Square One

Bangkok is a city of cycles, where any deteriorated landscape can be strategically resurrected. Marshall Berman’s All That’s Solid Melts Into Air easily springs to mind. Describing the underdevelopment and subsequent modernization of the Bronx in the late 1970s, Berman described his old neighborhood as unrecognizeable from the place where he came of age. The arson and underdevelopment that left the city in ruins also paved the way for demolition and new infrastructure projects. Architect Robert Moses’s massive decision to carve through the city with the Cross Bronx Expressway thus “lacked human sensitivity” as he drilled through the immigrant communities of New York City. A related critical sentiment provokes my writing about Bangkok in the summer of 2013. While Bangkok is not the place where I came of age—unless that means becoming ‘migrant’ in the age of globalization, to experience whole parts of the city missing from their original locations leads me to re-think phrases like “the city in pieces” (Victor Burgin 1995, via Walter Benjamin) or Tom Conley’s article, “The City Vanishes” (Resina and Ingenschay 2003). To imagine the rhythms of the city in Henri’s Lefevbre’s method of rhythmanalysis (Writings On Cities 1996) not as a precise measurement of bodies that pass through the city, but in the ways urban subjects recalibrate their bodies in transitional space.

Each trip here begins with a desire to leave behind the familiar spaces of Bangkok to write about the fringes. But most urban dwellers are propelled toward the retail & symbolic nuclei stabilized by the common routes of the Skytrain or the MRT subway. Even where these mass transit elements do not go, such as the northeaster suburban fringe of Ramintra Road, neighborhood residents speculate about a future MRT or Skytrain stop. Picking up where I left off in 2010, my first thoughts flow toward Siam Square. In the central hub of the Skytrain, the newest shopping mall development is called Square One. It fills an empty space where one used to find Siam Theatre (est. 1966), from which the area of “Siam” its rumored to take its name. The theatre and its surrounding complex was torched during the May 19th 2010 military crackdown on the “red shirt” protestors of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Now, back to Square One, developers—the alleged arsons behind the perfect alibi of unruly protestors—have nearly completed their conquest of the area as a market space. For many Thai and migrant cinefiles in Bangkok, Siam Theatre holds the intimate memory of the rare foreign art film or the presentation of the first Thai film to win an award at Cannes (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady in the summer of 2004). While it still carries the mood of a film district, with older theaters like Lido (est. 1968), Scala (est. 1969), and the Bangkok Art and Culture Center where the month long “marathon” of the Thai Short Film Festival is currently underway, Square One will unfortunately become the central monument for fleeting memories of violence in the persistent struggle for democratic urban space.

“Those who claim to know everything and to settle everything end up killing everything. The day comes when they have no other rule but murder, no other science than the poor scholastic arguments which occasionally serve to justify murder” (Albert Camus, quoted in Lottman 1980: 437).

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When asked how he could mention the word happiness in light of the devastation of World War II, Albert Camus responded that happiness is not a “children’s book” but a state of lucidity (Lottman 1980: 444). The war had made reality more concrete, and had dispelled illusions—though by no means ending them since individuals still find solace in absolute ideals, as knowledge is power. But for the fictional characters of The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1947), or The Just Assassins (1949), or the philosophical reflections of The Rebel (1951), happiness is the momentary surge of lucidity that exists even in suffering. This faith in the present world as it is shaped by the active commitment of individuals remains for Camus the guiding light of political action.

Camus wrote The Just Assassins in search of this type of committed individual, who in making meaningful an otherwise absurd world, had little choice but to confront the Nazi occupation of Paris, French collaborators, Franco’s Spain, Tito’s Yugoslavia, French radicals who placed hope behind Stalinist socialism, and what he called the “American worship of technology” (Lottman 1980: 460). The latter point seemed to suggest that even as war and visible totalitarianism end, its symptoms can resurface in totalizing forms of entertainment, television, radio, and consumer-propelled mediocrity. The dormant plague that is quickly recalled, the allegory that ends The Plague, was not simply the absolutism of a regime, but the always present threat of individual subjectivity compromised.[1]

