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HOLLY HIGH University of Cambridge Melancholia and anthropology ABSTRACT Relationships forged during ethnographic fieldwork are often


University of Cambridge

Melancholia and anthropology


Relationships forged during ethnographic fieldwork are often ambivalent, if only because of the tension between “being there” and departure. Following Freud’s argument that ambivalence in relationships lies at the heart of melancholia, I argue that ethnographic ambivalence can result in disciplinary melancholia, as seen in calls for a more ethical anthropology and in the pleasure of these appeals. I reach this conclusion by continuing a narrative I began in this journal in 2009, in which I describe my “entanglement” in familial relationships in my field site in southern Laos. Here I focus on the central ambivalence of Lao familial relationships (between nurturance and abandonment), especially in terms of how it informs understandings of death, ghostly agency, and Buddhism. I contend that the central ambivalence of anthropology (between being there and departure) likewise informs disciplinary debates about the ethics of fieldwork, collective culpability, and moral positioning. [ambivalence, ethnography, fieldwork, death, mourning, ethical anthropology, Laos]

n the south of Laos, family relationships can be understood in terms
I of a key ambivalence: One valence (nurture) is positively charged and pursued, and the other (abandonment) is negatively charged and rejected, but both are ever present and in tension. This ambiva- lence is one of the compelling factors behind the continued repeti-

tion of overt demonstrations of gifting to living family members and also to deceased ones through merit making: Gifts are manifestations of ide- alized familial relationships that emphasize nurturance and “shout down” abandonment (although, as central motifs in Laos, donations to family and temple have many motivations and cannot be thought to stem from any one source). Buddhism plays an important role by facilitating ongoing ex- changes, even after death. Understanding the ambivalence that matters in this context, then, can shed light on the charged and passionate engage- ment with Buddhism in the south of Laos. In his attempt to apply the insights of psychoanalysis to supernatural be- liefs, Freud (1913) employed what was then a neologism: ambivalence . 1 He suggested that during an infant’s long dependence on caregivers, the sat- isfaction of needs gives rise to affection but also hostility toward the care- giver because of his or her occasional absence or denial of care. Competi- tors for the caregiver’s attention—such as siblings and other adults—also become the objects of ambivalent feelings of affection and hostility. Freud suggested that this ambivalence is present even in overtly affectionate re- lationships: Indeed, the greater the solicitousness, the greater the hostility because overt and self-conscious declarations of affection are, in fact, at- tempts to “shout down” the inevitable accompanying hostility. 2 He argued that this ambivalence could also be seen in mourning, wherein “excessive self-reproaches” were the neurotic return of the repressed hostility to the deceased. 3 In a similar vein, Freud understood the depiction of recently dead kin as malevolent ghosts as a projection of the repressed hostility held by the living toward the deceased. Although this interpretation is intriguing, it is easy to see its weaknesses in cross-cultural analysis: Freud adopts from his sources

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 217–233, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425. C 2011 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2011.01302.x

American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

(including James G. Frazer) a social-evolutionary typol- ogy that at times posits a sharp contrast between civi- lized and savage minds, and yet he also seeks to claim that there is a universal form that ambivalence takes, that is, an ambivalence between hostility and affection. In Laos, I sug- gest, there is, indeed, significant ambivalence in familial re- lationships and that it does provide a compelling under- pinning both for family dramas and for engagements with ideas about the supernatural, including ghosts and Bud- dhism. However, its key nodes are not affection and hostil- ity but, rather, nurturance and resulting obligation, on the one hand, and the possibility (often repressed) of abandon- ment, on the other. It is a common insight that, for the Lao and the nearby Thai, relationships between family members are under- stood through metaphors of nurturance and resulting debt and obligation. 4 It is through material care for one an- other that people become family members for each other over time. The primary metaphor is that of the nurturance a mother provides to a helpless infant. The mother gives the child life, rice, and shelter and, later, support through school, access to farmland, and an inheritance. In explicit articulations of ideal family relationships, this nurturance engenders a sense of debt and obligation in the child. The child responds through return gifts, particularly when par- ents are elderly, but with the explicit articulation that one can never fully discharge one’s debts to one’s parents. This central idealized image of care and debt forms the basis of other relationships that become familial as well, such as those between spouses, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, and so on. It is not biological links but en- during relationships of nurturance, indebtedness, and re- turn gifts that are emphasized. Even biologically based re- lationships must be actualized by nurturance or they grow cold and meaningless or perhaps only meaningful as a void, as a sin, like the sense of loneliness and pity one has for an old couple with no children in the house to care for them. The phrases bo mii khon yuu huen (there is no one in the house) and bo mii khon bung mee (there is no one to look af- ter mother) are particularly poignant phrases in the south of Laos because they indicate the jilted loneliness people feel when others do not remain to care for them. Because of this ascendancy of nurturance over biology, adoption does not provide a contradiction in the south of Laos. Adoption is common. It is possible to adopt parents and siblings as well as sons and daughters and for an in- dividual to have more than one set of parents at a time. It is not necessary to officially record or ritualize such an adoption, although it is possible to hold a su khwan (call- ing of the souls, a very common ritual for generalized well- being) to mark the occasion. But, most of the time, to ac- cept someone as mother is to offer her the kind of material care that a dutiful daughter (or son) would provide. There are degrees of this care, of course, and in some instances


people become mother and child virtually in name only, ex- changing occasional visits and gifts. But very often, these re- lationships of nurturance involve an intimate sharing of the difficulties and windfalls of daily life: living together, main- taining a homestead, sharing work in the fields, caring for the ill, eating meals together. In this rural area, membership in a household is widely considered to be beneficial, if not essential, to life and health. 5 These are very real relation- ships of mutual indebtedness, and the care that is shared is thought to be literally life-giving and life-sustaining. To be meaningful and effective in this sense, this care must be continual. Family relationships are established and (importantly) sustained through ongoing exchanges. Bio- logical links, certainly, are recognized, but “true” family are those that one nurtures and is nurtured by. This conception of relatedness rests on continual symbolic work of nurtu- rance and provides a number of “subject positions” com- mon in the Tai region: the dutiful daughter, the mother who virtuously provides for her family, the son passionately loyal to his parents, the husband and wife who cooperate like two legs on a single body. 6 But this ideal is disrupted by the possibility of abandonment. The figure of the divorced woman, the young mother abandoned by the progenitor of her child, the unwanted spinster, the good-for-nothing hus- band who squanders scarce money on alcohol and women, the orphan, the aging parents with no one in the house to care for them: These are all key figures in the Lao imagi- nary. 7 They recur in pop songs and literature and as char- acterizations of particular people, either in gossip or in in- terventions to “help” such unfortunates. They are subject positions too, although not desired ones. 8 They express dif- ferent formulations of familial failure, a failure of care and nurturance. The tensions between these two sets of sub- ject positions—the idealized versions of care and nurtu- rance and the dystopic ones of the abandonment of right- ful obligations—are telling of a Lao formulation of the more general problem of ambivalence in familial relationships. 9 In the south of Laos, newborns are fed rice in the first weeks or months of life (parents chew the rice for the new- born before placing it in the child’s mouth). This is con- sidered a milestone, and when one asks after a newborn, the standard question is “has he or she eaten rice already?” When the reply is “already,” it is generally uttered with pride and accompanied by details about when and how and how many mouthfuls. This practice is a cause of grave concern for development workers, and there is currently Australian- government-funded research and a UNICEF public aware- ness campaign aimed at stopping it because it is thought to detract from breast-feeding. 10 But this opposition misses the point. Rice is not the staple food for newborns in the south of Laos. 11 Rather, rice is provided in my experience in extremely small amounts because it is the staple symbol of nurturance. 12 As in so many other Asian languages, the Lao word that means “to eat” also means “to eat rice,” and

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the word for “hungry” also means “hungry for rice.” Feeding rice to a newborn is the metaphor itself for feeding, and thus nurturance. To eat someone’s rice is to receive someone’s care, and thus (over time) to enter into relationships, espe- cially familial ones. 13 It is possible to speculate that the first feeding of rice is an important milestone for the family of a newborn because it is a firm step toward consolidating this newcomer as a family member with a need for nurturance and the obligation to later make return. It is telling that the symbol of such nurturance is rice rather than mother’s milk:

Again, it is sharing the product of (often household-based) labor, rather than a sharing of biological substances, that is emphasized as the basis for close kinship. Death provides a conundrum for such familial rela- tionship, because it is potentially interpreted as a depar- ture with no return: an abandonment. I argue below that the rites surrounding death, the powers attributed to ghosts of family members, and the efficacy of Buddhism in con- tinuing nurturance after death are all elements of an at- tempt to “shout down” such an interpretation of abandon- ment through an excessive intensification of symbolization of nurturance and care of the dead.

