Sensing Distant Powers along the Mekong

Mekong Dreaming: Life and Death along a Changing River, by Andrew Alan Johnson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

reviewed by Leo Coleman, City University of New York

Mekong Dreaming is a lovely, fluent ethnography of a river and its political ecology, focusing on the people on one bank of the Mekong where it forms a border between Thailand and Laos. This particular region has long been defined by shifting political demarcations forged in distant capitals, and now it is beset by changes in the river caused by large dams built far upstream in China and, closer and more recently, in Laos (this latter dam provides electricity to Bangkok). Distant powers of all kinds are eroding the conditions for long-settled rhythms of work and life; the behavior of animals and the environment and routines of fishing and cross-border smuggling are being altered. While deftly describing the events of recent Thai politics and the geopolitics of Chinese infrastructure projects that together drive these transformations, Andrew Alan Johnson trains his attention on the livelihoods, experiences, and political understandings of Lao-speaking Thais and their relations with the river, its spirits, and all the powers that shape its flow. Ethnographically engaging and theoretically ambitious, this book is also deeply grounded in the political anthropology of south and southeast Asia—which has so often been about ritual and charisma, hydrology and statecraft. Precisely because of that ethnological inheritance, Johnson makes a significant contribution to wider debates about state power, technopolitics, and the mediations and manipulations of infrastructure projects.

Johnson calls the kind of place where he did his fieldwork “the skeptical frontier” (26). At this nation-state border which is also a river bank, an incessant search for knowledge is pursued through visits to mediums, debate and discussion, or reading the tea-leaves of social media (as when planning a labor-migration). Nothing in this landscape is inert or static—neither the river nor the political affiliations of the people—and this gives life a general tone of uncertainty, which impels a constant recourse to speculation. The people Johnson works with have little control over the processes that are reshaping their lives (in this way, they exemplify a global condition in the Anthropocene); but nevertheless they grapple with change by using the same techniques they employ to live with natural forces, gods, and spirits. He thus identifies and describes a repertoire of knowledge, and ritual practice, that comes into play when people must deal with distant or nearly-unknowable powers: spirits who may or may not reside on an island; nagas (mythical dragons or spiritual guardians) who may or may not be sensed in the motion of river water; dam operators who may or may not have released more water than usual and upset previous patterns of flooding and erosion. The people he works with recognize a distant “potency” and its “opacity” (7), but importantly this power is not only opaque to his subjects, as if they merely awaited upon enlightenment. “Opacity” is one of potency’s own attributes, and Johnson learns much about this from the fishers and spirit mediums of this part of Thailand.  

Their method of seeking knowledge about power by reading signs and attributing causes, moreover, is general, not limited to ritualistic villagers. Discussing recent Thai politics and the turn toward traditional authority in the context of the military coup, Johnson outlines the crisscrossing forces that drew democratic environmentalists in Thailand’s metropolitan civil society to a vision of righteous rule by a benevolent despot, as they became disillusioned with corruption and urban pollution. These metropolitan positions, conservative but at the same time environmentalist, are increasingly being adopted by the formerly “Red Shirt”—radically democratic—villagers as the threat posed to their livelihood by the large dams upstream on the Mekong becomes apparent (59).

Doubt and skepticism, and a weird state provoked by the unknown but sensed presence of power out there, are recurrent figures in Johnson’s analytics as well as his ethnographic encounters. He criticizes, from the position of a sympathetic insider, the implicit positivism and empiricism of anthropology’s ontological and new-materialist turns, noting that this scholarship seems to suggest that once we have accounted for all the fish and plants and gods and humans in a given world all possible ontological positions are filled (165). But who knows what is in the river now? The dams alter its ecology and indeed its very color, and the concrete berms that are poured to fight erosion stop up caves where nagas live. The naga, he is told, does not die however, but lives on as a ghost of its former self and is discerned anew in roiling foam on the surface of the river (152). Ghosts, like nagas, and even ghosts of nagas, obviously exist for his interlocutors—stressing that ontological fact would gain Johnson nothing analytically. But how do they know these indeterminate realities as such?

The effort to answer this question leads him into epistemological arguments about knowledge of indeterminate and uncertain things, the necessity of embracing doubt in order to continue to know, and to dwell, and what he calls the “productive power of ‘maybe’” (55, 160). Along the way, Johnson offers the term “inhuman” (18-20) as his own intervention in new-materialist and ontological vocabularies, seeking to move beyond the claim of comprehensiveness and knowable contrast set up by talk of “human and non-human” beings. Rather, in Southeast Asia at least, an immanent, opaque, and radically other-than-human power is a categorical prerequisite for all the forms of existence that the ontologists describe, and for any knowledge of them (138). In sum, rather than focus on either the agency of non-humans, as if adding a new force to the catalogue of some empirical social physics, or the material activity of hydrological engineers, which we know remakes the world because they tell us so, Johnson explores how “potency changes as infrastructure alters the fabric of the world” (10), and how with it the arts of knowing and dwelling also must alter.

Johnson’s style is crisp and engaging and his dealings with recent theory are all concrete and pointed. His own analytic repertoire comes into focus more by assertive contrast than by any sustained effort at conceptual clarity, which sometimes is missed. I’m not sure I will be adopting the term “inhuman” any time soon, and some of his swift characterizations of anthropological debates lack depth or precision. However, he builds a theoretical contribution of great originality from a rather classical style of ethnography—bounded in time and space and elaborating the sense of an experience, rather than aiming at a critique of disembodied expertise or rational systems in the name of life and complexity.

In sum, Johnson explores how a conservative, despotic state and the ramifying regional effects of Chinese capitalism are experienced and understood, in the present, by some resolutely ordinary and rather unambitious people in a peripheral riverside town. These people’s sense of distant power, and their efforts to gauge its deep currents in their experience, tell us a great deal about contemporary political life while challenging any number of settled understandings about what exists in the world and how to know it. By describing their skepticism and their rituals Johnson has produced political ethnography of a high order.