Smoking is bad for you

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I miss the room with orange walls

Behind the cloudy streams of white

Where painted pictures and the smell of books

Find refuge from the winter outside

 

I miss the short drives and cracked windows

Along shaded neighborhood streets

Where she plays a slow song from 1993

As we drift toward drugs

 

I miss mourning on the 16th floor lanai

Above sprawling streets and a sea of blue

Where the evening passed into the pack

and death was new to all of us

 

I miss nicotine fits triggered by passion

Behind pain and illusion of an elsewhere

That led here to restraint and self-management

So that paper can record feeling

 

I miss tracing the lines of skulls

While bumming “stoges” at shows

Where bodies and cannonballs in the polluted pool

Brought everyone closer together

 

I miss waiting for the end of the day

Where I met a few close friends

Outside the library, at the edge of the sidewalk

Smoking cigarettes against a shitty sunset

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That’s What You Always Say

I tell you that we’ve been through this
I know I told you that before
I try to find out where we missed
It gets to be such a chore

Cause ever since that time I told you so
Something gets my eye and it won’t let go
And then the stories and words, they’re here and gone
Cause that’s what you always say

I try to sit and talk with you but
You know how moods change all the time
I try to wait a week or two but
By then I’ll probably change my mind

Cause ever since that time I told you so
Well something gets my eye and it won’t let go
And then the stories and words, they’re here and gone
Cause that’s what you always say

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Literary Mapping and Connectivity

Speaking on Uthis Haemamool’s 2006 novel Mirror | Reflection at the Tokyo-based Thai Gakkai conference in June 2015, Aan editor Ida Aroonwong noted that the presentation recalled Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel (1998). I first read the book for Michael J. Shapiro’s Urban Genres course in 2007 and Ida’s point was useful: I should’ve based this paper, which I first drafted in 2009, on Moretti’s literary approach to urban and geopolitical space. For Moretti, the novel is connectivity, between “the geo-political reality of the nation-state” (p. 17) and the emergent national subject; and also division and deformation (i.e., disorder) of space that becomes increasingly complex in the modern 19th century novel. The relationship between connectivity and disorder culminate in a kind of political equivalence between books and maps. “[O]ne looks at the map, and thinks.” (p. 7) This equivalence is useful for looking not only at his subset, that moves from Greek tragedy to the picaresque and realist novel, but at literary mappings of the global city that I see in Mirror | Reflection. Here is the basic equation:

New space–>                          new form–>                            new space

(character movement)             (nation/city)                            (planetary/global)

The equation is summarized in the final lines of the book. “A new space that gives rise to a new form—that gives rise to a new space. Literary geography.” (p. 197)

Moretti’s literary approach to geography is influenced by Benedict Anderson’s literary treatment of the emergence of nationalism in colonial-era Philippines. But the difference is that where Anderson projects the emergence of the nation-state, Moretti’s maps project deformation, class divisions, and procession toward a post-national space. To “deform,” Moretti writes, is to elide the binaries of possible outcomes with indeterminate possibilities produced, for example, by the rise of the urban. Novels thus offer a “micro-scopic level” (p. 77) by articulating (making “legible,” to borrow from Kevin Lynch’s 1960 classic Image of the City) the contours of the city. From the complexity of the city to the “illusions” of the suburbs, Moretti’s Paris and London become narratives of “the Third,” geographic structures that drive action as they project power.maps

Film Journal: Chung King Express

I thought to watch a film about time on New Years Day, about how expiration and end points have less to do with death or termination than with memory and discontinuity. In the 1990s, the relationship is expressed in globalization, airplanes, and the distinction between formal security and informal migration—of people and commodities, which converges in the global city. Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 cinematic classic Chung King Express demonstrates the attempt by its characters to anchor a chaotic urban existence within sensorial strictures of arrivals and departures. Qiwu, a police officer, attempts to avert the impending pain of a recent break-up in a binge fest of canned pineapple. Meanwhile, Hong Kong as hub in the global drug trade is projected through flashes of movement where transactions between a mainland smuggler, South Asian mules, and Hong Kong textile workers exhibit the informal yet cosmopolitan disorder of a Hong Kong neighborhood. The story falters at an airport where the mules—with money and drugs intact—abandon the smuggler. At a neighborhood take-out, which specializes in chef salad, shawarmas, and pizza, this story gives way to another story about another police officer’s failed relationship with a flight attendant. Throughout all of these stories, arrivals and departures, and the anxiety of remaining in ones own domesticated national space—the space of the police officer—remind me that many movies of the 1990s (such as the contemporaneous Thai film Romantic Blue) were propelled toward airports.

