Post-cosmopolitical Theories: Sexual Difference, Vernacularisation and Art after Angkor
A first shorter version of this text appeared in Berger and Varikas 2011.
Culture itself, says Jacques Derrida, in Monolingualism of the Other, that which we call culture is always, by definition, universally, originarily, colonial. Etymologically, to begin with, there is an essential coloniality of culture:
“‘colonialism’ and ‘colonization’ are only high points [reliefs], one traumatism over another, an increasing buildup of violence, the jealous rage of an essential coloniality and culture, as shown by the two names. A coloniality of culture…” (Derrida 1998: 24-5).
Derrida is speaking here of language as that which is never owned, never simply naturally possessed: “there is no natural property of language” (Derrida 1998: 24). Language is transmitted to us, like life itself, from a mother-source, before we are, indeed, ourselves. It is never simply ours; we are fated to re-appropriate our “own” language, like ourselves, from the beginning and thereafter. This originary and perpetually repeated “active division” of language renders language a site of “jealousy,” a site of “quest for history and filiation” (Derrida 1998: 22)
Monolingualism of the Other calls into question the critical project, or at the very least the historico-theoretical starting point of Post-colonial Studies insofar as the affirmation of an essential coloniality of culture questions the very possibility of speaking of a post-colonial state or time in historical terms. Yet, far from dictating, in ethical or political terms, a relativist impotence, or worse, a reactionary force, in Derrida’s far-reaching readings this law of colonial culture provides the basis from which we can hope to gauge the unbearable violence of the expropriating hegemony commonly called colonisation. It is in light of such a “prudent and differentiated universalization” (Derrida 1998: 23) of “coloniality” that I aim to consider here relations between two historical periods in Cambodia: the Angkorian and the post-Angkorian. My explorations will focus on the expression of sexual difference in conceptions of territorial identity, and the transmission of such expression from one historical period to another. Emphasis will be given to the experience of language as that which “gives rise,” in Derrida’s words, donne lieu, to a certain “articulation between transcendental or ontological universality and the exemplary or testimonial singularity of martyred existence” (Derrida 1998: 27).
This study attempts to elaborate a conception of history which neither simply embraces nor wholly rejects a classical Western model of linear evolution. In its very organizational choices, made with an eye to the ethical and political concerns noted above, it posits Cambodian history as a succession of discrete periods; yet it simultaneously takes up theoretical interrogations of the linear model. The approach can be seen as a sort of deconstructive radicalization of Homi Bhabha’s early attempt to free the post-colonial from any strictly temporal inscription in linear history. The post- for Bhabha does not mean after but instead a future-inflected beyond, the after belonging precisely, for Bhabha, to linear conceptions of history left behind in our forward-looking post-colonial times:
If the jargon of our times – postmodernity, postcoloniality, postfeminism – has any meaning at all, it does not lie in the popular meaning of the post- to indicate sequentiality – after-feminism, or polarity – anti-modernism. These terms that insistently gesture to the beyond, only embody its restless and revisionary energy if they transform the present into an expanded and ex-centric site of experience and empowerment” (Bhabha 1994: 4)
Yet, I would argue that in defining this present-future by rupture with a linear conception of history Homi Bhabha effectively, if paradoxically, reinscribes the promised and so presently promising post- in this same classical schema. In such – and of course I write from the comfort of the retrospective position which the passage of time has afforded since Bhabha’s euphoric remarks were first made - one can only question the actuality of any “radical revision in the concept of human community itself” (Bhabha 1994: 6). For in proclaiming liberation from the linear temporality of the post-, Bhabha’s reading re-projects us into the thus repudiated model. We are already in the after, an after of the after, of course, but nonetheless after. This does not amount to simple acceptance of the implacable advance of History, but neither is it simply leaving History behind. Pessimistic vis-à-vis the present yet extraordinarily hopeful for a future to come, the deconstructive radicalization of Homi Bhabha’s hope would consist, first, in resisting any temptation to finish with the past in view of ushering in a wholly new and unfettered future: culture is always, by definition, universally, originarily colonial, says Derrida, and any formulation of absolute break with the colonial past is always already reinscribing the expropriating hegemonic violence we call “colonisation.” Yet it is this very affirmation, this unflinching understanding, which holds the promise of any future actualisation of a radically different concept of community. Such a State or time would be, if it were to be at all, conceived in the presence of the past and in awaiting its own future realisation. It would never be defined in terms of the here and now, which is to say with reference to after; in fact it would not be defined at all, but would always be there waiting to welcome the radically unknown – a future we can never now know. This is one way of understanding the frequently reiterated Derridian appeal to “democracy-to-come”.
And this is a sort of prediction of what I will try to formulate here with regards to the repeatedly renewed recuperation of loss at the origin of the Khmer State. The Post-Angkorian period does not correspond in any straightforward manner to the post-colonial as it is generally conceived in Post-Colonial Studies, in chronological or other terms. I nonetheless argue that it is a post-colonial period like any other insofar as it remains colonial in the Derridian sense I have attempted to outline.
Another preliminary point I would like to raise briefly concerns my choice – if it has ever been a choice – to work on a a geo-politically ex-centric area, if one may call it thus, in any case an area off the beaten track of post-colonial studies: that is, to work on Cambodia. It might be called an accident of birth,1 a displacement of origins at the origin which brought me to undertake an apprenticeship in the language, the cultures and the histories of this country which remains, in my eyes, on the edge of an abyss. An analyst might identify the obscure origins of the vernacular cosmopolitanism which I pretend to incarnate in the American war in Vietnam, or in retracing the history of traumatisms, in American slavery. Cambodia is for me unheimlich, “unhomely” as Homi Bhabha would render the term to illustrate the post-colonial condition, the “sensation of estrangement in the relocalisation of home and the world,” there where “the most intimate recesses of domestic space become sites for the most complex invasions of history;” the place where “all which should remain (…) hidden” becomes manifest (Bhabha 1994: 9-10).
