Media @ McGill

"To Love a Rat in a Cambodian Minefield: Subjects and objects in a post-war context"

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Darcie DeAngelo

PhD Candidate in Anthropology


Research Problem

How do Cambodians who survive violence use various media, from tattoos to technology, to transform themselves? How does this help them to live side-by-side with former combatants? Cambodia’s wars have left millions of unexploded ordnances beneath its ricefields. The people responsible for clearing these landmines are often former soldiers who planted them in the first place. How do they mediate struggles of guilt and victimhood while effacing the remnants of wars of which they are simultaneously victims and perpetrators? Pertinent to these questions is how Cambodians produce subject and object perspectives, which elucidate their understandings of agency and accountability. For fourteen months (2013-2015), I conducted fieldwork in mine detection organizations in Cambodia.

My fieldwork focused on deminers who handle Giant African Rats that sniff for landmines. I discovered that how Cambodians understood nonhumans influenced their understandings of the “objects” involved in mine detection. For example, NGO foreign staff refer to the animals in mine detection as “technology that best suits certain minefields," a view consistent with considering the rats “analytic objects of technical investigation” (Lynch 1988: 266). By contrast, the deminers who handle the animals in the field refer to the rats as beloved creatures. They describe them with the spiritual word metta, or “pity-love,” which “can turn a cruel person kind.”  Such love allows Cambodians who were cruel in past conflicts to become kind once more. This is especially significant when Cambodians must confront the material remnants of war; when Khmer Rouge leaders manage demining organizations; and when every survivor is an “intimate enemy” (Theidon 2012). My research responds to broader questions about Buddhism, which scholars suggest produces and expresses a different “theory of mind” (Cassaniti 2012) and about studies of “global” problems, such as landmines, which are presented as objectively known and identical in all contexts, but which, in reality are incommensurate with local ontologies. Transformation through mediation allows Cambodians to confront historical and personal violence.



My observations arise from fieldwork that combined traditional ethnographic methods with sensory approaches. I conducted participant observation, qualitative interviews, and filming among mine detection workers, kru khmer (Cambodian shamans), amputees, and doctors. I also incorporated analyses of recent art and media such as Facebook and blogs. From 2016–2017, I will supplement my written ethnography with ethnographic video I produce in parallel to portray human-rat relationships and human-spirit relationships. Through video, audio, images, and text, I examine the ways in which Cambodians, while influenced by spiritual traditions common in most of Southeast Asia, express “intersubjectivity” with media which relates to living in a post-conflict country.

Overall Plan of Study

Post-fieldwork, as a PhD candidate in anthropology, I am in the data analysis phase of my project, which entails transcriptions, qualitative analysis and, in its more advanced stages, writing a dissertation and editing an ethnographic film. My fieldwork has shown that Cambodians reconcile grave historical and personal trauma through various media. My video will explore this media, and will also provide a method for dissemination beyond academia about modes of learning to survive after war in Cambodia.


Works Cited

Cassaniti, Julia. “Agency and the Other: The Role of Agency for the Importance of Belief in Buddhist and Christian Traditions.” Ethos 40, no. 3 (2012): 297–316.

Lynch, Michael E. “Sacrifice and Transformation of the Animal Body into a Scientific Object: Laboratory Culture and Ritual Practice in the Neurosciences.” Social Studies of Science 18, no. 2 (1988): 265–89.

Theidon, Kimberly. Intimate enemies: violence and reconciliation in Peru. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.