cambodia, read

Review of ‘Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy’


Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy, by Astrid Norén-Nilsson, is an excellent book which I strongly recommend Cambodia-watchers obtain and read. I wrote a review of it for the Mekong Review earlier in the year, and that review is free to read for the week. You can access the review here:



Reading for November 2016

…This thing still on?

DeLanda and Deleuze/Understanding Society Blog

I have always really appreciated the Understanding Society blog. This, on Manuel DeLanda’s new book on ontology and assemblage theory in the social sciences, is particularly excellent. (Understanding Society started this discussion back here).Although I have Manuel DeLanda’s new book on social assemblages in hand, I haven’t had the time to start reading it yet. I should note that I found his previous book-length attempt at dealing with assemblages to be his least successful work; this new one sounds like a considerable step forward.

I’ve been reading DeLanda for over a decade now, and have always found him to be the clearest exponent and expositor of Deleuze’s philosophy, though calling him an editor and synthesist of that philosophy might be a better description of DeLanda’s relationship to Deleuze.

Despite admiring aspects of Deleuze’s thought greatly, and always enjoying DeLanda, I have never once been genuinely impressed by anyone else’s attempt to apply Deleuzian thought to a social or historical analysis. Likewise, I’ve never seen how one could do it in practice (it was inspiring, but not practicable)

Nevertheless, DeLanda’s diligence seems to be paying off. Little by little, he is making Deleuzian thought seem closer-to-practicable within the academy. I suspect that the best of the Deleuzian socio-historical tradition (often, lately, focusing on military applications in the Middle East) will experience a quantum leap in clarity and reproducibility within the next 5 years.

Symbolic Value of the Safety Pin.

I’ve been an active anti-fascist for most of my adult life, and have a different view of the American right and fascism than most American liberals, I think, as a consequence. The rise of attempts to signify a personal relationship to changed political circumstances, such as with the display of the safety pin, has been interesting. I’m personally grateful to those who rather immediately demanded of the people promoting it whether they were taking any actual steps to help, or whether the mere symbolism of the safety pin was sufficient for their purposes. I think the notion that the safety pin is solely a means of alleviating (endemic levels of) white guilt and fragility, on the other hand, goes a bit far. I think this piece, on Sociological Images, is particularly good at demonstrating that the effect in certain locations – especially conservative, racist, or rural locations – is quite different than pinning on a safety pin in Manhattan after secretly voting for Trump.

Nuance is good.

Renewed Genocide in Myanmar/Burma

The attack on the Rohingya has renewed and intensified. Hundreds of homes and many villages have been razed; people fleeing or homeless as a result of previous violence are made more vulnerable. Here’s just one article

It’s been happening for a few years, and is ramping up again. But the West has been utterly silent on this except for a few sensationalizing pieces. The problem with international assistance is that our distance usually renders us dependent on compromised AID groups. The best thing those of us in the USA can probably do here is to publicize (will require self-education), demand action, lobby (if you’re active in the political system or have special access), etc. Those with money could donate to MSF. Other suggestions?

Higher Ed and “Identity Politics”

I’ve decided this piece on Academe, by Christopher Newfield, titled “Higher Ed and ‘Identity Politics,’ is the must-read piece on Higher Ed this week. It’s a takedown of the  nearsighted piece by Mark Lilla on the cause of the democratic loss in the election, which he identifies largely as campus identity politics. Whew.



Andrew Mertha’s Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid To The Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979

I’ve been gone awhile, but I haven’t stopped working. Instead, I’ve been building up a backlog. I’ll be returning here, hopefully, more frequently in the coming months. I have book reviews on Ian Harris’ new book on Cambodian Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge, discussions about the progress of my own book project, coming out from Columbia University Press this year, and lots more.

Remember that I no longer share links and news here, which accounts for the sudden drop in posts. Instead, those are found at my twitter account. But since that account combines all my interests, many of which may not be yours, you can also search for Cambodia-related, Buddhism-related, or other types of material by searching twitter for those hashtag-noted subjects (e.g., #Cambodia, #Buddhism), or restricting your view of my tweets to those with those two hashtags.