I have been considering for a while now a series of questions concerning the cosmopolitan and the vernacular in Cambodia. In this, I am attempting to respond to the ambitious project elaborated over the course of the past two decades by the Sankritist Sheldon Pollock, now at Columbia University, and by his Indianist colleagues, to gauge the hegemony of what they call the Sanskrit cosmopolis over the course of the first millennium of the Christian Era; and to gauge the emergence and the flowering of vernacular literatures in the wake of the declining Sanskrit empire. One aspect of my response takes on the call made by the Pollock project to “provincialize European theory”, or at least to put it aside in view of elaborating a critical approach appropriate to non-European vernacular cultures (Pollock 2004: 13). I use the term “vernacular” here with reference also to South and Southeast Asian “cosmopolitan” literary traditions, which within the Area Studies framework are generally opposed to “vernacular” traditions. Pollock’s South Asian project calls attention to the hegemony of cosmopolitan cultures (first and foremost Sanskrit) in scholarship to date, and so to the necessity of actively promoting exploration of their vernacular counterparts or competitors – exploration which can be seen, indeed, to provincialize Sanskrit. In a parallel movement, which gives rise to my particular use of “vernacular” above, this work calls attention to the hegemony of Western theoretical approaches in scholarship on South Asian literary cultures, and concomitantly to the necessity of actively promoting exploration of South Asian literary cultures “from within.” In highlighting this double gesture, by which the master (Sanskrit) is simultaneously the slave (of Europe), I mean to evoke the insistence of the masters of subaltern studies, one of whom, by the way, also speaks from the heights of contemporary epistemology – i.e. New York’s Columbia University - on the irrevocable heterogeneity of the colonised subaltern subject. (Spivak 1990: 270).2 Yet my questioning of Pollock goes a bit further in that I aim to note the impossibility of establishing an absolute distinction between the interior and the exterior of what we call a culture (let us not forget: culture is always already colonial), and to demonstrate how the perpetual renewal of the attempt to do so, at each turn destined to fail, is constitutive of culture “itself.” While my approach is in no way formulated as a strategy of containment where the other cultural space would function as a phantasm allowing for the deconstruction of the epistemological limits of the West (Bhabha 1994: 31), I also strive to surpass desire for the opposite over-investment in an Area Studies in which an ever-increasing accumulation of material would contribute to the formulation of another epistemology, be it in view of redressing the East-West imbalance or of establishing even more universal universals – a sort of global epistemology (Bhabha 1994: 42). I am interested, precisely, in processes of definition of the “inside” and the “outside” in the identification of territory, in Cambodia to begin with, but also, at every turn, in academic arenas which see theory (this eminently Western thing) to be exterior to its object of study (in this case, Asia).
That is where I am coming from. Now a word on where I am heading, beyond today’s preliminary destination. In the long run, I aim to explore some of the theoretical implications for Area Studies of the Derridian post-colonial which I have attempted to trace out here, and which in other contexts Derrida names “democracy-to-come.” Democracy as unconditionally open to the other, as dependent in its very conception on welcoming the unknown, without reducing him or her or it to the known or the knowable, in a purportedly all-encompassing complex of the fraternal for example. This democracy would be an after of the colonial insofar as it would invert the hierarchical terms of the system and at the same time displace the system, such that hospitality would be another realisation of colonial potential. In effect, in the context of a deconstruction of sovereignty within the democratic tradition, yet in the name of democracy-to-come, Derrida explicitly emphasizes the necessity of also studying traditions other than democracy’s native Greco-Christian one – and studying them, in some sense, from within (Derrida 2003: 55-57).
On the horizon of these considerations, is a reflection on the so-called “Buddhist State.” To put it briefly, this expression, “Buddhist State,” is in many respects an oxymoron. It is not at all clear that such a thing could exist, so it is tempting to see the formulation to be the expression of a messianistic ideal or appeal as much as an ontological description. For, in one fundamental reading of the history and philosophy of Buddhism, the religion is founded on a radical deconstruction of sovereignty: through a variety of practices, the individual, like the Buddha “himself,” is to attain the non-self. It is in this sense that one might understand the familiar Buddhist formula that the self “is” the non-self. Siddhartha’s first step toward Buddhahood is to reject his princely status; the Buddha’s divinity is the topic of an interminable debate in Buddhist tradition. In this perspective, a Buddhist state is an impossible non-sovereign sovereignty, and is necessarily, at best, a Buddhist-state-to-come. This study represents one step along a somewhat circuitous route leading to the question of contemporary Buddhist states which set themselves on the road to democracy, and the complex political, rhetorical process of translation by which they retrace their democratic origins through or to a religion, if it is a religion, originating outside the European tradition.
The Angkorian empire was constituted, in the early 9th c., on the bottomless foundation of a conjugation of the exogenous and the indigenous produced through a perpetually renewed attempt to establish the anteriority of the latter (indigenous) and the predominance of the former (exogenous). On the one hand the operation was carried out through an epigraphic bilingualism in which Sanskrit, the so-called cosmopolitan language, written in verse and transmitting Hindu politico-religious ideologies, was associated with Khmer, a vernacular language par excellence because transmitting, in prose, slave names and defining the cadastral domains to which slaves were assigned. On the other hand, we see artistic and architectural production in stone, of which the liṅga-yoni iconographic ensemble (Shaivite phallic sculpture and its feminine pedestal) is the quintessential emblem. (Figure 1) Identifications here are mobile. The liṅga-yoni is in the first instance associated with Sanskritic culture, but within this Sanskritic cultural complex, the yoni-pedestal represents the Great Earth on which the very appearance of the liṅga depends, against which the liṅga is figured, or detached, as the liṅga comes to figure defined, delimited territory. Yet the liṅga colonises the yoni, such that the limits of the kingdom are identified with the limitless expansion of the yoni-Great Earth; this is of course a definition of empire according to the model of the Indian mandala.3 Allow me to recall here G. Spivak’s commentary on the semantics of the term yoni in her study of Hindu widow immolation ritual: the yoni is the female sexual organ and the home, the dwelling place into which the widow enters to immolate herself as a show of fidelity to her defunct husband (Spivak 1999: 302).
