Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Cinnamon Shops

I set out on foot from On Nut Road – a bow-shaped arterial which links the Sukhumvit corridor to the Lat Krabang area on the eastern edge of Bangkok – to the Ekkamai intersection. It was an uncharacteristically cool morning, and ideal for a bit of exploration.

It's a fast-changing strip that I walked through. It was not long ago that this area was mostly known has the haunting grounds of Mae Nak, subject of one of the most celebrated ghost stories of Thai folklore. According to legend, she dies while her husband is off fighting the Burmese, and unable to leave her beloved, she stays behind, only to be left again.

A shrine to her remains at Wat Mahabut, but now the rice paddies and mangroves she wandered are but a distant memory, long since replaced by oil refineries and textile plants, and, more recently, the condos that have mushroomed up as the metro system has pushed further east and south, the wooden houses torn down to make way for 30-story towers, the cottage-industry workshops superseded by “lifestyle centers,” deep-fried mackerel and cheap coffee made sweet with condensed milk replaced with mediocre espresso and unagi rolls.

But the new can only displace the old to a certain extent, and in fugitive corners, the old still thrives.

I walk down Sukhumvit, first past a row of shops selling bargain appliances wrapped in plastic, followed by another row all selling caged doves and goldfish. And as I cut down below the bridge over the foul smelling Phra Khanong Canal, itself beneath the entwined concrete serpentines of a freeway interchange, a few open-air barbershops ply their trade, ancient men clipping away at military flat-tops underneath insect-swarmed lights, each stall with a single, torn brown leatherette seat.

Perhaps “fugitive corners” is the wrong term, because they aren't corners, but margins. Much like how in the American Midwest, prairie species continued to thrive along the embankments of railroad lines and cemetery fences, the remnants of the old Bangkok form a tentacular pattern, likewise along railroad lines and canals, underneath highways, pressed hard between six-lane roads choked with barreling delivery trucks.

Underneath the shadow of the crystalline new city, the lumpenproletariat make their living among rust-stained concrete and rebar, and these spaces are filled with hidden patterns, specialized markets, ethnic and linguistic links to the parched Burmese plains, the hills of Java, the swampy ground of the Mekong Delta.

I haven't explored these areas thoroughly. When I've walked through their hearts, more often than not, I've felt unwanted, an interloper, past living rooms open to the street where families gathered on duvets on the floor to watch the evening game shows and soap operas, before foyers that seemed like junk shops gathering years of scrap wood and old calendars, into engine shops and hardware stores smelling of oil and metal, parts of antique Fiats and Datsuns oxidizing on creaking shelves.

The cinnamon shops, I think, as I cross the bridge over the canal.

In 1934, Bruno Schulz published his story of that name, the story of a young boy adrift amid the magical junk shops of Schulz's hometown of Drohobycz, now part of Ukraine, but variously Polish, Russian, and Austrian in previous times. The cinnamon shops, to Schulz, were the wondrous repositories of the exotic and the forgotten, “Bengal lights, magic boxes, the stamps of long-forgotten countries, Chinese decals, indigo, calaphony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects...”

And this resonated so closely when I read Schulz. For as long as I could remember, I had been attracted to the ancient and the forgotten, and had scoured garage sales and used bookstores for antique atlases and postcards. I was just at the age, when I read Schulz, when I dove headlong into the “vintage,” wearing shirts that had been worn for years by Iowan farmers. To see this desire reflected in a totally different time, that of the Galician steppe 70 years before, but in identical form – and what the fuck was calaphony? – was bracing.

So wherever I have lived and traveled since, I have been aware of entering the cinnamon shops. I had seen them in vellum scripts in Oxford, their 18th Century handwriting verging on the illegible, in the dusty junk-drawer Main Street storefronts of Iowa and Minnesota, in a pile of old printing blocks in Nikko, an hour north of Tokyo.

As the city moves upwards, what were once the main form of commerce in Bangkok become the cinnamon shops. The standard Chinese remedies are now patent medicines in dusty jars. The weekly magazines of the Thai housewives of the 1960s are now a mildewing pile. The decorative temple-mural pattern on a notebook becomes a cheap relic. The once brand-new row of masonry houses now lurks beneath the expressway.

