Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia

I’m very pleased to announce that my first English language book has been published by Columbia University Press.

Book page at Columbia University Press

Order online now and save 30%: Enter Code: DAVDEA for 30% discount

Deathpower is about the way Buddhist rituals of death in contemporary Cambodia – especially but not only funerals – are a privileged point from which to view and consider Buddhism as a way of ‘creating worlds.’ My own preferred vocabulary here is that of imagination and institution, taken from Cornelius Castoriadis.

Deathpower provides a compelling and provocative analysis, both reflective and challenging, that will stand the test of time. More importantly, the author clearly is emotionally, as well as intellectually, invested in his work. His care for Cambodia and its people is a model of responsible and sincere scholarship.
-Justin McDaniel, University of Pennsylvania

My method in the book is anthropological, and my disciplinary orientation to the practice of ritual primarily performance-based. I see ritual performances as creative and socially instituting powers, with wide-ranging ramifications. I discuss the ways that I use Castoriadis’ work on the “Imaginary Institution of Society,” and extend it into the domains of ritual and practice through primarily anthropological and religious studies appropriations of insights from writers like Judith Butler.

The book will be the first full-length, single-author, English language academic work on contemporary Buddhism from a practice-based perspective. All those qualifications indicate existing contributions from those who have been contributing single articles, collected volumes, historical overviews, or contemporary textual examinations. I call especially to attention the work of Ian Harris, who passed suddenly after publishing two well-received books on the history of Cambodian Buddhism.

In an original and thought-provoking book, Davis studies the Cambodian social imagination of the wild and savage in dialectic relation to moral and hierarchical civilization based on water and rice, providing a rich interpretive ethnography connecting death and death rituals, kingship, agriculture, fertility, monasticism and monastic robes, gifts, hungry ghosts, witchcraft, boundaries, violence, and much else besides. Throughout he considers the inter-relationship of what are called ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Brahmanism’ (that is, spirit-worship in general).” — Steven Collins, Chester D. Tripp Professor in the Humanities, University of Chicago

As such, it is my hope that the book will contribute to Cambodian Studies partly by simply organizing and re-presenting basic data about Cambodian ritual practices, but also by presenting an argument that presents the Buddhist ritual engagements with death as the single-most self-authorizing feature of the Buddhist monastic ritual repertoire. I further make arguments about how those ritual practices take on force and affect, and connect to histories of agricultural technique and social hierarchies.

I also hope the book will contribute to Buddhist studies through the sustained argument about the centrality of the ritualization of death to Buddhism’s self-constitution, as well as its historical use of the ritualization of death to expand Buddhism’s moral reach – by ‘taking over’ and ‘domesticating’ spirits that are explicitly imagined as ‘non-Buddhist,’ or ‘not-originally Buddhist.’

Finally, I hope the book will be read as an intervention in current debates about ‘sovereignty,’ the relationship of sovereignty to religion, and post-Foucauldian debates about the transformation of sovereignties in the modern period. My contribution here is encapsulated in the concept of “Deathpower,” a neologism by which I mean the social power to domesticate and care for the spirits of the dead. This power in Cambodia accrues to Buddhist monks almost universally and hegemonically, but there are many attempts by others to adopt the Buddhist techniques of spiritual control for non-Buddhist values. In other places, and I will address this in forthcoming comparative work, the right to care for the spirits of the dead becomes a point of contestation, and highly political. In the book, I discuss the ways in which the concept of deathpower challenges and interacts with related theories by Foucault (biopower), Agamben (states of exception), and Mbembe (necropolitics).

In this capacious, intricate and very pleasing book, Erik Davis tells us how Cambodian Buddhists domesticate “death power” by ritually linking rebirth to the agricultural cycle and by empowering Buddhist monks to confront, bind and overwhelm the wild spirits that spring into the world when anyone dies. Davis tells us how Cambodian Buddhist rituals work. His fresh, wide-ranging findings make Death Power an invaluable book. His often luminous style makes it a reader’s feast.
— David Chandler, Monash University, Author of A History of Cambodia (4th edition, 2007)

I’m very excited and more than a bit nervous to have this book coming out. Undoubtedly there will be much to correct, as I have much yet to learn. But I see the publication of this book as the first time I have been afforded an opportunity to make an argument at this length, in this level of detail, and am extremely grateful for the opportunity.

Erik Davis’ beautifully written and provocative examination of “deathpower” — the ritual power that allows the living to care for and transform the dead — is not only a significant addition to literature on Buddhist funerary practices, it is also the most perceptive, meticulous, informative, and important study of contemporary Cambodian Buddhism to date. Davis’ book will be a classic: for its fascinating theoretical treatment of the religious imaginary in Cambodia, one that binds together what Cambodians often distinguish as “Buddhism” and “Brahmanism,” and on a larger human scale, for its humane consideration of death and all it involves.
— Anne Hansen, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Fuller, Paul. 2016. “Rituals and religion: A review of Erik W. Davis’ Deathpower and Philip Coggan’s Spirit Worlds.” in Mekong Review 1:2, pp. 20-21.

Coward, Matt. 2016. “Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia.

Heim, Maria. 2016. Choice Reviews Online.

7 thoughts on “Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia

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