But today, I want to talk briefly about Andrew Mertha’s book, Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.

This is an excellent book which fills a significant gap in both general and particular knowledges about the period of Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979, during which period DK had state-to-state relations with the People’s Republic of China, among others.  Mertha, whose previous scholarship focused on the PRC itself, brings the Chinese data to the historical void that is much of the KR period.

In filling the general gap in knowledge about the period of DK, my feeling is that Mertha’s greatest accomplishment here is to demonstrate with great clarity that the Khmer Rouge were not only not autarkic and self-isolating, but actively looking for, and needing, funding and assistance from outside of Cambodia. The stereotype of the period is of a country of Tbackwards peasant savages (<-not descriptions I would ever endorse) forced into a sort of pre-modern dark age; Mertha’s meticulous descriptions of the extensive relationships and widespread and important presence of Chinese advisors in DK Cambodia should put an end to that stereotype definitively.

In filling the particular knowledge gaps about DK, my favorite part, and the most provocative and interesting (as well as, for those terrible human beings concerned primarily with ‘policy,’ a good indication of how long the PRC has pursued its international funding and aid strategies), is about how ineffectual the PRC advisors and aid regime was in convincing the DK leadership to do things the way the PRC wanted. Amazingly, given the huge asymmetries in the relationship, DK leadership managed to continue to receive enormous amounts of aid and advice without really giving the PRC much of anything in return (this aspect of the book is also highlighted by Milton Osborne in his review of the book, linked below).

The first three chapters of the book set up the various parties involved and introduce them nicely. For those of us without expertise in historic PRC bureaucracies, Mertha’s flowcharts and graphs in Chapter Three are particularly helpful. Chapters Four through Six detail the histories of individual joint projects: the Kraing Leav Airfield, The Kompong Som Petroleum Refinery Project, and the development of markets and trade between the PRC and DK. Each of these case studies make slightly different and complementary points. The DK ability to accept aid while rebuffing PRC demands regarding the airfield was just amazing to me, despite having seen countless Cambodian perform smaller-scale feats of resistance, planned incomprehension, and foot-dragging (see James Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak,” please). The sheer bravado and confidence of the DK leadership appears stunning. The almost total failure of the Refinery Project was, in contrast, the result of a continual refusal by DK leadership to take PRC advisors’ advice seriously – real training and logistics are necessary to make a refinery. Since the DK leadership refused, the refinery failed. Finally, in Chapter Six, Mertha details how the PRC development of DK markets was actually on an upward trajectory, and potentially a success, had Vietnam not then invaded and ‘liberated’ Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge.

I do have one complaint, which I’ve made to Andrew in person, and will rehash here. Many will see it as unimportant, or even narcissistic, given that I myself do identify and organize as an anarchist. Mertha uses the term ‘anarchy’ three times in the first three paragraphs, to refer to devastation, death, and the negative space of life. Certainly he will be within the long history of Gentlemen’s Historians using this word in this poetic way, to refer to the absence of any order. However, Mertha is also aware that ‘anarchy’ is a worldwide, historic, current, and expanding set of ideologies that insist on the ability of human precisely to organize society without oppression and hierarchy.Mertha is, finally, aware, that the word for anarchy in Khmer, អនាធិបតេយ្យ (from the Pāli “anādhipateyya,” meaning “unruled) has become a government accusation against a whole range of those who protest for various forms of social justice. Most commonly, the government accuses those who are being kicked off lands a private businessman is about to grab, of living there “in anarchy.” That is, in the last fifteen years, the government’s abusive use of the word has been largely about land-grabs. But just recently, the government accused a union of acting ‘anarchically,’ indicating an expansion of this word to categorize citizens as outcasts, and then treat them accordingly. Given this set of situations, I’m disappointed that he chose the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and ‘death.’