In the digital era, will our relics experience the same fate? Is our Instagram photo, already cinnamon'd, already filtered to look like it was taken with an old Lomo, going to be a talisman of a bygone era?

Our lives are as still images. We never see the subtle shifts in the aesthetics around us until they're gone. Then they're gone and we look back, and call it nostalgia. And we archive our nostalgias, relegate them to the museum of our own past, whether that our is a single person or the entire human collective memory.

And we organize those nostalgias into gestalt images of a place, a time, forming these abstractions, and if the abstractions become objects of fixation, they run the risk of becoming caricatures, grotesques.

I arrive at the Ekkamai intersection, now fully back in the modern city. To cool off a bit, I walk into Gateway, a disorienting Japanese-themed mall, where women in cosplay uniforms bark at you to take a shampoo sample or come into a sushi restaurant. A man clumsily trods past in a giant robot outfit.

I'm thrust from a hazy, dusty nostalgia, into another abstraction, one of Shinjuku hypermodernity. 50 years, five minutes. As I walk out into the blinding sunlight, the whole city seems to fall quiet for just a second.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Fascist Writer

In recent weeks, largely due to a New York Times article, the name of Julius Evola has been circulating around the world of political magazines and blogs, a name that I would have thought would mostly be forgotten, at least outside of a handful of far-right groups and vaguely new age spiritual sects. And yet, it seems that the mostly-forgotten Evola has now gotten something of a reboot, thanks to his influence on the policies and thought of current reichsleiter Steve Bannon.

I shouldn't be too surprised. Apparently, Bannon is quite the fellow bookworm, not surprising, given his generally haggard and unkempt appearance. He bears a remarkable similarity to the monastically bearded, anti-Western propagandist of Putin's Russia, the sociologist Aleksandr Dugin.

But given the remoteness of Evola's ideas from the folksy anti-elitism, evangelical Christianity, and free-market enthusiasm that act as the main lodestones for the American right, it makes for quite the contradiction in terms. Rather, Evola is the sort of thinker that has long been popular among members of the European right, who have a tendency to express things in terms of peoples that have existed since time immemorial. If you look to the neo-fascists that currently plague France, Hungary, Greece, and Russia, it's not too hard to find Evola and his fellow travelers.

You may quite likely have never heard of him, but this philosopher (if you can call him that, he'd likely have shunned the term) and ideologue was one of the handful of post-Nietzschean thinkers whose stars rose brightly in the early years of fascism, only to come crashing down almost immediately after World War II. Strongly favoring tradition over progress, elitism over egalitarianism, mystical immediacy over analysis, organic over historical notions of culture, and myth over theory, Evola was one of those rare thinkers who actually put his concepts into practice, in both a vaguely pagan esotericism as well as providing an intellectual basis for Mussolini's rise to power.

Like many of his fellow right-wing intellectuals in the early 20th Century, he couldn't escape lingering associations with fascism, and his last major work, Ride the Tiger, published in 1961, implored those with “noble souls” to survive what he believed to be the destructive onslaught of a modern society in which the traditional formations had largely been obliterated.

Most of those far-right thinkers who did survive World War II with their reputations tattered but intact framed their arguments in terms of poetic and literary writing. Emil Cioran, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, all were outspoken fascists for whom analyses of their work would inevitably have to include a reconciliation of their thought and their artistic production. And yet, despite their violent distaste for modern society, all four used the most intense of modernist techniques to convey their desire for a more traditional existence. As in the poems of T.S. Eliot, as in the novels of Yukio Mishima, modernist experiment is used to illuminate the nature of modernity, in the hopes of pushing people back into the primordial.

