The Marriage of Preah Thong and Neang Neak: On Cultural Memory, Universalism and Eclecticism

In Stephen Morgan (ed.), Memory and Identity: The Proceedings of the 28th ASEACCU Annual Conference 2022. University of Saint Joseph University Press. pp. 56-79 (2023)
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The momentum of globalization and universalism, operating through the media, information technology and politics, has steadily diminished the importance of cultural diversity. It has even threatened to erase many of our cultural traditions, or extinguish our diverse experiences of the sacred. Yet the sacred which seems to be lost is often still encased in our cultural objects, stories and religious rituals. This paper will discuss how the memories of the sacred can be both preserved and reawakened. This paper will focus on three scholars who develop alternative approaches to the universal. Franz Rosenzweig saw universal historical progress as oppressive. He believed that the practice of his Jewish religion offered a resistance and a possible correction to the general movement of history. Walter Benjamin saw the forgotten 'ruins' of history encase memories of the sacred and the silenced voices within history. For Benjamin, the role of interpretation is to awaken these hidden memories and voices which are encoded within our objects, images and commodities. This led him to a particular idea of a momentary messianic redemption in relation to greater flow of time. And finally, Jacob Taubes read St. Paul as offering a revolutionary model on how to live one's particular faith within a wider political order. In general, each writer developed an idea of redemption which involves a kind of remembrance of what has been obscured by the more general universal movement of history itself. This is especially relevant for the various religious and cultural communities within Cambodia. The paper will begin and end by discussing the origin story of Cambodia – the marriage between Preah Thong, the Indian prince, and Neag Neak, the Naga princess. I will additionally try to demonstrate that the story and its various reenactments is important because it represents a regenerative process rooted in the eclectic character of South East Asian culture in general. Various forms of memory within the syncretic or eclectic context of Southeast Asia can operate to preserve the sacred in an age of universalization and globalization. It also illustrates how the performance of memory can also offer an antidote to the "trauma" of Cambodia's past.

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John T. Giordano
Assumption University of Thailand


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