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Abstract: Who are we in dreams? This question problematizes self-identity in a state of mind usually construed as unreal. What happens when we awake in dreams and are able to manipulate our identities in surreal conditions? The phenomenon of lucid dreaming allows such manipulation to occur, freeing the individual to explore various possibilities of selfhood without the burden of conformity to waking roles. It parallels the postmodern perspective on the decentered nature of the self. The postmodern self subsists on fractal identities that in lucid dreaming form the basis of personal creativity. Lucid dreaming converges with postmodernism to suggest an alternative method for transcending the conventions of everyday life.
Keywords: Lucid dreaming, self-identity, postmodernism, fractalization
Once regarded as an esoteric phenomenon by psychologists, lucid dreaming is no longer confined to the sleep laboratory but popularized as an art of creative imagination. Lucid dreaming, sometimes referred to as paradoxical dreaming, is the spontaneous realization by the dreamer that he or she is dreaming. It is often described as an exhilarating experience that reveals the inherent freedom of mind. Charles McCreery (1973: 114), a researcher of psychic phenomena, commented that “[r]ealization that one is dreaming brings a wonderful sense of freedom – freedom to try anything in the extended range of experience.” Being awake in his or her dream, the lucid dreamer attains a level of consciousness that surpasses the limitations of ordinary waking experiences. Oliver Fox (1962: 33), an explorer of paranormal phenomena, expressed his feelings about his lucid dreaming experience in the following words: “Never had I felt so absolutely well, so clear-brained, so divinely powerful, so inexpressibly free! The sensation was exquisite beyond words; but it lasted only a few moments, and I awoke.”
These descriptions of lucid dreaming suggest that self-realization of dreaming is a deconstructive experience. Moments into lucid dreaming, the dreamer realizes the possibility of going beyond ascribed roles in waking life. By experimenting with a variety of new roles in the dream state, the lucid dreamer is actually engaged in deconstructive action that challenges the apparent stability of self-identity in waking life. The lucid dreamer does not lose all sense of the self as conceived in waking life, but he or she is able to act in different ways to undermine the prescribed meanings constituting the reality of the self in waking consciousness. In other words, all social rules for self-identity can be tested and broken in lucid dreaming without the dreamer incurring the consequences of the waking world. For example, when a person walks through walls or flies into the sky in lucid dreaming, there is no one in the dream environment to accuse him or her of being mad.
Lucid dreaming is, indeed, a profound test of self-reality, utilizing the surreal nature of dreaming to question and manipulate the complexities of selfhood. In waking life, these complexities can be analyzed and tested but under circumstances where social rules seem to be hegemonic. For instance, the breaching experiments carried out by the ethnomethodologist, Harold Garfinkel (1967), suggest that disruption of accepted norms is a risky method of self-deconstruction. On the other hand, the manipulation of the dream environment by the lucid dreamer occurs in a surreal context where social rules of the waking world do not apply. Hence, deconstruction of the self in a surreal environment exposes the transparency of social rules for creating self-reality. The sense of freedom experienced by lucid dreamers comes from the realization of self-transparency in a world where fluidity is reality.
If lucid dreaming offers a path-breaking approach to the recreation of the self, how come it has only caught the popular imagination in recent years? Lucid dreaming was largely the preserve of psychologists interested in paranormal phenomena (Green, 1968; Tart, 1972; Parker, 1975). Only in recent years did lucid dreaming gain publicity as a non-ordinary experience attainable by individuals who seek it. Many books and manuals outlining theories and techniques of lucid dreaming are widely available (LaBerge, 1985; Harary and Weintraub, 1989; LaBerge and Rhinegold, 1990; Green and McCreery, 1994; Moss, 1996; Devereaux and Devereaux, 1998). This sudden outburst of interest in a recondite phenomenon normally studied by parapsychologists suggests some important changes in contemporary conceptualizations of self and society. There is a sense of newfound freedom associated with being conscious in dreams. Self-mutability in conscious dreaming represents a type of autonomy unattainable in waking life. Since social norms are only enacted and validated by individuals who are awake, rebellion against these norms by lucid dreamers implies that society can be dissolved in dreaming for the reinvention of the self.