It is an 11th c. bilingual Sanskrit-Khmer inscription which reconstructs the essentials of the history of the foundation of the empire. From this inscription, and notably through epigraphic research carried out by French scholars in the colonial period, we learn that the future king, founder of the Khmer empire, himself of Khmer origin but having been exiled in a distant land, returns to his motherland to re-establish the sovereignty of the state which had become the vassal of a neighboring power.4 The victories of this son of the land were consecrated by the performance of ritual defining the reclaimed territory which will become, through its inscription in history, the Angkorian empire. The ritual was performed by an Indian Brahman according to a series of Sanskrit texts, which he then teaches to the indigenous ritual master in the service of the king. This ritual established what is known in Sanskrit as the devarāja, generally translated as “god-king”, and in Khmer the kamrateṅ jagat ta rāj, an expression translated alternately as “master of the universe who is the king” or “god of the king”. The specific identification of this cadastral divinity is still the object of scholarly debate: was the devarāja / kamrateṅ jagat ta rāj concretely embodied in a liṅga, the sacred fire or another icon? Whatever the case may be, the liṅga-yoni was to become the quintessential artistic realisation of the union of Hindu ideology with the Khmer earth, otherwise rendered by bilingual epigraphy, and of which the Angkorian empire was to become, according of course to a performative account, the fruit.
The fall of Angkor to Siamese forces in the 15th century was heralded by an abrupt cessation of composition in Sanskrit and construction in stone across Cambodia. A near-hiatus of some two hundred years of lasting cultural production was broken in the 16th century with campaigns of ancient temple renovation and transformation, including a renewal of sculpture in stone, and the emergence of literary composition in the vernacular.
Formulated as a replacement not only for composition in Sanskrit, but also, as we will see, for architectural construction, this nascent literature reformulates a conception of Khmer territory in the framework of a newly imported religion, Theravada Buddhism. The vehicular language of Theravada, Pali, did not become in Cambodia a language of original composition on the model of Sanskrit; never did it play a central role in the discursive constitution of the Khmer state. If anything, it was Khmer which was to follow Sanskrit’s lead in assuming those characteristics evoked by Sheldon Pollock to qualify Sanskrit epigraphy in Cambodia and elsewhere in the Sanskrit cosmopolis as “literary;” and it was Khmer which was to become the matrix of State formation. Although a few epigraphic texts in Pali appear in the early post-Angkorian period, these are greatly outnumbered by Khmer compositions on stone, which can no longer be classified in any straightforward manner as “documentary” or “constative” as the ancient Khmer epigraphic text is typically qualified. Bi-lingual Pali-Khmer epigraphic texts are notably rare. The Cambodian manuscript archive likewise suggests that literary production in the vernacular has its roots in this period, precisely, that is, when Sanskrit was no longer used for composition.
The post-Angkorian emergence of vernacular literature did not however correspond to any self-conscious assertion of identity associated with deliberate language choice, as would seem to have been the case elsewhere in the Sanskrit cosmopolis as it progressively dissolved with vernacularizing movements over the course of the second millenium5 - or as was to be the case in the early modern period which saw one logical culmination of the vernacularization process in anti-colonialist nationalist movements.6 Nor did it consist in a “reassertion” of previously extant literary practice which had been temporarily silenced by Sanskrit, for there are no pre-cosmopolis signs of formal vernacular literary expression.
In a first instance, the emergence of vernacular literature in Cambodia can be seen to have corresponded to a religious transformation. If we can not simply appeal to some natural correlation between Buddhism and the vernacular, the ideological relation maintained between the two – particularly in the case of Theravada Buddhism – is not without import in this particular historical configuration.7 More particularly, the fact that, over the course of its geographically widespread history, Pali has generally not served as a language of literary creation,8 can be seen to have played a part, be it in a sort of negative manner, in creating a space for the development of Khmer literary expression. Furthermore, as we will see, Theravada Buddhism furnished topical themes to Cambodian writers in both explicit and implicit ways. And most importantly it should be noted that the adoption of Theravada Buddhism accompanied a major political crisis, in which power and territory were lost.
The art historical rendition of the transition in question can be seen to mirror the literary record as I have outlined it here. While taking the place of the Hindu god at the height of State representation, the Buddha nonetheless embodies ambivalence vis-à-vis political power. And this ambivalence is variously manifest in terms of sexual difference. The woman still appears, in diverse forms, most notably perhaps in the pedestal of the sculpture of the divine man. Now it is the Earth Goddess who takes an established place on the pedestal of the Buddha in a celebrated episode of the Omniscient One’s life in which he definitively establishes his right to the universal throne in vanquishing the embodiment of Evil.
The history summarized here, of what took place after the fall of the Angkorian Empire, the history of this history, and its historiography, was reconstituted, written, constructed - one traumatism laid over another - at the junction of the colonial and post-colonial periods. Angkorian history was masterfully ‘established’ by colonial scholars according to a powerful and familiar narrative of rise-fall-salvation: having fallen into utter decadence after a glorious Indianized golden age, Cambodia was saved by the Protector. Majestic Angkorian temple restoration projects were accordingly scripted along with dramatic archaeological discoveries. And in this colonial staging the Post-Angkorian period was to play a key role, representing hundreds of years erased from memory yet maintained as memory of erasure, absence, loss.