Loss and an anthropologist’s self-reproaches

In my previous article in this journal (High 2010), I re- counted how, despite ambivalences of my own, I had been adopted into a Lao family, largely because I shared so many meals with them. The kind of explicit linkage of nurturance and resulting obligation that I experienced was unfamiliar, and I wrote of how it made me feel uneasy: I feared I could never make adequate repayment for the family’s generosity, both material and emotional. In this article, I return to the phone calls that ended that previous article, calls that inten- sified through the months that followed. They were, I was to learn, the first dripping evidence of what would be a critical turn of events. The phone calls were predictable in format: My Lao family wanted money, but I felt that I could spare little or none. I felt keenly at the time that we had, once again, encountered a genuine difference, despite our mutual at- tempts to forge bonds. I had chosen to buy a flat for myself and to commit to a mortgage; to commit, if you like, to my own life project. This is normal behavior for a young pro- fessional in Australia, and my Australian kin unhesitatingly supported my decision. But it meant that I could not satisfy expectations of Lao kin, and our relationship was strained. Sometime in September 2009, I received a call late at night from my Lao brother-in-law Cit. He told me his wife, Suaay (my “sister”), was sick again with an illness she had had for many months now: kidney stones. “Bo cak khon,” he said, meaning, “She does not recognize anyone.” I have seen people in this state before—unresponsive, eyes glazed over, not engaging in conversation, lying prone or unconscious.

It is usually a precursor to death. However, to my knowl- edge, death is not a common outcome of kidney stones. I did not have any way of knowing how serious the situa- tion was. “Have you taken her to the hospital?” I asked. “We don’t have any money,” he replied. I said I would send some money but that I did not have much. “I just thought you should know,” Cit said before the phone cut out. It is expen- sive to call Australia from Laos, and he had probably run out of credit, but I did not call him back because it was already late and I figured that what he wanted most was money, which I would send when my next pay rolled around. When my pay came in, I put some of it in an envelope, along with some money I had borrowed from a friend (al- together, a couple of hundred Australian dollars) and sent it to Laos. That evening, I tried to call Cit to tell him to look out at the post office for my letter. I could not get through. I tried calling other people who lived on the same island, and I eventually got hold of a schoolteacher. I told him that I had heard that Suaay was sick and that I wanted him to tell her family that I had posted some money. He interrupted me and said, “Tay leew”—“She is dead already.” We ended the conversation rapidly, and I found myself alone in my office in Sydney. It was late, maybe 10 p.m. My first thought was to look for photos of Suaay. I sorted through the hundreds— perhaps thousands—of shots that I took during my first fieldwork, seeking out the ones in which we were both younger and she was so strong and ambitious. I realized through this process how few photographs I had of her. I had no portraits of her at all. I knew I had one photo of her sitting, relaxed, on the kitchen stairs that I had framed and kept in my bedroom at one point. But I had moved home and office so many times, and now I could not find it. This was the photo I wanted of her: smiling with her rough sense of humor and bravado, seeming not to care what others thought. And a shadow too of her frailty, of how quickly that bravado had evaporated when she felt unloved or unsure, as it had the time I took her to Thailand to seek medical care. I had had two cameras during that first fieldwork, both film cameras because digital had yet to become common. One, an SLR, could capture the most beautiful outdoor scenes, but it required manual focusing and had no flash. So, for more casual times, I also had a small automatic. Mine were the only cameras on the island at that time, and I sometimes lent out the auto for events and festivals. I would walk the island with my SLR, seeking to capture print- quality scenes that I thought would be of ethnographic interest: threshing, gatherings at the temple, harvest, an ad- ministrative meeting, and so on, with all the absurd strug- gles to capture the “lifelike” quality that Roland Barthes parodies. 14 In these rounds, when the camera appeared, what people wanted, in contrast, was a portrait: the up- per part of the body, the face in even light, unsmiling and looking directly at the camera. Portraits of the elderly were


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

particularly sought because they were intended for use at funerals, to be displayed during rites and, if the family was moderately well-off, placed on the thaat (stupa) where the bones were finally interred. As I flipped through my copies of the prints, then, I was confronted by a melange of sometimes-absurd “everyday life” ethnographic shots, happy snaps, a smattering of baby faces, and a swag of por- traits of the elderly. Although I had many photos of Suaay in happy group snaps, I had no portraits of her alone. I realized with shame that we, her family, would have no photograph of her to place on her thaat. Perhaps the absence of her face in my photos was be- cause she was such an important part of my fieldwork, but not as an informant so much as a facilitator. She looked after me, took care of that pesky question of what to eat each day and how I was to survive in a material context so very dif- ferent from my own. It was she who taught me how to use an oil lamp made from an old sweetened condensed milk tin. It was she who showed me how to use alum to make the silty Mekong water settle before boiling it to drink. She patiently showed me how to light a charcoal fire using that delicious-smelling resin, how to regulate the heat by adding and removing the coals, and how to steam the sticky rice— all this before finally taking over, saying that I was too waste- ful of water, rice, charcoal, and other resources and that she would simply cook for me. That way, she said, I could do my work. She understood my work as few others did. She sat with me as I translated documents in the heat of the day, quizzed me when I returned from marathon meetings, and filtered village gossip through to me so that I was never too much in the dark. And she knew I hated being in the dark. And lest you think that ours was an easy, satisfying re- lationship, let me be clear: I loved her but with the kind of love that Piers Vitebsky has described as “not so much an emotion itself, [but] as the enabler for a gamut of feelings which may include anger, resentment, and guilt as much as tenderness” (2008:200). Entanglement is perhaps a bet- ter word for it. Often, her watchfulness over me, her insis- tence on caring and providing for me, produced a sense of intense oppressiveness. I found myself avoiding her com- pany at times when I lived on the island, feeling somehow smothered. I felt that the bonds of care and affection were the bonds of unfreedom too. You might be able to see now why, when I heard Suaay was dead, I felt guilty. As Freud noted, self-reproach is a common form of mourning, although he also suggests it is neurotic. But perhaps fellow anthropologists will under- stand the kind of guilt that I felt. It took the form of a creeping, indigestible suspicion that the strength of my own life was parasitically and vampiristically built on the weak- nesses of Suuay’s own. First fieldwork is a turning point not only in the career but also in the life of an anthropol- ogist. Anthropologists have, tongue in cheek, likened first fieldwork to an initiation ritual, a hazing, an induction into


the profession that leaves the young professional trans- formed (Sontag 1966:71). All clever ironies aside, I accept that first fieldwork is powerful precisely through its—often painful—transformative capacities. Gillian Cowlishaw de- scribes those one encounters in the field as “people who are likely to change your mind” (2009:7). Fieldwork changed not only my opinions but also the patterns of my thought. And Suaay was the one who made it all possible. And, thus, she had made my current life project possible: my job, my students, my colleagues, and my home. But what of her life project? Why had I not been able to make her aspira- tions possible? I think my self-reproaches arose partly from a sense that, in a fair world, we would have facilitated each other equally. And those telephone calls earlier in the year, asking for money—they were specifically calls aimed at recruit- ing me into realizing her life project. In my previous ar- ticle (High 2010), I noted that Suaay and Cit were in the process of building a new house on land that had been given to them by an elderly couple that they had recently adopted as parents. In Laos, houses are usually built on stilts from wood, bamboo, and grass thatch or iron roofing. The upstairs area is the more formal space used for enter- taining special guests and storing valuables. It is kept very clean. Most daily life occurs below in the dirtier but cheer- ful galang area underneath the house. Here fires can be lit for warmth in the cold, or the heat of the day can be escaped in the shade. But Suaay was determined that her new house would be nothing like this familiar model. I had shown her pho- tographs of my ancestral home outside Dubbo in rural Aus- tralia. I had chosen pictures of this particular house because my mother was living there at the time, and, as a student with no permanent address of my own, I thought it was the best approximation of “my home.” I thought these photos would help to reduce the gulf between us, give her a lit- tle insight into who I am personally and in terms of Aus- tralia’s past. Not so long ago—in my mother’s generation— our family had been farmers too, and the generation before that had lived without running water, cars, or electricity in their youth. But Suaay surprised me by taking these pictures as a sign not of a quaint past but of modernity. Suaay said she wanted a house like the one in my pictures, built on the ground. As she and Cit continued with their house-building project, they often explained it to me in terms of wanting to build a house “like your house, like your mother’s house.” Perhaps she was seeking here to simplify for my sake, to articulate her ambitions in terms she thought I would understand. Or perhaps something had been lost in trans- lation: the house treasured by my Australian family as a nostalgic symbol here interpreted by my Lao family as an example of the kind of modernity and radical change they were after. In either case, Suaay articulated her aspirations

