I want to interrogate the Oikouménē, more commonly known as the ecumene. We know the ecumene as the “whole inhabited earth," but which bodies, what persons, inhabit it? Do we also include ethereal bodies – hungry ghosts, boramey, apparitions of Mary – as social beings? Sociologist Avery Gordon has noted that, "the ghost is not simply dead or a missing person, but a social figure" (Gordon 2008, 2 ).
Latour (2005) has pressed us to "reassemble the social," challenging us to rethink what we mean by this over-used term, as I will show below. I ask, how can we “reassemble our ecumenes,” to be more elastic with the boundaries of our real, to learn different ways of being, so that the worldviews of those we study, advocate for -- and resist --are constitutive of a range of personhoods? I will suggest that we must account for other bodies: bodies of what we might call entities or actants. Some are gendered, but in multiple ways – asexual, dimorphic, hermaphrodite – some are not. Some are invisible, spectral, some appallingly visual, others are inorganic. Some entities occupy other bodies; some are aggregates of other entities. I am interested in whether, or how, these bodies do what we humans call knowing and acting, but in different ways. This has methodological implications, and I focus here on Cambodia's spectral other-than-human world.
In refugee camps, living rooms, and among friends, I’d heard personal refugee accounts of those who had endured Cambodia’s “travesty of history” from 1975-1979 when the Khmer Rouge walked into the capital Phnom Penh and declared “Year Zero, “ inaugurating a revolutionary communist regime in which a quarter of the population was exterminated or died of malnutrition. While all cities were evacuated, the most stunning was Phnom Penh, where members of the former regime were assassinated or sent to interrogation centers such as Toul Sleng. Choeung Eck, a field of mass graves outside of town, is the most notorious of the hundreds of “killing fields.” The regime ended in early 1979 when newly socialist Vietnamese invaded, occupying Cambodia for a decade until the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991.
This political world -- saturated with violence -- is set within a Cambodian Theravada worldview. Interaction with supernatural creatures: boramay, neak ta, and preta, is integral to Cambodian cosmology. Boramey (or parami) are spirits associated with Buddhism and manifest benevolent supernatural power. Boramey can be the attribute of a statue, such as the Leper King (Hang, Gamlan and Deb 2004) or a manifestation of mytho-historic figures such as generals or kings who possess a medium (Bertrand 2001). The boramey often speak through dreams. Neak ta, on the other hand, are guardians of the land. Friends noted that during the Khmer Rouge era, neak ta were disrupted and the palm trees would not bear fruit. Preta, hungry ghosts, inhabited desecrated holy spaces such as Buddhist wats used for storage and torture (Chandler 2007). The “killing fields” were saturated with phantasmic terror, populated with roaming preta because the near-dead had been violated, and when dead, were not properly buried (Levine 2010). They could not continue on to the next life.
Are these creatures locked into Cambodian worldviews? Do they slip out of their "representation” and visit others? I had encounters with preta and boramey in my time with Cambodians both in Asia and the United States. My spooky meet-up with a preta occurred on a travel seminar to Phnom Penh coordinated through San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1992. A decade after the Khmer Rouge departure, the city still seemed bedraggled and slightly surreal, residents four-to-a-bicycle plying Monivong Avenue, dark nights interrupted by generator-driven pools of light. Bats hung like overripe fruit in the naked trees near the UN Transitional Authority compound. Even the most prominent wats were derelict and forlorn, decapitated heads of the Buddha laid out near their stupas. So it was not entirely surprising that after a visit to Choeung Ek, my American roommate looked wan. She sat at the corner of her bed and shot me a nervous glance, “When you lie down, do you see anything?” When I said no, she hesitated, “When I lie down, I see three men with machine guns at the foot of my bed.” Chills shot up my back. The room suddenly felt ominous and cold. We improvised an exorcism, and when we ran out of ideas, we went to sleep. I was startled awake by the pressure of a ghostly body on top of me. I plopped a pillow over my head, praying feverishly, until—whoosh—the room felt clear. “A preta,” mused a Cambodian friend when I relayed the story later. There seemed to be many preta prowling around Phnom Penh.
Ghosts, neak ta, devata as inhabitants of our worlds, are social actors often denied a voice in the stories we tell about war, survival, and post conflict, even though they are everywhere. In theological work on conflict, I don’t often hear about prophetic dreams and signs that help survivors map catastrophic events, or statues, amulets or tatoos that protect border crossings, or apparitions of Mary or Kwan Yin who appear to Vietnamese boat people when their engines stall or pirates trail them. What do we do with Jesus appearing to a Buddhist prisoner of the Khmer Rouge with advice that saves him? Family stories like these disappear from the “refugee narrative” upon arrival in the United States, and they are not (often) in our theological texts either. Langford, in writing about Lao refugees struggling with American hospital protocols, asks, “How do we make sense of…ghostly figures…without “anthropologizing” or “psychologizing” them, that is, without reducing them to examples of cultural belief or psychic symbols of trauma?” (Langford 2005, 43; see also Chakrabarty 2000, 105).
I, like most academics, dismissed interaction with the spirits, trees, and dreams as peripheral to the real revolutionary work of materialist theory and political theology. I argue here that scholars, activists, peace professionals of the North must develop a broader “ecology of knowledge” (Santos 2004) to learn how certain communities interact with the invisible realms and employ different contours of being and knowing: that statues call out in dreams, for example, or hungry ghosts haunt.
Ecumene in search of an advocate
There is surprisingly little work in the field of religion, conflict and peacemaking that investigates the relationship of mythic texts, phantasmic realms, and non-rational epistemologies (dreams, apparitions, omens, and signs) that offer individual healing, community guidance, and help with coexistence. Embarking on an "anthropology of the imagination,” my current work takes seriously the social imaginary of local religious communities and those who seek out the invisible world for guidance and solace. It is focuses particularly on religious dreams in “undreamy times” (Mittermaier 2010). I am currently studying the role of epiphany dreams during and after revolutionary conflict. In the cases of Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Francis, the figures appeared in the dreams of Khmer Buddhists and Roman Catholic Vietnamese settlers, communities in tension.