In the decades following Independence there emerged in France a group of professional and amateur Cambodian scholars led by a determined female linguist intent on establishing a paradigm of historical continuity between the Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods. Emblematic of this post-colonial rewriting of history, by which the inheritance of Angkor, once lost to the foreign usurper, was effectively reclaimed, was the replacement of the term “Post-Angkorian Period” with “Middle Period.” The historical integrity of the Khmer State was to be demonstrated henceforth through linguistic research: dramatic etymological discoveries, laborious reconstructions of original texts from multiple fragmentary manuscripts, translations attentive to Khmer language nuance, and meticulous critical editions… were to attest to the existence of a veritable Middle Khmer literary corpus. Middle Khmer was shown to be rooted in Old Khmer, of course, but also, through morphological, semantic and grammatical evolution, to manifest a certain autonomy. And it was this corpus, rooted in the past but present to itself, which was, implicitly or explicitly, taken to reflect, or even to constitute, the Middle Cambodian State.
If Khmer vernacular literature appears to have emerged in a relatively apolitical manner, that is, in the absence of any overt claim to re-establishing lost (linguistic) sovereignty, its discovery and reconstruction were formulated in a context of bitter resentment and nationalist condemnation of colonial intellectual violence, in what we might call, with reference to Derrida’s work on relationship to the mothertongue, a remarkably sustained fit of re-appropriating rage. The memory of the memory of Angkor, and of its loss two times over, is inscribed in profound and enduring grief, as Derrida tunes our ears to hear the word in French and English, and so in its semantic potentiality: grievance, a formal quasi-legal complaint but also suffering or mourning (Derrida 1998: 33).
It is loss - loss of the motherland as loss of sovereignty - which heralds each new historical period, itself consequently consisting in a long struggle for reconstitution. The Angkorian period is constructed on the foundations of a king having returned from exile to lay claim to his motherland; the Middle period is constructed on the foundations not simply of Angkor, but of the loss of Angkor, this empire which was the fruit of a sort of cultural colonisation, lest we forget. Exiled from the newly independent nation at war, post-colonial diasporic scholars reinvested the motherland in and through language – the Khmer language, but a Khmer accessed now through France and through French. It should be added that the experience of loss was reiterated and further complicated for this group of scholars who found themselves in veritable exile at the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge, who, I should add, constitute another post-colonial grouping of Cambodians largely having studied abroad and seeking to reclaim the motherland.
Whether the loss is real, phantasmatic, fictional or fabulous, effective, proven by scientific research, lived, felt or feared… is of little import. In another context such loss would be called castration. This sexually charged dialectic between loss and recovery, rupture and continuity, the erection or delimitation of a figure which detaches itself against an infinite ground – all these questions of territory and belonging I am attempting to explore here – call for a long, meticulous translation, a transfer in truth, into the field of psychoanalysis. For want of the necessary skills and time, I wish to set my readings more humbly here against the theoretical backdrop sketched out above with reference to Derrida on language and the essential coloniality of culture. There is nothing new, indeed, in the historical mise en abyme I have attempted to lay bear. Lost, which is to say colonised at the origin, the vernacular, conceived as natural property, or more precisely as natural property unlawfully lost, can only incite re-appropriation. And in the following I aim simply to track the specific modes of recuperation in and by Khmer vernacular literature, a literature, let me repeat, which did not itself exist before this very Middle Period recuperation. I hope to demonstrate, thus, ways in which the Khmer language in the Middle Period, as an example of language “itself,” functions as a site of articulation between transcendental universality and vernacular-idiomatic singularity.
I am perhaps less humble, and undoubtedly more naïve, in my aim to make an original contribution to Cambodian historiography. On the one hand, going beyond historical specificity can only reveal repetition at the origin of each apparently new formulation of the State. In such, I aim to challenge traditional scholarly narratives of irrevocable political and cultural rupture between the Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods. A typical reading opposes the assertive strength, imperial ambition and rigid hierarchical order of Angkor with the post-Angkorian State as near absence of State – a veritably effaced and self-effacing dis-order, a quasi-maternal state. If Sanskrit is the embodiment of hieratic order par excellence, otherwise manifest in the monumental architectural and sculptural traditions of Angkor, Khmer vernacular expression, for its perceived lack of quantity and quality, expressed a retreat of the State. For some, the cultural silence marking the end of Angkor meant quite simply the end of Khmer history as such. For others inclined to critique Angkorian authority as megalomaniacal, the post-Angkorian Theravadin complex is frequently seen, by contrast still with Angkor, to have made room for the people, and so for the gradual development of a necessarily more modest vernacular cultural expression grounded in a pre-Sanskritic indigenous social order characterised by the “relative equality of the sexes” if not matriarchy itself. I will, on the other hand, speak of a post-Angkorian re-establishment of phallocratic order. Silence, or a self-effacing expression, may well be evidence of a State in crisis and of Buddhist cultural production, but it does not necessarily escape the confines of phallocentrism.