in terms that neatly captured the parallels between us: our mutual recognition of our difference from each other, our mirrored attempts to lessen this divide as part of larger per- sonal projects of transformation. Her desire to break free of standard Lao architecture may have been a sign of her “outsider’s sense of her own culture,” as Sidney Mintz (2000:175) noted of his collabo- rator “Taso.” Once I came to know her well, Suaay began to emphasize her own peculiarities—her childhood in the city, her spell as a cook, her cutting critique of Lao politics and economy, and her sense of exclusion from some of the social networks that I was taking some part in through my research. Perhaps the bond we formed grew in part out of this mutual recognition of each other as outsiders with as- pirations for change. Her project, with her husband and ex- plicitly for her children, of building a new house that would be the center of a new prosperity was a particularly potent symbol of her ambitions. The couple’s hopes for the future seemed invested in it. When I was in Laos in 2009, I had been impressed by Cit and Suaay’s drive to complete this new house. They made noodles and alcohol and carried them to distant villages to sell or to exchange for rice that they then sold to traders. I gave them a few hundred dollars toward the purchase of building materials. Suaay thanked me but was clear that she thought the amount was rather small and, although she un- derstood that I had a mortgage, that she would like more contributions in the future. I found it hard to be enthusiastic about providing additional financial support. I thought the house was a folly. The plot of land she and Cit had secured

Melancholia and anthropology American Ethnologist

was too small, and the idea of the two of them construct- ing the house piece by piece by themselves sounded like a recipe for structural weakness, waste, and tragedy. Figure 1 is a photograph that I took of Cit outside the house in October 2009. The structure was small and windowless, and I imagined that, if it was ever completed, it would be hot and uncomfortable, a haven for mosquitoes, and hard to keep clean. Thus, even when I offered help in realizing fantasy life projects, it did not mean the desired transformation was guaranteed. In the first weeks after her death, I reproached myself:

I could have sent more money, sent it sooner, cared more, been there. I had let Suaay down, disastrously, when I chose my life project over hers. These were painful thoughts. Fur- thermore, I felt that it was right for me to feel the rawness of these self-reproaches and that it would be wrong for me to avoid them through self-forgiveness. That would be a de- nial, I thought, of the often-huge gulf of inequality that ex- ists between an anthropologist and her informants, a gulf that often facilitates fieldwork. In my grief, I reasoned that not only should I open myself to the pain of this pitiless self- reproach but so also should anthropology more generally. When I spoke of these disciplinary self-reproaches to some fellow anthropologists in Australia, they disagreed. Each of them gently reminded me, in his or her own way, that anthropology can bear witness but not responsibility:

It would be an inflation on a massive scale to imagine that anthropologists had the capacity to either condemn or save the world. Our role is as the world’s watchers. “The folly,” as I have come to call the half-built house, recalled for me,

in terms that neatly captured the parallels between us: our mutual recognition of our difference from

Figure 1. The house that was begun by Cit and Suaay.


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

then, how the small gestures of help that we are capable of can be frail and ineffective. It reminded me that, although failing to “help” is a painful breach, “helping” is itself often fraught and does not guarantee a solution to the ambigu- ities of fieldwork, obligation, and inequality. I argue in the concluding section of this article that self-reproaches, such as the ones I experienced during my own mourning, may appear more broadly in the discipline in repeated and com- pelling calls for a more ethical, public, or engaged anthro- pology. Counter to Don Kulick’s description of this litera- ture as “masochist anthropology” (2006), I argue that it may more simply represent “melancholic anthropology,” that is, a kind of anthropology characterized by moral and ethical anxiety provoked by the return of the repressed in times of mourning or crisis. First, however, I describe the mourning that I shared with my Lao family.

Abandonment and return

A few days after I heard news of Suaay’s death, I received a phone call from Cit. He was deep in grief. He said, “Some- times I think I am going crazy. I just sit and cry and think of her. We had such hopes. Now I just have to set my heart, decide—it’s for the children now.” He said he did not know what to think about the future now. His hopes, like the folly, seemed abandoned without her. Through the help of my colleagues and the forbearance of my students, it was agreed that I would return to Laos for two weeks so that I could visit the family. The following is drawn from my diary and describes the final leg of my journey to the island just as the rains of Typhoon Ketsana hit: 15

The boat trip lasts perhaps 40 minutes. I am so relieved when I make out through the streaming rain the famil- iar shape of Don Khiaw island on the right. As the en- gine of the boat cuts and we coast to the steep muddy bank, I hear the voice of a boy. “Meen,” he says, mean- ing “yes,” meaning yes it is Holly, this boat is bringing Holly. I recognise the voice: it is Wan, the eldest son of my dead friend. I can’t see him because I am wearing my glasses and they are covered with spots of rain and furthermore have fogged up because of the heat and humidity. But I know he must be talking to his siblings, calling them to come and help me ashore.

I cradle my book bag and lean forward to catch the heavy weight of my backpack, and stand up carefully. I drive one bare foot into the steep mud bank that rises on my right. Wan’s sister, Nooy, is there now by my side. She steadies my left elbow as I drive a second foot into the mud wall. I lean over to hug her, smiling invol- untarily at how much she looks like her mother now. Through the haze of my glasses I study the mud wall before me: there are clumps of grass here and there and I choose one about half way up to wedge my foot on. Nooy is pushing me from below under my elbow.

And, from the level ground at the top of the bank, I feel another child reach down to take my right wrist. The clump of grass collapses and I slip down the bank and I feel Nooy weaken underneath my left arm. But the grip around my right wrist tightens. It is unexpectedly solid, like a clamp, and it pulls me up so that I can scramble and stumble onto solid ground. Then the grip releases only to be replaced with a full body hug. And it is only then that I realise that it wasn’t a child pulling me to safety. It was my mother, Mother Phong, 80 years old or more. She is tiny, her head resting on my chest and she is crying.

“Holly” I hear her say, “there is no one to care for mother.” I can feel great sobs shaking her body. I hold her tight for a moment. There does not seem to be anything I can say. We walk arm in arm to the house, Mother Phong wiping tears as we walk, me trying to see through glasses that are now wet not only from the rain and the condensation but from tears.

Oh, we miss you Suaay. It is simply too weird for words. I keep thinking you will walk around the corner or chime into our conversation. I keep feeling that something is missing and I try to think what it is and then I realise it is you, and now you are gone and will never be back.

In this diary entry, you can see that my mourning at this stage was shaped by my sense that Suaay was gone. For me, death signaled the end. She had ended and so too had our relationship. But I was to learn that, even though my Lao friends and relatives were grieving too, their grief was of a different nature. They grieved with a sense that the efficacy of a person extends beyond the lifespan and that the mu- tual obligations that exist between friends and family per- sist and are, indeed, heightened at death. This is a point I develop below but, first, I return to the story of my arrival in this scene. On that first evening after I arrived, I toweled myself down in the room where a bed had been made up for me, and then I sat there for a while with Father Khong, my dead friend’s father (and mine). I gave him some dark chocolate I had brought for him—the very bitter stuff—and I listened to him talk as other household members came and went. I could not understand all, or even most, of what he was saying, because of the typhoon rain drumming on the iron roof, and because he looked away from me while he talked and he muttered. But I heard him say that Suaay had asked to see me as she was dying. She said that she wanted to see me one last time, to see my face. During Suaay’s funeral, the coffin had been displayed in the room where we were sit- ting, and the monks who came to receive offerings to mark her passing had been seated in a long line under the win- dows. I made out a display of photographs on the wall. Fa- ther Khong explained that these photos were mounted here for the funeral. On the left were the portraits I had taken of the elderly couple, Mother Phong and Father Khong (Father Khong is


Melancholia and anthropology American Ethnologist

Melancholia and anthropology American Ethnologist Figure 2. Photographs of family members on display for the funeral.