The field of conflict studies and various peacebuilding organizations has developed since World War II. Mennonite peacemaker John Paul Lederach’s (2005) concept of conflict transformation considers life-giving change processes to reduce violence, increase justice in social structures, and transform human relationships. Lederach now plays a key role in the academic field of religion and peacebuilding which emerged in the late 1990s. There are a growing number of Global North Christian, Jewish, and Muslim colleagues focusing on interfaith dialogue, just peacemaking, theological sources of peace, faith-based diplomacy, forgiveness and reconciliation, and transitional and strategic justice.  But they do not refer to dreams, visions, apparitions and miraculous interventions as a part of their work. And what of religious violence? Mark Juergensmeyer (2003) is a proponent of “strong religion,” an argument for the unique nature of contemporary religious political violence and the role of “cosmic war.” In the minds of those engaged in religious conflict, these current wars are conducted simultaneously on earth and in heaven. He and others writing on religious violence do not show how these religious forces also elaborate on the devils and hungry ghosts, the preta, in these cosmological worldviews. Peg Levine, in Love and Dread in Cambodia. Weddings, Births and Ritual Harm under the Khmer Rouge argues that Cambodia trauma literature and “genocide literature” rarely refer to spirits, unfinished rituals and the attendant “cosmological angst" (Levine 2010).
I have worked with resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States and a U.S. “processing center” in the Philippines from the late 1970s through 1990s and then studied post conflict reconstruction after Cambodia’s 1992 Peace Accords. From 2005 to 2010, I was a US faculty for an intensive, applied conflict transformation MA program in Phnom Penh. The Applied Conflict Transformation Studies program draws practitioners from peacebuilding programs throughout the region (Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, Philippines). These peacebuilding programs are often faith-based INGOs such as World Vision, Mennonites, Quakers, Caritas and Catholic Relief Services with local NGOs that are Buddhist or Muslim.  Lederach in The Moral Imagination acknowledges the messy, inspired, and indeterminate ways conflicts often are resolved (2005). But peacebuilding NGOs are driven by donors who have pressed to show measurable results, not an easy task in the field. Because of this, NGO staff aren’t often encouraged to reflect “soft” problems of the conflict -- the cultural, psychological and religious dimensions of the social problems they are called upon to address. In many way, my quest here to to ask what it would mean for peace practitioners, not only clergy and religious adepts, to consider a multivaried ecumene.
Ecumene as an empire of exclusion
A claim to “reassemble” the oikouménē requires some attention to its genealogy. Christianity refers to the oikouménē, a Greek term, as the church and the church’s intent to bring the gospel to the whole world. The ecumenical world is made up of churches united in their difference. But the notion of the ecumene has an imperial history. On a conceptual level, it maps out the spaces we consider “inhabited.” It distinguishes between realms of the known and realm of the unknown. In this sense it foregrounds Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ notion of Abyssal thinking, which I will refer to later. Greeks divided their oikouménē as “the inhabited world” into three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa (Libya in Greek sources) (Stewart 2012, 143). Beyond these worlds were barbarian lands. When Rome colonized the Hellenized world, Romans took oikouménē to mean first “the entire Roman world,” then “the whole inhabited world,” and with it, their imperial practices (Horsley 2003, 22; Nadella 2016). In keeping with this, New Testament writers referred to the oikouménē as the imperial world fifteen times in the gospels. Joseph and Mary, for example, return to Bethlehem due to an imperial decree that “all the world” (oikouménē) be subject to census (Luke 2:1).
The Greek notion of ecumene as exclusion was also replicated by Rome. The "terra incognita," regions that were not mapped, were populated by fantastic and grotesque people with heads like dogs and cannibals. When Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire's maps of political territories placed Jerusalem at the center and Christ overlooking the world, attended by angels (Stewart 2012; Romm 1992). This dynamic of dominance and exclusion continued through the middle ages. Cartographers inscribed imaginary creatures of the terra incognita at the margins of the map. At the advent of modernity, one can see the “known world’s” mythology of the margin. The famous Nuremberg Chronicle (or “Book of Chronicles”) appeared in 1493 at the triumph of Catholic Spain’s Reconquista over the Moors of Andalusia. Its biblical world history shows three continents populated by Noah’s sons: Shem in Asia, Ham in Africa and Japeth in Europe. Shunted to the terra incognita are the excluded races: one-footed Sciopods, reverse-footed Antipods, bearded women, and one-eyed monsters (Friedrich 2004, 749). In 1507, a decade after the Nuremberg Chronicles, Waldseemuller’s World Map redrew the known world. One of the most important maps in the history of European cartography, it reveals a world ripe for conquest: a continent separated from Asia and a new ocean: the Pacific. Though not visually present, Incas, Mayans, and other New World “savages” replace the Sciopods at the margins.
Dussel (1993) claims that the modern ecumene came into being when Europe advanced against the Islamic world to the east and “discovered” the Americas to the west. In so doing, Europe was able to reposition itself at the very center of this newly conceived ecumene. He asserts that contemporary modernity was born when Europe, by posing against an “other,” could colonize “an alterity [otherness] that gave back its image of itself.” This “American crucible” forged our modern conceptions of ethnicity, race, gender, nation, labor, and economic development (Quijano and Wallerstein 1992). For decolonial theorists, the architecture of this “coloniality of power” is based on an epistemic falsehood, a pensiemente unico in which no alternative ways of thinking are possible, those "incognita" once again forced to the margins.
