Western knowledge and non-Western objects

Publication date:
Sanjay Seth

will begin this essay with a ghost story. In his Ghosts of War in Vietnam, Heonik Kwon describes a region of Vietnam abounding with the ghosts of those who had met violent deaths away from home. The humans who share their world with these ghosts –and also with gods and other deities, and with the spirits of their dead ancestors– are part of an eminently modern society, characterised by extensive market relations, and many of the other appurtenances and symbols of modernity; and the ghosts themselves are not remnants of a time long past, because a large number of them are the ghosts of the war dead, both American and Vietnamese. These ghosts require the same things that the living require, and so are made offerings of food and drink, votive money, clothing, and sometimes, even a bicycle or Honda. There are those in Vietnam –and they include many, though by no means all, of the members of the ruling communist party– who disapprove of such offerings, and regard this as ‘illusory thinking", but they are, Kwon tells us, "greatly outnumbered by those who instead consider it a part of the nature of being and becoming in the world, that is, as an ontological question" (2008: 16). Those who attend to the needs of ghosts make their offerings irrespective of the nationality of these spectral figures; at a séance a deity explains to the anthropologist, "my dear foreigner, dead people don’t fight. War is the business of the living. People in my world do not remember the intentions and objectives of the war they fought while they were in your world" (2008:135). Whatever their nationality or politics, ghosts have a right to exist in the social world of the living, and the rituals and offerings the living make are, writes Kwon, part of "a constant negotiation over social and ecological space with this ontologically given, socially distinct group of beings" (2008: 18).