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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.”

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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, 

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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.
Deathpower 
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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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