Ecumene beyond the Abyss
Portuguese decolonial theorist Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues for a “cognitive justice” that challenges this current pensiemente unico, a kind of cognitive ecumene that dominates what we claim to "know." He offers the spatial metaphor of “Abyssal thinking” as an epistemological divide dominated by Western epistemologies that pose as valid, true, rational, and normal. On the non-Western side of the divide, a newer version of the medieval terra incognita, there is no real knowledge. “There are beliefs, opinions, intuitive or subjective understandings, which, at the most, may become objects or raw materials for scientific enquiry” (Santos 2007, 80). This reality is particular and incomprehensible (Santos 2014, 120).
To engage post-Abyssal thinking, says Santos, we must embrace the anti-imperial “epistemology of the South” (2014). This is not a geographical South, but a multiplicity of epistemological souths, counter-knowledges emerging from peoples’ struggles. Taken together, they produce an “ecology of knowledge” that widens the territory of the knowable to collapse the divide between ways of knowing. De Sousa Santos concedes that preparing the conditions for a post-Abyssal thinking is a difficult, complex task. Western theory has to be deprived of its abyss(m)al characteristics, prominent among them a claim to universality and the monopoly of truth, what might call its empire of exclusion.
How do we offer a critical engagement with a post-Abyssal way of knowing, to develop an ecology of knowledge? How do we balance our incredulity, or temper the stories of others, or interrogate the inexplicable? A post-Abyssal reflection on my encounter with the preta in Phnom Penh would set it within a rich discussion in academic circles about an affirmation of the “extra-ordinary” (Goulet and Miller 2007), the “super-natural” (Strieber and Kripal 2016; cf. Kripal 2010), and indigenous ways of knowing (Tinker 2004). These scholars ask how one investigates the invisible, ghosts, rocks, or extraterrestrial creatures -- entities outside modern rationality.
This wider ecology of knowledge must include a new ontologies, new notions of the social. We return to Latour. In his controversial critique of the fundamental basis of sociology, he defines the social “not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (Latour 2005, 7). This reassembling refers to a radical relationality best understood by Latour and others as an assemblage. An assemblage thus clusters every “thing,” such as a statue, God, a landmine, utterances, happenings, or events as composites rather than, as is traditionally held, isolated substances (Bonta and Proveti 2004). In this sense, Latour reassembles all human action within a constellation of relation to other entities which are also attributed agency. This is very radical. Not only do humans or sentient beings have agency, but also what we've called "inanimate" entities (vinegar, guns, hammers, paper). He calls these "inanimate" entities quasi-agents or “actants” that (or who) participate in social interactions. Actants are anything that “modif[ies] other actors through a series of” actions (Latour 2004, 75). Agency is thus determined as one thing modifying another. Vital materialists and speculative realists argue that actants are garbage dumps, video games, and cyborgs. They are not objects but subjects of a flat, ontologically plural community. As political ecologist Jane Bennett argues, if they are subjects, then they are politically constituted and demand a hearing (Bennett 2010). But what does this really mean? These particular actants have agency in relation to other agents. But is there any communication between humans and other than human actants?
Dream worlds and metaphysical bodies
In this reassembled ecumene, which affirms an plurality of persons and bodies communicating within an ecology of knowledge, I have been investigating the cross-cosmological significance of statues who appear in dreams, requesting to be recovered from rivers, caves, and ricefields. The cases I offer are based on a particular kind of appearance: epiphany dreams. Epiphaneia means “manifestation” (Miller 1997). Epiphany dreams consist of the appearance to the dreamer of an authoritative personage who may be divine or represent a god, and this figure conveys instructions or information. Dreams offer an epistemological access of encounter for overlapping ontologies, where humans and spirit languages can be understood. Western psychological language refers to a dimension “within” the person, while in other cultures are attributed to an exterior realm. Dreams are considered borderlands of the visible/invisible, dead/living, awake/sleep in which figures come ”from outside.” As "porous selves" these dreamers consider their bodies available for such visitations. Integrated into the cosmos, the person with a detachable soul travels out of the body and spirits can travel into the dream.
Here is a brief overview of those stories.
I first learned about statue recovery from a Vietnamese Catholic priest at a Vietnamese immigrant fishing village along the Mekong near Wat Champa. The priest relayed how, when Wat Champa was a Khmer Rouge commune in the 1970s, an elderly Khmer man was afflicted by a recurrent dream. Each night, a “lok ta “ (old man) appeared, saying “Take me out of the river and I will help you.” Deep into the third night, the man slipped to the Mekong and found a statue stuck in the mud. He hid it. The lustral water he poured over statue healed both humans and beasts. Who was this powerful spirit? The statue’s identity was a mystery until a ragtag band of Vietnamese settlers arrived in Wat Champa and recognizing it, called out, “St Francis Xavier!” For several years, the embattled Khmer and Vietnamese communities shared admiration for the power of the saint and his statue.
In 2008, almost thirty years after the Khmer Rouge era, another Catholic statue, this time of Mary, was recovered from the waters. During the most auspicious days of the year—Khmer New Year—Buddhist Vietnamese fisher-folk pulled an encrusted, six-foot bronze statue out from the confluence of rivers that meet at the small village of Areykasat, across from Phnom Penh. When the Vietnamese fisher-folk saw what they pulled out of the river, they brought it to shore with the intention to sell it. Their Catholic Vietnamese neighbors immediately recognized the statue as Our Lady of Lourdes. The Buddhist fisher-folk set a price so steep (ten thousand riel) that their Catholic neighbors despaired. That night, in the Buddhist fisherman’s house, where Mary’s statue was kept, her spirit circled the ceiling, so frightening her host that he convinced his friends in the morning to donate their prize to the church before she cursed them. The Vietnamese Mary Queen of Peace parish built a high grotto for the statue and called her “Our Mother of the Mekong.” It was assumed that the statue had been dropped overboard by Vietnamese Catholics fleeing the violent anti-Vietnamese purges of the 1970s. Four years later, during the 2012 ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, another statue of Mary with the infant Jesus was recovered from the Mekong. In this case, a Buddhist Vietnamese fisherman dreamed the directive form Jesus to pick up another statue near the place in the river where the first Mary was discovered. Both statues are now at Mary Queen of Peace church and are greatly venerated, drawing weekly busloads of pilgrims from Vietnam. Questions linger about these statues and the ways they have transformed this small Catholic Vietnamese fishing village, a community at the periphery of the Khmer political body.