At one level, the narrative and its nostalgic imaginary of the West in the Mamas and Papas “California Dreaming” and Faye Wong’s cover of The Cranberry’s “Dreams,” seem to paint this lifeworld as less real. On the other hand, the story opens a transnational imaginary that, in its realism, would materialize in Thai films like Last Life in the Universe (2003)—which employs the same cinematographer. Yet there is something more uniquely gritty and beautifully unrefined about Chung King Express.

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César Aira’s Ghosts

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César Aira’s short novella Ghosts (2008), finished on the 13th of February 1987, could just as easily be written about the final day of 2014. The story follows a scorching New Years eve atop an unfinished high rise condominium somewhere in Buenos Aires where a group of migrant workers are employed. We observe their rhythms and routines, the break from the day’s construction to enjoy the pause of the siesta, the alcoholism that moderates the precariousness of migration from their Chilean origins in Santiago, the nephews, cousins, and wives that run errands and care for children, the social necessities of reassigning meaning to gentrified space through their evening New Year celebrations, and finally a young girl’s struggle to stay alive in a world haunted by ghosts. In this sense, the primary narratives revolve around Raul Viña, his wife Elisa Vicuña, and Elisa’s daughter Patrí born from a previous marriage. In the opening scene, the future tenants monitor the progress of their unfinished spaces as the migrant workers begin their siesta. The scene is significant not only for determining the class antagonisms between transient labor and permanent tenant, but also to show that only the workers and their families can see ghosts that haunt the building.

One way to approach the novel is through the angle of migration and globalization. To what extent is the visibility of the Chilean builders compromised by the regime of urban capital accumulation that moves them from city to city? Raul is employed as nightwatchman and oversees this socially intimate team of Chilean construction workers. The workers and their children must move from building to building while, in one sense where the narrator dignifies these characters, carrying the expectations of a rooted existence. Patrí dreams more intensely of this existence, a future husband, a savior, and so on, partly because her mother attempts to reassure her of these “realities,” but also because these possibilities seem so remote. The workers speak about Santiago with intensity and frequency, and the precision of a tour guide we are told, because they squat an unfinished roofless room in a monstrosity of concrete that is anything but home.

These scenes will be familiar to any investigation of migration, neoliberalism, and the everyday labor that build global cities. A scene from the 1996 Thai film Long June comes to mind, as it tells the story of a young man who comes to the Bangkok from the countryside, and in doing so makes the transition from homeless teen to megaproject contractor. While the film is not necessarily critical of the global forces behind its motif of construction—for example, in the presence of the American flag in the offices where key decisions are made, the film’s motif of completing the unfinished (in both protagonist and construction project) haunts the story the film is trying to tell. On one hand, the film shows that in the end the protagonist’s due care for his workers leads the completion of the project according to its appointed deadline. But much earlier in the film, as the protagonist arrives in the city with his childhood friend, the camera’s low angle shows an unfinished Elephant Tower—a building surely meant to symbolize the persistence of the national imaginary within the proliferation of a global skyline. The Elephant Tower opened in 1997, the same year as numerous projects were halted by the Asian Financial Crisis. Across the city, transient urban subjects squat buildings. But neoliberalism dreams of their completion amid haunting circumstances.

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The ghosts of neoliberal development which Aira writes into the story can thus be understood in several ways. First, the ghosts—who are all men—could be perceived to symbolize the body count of workers lost to neoliberal skyscrapers. The workers and barely-functional families are placed in positions of heightened vulnerability so that as we see Elisa’s children playing hide-and-seek along the unfinished edges of the skyscraper we experience the precariousness of globalization. But there is also the idea, which is much more like, say, the building of a condominium with an emphasis on economic rather than cultural or environmental impact. As for the laborers, Aira writes, “They had been living on the site for a year. The owners found all this curiously soothing. Someone had to be living there before they came to live definitely. They could even imagine the happiness of living there, provisionally, balancing on the edge of time” (14). In the non-linear procession modernity—the non-Western lines of flight, all culture becomes provisional and globalization’s transiency is the pinnacle of time’s discontinuity. “[F]or a start they weren’t legal residents; they didn’t have work permits. On the other hand they were paid practically nothing, although it was a lot for them, because of the exchange rate. Apparently they already had somewhere to live afterward, and in fact they’d been asked to stay a few weeks more, because it wasn’t worth hiring another nightwatchman for such a short time” (15).