Figure 2. Photographs of family members on display for the funeral.

also featured in Figure 2 on the far right). I had taken them at their request, with the specific understanding that these prints would be used at their funerals. But I had taken no such photo of Suaay, so the family had used the compos- ite image of Cit and Suuay transposed onto the setting of an imagined mansion (I discuss this photograph in High 2010). Cit said, as we discussed this display, that he was sad that Suaay looked so thin in this picture: He wished that he had a picture of her in the days when she was strong. The photo showing the man in all-white clothing is of Father Khong’s brother. And in the middle, beside the one of the dead woman, is a picture of me.

It is a picture that I had had taken as a joke. When I lived in Vientiane in 2001, some friends and I visited one of those photo studios where Lao middle-class couples go to get their wedding photos taken: The studios have props and costumes on hand to produce the image of the uber- traditional Lao groom and bride. We had fun pretending to be a music band and posing with a stuffed tiger, all the time dressed up as Lao princesses. I had lots of prints made, and

  • I gave one to Cit and Suaay, as I did each of my Australian relatives. I had not seen it for years and I had forgotten that

  • I had given them one at all. So I was surprised they had not only kept it but also framed it and that it had now emerged at a funeral. Father Khong told me that, during the funeral, many guests had filled the house and looked at the pho- tos. They had asked, “Who is that girl?” and he had replied, “That is my daughter.” I was humbled. Did I really mean so much to these peo- ple? They did not display photos of Mother Phong and Fa-

ther Khong’s much-admired and successful son, or any of Suaay’s children, or any of their other adopted or blood kin. Did I have such impact on their lives in my time with them? Can I be considered one of the most important members in this family group? And then I thought, well, why not? In Aus- tralia, I frame my life around being an anthropologist. That is my primary mode of imagining the significance of my ex- changes with my Lao family, and in that capacity, have I not thought of them daily? Or at least thought of the experiences that they enabled by hosting me? Have I not written and re- flected constantly on those experiences? Do I not feel that these people have changed my mind, my self? How surpris- ing is it, after all, that I would mean so much to them, when they mean so much to me? Only the metaphor is different:

For them, the metaphor is family, and for me, anthropology. The two photographs in Figure 3 do not capture the truth in any simple way, nor are they pure illusions. Instead, the jolt from viewing them comes from the blending of the believed and the make-believe. The artifice in these pho- tographs is clear: In the one, the faces of the couple are ob- viously artificially projected onto the mansion scene; the mansion is quite clearly not a mansion at all but a draw- ing of a mansion. In the other, my costume is synthetic, held on with safety pins behind my back. The hair bun is fake and attached with bobby pins. In these photographs, we were each trying something on: me trying on being Lao, “Laoer than thou,” as one of my colleagues put it, and Suaay and Cit trying on a house, “just like your house,” as Suaay would say so often, but excessively larger. Our entrances into each other’s worlds would always be informed at least


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011 Figure 3. Detail of the funeral photo display.

Figure 3. Detail of the funeral photo display.

in part by such fantasy. But in this play with difference, we also made out a mutual recognition: We were brought into the same display. Here, those who could not be copresent in flesh could be copresent in the fantastical realm of pho- tography. Both Suaay and I had departed: Suaay by virtue of her death and I by virtue of the injunction made to anthro- pologists not only to go to the field but also to leave it, as careers unfold not in the field but the often far-off academy. In both cases, I was to learn, my Lao family and I were working to make assurances that our departures were not abandonments. As Father Khong discussed these pictures with me, on that night of my arrival, he said that he missed me often and wanted to see more of me. I am his daughter, he repeated. His wife, Mother Phong, interjected once to say, “I told him it is a long way and it is not easy for you to come,” trying to deflect, I think, some of the guilt that she thought I might, or should, feel after such entreaties.

Relationships with ghosts

Over the next few days that I spent on the island, I heard much talk of Suaay’s death. My sense was that I had stepped into ongoing debates: People were not only trying to ex- plain to me what had happened but also trying to influence more generally the interpretations surrounding her death. One of the main topics was the cause of her death. Dur- ing his phone calls to me in Australia, Cit had sounded sure that Suaay had kidney stones. When I was in Laos with her friends and family, however, it emerged that there was no


consensus on the cause of her death. Numerous illnesses were attributed to her, including malaria and diabetes as well as some illnesses I could find no translation for: I had not been aware before this that she had suffered these mal- adies, apart from one called “khoo kin luad” (the throat drinks blood), which she had suffered for some time. Most people agreed, however, with the doctor she had consulted at the clinic on the mainland. He explained to me that she “had so many illnesses,” and one had triggered another so that no medical treatment would suffice. The descent into vagueness about the cause of death seemed linked to an ab- solving of guilt: We seemed to be reassuring each other that nothing more could have been done for her by any of us— doctor, family, or friends. I heard how Suaay’s eldest daugh- ter had remained by her side for days, tending to her every need until death, the image itself of care and virtue. Some doubted this discourse. One woman, from the other side of the island, told me in shocked tones that Suaay’s malady had merely been malaria, which could have been treated in a hospital, although at great expense, if anyone had cared enough to treat her. When she said this, I felt it like a physi- cal blow, triggering again my self-reproaches, my guilt over abandoning my friend. A second topic of conversation was the success or oth- erwise of the mortuary rites held for her. A relative from a nearby town had brought a camera along and shot two rolls of film on the day of the cremation. Prints had been given to the family in the set of plastic sleeves that the print- ery provided. On the night of my arrival, I was shown these photos as the family and I discussed the mortuary events.

Strikingly, almost all of the photos showed action scenes. There were a handful of posed scenes: Mother Phong, Fa- ther Khong, Cit, and the children arranged in front of the coffin. But the majority of the shots were documentary in style, lingering on the main features of the rites, the num- ber of monks and the presentations to them, the attentive- ness of the crowds who had been present. The crowds were always pictured focused on the funeral, never posed for the camera. The dead are considered very much present at least un- til cremation, and various acts after death attempt to man- age this presence. The body is washed soon after death, and this is said to remove the spirit (described as phi) from the body. When the coffin is removed from the house, it is car- ried over a fake ladder that is then burned with the coffin so, it is said, that the spirit will not know how to retrace its steps to reenter the house and haunt the living. Craig J. Reynolds notes that doctrinal Buddhism does not pro- vide a contradiction with a belief in ghosts. 16 Patrice Lad- wig suggests that the deceased are though to be “simul- taneously here and there, active ancestors involved in the life of the living but who nevertheless are incorporated into samsara and move in the Buddhist great chain of beings” (2002:132). Mother Phong was particularly keen to show me the pictures of the monks who, on the day of cremation, had received gifts such as mats, pillows, and rice. She ex- plained that the family had arranged these donations be- cause she was “afraid” that Suaay would not have pillows or mats where she was now. These rites were intended to transfer gifts directly to Suaay, to satisfy her needs. But they were also described to me as making “merit” for Suaay. The power of the monks, here, was to transform worldly gifts into otherworldly wealth, either through direct transfer or merit generation. Thus, monks become conduits for con- tinuing exchanges between kin after death. The camera lingered on the crowds, and Mother Phong commented on the relatives and friends who had traveled to be in attendance. In subsequent conversations with the family and others in the village, talk continually returned to describing the great overflow of attendees. There had been so many visitors that they had filled the large house, and a neighboring abandoned house had been opened up to shel- ter guests. When this was full, a neighboring shed that had once housed a rice mill was also opened. The massing of people I was told, at times explicitly, was a sign of Suaay’s extraordinary qualities. “She was no ordinary person,” one neighbor said, “she knew a lot of people.” This interpreta- tion of Suaay was also evidenced through uncanny events. Her husband, for instance, pointed out that, although Suaay had died during the rainy season, on the day of the crema- tion and subsequent rites, the rain had miraculously cleared so that events could proceed. Also, when her bones had been recovered, they were a bright white, indicating that her death had been timely.