The ideas of a handful of more philosophically inclined thinkers managed to continue, albeit in a reduced form. Oswald Spengler continued to have a lingering if largely negative influence, largely due to his discontent with the Nazis who claimed him as a prophet. Carl Schmitt, by casting politics in terms of theology, managed to lecture and write for years after the war, providing a tool for political analysis across the spectrum. And of course Martin Heidegger, while he disavowed his Nazi past and his tendency to give lectures in full brown uniform, still carries an obsession with immediacy, intuition, and authenticity that makes it remarkably easy to see why he drew his profoundly anti-modern conclusions.

There's an undeniable allure here.

If I go back to my late teens, I'd heretofore received my intellectual development on a steady diet of positive science and liberal democratic theory, which went together in John Locke-step. When I idolized rebels against the system, it was because the system itself was behaving in a corrupt and irrational fashion. My punk icons hated the simpering middle-class, Protestant politics of the Reagan era, my lost-generation icons revolted against the loneliness and phoniness of the newly moneyed America in the years following World War I. The good things were science, social democracy, the natural world. The bad things were organized religion, capitalism, artifice.

But when I began to examine more ardently anti-Enlightenment perspectives, they were bracing. I read Nietzsche, of course, as every snotty, smart teenage boy with an authority problem does, and loved the sheer flippancy of a “philosophy” delivered entirely through aphoristic zingers. Then out into Emil Cioran, Rimbaud, Mishima, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, none of whom much cared for the systematic qualities of the modern world. And then onward to Heidegger. At his most brilliant, in the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger was like a hairy black spider crawling up my neck, telling me my reality was false. Following Heidegger, I read Antonio Gramsci, the imprisoned Italian Marxist who wrote on how concepts like “common sense” and “common knowledge” disguised the political agenda of the bourgeoisie.

For a brief moment, it became easy to swallow all of this whole. The rejection of the individual subject as an invention of Western metaphysics, the full-throttle rejection of Enlightenment ideals, the primacy of subjective experience over any supposedly objective experience, and the all-encompassing power of mythic narrative.

The ideas are so much sexier than their rivals, more radical, somehow more dangerous than the staid alternative.

Yet, at the end of the day, I couldn't shake the fact that these were an equally rigid system, and one which led the mind to some awfully dark places. Without any kind of reconstructive technique, these critiques – and they were primarily designed as and should be interpreted as critiques, not signposts – lead to a particularly dull helplessness. The way that so many of these romantically inclined, more intuitively driven writers and thinkers tried to find out was through a supposed transcendental authenticity. And that is the road that leads to fascism.

Throughout all my hemming and hawing, the “authenticity” factor always seemed to me to be total bullshit. Sure, modern America was a disingenuous, holographic state held together by false hopes and run by a loose-knit assemblage of squabbling financial elites via mass surveillance, but the horror seems to be everywhere, across time and space. Unlike the fascists, I see no nobility in Medieval or Confucian hierarchy, or in a figurehead representing the popular will, or in a world in which scientific method is subordinated to a unified and symbolically rich semiosphere under a beneficent godhead.

That yearning for some kind of anti-modern transcendence remains among the general populace, whether the ideologically committed or the terrified, and I suppose it's largely because the modern world can be an awfully scary place.

And so, periodically, people are tempted to return to a womb of supposedly eternal truths, to follow primeval myth or nationalist flag-waving rather than undertake the challenge of analysis. And I shouldn't be too surprised when I find that the leading scholars of the fascists have been reading the same books as me.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Textbook Knowledge

Not long ago, I read Andrew Gordon's “A History of Modern Japan,” considered one of the definitive texts on how Japan, from the Meiji Revolution to the present day, has transformed from hermit kingdom to economic power. And I can safely recommend it for anyone who's looking for a solid source of meat-and-potatoes history about that particularly much-misunderstood nation.

But what I thought about the most in the days following was not so much what I had read, but how long it had been since I'd read a book that was even remotely similar – a book full of straightforward, narrative history. Here is how things happened, how event X paved the way for event Y, without any kind of explicit theoretical or ideological framework, without much of an argument, per se.

