The success of the book arises not simply from how it traces success, but also from how it opens crucial questions around how Laos remains staunchly socialist. This view challenges a previously dominant view put forward by anthropologist Grant Evans (1998) that Laos had become postsocialist. High does so by demonstrating the contemporary pervasiveness of socialism in Laos while rejecting Eurocentric claims that Lao socialism is ersatz and derivative, writes Al Lim reviewing Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village, by Holly High
In 2009, as anthropologist Holly High drove through Laos trying to find a field site, Typhoon Ketsana hit. The typhoon resulted in the Sekong River flooding, blocking the roads on which she had intended to travel. She ended up turning to the nearby Sekong Township, where she visited the local museum. There, she discovered what would become the subject of Projectland—New Kandon village and its narrative of success. The village spokesperson Wiphat brought her through a well-rehearsed tour of the model village, one that the Lao state had certified as an exemplary ‘Culture Village’. This township and its accompanying narrative form both the starting point and the central element of High’s book.
Projectland traces the contested contours of New Kandon’s cultural politics of representation in socialist Laos. The book resists a common trope of thinking about Laos through an idiom of lack or underdevelopment. Instead, it insists on success as its central organising concept. The first half of the book attends to the resettled village’s performance of success in the eyes of the party-state, departing from previous traditions that characterised much of life in Old Kandon (Chapters 2, 3, and 4). Wiphat plays a vital role in curating the village’s representation, mediating between the Lao party-state’s ideological agenda and locally specific practices. Nevertheless, this narrative of success necessarily faces limits, fissures, and porous gaps. High traces these shortcomings more explicitly in the book’s second half through an investigation of buffalo killings, gender inequality, and arranged marriages (Chapters 5, 6, and 7).
The conditions of possibility for New Kandon’s success rest on a particular construction and interpretation of the village’s history. Chapter 2 unpacks the historical conditions of the ethnic Katu village through French colonial rule (1893–1953), the Indochina Wars (1946–1954; 1955–1975), and subsequent post-war resettlement to New Kandon (post-1975). Threads of socialism emerge in this narration through the terms ekhaphap (unity) and samakkhii (solidarity), and the book illustrates how dominant historical retellings are a contested terrain between being wondrous constructions and hauntings from past spirits. In chapter 3, Wiphat is filmed in his traditional outfit and gives a tour of New Kandon as a Culture Village—a performance of legibility to the Lao party-state. Here, the struggle for recognition is not about searching for authenticity like Culture Villages in other countries such as those in Malaysia, China, and Indonesia. Instead, recognition is a means of generating reciprocal relations between the Lao state and New Kandon, facilitating the village’s progress along a developmental path with “forward-looking optimism” (High 2021: 58). Chapter 4 expands on one aspect of the village’s narrative of success—eliminating Open Defecation. This measure was designed to introduce modern hygiene and enhance the national population height. An iconic large sign even appears at the front of the village to mark this shift in scatological practices. These chapters depict how the party-state’s socialist metalanguage is interwoven in the villagers’ everyday practices, collapsing the distance between abstract politics and daily life.[i]
Nevertheless, daily life cannot align fully with the party-state’s policies. Village spokesperson Wiphat describes how the village discarded 80 percent of its old traditions but needed to retain 20 percent out of necessity. However, even this 80-20 divide is troubled because local practices and socialist metalanguages are not easily separated. Chapter 5 focuses on the ‘Eat Buffalo’ ceremonies, a central part of village life. These buffalo killings indicate the importance of offerings for local ancestor spirits (kimoc) that are simultaneously consonant with the Lao state’s socialist notions of unity and solidarity. Chapter 6 is composed as an incomplete tapestry of the role of weaving in the village, where women wove products to wear and sell while explaining that they did this out of necessity to ancestor spirits. Chapter 7 takes up the interplay of desire, illnesses, and spirits through arranged marriages in New Kandon, tracing the complex ways that desire works in human and non-human realms. These three chapters illuminate practices that fall outside the party-state’s framework of legitimate success. Yet, these practices are striated with socialist metalanguage and are justified as a necessary part of village life to appease ancestors and each other.