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The family did not, however, have any photographs at all of the subsequent ceek khaw (festival to distribute the rice). The ceek khaw is held after cremation to inter the re- mains (described as kaduk, bones) in a final resting place (in this case, a stupa, or thaat, on the temple grounds). Be- fore the ceek khaw, the deceased is described as hungry. He or she haunts the family by joining them at mealtimes and seeking to eat alongside them. The ceek khaw is thought to satisfy this hunger by providing the dead with food and merit via the mediation of the monks. Usually, the ceek khaw takes place in the dry season, years after the death, as the family saves the resources needed to hold it. On this oc- casion, however, it was held only a couple of weeks after the death because the dead woman’s father, Father Khong, was already elderly and facing his own death. He did not want to contemplate his own death while his own dead daughter was still hungry for rice. In this short period between her death and the ceek khaw, dreams of Suaay abounded. One particularly vivid dream was recounted to me: Suaay was seen making a kind of noodle associated with festivals, khabun, and when the dreamer asked her why she was preparing this food, Su- uay said it was to take to her new house. The dreamer con- cluded that her new house was the stupa where her bones were now housed, and the festival implied was her own ceek khaw. Others dreamed that Suaay was going on a journey or walking through the neighborhood sharing food that she had made. These were interpreted as evidence that she un- derstood she was dead and that she was leaving peacefully, calling on friends and relatives as she left, with final gifts of food and care. Yet another dreamer said that Suaay told her that she would not be leaving because she had work to do look- ing after her parents and children. “I won’t leave,” she said in this dream. Rather than nurturance, the theme of this dream was the strain of obligation. The dreamer thought that it suggested Suaay was destined to haunt the living and was interested to know if I had had any dreams of her my- self or if I was disturbed by strange noises in the night as I slept in the dead woman’s house. Many people (not close kin of hers) asked me if I had been haunted at night by a strange scratching sound as I slept. This was an unfriendly suggestion because the ceek khaw had been completed by this time, and Suaay’s immediate family were working hard to shore up the interpretation of her as a meritorious per- son who had died a timely and inevitable death and had passed on to the afterlife, and whose only presence in this world would now be as a well-disposed ancestor, a spirit who might be able to offer care and protection, not a grubby ghost harassing people in their sleep. Dead kin, then, are thought to be able to extend pro- tection to, or, indeed, harm, the living. By virtue of a great store of merit, a dead relative can extend positive influ- ence to ensure physical safety, good luck, and ease for the


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

living. By recounting evidence that Suaay was “no ordinary person,” some people were actively engaged in portraying her to me as someone who had this kind of merit, this kind of potential for a benevolent influence in our worldly af- fairs. This store of merit is thought to be enhanced through the gifts that the living regularly send to the dead via the monks. In the regular calendar of Buddhist festivals, there are several opportunities to make major merit for dead ances- tors, including bun khaw salaak (a festival dedicated to the dead) and ook phan saa (end of the rainy season re- treat), which is associated with the bun hua fay (festival of lit boats), when bamboo boats are decorated, filled with can- dles and other offerings to the river and ancestors, and sent to drift down the river. It is also possible to transfer the merit made at more mundane events, such as the Buddhist Sab- bath, by pouring merit-charged water onto a leaf in the tem- ple grounds (yard nam). It is significant, I think, in these merit-making dona- tions and also in the ceek khaw, that rice plays a central role. The daily merit-generating act for the majority of the lay population is not praying or meditating, but feeding the monks. Likewise, ceek khaw means, literally, “distribute the rice.” Rice, as I have argued above, is the key symbol of nurturance and thus of the foundation of familial bonds. I suspect that is why, in Laos, ghosts are described as hun- gry. Satisfying them takes the form of giving, primarily rice but also the other necessities of life like mats and pillows. These are symbols of nurturance. They shore up the inter- pretation of family relationships as ones of mutual care and, in that sense, “shout down” the interpretation of death as abandonment by either the living or the dead. Feeding the dead is a sign of these ongoing relationships and a reaffir- mation of them.

Parting ways

Despite the sense that ties can continue to bind beyond death because of ongoing care, let me reiterate that this does not make death somehow easier to bear or mean that the possibility of abandonment is absent. Suaay’s hus- band, Cit, was troubled during my visit. He had developed a new habit of walking off on his own, sometimes abruptly. A couple of weeks after Suaay’s death, his newly adopted mother on the mainland (who had donated land to the new house project) had also died. He and I went to visit her widower (Cit’s new father) and make merit for her with the monks who were visiting the widower’s house that day. They would visit every day until the funeral rituals had been completed. Cit confided to me that there had been talk and speculation—had Suaay died young because her new mother, so elderly and weak, had wanted to take her with her into death? Or perhaps it was Suaay who, after death, had returned to call her new mother as a companion. “They

called each other,” he explained. After the monks had left, we went to visit some friends nearby. After some cheer- ful conversation, Cit walked off unannounced. After some time, I sought him out. When I found him, he tried to ex- plain: “My friends try to joke with me, to cheer me up. But sometimes I can’t stand it.” He described his youngest child, a five-year-old. “He does not know, he sometimes asks when she will come back, he is too young to know.” He seemed to be acknowledging his wife’s death as an at times unbearable abandonment of him and the children. Mother Phong, the 80-year-old mother, was in despair during my visit, in a kind of emotional free fall of grief and fear about the future. She said one day, “When you leave, take me with you to Australia. I am mut mat with Laos [I am over Laos].” I had never heard her say such a thing before, even in jest (and such jests were common). Does it matter that Suaay, the daughter she had lost, was not her own bi- ological child? That Suaay had, like me, been adopted by Mother Phong through a long process of ongoing care, obli- gation, and return? One theme that this story demonstrates is that, in the Lao context, this was not a key distinction:

Mother Phong grieved the loss of Suaay as a true daughter. Daughterhood, for her, was composed of the kind of nurtu- rance and obligation that she and Suaay had shared. On the night before it was time for me to leave, I wanted to give some money (AU$1,000) to the family. I had gone to some lengths to gather this money in Australia because I was worried about them. Suaay had been a productive pow- erhouse and, without her, I knew money would be more of a problem than ever. I was worried too that Suaay’s el- dest child, Nooy, had been removed from school to do the work her mother had previously done. But I found myself in the awkward position that night of not knowing who to give the money to. I had always given it to Suaay before. Added to this, there was an outsider in the house (other than me), a woman named May. I could find no consis- tent answer to my questions regarding this woman’s sta- tus. Nooy, the teenager, confidently reported to me that May was just there to help with the harvest and would be paid with a share of the grain, a common arrangement. Mother Phong, the grandmother, spoke of the relationship in glowing terms: “She sees our trouble, she pities the chil- dren with no mother, and has come to help.” Cit, the dead woman’s husband, refused to speak of the issue at all. May, for her part, seemed either too shy or too suspicious to speak directly with me. Eventually, I found a time when May was away from the main family group. I called the grand- mother, Mother Phong, over to sit with her son-in-law Cit, the teenager Nooy, and me. “I have some money for you,” I said. “It is from my fam- ily to your family. I don’t know who to give it to. Usually I would give it to Suaay but she is not here,” I said. I left the envelope of money on the bedclothes in the middle of the circle that we had formed.


The boys had been watching TV, but they turned around now as the adults started asking questions. “How much is it?” “[How much] in Thai baht?” It was Mother Phong who eventually took the envelope. She fumbled with the unfamiliar seals. I took it back briefly to open it for her, and when she saw the crisp thousand- baht notes inside, she said, “Het bun,” then raised her hands in a gesture of wai, hands pressed together at her forehead, and looked at me meaningfully. I was surprised at this ges- ture of formal respect in our intimate circle. Nooy hurriedly explained that Mother Phong was merely prompting me to make the gesture: She wanted me to take the money be- tween my palms and raise it to my forehead, as we would do if we were donating the money to the monks. I did this then gave the money back to Mother Phong. She took it and said she would give it to her husband. He was sitting in his private chamber at the other end of the house with May. Be- fore Mother Phong left, I entreated her not to let May know about the money. I said that I did not want the whole village talking. After she left, I was disturbed by her two words het bun and those gestures, in mimicry of temple behavior. I be- gan to wonder if she meant het bun in the sense of “you have done a meritorious thing here” or “this will be donated to the temple to make merit for Suaay.” Perhaps Mother Phong had interpreted this money as my contribution to the money given to the temple by kin at funerals and subse- quent festivals to make merit for the dead. I had not made any contribution to the merit making for Suaay other than the money I had earlier sent by post. And when I had be- gun explaining the money, I had said that ordinarily I would have given it straight to Suaay. In my mind, this was now impossible, as she was dead, but I realized my Lao fam- ily might not necessarily share this assumption, because monks are able to transfer such gifts to the dead. My heart lurched, and I stumbled over my Lao words as I tried to ask Cit, Nooy, and the boys, in as polite terms as possible, if they thought that Mother Phong planned to give the money to the temple, and to explain that I had intended the gift to be for daily, practical uses in the family. Cit replied that he did not know how Mother Phong understood the money. The boys dismissively suggested that she probably did not un- derstand me, that she probably would give the money to the temple. Cit suggested that I try to explain to her just to be sure, by saying the money was for Suaay’s family, not for Suaay herself. I waited anxiously for about half an hour, failing to concentrate on the Thai soap opera on the TV that was run- ning from a car battery in the living room. I went to Fa- ther Khong’s room, thinking that I would explain things di- rectly to him. The door to his chamber was open, and I saw him, Mother Phong, May, and Nooy around a kerosene lamp counting money: not the money I had given them but many small bills of 1,000 and 2,000 kip (about AU $0.20 to