Unfortunately, the stable voice characterizing the precarity of migrant labor in Ghosts is the global-urban narrator so privileged to visualize these characters through a barrage of national tropes. In the introduction, the readers given simple associations between class and habit: “Naturally Raúl was in the habit of getting drunk with his Chilean relatives, some of who had been employed as laborers on the site.” These tropes reemerge in Raúl’s sister Inés Viña, who is described as such: “She was quite pretty and rather flamboyant, within the demure limits imposed by her family and nationality” (80). To be fair, the author seems to enable the narrator seems to be underscoring an unconstrained freedom of the male migrant worker (sometimes called the “real man” throughout the novella) with the gendered constraints and inhibitions within the migrant family. This explanation seems to account for the story’s final tragic moment.

Only God Forgives

This film is an ambiguous construction, not unlike its Bangkok setting. The narrative unfolds almost entirely in the Chinatown (Yaowarat) district of Bangkok, and is about an American expatriate in Thailand who, at the behest of his mother, seeks to avenge the death of his recently slain brother. Because of this drawn out excursion into the seedy elements of Chinatown from the Western imaginary of fear, we know almost nothing about the city itself. The movie does not seek to explore Bangkok or the everyday tensions of this particular global city, or what kind of people live there, but quickly diverges into a binary of two male regimes of power. It is the worst of Western anxieties: that alongside the fleeting orientalism that once imagined a friendly Thai smile, the Western protagonist, who was either indifferent soldier (Apocalypse Now) or privileged tourist (The Beach), is no longer in control of the encounter. Before they ever meet in the film, Julian (played by Ryan Gosling) imagines the conclusion of his time in Thailand and the actual final scene of the film where the far superior Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) slices of his hands. This image invades his perception even as he seeks pleasurable encounters with his exotic dancer girlfriend, Mai (played by Rhatha Phongam). The Western, now in the position of vulnerability, is no longer entitled to put their hands on the domestic bodies. While this element shows up in Thai films like Ong Bak, and others which reasserted male identity against the trauma of the Asian Financial Crisis, this is the first film by a foreign director to disclose a new world order. The West, now facing its own financial crisis, is now on the decline. Kong Rithdee probably provides the best summation of the film when he says, “Seeing OGF, unsuspecting foreigners would change their destination to Pyongyang.” However, Rithdee’s assertion overlooks the fact that this film is not just about Bangkok, but about a filmmaker’s attempt to re-map the landscape of the Western gaze within the context of contemporaneous Western decline. It is not, as the reviewer claims, an attempt to match the “existential” insight of prior Western texts (e.g., Apocalypse Now or Brokedown Palace).

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At the aesthetic level, the film is about sound, and the art of listening often lost in the historic encounter between East and West. In a significant scene, Ryan Gosling’s character, Julian, never responds to any of the outlandish lines of his overbearing mother. He simply listens, as if to prove that orientalism is not simply a patriarchal regime, but also a psychoanalytical complex passed between “motherland” and its offspring. Julian, and his murdered brother Billy, are the unfortunate byproducts of this complex. With instructions from their mother, they drug, rape, and pillage the city. Around his mother, Julian can only listen silently. After Julian’s girlfriend, Mai, asks why he doesn’t stand up for himself in front of the oppressive mother, he forces her to undress along the sidewalk of a mid-evening Bangkok street. Her nakedness is testament to ways the Western motherland has stripped the East of its ability to express an indigenous and empowered femininity. In the film, Thai women are either prostitutes, hostesses, or exotic dancers who entertain delinquent Western patrons. In this sense, their subjugation gives justification for the underworld violence of the Thai police. This extralegal conflict between two masculine regimes, inspired by the vulnerable female body, suggests that both forms of patriarchy are failures. There are many other significant turns in the way this film thinks about bodies, for example, in the scene where Julian enters his hand into the stabbed womb of his mother. It could be read as either Julian entering the fleeting territory of the motherland one last time or, more likely, destroying the womb—one of two sources of his own subjugation, more completely. In the end, the only empowered subject is the one who speaks. Everyone else, including the film viewer whose senses are moved by an elaborate Badalamenti-like sound design, is a listener.