In 2013, I interviewed key Catholic priests associated with both Wat Champa and Areykasat, attended the large celebration Mass of the first Mary on Cambodian New Year, April 16. One week after that mass celebration, my research shifted dramatically to include two dream recoveries of Khmer statues. My colleague Samnang Seng is a well known peace activist in Cambodia who has designed and directed interfaith projects. These two Khmer incidents of dream-inspired rescues occurred within a month of each other, the first on Cambodian New Year in Stung Treng, close to the Lao border. Stung Treng was originally part of two Lao kingdoms before the French ceded it to Cambodia. A 14 year-old desperately poor settler dreamed that two monks guided him to a nearby cave to rescue statues. He found seventy-one small Buddhas high on a ledge in one of the cave’s caverns. Though he had strict orders from his dream visitors to “take the statues to the royal palace,” the statues languish in the Stung Treng Provincial museum.
Fourteen days later on tngai sel, Buddhist new moon day, a rice farmer was told in a dream to “take them out”. He went to his rice field in Banteay Meanchay, the far west of Cambodia and discovered two 12th century Bayon-era Hanuman statues with their pedestals. The dreamer and his wife were escorted to Phnom Penh by Venerable Monyreth, a high-ranking monk to deliver the statues to the Deputy Prime Minister. Since then, the family has been deeply embedded in the Hanuman myth, particularly Mr. Lim’s son and sister-in-law, who have themselves become conduits for transmitting Hanuman’s wishes to the Cambodian people. Mr. Seng and I visited Stung Treng and Banteay Meanchay since the initial meetings and Mr. Seng has returned to both sites to meet with family and government officials.
These five incidents of statue-rescue share several attributes. They occurred through dreams on auspicious days. The dreamer was not a religious specialist but a poor member of a marginal community. The dream recovery affected the dreamer, their family and community, affixing them to the mythic narrative of a statue rescue. That these statues are Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu, and the dreamers Khmer and Vietnamese offers an intriguing oneiric ecumene (cf Hannerz 1989) of cosmological détente, an assemblage of human, statue, and environmental actants.
This is an admittedly brief conclusion for so dense an argument. The ecumenes we have traveled have been the production of Eurocentric modernity, which has obscured other knowledges, peoples, and realities from our “whole inhabited earth.” This is particularly problematic for marginal communities in conflict zones who rely on "invisible aid" but also experience spectral trauma when their cosmos is torn apart. I have considered how Cambodia’s conflict zone in its post-conflict setting offers a critical decolonial challenge to that modernity.
If we consider this version of a reassembled ecumene, we are offered a radically different way to experience and interpret the world, one in which simultaneous other worlds coexist with the quotidian world we occupy. We are left with many questions. What is a post-Abyssal approach to those whose encounters with metaphysical worlds are rich and uninterrogated? Since the interpretation of dreams is such a long historic and varied practice across cultures, what criteria might we use to evaluate the veracity of a multi-faith epistemology? How do we “discern” the spirits in this pluriversal ecumene? If we take as a form of real the intervention of spirits through their statues into our hybrid ecumene, how do we continue to interpret the statues as actants? How do we as scholars interact and interpret such a ecumene reassembled?
*Adapted from Kathryn Poethig, "Reassembling the Oikoimene," Mission in Context, Vol 5, Theology in the Time of Empire Series, Edited by Jione Havea, Boston: Lexington / Fortress Academics, 2020
 John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003). He distinguishes it from conflict resolution which is based on a negative assessment of conflicts which must be ended, inferring that they can actually be resolved in short-term interventions. He also critiques conflict management, which while understanding conflicts entrenched processes, assumes that communities can be controlled and that the purpose of this management is to take care of the conflict, not root problems.
 Raymond Hemlick and Rodney Peterson. Eds. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, & Conflict Transformation (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002); In the United States, the key religion and peacemaking graduate programs include University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Eastern Mennonite University’s Peace Studies program, Fuller School of Theology, and Emory University’s Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding. New initiatives include the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s partnership with CDA Collaborative Learning and Search for Common Ground to convene leading global experts to develop better measure the effectiveness of inter- and intra-religious action for peacebuilding.
 Key works include Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999); Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice (Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003); Marc Gopin, Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Douglas Johnston, Ed. Faith-based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003: and Daniel Philpott, Ed. The Politics of Past Evil: Religion, Reconciliation; The Dilemmas of Transitional Justice, (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006); David Smock Ed. Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 2002); Glenn Stassen, Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Pilgrim Press, 2008); Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996), David R. Smock, Religious Contributions to Peacemaking: When Religion Brings Peace, Not War, PeaceWorks, no. 55, ed. David R. Smock (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2006).
 There are several ways that ecumenical peacebuilding has developed in Southeast Asia. There is the CCA School for Peace, now in Cambodia, and the Philippine-founded People’s Forum on Peace for Life, of which I have been a long-term member. Peace and development “regimes” develop differently in each country of conflict, which includes an amalgam of government entities, military, academic programs, institutes, multilateral funders, a range of civil society organizations which include religious organizations, and international NGOs. I am most familiar with these in the Philippines through the CPP-NPA and post-conflict Cambodia.
