Tides of Empire: Religion, Development, and Environment in Cambodia

Tides of Empire, the latest publication by 2016 CKS Senior Fellow Dr. Courtney Work, is an ethnographic critique of development leveled from the margins of a marginal state. The book tells an intimate story of social and environmental transformation at the edge of the forest and the frontier of the empire. Set in a small village in rural western Cambodia where the physical and social landscapes are littered with debris from multiple empires, the story uses this entanglement to re-member the social categories of religion, history, and politics. It exposes shards of construction along fictional social boundaries, but also illuminates the contact zones where segregation flourishes – between people, and between humans and the elemental energies that support them. Issues concerning the mountains and weather expose the fragility of development projects, and the maintenance of both temples and roads exceed local capacity. Nevertheless, local ideas of value are subject to change, and popular desire for the material hallmarks of empire points productive energies toward those hallmarks – dragging the forests and spirits into the rising tide. Dr. Work’s findings suggest that hierarchies, values, and social divisions harden in the contact zones where economic development, religion, and the territorial state meet the land upon which they depend. Moreover, and most importantly, these values and divisions are not monolithic, but are fragile and easily crossed by the everyday activities of life at the edge of the forest. Through these observations, Dr. Work tells a story of interdependence and persistence to confront the rising tide of individualization and precarity.

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