In 1949, Camus worked intently on a play called The Just Assassins and, while suffering from intensifying fits of tuberculosis, visited Brazil, and gave lectures in Chile while student protests flooded the nearby streets. I need to check his American Journals to see if he elaborates upon Lottman’s quick mention of these events, since the academic norm is still conveyed in articles that draw Camus as “a poor philosopher and never really a man of politics, much less a man of action” (Brooks 1982). Jeffrey C. Isaac’s Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion (1994) and Stephen Eric Bronner’s Camus: Portrait of a Moralist (1999) led me in the opposite direction, just as reading Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero as a doctoral student confirmed to me why Camus fiction is political. Writing is an organizational event that “achieves its ideal neutral zone when all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (Barthes 1999 [1977]: 142). Camus’ works were never simply about his life or time, but about the situational and recurring elements of political mobilization. These works amount to no one definitive position, but to the politics of aesthetics that continues to redraw the lines between the solitary individual and the solidarity of each new event.  After Camus returned to Paris, he staged the The Just Assassins for several months where it “made the Parisians…burst into tears at some of its scenes” because it recalled the still recent memory of the French Resistance (See Lottman 1980: 305). Amid the conquest of absolutism Camus mobilized behind the Resistance by joining an underground movement called Combat where he devoted most of his time. Whether through a dramaturgy that stages action, or a newspaper that operates from underground, the means of political activity grow from the possibilities of the medium itself.

The Just Assassins returns to Russia in 1905, when a small crew of anarchists (Militant socialists? Insurgents? Revolutionaries or Rebels?) from the Organization of Social Revolutionaries plan and carry out the assassination of a high ranking royal official (the Grand Duke). Each character exudes a varying level of commitment to the cause: some are driven by envy and revenge, yet all express their unwavering devotion the use of violence to achieve a more just Russia. In the play’s climactic event, Kaliayev, the most reflective of the crew, refuses to dispatch the bomb into the Grand Duke’s moving carriage when he sees that children are onboard.  The conflicting responses to this decision on the part of the others, Stepan, Dora, Voinov and Annenkov, weave together a dialogue about the limits of violence and the justified balance between means and ends of political action. The primary theme of The Just Assassins is that despotism is not simply an object, but a disposition weaved into the modern mind. The despotic revolutionary is concerned about the future, while the true rebel must love the world in its present state (see p. 260). Committed ethical action in the present will pave the way for the state of the future.

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WHAT MY STUDENTS SAID

Students began to quickly take the sides of characters they empathized with. One student sided with Voinov because he seems deeply committed to the revolution but could not bring himself to carry out a violent act (though he’s clearly a possible informer, which I suspect since he’s the only character with a coherent backstory). He accepts the propaganda of the deed (i.e., the bombs), but would rather help the movement from a distant position so he does not have to “see” the violence. This student justified her answer by stating that she supports the troops, though from a geographic distance, since it is they who draw the limits to the unacceptable atrocity of 9-11. As one of the few students who still support the ongoing war on terrorism, she claimed that she can be for the war effort without having to witness violence, and that national morality does not entail that its civilians give their lives in exchange for those taken during wars they support. I believe that this is precisely the dilemma that underlies Camus’ critique. Another student called out Annenkov, the leader of the revolutionary cadre, for orchestrating the plot while assigning others to carry it through. He claimed that everyone who believes in an ideal that requires violence “should put themselves on the frontlines”. All political officials should prove their devotion when and if there exists a literal battlefield.

Strangely, students found Kaliayev and Dora, who occupy the majority of the dialogue, to be of minor importance since they are the least likely to dominate the group. In other words, these are the characters that are least antagonistic, flexible, and vulnerable to the collective will. It is true that even as Kaliayev asserts his individuality in refusing to plant the bomb at the sight of children, he later agrees to suppress his individual reservations if a collective vote so determines. But this position fails to account for Kaliayev’s juxtaposition between the collective instrumentality of means and ends (i.e., the collective vote binds him to their will) and the individual act of momentary refusal. For Kaliayev, otherwise known as “the poet,” taking a life demands the sacrifice of one’s own, an act with the undertone of salvation. One atones for ones actions through the cost of one’s life, thereby ensuring the salvation of those who one loves. Kaliayev concludes, “[t]o die for an ideal—that’s the only way of proving oneself worthy of it. It’s our only justification” (Camus 1962: 246).

Works Cited

Peter Brooks. From Albert Camus to Roland Barthes. New York Times. 12 Sep 1982.

Albert Camus. Caligula and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage, 1962.

Herbert Lottman. Albert Camus: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1980.


[1] “[T]he plague bacillus never dies or appears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (Camus 1991: 320).