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Quick thoughts on the World Social Forum in Montreal this August: Another world is needed. (What happened to "possible"? ) Conway's review of the WsF and the Edges of Global Justice is particularly useful, and she offers a good overview of a feminist response to pensiamente uno, a radical critique of the dominant epistemologies of the West. This feels crucial, urgent, since it is the way we structure revolutionary presents and futures. If our world is on its way to permanent disfigurement, and according to Bifo, semiocapitalism is blitzing our psyches ( just two of the "wages of sin"), what are our cognitive options?
One alternative: de Sousa Santos offers Epistemologies of the South, a dense decolonial brew. This argument is about the coloniality of power - the power to decide what should be studied, civilized, patented, harvested, and litigated. I've posted a good review of this work below, and includes de Landa, Dussel, Escobar, and others. All men, from a Latin American philosophical frame.
But where are we after we scale abyssal thinking? Yes to a "postcolonial or postimperial conception of rights, and they are: the right to knowledge; the right to bring historical capitalism to trial in a world tribunal; the right to a solidarity-oriented transformation of the right to property; the right to grant rights to entities incapable of bearing duties, namely nature and future generations..." (Barreto, below, p 26). But are rights redeemable? Are there other ways to know "justice"? Doesn't Boaventura de Sousa Santos still wake up in the "West"?
On a radical reconfiguring of the ways we even position critique, we could add from the same region, the "ontological turn." Consider Viveiros de Castro’s concept of multinaturalism. (Notes for further exploration: his Métaphysiques Cannibales (PUF, 2009) offers an important critique of Descola’s ontological typologism. Latour's “Perspectivism: type or bomb?” sketches the public debate between Viveiros de Castro and Descola.)
We're still in the middle of a massive shift from positivism, scientism, one-world-ism, but how does a paradigm dissolve to reset the next one? If this is post- post-modern, post-structuralist, what are we pre ? We seem to be in the midst of parallel paradigms, or a mix of them interacting, like "scattered hegemonies." I pick up Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions - here's a short cut. It's like Mr Toad's wild ride (a mix of Wind in the Willows and the ride at Disneyland.) The Dalai Lama challenges brain scientists to rethink the neurological route if it doesn't lead to reincarnation. Imagine the moment when little Krishna (who has been eating mud) opens his mouth and his mother Yashoda sees the whole universe whirling inside him. Too much ontological shock for his dear human mother, so the boy-god neuralyzes her, a la Men-in-Black.
I keep asking the same questions: do all these new post-Western re-"orient"-tations shift the ways we act and be in the world? Frame our problems? Who is included in the solutions? What happens to the way we live if our justice is hyper-dimensional and space/time is heterogeneous, if it circles in on itself? Searching for ways to new modes of thinking.
Yes, I know, these are scattered notes to self, not explanations for you. (How did we get from de Landa to Descola, from de Sousa Santos to the Dalai Lama, to Bifo?)
1 Other citizens
I met Sophal at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. We picked up our Angkor beers, and ambled through the scattered chairs to bar stools set at the long mahogany ledge by an open window overlooking the Tonle Sap river. It was almost sunset, and we sat for a moment in silence, observing the flow of river vendors and new refugees arriving in the wake of flooded ricelands.
We spoke of this: Cambodia's relentless poverty, the deluge of foreign aid, its possibilities, and we reminisced on old times in Oakland as the moon rose over the rippling water. He was Undersecretary in one of the Government ministries, and he talked about the heavy political burdens of his party, the temptations of a $50/month salary, his upcoming trip to Singapore, his family in Oakland. I plied him with questions about government corruption and exile. This was, after all, the purpose of my work--a focus on Cambodian Americans who have returned to work in the government and NGO in Phnom Penh.
Sophal and I had worked in Oakland together at a Cambodian-based organization, meeting with probation officers and chasing after errant boys of Oakland's killing streets. Oaktown Crips, they called their gang because blues were their colors, and Bloods were red. "Bloods, man, they the color of the Khmer Rouge." We were now in the land of the Rouge. "Imagine the Crips boys here?" I laughed, half serious. He didn't even turn at the question. "Those boys would not survive," he said. Our talk meandered after this through the exquisite promise and pain that trans-locations inflict. "I call my daughter each week,"he said. (I concealed my shock--at $5 per minute.) " I remind her to do her homework. She asked me if she could cut her hair. O.K., I said, but talk to your mother. Sometimes I am so lonely," he said, "that I play the karaoke and sing aloud--500 miles, songs like that." I nodded,500 miles was a popular song in Phnom Penh this fall. "I feel too American," he said, and then forgot himself. "Maybe I will run for office in Battambang in the next election." He is a big man in the Kingdom, with his cellular phone, Nisson Sentra, gucci gifts from friendly investors. In Oakland, we were small fry.
Sophal's precipitous ascent followed the rise of FUNCINPEC, the royalist party that he'd organized in California. When it won enough seats in the 1993 UNTAC-monitored election, it agreed to share power with the Communist party of Hun Sen. Sophal had been studying political science was at community college and looking for a better job to pay his many debts when the election promised him a future in Cambodia.
I was thinking all this as Sophal pointed out the promises that FUNCINPEC's Khmer French and Khmer Americans brought with them to government. Was I momentarily distracted by the one-eyed headlights of mototaxis in the pool of dark below us? I cannot remember, only that Sophal was saying, "-- and Lerb is dead." I looked up, startled, and ashamed to be startled, that once again, the living and dead of the U.S. Cambodian community ebbed away from me, ever the outsider. Lerb, dead.
