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.
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:
- it doesn’t only limit itself to the social but replaces the object to be studied by another matter made of social relations;
- it claims that this substitution is unbearable for the social actors who need to live under the illusion that there is something ‘other’ than social there; and
- it considers that the actors’ objections to their social explanations offer the best proof that those explanations are right.” (9)
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.