This contestation of the paradigm of rupture does not simply echo the call so often heard in post-colonial research, to recognize continuity between the two historical periods. Because in the reading I propose the privileging of repetition over continuity necessitates an insistence on rupture: originary rupture, at the origin of the phallocratic operation of recuperation. Nor do I see the post-Angkorian State as simply reproducing – or simply attempting to reproduce – Angkor. Because repetition also signifies displacement. Hence the necessity of simultaneously retaining and critiquing linear conceptions of history. If there is always already at the origin recuperation of origins, there is, at the same time, historical over-determination. The Post-Angkorian period is constituted through active commemoration not only of an empire or of an historical period, not only of a king or kings, of a god or gods, of a temple or of the temples as embodying the fantastical ideological realisation of Angkor, but also of the foundational act of recuperation of loss which itself founds the new state. My reading is thus distinguished from yet another critique of the classical narrative cited above, a critique which sees in the post-Angkorian Theravadin complex the same megalomaniacal projection of the god-king characteristic of Angkor. Despite resemblances, we are faced with something else: when bilingualism is replaced by monolingualism, with Sanskrit words, like lexical or semantic booty, integrated into the sole language of composition, Khmer; when architectural and sculptural production in stone suddenly halts; when the Buddha takes the place of the liṅga, or perhaps more precisely, when the Buddha takes the whole place of the liṅga-yoni ensemble itself.9
At the origin of Buddhism, an origin commemorated in one way or another at the dawn of the Post-Angkorian period, was a rejection of the hegemonic and hierarchical structures of Brahmanism. In conclusion to the Cakkavattisihanādasutta, the sutra of the cakravartin, he who “turns the wheel,” the title of the ideal Buddhist king often translated as “universal emperor,” the Buddha instructs his disciples:
"Wander, monks, in your proper range, your own ancestral territory. When you wander in your proper range, your own ancestral territory, you will grow in long life, beauty, pleasure, wealth, and strength.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The Buddha follows with a series of onto-theological questions: What is beauty, pleasure, wealth or strength for a monk? And the dialectical machine responds: beauty is interior, pleasure is the attainment of a anaesthetic state, wealth is fulfilment by an abundance of giving, power is absolute detachment. From a deconstructive point of view we see here nothing more than an inversion of polarities, a reversal of the hierarchical relations of a series of binary oppositions. Without displacement.10 This amounts to conserving the terms and the attributes of the oppositional structure while simply changing the place of elements therein: the low will be high, the poor rich, etc. Power will be henceforth in the hands of the powerless, those homeless men who, dressed in rags recuperated from dead bodies, wander from village to village, from day to day, begging for food. Hegemony is thus redefined, but it is not deconstructed.
There is no doubt that Buddhism represented, and in many ways continues to represent, theoretically and practically, an egalitarian revolution.11 Yet this revolution was not and is not without limits. As always, everywhere, the transformative yet conservative operation I am calling revolution is defined in terms of sexual difference. In the most basic of Buddhist formulations woman incarnates desire – desirous, she is the object of desire that the Buddha seeks to neutralize. The Buddhist community is constituted, at its origin and repeatedly over its long history, through the abandonment of women.12 And it is in questioning the established rule of female exclusion from the Community that, originally, in the Canon, the real limits of Buddhism are famously tested. The mother13 of the Buddha pressures her son to abrogate the law, but her request, and her person, are repeatedly rejected. In an ultimate refusal of the Buddha’s refusal, she walks hundreds of kilometres to throw herself, starving and filthy, at the foot of the Buddha’s monastery door. Her request is finally granted, on the basis of the Buddha’s forced and begrudged avowal that spiritual enlightenment is available to all regardless of sex. But the acceptance of women into the Community is the occasion for establishing a new series of regulations ensuring their inferior and marginal position therein. This ambiguous and regulated integration lasted for only a short while. The exact mechanisms of the subsequent regression are not known, but within a few hundred years of integration, women were again excluded from the Community.14 In this way, the Buddha’s disciples were indeed to wander in their proper range, in their ancestral territory. It would seem that this inscription of proper territory – proper at once to Buddhism and to man – this delimitation of the community, can only be made through opposition to woman.
This reading is reductive in many ways. One must also note the complexity of a tradition which incessantly promotes respect without equal, for example, for the mother – of the Buddha to begin with but also, by transposition, of the monk, and ultimately, for the Mother in general. Yet it must be further noted that such ambivalence vis-à-vis the woman is not the reserve of the Buddhist religion, and in no way does it hinder the predominance of a conceptual misogyny at the religious core – when it is not the very idealisation of the Mother which renders possible her demonization, the two poles functioning in dialectic exchange.
This is, at any rate, how and where I perceive the limits of the subaltern promise of the Middle Period. After Angkor, one might have hoped to see “the sheer heterogeneity of decolonised space” (Spivak 1999: 310), the emergence of the voice of the people, women and men, in vernacular expression as supported, even inspired by Theravada Buddhism. Yet space was never without inscription, that is space was never decolonized, and the inscription was always already phallocratic. If vernacular expression was also colonial, it was the woman who bore the brunt of violence, who was excluded, or more precisely, included as the excluded. That is, woman was the very condition of possibility of territorial delimitation.
Rebirths: Post-Angkorian Literature and State
The specific modalities of this historical operation in and by the Khmer language were diverse. In the following I will provide a rapid overview of the question.
One of the foundational texts of vernacular literature as of the State after Angkor is entitled Lpoek Nokor Vat, commonly translated as the “Poem of Angkor Vat”. By infixation, the verb lek, to lift, to raise, gives the substantive lpoek. Primarily known as a literary term today, translated as “Poem” or at times “Epic” or “Fable,” but also used to designate a literary genre, or even the literary as a genre,15 lpoek literally means “construction.” In fact the title of this poem can and has been translated as the “Construction of Angkor Vat.” It could also be rendered as the “Temple of Angkor Vat.” The poem does not simply recount the construction of the great monument; its title is not “The Poem of the Construction of Angkor Vat.” For the title is quite explicit on this point: the poem is the construction of the temple. Recounting the legendary foundation of the temple, describing its architectural forms and decor and narrating the Ramayana scenes sculpted on its gallery walls, the verse narrative participates in a post-Angkorian reconstruction of the temple in the Khmer language.
In this text we learn that the divine architect is ordered by the God Indra to construct a terrestrial palace as a replica of his own celestial one. The new palace is intended to house a son born of a union with a human woman, and whose thus human stench irritates the inhabitants of the heavens. A Vishnuïte mountain temple built as the symbolic center of the empire in the 12th century, Angkor Vat was to be transformed into a site of Theravadin Buddhist worship by the Khmer court in the 16th century. This history is recorded in Khmer texts inscribed on the temple’s own stones, constituting thus a performative account of the literary recomposition of the temple.16 Angkor Vat has been the symbol of the Khmer State in an uninterrupted manner since at least the 16th century, figuring on currency and the national flag from the 19th century until the present day. Lpoek Nokor Vat, (the temple sublimated as literary composition) was published in Khmer, with a summary French translation, in 1878. A portion of the text was reprinted in primary school manuals in 1942. The text has been the object of study by “national” scholars in the post-colonial period. The version the best known today is that published by the Buddhist Institute in 1973 (Khing Hoc Dy 1985: Preface).
