HAU
Wilder powers

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Jean M. Langford. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.009

Wilder powers

Morality and animality in tales of war and terror

Jean M. LANGFORD, University of Minnesota

Among the figures of animality evoked in narratives of violence are the “beast” who perpetrates acts of brutality and the debased creature who is subjected to captivity, forced labor, or slaughter. Yet a third figure of animality appears in the stories of animistically inclined emigrants who survived war and terror in Laos or Cambodia: the wild animal as transmigrated ancestor or capriciously sympathetic spirit who offers a powerful if unpredictable source of protection. Encounters with fantastic animals implicitly question the relationship between humanity and animality that often prevails in accounts of violence, opening possibilities for a zoopolitics of morality and animality.

Keywords: animality, zoopolitics, Southeast Asia, violence, magic, biopolitics

Work, work—hacking at trees, uprooting them,
clearing bushes,
transplanting rice, no time to rest.
At noon, alone, as I cleared the canebrake,
a beautiful black cobra

opened his hood before me, displaying his power.
He thought I was his foe.
“He’s beautiful, just like in the Indian movies!”
I exclaimed to myself while my knees knocked.

“O cobra! Your flesh and blood are truly
Buddha’s flesh and blood.
I am just a prisoner of war,
but I am not your food.

You, cobra, are free,
and if my flesh is truly your blood,
plead my case with the spirits of this swamp
to lead me to Buddham, Dhammam, and Sangham.”

So writes the Cambodian poet U Sam Oeur in his poem entitled “Water buffalo cobra and the prisoner of war” (Oeur and McCullough 2004).1 The cobra in this poem strikes a familiar motif. Like other (nonhuman) animals who appear in Southeast Asian literature, folktales, and memoirs about life at times of crisis, Oeur’s cobra is a figure of imagined rescue, as much as danger. The interspecies encounter recorded here is not simply an ethnographic reference to a rural lifestyle, where the land along with its creatures might be animated by intelligence, sentience, and intention. For the cosmopolitan prisoner of the poem, who was forced at gunpoint into a rural work camp by the Khmer Rouge—as was Oeur himself (Oeur and McCullough 2005)—the cobra borrows some of its magical luster from Bollywood movies. Indeed, the mimetic iterations of this poetic animal span several registers: the multitude of cobras living in the Cambodian countryside, who were a potentially fatal threat, and perhaps an unfamiliar terror for Khmer displaced from urban habitats by the coerced relocations of Pol Pot’s regime; the protocobra as media icon disseminated around the globe, bearing traces of locally specific extraordinary powers; and not least, a singular cobra appearing to one human in a radiant instant, a cobra that is independent, resplendent, and fiercely itself. Such competing imagery hardly inhibits the prisoner, and may even inspire him, in addressing a fervent prayer to this magnificent—we could even say sovereign—beast, who might possibly intervene in the prisoner’s fate.

The image of redemptive animality in Oeur’s poem seems paradoxical, given not only that cobras were among many perils of the forest encountered by Khmer Rouge work teams, but also that in Theravada Buddhism, according to my conversations with Lao and Cambodian elders, the realm of nonhuman animals is one level up from the realm of hungry ghosts, and reincarnation as an animal is a fate reserved for people with an accumulation of very bad karma (cf. Robinson, Johnson, and Bhikku 2005: 12; Crosby 2013: 16, 115, 132). Moreover, in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, associations of humans with certain species of animals can be considered extremely offensive.2 In stories of war and terror, in particular, two decidedly uncharismatic figures of animality are often invoked: inhuman brutes, whether bandits or soldiers, who kill indiscriminately like wild predators on a rampage; and debased subhuman creatures who are subjected like livestock to captivity, forced labor, and slaughter. “They treated us like animals,” one Kmhmu man told me of his time in a Thai refugee camp. “They did whatever they felt like.”3 This figure of animality as subhumanity, incidentally, also appears in accounts of North American medicine. One Lao man repeated to me the warning of a friend who worked in a hospital in the United States: “Man, if you don’t have friends or relatives, you’re going to be miserable if you’re dead in this hospital, because they put you in [the morgue] like a pig, like an animal.” As such medical sites serve to remind us, both these figures of animality, the vicious predator and the abject livestock, fit comfortably into a prevalent biopolitical narrative whereby animals (like the sovereign) are understood to exist outside the moral and political order (cf. Derrida 2009: 39, 60). For Giorgio Agamben, for instance, the wolf-man “is not a piece of animal nature without any relation to law and the city” (1998: 105); rather his precise relation to law is that of being neither protected by it nor bound by it. These two figures of beastliness—brute power and absolute lack of power—are aptly united in this lycological motif for the animality in humanity: the werewolf is simultaneously the figure of one who is killable by everyone and one who can kill anyone (Agamben 1998: 109–111).

But how then do we understand the figure of magical animality appearing in Oeur’s poem, and in the tales told by Buddhist and animistically inclined emigrants who survived the covert war in Laos or the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia? This third figure is the wild animal as transmigrated ancestor or possibly sympathetic spirit or deity who offers a forceful if unpredictable source of protection when the civil order itself has undergone a terrifying metamorphosis. The appearance of such magical animals in stark contrast to more expected figures of savagery or abjection, is the conundrum that sparked this essay. What might such animals offer to those who are threatened with a social violence unrestrained by law and professedly humanitarian ethics? Furthermore, what possibilities do such fabulous animals offer for rewriting the biopolitical story about humanity and animality that predominates in much popular discourse and even social analysis of violence and incarceration? To contemplate these questions I turn first to Oeur’s poem and then to other texts from Laos and Cambodia of varied provenance— folktales, oral accounts from conversations with Lao and Cambodian emigrants, memoirs, regional ethnographies, and accounts of ritual—which have the potential to offer insight about the figures of fantastic animality that appear in narratives of political violence. These accounts are derived from both Hmong and Kmhmu ani-mists and Theravada Buddhists—Lao Loum (lowland Lao) and Khmer who are eclectically engaged with a pantheon of spirits of the landscape.

