“Steal away, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here,” was the lament of African slaves situated in between the urgency to run away and resignation that spiritual redemption was the only escape. It could also be the lament of many urban dwellers faced with the immanence of dispossession. For slaves, the act of running away was always fraught with dangers, not only of recapture, but uncertain alliances with other marginalized people of all sorts – Amerindians, outcasts, vagabonds, and felons. Hastily assembled kinships, ‘nations’, and roadshows sometimes managed to stay off the radar for long periods of time, but were most usually prone to betrayals and misunderstandings that prompted further dispersal. Still, there was always something fecund in the imagination of such constellations, amplified by the dense entanglements of bodies with diverse rivers, streams, bush, earth, animals, and foliage. Here, sustaining life was not a process of striving and fruition, but an intermixing of decay and generative forces, of inexplicable events and monstrous circulations.

If, as Anna Tsing (2012) claims, the plantation was the initial model for projects that can expand without changing their form and function, the contemporary spread of the mega-development – with its standardized integration of residence, shopping, leisure and services – is its continuation and aftermath. The product is no longer sugarcane, or any product in particular, but rather the control of freedom – the ability to control the process where life can become anything at all. For the mega-development signals the end of the myth that the city was interested in creating particular kinds of persons, particular kinds of life.

Rather, it seizes upon the conceit of self generation, inserts itself as the machine that enables individuals to see themselves as, what Claire Colebrook (2010) calls ‘that which feels and knows itself as nothing other than self-affecting life’. Disentangled from diverse material and social environments, and stripped of the skills needed to intermingle with creatures and formations of all kinds that once circulated across urban spaces, residents must calculate their every move through constant exposure to and enfoldment in proliferating networks, but where these instances of contact do not really affect much of anything. Meanwhile, individuals are encouraged to ‘steal away’ as much as they want. For the only place to circulate is in abstracted, media-saturated exchanges incapable of eliciting either desire or dread.

When people returned to Phnom Penh once the failed Khmer Rouge laboratory had finally run its course, for most it was not really a return home. Emptied of almost all of its inhabitants, the subsequent vacancy was also an erasure of claims, memories and orientations. Bereft of its intricate interweaving of ties, the recuperation of place had little meaning, and with no authority or records to back them up, securing a place often meant uncertain alliances with those whose very continued survival rendered them outcasts of a particular sort. The return to the city was then an extension of running away, and the need to revise expectations continuously was only tempered by the initial period where the Vietnamese ran the city as a camp.

Under such circumstances it was understandable how residents stuck closely to family connections even when these were ridden with mutual suspicions. Family members had to stay close to each other, but also at a distance, so this meant spreading out. If, for example, a family needed to secure a plot in a not yet built up area, it was usually important for them not to carry too many members with them, so as not to be seen to be trying to consolidate too much. Rather, they found a quick way of inserting themselves, staying under the radar as much as possible and scouting for other places on which to take a chance. This did not mean that consolidation was not taking place, that securitizing family interests did not operate through various forms of expansion. Rather, spreading out, as a means of consolidating family interests and ties, was also predicated on subjecting these projects to a process of being affected by those undertaken by others – of being turned around, altered, revised, and redirected. Since not everything the family had was then staked on any one project, if things got out of hand, not all would be lost. One could always steal away.

Sometimes neighbours would silently agree not to interfere with each other’s efforts. Still, at other times, residents would run smoke screens for each other – pretending that certain conditions, events or projects were not underway, when in reality they were, in order to control how much attention outsiders paid to them and to ward off any harmful intrusions. In all of these practices and strategies, more than one thing is occurring at once, and often what looks to be the reality of the situation is really something else. People look like they are cooperating, but in reality they are just acting as if they are doing so in order to win themselves the freedom to do their own thing; or conversely, people may look like they are running all over each other, stabbing each other in the back, pursuing their own strong-willed aspirations when in reality they are implicitly learning from and adjusting to each other, affecting each other without it looking like they are doing so.

The intense demonization of the poor that has been underway in Phnom Penh for the past decade in part reflects the inability of the urban elite to know what to do with all of the surreptitious, inexplicable, and, to them, monstrous circulations and consolidations that have been at work in remaking the city. A population supposedly traumatized by genocide and largely seeking refuge in spiritual quietude nevertheless has carried on constructing viable residential quarters such as in Prek Pra or Boeng Salang. As the Gang of Hun Sen and other oknha (big men) go out of their way to prove that the Khmer Rouge were right about urban life – filling it with mega-developments of dubious economic viability – it is not far-fetched to think about this demonization as a form of capture; a way of breaking up the circulations of effort and experimentation that have underpinned everyday efforts to resettle the city. And this effort towards breakage is not unlike a seemingly interminable preoccupation with demonic possessions, illicit networks, vectors of disease transmission, and dangerous circulations.


Colebrook, C. (2010) ‘Creative Evolution and the Creation of Man’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48: 109-132.

Tsing, A. (2012) ‘On Nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales’, Common Knowledge 18: 505-524.

Download PDF