The staging of its own construction, founding literature in the Khmer vernacular while and in laying claim to ancient precedence, is exemplary of virtually all early Middle Period literature. Below are a few of the poem’s concluding stanzas.
To highlight the continuity from monumental to textual composition, we might first translate:
This ancient poem [lpoek], from many reigns ago / was rewritten [taeṅ ta] from within Angkor Vat / which was built [lek] by the merits of the king / the precious Preah Ket Mealea17.
Or else, we could also read:
This ancient poem was rewritten from one reign to the next within Angkor Vat, composed by the merits of the king, the precious Ket Mealea.
This last translation leaves the text open as to the object of the verb “composed” (lek): is it Angkor Vat or the lpoek that was composed? Yet, it is precisely this association which inspires or structures the Khmer composition, and once we understand the continuity between the lpoek itself and Angkor Vat, there is no need to absolutely determine one or the other as the object of the verb here — or of the action it recounts.
The following self-descriptive stanzas from the cpāp’, didactic texts also composed in the Middle Period, provide a useful comparison:
Therefore retain these ancient words / forever, as lessons / Ancient words of the sages of antiquity / about which we must reflect.
These words are prescriptions / to conserve as precise law.
(Bāky Cās’, st. 27-8 ; Pou 1988 I : 27 , II : 195-7)
I composed this discourse / as best I could according to the sages / May my descendants never say / that I did it myself.
(Satrā Ktām, st. 35 ; Pou 1988 I : 62, II : 299)
And a last quote:
This cpāp’, which emanates from the words of the Lord (Buddha). (Pou 1988: 299)
(Dūnmān khluon, st. 47 ; Pou 1988 I : 68 ; II : 325).
The particularity of Lpoek Angkor Vat with respect to the cpāp’ is that the vernacular, this phantasm of natural property, of that which has always already existed as one’s own, signifies at once text and temple.
It should not come as a surprise, now, to see the Reamker, The Glory of Rama, that is the Khmer version of the monumental Indian epic tale, the Ramayana, to figure amongst the earliest post-Angkorian literary compositions.18 A quintessential translation of social-religious-and-political norms, this is the story of Rama, who is in this post-Angkorian Khmer remake an avatar of the Buddha, and his wife Sita, whose name bears the trace of her birth/discovery in the furrow made by the King in the Earth. Rama is the model god-king-man. His vices are well known – cowardliness embedded in shows of bravery and manhood, unbridled jealousy… but these vices only fuel his glory. Accusing his wife of infidelity following her release from capitivity in the kingdom of the Demons, Rama demands she prove her claims to innocence by undergoing a Trial by Fire. Walking serenely into the fire, Sita emerges unscathed – the model wife who will ultimately leave her husband the king to rule on earth as she returns living still into the Earth.
The cpāp’, explicitly normative texts which constitute a literary genre in and of themselves, have their roots in the Middle Period, while nonetheless laying claim to ancient, immemorial origins – as I have attempted to demonstrate in the preceding citations. One can say, in effect, that the cpāp’ have their roots in this double belonging to a period which invented itself in literally inventing its ancient origins. The term cpāp’, which in its most general acception designates “law”, is often translated, with reference to the literary genre, as “Code of Conduct”. These codes are addressed to diverse societal groups: girls, boys, monks, high court officials… In a post-colonial and nationalist context, they have been considered the ultimate expression of Khmer society, in that they articulate not only Khmer specificity but more precisely Khmer society as the very realisation of an ideal association of specificity and universality. Thus it is that in establishing the cpāp’, through meticulous linguistic study, to be one of the pillars of vernacular literature, linguist Saveros Pou noted in 1977: “One must remember that this genre is not a Khmer creation. It draws from universal wisdom” (Pou 1977b: 22).19 Through literary composition the cpāp’ constantly and explicitly seek to re-establish harmony between the micro- and macro-cosms. Individual control is irrevocably linked to State control, within a Theravadin frame of perpetual reiteration of the notions of Impermanence and the Non-Self. These following stanzas opening a cpāp’ addressed to a prince give some indication of the conceptions at work here:
(…) A sword without a sheath / in a Kingdom without minister, / a king without knowledge of the texts, / a woman without a husband ...
(Cpāp’ Vidhūrapaṇḍit, st. 1 ; Pou 1988 I : 131 ; II : 491)
I will limit my commentary here to the Cpāp’ Srī, or Code of Conduct for Women (or Girls). The various extant versions of the Cpāp’ Srī have been attributed, on the basis of linguistic criteria, to the “low or late Middle Period”, beginning around the 18th century (Pou 1977b: 18-30; Pou 1981: 456-457). S. Pou has suggested that the Cpāp’ Srī, in its semantic content and in the proliferation of compositions, bears witness to a conservative – even reactionary – trend, corresponding to a veritable political downturn at this historical moment. Now, I do not mean to deny the pertinence of this reading, yet it seems important to also note that the basic factors contributing to the phallocratic operation so evident in the “low Middle Period” were put into place at the Fall of Angkor, that is, during the so-called “High Middle Period” – and one might argue even earlier.