Scholars have long discussed the entanglements of Theravada Buddhism with animism in this region (e.g., Tambiah 1970; Choulean 1988; Zucker 2006; Ladwig and Williams 2012; Davis 2009; Holt 2012). Lao Loum and Khmer commonly engage in scripturally supported practices such as giving alms, taking temporary vows of austerity, or participating in rituals at Buddhist wats (temples), while also maintaining relationships with tutelary and agricultural spirits, seeking out magical spells from lay practitioners, and most germane to this article, telling tales of encounters with fabulous animals. Meanwhile, Hmong and Kmhmu, even when converted to Christianity, continue to have dealings with a variety of spirits associated with places, plants, and animals. While the stories recounted below may seem a random collection of texts, emerging within unique political, social, and cultural milieus, they share two common spheres of reference beyond their regional affiliation. First, many of them refer to recent linked histories and memories of political violence during and following the American wars in southeast Asia—a kind of violence (characterized by war, state terror, and refugee, reeducation, or prison camps) that has often been taken to exemplify the biopolitical bestiary of brute and dominated beast noted above. second, they draw on certain common idioms of magical animality rooted in overlapping repertoires of animistic philosophy and practice.

Behind the specificity of histories that is glossed over here lies an even more complicated specificity of narrative versions, personal histories, political affiliations, animal species, particular blends of animism and Buddhism, or animism and Christianity, and unique instants of human-animal interchange. The recounted stories in this article are chosen not for their exemplariness but rather for their capacity to enable the imagination of morality and animality. My intention in assembling these stories is to elaborate an image of animality as both critique and alternative to the vision of animality that predominates in biopolitical accounts of violence (often as articulated by and following from the work of Giorgio Agam-ben).4 I suggest that the collected stories strike a common chord: an invocation of animal subjectivities that undermines the distinction between bios and zoe on which Agambenian theories of biopolitics rest. Furthermore, I suggest that the figures of animality emerging from these stories complicate the narrative of the inclusion/exclusion of animal life from the polis by introducing a plurality of bestial powers accessed through encounters with nonhumans that magically exceed the power of the biopolitical.

I will provisionally refer to these powers as zoopolitics. This term has been most often used to refer either to a politics (especially Nazism) that posits certain humans as no different from nonhuman animals, more specifically vermin (Esposito 2008: 117; Winthrop-Young 2010: 227). My own usage aligns more closely with that of Nicole Shukin, for whom zoopolitics denotes not simply the exercise of power over the animality within the human but the power exercised over nonhuman animals (2009: 9). Here, however, I expand the term to include an imagination of animal powers and animal morality that is indebted to animistic cosmologies. This usage of zoopolitics would ascribe moral character and power not merely to humans but to nonhuman animals, imagining a field of multilaterally moral interspecies relationships.5

To begin, I first consider more closely Oeur’s imagination of the cobra’s subjectivity, and then suggest how war and state terror—by driving humans into unfamiliar landscapes—might set the scene for encounters with magical (and ultimately moral) animality.

Between creaturely worlds

Borrowing on Jakob Von Uexküll’s idea of tone, which roughly designates the present, practical significance of a particular creature for the another creature (typically from a different species) who perceives it (2010: 93–98), the cobra takes on many tones for Oeur: danger, marvel, and divine intermediary. Put another way, the poet perceives the cobra through several intermingled moods—fear, admiration, kinship, and worship (Von Uexkull 2010: 93). Moreover, the poet imagines that the cobra has the capacity to adopt various moods as well—defensiveness, cocreatureliness, divine mediation—that enable the snake to perceive the human in tones of enemy, blood relation, or supplicant. Where Oeur’s poem enlarges on Von Uexkull’s science, however, is in supposing that the two creatures might negotiate the mood and tone for their meeting. It is as if the umwelt, the subjective worlds of these creatures, are not self-enclosed as Von Uexkull imagined, but overlap, potentially transforming one another, allowing for creative plays and counterplays.

One Khmer story of a human umwelt that succumbs to radical transformation has been famously recounted and interpreted by David Chandler (2008). In this folktale, two girls who have been abandoned by their mother in the forest are defended from predatory animals by a sympathetic arak thevada (a local guardian spirit) and manage to survive by embracing wildness, eating raw snails, fish, and grain. By increments, the girls become birds; their clothing turns to feathers, their fingers curl into claws, their lips harden to beaks, and their arms unfold into wings. Having lost their ability to speak human language, they communicate with one another in bird song (Edwards 2008: 145), while still knowing that they are both human and bird (Chandler 2008: 34). In his analysis of this tale, Chandler (2008) notes that the Khmer categories of srok (domesticity or civil order) and prei (wildness) are susceptible to risky yet creative inversions that are sometimes provoked by social violence and chaos. The manuscript in which this tale is found dates from the mid-nineteenth century, toward the end of a period when Cambodia was repeatedly invaded by Thai and Vietnamese armies, a time that, as Chandler observes, resembled the 1970s in its extremes of violence (2008: 31). Chandler notes that the girls’ experience in the forest resonates with the fate of many Khmer of that time: driven from their home by the Vietnamese, fleeing into the forest where they lived on lizards dug from the earth and soup made from roots.