The argument of this paper is lucid dreaming represents a concerted effort in transcending social norms and boundaries through the reflexive power of being conscious in dreams. Self-reflexivity in lucid dreaming challenges the conceptualization of the modern self as an integrated product of normative socialization. The modern self is a distinct outcome of Cartesian dualism tempered by the institutionalization of world-mastery. By treating the modern self as a unified essence of subjective experiences, the meaning of world-mastery has come to connote the objectified control of manifest reality. The work of Talcott Parsons (see Rocher, 1974) exemplifies this approach to the modern self as the bearer of values and norms that regulate social goals and actions. When values and norms are properly internalized in the self, social action is effectively directed to the external environment. In this model of the modern self, the maintenance of values and norms is essential to the successful manipulation of the external environment.
Yet in lucid dreaming, the model of the modern self is completely reversed. The surreal nature of dreams makes destabilization a constant factor. The lucid dreamer cannot always depend on internalized norms for effective movement in a rapidly changing dreamscape. On the contrary, the lucid dreamer must repeatedly reinvent himself or herself in order to navigate the surrealism of dreaming. The lack of correspondence between internalized norms and environmental events in dreaming implies that lucid dreaming is necessarily anti-normative. The lucid dreamer may act against ascribed roles to actualize discrepant selves in the vicissitudes of dreaming. If such experiences constitute a new meaning of freedom, they not only reject the model of the modern self but also suggest the emergence of a postmodern model of fractal identities. The idea of fractal identities will become clearer after we examine the fate of the self at the end of modernity.
Crisis of the Modern Self
Modernity placed the self at the epicenter of meanings. Indeed, the modern self could not exist without a subjective presence that outweighed the objects of its surroundings. By possessing this presence, the modern self came to be treated as something distinct with the power to control its own thoughts and influence its relationships with external objects. Unlike the pre-modern self whose sense of being was measured in terms of a greater power than itself, the modern self thought and acted without being necessarily beholden to a greater power. In short, the modern self looked upon its own dominion as empirical and that of the greater power as abstract.
Scholars such as Charles Taylor (1989) and Anthony Giddens (1991) treated the modern self as a reflexive entity. The notion of the self as a separate individual became possible because reflexivity activated a sense of autonomy for the re-imagination of roles. Individuals were no longer dependent on what others said they were, but could reflect on their own actions to redefine their roles publicly and privately. For Taylor, self-exploration was considered vital for reflecting on the meaning of the self. By exploring one’s self, each individual was allegedly able to draw out latent characteristics that made him or her unique. Self-exploration was thought to provide an expressive outlet for charting the hidden dimensions of individual existence. It could change a person’s self-definitions and relationships with others.
Reflexivity provided the condition for the modern self to delve into its own being and pursue what it thought befitted its desires and aspirations. Freedom was the ability to perform self-analysis in order to actualize personal visions of new beginnings, new hopes and new identities. The modern explosion of knowledge in all fields of human endeavor could be traced to the reflexive nature of self-inquiry and self-examination. By treating knowledge as inseparable from the dynamics of self-exploration, each new discovery reflexively led to other viewpoints that expanded the horizon of empirical understanding. Self-exploration was therefore vital for the development of world-mastery. The self not only came to know itself but also the objects of its contemplation.
Yet, the sense of confidence established by self-exploration failed to take root as the source of certitude for self-understanding. Reflexivity generated an impermanence of knowledge, thereby undermining the stability of self-identity. Each act of self-exploration enhanced self-awareness, but at the same time activated the forces of change in the self. Giddens (1991:28) made this point succinctly when he said, “The chronic entry of knowledge into the circumstances of action [the self] analyses or describes creates a set of uncertainties to add to the circular and fallible character of post-traditional claims to knowledge.” Since the reflexivity of the modern self is by nature elliptical, the uncertainty produced by new knowledge cannot but exert a tremendous pressure on the self to perpetually reexamine its own construction. The question of authenticity has become central to the meaning of the modern self. Can we be true to our own selves when reflexive knowledge is constantly transforming our sense of being?
The crisis of the modern self constitutes a statement of doubt about ontology. The transformability of the self in an age of excess increases skepticism of self-identity as an inviolable whole. If reflexivity leads to a continual reevaluation of the self, then self-identity is susceptible to fragmentation and unlimited innovation. Kenneth Gergen (1991:49) emphasized that “technologies of social saturation are central to the contemporary erasure of the self.” Only partial identities are possible in a situation where people are continually exposed to new information, knowledge and experiences. Partial identities imply the interpenetration of roles which may not be integrally related. Juxtaposition of identities and roles that are not necessarily integrated reflects an emerging social context saturated with novelty and inundated by information. This is a context that has been described as postmodern (Lyotard, 1984; Foster, 1985).