He was my favorite bad boy; suspended from high school for an endless series of offenses, in juvenile detention for a year with extended probation afterwards. He was tall and very dark, strutting on the hottest of days in his black Raider's jacket and Crips colors. His junior league of "gangstas" would drop in during school hours when gang tensions were too high. He was charismatic, but he didn't know how to hold it, too vulnerable, too rageful. Lerb had survived the worst of his “gansta’s” tragedies: nine boys in a Chevette out of control on the freeway. Its toll--three dead (one decapitated), three unharmed (one flung from the car by the spirit of his dead father) and Lerb in a coma for weeks in the San Juaquin General Hospital.
Several times a week, I would pick up Lai Lanh, Lerb's mother in the most devastated of West Oakland projects for the hour drive to the hospital near Stockton. She would enter the hospital room briskly and coax him to life with Mormon prayers, tossing rice secretly over his listless shoulder. His recovery was excruciating and tedious. I do believe her tenacous, ferocious love drew him back into ordinary time with vague cognitive failures, but willing to live. When the worst was over, I lost touch with them as my own life gathered momentum.
Two weeks before his first accident, he stood at our office door and announced triumphantly that his mother's lost tribe of ten brothers and sisters were alive. She'd immediately sent money through a courier and received in return a videotape of a family gathered to pay their respects to the sister, the lucky one who made it to America. Sophal and Lerb are two signs of "luck," two survivors who tricked the fates once, then twice. But for Lerb, one time too many.
When I returned to Oakland from Phnom Penh, I asked casually about Lerb from other Cambodian-American friends. Don't you know, they said, vaguely accusing, the family left Oakland a year ago. Lerb was fishing with his brother. He stood up in the boat, fell over, and drowned.
2 Theologizing after the last draft
A poet stops by a bare oak in the winter, “every limb sprouting” with starlings. She tries to count, and then estimate,
but the leaves of this wet black tree at the heart of
river through limbs, back onto limbs,
scatter, blow away, scatter, recollect--
undoing again and again the tree without it ever ceasing to be
Foliage of the tree of the world's waiting.
Of having waited a long time and
to wait. Of trailing and screaming.
Of engulfed readjustments. Of blackness redisappearing
downdrafts of snow. Of indifference. Of indifferent
Jorie Graham from "The Dream of the Unified Field"
If there is a passion for a unified field, it is a tree whose leaves have a single sum: full and then empty. It has an apparent logic, this tree of the unified leaves, and the interlocutor is satisfied when its logic is unraveled and the problem has come to completion. Jorie Graham looks up and sees a tree of black starlings, always full and yet uncountable, static and heaving. One cannot apply logic to a koan, that is the koan's cunning. Of course there is a satisfaction in completion, but it ends to begin again. Completion's split second acts are summed up in motion; that itself is a koan. The tree is there and yet always in motion, waiting and arriving, reassembling, dissembling, reminding the poet and ourselves that living is never so unified, logical, clean. The birds of the world's waiting refuse to sit quietly while they're numbered and labeled. This is the koan of a tree and its poet. This is the way of territory and populations.
The arrival of this project is a task of logic and completion, but it has been a theological process for me because of its koan-like motion. It has been in these last four years a question that had no answer, hardly a question at all sometimes, and sometimes many questions darting in and out on the limbs of logic. It sputtered and repeated itself, the same words over and over. For months, I became inarticulate, unable to make the question speak. Only when I returned to the matter at hand, to the tree's interaction with its chattering leaves, did I find the matter waiting; "speak me," it said. The matter was a people who kept moving and how in their circling they trespassed fields of logic. How their reasonings about this were versatile and contradictory. How the tree held them and didn't, how though they sometimes moved in unison, it could not be predicted. How my own questions informed their reasoning; how reason in motion is a mystery.
In my earlier work I was interested with the subject position of Cambodians as refugees, whose political subjectivity change numerous times as they moved across borders from Kampuchea to Thailand and into the UNHCR refugee camps, then to Western nations as third world refugees. How did they collude in the manufacturing of their own identity? In Oakland, the majority of Cambodian refugees are part of the underclass community mediating the institutional cultures of welfare state. This is a particular form of cultural belonging, a cultural citizenship, in that the state creates its of cultural formations.
My first arrival in Phnom Penh had such elements: an encounter with ghosts in our hotel room, magic hair that gave me trouble. I fell prey to the magic of tragic Khmerness. My second visit to Phnom Penh was a great disappointment. Returning and local Cambodians interpreted human rights with a baffling tautology. Nothing seemed cultural about its logic. It took me a long time to realize that this surface resemblance was the koan and that magic was a lure for the prize of Khmerness which most of us in various stages of "return" were seeking.
I join the American "us" of Cambodian refugees returning, though the "us" of survivors is, I believe, incommensurable. That I can join the "return" at all is up for contestation, being neither refugee nor Cambodian nor Asian American. The mesmerizing power of return is mine nonetheless. Raised in Manila by progressive Protestant missionaries until my "return" to the US for college in the first months of Martial Law, my first conundrum was becoming American not as an exile but in situ. Multiculturalism found me a quandary. As one who had lived in the Philippines for as many years as hyphenated Americans had lived in the US, would I not be entitled to the category of American-Filipino if one existed? That it did not exist left me homogenous; that I was lesbian and Christian caused more confusions. On the whole, I became wary of identity categories. The return to the Philippines thirteen years later was a second discouragement. I arrived as an American "expat" on staff at the large Refugee Processing Center in an ESL program whose teachers were Filipino. This in itself offered up the bewilderment of cultural/national alliances and hierarchies (Vietnamese over Lao and Cambodian, Filipinos over SEA refugees, US over all, but sabotaged by Filipinos, Philippine military over UN). In the fifteen years surrounding that event my attention to refugees, exiles, and immigrants constantly rehearsed the crisis of arrival, integration, and the myths of national belonging.
