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Fields of Desire

Fields of Desire Book Cover

My interest in desire in development and poverty reduction programmes started when I noticed that people I knew well in the south of Laos (after living with them for 16-months in 2002-2003) expressed considerable interest in joining a state-run resettlement program. The established literature portrayed these programs as dangerous and coercive in many instances. My informants typically expressed a weary wariness of state-run projects, yet they seemed willing to at least entertain, and in some cases endure, the privations of this resettlement project: why? My investigations revealed that resettlement tapped into the depth of desires people had to refashion their lives. In many cases, people pursued these desires despite and around state projects and regulations. But desires also inspired people to periodically re-engage with state programs.

My investigations revealed that resettlement tapped into the depth of desires people had to refashion their lives.

Other scholars had been using the word “desire” to critique the “resistance” turn in Southeast Asian ethnography, yet the word was often used in such contexts in the naïve sense of “what people want.” What I saw is that people “wanted” multiple things, some of which did not serve their best interests, and some of which were unrealistic, and when they got what they “wanted” it often turned out not to be what they wanted after all. I began a systematic investigation of existing theories of desire. I found particular inspiration in Buddhist thought, Lacanian and object relations psychoanalysis, and Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy.

The result was an understanding of desire that I explained and demonstrated in Fields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos. This book reflects on the observations I made during 16 months of fieldwork on an island in the Mekong River in 2002-2003 in terms of how generative power is conceived.