According to Løvlie (1992: 119), the postmodernist “does not go for identity but for the manifold and equivocal.” The strategy implied in this statement pertains to the de-socialization of the subject. In other words, the postmodern self is released from the fixed relationship between nominal identity and social roles. Freedom is found not in the pursuit of authenticity but in the interplay of multiple roles that signify the openness of all meanings. The self is no longer defined as a consistent conglomeration of attitudes and perceptions strung together by the power of reason. Neither is behavior necessarily considered an outcome of clear intentions. The postmodern self rejects the policing action of social institutions and pre-existing social scripts. The identity of the postmodern self does not have a center. Sarup (1996: 25-26) described such an identity as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings blend and clash…[and] not an object which stands by itself and which offers the same face to each observer in each period.”
A fragmented self seems to have emerged from the crisis of the modern self. Are we all made up of bits and pieces of this and that? Is identity nothing more than an illusion of socialization or a fiction of ontology? It is difficult to imagine a self without an integrated identity, a “subject in process” that is “constructed in and through language” (Sarup, 1996: 47). Yet, this is what self and identity mean in postmodernism, a movement that disparages closure and completion. Because of linguistic relativity, the self cannot maintain a solid identity but must defer to the arbitrariness of all conversational interactions. Hence, the self appears fragmented as a consequence of the fluidity of speech.
However, reflexivity does allow some degree of rational control over the construction of identity. The self is not totally at the mercy of the arbitrariness of speech. Individuals can still exercise choice in self-presentation, although choice is defined by a ‘multiphrenic condition’ (Gergen, 1991: 49) that empowers all types of innovation. In this situation where reflexivity intermeshes with innovation, it is more appropriate to address changes in the self as a fractalization of identity. The idea of fractalization originates from Jean Baudrillard (1993: 5-6) who treats postmodern culture as the ‘radiation of values’ or the ‘pure contiguity of values’. Thus, fractalization of identity reflects patterns of value permutations that display the mixing of all reference points. For instance, the advent of global culture has produced a unique situation in which tradition becomes a basis for experimentation. One can syncretize elements of tradition and modernity to produce unique patterns of identity that do not necessarily add up to a conventional role package. In the example given by Cohen and Kennedy (2000: 346), young British man fascinated by traditional Chinese martial arts and Jackie Chan movies transforms himself into a Cantonese pop singer. His new identity is not perceived as a conflict of values but a fractalization of disparate cultural elements.
The above example concerns the intricacies of fractal identity in waking life. Voluntariness of such identity in waking life is taken for granted, since the individual is consciously aware of mixing values and their effects. However, in dreaming the fluidity of dream events and the lack of conscious control over these events exemplify the involuntary nature of identity formation in dreams. Thus, fractal identities in dreams have a different status than those in waking life because the dreaming individual simply cannot exercise conscious control in refashioning his or her identity. The blending of values in dream identities take on an uncanny appearance as they have no direct correspondence with the waking self. The dreaming individual does not normally reflect on the fractalization of identity to ask what are its consequences. Instead, fractal identities proliferate in dreams as part of the surrealism of dreaming.
What happens when an individual becomes conscious in dreaming and treats fractalization as a means of transcending the norms of waking life? The surrealism of dreaming provides a highly unpredictable context in which identities have no anchors and rapidly take on fictional appearances. All the assumptions underlying the integrity of the modern self dissolve into a pool of changing images. The lucid dreamer quickly discovers an ability to manipulate and transform identities without worrying about infraction of social rules. In short, lucid dreaming promotes fractalization without fear of repercussions from the waking world. What are the implications of lucid dreaming for the development of postmodern self-identity? To answer this question, we need to examine the meaning and effects of lucid dreaming in everyday life.