The shared community of Rachel’s Technology is Killing Music

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Technology is Killing Music, a 2005 recording from the now defunct Louisville-based collective Rachel’s, is an inspiring 18 minutes of orchestral aphorism. It rings as something so particular to my own criteria of musical appreciation, even though I know the sounds first belonged to someone else’s experience of global travel. It begins as a string quartet. Then it fades into an image that reminds me of the solo guitarist in the first half of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, an evening on an outdoor stage in the northeastern town of Khon Kaen. These pastoral sounds fade into the more contemporary soundscape of a rapidly moving train, which dissolve into a nervous voice skipping over the notes of a melancholy piano player. The rhythm of voices is upset, gradually arriving and departing, unmeasured, except that the piano and an involuntary memory remain the only human element. The collection of sonic scenes is unlikely to be heard the same way twice.

At about 7:05 into Technology is Killing Music, the listener is transported into a forest of insects, nature’s presence at night, which also seems to belong to a country I’ve once visited. The section slowly bleeds into a cinematic lament, then into traditional instruments run through distortion pedals. This quiets down.

12:00 minutes into the song I know exactly where I am, as if I’ve conquered the disorienting intentions of the work: it is the echo chamber of Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong Railway Station, where the unmistakable soundscape is a fragment of my own memory. The station sees 60,000 passengers per day, and is part of the network of routes that brought together the pluralist geography of languages and cultures at the global hub of the Thai nation-state. It opened in 1916, in modern architectural style of the Parisian Gare de Nord train station. This assemblage rings like Chris Marker’s  La Jetee, where the found-footage of prior songs are reassembled under the authority of new voices. A Thai language train station attendant announces that car number 68 of a recently arrived train is on track number 9. There is nothing spectacular about the content of the voice, except that someone else has made my moments retrievable.

The inevitable audience may not be interested in the intricacies of Thai ephemera roving along the surface of contemporary Western post-rock, or whether or not foreign languages need to be translated to grasp the intentions of any work. But what really resonates in Technology is Killing Music is the way globalization operates not only as a discourse but as a new aesthetic. Technology was about progress and the ability for media to store images, whereas globalization is about travel and the geographic reorganization of these images.

There are pieces of music are moving in a moral-expressive moment—for example, that you would walk ten miles to hear it, or that when you hear it you’re going to change something about yourself. But then there are some pieces that seem as though they were already destined for you, when even amid the one-way consumer economy of global traffic that homogenizes all art there is someone that knows part of your memory even though you will never meet them. Even though technology is killing music, the fact that everything dies ensures the spontaneous regeneration of new communities.

Film Journal: Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011)

First, a story over black screen. It is the story of Nietzsche, the German philosopher, witnessing a horse beaten in the street by his caretaker. He embraces the horse. Nietzsche, at the brink of his well-known insanity, never wrote again. Before cutting to the film’s opening scene, the intertitle reads “we know nothing of the horse.” The horse is the epiphany of what the philosopher called “the beast of burden,” the story of the overwhelming weight of the world.

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The visual narrative of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse begins with a long take of the horse making its way up the mountain, guided by an old man. At the bottom of the hill, a young woman ushers the man and his horse into a stable. They are a nameless daughter and her father, Ohlsdorfer. The wind blows. She undresses Ohlsdorfer from his work clothes and redresses him in the casual fabrics of a townsman. There is no dialogue throughout these scenes of farm life, since the expression of the story is worked out in the howling wind of winter afternoons and the movements of the young woman’s daily routine inside the warmth of her home. After serving up the simplicity of a steamed potato, the younger woman tells the elder man to eat.

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These slow, repetitious, and labor-ridden days triangulate the drawn out movements of the film with the exception of three slight interruptions. The first interruption is rendered by a townsperson, Bernhard, who arrives to buy off some of Ohlsdorfer’s brandy. He tells of the decadence of the town and the social corruption of its people. The second interruption arrives in the form of a traveling band of gypsies, a cosmopolitan stain upon barren the landscape. They arrive abruptly at the edge of this isolated shack to gather water from its well. Ohlsdorfer runs them off. Later, in the film’s climactic apocalypse, the world literally fades to black. Candles do not light. We understand this moment to be the end of the world, and Bernhard and the band of gypsies to be its prophetic messengers. The film ends.

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The final scene of The Turin Horse is also a closing bracket to the opening scene of The Werkmeister Harmonies (2000). In the earlier film, hope and optimism seemed to be worked out in the universe. A prince-like character reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Myshkin in The Idiot, offers signs of the pure heart, the altruistic spirit who looks out for the good of the whole. Even in the cold and windy 19th century world of an isolated Hungarian province, the light of day conveys the beauty of a barren landscape, impressing upon the viewer a beauty in all things. But in darkness, the whole has come to an end. It was immediately anteceded, as Bernhard and the band of gypsies each illustrate, by a diffusion of parts: the social decadence of community, the self-interested individual, the visual landscape disintegrates into the audible conjectures of speech at the end of the world. We know Nietzsche, like Dostoyevsky, for his attentiveness to the individual beyond the slavery and conformity of social decadence. Nietzsche’s story, the final lament of the world of the will, the lament of a discipline imposed to the point of inactivity (of the horse), becomes the story of Bela Tarr. This film is understood to be his last.