I suppose this is what you would call “textbook” or “encyclopedia” knowledge. Now, having read my Marx and my Gramsci, I know full well that this kind of knowledge is by no means “neutral.” There is an ideology in what is and is not told, how it is narrated, no matter how light Gordon attempted to make his fingerprint. Perhaps some more hard-core postmodernists or phenomenological thinkers would say that such a history says nothing about the events in question, and only says something about the author and his or her prejudices, contexts, and perceptive faculties, but I'm not quite that isolated.

Yet it is undoubtedly that kind of skepticism that prevents me from reading books full of just-the-facts. To me, it seems infinitely more honest when authors lay down their cards and cop to their stance, their context, whether or not I agree with their approach, before they get to the subjects of their argument (and yes, I know the hardline perspective would deny the “subjectness” of the supposed subjects, but let's all be William James about this and say that there is indeed a subject there, until a decent argument is made to the contrary).

This isn't to say that I avoid this kind of writing entirely, but I contain my experience of it to shorter form work, to scientific journals (when I'm feeling rigorous), Wikipedia articles (when I'm not, which is more than I care to admit), and those standard-issue publications that have best resisted the temptation to become clickbait.

Because a book seems to serve a different purpose for me – it is something more totemic, regardless of whether it is “fiction” or not, to the extent that distinction has merit (leave that topic for another day). To read a book is to dissolve myself.

And yet, up until my early teens, it was quite the opposite. On the contrary, I just wanted to sponge up knowledge, and it frustrated me when the text failed to act as a neutral medium, a sort of agar gel for ideas to grow in and express their true, absolute form. Which I suppose makes sense – children aren't exactly renowned for their sense of nuance, and that probably goes double for annoyingly precocious children.

There is a certain irony that I seek those sorts of fact-driven arguments in the world of the shorter form, considering the fractured media landscape which we inhabit. In which that framework has to such a great degree swallowed the facts themselves, whether the media outlets in question are mocking the very notion that a statistic in a major American newspaper could be true (a practice of both the sorts of entities that come charging in with their ideologies, banners waving, and those that conceal their ideologies under a veneer of “nonpartisanship”), or whether the media outlets in question are telling us how to feel about an article before we even read it (number 8 will make you CRINGE!!!).

However, these are stupidities that, in my reading life, I can safely and comfortably ignore, even if I feel the need to occasionally check the cesspool to perform a stool-sample analysis on the hive mind's feces. When I read something as simple as a research report on primate behavior, I'm a bit less frazzled. And when I shut off my computer, and look up at my bookshelf, and see the possibility for something more measured, I am again approaching contentedness.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Our Networked Existence

“Last night Howard Beale went on the air and yelled bullshit for two minutes and I can tell you right now that tonight's show will get a 30 share at least.” – Faye Dunaway playing Diana Christensen, 1976

Over the past few weeks, every one of the vaunted old giants of the American journalistic world – you know them, the Atlantic and the New Yorker, the Times and the WaPo, have been at something of a crossroads since the national auto-pederasty of the 8th of November. Their op-ed pages have been flooded with countless “how could this happen?” articles, countless articles about the “disconnect” with rural America (and how the fuck did it take them that long to figure that one out?), countless earlier, predictions from heretofore ignored Cassandras, countless articles about the “white working class” (a term that, despite my beliefs that the working class is larger in scope than we'd like to admit, conveniently ignores the relative wealth of the average Trump voter, despite the heavy dose of po' whites who gravitated towards his message). For the past few weeks, these and the repostings of the same have populated my impeccably azure-blue Facebook news feed.

These are paired with the inevitable follow-up from the American literary and political intelligentsia, the “what the fuck do we now?” message. The common theme is the need for a new militancy among the Democratic Party, that Bernie's clarion call should have been heeded, that the American people are well and truly sick of a political system that only favors Goldman Sachs et al, that if those desperates in the American ass-nowhere are to be won over, they cannot be part of a party that coddles the nation's fiscal elite.