For Chandler, the tale suggests that in a time of social upheaval there was “no explanation for suffering that would allow any but the magically endowed to overcome it” (2008: 45). Survival was possible only by trafficking with nonhuman entities or becoming them, through a willingness to engage in parahuman magic that alone had a chance of prevailing against human violence. As one survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, Sodoeung, put it to me: “When we go to the temple we pray to the Buddha. But when we go to the jungle and see the big trees, we pray to these people, these spirits. I sometimes prayed to the trees too during the communist time…. You talk to the tree and then when the wind blows you feel like, ‘Oh, they answered. I got the answer!’”6

Like the girls in the folktale, Sodoeung and many others living in Cambodia and Laos during the US sponsored wars and their aftermath, were forced from their villages into the forest. In Cambodia (then Kampuchea) the Khmer Rouge relocated thousands of people from villages into communal farms, forcibly recruited young men sixteen or older into the armed forces, and, in April 1975 evacuated Phnom Penh, the principal city, separating families into work teams organized by age group that often worked in remote areas far from their homes.7 Even after 1979 when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime, displaced Khmer were often unable to return to homes that were now in the possession of other families or had been commandeered by the Vietnamese army. Similarly, in Laos, many Hmong and Kmhmu, particularly those whose villages had been caught up in conflicts between the Pathet Lao, on the one hand, and the CIA sponsored forces and Royal Lao Army on the other, were driven from their villages by bomb raids or military skirmishes.8 Those who fled or were recruited from their villages either engaged directly in guerilla warfare or lived precariously at its edges in landscapes that were remapped by war operations. With the destruction of farms and fields, many subsisted on food supplied by USAID until the rapid departure of US forces in 1975, when a few thousand were airlifted to relative safety, while the vast majority were left behind to continue fighting or to make their way through the forest and across the Mekong River to Thailand. Meanwhile, Lao Loum whose family members had fought against the Pathet Lao risked being rounded up into reeducation camps. Thousands chose instead to make their way to Thai refugee camps across the border.

People who were dislocated in these ways subsisted in landscapes subject to unpredictable episodes of violence, but also to wild animals, weather, and unknown terrain that might hinder, or unexpectedly assist, their survival. They were constrained to develop new bodily habits incorporating trees, sky, stars, as well as animals. Lt. Somsy, an elderly Lao soldier living in the United States described the weeks he spent in the forest after escaping a prison camp.

I walked about sixty kilometers a day. I walked in mud. The mud collected on my shoes and I cut it off with a knife and continued to walk. Sometimes I had to swim across a river. Sometimes I found bananas in the forest; that was good food. Most of the time I ate leaves. Some of them smelled bad, but I didn’t get poisoned. I was hungry and I ate more. I never got lost in the jungle because when you’re in the jungle at night and you want to know the direction you look at the star. There’s one star called a diamond star. It’s always in the north.

The diamond star and the edible leaves were not, I suggest, merely technical means of subsistence for Lt. Somsy, any more than the muddy earth and the river were merely obstacles. They were shifting foes and allies in a densely tangled intimacy among human, earth, plant, and sky. They were forcefully interceding, not passive but active, not simply the background scenery of history but historical agents themselves, compelling him into new bodily practice.

When she was in her mid-teens Sodoeung spent time on a Khmer Rouge work crew, digging and hauling dirt for a dam. She described sleeping under trees on the bare ground, where scorpions and centipedes found their way into clothing and backpacks, and cobra hunted nearby. She and the others on her team carried dirt in baskets suspended on bamboo stalks across their shoulders, climbing in and out of a six-meter deep pit on a log ladder slick with rain and sap. Given only a small portion of rice each day, she learned to find other food such as frogs or a particular species of mushroom that grew underground. “When you open them on the top, the inside comes out all over, just like hair,” she recalled. “You can eat it raw, or you can make soup, but too bad, we could not boil anything!” The baskets of dirt were tied to the bamboo with cowhide. “When it rained the skin got soggy, and became just like meat,” she said. “It smelled. Flies would follow you everywhere you walked. You smelled like death. Sometimes when we didn’t have food to eat, we used those ropes. We just put them in the fire. Or sometimes it was not cooked.” Water was scarce. Once every two months the laborers were taken two or three miles to a place where they could bathe. They walked barefoot over sharp bamboo stalks. “They stuck our feet,” she recalled. “You could not just walk. You ran. One of the [Khmer Rouge] would ride on a horse wagon in front, and two of them would ride horses behind. It was just like, I don’t know, maybe a dog. Maybe they were just guarding a dog, taking the dog to have a bath. We ran to take a bath, and after that we ran back again.”

After the Vietnamese invaded, Sodoeung managed to escape her work unit. “I ran fast,” she said.

Ten times faster than anyone. No one can run the way I did. I don’t know how…. I ran, and they shot at me, and I didn’t get hurt. It only went through the side of my clothing…. I ran and ran and ran and they shot at me until they used up all their bullets…. I had to cross a creek, and at that time I didn’t know how to swim very well. I remembered that my brother had said that you could use a long bamboo to flip. So I flipped. But my legs were still in the water. By the creek there was a lot of bushy grass. I hung onto that so the water would not take me. It was deep. All the time I kept flipping.

Eventually she made it back to her family.

Sodoeung’s senses, like Lt. Somsy’s, became differently attuned to life in the forest. She developed new bodily relationships with wildlife: catching frogs for food, digging up hairy mushrooms, catapulting herself across a stream with a bamboo stalk, grasping onto tufts of grass, sleeping under the trees among scorpions and cobra. As she became alert to the pulling strength of river water and the stickiness of resinous logs, she also learned to speak to trees and to listen for their windy answers. In this world she was treated like a dog, but also perhaps developed the acute senses, hungers, and skills of one: running uncannily fast, chewing on rawhide rope for food.

Khmer Rouge terror threatened to drive humans into a nonhuman realm of existence, but this realm also offered unique and unexpected opportunities of survival. This survival is something quite different from the “bare life” imagined by Agamben (1998) and deployed by social scientists to speak of the situations of refugees and prisoners. Here humanity, rather than being stripped of its political existence and reduced to animality, bares itself to the metamorphic possibilities of animal existence. When villages, farms, and temples are transformed into war zones and torture sites, the forest offers a countertransformation of human sociality into a world where the ontological barrier between humans and nonhumans partially dissolves. The destruction of and displacement from domestic life appears to strengthen animistic sensibilities, prompting sodoeung’s prayers to the trees, and her attention to their windy answers, and Oeur’s prayer to the cobra. such then is the physical submersion into a nonhuman realm during times of war or state terror that sets the scene for encounters with powerful and morally responsive animals.

