I was teaching classes at a local research institution. I arrogantly would always trot out the notion of the Angkor Empire in my examples. Angkor was, in my opinion then as now, a horrendous deformation of humanity, where slave labor and mass dehumanization resulted in the piling of rocks into beautiful monuments. The vast majority of modern Cambodians, however, for a host of reasons which are increasingly well understood(2) think of the Angkorean regime as the golden age of Cambodia. Historically, this cannot have been true, at least not for the masses of people who lived under Angkor’s rule. Instead, modern Cambodians appeal to Angkor primarily as an offense against the constriction of the Cambodian nation (in terms of territory, glory, and regional power), a notion explored very well by Thongchai Winichakul for Thailand.(3) In my classes, I would ask people if they would want to have lived during the Angkor era. All my students smiled beatifically and replied that yes, they would.
I then asked them if they were under the impression that they would have been kings, queens, or if they would have been the slaves who built the palaces. Their smiles dropped, and their responses were a combination of shame and sullen silence. I was frustrated too. I supposed I had expected some sort of ‘a-ha’ moment where their eyes would suddenly open onto a vista of oppression and slavery of which they were unaware. This is what I mean by referring to my previous arrogance.
It is an extreme rarity to read nuanced and academic accounts of Cambodia as they happen, which is what makes Deathpower in Cambodia a great read. Probably less of a great read for anybody who yells “wanker” whenever I mention an obscure theorist or add footnotes (Erik listed Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus amongst his heavy holiday reading).
Oddly enough, as an outsider I tend to display the same arrogance about Cambodian food. Not many Cambodians enjoy discussing that banh xeo, loc lac and samlor machou yuon in all likelihood had Vietnamese (or even Khmer Krom) origins nor do they find it as interesting to discuss how these dishes became so intimately entwined in a monolithic idea of Cambodian cuisine and modern-day Cambodian nationalism. They’re all Cambodian foods now because Cambodians have so thoroughly claimed ownership over them and modified them to their own tastes, but it’s rare to find a local who does not believe that Khmer culture (and as an extension, food) magically appeared sui generis in the hazy Angkorean past.