Melancholia and anthropology American Ethnologist

0.40 apiece). May looked up cheerfully and said that this was money for the ook phan saa festival (end of the rains re- treat) the following day. They were going to make merit for Suaay. I realized I had managed to give my gift to the house- hold on the eve of one of the major festivals when merit can be transferred to the dead. I thought it was not the best time to raise the issue about my own intentions for the money and left. Mother Phong came to find me as I sat near my bed preparing for sleep later that night. Wordlessly, she showed me that she had concealed the envelope of money I had given inside her blouse. She told me softly that it would not be May but Cit who would go and tell the whole village about the money. During my visit, I had sensed the increas- ing antipathy between the old couple and their son-in-law, but I had not felt able to ask any of them the reason for it. Taking what I thought was an opportunity, I explained slowly and carefully that the money was for caring for the children. “I am not keeping it for myself!” Mother Phong ex- claimed, apparently hurt at this unintended implication that she would abandon the children in some way. “It is all for the children. Everything—the buffalo, the house, the rice fields: all of it I am keeping for the children.” Large, splash- ing tears began to fall down her cheeks again, as they had so often during my stay. Finally, I let go of trying to explain myself and the hard distinction that I saw between giving to the temple and giv- ing to loved ones. In the silence, she began reflecting on her relationship with her grandchildren. “I am afraid for the children,” she said. “They will become poorer—they don’t have a mother to care for them. We will get poorer and poorer. We have no merit.” I was not sure what this could mean. Did she no longer believe that merit could be gen- erated? Or, perhaps, in a moment of self-reproach, she be- lieved her own poor store of merit had brought poverty and death to her family. She spoke on, saying that her son, who lives on the Boleven Plateau and is a comparatively prosperous coffee farmer and entrepreneur, had asked her to go and live with him there. But she felt she could not go because she had to look after the children here: They have no one. I remem- ber Suaay saying similar things: that she knew she could not leave this village because she had to care for Father Khong and Mother Phong. And now Nooy, her daughter, had been removed from school so that she could care for her aging grandparents and her young siblings. Here, Mother Phong had admitted that other, often repressed, expression of fam- ily bonds: the desire for, the attraction of, abandonment. She had said earlier that she wanted to flee with me to Aus- tralia. This crisis seemed to have brought into open expres- sion a fantasy of flight: the desire to leave these obligations, these duties, these gritty bonds. Perhaps Cit’s new habit of wandering off unannounced was an echo of this: the desire


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

to leave, which had constantly to be shouted down by ever- greater expression of the mutual nurturance of family mem- bers, even beyond death. Because of the threat that abandonment will find ex- pression, the opposing valence, nurturance, requires con- stant and loud reenactment if it is to be convincing. Family bonds here are created through ongoing acts. They require being physically present (at least occasionally) and offer- ing care. If they are removed, the specter of abandonment quickly fills the gap. Small wonder, then, that deceased fam- ily members, who are the focus of such intensely ambiva- lent feelings, are described as hungry, as needy of gifts, and as accessible via material donations. And small wonder, too, that the religious activities of Laos incorporate such con- spicuous gifting to deceased family members and that the dead are thought to be able to return this care through ghostly agency. The next day, my final day, we went to the temple for ook phan saa, the end of the rains retreat. We donated cash and food to the monks, although I did not inquire how much the family gave or the source of the money. We trans- ferred the merit generated to Suaay, and asked her to join us on our travels. (See Figure 4.) I donated some of my own money to Khubaa Wong, an old friend of mine and a monk in the temple. He gave me an amulet that he said would pro- tect me from gunshots and offer general protection during my travels. When I showed it to Cit, he said Suaay is like that for me now: Her great merit means that she can pro- tect me wherever I go. He then told me about the Buddhist

concept of reincarnation, using the Buddha’s many rebirths before enlightenment as illustration. He said, however, that it was impossible to know when or where Suaay would be born again. This was the only explicit mention of reincar- nation that I heard in all the talk related to her death. Back at the homestead, I packed my bags, and Father Khong tied a string on my wrist, wishing me long life and health, that people would help me wherever I went, and that I would return to see him again. I silently accepted this binding of good will and obligation. Mother Phong tied one on as well, making similar wishes. As we walked to the boat together, big tears splashed down her face again. She repeated one phrase as she held my forearm in that firm grip of hers. At times she seemed to search for other words, but the same phrase came out again and again, which made the boys smirk impatiently. Even as I boarded the boat, all she could say was, “I don’t see Suaay’s face, I see yours.”

Anthropology and melancholia

Mother Phong’s words here again drew Suaay’s face and my face together, just as the photo display had and just as our adoptions by the same parents had. This was perhaps an- other attempt at the assembly of a family despite absence, an effort to shout down the interpretation of departure as abandonment. In these events, it had been people in my field site, and specifically those who had adopted me into their family, who had made an identification between me and themselves. Kulick (2006) has provocatively argued that

American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011 to leave, which had constantly to be shouted

Figure 4. Suaay’s thaat . Her daughter is transferring merit to Suaay generated in the ook phan saa festival and asking Suaay to accompany her and me on an upcoming trip. If we had had a portrait of Suaay, it would have been affixed on this stupa to the small door, here painted gold.


an anthropologist’s identifications with the people that he or she studies are manifestations of a masochistic desire to align with the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Kulick notes the “pleasure” of reading anthropological accounts in which the author sides with suffering, marginal people, either by taking their lives and struggles as the analytic fo- cus or by pushing a step further to argue that anthropol- ogists have a moral obligation to side with them to allevi- ate suffering. He suggests, in a complex argument, that this masochism arises from a repressed and guilty desire among anthropologists for the power of Western capitalism (Kulick 2006:942). Left out of this intriguing analysis, however, are the formative relationships made by fieldworking anthro- pologists with people in the field and the direct experiences of pleasure, desire, and guilt that they entail. It is here that I think a framing of melancholia is useful. To illustrate his case, Kulick uses three examples but lingers on the work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes (espe- cially Scheper-Hughes 1992 and 1995). He quotes Scheper- Hughes’s statement that “three-year-old Mercea died aban- doned by both her mother and her anthropologist during the Brazilian Carnival celebrations in 1989” (2006:940) and claims it contains an elision wherein Scheper-Hughes iden- tifies herself not only as an anthropologist but also as Mer- cea’s mother, thus revealing a fantasy of identification be- tween the anthropologist and the poor and suffering (see also Kulick 2006:943). Importantly, though, this statement also identifies Scheper-Hughes as someone who had a duty of care that was not fulfilled and who thus contributed to a death: this anthropologist’s self-reproach is that of ne- glect bordering on the criminal. Rather than represent- ing a masochistic pleasure, I suggest, this writing reveals a melancholic self-reproach born of mourning generated in the very real intimacies of the field. In a 1995 article, Scheper-Hughes uses the rawness of such experiences to ar- gue for a more ethical, engaged anthropology. Not to do so is hostile, she writes: “Not to look, not to touch, not to record can be the hostile act, an act of indifference and turning away” (1995:418). Her article can be read as a plea to repress hostility in favor of an intensification of solicitousness and contentiousness in the form of a primarily ethical anthro- pology. Her experiences of death and mourning, then, con- tribute to a critical, reproachful position on the discipline as a whole. Compare this to Freud’s explanation of melancholic self-reproach at the death of a loved one. The melan- cholic exhibits guilt, “as though he had committed a seri- ous crime.” The therapist agrees by “reminding the patient that such a strong and persistent feeling must after all be based on something real” (Freud 1962:99), that is, repressed hostility. Excessive solicitousness and loud proclamations of love and care are the first evidence of this repression. But, crucially, “the vanished affect comes back in its transformed shape as social anxiety, moral anxiety and unlimited self-