The Self in Lucid Dreaming
As a pioneer in the analysis of dreams, Freud (1954) addressed dreaming as the fief of the unconscious self. Repressed desires and unfulfilled wishes constitute the stuff of dreams in Freudian understanding of how the self submits to the irrational forces of the sleep process. It was unthinkable that such an understanding of dreaming would take seriously the notion of a conscious self actively manipulating its identity in the dream state. Freudian analysis of dreams would become paradoxical if a dreamer awoke in his or her dreams to transform unconscious desires into conscious goals.
Lucid dreaming contradicts the notion of soporific surrender. It challenges the Freudian belief that the dream world is a symbolic representation of our fears and fantasies, which we project but cannot control. In lucid dreaming, the dreamer learns and trains to recognize and exert control over objects in the dream environment. By awakening in the dream state, the self not only becomes conscious of dreaming as a peculiar reality, but also comes to the realization that waking and dreaming are continuous. Stephen LaBerge, a leading researcher of lucid dreaming, tells of his early experience with the Tibetan lama, Tarthang Tulku, who expressed the view that all perceptual encounters are dreamlike in nature. In fact, LaBerge teaches his readers to reduce the distinction between waking and dreaming events in order to prepare for the onset of lucid dreaming (LaBerge and Rhinegold, 1990). Similarly, Harary and Weintraub (1989: 17-18) teach their readers to imagine themselves waking up in dreams and entering a dream world as they awake. This approach to the meaning of the self in dreaming is radically different from that which takes phenomenological and neurobiological differences to distinguish between waking and non-waking consciousness.
Owen Flanagan’s (2000: 58) reminder that “whatever else dreaming is like it is not like being awake” exemplifies the general need of most people to seek self-authenticity in waking consciousness. The commitment to maintain the divide between waking and dreaming elevates the self in waking life above that in dreams. Yet, as Flanagan (ibid.) seems to suggest, it is not necessary to denigrate the dreaming self because “dreams are sometimes self-expressive and can yield knowledge,” thereby providing each individual with a means to recognize the self in waking life. In other words, dreams as the ‘spandrels of sleep’ or the natural side-effects of sleep (Flanagan, ibid.) can be viewed as a loyal servant of the waking self, reifying it through a screen of apparently bizarre and irrational images. In waking life, then, there is a natural tendency to assert self-identity as if it were a special preserve of one’s sanity. Treating dreams as ‘background noise’ or ‘spandrels of sleep’ may provide a sense of relief after the individual awakes to find his or her self to be relatively intact, particularly in cases of nightmares where self-recovery occurs in the waking state.
Becoming aware of dreaming while in the dream state poses a peculiar question of whether the waking self becomes dominant in dreaming or the dreaming self becomes more reflexive. In either case, self-realization of dreaming tends to weaken the rigid distinction between waking and dreaming because it is the same self-consciousness that now operates in both states of mind. Lucid dreaming, therefore, provides a bridge between the two states that are conventionally defined as waking and dreaming. The self may become more pliant as it engages in lucid dreaming since it is able to negotiate the dream world as if it were awake, or to act in waking life as if it were dreaming. This breakdown of the boundary between waking and dreaming through lucid dreaming yields a new approach to the meaning of the self as a source of critical identity and knowledge. In lucid dreaming, the sense of guardedness for maintaining self-boundaries is relaxed in order for the self to experience other possibilities of being. Consequently, these experiences could introduce creative moments in waking life because the self no longer sees the necessity to confine innovative ideas in dreaming to the dream world. For example, Evans (1983: 226) asked whether s scientist could use his or her lucid dream experiences to uncover new knowledge.
An important outcome of collapsing the boundary between waking and dreaming is the realization of the constructed nature of the self and the phenomenal world. This realization can occur by lucidly confronting the ephemeral nature of the dream world. Upon waking, the lucid dreamer may come to treat the waking world as if it too is a theater of manipulable images. LaBerge and Rhinegold (1990: 287-88) explained that “the dream state and waking state both use the same perceptual process to arrive at mental representations or models of the world. These models, whether of the dream or physical world, are only models. As such they are illusions, not the things they are representing…” The implication is that dream lucidity can have a jolting effect on our conventional understanding of the world. If we can reinvent ourselves in lucid dreaming, then our experiences of the waking world can be construed as being more open to deconstruction.