The success of the book arises not simply from how it traces success, but also from how it opens crucial questions around how Laos remains staunchly socialist. This view challenges a previously dominant view put forward by anthropologist Grant Evans (1998) that Laos had become postsocialist. High does so by demonstrating the contemporary pervasiveness of socialism in Laos while rejecting Eurocentric claims that Lao socialism is ersatz and derivative.
In response to this debate between socialism and postsocialism, I propose adopting a strategy that Erik Harms (2011: 227) establishes in his ethnographic study of peri-urban Vietnam, going beyond dualistic debates of posts by understanding “theory as a collection of ideas appropriate to different aspects of a more comprehensive analysis.” So, rather than taking sides on this dichotomous debate, this statement submits that there are many related analytical possibilities alongside the de- and re-stabilisations of socialism.
Following this line of thinking and engaging High’s rich empirical materials, ideas of socialist progress and local practices of gender are deeply problematised by her positionality as a Western-trained anthropologist. Returning to the book’s title, the Lao revolutionary project of socialism is also a projection of its ideals. High (2021: 201) presents a normative claim from a psychoanalytic perspective that these political projections are “fantastical misrecognitions” that deny differences between the self and other, preventing a true relationship of unity and solidarity. She argues for the possibilities of a more robust political culture through the realisation of genuine difference, and she contributes to this assertion by narrating her struggles as an anthropologist.
High experiences the limits of relativism and vehemently disagrees with Lao evolutionary ideology and gender-based violence in the village. Wiphat’s historical narration reflects a Marxist-Leninist development teleology, espoused by former Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane,[ii] of Lao society moving from the ancient era through to slavery, feudalism, the modern administration of the present moment, and finally towards a socialist future (High 2021: 67).[iii] High troubles this perspective, which is reminiscent of the evolutionary thinking that forms part of anthropology’s imperial roots. Moreover, she critiques instances of gendered domestic violence and the local cultural practices that reproduce its conditions. An example of this can be seen during an oath-making portion of a buffalo killing ceremony (High 2021: 99). Several villagers would have withdrawn their support if the clause to prevent rape was not removed. After much deliberation, the village communally agreed to remove the rape-prevention clause to preserve unity, much to High’s dismay, especially since this ritual had coincided with International Women’s Day. These tensions between High-as-anthropologist and the villagers bring up ethical quandaries around participation, observation, intervention, representation, and critique.
Instead of framing discussions around what seem like an intractable micro-politics of culture between insider and outsider positions, how might ideas of distributive or procedural justice push beyond this framework? Specifically, what would just, locally grounded outcomes or processes that ensure women’s safety and security look like? Or what alternative models can replace or nuance the hegemonic ideals of socialist progress? Given the book’s rich empirical grounds, further engagements that extend beyond socialist/postsocialist arguments and anthropologist/villager positionalities would open generative pathways to address these serious issues pertaining to methodology, theory, and ethics.
Projectland offers an important window into the lived realities of Lao state ideology, the politics of culture, and socialism’s ongoing vitality. The book is an accessible entry point into Laos’s contemporary political culture with remarkable empirical depth, which would appeal to scholars and students interested in village life, socialism, and Southeast Asia. New Kandon and its model narrative of porous development—at once old, new, modern, traditional, and hybrid—project haunting simulacra of desires, failures, and the elusive pursuit of success.
[i] High’s (2021: 8) use of metalanguage refers to a shared vocabulary used to describe or appraise events, chiefly referring to the widespread use of socialist terms.
[ii] Kaysone Phomvihane was the first leader of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party from 1955 until his death in 1992.
[iii] The present stage in the Lao socialist teleology goes beyond the modern administration stated in High’s book. It comprises a narrative of national liberatory struggle in which Kaysone plays a pivotal role as part of a pantheon of ancestors (Tappe 2013).
Evans, Grant. 1998. The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975. University of Hawaii Press.
Harms, Erik. 2011. Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Tappe, Oliver. 2013. “Faces and Facets of the Kantosou Kou Xat – The Lao ‘National Liberation Struggle’ in State Commemoration and Historiography.” Asian Studies Review 37 (4): 433–50.
* This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.
* Banner photo front cover of Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village, by Holly High. University of Hawai’i Press, 2021.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.