- Fields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos by Holly High
Anthropologist Holly High identifies her monograph as a “political ethnography of desire” (p. 1). The study is based on her fieldwork in 2002–3 in Don Khiaw, a village in southwest Laos on an island in the Mekong River. In her 2005 doctoral dissertation, she argued that notions of personal desire and aspiration fuelled many individual poverty-reduction strategies. In Fields of Desire she amplifies her analysis of desire with Deleuze’s psychoanalytic concept of “delirium”. She cites Deleuze’s contention that “every society is at once rational and irrational” and that “underneath all reason lies delirium” (p. 180).
Don Khiaw is a fertile site to study investments in desire as its residents often migrate within Laos and even across the border into Thailand to find work and earn money. According to High, “[a]ll of these migrations are fuelled by significant and sometimes surprising desires” (p. 3). That is, the poor — and often young — residents migrate not only for survival but also for the pursuit of dreams and self-transformation. Moreover, state attempts to obstruct and [End Page 282] criminalize the rural poor who seek work across the border have not reduced these flows of desire. The power of desire is revealed in the case study of a teenager, Deng, whose libidinous aspirations to work in Thailand were expressed in terms of wanting “gold all over my body” — a fantasy that promised the “unconstrained possibility of becoming something else” (p. 76). According to the author, “[t]here was something delirious about Deng’s desires. … For all their apparent irrationality, they produced a kind of rationality that can be seen in the repetitious outcomes of lives lived in rural Laos” (p. 81).
The book also focuses on the ambivalent relationship between “desiring” villagers and the state. Taking her cue from Deleuze, High argues that “[d]esire can produce resistance to the dominant assemblage, but it can also inspire normativity and aspirations for conformity” (p. 15). While the state is seen as exploitative, corrupt and destructive, the Don Khiaw villagers also perceive it as a source of possible nurture and expect it to provide resources needed for wealth, education and health care. Aligning herself with what she calls “resistance to resistance studies” (p. 7), High refers approvingly to Tania Li’s emphasis on the seductive aspects of the state and to her critique of Scott’s anarchy theory advanced in his The Art of Not Being Governed.
High elaborates this approach through the psychoanalytic concept of “extimacy” — the intimate incorporation of an external entity — and it is here that she wanders into her own world of fantasy with what she calls the “extimate state” (p. 172). She attempts to explain the intimacy of the state by reference to Sahlin’s study of the “stranger king” myths and legends of foreign rulers who commit barbaric acts before being installed as legitimate kings by union with a local woman representing autochthonous nurturing female power (pp. 122–23). She then cites Buddhism as an example of “stranger-power” by referring to the That Phanom chronicle of Buddha’s airborne journeys as a foreigner along the Mekong, his conversion of indigenous human and non-human powers, and his leaving of distinguishing marks on the land (pp. 169–78). In fact, such Buddhist legends are common throughout the Tai world of [End Page 283] Theravada Buddhism and are usually associated with Buddha’s creation of a “Buddha kingdom” (Buddhadesa) — an archetype of an imagined utopian realm to be preceded by a righteous ruler (dhammaraja) and realized with the advent of the compassionate Future Buddha, Ariya Metteyya — and there is a long history of “holy men” rebellions in southern Laos and neighbouring Northeast Thailand inspired by such Buddhist millennial beliefs. High also argues that “[s]tates operate not only through a monopoly of force, but also through utopian promises, the appeal of which persists and sometimes even becomes stronger the more they fail to be realized” (p. 108). But why resort to exotic...