And this is probably the right approach. But what is forgotten is that there is a part of the American populace – 20 percent at a bare minimum, almost certainly more, whom I can safely deem to be absolute fucking lost causes. These are the people whose gut instinct is the very limit of their potential knowledge. These are the people who pontificate about the looming threat of sharia law, having never met a Muslim, who talk about the rise of socialism and Marxism on American soil, despite their complete lack of understanding about what socialism actually is, or having read any Marx, who live in terror of illegal immigrants, while blithely ignoring any immigration statistics. They have a certain skepticism towards establishment media sources, which is fair, but really at the end are just as ovine – the sheep who would simply rather follow the intellectually callow shepherds representing their preferred “new media” rumormongers.

This isn't a new phenomenon, and a number of international examples can be illustrative. Analogies to Putin are frequent, and the Americans living on the tattered fringe of the empire are often compared to the Russians who seek authoritarian comfort as they live in the crumbling, polluted industrial ruins of the Soviet era. But analogies are everywhere. You could compare Trump to the Philippines' national carnival barker, Rodrigo Duterte, to Turkey's Recep Erdogan, who routinely courts Islamists while declaiming the “Islamist threat” to hold power. And you could compare his followers to China's fenqing, the nationalistic and Internet-savvy “angry youth” who, like Trump's deplorables, turned the slur against them into a badge of pride. Or the vigilante mobs in Venezuela, defending Nicolas Maduro's crumbling government. Or we could bring up Japan's netto-uyoku, the annoyingly vocal Japanese troll army that refuses to acknowledge their country's history of war crimes and fumes about supposed loss of Japanese territorial and spiritual integrity, and compare them to the alt-right of today – how different, really, is this Japanese cartoon below different from the average American portrayal of the meme-happy, misogynistic neckbeard?


What ties all of these disparate ideologies together, despite their supposed adherence to political ideologies ranging from the far-left to the far-right is their blind rage towards a world they don't seem to fully understand, to throw analysis and quiet reflection under the bus in favor of the hoary values of nation and identity and power. And so they find a populist vision in the media that, to use a brilliant line from a certain old movie “articulates the popular rage.” This impulse towards irrationality, to favor anecdote over pattern, reaction over analysis, suspicion over assessment, is an eternal cancer in the human condition, and, with enough fear, with enough uncertainty, metastasizes to erstwhile healthy cells and threatens the body as a whole.

It is easy enough for America's so-called left to dismiss. After all, Hillary supporters' confidence was based on its own assumptions, its presumption that the experienced politician would win, its almost religious faith in Nate Silver and Co's social media-friendly electoral prediction map, its belief that America had truly become a place where smart people made smart decisions and where the prejudices of the past had safely been locked away in what was assumed to be a culturally irrelevant flyover country. After all, all their Facebook friends agreed.

The ugliness is that we remain mired in a political landscape where cultural markers have displaced policy, the content on your iPod mattering more than economic strategy.

It's in times like these that that aforementioned certain old movie, Network, with its absolutely virtuoso script by Paddy Chayefsky, gets brought up, especially its most memorable line “I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore.” The plot is simple enough. Mid-mental breakdown, an aging news anchor becomes propped up as an unhinged “mad prophet of the airwaves,” vocalizing the internal malaise of mid-1970s America, much to the delight of his corporate masters. It has become touted by all manner of journalistic voices, ranging from left-wingers who claim that Howard Beale is speaking truth in the era of monopoly capitalism to right-wingers who claim that Howard Beale is speaking truth in an era of godless globalists. And what they forget, ultimately, is that his truth is ultimately marred by his profound mental illness, his sickness that ultimately becomes an organ of capital just as much as it is an individual voice. The popular rage is ultimately shaped by and subordinate to media forces, to the nihilistic drive towards capital.

People forget Beale's last speech, where he notes that “it's the individual that's finished.” Subsumed and eventually confronted, Howard Beale resigns himself to his fate of living in a dehumanized and corporatized society, before eventually being almost casually executed by the board of directors. Chayefsky ends his script with a voiceover. “This was the story of Howard Beale: the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”

 
We can analyze all we want, and yet we are in the same place. We can take note on appropriate strategy for the opposition in the era of Trump, but forget how to adopt a political value system, as individuals rather than as parties, that is strategic rather than authentic is both a capitulation, and a weird sort of narcissism where we assume that our individual voice is our camp's voice. I can do nothing about the rage. I can sit here, and watch the American government suffer under incompetent and narcissistic pseudo-leadership, and hope it gets better, I can donate my income to causes I deem worthy. I can offer up my opinions, to whatever end, but that's it.