Melancholia and anthropology American Ethnologist

reproaches” (Freud 1915:155). Freud notes that the return of the repressed is often accompanied by an exaggerated sense of the patient’s ability to have caused, failed to avert, or in some way been responsible for the events that trouble him or her. Scheper-Hughes’s electric pleas for a more moral and ethical discipline conform closely to the kind of compelling anxiety that Freud predicts will emerge when repressed de- sires return during mourning. It seems significant that the works of Scheper-Hughes to which Kulick refers linger on actual deaths of people known and apparently loved in the field. Certainly, I felt such self-reproach when confronted with a death in my Lao family. In my case, I suspect that the repressed element that made a return was a fantasy of aban- donment. During my months in the field, my diaries often recorded a strong desire to physically leave and be alone:

this, despite my overt sense of honor at the opportunity to conduct this fieldwork. I persistently daydreamed of cook- ing my own meal, as I liked it, and eating it alone. I believe now that this was a muted expression of a repressed wish to regain my individuality by refusing the bonds of field- work and family. My repressed wish was not, as Freud would have it, to actively harm Suaay but to stop caring. My guilt was over the harm that I feared, or suspected, may have resulted from this repressed wish to abandon. 17 Although these repressions and self-reproaches bear resemblances to those that I have described in the Lao milieu, and although I may have partially adopted a Lao sense of obligation, I sus- pect that these sentiments spoke also of an anthropologi- cal ambivalence. There is a hesitation in the anthropologi- cal gesture: to look, touch, and record, as Scheper-Hughes puts it, but also to withdraw, reflect, and write. The ambiva- lence of this position, particularly when the anthropologist has entered intimate relationships in the field, might help explain the exhilaration and pleasure evoked by exhorta- tions for a more engaged, ethical anthropology that Kulick so perspicaciously notes. These calls come repeatedly, 18 de- spite equally persistent evidence that anthropologists (at least some of them, some of the time) do engage in political projects that assist people in their field sites and have done so since the inception of the discipline. 19 This evidence does not seem to stem disciplinary self-reproaches, just as evi- dence of innocence does not stem the self-reproaches of a melancholic. My argument is not that anthropological ambivalence (being there and departing) is the same as Lao familial am- bivalence (nurturing and abandonment) but that the over- lap and distinction between them can yield insights into each. It is notable that my Lao family did not seem mired in self-reproaches. Mother Phong and Cit showed some muted signs of self-reproach, but, at least in the intimate family circle, any suggestion that we had abandoned Suaay was quickly “shouted down” through religious donation for her, through narratives of how we, her family and friends,


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

had done all we could to help her, and through accounts of how she would now help us. Understandings of Bud- dhism and death here created a distinct form of mourning. Melancholic anthropology, by contrast, is characterized by articulated reproaches that identify the anthropologist as abandoner (through withdrawal) and then call for redemp- tion through ethical engagement. My argument is not that melancholic anthropology is pathological. To the contrary, I find calls for an engaged and ethical anthropology com- pelling and important. My intention, following Kulick, is to work toward a self-aware account of the pleasure of such accounts, identifying how they gain their compelling force and what repressions of their own they might entail. What does it mean to identify withdrawal as a hostile act when de- parture is such an entrenched part of fieldwork? And what does it mean to favor solicitousness when attempts to help have their own follies (Figure 1), imply their own imposi- tions, and provoke their own tears of reproach or fantastical familial dramas (High 2010)? Virginia R. Dominguez (2000) calls for an anthropology based on love between the anthropologist and those he or she studies. Freud, using love as a starting point for his interpretation of the human condition, identified a complex array of possible developments, including am- bivalence, hostility, repression, anxiety, and guilt. I agree with Dominguez’s sentiment: There is much to be learned through love. I only add that in embracing an anthropology of love, we need to be frank about the complex and often ambiguous terrain to which it leads. My Lao encounters have taught me the gritty, guilt-ridden potentials of such bonds.


Acknowledgments. There was a time when obituaries of key in- formants were published in anthropology journals. This article is

not an obituary, but it is dedicated to “Suaay” in partial and always inadequate recognition of her generosity, ambition, and teachings. This research was facilitated by the University of Sydney, Interna- tional Program Development Fund (IPDF). It was first presented to the University of Sydney Anthropology Society (AnthSoc), in Octo- ber 2009; then at the Senior Seminar, the University of Cambridge, in February 2010; and finally to the “Religion and Morality in South- east Asia and Beyond” workshop, the University of Cambridge, in May 2010. It has benefited from the insightful, challenging, and en- couraging comments of the participants at those forums as well as the reviewers and staff of American Ethnologist . Many colleagues lent assistance by discussing with me the events described here. In particular, I would like to thank Gillian Cowlishaw, Sebastian Job, and Rohan Bastin.

  • 1. Freud attributed the new word to Paul Eugene Bleuler, a Swiss

psychiatrist who is also credited with coining the terms schizophre-

nia, autism (Rycroft 1995:6), and neologism (Sheehy et al. 1997:72).

  • 2. Freud writes,

The occurrence of excessive solicitude of this kind is very common in neuroses, and especially in obsessional neuroses, with which our comparison is chiefly drawn. We have come

to understand its origin quite clearly. It appears wherever, in addition to a predominant feeling of affection, there is also a contrary, but unconscious, current of hostility—a state of affairs which represents a typical instance of an ambivalent emotional attitude. The hostility is then shouted down, as it were, by an excessive intensification of the affection, which is expressed as solicitude and becomes compulsive, because it might otherwise be inadequate to perform its task of keeping the unconscious contrary current of feeling under repression.


At other times, Freud uses the term reaction-formation to describe the form of repression characteristic of obsessional neurosis. In “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices,” for instance, he ex- plicitly draws parallels between such neuroses and religious ritual

practice, noting, “In the course of the repression


a special consci-

entiousness is created


but this psychical reaction-formation feels

insecure and constantly threatened


It may thus be compared

to an unending conflict” (1907:124). In “Repression,” he explains again that the distinctive form repression takes in obsessional neu- rosis is “reaction-formation,” which he defines as an “intensifying of an opposite” (Freud 1915:157). In this article, however, I retain

his notion of “shouting down” because it is more clearly indicative of the ambivalence and ongoing struggle that lies at the heart of the concept.

  • 3. Freud provides his definition of melancholia and ambivalence

in this passage:

When a wife has lost her husband or a daughter her mother, it not infrequently happens that the survivor is overwhelmed by tormenting doubts (to which we give the name of “obses- sive self-reproaches”) as to whether she may not herself have been responsible for the death of this cherished being through some act of carelessness or neglect. No amount of recollection of the care she lavished on the sufferer, no amount of objec- tive disproof of the accusation, serves to bring the torment to an end. It [melancholia] may be regarded as a pathologi- cal form of mourning, and with the passage of time it gradu- ally dies away. The psychoanalytic investigation of such cases has revealed the secret motives of the disorder. We find that in a certain sense these obsessive self-reproaches are justi- fied, and that this is why they are proof against contradictions and protests. It is not that the mourner was really responsi- ble for the death or was really guilty of neglect, as the self- reproaches declare to be the case. None the less there was something in her—a wish that was unconscious to herself— which would not have been dissatisfied by the occurrence of death and which might actually have brought it about if it had had the power. And after death has occurred, it is against this unconscious wish that the reproaches are a reaction. In almost every case where there is an intense emotional attachment to a particular person we find that behind the tender love there is a concealed hostility in the unconscious. This is the classical example, the prototype, of the ambivalence of human emo- tions. [1913:59]

Freud also discusses this ambivalence in his “Mourning and Melan- cholia” (1917).

  • 4. Neils Mulder writes that, in Thailand, the mother is depicted

as “the primary symbol of moral goodness” (1996:36) in her self- sacrificing extension of food, love, and care, engendering a sense of debt and guilt among children that contributes toward hierar- chical relationships. M. B. Mills (1999:76) writes of the “debts of merit” that offspring are thought to owe to the bunkhun (virtue) of their parents in Thailand. This debt creates, ideally, lifelong


Melancholia and anthropology American Ethnologist

gratitude and respect on the part of the child that is actively evi- denced through labor, gifts, and support.

guided science on the part of Lao mothers, in contrast to the correct scientific knowledge of unnamed “experts.”