Magical animality

While Oeur’s cobra is represented as an actual snake rising out of the cane fields, it (or rather, as Oeur specifies, he) simultaneously takes on the aura of a supernatural creature, one who can understand human language and intervene in human fate. The appearance of such animals as figures of miraculous intervention in times of political violence depends on and draws from a broader conceptual repertoire of supernatural animality evoked in oral texts and materialized in ritual practice. Within this repertoire certain animals may be known for issuing warnings or offering assistance; other animals may possess souls that can be substituted for human souls in specific situations; some domestic animals may be treated as members of human families, while certain wild animals may marry into human families; humans may take on animal form, while still alive or after death. The accounts of this larger repertoire that I offer here call forth a complex bestiary of animal figures, all of whom are characterized by subjectivity, thought, sociality, moral sense, and capacity for choice. Arguably it is the storied existence of such beasts that makes it possible to imagine wild animals as magical allies for humans in times of social turmoil.

In southeast Asian lore, for instance, potentially helpful creatures often take the form of small, wild animals who may be embodiments or ambassadors of the spirit world. In Cambodia, birds who enter a house are said to carry messages from ancestors, while in Kmhmu tales, humans are often assisted by animals such as ant-eaters or insects (Lindell, swahn, and Tayanin 1989: 17).9 According to Kmhmu folklorist Kam Raw, when birds, squirrels, or rats enter a domestic environment acting drowsy and allowing themselves to be caught, they are possessed by the soul of a living friend or relative who is close to death. In such a situation, one should tie a string around the animal’s legs, urging the soul of the relative to stay with his or her family. When the animal is set free, it will also release the captive soul to its human body, allowing the dying person to recover (Lindell, swahn, and Tayanin 1989: 17). Kam Raw also references ancestors who appear as barking deer to alert their descendants to danger, cautioning them not to cut lumber or work in the field that day.

Among non-Christian Hmong, the exchangeability of human and animal souls is ceremonially enacted in animal sacrifices when, for instance, the soul of a pig is offered to the spirits as replacement for the soul of an ill human (Symonds 2004). Exchange of animal and human souls may unfold in less scripted ways as well. One Hmong emigrant, pheng, recalled to me that as a child in Thailand, he once spontaneously pointed at a bird flying overhead and said, “drop dead.” When the bird fell to the ground, he took it home to his father who roasted it and gave it to Pheng to eat. Three months later when his father fell ill, a txiv neeb (shaman) told them that his father’s soul was being requested in “trade” for the bird. When you touch or injure a wild creature, Pheng told me, it can injure your spirit. Hmong hunters in Southeast Asia have been known to smear blood on their crossbows after a kill in order to placate the spirits of their prey (Livo and Cha 1991: 3).

Richard Davis describes sukhwan (soul-calling ceremonies) performed for water buffalo in Northern Thailand, in which the animal’s soul is asked to forgive the hard labor and beatings to which it has been subjected, praised for its patience, and asked not to wander out of its body and consort with wild animals but rather to stay on the farm and enjoy the sweet grass. As in sukhwan for humans, the buffalo are offered cigarettes, betel nut, rice, bananas, and cooked chicken (1984: 167). Guido Sprenger (2005) relates that the Rmeet of Northern Laos practice a similar ritual for their buffalo when they roam too far from the village. In a ceremony modeled after the “wrist-tying” ceremonies that fasten human souls more closely to their body among many Southeast Asian peoples, the Rmeet tie strings to the horns of the buffalo (2005: 295).10 Even as these agricultural animals are dominated in everyday life, such rituals imagine them as creatures with choices, longings, and loyalties.

Certain tales emphasize the risks of interspecies socialities, which are subject to shifting rules, the violation of which may have devastating consequences. Cheuang, an emigrant Kmhmu healer, told me the story of two sisters who were brushing their hair. After they finished they decided to brush the dog’s fur as well. That night it rained so hard that by midnight the village was flooded and everyone drowned. Only seven people, away hunting at the time, survived. “I could go now and still look at that hole,” he said. “It’s as big as this room.” Prayong rooy, a dragon spirit who sometimes appears as a snake, had punished them for treating the dog as a human, he explained.

If small herbivores are often benevolent and helpful, traffic with carnivores can be dangerous. Kmhmu stories refer to humans who are possessed by tiger spirits and become fierce and aggressive, killing and eating their neighbors’ water buffalo. In one Hmong tale a tiger abducts a woman from her family’s field and makes her his wife (Johnson 1992). She gives birth to a tailless tiger cub. When her visiting sister admires and cuddles the baby, the father grows angry. He stalks the sister, killing and eating her. Her parents then curse their feline son-in-law, as much for his disrespect as for his savagery. Despite the tiger’s attempts to conciliate them by offering gifts of money and paying a friendly visit dressed in human clothes, he and the cub are eventually killed by his father-in-law, who then soaks his daughter in a bath of cow dung to restore her to more domestic human-animal transactions.

In Laos, Lt. Somsy told me, an animal spirit was sometimes known to fall in love with a human woman and marry her. At certain phases of the moon she would leave her husband’s bed to sleep in another room with the animal spirit. He had heard of one woman in southern Laos who married a paya nak, a sea serpent, and gave birth to five human children. “Some curious people wanted to know if she was really married to the paya nak,” he recalled, “so they followed her, and saw her walking down to the river by herself. She would walk under the water, disappear for a few days and then emerge. After her children were born, she put the children on her back and walked down to the river, disappearing and reappearing in the same way. It’s unbelievable to me too!” Lt. Somsy exclaimed. “If the husband was paya nak, an animal, then why were the children human?” For Lt. Somsy, as for other storytellers, such stories are told with a mix of fascination and skepticism. The conspecific instability of these interspecies intimacies makes them especially marvelous.

In a Khmer story recounted by Anne Hansen (2003: 827), a young girl’s mother is murdered by her husband and his minor wife. The mother takes successive rebirths as plant, animal, and spirit, in order to help her daughter, who suffers from the cruelty of her stepmother. Eventually the girl is murdered by her stepmother and reborn as a bird. While such transmigratory figures might simply be taken as humans in animal (and in this case, plant and spirit) guise, they might better be understood as unstable becomings, metamorphic beings (or moments in the lives of beings) unsettling the borders of human and nonhuman.