And as an American overseas, it's a bit like watching when an old school friend, after years of dissolution and chaos, finally gets locked up for a crime that they committed out of desperation and was busted for thanks to their own stupidity.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Together on the South China Sea

When I first went to Hong Kong two years ago, I was immensely aware of how alone I was. Of my position as a solitary walker, amid looming towers, themselves in the shadows of verdant mountains, themselves dwarfed by the swirl of the Pacific. I walked and walked, through Mong Kok, North Point, Jordan, trying to find my place in all of it.

I went back recently. But this time, I wasn't alone.

We walked all over the city, down those same streets. And while the landscape, the architecture remained the same, my narrative of those places was overwritten. A quiet street in Sheung Wan was no longer where I wandered late at night, lost, but where the two of us had sat down for coffee. Lan Kwai Fong was still pounding music and badly behaved financiers, but it was where we had drank gin and tonics and laughed and kissed. And the view across the channel to Kowloon was now filled with her eyes.



And new places were discovered, suddenly engraved with new perceptions. The little fishing village of Sai Kung, on the coastline of the New Territories, where we milled about in little consignment shops and watched the fishermen sell their catch from their boats. The elegant shopping arcades along Canton Street in Tsim Sha Tsui where we sat down for braised beef and xialongbao.

If, on my initial trip, I tried to discover a place, to figure out its inner workings, then on my second trip, I tried to imbue it with memory, my own memories, and memories with her. So if I go back alone, those same spaces will be defined by her absence. This was the hotel where we stayed, this was where we browsed in tiny shops, this was where we ate abalones. And if I go back alone, instead of filling in the details, I will see her silhouette everywhere.

Our flight left in early evening, with one last sighing view of the skyline of the city, row after row of gantry cranes, infinite shimmering lights from the ring of skyscrapers along the coast before dark peaks, before we set off.

We arrived back in the middle of a late-night monsoon rain, whiteout conditions on the expressway, to a city suddenly draped with black bunting, of missing portraits and candles burning on palace walls. I always find a certain despondency when I come back from a trip to another country, regardless of what country I'm living in at the time. So it came as no surprise to me that, when I arrived back in Bangkok, and settled into my office routine, it was like re-entering a hot, dark cave.  

And yet I still have a steady flicker of images across my head – of narrow staircases, Toyota Crown taxis, scallop shells, leather armchairs, and the face of a woman smiling in the morning sunlight, 20 stories over Hong Kong Harbor.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Politics of the Grotesque

The something that we can, perhaps, loosely call the “ugly American fringe” is something that pundits have been trying to get at since the Trump ascendancy began. This world of angry, white people who feel betrayed is certainly nothing new, but as a phenomenon, it was ignored by the media for decades. In the '90s, it was ignored while the economy was good, and the moronically smiling faces of Gingrich's brigade took over Congress. In the '00s, it seemed like there was enough chaos and horror, war and economic collapse to preclude any discussion of slow decay in our own backyards. The last time that class divide was strongly in the public consciousness was in the '80s, when the term “Rust Belt” entered public currency, when Bruce Springsteen sold millions of albums, when countless slobs versus snobs comedies could still accurately contrast a slovenly if virtuous working class against a coat-and-tails wearing, beef wellington-eating haute bourgeoisie. But in the decades in between, little was heard from the marginalized industrial class, even as so many of them slowly transformed into Trumpists, avant la lettre.

Granted, there were exceptions. There were the often remarkably ill-informed documentaries of Michael Moore, there were the sharply-written if frantically polemical essays of Thomas Frank. Or a line like this from Jonathan Franzen, in The Corrections:

Well, there was still the citizenry of America’s heartland: St. Judean minivan drivers thirty and forty pounds overweight and sporting pastel sweats, pro-life bumper stickers, Prussian hair.”