In other words, lucid dreaming challenges the formidability of waking reality. Can we say that the self in the waking state is more real than that in dreams? Lucid dreaming offers a new experience for probing the organization and presentation of the self. By being lucidly aware of the deconstructive nature of dreaming, we may become more attentive to the way we constitute ourselves in waking life. Alternatively, if we adopt a deconstructive approach to waking life, then we may begin to explore our personal dream identities in ways that we have not done before.
Postmodernism, Fractalization and Dreaming
The deconstructive agenda of postmodernism addresses the fragility of social reality. In particular, it is the social reality constituted by waking consciousness that has become the focus of postmodern critique. The apparent concreteness of social reality is placed under microscopic inquiry by postmodern critics who want to demonstrate the arbitrariness and impermanence of all social constructions (see Sarup. 1993). The thrust of this critique opens up new areas of inquiry concerning the meaning of waking consciousness and its relationship to various levels of non-waking consciousness, including dreaming. Postmodernism not only unravels our fundamental assumptions of social reality, but also suggests the equivalence between waking and non-waking realities.
Postmodern deconstruction is a line of inquiry that makes possible our realization of the fleeting nature of all phenomena in the waking world. As such, postmodernism disprivileges waking consciousness. Under postmodern gaze, the social constructions of the waking world can be made equivalent to the fleeting dreamscapes of the sleeping mind. What we conventionally perceive as the robust structures of waking reality become reversed in postmodern thinking as the illusory metanarratives of the modern world. In modernity, metanarratives provide the parameters of action in everyday life, giving the impression that our consciousness is based on a logical set of rules for defining sound behavior. When these rules are exposed as the precarious constructs of linguistic conventions, as demonstrated by postmodern critics, metanarratives can be reduced to the peculiar workings and reworkings of conversational life, thereby revealing the surreal nature of waking reality. In general, the surrealism of waking life is hidden by our commonsense view of the world. It is a view that is supported by an unquestioned consensus on the unproblematic nature of waking reality. The postmodern emphasis on ironies and contingencies (Rorty, 1989; Lemert, 1992) turns this consensus on its head, disclosing the surreal moments of waking reality.
On the other hand, the surrealism of dreaming directly impinges on the rationality of individuals because the metanarratives of modern waking life cannot be consciously maintained in sleep to provide a buffer against random perceptual associations. In other words, dreams lack the consensus that defines the routines of modern waking life. In sleep, the ironies and contingencies of dreaming penetrate the modern metanarratives that prioritize waking life. Individuals navigate their dreamscapes not by accessing the familiar metanarratives of waking life, but by an uncanny immersion in ironies and contingencies that are ignored or made irrelevant in waking consciousness. It is as though postmodern deconstruction occupies the foreground in dreaming. Thus, the surrealism of dreaming converges with postmodern deconstruction to suggest a new experience of de-differentiation between waking and dreaming. This new experience is exemplified by lucid dreaming that redefines the meaning of dream consciousness as a special state of awareness.
The approach advocated by lucid dreaming experts for de-differentiating between waking and dreaming focuses on maintaining a sense of alertness while falling asleep. This technique allows the individual to develop skills in being aware of entering a dream state without losing consciousness. By using hypnagogic imageries in the initial stages of sleep, individuals can train to directly experience lucid dreaming without any lapse of consciousness. Hypnagogic imageries emerge as random and vivid mental pictures as the individual hovers between waking and sleeping. It is a state of ‘half-dreaming’ where the individual experiences a series of seemingly disconnected images that lead directly into dreams (Harary and Weintraub, 1989: 55; LaBerge and Rhinegold, 1990: 96). Hypnagogic imageries can be compared to an aspect of postmodern deconstruction that highlights the relative positioning of all signifiers. According to Jacques Derrida (1976), all signifiers are not necessarily prearranged in ways to determine fixed orders of meaning. On the contrary, there is an endless play of differences (différance) that results in a perpetual change of forms and meanings. The purpose of postmodern deconstruction is to challenge all social structures and interpretations as stable, permanent and ineluctable. It paves the way for approaching the world as uncompromisingly open and decentered. Thus, the experience of perceiving rapidly changing images in a hypnagogic state is analogous to a deconstructive view of the world. The kaleidoscope of images perceived in the hypnagogic state represents a free play of signifiers that eventually shades into dreaming. Dreamers who are able to maintain awareness while falling asleep develop a special sensitivity to witnessing the ‘breakdown’ of the waking world into a random display of images.
