In her article, “The Persistent Presence of Cambodian Spirits: Contemporary Knowledge production in Cambodia”*, Courtney Work argues that the presence of spirits in Cambodian culture has been made a subjacent subject in the dialogue of empire, but that the human culture of this complex nation cannot be properly explained without reference to the “other-than-human world”. The subject of colonial discourse on spirit presence in Cambodia is a winding and absorbing story, with a number of French Orientalists of the early twentieth century reversing earlier negations of persistent beliefs in spirits. In Phnom Penh, in February 2016, I interviewed young Cambodians for a novel I was working on. I found strong patterns of spirit belief emerging through the interviews, but with evidence of impacts made by education and outside cultural influences.
Courtney Work’s article points out the absence of spirit power in the chronicles of colonisers. Early Indianologists, when confronted by Cambodian spirit practice, erased the matter from their studies, “attempting to purify lived practice to more closely match the texts they encountered”. But, while the merging of Khmer animism from the second century AD with Hinduism and later Buddhism was seen by many to pollute the introduced creed, its denial would never be universal. By the early twentieth century, some French colonial functionaries were letting the spirits back in. Indeed, some fell in love with otherworldly Khmer-ism and began collecting monks’ tales from pagoda schools and by the 1920s were publishing collections of Gatiloke stories for consumption both in Cambodia and France.
As Work writes, in practical respects, “spirit-energies continue to flow under the civilising veneer of empires”. Her article is organised around the boundaries between the living and the dead, which are crossed by the spirits and their living families, boundaries which are “in constant states of closure and opening, of blurring and resolving”.
Read Robert Horne’s review, for the Mekong Review, of Courtney Work’s article “The Persistent Presence of Cambodian Spirits: Contemporary Knowledge production in Cambodia”.
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