Now to write about this gap, about the decay in Middle America, I could use any number of approaches. I could rely on the old “silent majority” handle, a phrase that has been useless ever since it was used to represent Archie Bunker and the protagonists of The Deer Hunter. I could talk in vaguely elegiac terms about “the ordinary folks,” their “humble” lives. I could attempt some sort of (if we're being optimistic) sociological analysis, something already done countless times by more capable and intellectually rigorous minds. Or I could do some awful, recoiling-in-horror “look at those flyover country people” analysis of the sort that feeds both Atlantic think pieces and the worst sort of clickbait. I could draw countless comparisons to previous currents both domestic and foreign, whether the 1968 George Wallace presidential run, the Poujadiste revolt against Gaullism in 1950s France, the desperation and disenfranchisement that led to the Brexit vote. I could go into depth about the anxiety of the Wall Street and national security elite of having such an unsubtle candidate for their party, or the evangelicals who, despite the fact that I disagree with them on virtually everything, have an odd sort of integrity. Or, hell, I could do a series of postmodernist backflips a la Slavoj Zizek.

But what fascinates me more than anything else, is the grotesquerie.

Consider how Trump was viewed as a comedy figure until he became an existential threat. Consider the barbs about his small hands and concordant assumptions about the implications for his cock. Note his habit of pairing Brioni suits with dime-store baseball caps. Or his speech at the RNC, his jowly red face looking like a pustule about to burst with fury.

It's also telling that when Tim and Eric of Awesome Show fame appeared in character, they vocally supported a Trump presidency. Which character they appeared in is irrelevant – they all form part of the same continuum. What their comedy gets at, more than anything else, is the peculiar flavor of the Middle American grotesque, a social status that is a few notches above the gashed-open white-trash porn of Harmony Korine films. It is the world of exurban tract houses, Applebee's memorabilia, ill-fitting suits, and a mediated environment in which a hot tub and a tropical drink form the pinnacle of luxury. And it is exactly this populist appearance of wealth (q.v. buildings with YOUR name on them, the aforementioned Brioni + baseball cap combo) that lies at the heart of this particular stereotype, a formica-coated version of the American dream.

This is the mutation of the American-dream concept. When I was 15 or 16, I adopted Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio as a totemic text. These stories of small-town adolescence, of a whole world in which dreams had been warped, spoke so strongly then:

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

“And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

But as powerful as this imagery is, it is not electoral politics. It is tribalism.

What bothers me immensely, is that, without the media seeming to know it, this notion of the grotesquerie has displaced real political discourse. When MSNBC shows Trump supporters, it shows fat, slovenly rednecks with Confederate flag tattoos. When Fox News shows them, it shows small-town swells and immaculate blonde publicists. Both feed the same purpose, of splitting people into identity-based camps.

I shouldn't be surprised. The aesthetic mode displaces the ideological with terrifying frequency, and the current iteration of American cultural war is nothing more than an accelerated, 4G-era version of the same disconnect between metropolitan oversimplification and rural oversimplification that is far older than the republic. In focusing on this distinction, those of us on the left fully play into Trump's us-versus-them message. We don't look at the common evisceration of the middle class, we don't look at the way the paranoia regarding abstract terror is being spun into a surveillance state by both parties, we don't look at the processes by which the image-machine turns our hopes and fears into capital.

The only shot we have at overcoming this chronic shortsightedness is to first address it as such. It is only when we realize how much we conflate external image with politics, when we realize how much we rely on the crutch of market-tested identity, that anyone can actually find a political language that transcends these divisions.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Ghosts of My Neighborhood

This neighborhood, the place where I live, is a land of ghosts. Its street names-- those that translate to Windmill, Red Pavilion, Betel-Vine Plantation – reflect a more innocent time, when its myriad canals watered the little farms that gave an earlier Bangkok a reputation as a city of fruits and flowers. From the old groves and orchards, the main roads are lined with office and condo towers. And yet the back streets are still dotted with decaying turn-of-the-century mansions, house with wide eaves and typhoon shutters, antique Karmann Ghias and Aston Martins in their driveways, chambers stuffy with memories of black-and-white photos of military strongmen, Chinese opera, noodles sold from boats. One is reminded of the Sunset Boulevard of Norma Desmond, or the “senseless-killing” neighborhood at the beginning of Joan Didion's “The White Album.”