A Typical Day

Introduction to American Politics: Bureaucracy Part II

Max Weber Iron Cage Bartleby Department of Homeland Security Reinventing Government David Osbourne The GM Model The Apple Model Al Gore Securities and Exchange Commission Bureaucratic Infighting in the Bush Administration Iron Triangles

Introduction to Political Theory: Locke

The Two Treatises property The World was America Barbara Arneil the Cheriquanas Palantus of Sparta C.B. MacPherson Possessive Individualism tacit consent “the world they can find free and unprocessed”

Liberalism and Globalism: Imadaʻs Aloha America

Kingdom era Civil codes on Hula in 1859 Bobbio on Liberalism fear of “revolution” in New York Times 1883 account of preparations for King Kalākauaʻs Coronation Hawaiian modernity hybridity ku`i hula the beach as metaphor Healani boathouse the carnival Mickhail Bakhtin “new world curiosities” imagined intimacy primitive temporality of exhibition cultural ambassador Kodak camera in 1888 Chicago Worldʻs Columbian Exposition creative diplomacy Cairo-Hawai`i

Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond? (Barthes 1977: 32)

One of Chartvut Bunyarak’s greatest contributions to contemporary Thai fiction resides in his ability to string together a mode of writing in the language of images. If the reader is led to believe that these intertextual references spawn from a love of cinema or technological shifts in contemporary forms of communication, they soon discover Charvut’s critical negations of popular media culture. In “Rootless People” Chartvut critiques contemporary media through the voice of the short story’s sole narrator. “I attempt to flee the world of truth by wrapping myself up in the simulacra of film.”[i] The depressed character then criticizes novels, short stories, philosophy, and poetry as dream images ill-equipped to ground his contemporary “rootless” condition. Only death and its meditation are real.

Chartvut’s story reminds me of Jacques Rigaut, one of the French writers who signaled the end of Dadaism. Both are figures of the way endings extend toward new beginnings. Rigaut destroyed his writings even as he completed them, planned his own suicide, and consistently separated himself from contemporaneous political and artistic affiliations. Rigaut’s meditation on visuality resonates as a prelude to Chartvut’s suicidal impulse.

How could a man live when he had made himself only ‘the eye that looks at the eye that looks at the eye that looks’?[ii]

The line expresses the disillusionment of a writer increasingly aware of the ways their medium will fall into the captive grasp of newer mediums like film. Imagining a second life for Rigaut, the French “new wave” filmmaker Louis Malle screened a version of his life in the 1963 film The Fire Within. At the end of Malle’s version, the protagonist cannot write. He can only negate what he wants to express by crossing out sentences.

            This kind of negation, of removing oneself from the discursive mediation of content, is emblematic Chartvut’s writing. From “The Final Tale” to “Rootless People” to “Taxi 2006” the author is tasked with a critical interrogation of truth, testimony, and the credibility of visual transmission. His procedure is negative in two ways. The reverse quality of a photographic image development is its archival negative. The colors of politics in Thailand are reversed, the seeping blood of a corpse spills into the streets as a pool of beauty. As parts of a cinematic strip, images sit in dustbins waiting to be brought back to life.


      [i]. Chartvut Bunyarak, The Judgment Day of Red Ant, (Bangkok: Fat Penguin, 2004). 190.

     [ii]. Robert Motherwill, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, (Boston: Wittenborn Art Books, 1981), Xxxii.

Released in 2005

In the middle of December 2011, I met with an old writer friend and Bangkok musician named Piyachat Jongtong. Being a talented musician himself, his first question was whether I’d heard the recent news about Sek Loso (Seksan Sukpimai). Sek was the influential front man of the legendary Thai rock band LOSO, and exists in contemporary Thai pop culture as the image of lowly rebellion, guitar rock, and soft spoken lyricism. I told my good friend that I hadn’t heard the news, but that I liked the song “Som sarn” (which translates into ‘ignominious’ in English”

In the most brutal behind-the-scenes event of 2012, Sek’s separated wife posted a picture on Facebook showing him using “ice” (methamphetamine). She also accused him of domestic abuse, and neglect of their children. Against the rules of Thai celebrity culture, Sek responded to the media that all chargers were true (how could he say otherwise considering the photographic evidence of the allegation).