The Cpāp’ Srī is one of a series of cpāp’ inspired by the Vidhūrapaṇḍitajātaka (Cowell and Rouse 1969 (1907: VI: 126-156). This is a canonical story of one of the Buddha’s previous lives, in which he is incarnated in the person of Vidhūra, a high court official renowned for wisdom and eloquence. The story recounts that the Queen of the nagas, mythical serpents living in a subterranean Kingdom, has an uncontrollable desire to hear the pundit Vidhūra preach. She fakes illness, and demands Vidhūra’s heart as a remedy. “‘There is an affection in women,” says the Queen to the King, “– it is called a longing (…) I desire Vidhūra’s heart (…) I shall die if I do not obtain it’” (Cowell and Rouse 1969: 130). Blind to the true desire of the king to hear the law preached by Vidhūra, the king suggests “improper thoughts to his daughter: “‘Seek thou for a husband who shall bring Vidhūra here.’” At her father’s orders, the young naga princess “went forth in the night and gave free course to her passionate desire” (Cowell and Rouse 1969: 131). A powerful yakkha – a sort of man-demon – was passing at that time through the naga Kingdom and heard the cries of the naga princess; the father proposes the demonic exchange of his daughter against the heart so fervently desired by her mother. When the yakkha manages, by ruse, to win possession of Vidhūra and prepares to bring the pundit to the naga Kingdom, the latter requests a three-day reprieve such that he can deliver to his “one thousand sons” a sermon on the proper behaviour of a court official. This provides an opportunity for the family, the king and all the people of the land to show their despair and to voice their fears of the catastrophic consequences on the order of the kingdom which Vidhūra’s departure is sure to engender. After the sermon, Vidhūra is whisked away, but will ultimately vanquish his captors by the force of his just words. The sermons he preaches make, ostensibly at least, the renown of the story as of Vidhūra himself. All ends well, with the young yakkha-naga couple bringing the pundit Vidhūra home to his own kingdom. The otherwise uncontrollable desire of the naga-mother, which had provoked disorder in the human kingdom, is ultimately brought under control by the words of the Master.
The basic elements of the most popular Khmer foundation myth are also to be found at the heart of this jātaka tale. Attested since the ancient period, and re-enacted in marriage ritual still today, the myth in question recounts the union of a naga princess with a man having come from another world.
The Cpāp’ Srī was written by an ex-monk who had become a low-ranking dignitary. The author inverts the model of the wise father who, leaving his kingdom, offers counsel to his sons; in the Cpāp’ Srī the narrator appropriates the character of the naga Queen advising her daughter as the latter prepares to accompany her new husband to earth where the two are to establish a home. The Queen-naga-mother in our post-Angkorian cpāp’ “concludes her discourse in an exaltant tone. If a woman succeeds in avoiding all improper behaviour [as detailed in the text] to follow the proper path [in serving her husband], she will obtain the supreme recompense, that of being reborn a ‘mother of a Buddha’ (Pou 1988 II: 408), a woman whose destiny we know. In this, the renowned myth of the foundation of the Khmer kingdom, melded with a canonical Buddhist text formulated around the danger of woman’s desire – desire by women and desire for women, itself founds the most strict subordination of woman to man in the name of maintaining domestic order. Bearing witness to, and indeed effecting, the historical mastery of vernacular language as a means of reducing women to silence, the Cpāp’ Srī is a hyperbolic manifestation of a driving force behind the monumental literary construction of the cpāp’ genre as a whole. Let me cite a few notable stanzas:
… (as to) your husband, to whom you are united forever, you owe him unfailing respect, you must avoid all actions which could deceive him, you are to stand him and to fear him – because you are a woman – avoid, in your words, to place yourself as his equal.
(st. 50-52 ; Pou 1988 I: 103, II : 419)
O my daughter, the master of the household [bedchamber] is the master of our minds: never shall you look down on him!
(st. 7 ; Pou 1988 I : 99, II : 411)
When your husband offends you, my child, retire into the bedroom for reflection.
When you re-emerge, you will speak sweet words to dissolve his outrage.
(st. 79-80 ; Pou 1988 I : 105 ; II : 425)
If your husband's words are offensive, / do not divulge them / by recounting them to your mother. // There would be increasing resentment, / were your mother’s words then murmured in your husband’s ears; / discord would establish itself, / words would be exchanged, / and there would be infinite questioning. // No more peace, tongues would wag / dispute would grow / accompanied by constant impertinence. / The exchange of words would swell / would be drawn out interminably, / and would destroy peace…
(st. 54-8 ; Pou 1988 I : 103, II : 419-20)
Destiny of the liṅga-yoni ensemble20
I will finish here by tracking the Post-Angkorian trajectory of the liṅga, that is of the liṅga and the yoni, of the liṅga -with-the-yoni, of the liṅga on or in the yoni, against the self-effacing backdrop of the yoni, or even veritably up against the yoni.
The Khmer Soul
It is quite likely that the Khmer term ‘pralung’ (in transliteration: bralịṅ ), generally translated as “soul” or “vital spirit” as situated in an animist context, derives from a Khmer-Sanskrit composite: Khmer braḥ, “sacred” + Sanskrit liṅga, “characteristic”… “Shiva’s phallus”.21 In its modern form the term bralịṅ does not figure in Old Khmer inscriptions. In Old Khmer, the term liṅga refers systematically to Shiva’s defining characteristic, his phallus. However, in texts of the middle period, the term liṅga in this designation becomes gradually replaced by aṅga. It is at this point, in middle Khmer texts, that the term braḥ liṅga would seem to first make reference to something other than Shiva’s liṅga. One can speculate that the term liṅga, which in Old Khmer had referred solely to Shiva’s defining characteristic, came over time to designate the defining characteristic of animate beings. An Indian term deeply implicated in Indian religious systems would have come to be deeply implicated in a so-called indigenous religious system, to effectively constitute its very soul. Such a hybrid etymology is indeed characteristic of Khmer linguistic evolution, but the case in hand is particularly symbolic: the designation of the identity of an individual or group, that which constitutes its very nucleus, its vital spirit, its life, its soul, cannot do without the outside; the vital animation of one being is, here at least, dependent upon the other. To recall my opening remarks, this is one way of understanding the essential coloniality of culture as constituting the very condition of hospitality.