Such is the pantheon of magical animality that then becomes available to stories of life under conditions of war and state terror. Miraculous human-animal interactions and metamorphoses are powerful means for envisioning rescue or survival. In his memoir of escaping from the Khmer Rouge, Daran Kravanh describes the assistance he received from his maternal grandfather as a reptile. When his grandfather died his family buried him near a rice field. At the hundredth day mourning feast they offered him food at the grave. As they prayed a lizard crawled out from a fruit tree and ate some of the food. Kravanh’s mother cried, “Father you’ve come back to life.” Thereafter whenever they visited the grave they called to grandfather and the lizard appeared. Kravanh describes spending many hours alone at the gravesite, lying against the trunk of the fruit tree, listening for his grandfather’s advice. “The voice I heard from him,” he said, “was not a human voice but one of nature—of that place where my grandfather had returned” (LaFreniere 2000: 10). Much later when Kravanh was living in the forest, hungry and wounded from a fight with Khmer Rouge soldiers, he saw a lizard and reassured his companions, “It is my grandfather come to help us” (LaFreniere 2000: 68).

The animal-human encounters within these stories are reminiscent of what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, in the context of Amazonian animism, has termed “perspectivism” (2012). Like Von Uexkull’s biology, perspectivism posits that each creature possesses its own point of view, and essentially, its own world. Amazonian cosmologies, like the Southeast Asian stories cited here, recognize a potential for humans and nonhumans to metamorphose into one another, whether inadvertently, or in the case of shamans or others with special powers, deliberately for the purpose of borrowing or stealing one another’s perspective or power. Where the Southeast Asian stories, in my reading of them, diverge from perspectivism, is in the possibility (or impossibility) of simultaneous cosubjectivity. In perspectivism, as Viveiros de Castro states, “each species or type of being is endowed with a proso-pomorphic or anthropomorphic apperception, seeing itself as a ‘person’ while it sees the other components of its own eco-system as non-persons or non-humans” (2012: 33). He continues, “Two species” in this system “cannot see each other simultaneously as people” (2012: 34). This impossibility in the Amazonian cosmos seems to be due, at least in part, to the way that interspecies relationships are largely organized around predator and prey. As Viveiros de Castro puts it, “per-spectival multiplicity is the correlate of the generalized cannibalism that defines the indigenous cosmopolitical economy” (2012: 33). In other words, “In a cosmos totally impregnated with subjecthood, the dominant supposition-fear is that what we eat are always, in the final analysis, souls” (Viveiros de Castro 2012: 37). Ultimately, therefore, Amazonian animism “takes the form of … enemism” (2012: 41).

By contrast, the Southeast Asian stories retold here seem to sustain the possibility of a mutual creaturely awareness of cosubjectivity, which we could also call copersonhood.11 This copersonhood is similar to what Lucien Levy-Bruhl has described as “homogeneity of essence” among humans and other beings (1971: 36–55), which also allows for creatures to dually exist as both human and beast (1971: 158–84). For an animistic mentality, he writes “the transit from animal to man and from man to animal is accomplished in the most natural way…. It is agreed, too, as self-evident, that the faculties of animals are no whit behind those of human beings” (1966: 36).

Certainly the Southeast Asian stories recognize the risk that Viveiros de Castro identifies for Amazonian shamans (2012) or Rane Willerslev for Siberian hunters (2007), of becoming irretrievably lost in an animal world—the human girls who turn into birds, the tiger’s human wife who is narrowly restored to her former self through cow excrement. But even then, the birds, we are told, knew in their hearts that they were human, the tiger’s wife never herself became a tiger, despite cohabiting with one, the cub was both tiger and human, while the husband remained a tiger, only awkwardly attempting at times to mimic humanity as when he donned human clothes. Nor do the tiger or Oeur’s cobra seem to embody the “antithesis of kinship” as does, for instance, the Amazonian jaguar, in Viveiros de Castro’s discussion (2012: 38). Rather, they are available for incorporation, however temporary and ambivalent, into human kinship networks (cf. Levy-Bruhl 1971).

The Southeast Asian stories may in part reflect a different character to interspecies interactions in largely agricultural communities, where hunting is secondary. They may also reflect the entanglement of Southeast Asian animism with a Buddhist ethos of compassion. As in the Amazon, “divinity is distributed under the form of a potential infinity of nonhuman subjects” (Viveiros de Castro 2012: 40), but the prototypical relationship of these subjects to humans does not appear to be enmity. The antagonism of nonhuman beings is no more assumed than the amity. That said, it is clear from these stories that different species and kinds of animals enact sociality and subjectivity in different ways. While the tracing of such difference is beyond the scope of this article, it is crucial to note that many variables—wild or domestic, carnivore or herbivore, beast of labor or food source, bird, fish, mammal, or amphibian—influence the specific ways that animal subjectivities are imagined. Certain animals, such as the naga, are associated with water and integral to agricultural cycles.12 Others, like water buffalo, play specific roles in relation to economic structures of labor and exchange. For the Rmeet, for instance, as noted by Sprenger, buffalo appear to be the only animal that possesses a kplu or personal “soul” (2005: 296). Despite such heterogeneity in the scope of action and awareness ascribed to various species and situations, the narratives of fantastic animality cited here all conjure the possibility of animals as social and subjective beings who think and feel, give and take, form friendships and enmities. Underlying this repertoire of magical animality runs a vein of ontological possibility for imagining otherwise the relationship between animality and violence.

