the people who are self consciously deploying religious belief, ritual, and imagery to change something about Cambodia, and ask them to self-represent about how they understand religious creativity to be involved, or not.

Many of the social protests I’m interested in are related to land grabs, unions, and political rights. 

I will spend the next period of time interviewing lots of monks, protestors, unionists, ministerial officials, workers, and krū.

I doubt I’ll blog often, but you can check me out on Twitter,