Regardless of my complaint, this is an excellent book which fills enormously significant gaps in knowledge about the period, advances knowledge regarding both the PRC and DK, and remains significant to those interested in the present and immediate future. Mertha should be proud of this book.

Other Reviews of the Book

Ian Storey at New Mandala

Milton Osborne at Contemporary Southeast Asia

Andy Brouwer at Andy’s Cambodia


Read: Eve Zucker’s “Forest of Struggle”

 Eve Zucker’s first book, Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia, is a village ethnography of contemporary Cambodia. It’s also one of the best post-conflict studies (focusing on the cultural situation after the Khmer Rouge period) that I’ve encountered. In her fieldwork from 2001-2003, she moved to a very small village called O-Thmaa in the Cardamom Mountains. Her interest in this particular village was its social brokenness – unlike neighboring villages, it was clear even on her first visit that O-Thmaa was not ‘recovering’ from the Khmer Rouge era in the same way, or with the same speed.  Zucker focuses on the themes of memory, forgiveness, and morals, tying them together in a way that adroitly notes the ways in which the erasure of memory – forgetting – may be crucial to forgiveness. Ernst Renan, of course, made the same point regarding nationalism over 100 years ago, pointing out that a French person could only become part of the French nation by forgetting the terribly cruelty visiting upon their previous identities and selves (Albigensians, e.g., of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre). Examination of how morality is constructed, transgressed against, and recalled for the next generation – to put it briefly, how collective moral continuity is reproduced – are at the core of her examination.

A few things of particular note in this book: O-Thmaa is a ‘highland Khmer’ village.  This fact should attract the interest of anyone who studies mainland Southeast Asia. The supposedly great divide between lowlanders and highlanders has long been a staple of studies of Southeast Asia. Lowlanders tend to view themselves as Buddhist, rice-growing, and ‘civilized,’ opposed to highlanders, seen as Non-Buddhist, swidden agriculturalists, and ‘savage.’ Like Nicola Tannenbaum’s famous book, Who can protect against the world?: Power-protection and Buddhism in Shan Worldviewthen, Zucker’s book looks a a relatively anomalous group of people, who are highlanders, but ethnically identify as (Khmer). Zucker’s ethnography adds useful and important information to our knowledge of communities in such locations. The fluid ethnic identity of Cambodians is on display, as people early on discuss how they ‘used to be Chong or Suoy,’ but are now Khmer, or even “Pure Khmer.”

And then there are the personalities. From Yeay Khieu to Ta Kam, the personalities of the village – especially the elders – are brought to life. This is a real pleasure of the book.  Yeay Khieu embodies a sort of constant good cheer and perseverance, recalling the old ways, and telling stories with indefatigable good nature. Ta Kam is a considerably more ambiguous character – a local who no longer lives in the community, the villagers of O-Thmaa say he was a Khmer Rouge village chief, and caused the deaths of many in the village. By the end of the book he has returned to live in O-Thmaa.

There are wonderful moments in this book – especially wonderful moments for me were the chapter on commensality and the transgressive bonding over taboo foods and liquor, and reflections on the ways in which the community interacts with, and maps onto its landscape, the ideas of the wilderness, and its amoral qualities.  Against the wilderness, the village becomes the opportunity for the recreation of social possibility.

Zucker is careful not to extend her arguments too far, but does engage usefully with two broad camps of thought regarding the continuing effects of the Khmer Rouge era.  She notes that some argue that Khmer society was nearly completely broken by the Khmer Rouge, while others argue that Khmer Society has recovered and begin to re-institute itself without too much interruption.  Zucker uses these two camps of thought to discuss her example, but refrains from explicitly claiming that her example could be used to reform these camps.