Arguably, stories of animals as magical or spiritual beings are uniquely capable of illuminating forms of animal consciousness that otherwise would remain opaque. A turn to fabulous animals or fabulous aspects of “actual” animals facilitates the imagination of animal desires, emotions, and communications with humans that are largely inaccessible. Nonetheless, we should be wary of presuming any firm distinction between actual and fabulous animality. For one thing, it would likely be impossible to establish universal criteria for actuality. Borges’ imaginary Chinese encyclopedia, which prompted Foucault’s laughter at the start of The order of things (1970), comes to mind here, with its lack of classificatory divisions between real and represented animals, or between zoological specimens and mythical creatures. In Southeast Asian literature and ritual, actual and fabulous animality may be merged, as in Oeur’s cobra. At stake in the distinction between the fabulous and the actual are not only historically and culturally contingent organizations of categories, but also historically and culturally contingent measures for reality. Finally, what is critical is not to identify these animal entities as actual or fabulous, part-human or wholly animal, but rather, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest, to focus on the blurred and potent movement of “becoming-animal”—or, for the animal, becoming-human—a process of alliance or symbiosis, rather than the production of a stable hybrid, a rhizomatic transformation rather than a classificatory one (1987: 238–39). As Willerslev writes of human-animal becomings among the Yukaghir, “There are no fixed entities here, only continuous transformations” (2007: 6).

Zoopower

How different the tigers and sea serpents in the stories retold above are from the werewolf in Homo sacer, the animalized figure for one who is reduced to bare life, exiled from the polis, at the threshold of the law. The werewolf, for Agamben, represents the figure of a man under a medieval ban, killable with impunity, like the Roman homo sacer, but also, paradoxically, gestures toward the figure of the sovereign who kills with impunity (1998). In either configuration, the werewolf is emblematic of extralegal existence. Yet wolves, Derrida notes in The beast and the sovereign, are stealthy (Derrida 2009: 21), too stealthy perhaps to accede to the structural role assigned to them in Agamben’s text. What is missing from Agamben’s metaphorical werewolf is not only subjectivity, longing, and will, but also (and these are not unrelated, as I suggest above) miraculousness and magic. More importantly perhaps, Agamben seems to have overlooked how a werewolf (or weretiger) might smuggle alien powers not simply into the city but into the intimate space of kinship networks, sparking expectations of reciprocity and hospitality, invoking less biopolitics than zoopolitesse. The Hmong tiger husband, for instance, is not reducible to an allegory for a banished savagery within the human. As a jealous family member who loses his temper, forgets his manners, seeks forgiveness, feigns humanity, and offers gifts, he exemplifies the difficulties of finding one’s way in the moral thicket of injurious love and comfortable captivity. Similarly, the Lao sea serpent is not only a figure of predation but also a lover and father, seductively attractive to his human wife, commanding her loyalty, and demanding to know his human children. These are moral and contradictory creatures who make choices and mistakes, never entirely caught in a structuralist maze with only one ending, meaning, or message.

Bang fai, the rocket festival that occurs in Laos at the beginning of the rainy season, is a signal for the nak, the phallic bringers of rain, to awaken. The festival is celebrated partly by boat races in which the vessels themselves are crafted to resemble sea serpents. These boats are said to drive the nak out of the river so that they can fertilize the fields, returning to the river again at the end of the rains (Davis 1984: 217). Nak move stealthily, we might say, between domesticity and wildness, benevolence and aggression. A Times magazine reporter visiting Thailand for a bang fai festival in 2002 was shown a postcard sporting a photo of a group of American soldiers, supposedly stationed in Laos during the 1970s, holding an eight-meter-long, silvery, eel-like fish. Locals told him that the nak later escaped these soldiers who were carting it to the United States for “scientific study.” In fact, this photo, which also widely circulated in Laos, was apparently taken in 1996 by the US Navy to show off a giant oarfish found off the west coast of the Americas. Yet that doesn’t prevent the postcard from drawing on the power of the nak to comment on both US military prowess and laboratory science. At the time of the 2002 rocket festival locals assured the US journalist that “all of the men in the photo met with messy ends” (Gagliardi 2002).

Animals like Oeur’s cobra, Kravanh’s reptilian grandfather, and the sea serpent who outmaneuvered the US military, oppose the image of bestialization as violation with a more emancipatory beastliness, gesturing toward a subjectivity that is neither debased nor simply savage. In these stories, the human predation of war, terror, and military or paramilitary violence is answered by a counteranimalization whereby escape, protection, defiance, or rescue is sought from or embodied by fantastic creatures. Those who are threatened with dehumanization, vulnerable to being abused like livestock or killed as subhuman prey, conjure alternative subjectivities through collaborations and fusions with nonhuman creatures. They abandon a seemingly futile insistence on rehumanization, turning instead toward a productive merging of human and other-than-human. Rather than hold out for the restoration of a peacetime morality or become resigned to the end of morality altogether, they gamble on temporary assistance involving moral beasts. Faced with the nonhumaneness of human society, they turn to a broader realm of sociality in which humans and animals form risky alliances, speaking, sympathizing, and bargaining with one another, exchanging souls and substance.

In these stories the lawlessness of a society at war is displaced by the lawlessness of animals, who do not so much disobey human law, as supersede it with their own moral judgments. Unlike the animality in many accounts of violence, which signifies a flattened savagery or abjectness without moral shading, the animals here take responsibility for their actions, and hold humans responsible for theirs. It is as if extraordinary animals talk back to human violence from an interspecies ethos that sidesteps human pretensions to justice, while sporadically practicing and rewarding reciprocity, hospitality, mercy, and courage, but often with a capricious-ness and spontaneity that mock human moral logic. Such beasts enter the realm of social relations not as symbols of violence or abjection, but as moral arbiters and consubstantial possibilities.

Stories of magical beasts might be taken, of course, as allegories for more purely human politics and morality. Caroline Humphrey, for instance, recounts a story told by Buddhist Buryat about Stalin as the reincarnation of a blue elephant who was destined to destroy Buddhism three times (2003). Through these stories, she argues, Buryat simultaneously signal and disavow both Stalin’s and their own personal accountability for Stalin-era violence. Here, however, I consider the fantastical animals in Southeast Asian stories not for what they suggest about human ethics but rather for what they imply about a vision of social and moral ani-mality. Nonetheless, at least three insights in Humphrey’s essay are relevant here: her suggestion that a recourse to the fabulous in times of crisis gestures toward a tragic dimension of politics unaddressed by rational accounts (2003: 179); her perception that the story of the blue elephant places Stalin within a metahistory (2003: 189); and her observation that the story permits an understanding of actions as “ethical but also as caught up in skeins of relations beyond individual control or even comprehension” (2003: 195). All three insights turn attention to the way that stories of magical animality, including the Southeast Asian stories I have recounted here, have the potential to push against the limits of political theory, toward an imagination of political and moral life that exceeds rational explanation, historical causality, and individual control. In contrast to Humphrey, however, I am concerned not with how animal figures might enable a displacement of human moral accountability but rather with how they allow an imagination of animality as itself entangled in networks of moral accountability. Such an imagination necessarily alters the framing of animality within accounts of biopolitics.

