Violence and the Text

There’s a window in my head. There’s a window in my heart. I look out of them when I’m sleepy and then I fall apart. Things are crumbling outside of me and they’re crashing at my door. There’s a crest that keeps arriving. (Mission of Burma, “Red”)

You see me and you laugh out loud, You taunt me from safe inside your crowd
My looks, they must threaten you, to make you act the way you do
Red, I’m seeing Red (Minor Threat, “I’m seeing Red”)

One of the most disconcerting elements of this weekend’s mass demonstrations in Bangkok, called for by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), is their visual removal from the landscape. For example, most television stations give rare coverage to the hundred thousand plus demonstrators clogging the arteries of Bangkok at six primary locations. Most television stations continue with game show, soap opera, kickboxing, and other entertainment coverage. The one government station that has monitored the situation around the clock, with shifting panelists (amid the background “Following the demonstration ‘situation’” or เกาะติดสถานการณ์ชุมนุม), has effectively removed any appearance of the actual demonstrations by giving constant commentary unity, non-violence, student examinations and educational institutions being interrupted by the protests, and several cut-away connections with correspondents throughout the city. The remainder of coverage is devoted to traffic reports, for those urban residents who seek to go about their weekend recreational activities. Even the camera shots of the station’s embedded reporters who provide updates ‘live’ from the protest sites cast the news correspondent somewhere outside of the protests, in a cleansed space free of the UDD protestors, and hence free of the color ‘red’.

My favorite segment from Sundays coverage was entitled “The Silent Atmosphere of Siam Square,” where the teenybopper economy of the young and trendy is reported to have been the most severely affected by the protests. Walter Benjamin’s comments about photographs of deserted streets in Paris, taken by Eugene Atget, are instructive: “It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted.” In contrast, Al-Jazeera’s cable station carefully captures the movement of red through the symbolic parts of Bangkok’s old city, while interviewing a prominent columnist for The Nation who—going against the stereotype of an otherwise conservative newspaper—speaks of the events association with the disenfranchised poor who have arrived in the city to voice this reality. Their “right to the city” (as Henri Lefbvre calls this relation between production and consumption) is upset by an urban middle class who perceive UDD demonstrations as threatening their moderated way of life. And yet, the “right to nature” which puts the urban middle class in the tourist destinations of UDD strongholds, ironically, is not met with the militancy of a fact: that there are numerous, perhaps more real, means of threatening a way of life.

This class of anti-UDD, or anti-poor, segments of urban society mirror their opposition with an interesting show of colors. For example, if you control the UDD’s appearance in news coverage—being that their primary label is ‘red’, by removing what Michael J. Shapiro calls the ‘stain’ on the landscape, it is because you “channel” conservative elements of Thai society toward sneaking in a more purified color (you would think ‘urban’ should be read as more ‘diverse’ or ‘cosmopolitan’, but how else could power be consolidated at the core). The most recent color to Thailand’s chromatic politics is white. White is conventionally a symbol of purity in Thai Buddhism. On television, more purified subjects of Bangkok, including news correspondents, and youth representatives voicing their concerns with the interruption of school examinations, wear white shirts in a plea for peace and non-violence, and this is the group who has gained the most coverage. Against this conservatism, I really appreciated Wednesday night’s talk show with University of Hawaii alumni Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a professor of political theory at Thammasart University. When another professor asked, shouldn’t ‘white’ be the color of non-violence, Chaiwat responded “for me, everything in the world is grey.”

The red shirts, the poor, the rural, those who sacrilege pre-dispensed rites of the city (and you will note all the articles that show how they brought their rural ‘sayasat’ to cast spells on urban monuments), are framed as “out there”. They arrive momentarily in still images of what The Nation called ”the red menace” or the “red tide rising” glossing the front page of pretty much every newspaper on Sunday. These images were predominantly high angle shots of Rachadamneon Road at the Phan Fa bridge, like miniaturized subjects without faces at the sight of previous violent episodes in Thailand’s political history—in fact some of the government campaigns for non-violence now being run during commercial breaks end with the image taken from the burned-out ruins of 1992, from the blackened frame of Rajdamneon Road Police Headquarters alongside Phan Fa bridge. Another similarity to Black May is noted by Alan Klima’s recollection that in such movements “vast majority of protestors…are not apparently newsworthy people.” These are the poor who speak for themselves, who sacrifice, and are fully aware of their cause, the “metaphysical” rebel in Camusian terms. But they have no faces, the cinematic lineage of humanity that connects Cassavetes to Levinas, Bernini, and Dostoyevsky. It was Dostoyevsky’s Poor People, the story of an anxiety-ridden copyist named Davushkin and a seamstress named Varvarya that couldn’t see each other face to face, and consequently had to expose the ‘face’ of poverty through the text of letter-writing.

In the lobby of Bangkok's Mercure Park Avenue Hotel

My mind races amid all this coloring of the landscape—toward Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida, in which he calls the object of the photograph “the spectrum” or that perhaps the violence of the camera is it’s ability to ‘capture’ an audience by placing the caption beneath the still image (and this is how politics becomes colored). The Nation mapped the ‘red’ areas of the city in an article earlier this week (the same map in the blog entry below), which I’ve found enlarged and placed in the lobby of tourist area hotels. Tourists are encouraged to avoid politics, which means a certain demographic of Thailand (being called the ‘red menace’ or the ‘red horde’ or ‘the forest surrounding the town’) needs to be eliminated from recognition. The Internal Security Act was installed this past week precisely to activate ‘security forces’ as those authorized to see, recognize, and attend to the existence of those demonstrating for the UDD. Citizens are told to be “the eyes and ears of the nation.” A toddler pointed at close-range to three lone UDD protestors getting off a canal boat and said to his mother “look, it’s the red shirts” as if to say, like other villainous forces on screen, they are not just on T.V.

Thankfully, there is another text. At Hua Chang Bridge in Bangkok’s ‘newer’ city section, posted with masking tape on a tree alongside the dock, there is a sign addressed “to our brothers and sisters” who have come to protest in Bangkok. It opens by referring to the Red Shirts as “lovers of democracy”, explaining why this is so, and is signed by the “Bangkok Lovers of Democracy.” In large font, the key line of the letter reads “The people of Bangkok are extremely happy to welcome those in red shirts.”

at Hua Chang Bridge, Rachathevi, Bangkok

I like this text, posted to a tree—a significant landscape metaphor in the experience of Thai democracy. As I walked down Rajdamneon Road this morning, the most significant site of Thailand’s history of vigorous protest, I could feel the temperature rising. Much of the crowd, save a few thousand took off to Bangkok’s 11th regiment Army headquarters (wherein houses ‘peacekeeping’ operations for this weekend’s protests—and ‘peacekeeping’ according to any political science course in international relations brings up all the questions of post-Cold War politics, particularly in Bosnia and Somalia, questions of ‘real time’ media and political coverage, what to do with militaries when they can no longer find ‘external’ threats to validate their annual budget proposals and so on). But in anycase I’m thinking of that text posted to a tree at Hua Chang bridge, in its willingness to face the demonstration, the people involved, and their “right to the city”, rather than effectively evacuating their image from the media of a purified landscape.

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