In all, this is an excellent book, and highly recommend to Cambodianists.  It’s clearly written, accessible to experts and undergraduates alike, and makes excellent points in a clear manner, all while introducing the reader to highland Khmer Cambodia.

comment, read

Read: Bruce Lincoln’s “Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars”

I received my copy of Bruce Lincoln‘s latest book, titled Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religionsand finished it last night (See here for a short review of a previous book of his). It is an excellent book, full of the sort of provocative, clearly-argued, and most-often compelling arguments about the field of religious studies, its methods, and, to a slightly lesser extent, application. These subjects have been at the heart of Lincoln’s academic project for quite awhile, and it is not an accident that this volume, which is a collection of essays and articles, many of which have been published in journals previously, begins with a piece of writing that is one of Lincoln’s most famous and provocative: his “Theses on Method.” These theses have provoked much response and discussion by those who challenge Lincoln as overly reductive, or hostile, to religion, though I have never seen his approach in that way. You can read Timothy Fitzgerald’s criticism of this piece, and Lincoln’s response, here and here.

I studied under and worked with Lincoln for a few years as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity school. Having taken several classes with him, met with him as an advisee, and attended many public talks, I never found him hostile to religion as such. He might have been occasionally reductive, but only in the sense that he was willing to examine phenomena very closely, which I take as a characteristic of scholarship, and indeed, language.

Two pieces (Chapters Two and Twelve) offer straightforward advice on how to accomplish particular tasks within Religious Studies (“How to Read a Religious Text” and “Theses on Comparison”). Others deal with cosmogonic (universe-creation) myths, modern and ancient science and how they dealt with phenomena that don’t confirm their cosmologies, differently-characterized types of mythic discourse, World Religions as a discourse of its own, as well as the traditional themes of sanctified violence. His final essay, “On the (Un)discipline of Religious Studies,” begins with an anecdote – and an essay unpacking that anecdote’s relevance – of an argument between Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith on whether chaos or order should be prioritized in time (i.e., ‘which comes first, order or chaos?’). Each essay is worth careful study.

I will be using parts of this book for my first version of my “Introduction to Theory and Method” course, which I’ll be teaching this fall. At a minimum, I intend to have us

  1. Work through “Theses on Method” and its responses
  2. Read “How to read a religious text,” and apply those rules to both (a) a religious text, and (b) the essay itself
  3. The (Un)discipline of Religious Studies, with a discussion on the importance of institutions that study Religion, such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which Lincoln discusses in this chapter.

I recommend this book to all those who study Religion, especially those for whom the primary goal of Religious Studies is something other than the celebration of religion as sacred and beyond interrogation. As Lincoln phrases it, “As it happens, with the possible exception of Economics, ours [Religious Studies] is the only academic field that is effectively organized to protect its (putative) object of study against critical examination.” (in his response to Fitzgerald, p. 167).

cambodia, read

John Burgess’ ‘A Woman of Angkor’

I’ve just received a copy of John Burgess’ new novel, A Woman of Angkor, published by River Books. This book intends to be a historical novel that takes the regular people of the ancient Khmer kingdoms as seriously as most take the rulers.

It also comes highly recommended by folks with reputations, at least judging this particular book by the blurbs on its cover, including lauds from archaeologist Michael Coe, and art historian and Angkor tour guide author Dawn Rooney.

Most promising in terms of its writing style, however, is the lovely quote from John le Carre:

Burgess has done something that I believe is unique in modern writing: set a credible and seemingly authentic tale in the courts and temples of ancient Angkor to stir the imagination and excite our historical interest.

I’m looking forward to reading it in my spare free moments, and would love to hear from readers in the comments if they have read it, or might read it along with me.

The chapters are generally quite short, so I’m going to set very modest pace of 1-2 chapters a day. I’ll write up my comments below, as well.

edit: I’ve decided against summarizing in the comments below, both to preserve against spoilers, and to allow for a more summary writeup at the end.


Reading Report

No real reviews here, but a short list on what I’ve been reading this Summer, and how I generally feel about the books or articles.  What have you been reading?  Anything I should know about?  Let me know in the comments.

Continue reading