In his discussion of interactions with domestic buffalo in a South India village, Anand Pandian (2008) traces what he identifies as a locally specific biopolitics whereby thieving or violent humans are compared to disobedient buffalo not only in their lack of self-conduct but also in their determination to remain unyoked. In that setting, the bullish traits of social rebels who may be either animal or human, are alternately governed, excused, and celebrated. What I suggest here is that the animal-human interactions in Southeast Asian narratives of violence might be thought of less as an alternative biopolitics than as a zoopolitics newly understood as a politics grounded in animal existence. Zoopolitics in this sense might be taken as a branch of the cosmopolitics evoked by Marisol de la Cadena (2010) following Isabelle Stengers (2005), in which nonhumans are not simply the province of scientific investigation or management; rather they enter agentially into political struggles and questions. Zoopolitics might encompass cross-species interactions that are governed by specific rites, customs, contracts, hierarchies, rules, and codes. Zoopolitics, in this usage, invokes a relationship between humans and animals that is based neither in analogy nor in an implicit election of humans as spokespersons for nonhumans. Rather zoopolitics suggests multiple worlds of “reciprocal capture” (Stengers 2010) and interspecies interaction.

The term zoopolitics then, as I am envisioning it, is not intended to designate a politics of “bare life” in submission to an Agambenian schema; rather it questions the conflation of animality with bare (biological) life (cf. Sinclair 2011). Conceived in this way, zoopolitics allows the imagination of an animality that is a figure not just for brutality or abjectness but for an animal subjectivity that chases questions of power into cosmological terrains. The fabulousness of the animals, their magical powers, enacts a dramatization of interspecies reciprocity, negotiation, and indebtedness. The positing through fables and uncanny encounters of animal desires and animal morality—however anarchic or randomly manifest—gesture toward an interspecies polis. David Graeber notes that stories of Malagasy love medicine “were not just a medium through which people could think about the nature of power: even more they were a medium through which they could argue about its rights and wrongs” (2007: 246). Similarly, stories of magical animality might be understood as a medium for contemplating political morality. But in this case, the morality is not limited to human beings but is extended to nonhuman or inconsistently human creatures as well. Such a move redirects the line of inquiry from the ways that stories of magical power reflect conceptions of political power to the ways that conceptions of political power are transformed as they are extrapolated into animal kingdoms. Such a move prompts us to consider the opportunities that specific animistic imaginations of zoopolis offer for retheorizing politics and morality to incorporate nonhumans not merely as victims but as moral beings.

Another snake, by way of conclusion

This morality and animality can be brought into sharper focus through a juxtaposition of Oeur’s poem with the poem “Snake” by D. H. Lawrence, which received sustained attention in Derrida’s ninth session on “the beast and the sovereign” (2009: 236–49). In “Snake” the poet comes upon a golden snake drinking at his water trough in Sicily. Like the cobra in Oeur’s poem, this snake is splendid, godlike, and venomous. The European poet passes through several moods resembling those of the Cambodian poet—fear, humility, admiration—but also one other that arises, as he writes, from his “education” and his particular masculinity: a mood of human mastery. “And voices in me said, If you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off…. If you were not afraid, you would kill him!” The poet vacillates, but eventually throws a log at the snake, who “convulsed in undignified haste, / Writhed like lightning, and was gone” (Lawrence quoted in Derrida 2009: 240–41). Immediately the European poet regrets his action as mean and petty.

The ethics that is awakened in him, Derrida suggests, is an ethics of hospitality toward one who “had come like a guest in quiet” (Lawrence quoted in Derrida 2009: 241, 247) to share his world, his water. Yet the snake both resembles and does not resemble the structural guest described in certain anthropologies of hospitality. On the one hand the interaction epitomizes the long noted ambivalence of the relationship of host and guest (Candea and da Col 2012: S5; Pitt-Rivers [1977] 2012: 513). Faced with the snake, the poet vacillates between sensations of admiration and fear, and between postures of honor and hostility. The poet’s imagination of the snake as royalty, more specifically a “king in exile” (Lawrence quoted in Derrida 2009: 246, 248), might logically exempt the snake from the usual obeisance expected of a guest (Pitt-Rivers [1977] 2012: 513). On the other hand, as Julian Pitt-Rivers noted, “A host is host only on the territory over which on a particular occasion he claims authority” ([1977] 2012: 514), and it is not at all certain that the snake acknowledges the water trough as the human’s domain. In this poem, territories are implicitly contested, trumped by a deterritorialization (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) that disrupts the domesticity of the water trough. Who is whose guest on this Sicilian terrace (as in the greater biosphere) is far from clear. By contrast, in Oeur’s poem the guest, if there is one, is the human, who feels an interloper in a field of cane that is more home to the cobra than to the prisoner.

Both poets recognize a subjectivity in the snakes they encounter: the snakes think and muse and gaze; Lawrence “longed to talk to” the golden snake, while Oeur addressed half his poem directly to the cobra. In Oeur’s poem, however, moral choice (to strike or not) belongs to the snake (as well as the human), while in Lawrence’s poem moral choice belongs only to the man. For Oeur, the cobra might be said to be “rich in world” rather than “poor” (Heidegger 1995; cf. Agamben 2004: 49–62); he does not just behave, he acts; or in Derrida’s terms, he does not just react, he responds (2003). He is not limited to apprehending water, or a dim mammalian scent, or the shadow and crashing blow of a log; he is capable of recognizing other subjectivities, whether spirits, or the human trembling before him. For Lawrence, on the other hand, the golden snake is imagined to be unaware of the waiting human, rapt and captivated within his own reptilian world, a glorious creature, whom the poet belatedly wishes he had honored and not only churlishly chased away. Despite these differences, if, in both poems the animal possesses a certain dignified sovereignty, it is the sovereignty of the stranger (Derrida 2009: 244), who makes claims on the poet’s kindness. This animal other is simultaneously the one to whom a certain reverence is owed, and the one whose presence is a forceful reminder of this debt.