  • 5. The common saying kin khao phu diaw bo sep (eat rice alone,


Of much greater concern is the rearing of children on milk

then it is not delicious) articulates the pleasures of eating together,

substitutes, often sweetened condensed milk. This usually stems

but it also indicates the dangers of eating alone, as it echoes the

from mothers needing to work away from the home and child.

phrase kin khaw bo sep (eat rice, it is not delicious), which means a

  • 6. Mills (1999) uses the concept of “subject positions” (Moore


The IRIN (2010) article mentioned in the text inadvertently

loss of appetite, a symptom of illness.

gives further evidence for this interpretation. The Lao mothers in- terviewed for the article agreed with the project’s message that

1994) to suggest that the migrating women of Northeast Thai- land negotiated positions such as “good daughter” and “modern woman.” Henrietta Moore outlines how individuals take up a va- riety of subject positions produced by sets of discourses, and, she

mother’s milk was a primary food for newborns, but they also re- peatedly insisted that rice sates a hunger and need in the child that milk cannot provide: that is, I suggest, rice does symbolic work that milk does not.

notes, “in this context fantasy, in the sense of ideas about the kind


The importance of food in forming kin relationships has also

of person one would like to be and the sort of person one would like to be seen to be by others, clearly has a role to play. Such fantasies of identity are linked to fantasies of power and agency in the world”

been noted by Mary Weismantel (1995) in the Andes and Janet Carsten (2004) in Malaysia. It is notable that their contributions (among others) were offered in the context of a debate concern-


ing the role of biology versus cultural construction in kinship. I do

  • 7. The Lao term for “abandoned” is haang. A divorced woman

not wish to buy into this debate here, but I note that one of the

is mee haang, literally, abandoned mother. Allen D. Kerr defines haang as “1. v . Leave, abandon, desert, let go to ruin; separate, di-

key contributors to it, David Schneider, argued that U.S. kinship is symbolized through an overriding reference to biology—Schneider

vorce. 2. adj. Deserted, desolate, haunted; divorced. 3. n. Desert, wilderness” (1972:1205). The one word, then, spans notions of leav- ing relationships of care, the decay and eeriness associated with ne- glect, and the wildness and infertility associated with places uncul- tivated and uninhabited by humans.

ventures so far as to claim that “this definition says that kinship is whatever the biogenetic relationship is. If science discovers new facts about biogenetic relationship, then that is what kinship is and was all along, although it may not have been known at the time” (1980:23). If Schneider is right, and if this insight can be stretched

  • 8. In one transcription of southern Lao singing courtship poetry

to Europe as well, then the ambivalence between affection and hos-

(Compton 1979), the singers repeatedly express not only extrav- agant promises of material care but also reservations phrased in terms of abandonment. The male singer promises to provide for his beloved’s every desire (including preparing rice for her), and he assures her, “I’ll never abandon you or flee from you” (Comp- ton 1979:28). The woman claims that she does love her suitor but convinces herself, “you will abandon me, and take a new wife” (Compton 1979:39). In reply, the man conjures even more inven- tive promises of how he will care for her—for example, he will be reborn as the clothes on her body, her pillows, or her mosquito net, existing only for her comfort. Yet his fears of abandonment grow more elaborate as well. He sings:

tility that Freud noted in his European patients may be linked to this particular understanding of kinship: If biology is imagined as the final word on relatedness, and if biological links are indissolu- ble, then the only escape from a kinship relationship is to dissolve the biology itself, that is, for one party to physically perish. Per- haps it is not surprising, then, that Freud’s European patients ex- hibited repressed fantasies of physical violence toward their loved ones. However, I argue that in Laos relatedness is not symbolized as primarily biological or indissoluble. Rather, nurturance is the pri- mary motif of relatedness, and its opposite (abandonment) does not require physical death. It requires only the withdrawal of mate- rial support, care, and interest.


Barthes, like Freud, employed the term ambivalence in re-

I’m only afraid that you will abandon me

lationship to death, but his topic was photography. He suggested

In the middle of the village to roll in the dirt; Abandon me to drink water which makes me thirsty, Mixed with poisonous tubers, in the middle of the forest; Abandon me to sleep on a tree branch, To shout and cry like a gibbon. [Compton 1979:58]

that a photograph has a deathly quality because it insists “this-has- been”: It always contains at least a reference to the photographed thing or person now in the past. The ambivalence of a photograph, then, is between life and death, particularly in photographs that are intended to be lifelike. “Nothing would be funnier” he wrote, “than the photographer’s contortions to produce effects that are

  • 9. Anthropologists have found cognatic kinship to be



As if the (terrified) photographer must exert himself

widespread in the region and have noted a related conundrum.

the utmost to keep the photograph from becoming Death” (Barthes

On the one hand, social relationships are generally hierarchical



and emphasize the importance of familial loyalty, so in that sense


I have revised this excerpt to make it clearer and shorter;

kinship seems extremely rigid. On the other hand, these societies

however, the sentiments remain unchanged.

are also known for their fluidity, as people are observed to move


He writes, “One kind of spirit (peta, P.: preta, Skt.) that dwells

away from previous roles with apparent ease (see, e.g., Embree 1950; Evers 1969; Hanks 1962). Viewed in terms of a foundational

below the terrestrial level between demons (asura) and the animals is none other than phi or ghosts of the departed dead in popular

ambivalence, however, these features are not necessarily at odds. In

Siamese Buddhism. The merit-maker dedicated the merit accruing

this apparent contradiction between expressions of familial loyalty and actions of fluidity is the manifestation of a tension between

from his donation to the comfort and betterment of his or her de- ceased relatives” (Reynolds 1976:207).

idealized versions of nurturance and obligation, on the one hand, and repressed but ever-present possibilities of abandonment, on the other.


Although hostility and abandonment share important ele-

ments and abandonment may be hostile, these concepts are not identical. In deploying Freud’s concepts of “ambivalence,” “re-


For a related article, see the humanitarian news and analysis

pression,” and “return,” I do not also subscribe to the view that

website IRIN (2010). Although the article admits that only 5 per- cent of Lao children are never breast-fed, the small amounts of rice present in the diet are presented as the pathological result of mis-

they always imply the same valences (hostility and affection). Rather, my effort is to seek out and identify the ambivalence that matters in each case. In Laos, it is between nurturance and


American Ethnologist Volume 38 Number 2 May 2011

abandonment. In anthropology, it is between going to the field and leaving it. Among Freud’s patients, apparently, it was between hos- tility and affection. These examples share a pattern but not neces-

Metapsychology and Other Works. James Strachey, ed. and trans. Pp. 141–158. http://www.pep-web.org/, accessed April


sarily content. I suggest in N. 13 that this pattern of similarity and


Mourning and Melancholia. In The Standard Edi-

difference may explain the important difference between the kinds of family dramas that Freud observed in Europe and the kinds I ob-

tion of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14 (1914–1916): On the History of the

served in Laos: namely, that, in the Lao context, kinship is under- stood such that abandonment is sufficient to dissolve the bond of relatedness, whereas among those with whom Freud consulted, the kinship system meant that abandonment would achieve no such thing: Dissolving the bond required, instead, outright hostility.

Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychol- ogy and Other Works. James Strachey, ed. and trans. Pp. 237–258. http://www.pep-web.org/, accessed April 2010. 1962[1926] The Question of Lay Analysis: Conversations with an Impartial Person. In Two Short Accounts of Psychoanalysis:

  • 18. I have space to deal with only one example here, but Kulick

looks in some depth at two others and mentions many more. I might add that recent examples of disciplinary reproach might in- clude those coming from public anthropology (Borofsky 2010), cri-

  • 19. One thinks, for instance, of Lewis Henry Morgan’s (admit-

Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; the Question of Lay Analy- sis. James Strachey, ed. and trans. Pp. 89–170. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. Gonzalez, Roberto J.

tiques of the military use of anthropology (Gonzalez 2007), and


Towards Mercenary Anthropology? The New US Army

calls for activist anthropology (Hale 2006).

Counterinsurgency Manual FM 3-24 and the Military- Anthropology Complex. Anthropology Today 23(3):14–19.

tedly unsuccessful) legal campaign to assist the Seneca in retaining

Hale, C. R.

their land (Tooker 2001).


Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land

Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthro-

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accepted November 15, 2010 final version submitted November 29, 2010

Holly High Department of Social Anthropology University of Cambridge Cambridge CB2 3RF United Kingdom and Department of Anthropology University of Sydney Sydney, NSW 2006 Australia