These general reflections on linguistic history give insight into the behavior, or the structural function of the Khmer pralung. The pralung are multiple, independent entities which animate not only humans but also certain objects, plants, and animals. The departure or absence of the pralung from the body is associated with loss of consciousness and death. However, the pralung are adventurous and apt at any moment and in any number to voluntarily or involuntarily abandon the body. The threat of corruption or of loss is essential to the role of the pralung. They are travelers of sorts. Circulating between the interior and the exterior, the pralung are particularly sensitive to corruption. Their integrity must however be maintained in order to ensure the integrity of the space inhabited by the pralung, be that space the body of an individual or, through a metonymic operation, the community of which that individual is a member.
I will cite here a few stanzas from another text at the origin of Khmer vernacular literature, the Hau Pralung, or the Calling of the Souls. This is a text recited within healing ritual. The narrator – who is in fact the ceremonial officiant in charge of reciting the text, addresses the pralung to incite their return home:
[...] O my dears, the forest paths are terribly difficult, covered in thorns and sharp-bladed grass. / O my dears, there are tigers, along with enormous terribly ferocious rhinoceros. There are elephants and reachasei lions, Bengal tigers and panthers. / There are so many ferocious tiger-cats. There are even bears and all sorts of other cruel animals in the forests and mountains[…]. (39-41)
[...] You should think hard and come back home. / O precious pralung, don’t go! Listen to my sweet words. (st. 44-45)
[…] O precious pralung, don't go! Come back to our happy and prosperous home.[...] Look here at the silk mattresses and wool carpets, the cushions and cloth pillows. Come back home to rest your soul.[...] (st. 49-50)
The moment the pralung – which are, may I recall, etymologically, sacred liṅga – return home, they constitute that very home. In other words, at the birth of vernacular literature, even as the birth of vernacular literature, words make the pralung appear. And in appearing, the pralung incorporate, or wholly assimilate home.
The Buddha Statue
One is initially struck by the relative lack of representation of women in Post-Angkorian art. The abundant anthropomorphic statuary of the Angkorian empire, which can be said to have rendered in other terms the liṅga-yoni ensemble, included a range of divine female consorts accompanying the central male gods. These goddesses were associated with female members of the royal family. Diversity is however swept away with the singular representation of the Buddha in the post-Angkorian complex. Only the Buddha is mentioned in epigraphy22; only the Buddha is represented in statuary. Yet this Buddha is in no way singularly male – always somehow integrating if not altogether colonizing his feminine counterpart.
In rejecting the sovereign householder’s life to obtain transcendent power, the young prince Siddhartha undergoes a sort of transgender operation. Stripped of the attributes of earthly power, the Buddha can appear rather feminine. This may go some way towards explaining the treatment of certain post-Angkorian Buddhas, in which swelling breasts can sometimes complement exceedingly fine features. (Figure 2) The postures of these Buddha statues contrast starkly with the hieratic statuary of Angkorian Hindu gods, crystallized in the erect liṅga. When standing, the Buddha is typically represented with one or both hands raised, arms hemmed in to his sides, indicating to the viewer “have no fear,” or “remain in peace.” The contrast with Angkorian art, exemplified by this early Vishnu (Figure 3), which must be seen to induce rather than calm fear, is patent. The opposition extends even to Angkorian Mahayanist Buddhas, in which a relatively rigid posture renders an aspect of meditative discipline much closer to the principle of the liṅga. (Figure 4)
The Buddha statue can also be explicitly identified as a woman. A series of modern practices suggest the contours, without necessarily identifying the precise sources, of this phenomenon. Figure 5 shows one of four Buddhas carved into the doorways of Angkor Vat’s central sanctuary in the 16th century. 16th-century epigraphic records at the temple suggest that the four Buddhas sculpted in the doorways of the temple’s central sanctuary were part of an architectural-conceptual transformation of the Brahmanic temple into a Buddhist funerary monument – a stupa – sheltering the remains of a recently deceased king. It is the Queen Mother who proclaims, in a text inscribed on a column facing the west entry to the temple’s central sanctuary, her pride in her son’s restoration work at the temple, and her hope in the renewed prosperity of the Khmer State. In an act of faith, she cuts off her hair, to have it burned and made into lacquer to coat the Buddha statues. The text ends with her final vow to become a Mahāpurusa, a “Great Man”, in a future life concomitant with the appearance of the future Buddha Maitreya on earth. In contemporary popular religious practice, one of the four Buddhas is called “Mother Buddha”, and another “Father Buddha” – I suspect in memory of these 16th-century events (cf. Thompson 2000a).
The Buddha’s assimilation of the feminine at the heart of State power is made further explicit in the renowned statues of Neang Chek Neang Chum, or “Lady Chek and Lady Chum.” (Figure 6) These two statues of the Buddha are considered among the most powerful of a range of divinities worshipped across the country today as State palladia. Standing in a public park in front of the contemporary royal residence at Angkor, they have a colourful history of repelling enemies of the State. No one would deny that each statue represents the Buddha, yet they are called Lady Chek and Lady Chum, and are understood to be two sisters.
More often than not, however, the Buddha’s assimilation of the feminine is strikingly like that of the Shiva liṅga. (Figures 7a-c) For it is still the pedestal which embodies the feminine; in other words, it is still the feminine which is the condition of possibility of the apparition of the male figure. But in post-Angkorian imagery, the feminine is no longer an abstract representation of the vulva into which the phallic statue is inserted; instead it is the anthropomorphic image of the Goddess of the Earth who appears on the pedestal of the seated Buddha at the moment he “Vanquishes Evil.” This is a famous scene from the Buddha’s life, and the one most commonly represented on the central altar of Cambodian Theravadin temples. The Buddha is meditating on the eve of Enlightenment, when Mara, the embodiment of Evil, challenges him to the throne. Frequently, Mara is represented by his three daughters, named Lust, Temptation and Aversion. The Buddha silently pursues his meditation unbothered, while calling the Earth to witness. The Earth appears as a woman wringing out her long wet hair to create an ocean which drowns Mara and his Evil army. The Buddha’s sovereignty is thus confirmed – be it the impossible sovereignty of he who has abandoned all desire, for power as for women.
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