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Consoling Ghosts

Stories of Medicine and Mourning from Southeast Asians in Exile

Jean M. Langford

Publication Year: 2013

In conversation with emigrants from Laos and Cambodia, Jean M. Langford repeatedly met with spirits: the wandering souls of the seriously ill, dangerous ghosts of those who died by violence, restless ancestors displaced from their homes. For these emigrants, the dead not only appear in memories, safely ensconced in the past, but also erupt with a physical force into the daily life and dreams of the present.

Inspired by these conversations, Consoling Ghosts is a sustained contemplation of relationships with the dying and the dead. At their heart, as Langford’s work reveals, emigrants’ stories are parables not of cultural difference but rather of life and death. Langford inquires how and why spirits become implicated in remembering and responding to violence, whether the bloody violence of war or the more structural violence of social marginalization and poverty. What is at stake, she asks, when spirits break out of their usual confinement as symbolic figures for history, heritage, or trauma to haunt the corridors of hospitals and funeral homes? Emigrants’ theories and stories of ghosts, Langford suggests, inherently question the metaphorical status of spirits, in the process challenging both contemporary bioethics of dying and dominant styles of mourning. Consoling Ghosts explores the possibilities opened up by a more literal existence of ghosts, from the confrontation of shades of past violence through bodily ritual to rites of mourning that unfold in acts of material care for the dead instead of memorialization.

Ultimately the book invites us to consider alternate ways of facing death, conducting relationships with the dead and dying, and addressing the effects of violence that continue to reverberate in bodies and social worlds.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. 6-7

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pp. vii-viii

Hmong, Kmhmu, Lao, and Khmer words have been romanized according tothe most common spellings in scholarly texts consulted or, in the absence oftextual references, according to the suggestions of my bilingual research asso-ciates. I apologize for any resulting inconsistencies in transliteration styles....

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pp. 1-24

...graphic conversations?one that was regretted, another that was refused. In1999 one of my research associates and I spoke several times with a middle-aged Lao couple, Major Samsuthi and his wife Bouakhay.1 While writing mydoctoral thesis on an entirely different topic, I?d been hired by the researchunit of a hospital to talk to Lao, Khmer, Kmhmu, and Hmong emigrants about...

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1. Violent Traces

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pp. 25-52

...munity center, waiting for our interpreter. Over a series of meetings he hadbeen telling us the story of his life, especially his years as a soldier with theRoyal Lao Army. During our previous conversation, he had described hisI dream I am in a meadow fighting. . . . I was with two other soldiers, and theshells fell on us in the foxhole. A friend of mine got cut in the hand. One per-...

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2. Displacements

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pp. 53-78

THE COBRA IN OEUR?S POEM strikes a familiar motif. Like other nonhumanagents who appear in Southeast Asian literature, folktales, and memoirsabout life under conditions of war and state-sponsored terror, Oeur?s cobra isa figure of beauty, power, and imagined rescue as well as danger. The en -counter is not simply an ethnographic reference to a rural lifestyle, where the...

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3. Disciplines of Dying

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pp. 79-110

...his first wife was diagnosed with liver cancer and died. He told the story inLao to our interpreter, who in turn retold it to me. Then, as if this mediatedaccount were insufficient, Major Samsuthi addressed me directly in English,saying ?My wife. Liver cancer. No doctor in the world can treat liver cancer.?He attributed her illness in part to the years they spent with their three chil-...

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4. Dangerous Language

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pp. 111-134

Pereira transports us to a scene of medical practice, which over the past cou-ple of centuries has increasingly become a primary site for communicationwith the dying. The verse alerts us to the way a prognosis can be a verdict oflife or death. It also offers an opening for thinking through the different gen-res of language used to address the dying on the part of medicine and on the...

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5. Syllables of Power

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pp. 135-162

...have the power to call death, and others, like Lt. Somsy?s chom mon, to avertit. If trust in medicine was eroded in wartime Laos and Cambodia, reliance onmagical healing may have intensified. As deaths and disappearances oscillatedwith miraculous survivals and rescues, war accentuated dependence on mys-terious agents, including ceremonial syllables that might powerfully influence...

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6. Postmortem Economies

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pp. 163-184

...small, spare room at a community center. A tape recorder sat on the beigeformica-topped table between us. Our conversation had eventually gravitated,like many others with emigrants, to a conjunction between violence and mate-rial relations with the dead. The lieutenant was describing how he and hisunit in the Royal Lao Army handled the bodies of those killed in combat dur-...

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7. Spirit Debt

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pp. 185-208

...poet Mai Neng Moua track the relationship between mourning and physicaltraces of the dead, lamenting and protesting the loss of remains within alandscape and the missing names on a monument. In different ways, thepoems register longing and anger related to an absence of physical connec-tion with the dead. This connection has been broken, the poets infer, by state...

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AFTERWORD: On the Status of Ghosts

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pp. 209-218

I would say that there is no politics without an organization of thetime and space of mourning, without a topolitology of the sepulcher,without an anamnesic and thematic relation to the spirit as ghost[revenant], without an open hospitality to the guest as ghost [inEnglish in the original], whom one holds, just as he holds us, hostage....

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pp. 219-222

Many hands helped to shape this book. My greatest debt is to the people ofLao, Khmer, Hmong, and Kmhmu descent who shared their stories withcourage, patience, and insight, and to Sompasong Keohavong, Rouen Sam,Paularita Seng, Linda Chulaparn, and Yakobo Xiong for their skillful inter-pretation (in all its senses) and for a generous assistance that went way beyond...

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pp. 223-236

...1. Emigrants and health-care providers consulted for this project have been givenpseudonyms to honor promises of confidentiality. For the same reason the exact2. I use the term Lao as shorthand for Lao Loum, also known as ethnic or low-3. See Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman for an illuminating discussion of the changing valence of ?immigrant? and ?emigrant? in French social services...

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pp. 237-256

Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. 1994. The Shell and the Kernel. Translated byNicholas T. Rand. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Adler, Shelley R. 1991. ?Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome amongHmong Immigrants: Examining the Role of the ?Nightmare.?? Journal of AmericanAgamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by...


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pp. 257-263

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About the Author

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p. 264-264

Jean M. Langford is associate professor of anthropology at the University ofMinnesota. She is the author of Fluent Bodies: Ayurvedic Remedies for Post-...

E-ISBN-13: 9781452939858
E-ISBN-10: 1452939853
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816687183

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2013