Finally, like the weretiger and the sea serpent, like the grandfather lizard or the small animals bearing messages and assistance, both snakes force an imagination of nonhuman subjectivity and interspecies commerce. Similar to the animals appearing in the Hindu texts explored by Veena Das, these serpents seem to encourage a recognition that humans owe their lives to the “generosity” of animals (2014). To complete the trio of snakes, recall the Thai nak who guarantees the rains and yet defies the zoological project of the American soldiers, repaying them with “messy ends.” Such fantastic beasts draw attention to heterogeneous powers that are beyond human governance yet participate in human history. They are political in their engagement with sociality, morality, and domination; metaphysical in their capacity to shed and take on forms like skin; and nonhumanist in their mockery of human agendas. One might argue that it is human imagination that ascribes moral and political subjectivity to such animals. Yet, as Graeber astutely suggests in his discussion of fetishism, the magical entities that humans imagine, inevitably have power over the humans who imagine them (2007: 143–45). The imagination of magical animality demands paradoxically that animal subjectivity be autonomous of human imagination. These animals do not simply offer a striking alternative to the twin figures of cruelty and abjection within accounts of the animality in human violence. They also suggest possibilities for conceptualizing interspecies moralities and politics that pivot less around rights, justice, or the management of life than around kinship, generosity, hospitality, reciprocity, and alliance.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Sharon Kaylen, Hoon Song, Stuart McLean, Todd Ochoa, Margaret Wiener, Matei Candea, Rane Willerslev, Stephen Gudeman, David Lipset, Veena Das, Naveeda Khan for their thoughtful comments on earlier versions. Thanks also to participants in the Sociocultural Roundtable at the University of Minnesota, the session “Crises, Crossings, and Other Worlds” at the 2010 meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropologists and the session “Animal Excess” at the 2011 meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion. Fieldwork was supported by the Cross-Cultural Health Care Program, Salus Mundi Foundation, School for Advanced Research in the Human Experience, and University of Minnesota. I am indebted to the generous assistance of Sompasong Keohavong, Linda Chulaparn, Rouen Sam, Paularita Seng, and Yakobo Xiong, and to the incisive comments of anonymous reviewers and Giovanni da Col. The idea for this article was sparked at the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Minnesota. Some preliminary thoughts related to this article appear in Consoling ghosts.

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Pouvoirs sauvages. Moralité et animalité dans les récits de guerre et terreur

Résumé : Parmi les figures de l’animalité évoquées dans les récits de violence figurent les « bêtes » qui commettent des actes de brutalité, et la créature avilie qui est soumise à la captivité, le travail forcé, ou est abattue. Pourtant, une troisième figure de l’animalité apparaît dans les histoires d‘émigrants animistes qui ont survécu à la guerre et à la terreur au Laos ou au Cambodge : l’animal sauvage comme ancêtre transmigré ou esprit capricieusement compatissant qui offre une puissante, mais imprévisible, source de protection. Les rencontres avec des animaux fantastiques questionnent implicitement la relation entre l’humanité et l’animalité qui prévaut souvent dans les récits de violence, ouvrant sur une possible zoopolitique de la moralité et de l’animalité.

Jean M. LANGFORD is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Fluent bodies: Ayurvedic remedies for post-colonial imbalance (Duke University, 2002) and Consoling ghosts: Stories of medicine and mourning from Southeast Asians in exile (University of Minnesota, 2013).

Jean M. Langford
University of Minnesota
Department of Anthropology
HHH 395, 301 19th Ave. S.
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55406, USA 612-625-4092
langf001@umn.edu

___________________

1. Reprinted with permission from Coffee House Press via The Permissions Company.

2. A recent example is the anti-Thai riot in Phnom Penh sparked by a Thai actress’ alleged comment that she would rather be reincarnated as a dog than a Khmer (Hinton 2006).

3. The conversations referenced in this article took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a city in the United States, as part of research on death, ghosts, and biopolitics as elucidated by the stories of survivors of the covert war in Laos and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

4. I assume that Laos and Cambodia compose simply one region of many from which a similar critique might be launched.

5. To some extent, this usage resonates with Derrida’s reference to zoopolitics in his discussion of fabled animals (such as the dove or the wolf) who take on a political character in European thought (2009: 4). Elsewhere, however, Derrida suggests zoopolitics as simply another term for biopolitics and the term that Agamben surely would (or should) have preferred (Derrida 2009: 325, 349).

6. The names of emigrants who shared their stories with me are pseudonyms.

7. For accounts of Cambodia in the 1970s and beyond see Chandler (2000, 1999); Kiernan (2002, 1993); Boua (1993); Ebihara (1993, 2002); Frieson (1993); Stanton (1993); Thion (1993); Marston (2002); Ledgerwood and Vijghen (2002); and Hinton (2002, 2005), among others.

8. For accounts of the wars and political regimes of late-twentieth-century Laos see Stuart-Fox (1997); Hamilton-Merritt (1992); and Evans (1998, 1990), among others.

9. See also Robert Wessing’s discussion of lizards in East Java (2006: 206).

10. For accounts of soul-callings involving tying a string on the wrist to fasten the soul more closely to the body see Thompson on Khmer rites (1996) and Davis (1984: 145) on Lao rites. See also Klima (2004).

11. Such cosubjectivity does not necessarily imply equality or a relationship of peers. See also Willerslev’s discussion of animal personhood in Yukaghir cosmology (2007).

12. See Wessing’s discussion on the naga within a range of Southeast Asian folklore (2006).