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Reading Response to Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945, by Penny Edwards

November 18, 2012

 

 

Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945

 

Angkor Vat, the storied emblem of antiquity, has signified Cambodian sovereignty and national identity since the country obtained independence from French colonial rule. Although Angkor was initially built as a sacred site for religious purposes, by way of various colonial and postcolonial discourses offered by French colonizers and contemporary Cambodian political figures alike, Angkor became transformed into a monument of the modern nation-state. In her examination of Angkor’s paradoxical position of conveying both a Cambodian pride of the nation’s glorious past as well as its anxieties for the future, Penny Edwards wonderfully scrutinizes the dynamic yet subtle “intersection of European and indigenous worldview that fostered a self-conscious demarcation of a national religion, a national space, a national past and a national culture” (7).

 

Although Chapters 1 and 10 offer distinct stories of ‘imagining Cambodge’ during very different time periods, the mechanism of these imaginings suggests a fundamental similarity in the nature of the colonial conquest and the postcolonial regimes that followed; that is, both structures deployed a similar process of artificially constructing “Khmer-ness” or its “before-ness” through idealizing Angkor Vat, thus making it a symbol of Khmer nationhood or a “lodestone” of national pride. Angkor Vat was used as a powerful site to “forge a new memory for Cambodge” (248), either by French colonizers who attached “historic significance” to the temple complex or, ironically, by Cambodian leaders such as Sihanouk or Pol Pot, who rooted their sovereignty and moral legitimacy in fighting against such colonial narratives.

 

It is indeed fascinating the degree to which the French colonial and postcolonial Cambodian leaders’ respective “manipulation of knowledge” about Angkor are at once distinct and paralleled. Either consciously or unconsciously, these leaders effectively politicized Angkor Vat by imbuing it with the meaning of the nation-state, thereby obscuring the complex’s original function as a “religious site connected in popular belief-systems with celebrated monarchs and mythical figures” (26). For the French, Angkor Vat was interpreted through “privileged European aesthetic standards,” which “dramatized” the temple complex to “signal grandeur, themes of glory and decline, and a knowledge intimated by the artist or writer to the viewer/reader, of an-other time”(21). Through the establishment of institutions such as the École française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the French colonial authority successfully monopolized the production of knowledge about Angkor, and thus legitimized its rule in Cambodia by “staking its reputation as a guardian of global civilization”(29), and labeling indigenous people barbarians who “haven’t even kept the memory of their grand past.”

 

For later Cambodian leaders, Angkor was the “signature of Khmer-ness.” The manipulation of identical symbols was particularly obvious during the Democratic Kampuchea period, in which the Khmer Rouge regime aimed to establish a “pure and non-corrupt” Cambodian culture by completely rejecting the country’s colonial past and its concomitant claims to modernity. “The specter of erasure of the past as a warning of imminent vanishing,” Edwards writes, “remained a key trope in colonial art, literature, and propaganda, and would be worked into national imaginings as a keystones of postcolonial nationalism” (20). Here, Edwards problematizes colonial and postcolonial attempts to re-define the Khmer national identity in their respective reconstruction of the historical connotations of Angkor Vat; both regimes refused to recognize histories that were not conducive to legitimizing or rationalizing their own claims to rule. This can be seen through the lens of “discursive formation,” Edwards argues, in which the disunity of statements, concepts and histories in general should be taken as seriously as their unity.

 

Edwards summons Benedict Anderson’s idea of power in the Javanese belief system, to indicate that Angkor Vat also served as a sign and a store of power that became “accumulated” and “concentrated” through its erection. For Edwards, however, the “interpretation” of the temple complex played a role even more crucial than the structure’s “erection.” Traditionally, as Edward Said argues in Orientalism, the West was deemed “masculine” and modern, while the colonized East was always “feminine.” However, Angkor Vat was regarded as an “indisputably masculine” (245) site, through which the French could glorify their colonial expansion by seizing it as a trophy and showcasing it in its museums, and postcolonial Cambodian leaders could utilize it to justify their moral legitimacy. As Edwards illustrates in the two chapters discussed, both French and Cambodian leaders used Angkor Vat to instill their distinctive political ideals for their respective educational purposes, either “preventing France from slithering down the slope of decadence”(35), or compelling Cambodian youth to engage with the glory of their ancestors. Edwards’ argument is well supported with her discussion of the Khmer Rouge attempt to forge a national identity through the standardization of dress. Here we again see the notion that the interpretation of Angkor Vat was actually a process of manipulating the production of knowledge, in which new forms of “national character” were built and re-built.

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