Lucid dreaming is, therefore, an enhanced consciousness of différance. To wake up in dreams suggests the possibility of transforming all signifiers and pushing one’s self-identity to the limits. The game of ‘trading places’ recommended by Harary and Weintraub (1989: 61-62) provides the lucid dreamer with the opportunity to experiment with the mutability of self-identity. They claimed that it is within the power of each dreamer to consciously shift perspectives with any dream character. Being in a lucid state, the dreamer is said to be in an ideal position to assume the viewpoint of various dream characters and to transform himself or herself into a completely different person. There is a schizophrenic quality to such an experience because the dreamer comes to take on multiple personalities that would be perceived in waking life as a threat to the integrity of the self. But in lucid dreaming, such schizophrenic experiences are considered a means for training the mind to redefine the ability to assume different personalities as a game of deconstruction rather than a threat to self-integrity.
By relinquishing the idea of the self as given, the lucid dreamer is able to take fractalization in dreaming as the normative condition of consciousness to engage in the play of differences ad infinitum. Without the constraints of waking life, fractalization in dreaming empowers lucid dreamers to relativize themselves in a manner that would not be considered disastrous to their sense of well being. The lucid dreamer becomes a ‘dream chameleon’ and may come to realize that fractal identities in waking life are kept at bay by the illusion of a social order that disparages différance. The freedom of lucid dreaming described by Charles McCreery and Oliver Fox refers precisely to the potential of dreamers to consciously transcend all fixed identities of waking life. It is a freedom to reinvent ourselves without being held accountable to the metanarratives of waking reality.
If postmodernism is a critique of these metanarratives, then it is also a movement of consciousness transformation that bridges the fragility of waking reality with the surrealism of lucid dreaming. The metanarratives that we have internalized as the parameters for defining our self-identities are challenged by postmodernism as the untenable constructs of everyday life. Once these constructs are demonstrated to be nothing more than an unrecognized play of differences, it is but a short step to the realization that they are dreamlike in nature. In other words, the surrealism of everyday life is veiled by our commitment to the metanarratives of social order and structure. Postmodernism cuts through this veil to activate a lucidity that parallels the self-realization of dreaming.
The crisis of the modern self produced a deep skepticism of the subject. It spawned postmodern critiques that challenged the belief in the integrated reality of selfhood. Postmodernists opted for the notion of a decentered self whose sense of being was predicated on the endless play of signifiers. Deconstruction became the primary strategy for disengaging the subject from the hegemony of metanarratives. Freedom was defined by the ability to cut through the illusion of fixed identities.
This freedom is also experienced by lucid dreamers who can consciously switch and combine identities in the dream state. They can transcend the normative expectations of waking life without being stigmatized as anti-normative. As an inner experience of différance, lucid dreaming provides profound insight into the constructed nature of waking reality. It is a special condition of awareness that reveals the fragility of waking reality as being equivalent to the surrealism of dreaming. Lucid dreaming is indeed a form of postmodenism.
However, only a small proportion of the general population experiences lucid dreaming. An even smaller proportion is able to maintain a consistent pattern of lucid dreaming. This implies that most people have the potential to experience lucid dreaming, but only a few have gained lucidity in dreaming and possibly realized the equivalence between waking and dreaming. For this reason, the metanarratives of waking life remain intact and continue to constitute the basis for distinguishing dreaming from waking. Postmodern critics may question these metanarratives but they have yet to forge links with lucid dreaming as a method of de-differentiation. When postmodernism is recognized as a perspective that offers deconstruction as an entry into lucid dreaming, a new level of consciousness transformation becomes possible for bringing together social critique and dream creativity.
At present, techniques of lucid dreaming and new technologies for inducing lucid dreaming (see LaBerge, 1993) are available to the public, making it possible for interested individuals to develop and practice lucidity in dreaming. The popularization of lucid dreaming suggests that as more people come to experience lucid dreaming, the meaning of waking and dreaming will undergo radical change. The realization that one can actually awake in dreams implies the possibility of treating waking life as dreamlike in nature. It is beyond the scope of this paper to speculate on how these developments will influence the future meaning of social and cultural reality, but suffice to say that the world will no longer be the same once we all awake in our dreams.
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Raymond L.M. Lee
Department of Anthropology & Sociology
University of Malaya