The social media controversy has become known as the “Sek scandal”. An interview snippet that summarizes his song-writing process, documented weeks before the scandal broke, an un-honed skill in image management:

“Most of my songs are about love because I love many. Actresses, models, you know. Many,” he said.

They are my muses, but I can’t tell you their names. I don’t want to damage their reputation. But I personally tell each of them that I write this and that song for them. Hope you don’t mind me bragging. I like to boast,” he smiled, grabbing a glass of red wine.

‘Your wife?” Brunch asked.

‘My wife knows and she is cool with that. Everytime I hurt her, mostly unintentionally though, I buy her a diamond,” he said, giving a mild shrug. ”I wrote many songs for her too.” (“Sek,drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” Bangkok Post, 25 December 2010)

The scandal seemed to recall other recent celebrity misfires (e.g., Charlie Sheen), especially as more quotes began dropping.

”[Led Zeppelin’s] Robert Plant was having coffee in my kitchen. I partied with Liam Gallagher. I played for Patti Smith at the Royal Festival Hall. And when I had free time, I took my children to Kurt Cobain’s house, Jim Morrison’s tomb and where John Lennon was shot. It was a blast,” he carried on. His wandering eyes beamed.

”See? This is why I didn’t want to brag,” Sek said. ”I mean, who would believe me? People would just think I’m crazy because I don’t have photos to validate my stories. But why would I go ‘Hey, Liam, let’s take a photo?’ I never ask anyone even for an autograph. I’m a rock star myself! I have to play cool. If there’s anyone who can make me lose my cool, it’s probably Paul McCartney.” (Ibid)

Sek Loso rose to stardom with the band LOSO, who chose the name to lash out against celebrity worship and the God-like consumer culture handed down from the idols of Bangkok’s High Society (or, HiSo). Their first album “Lo Society” broke in 1996, but the band broke up in 2002. The singer decided to go solo, perhaps an analogue to the contemporaneous election of Thaksin Shinawatra that encouraged “thinking new” by referencing individual aspiration over collective ties. A month before the 2006 coup, Sek made big news when he punched out Noi S. Clapp in front of thousands of New York City concert goers in one of Thailand’s most significant international productions of the Ramakien. Noi S. Clapp is frontman of the modern rock group Pru, but also son of a rich high society hotel owner.

One problem Sek faces is economic. His label GMM Grammy, one of Thailand’s largest, must dispose of the problem star if they are to appeal to their celebrity aligned promotional culture. Most concerts revolve a collective line-up of artists within a seasonal rotation of national music festivals (is it not ironic that these concerts are usually sponsored by either Chang or Singha beer companies?). His other problem is political, in the way Thailand imagines the relationship between art and culture. For example, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) has drafted and circulated a “memorandum” that, among other clauses, places a 2-year publicity ban on any artist abusing drugs.

But has the public fallen victim to the artist, in the sense characterized by the media stories about the “Sek scandal”? Or is the fall of the artist symptomatic of how Thai celebrity culture has sanitized mainstream music? And is addiction and recovery, a dominant theme in contemporary Western pop culture, part and parcel of the mainstream? The media characterizations of Sek Loso have yet to enlist the opinions of mainstream Thai rock musicians in similar genres, such as Silly Fools, Bodyslam, and the recently broken-up Clash, so it’s difficult to measure a response to such themes.

Perhaps this confrontation will expose the true artist in Sek. Having been abandoned by major labels, his path may change for the better. Perhaps he may choose more independent routes, or collaborations that really (and not in name only) confront the “high society” of celebrity culture. Modern Dog, for example, collaborated with the politically-minded Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul to produce a music video for the 2008 song “I still breathe” (Chan yung hai jai). The video enlists young villager teenagers from Nabua, in the northeast of Thailand, in an aesthetically innovative way. This same Nabua village fell victim to a 1960s crackdown on so-called communists, a past deformed by the youth who somehow convey its future. The video can be currently viewed as part of the filmmaker’s Primitives exhibition at the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. It can be heard here.

Loso’s most recent endeavors over the past year included the “We Are the One” concert, in which he closes the show with a karaoke rendition of Som Sarn. The concert is meant to raise money for, and bring awareness about, victims of Buddhist-Muslim violence in Thailand’s southern provinces. But rather than think about the lives claimed by national violence, he will now how to reflect up his own victimhood. And these are the processes through which resurrections are made. His will be highly anticipated.