BOOK REVIEW: Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam

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Kwon, Heonik. Ghosts of War in Vietnam. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2008.

Lincoln, Martha, and Bruce Lincoln. “Toward a Critical Hauntology: Bare Afterlife and the Ghosts of Ba Chúc.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57, no. 1 (2015): 191–220.

            Drawing from Jacques Derrida, Martha and Bruce Lincoln describe hauntology as the “sensuous and the non-sensuous, visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, reality and not-yet-reality, being and non-being.” (192) How does an ontological study of haunting offer a deeper understanding of memory? To study memory is to study the dialectical relationship between the past and the present and the lived understanding of the past. The blurring of lines between the dead and the living, past and present core to studying hauntings can offer insight into memory as the everyday experience of living with and among the past.

In Martha Lincoln and Bruce Lincoln’s article “Toward a Critical Hauntology,” the authors sketch a literature review of ‘hauntological’ works. Recognizing a ‘spectral turn’ in the works of Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin, the authors explain how scholars have begun to incorporate more studies of spiritual encounters between the living and the dead. However, these works have generally engaged with metaphorical hauntings within literature or as theological spirits. Instead Lincoln and Lincoln bring attention to studies of ghosts as actors within Buddhist and Confucian cosmologies and disaggregate between different types of hauntings. Focusing on the works of Heonik Kwon and Mai Lan Gustafsson, the authors explain the importance of ghosts in social and state commemoration of the dead in post-market reform Vietnam. The authors focus on fieldwork on two memorials at Ba Chúc—a state sponsored memorial “Remnants of Pol Pot’ s Genocidal Crimes”  (Khu chứng tích tội ác diệt chủng Pôn Pốt ) and the communal recognition of the banyan tree as a site of ghosts. Through this example, the authors distinguish between primary and secondary haunting. Primary haunting is generally more narrow, specific, and is a spiritual confrontation with those who caused violent death or their relatives. The haunting is immediate, intense, can threaten spiritual and physical harm, and the ghost seeks to right ritual failures or crimes. In comparison, secondary hauntings include a wider set of unquiet spirits and engages with the larger society for repairing wrongdoings. Furthermore, secondary hauntings can be mediated by texts and official monuments, turning the “dead into a discursive instrument.” (Lincoln and Lincoln, 210)

Heonik Kwon’s work directly engages with ghosts as active, social, and political agents in Ghosts of War in Vietnam. Kwon shifts from the comparison of state and communal practices of commemoration in his first book (After the Massacre) to focus specifically on the wandering ghosts of Vietnam. Kwon investigates rituals for the dead and the relationship to popular memory of war in post-economic reform Vietnam. Drawing from fieldwork on Da Nang and Cam Re region in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2006. His chapters include extensive ethnographic accounts and historical analysis of different types of ghosts, hauntings, dying, and the implications of ghosts upon popular understandings of the past and present. Kwon explains, “the social intimacy between the living and the dead in fact underpins the strength of domestic commemorative practices as a site of memory, something that the archival and monumental memories do not do.” (Kwon 63) Kwon also shows how post-socialist (or late-socialist) transitions in economics and politics revolves around death, for example, in the boom of coffin making business, funeral business, and overall resurgence in religion and ritual. By critically studying ghosts and hauntings, Kwon also illuminates the complex , creative, ritual, and kinship practices of social memory of war and tragic mass death in postwar Vietnam. Kwon argues that ghosts are “constitutive of the order of social life” and not just imagined, representational agents of memory. (3)


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