“The house on Franklin Avenue was rented, and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high-ceilinged and, during the five years I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely. In fact, I could not, because the owners were waiting only for a zoning change to tear the house down and build a high-rise apartment building, and for that matter it was precisely this anticipation of imminent but not exactly immediate destruction that gave lent the neighborhood its particular character.”

And there is something that vaguely aspires to the non-tropical, in these old chauffeured European cars, in the teak-made half-timbers of the houses. When the ancient khunying of the neighborhood being pushed around in wheelchairs by nurses were in their prime, The Sound of Music was the most successful film in Thai history. And there is something that aspires to the Alpine about these old houses, to be ski chalets in an imagined prewar Austria. It comes even in the street names, where quiet side lanes are christened Convent, Goethe, Mozart, Saint-Louis, Trocadero.

Countless of these memories are tied to the days of the Cold War, when Thailand was theorized to be a critical domino in Southeast Asia. That house around the corner from me behind a high wall, where I can barely see the new flag of the now-Republic of the Union of Myanmar flying was before housed ambassadorial functions of the USSR. Around the corner was the house of the ambassador representing the Czar of All the Russias before the October Revolution. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, a mysterious black door on Sathorn Road still leads to a US military facility where you can enjoy a Department of Defense-subsidized whiskey on the rocks, in a hall festooned with stars-and-stripes bunting, and lined with the photos of the old commanding officers, half of them stern-faced, half of them looking like militarized Jackie Gleasons.

 
On the level of the foot soldier, there are still some of the same smoke-hazed go-go bars of Patpong, immortalized in the whorehouse scene of The Deer Hunter, where Michiganders and Alabamians on R&R stared at dancing girls in G-strings. The remnants are found in a couple of eateries, Mizu's Kitchen and The Derby King, where they still have the same cracked vinyl booths, and serve the same interpretations of pork chops and spaghetti and meatballs, Yankee comfort food as filtered through an Asian lens.


After the G.I.s packed up came the hippies. Following through after Kabul, Kashmir, and Kathmandu, a handful found their way east to hang up their Nehru shirts in the old counterculture enclave of Ngam Duphli Road, at places like the Malaysia Hotel, now the refuge of gay sex tourists. It was there that Charles Sobhraj, assisted by the fawning young women who surrounded him, lured the occasional unsuspecting traveler back to his apartment at Kanit House on Sala Daeng Road, before drugging them with Quaaludes, robbing them, and eventually murdering them.

***

The city tries and tries to move forward, to lumber into the new century. This week, the tallest building in the Kingdom, the 312 meter, 77-story Mahanakhon Tower, opens this week, a spire of interlocking cubes that looks utopian in sunlight, dystopian under clouds. A glittering new city attempts to pierce through the old, but the rumble of the ghosts is heard below the earth.


Across the street from the new skyscraper, I see the holy man sitting on the bench at the bus stop, his neck wrapped in a dozen garlands, his eyes focused on the day's issue of the Thai Rath, even though it's 10:00 at night, and there's no streetlight. Is he dead? Is he sleeping? For a second, I'm even wondering if he is a grotesque sculptural installation, some oddball commentary on life in the megalopolis.

I want to look closer, but I don't want to take the risk of startling him, to have a rough encounter. I can't see if his eyes are open-- his face is caked thick and white, like the tribesmen of New Guinea who gather en masse on Mount Hagen to demonstrate each others' rituals. Is he really a holy man, a sadhu of some kind? Or simply homeless, a local Buddhist variant of the toothless street preachers on American soil?

I look back as I walk up the steps to the metro station. He still stares into his newspaper in the dark.