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Such are the processes through which the foreign motherland gives way to the native patriarchy. Chang heads the dark underworld of police violence—represented as a somewhat essentialist manifestation of karma. The audience hears what the Western criminal cannot, the beckoning of the periodic Luk Thung Thai folk song that warns us—not unlike the chorus of a Greek tragedy—who the central heroes are. Chang is a chorus of one, singing the song of the city: justice. In a central scene, the film’s most brutal, Chang holds hostage the minions of Julian’s mother after learning of their plot to assassinate him. The hostess women are told to shut their eyes as Chang borrows several hair ties to stab a Western club owner, who acts as though he can’t understand Chang’s request, in Thai language, for the details of the plot. The girls are told to cover their eyes. The man is stabbed in the eyes, thereby taking his vision. His hearing will remain intact. The scene blends into one of Chang on stage singing his song of justice. This is the singing that ends the film as the credits begin to roll. The chorus of Oedipus the King thus observed, “whereof men’s ears may not hear, nor their eyes behold it” (1313-4). In the end, the global viewer scattered across thousands of theaters is inspired to listen to what the film does not necessarily show. The conditions of the global encounter are no longer stacked in favor of the West.

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Poetry and Democracy in Bangkok

Below are two rough translations from last night and my attempt to quickly think through them. I consider both of these writers as close friends, and so I hope to do justice to their collections with these translations.

“The Boat In Your Eyes” by Zakariya Amataya

I draw a picture of a tree

The tree becomes a girl

I draw a picture of a girl

The girl in my picture

Becomes a tree

I pick up an eraser

To erase the tree and girl

Then begin to draw again

I try to draw the tree with the girl

Drawing continuously until it becomes a forest

A disordered mass of plant life

 

I take the eraser

Erase each tree in the forest

I see the girl crying a flood of tears

The entire forest floods with water

I try to draw a boat

But the water moves like rapids

I still haven’t finished drawing

The paper, pencil and eraser

Carried away by the current

 

“The Berlin Wall In The Middle of Bangkok” by Siriworn Kaewkan

The barbed-wired fence and concrete wall

Rose up in the center of Berlin

Partitioning the breeze from the sunlight of East Germany

Partitioning the sunlight from the breeze of the 20th century

Transforming ideology into concrete

An oppressive division of citizens into competing sides

The pride of the communist government

Transforming the philosophical structure of Rousseau into

The general will of freedom

But all places remain in chains

 

Fog and flowers

Are fashioned to produce criminals of the imagination

Ideology and class consciousness

Become sacred truths

The citizenry is converted into prohibitions and scriptures

That even God dare not transgress

 

Man is born in chains

In all places he desires freedom

A part of humanity become planters of flowers

Sold to those at the top of watch towers

Kept as an offering to a choir of guardian angels

So they might be kept out of harms way

That they might not be thrown from the top of the towers

To become a class of those who plant flowers

 

Clouds and flowers

Criminals of the 20th century imagination

Whereupon the Berlin wall of East Germany

Came crashing down

The world came eye to eye with the truth of the wall’s other side

Ideology and class consciousness

Dreams of sacred truths

Become the excessive drivel of imagination!

 

A gradual surge in the Bangkok metropolis

The Berlin Wall of the 21st century

Partitioning the sunlight from the breeze of the Chaopraya basin

Partitioning the darkness from the light at the center of our hearts

 

With one brick for each person

Laying the construction of hate

With one brick for each person

Laying the construction of insanity

No one asks why the crumbling of class requires the construction of partitions!

 

Don’t tell me what I know, don’t show me what I can already see

Humanity consents to the reproduction of power

Humanity consents to the reproduction of error

To write their own history

Even with this foresight

When the wall comes crumbling down

The truth is there to stare us down!