The overlap of politics and culture and its conjunction with category mistakes has informed my theology, sense of self, and anthropology. It produces the questions I finally ask about multiple citizenships and national identities. It informs my skepticism of a hierarchical framework of ethics that places disobedient local "moralities" under the supervision of a principled "ethic." (Whose morality, which ethic?) It requires a perspective in which the observer, the subject and structure interact -- the poet, the birds and the tree, so to speak.
In the tree's trembling leaves, categories arrive and are forgotten. Someone sees the hand of God. Someone claims that this is the way of starlings. Someone calculates the rate of chaos. Someone forms a poem.
Dreams: So, do you see or have a dream? When you "see" a dream, it comes to you. If it comes to you, it is not yours alone. It has volition and its own territory. Since Freud, we "have" dreams; we own them, or as the dream doctor might correct, the latent Repressed has us. In this globalized world, even those who "see" dreams also "have" them. Most of the world carries on in an imbricated modernity. There is not a single modernity, but multiple modernities as many scholars now tell us. Charles Taylor distinguishes between a modern buffered self, and a porous self that hosts "dreams that come from outside". I am interested in the latter and epiphany dreams, where a deity or significant figure appears to the sleeper to offer guidance or demand a divine task.
Research The larger study considers interventions through apparition, dreams, statues, or amulets in four displaced communities. It is not intended to be a comprehensive ethnography. Rather, I consider that since the conflicts in religious lifeworlds occupy multiple realms, peacemaking must be approached with a wider and more creative arch of analysis.
In Cambodia, my project is called “Rescuing the ‘gods’: Dream knowledge and overlapping ontologies”. I study four cases where spirits appear in dreams to ask humans to rescue their Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic statues from a river, cave, and rice field.
Dream epiphanies led to the recovery of two Roman Catholic statues from the Mekong River in Cambodia. The first is of St. Francis who appeared in a dream and was then, as a statue, rescued by a Khmer man during the Khmer Rouge years. Most Khmer are hostile towards Vietnamese settlers; Roman Catholic Vietnamese are a particularly isolated community in Cambodia. Does this rescue a link the two differing faith ethnic communities as the Vietnamese Catholics suggest? Current relationships between Vietnamese Catholic and Khmer Buddhist communities at Wat Champa are strained. This is evident in different interpretations of the guardian statue that we continue to investigate. With the help of Vicith Keo, I interviewed Khmer leaders in the Wat Champa community adjoining the Vietnamese village and will continue in 2014.
Almost thirty years after the Khmer Rouge era, a statue of Mary was fished out of the Mekong River at Areykasat, a Vietnamese fishing town across the converging rivers from Phnom Penh. This statue, Our Lady of Lourdes, was found during Khmer New Year in 2008.
Four years later during the 2012 ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh, a another statue of Mary was recovered, this time with the infant Jesus. In this case, a Buddhist Vietnamese fisherman in Areykasat was instructed in a dream to fish out a statue. Both statues are greatly venerated and draw weekly busloads of pilgrims from Vietnam.
In 2013, I interviewed key Catholic priests associated with both Wat Champa and Areykasat, attended the large celebration Mass of the first Mary on Cambodian New Year, April 16, returning several times after this.
My preliminary research project shifted dramatically to include two dream recoveries of Khmer statues. My colleague in this research is Mr. Samnang Seng, a well known peace activist in Cambodia who has designed and directed interfaith projects.
The two Khmer incidents of dream-inspired rescues occurred within a month of each other, the first on Cambodian New Year in Stung Treng, close to the Lao border. Stung Treng was originally part of two Lao kingdoms before the French ceded it to Cambodia. A 14 year-old poor settler dreamed that two monks guided him to a nearby cave to rescue statues. He found seventy-one small Buddhas high on a ledge in the cave’s interior. Though he had strict orders from his dream visitors to “take the statues to the royal palace,” the statues languish in the Stung Treng Provincial museum.
Fourteen days later on tngai sel, Buddhist new moon day, a rice farmer was told in a dream to “take them out”. He went to his rice field in Banteay Meanchay, the far west of Cambodia and discovered two 12th century Bayon-era Hanuman statues with their pedestals. The dreamer and his wife were escorted to Phnom Penh by Venerable Monyreth, a high-ranking monk to deliver the statues to the Deputy Prime Minister. Since then, the family has been deeply embedded in the Hanuman myth, particularly Mr. Lim’s son and sister-in-law, who have themselves become conduits for transmitting Hanuman’s wishes to the Cambodian people.
Mr. Seng and I visited Stung Treng and Banteay Meanchay several times since the initial meetings in May and July. Mr. Seng has returned to both sites to meet with family and government officials. In November, we met with other key figures in the Hanuman story in Phnom Penh and Banteay Meanchay. The stories continue to unfold. We are consulting with Dr. Greene whose knowledge of Khmer cosmology, its relationship to kinship and the body exceeds my own. As a scholar of Cambodia in residence, she writes, “I can assert with confidence that Dr. Poethig is pushing the boundaries of a breakthrough field of theory that is already troubling the status quo in the study of “religion” across disciplines.”
These five incidents of statue-rescue share several attributes. They occurred through dreams on auspicious days. The dreamer was not a religious specialist but a poor member of a marginal community. The dream recovery affected the dreamer, their family and community, affixing them to the mythic narrative of a statue rescue. That these statues are Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu, and the dreamers Khmer and Vietnamese offers an intriguing oneiric ecumene (cf Hannerz 1989) of cosmological détente. This oneiric ecumene recognizes that humans and spirits are both necessary for rescue of the statue. But it also contributes to a cosmopolitics of constructive trespass in which gods themselves violate cosmological allegiances, and humans are instructed to cross social and political divides. One wonders, what do the gods really want?