 

“The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them.” (De Certeau 1988: 101)

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau explains that the act of walking is a poetry of the city, a creative revision of the urban text. The city is not simply a well-planned rational space, but a disordered site of ambiguous interaction. De Certeau likens walking to a participatory speech act in language, as one of many tactics deployed against the larger strategy of urban control. It is freedom entered into the rhythms of global modernity. It is the possibility of getting lost within a temporality of schedules and routine. But what if we were to reimagine the act of writing as movement in the city? The circulation of ideas and the tensions they arouse enunciate, like the walker in the city, the community of positions perpetually reimagined through a differential modes of participation. To imagine democracy is not to recognize the base as it gains entrance to state policy, but to presume the act of writing exists as a plural field of participatory voices.

Zakariya Amataya’s “The Boat in Your Eyes” (2012) expresses the act of drawing as a movement through images. In the poem, an artist draws images, which are ultimately displaced by other images. Walter Benjamin’s treatment of Baudelaire springs to mind since, as a walker, Baudelaire’s flaneur exhibited his “kaleidoscope of consciousness” by recording the fleeting phantasmagoria of the city: a girl, a crowd, and so on. But Zakariya’s narrative is not about walking or observing, but about the direct action of drawing. However futile, since the images he draws are “carried away by the current,” the act itself is significant. This disintegration, or cross-current, foregrounds the act of writing as the tactic waged against the ephemera of the city. These poems express movement. The protagonist of the poem is no simple recorder, but a creator and actor. He does not sketch people, or expose bare representations, but invites the reader to “draw” out parts from images already pregnant with meaning. Since everything is in the process of becoming, all images are temporary. Visions of democracy were premised upon an organization of permanent parts and positions in the polis. A girl, a tree, a flood, a forest, a boat, each examined here as processes of “becoming” central to the transition of objects. They emerge from the pencil, the paper, the eraser as dimensions of writing. The freedom of assembly, a contentious scenario in the struggle for public space in any city, is embedded in the democratic practice of the poet.

The poet also moves through a complex geography of the globalization, itself a hub for a political imaginary that is not only global or local but, as Manuel Castells suggests, a “space of flows.” If walking assumes a less-calculated way in which urban residents insert themselves into the flow of the street, writing intervenes in the flow of in the urban imaginary of the global city through its engagement of contemporary street politics. Siriworn Kaewkan’s “The Berlin Wall in the Middle of Bangkok” (2013) begins by reconstructing “the barbed-wired fence and concrete wall…in the center of Berlin” because city centers are political centers. While the Greek agora was imagined as a collective center where citizens deliberate, the construction of the Berlin Wall—or any temporary security cordon raised in any global city—invokes a “partitioning” of the center into two margins. In fact, the geography of Plato’s Republic tells us that political dialogues begin at the margins, as a coincidental meeting at the cosmopolitan port city of Piraeus evolves into their contentious conversation about justice. For Siriworn, the margins must be returned to the poem through an illustration of the urban. Just as Berlin demonstrated the partitioning of ideology in the era of the Cold War, the city of Bangkok is partitioned through a surge of street politics. The poet identifies the margins of politics as carried in the hearts of the urban resident. “A brick for each person,” means that walls are both cognitive and participatory. “Consent,” a collective democratic virtue, is posited here as central to “the reproduction of power” and “error.” Kanthorn Aksornnam also raised a Berlin Wall in the center of Bangkok in her story “The ‘Banana’ witch interview” (2009).

Our eyes met, the hero making contact and the heroine responding with a smile. Right then the Berlin Wall came crashing down (the real Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989 if you remember. I thought of “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd). (Kanthorn 2009)

In Kanthorn’s story, the Wall is cited to insert a partition into a magazine reporter’s reluctance to interview a girl he mistakenly stereotypes as a typical high society celebrity. The interview takes place two blocks from the site where in May 1992 a security cordon was referred to as the “Berlin Wall” of Bangkok (Alan Klima 2002: 107, 113).

Both of these poems engage attempt to grapple with what Jacques Ranciere calls a “partitioning of the sensible.” For Ranciere, institutional power (what he calls “the police”) is the business-as-usual conventions, rules, and guidelines that easily lead to an anti-democratic impulse of consent and conformity. Film, poetry and other “surfaces of inscription,” (2008: 135) counter “the structures that partition the space of perception and of social relationships into surfaces comprised of above and below, front or back” (2008: 136). The canvas of the contemporary poet in Bangkok is the street, and the act of writing is their primary means of democratic movement through these ambiguously shadowed surfaces of the city.