Sochea, at the mouth of the cave. I have been in the cave myself with his story and this summer, we need to retrieve these treasures and set them out.
http://readinglists.ucl.ac.uk/lists/78388AD4-DD65-17CD-8BA0-3EEE7C6EACFE.htmlNotes from the story of the Boy who finds the Buddhas
This is a story of discovery, a story seeking the child, the dreamer. We are at Hotel Anise in Phnom Penh talking about statues, and Samnang offers me an adventure I can’t resist – go up to Stung Treng to find the boy. He puts this together. He gets us the tickets, meets me at the bus station early the next morning. I was just down from Siem Reap that weekend, so I wear the dress I brought to Phnom Penh.
The bus takes ten hours. Stung Treng is in the wild northeast, the edge of the world, at the covergence of rivers, as the Mekong swings down from Laos. Next day, we bargain for a ferry across the confluence of rivers to the far side, On that side, find a group of guys hanging out by the port, waiting to take riders. Motodops are motorcycle taxis. Samnang bargains again. We hoist up on the backs of two and buzz off. All we have is a name and a place, no address, no number, no other information. But Samnang is calm and confident.
We travel the red-dust highway, a new national construction project that will spin a trail of concrete across northern Cambodia. In the meantime, red dust plumes with every passing motorcyle and gravel flings up at us. One in a while, we come to a construction team pouring concrete. For the hour both sides of the highway reveal acres of clearcut land, only stumps, sad grass. It is a devastation.
After a hot, dusty hour, pit-marked by gravel, we moto into the town. It's a new frontier town, popped up along the hiway with housing that uses all that fresh wood. New roads, new settlers who have moved north. We go to a family the motodops know. They don’t have any idea about the family.
We try the neighbor, No.
We stop a driver, who does know the family – over there through the path.
Down over the cropping, onto a hard clay path through the fields.
Along the way, fields have been razed by settlers. The stumps smolder.
Here is a new generation of colonization.
We find them, then, in their own home on settled land. Sochea comes with his father and brother, and uncle. After some urging by his mother, he tells his story. He's shy, quiet, guileless. His mother, not so much.
Sochea wakes when it is still dark, his mother is already cooking rice. He asks for his sling shot and heads out. His mother thinks he is checking the traps he leaves for birds and small animals. But he doesn't return until 11am, and then he shows her a small statue of the Buddha. Stricken with fear, she says, she beats him - where did he get it, did he steal it? There is nothing like this for miles. There is not even a wat in their village, and anyway, it's too far to walk there. No, he says, he found it from his dream. So he tells her.
After New Year's night (April 16), they sleep, all 7 of them, together, and he dreams that two monks wake him, tell him to follow them, and lead him to a cave in Peacock mountain. It's easy to find now that all the trees are cut. (Before, says a neighbor, two naga - snakes - protected the cave and people were afraid to go. Also because the forest, prei, is a wild place full of neak ta prei, forest guardians.) He follows them into the cave, scrambling the stones. They turn and tell him to take the statues to the Royal Palace. Then they show him a small space in the rock and he crawls through into a high small white-stone chamber. They point up, on the right. They disappear. He wakes up, asks for his cham peam, his sling shot, and walks out in the dark along the rutted moto path before the dawn arrives, retracing his dream to the cave.
Maybe there is a slight bird song as he walks. Maybe he feels light weaken the thick dark, maybe he's walking the dream, we don't know. But we do know that when he reaches the mouth of the cave, it is full of light (like day, he says) all the way to the chamber. And once in the chamber, light pours down from one indentation high above. He climbs the calcium carbonite encrusted wall that hides a small loft and yes, it is littered with small buddhas - some on a chearng pean, a ritual portal, some in two jars, some on the floor.
We know he was gone for five hours. We wonder what he did there.
This is my public record of the pain of writing about immaterial things that matter. It's rife with uncertainty. How do statues cajole humans to rescue them? What's the exchange?
What is the social world within which these two interact?
Latour has "reassembled" the social. In his controversial critique of the fundamental basis of sociology, he defines the social as “not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling” (2005, 7). For Latour, the social is a basis for associations. It does not exist a priori to that exchange and is not limited to humans. Latour's "critical sociology" has three traits:
Bjørnar Olsen, proponent of ‘nonanthropocentric’ archaeology takes Latour, among others, as a reference point In Defense of things. Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Objects and humans operate not as separate entities but assemblages. I find this theorizing on the part of archeaologists helpful on new ways of tracing the life of strange objects, tracking entities to heterogenous worlds that are hidden, not (yet) visible. If entities are actants, I track statues seeking to be found from the water, mud and mountains, who use intermediate realms for a human-entity détente.
Latour offers five sources of uncertainty, controversies about the social realm that I will reconstruct later. In sum:
First Source of Uncertainty: Groups: If we reassemble the social so that group formation are constructed by actors reports, then groups confirm to a "performative definition” (Latour 2005, 34).
Second Source of Uncertainty: Actions: “Action is not done under the full control of consciousness; action should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled” (Latour 2005, 43).
Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects: They have agency too, so we diversify the types of actors in any social event.
Fourth Source of Uncertainty: Nature of facts: Matters of fact vs. matters of concern.
Fifth Source of Uncertainty: How to study the science of the social if we aren't clear what we mean by empirical. Such that writing is a risky account, and there are already so many uncertainties. But the purpose of this risky account is, in Latour’s words to “extend the exploration of the social connections a little bit further” (Latour 2005, 128).
Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Olsen, Bjørnar 2010, In Defense of things. Archaeology and the ontology of objects. Lanham: Altamira Press.
Kathryn (Kerry) Poethig
I teach Global Studies in California, study feminism, religion and peacemaking in SEAsia, I've taken on this Invisible Aid project and decided to blog it as I go. This work sits in the intersection of political, metaphysical and personal imaginal worlds.