Thursday, December 20, 2012

Existential Boredom

Life becomes a set of repetitions. There are the long taxi rides, moving through traffic up and down Vibhavadi Rangsit. There are the walks to the corner food stall, via the little bridge over the filthy, twilight-darkened canal, as the men in blue workshirts are just getting off their shifts at the printers' shops on Phra Ram 6.

And I know this is supposed to be a brilliant equatorial metropolis, a city hemmed in by crystalline beaches and perfumed jungles, a city of unparallelled vibrancy (as the glossy travel magazines are wont to put it), where all pleasures can be had at the wink of an eye and the drop of a coin.

But what they don't tell you about places like this is how fucking boring the nightclubs and the beach towns can be. Beyond being tragic or even pathetic, the bargirls and the sexpats and the backpackers and the fugitives are by and large just so goddamn dull. The dullness starts here, and bleeds over into everyday life.

Now, there are boredoms that can be remedied and there are those that cannot. The boredom of sitting around one's apartment can be resolved by going for a walk, putting on a movie, reading a book, whatever. And there is also the boredom of long waits at train stations and hour-long meetings. This boredom is conditioned entirely by circumstance, and is often defined by spatial and temporal constraints. You're stuck in this one place at this one time, and it's not a place you want to be.

But there is also a third form that defies easy categorization, and is far more insidious than either. It is the unresolvable boredom that is unconditioned, a melancholy and existential boredom. This is what occurs when you flip through every channel on the TV and they all seem equally dull and crass. Existential boredom is marked by its sense of inescapability. You look around yourself, and everything presents itself with a harshness and a clarity, as if it's being illuminated by an industrial-sized fluorescent light.

Existential boredom is experienced quite differently by those who are rooted and those who are rootless, to draw a suspect but convenient distinction.

For the "rooted," existential boredom might present itself as an unsatisfying career or a loveless marriage. They think they might be able to fix the situation by quitting their job, getting a divorce, or moving to a new town.

But for those of us who don't have as many solid connections, we can't really draw that conclusion. And I think this explains the cynicism of so many rootless types, because there is this awful and nagging suspicion that things will never get better, and that we're doomed to repeat our motions again and again, in slightly different circumstances, like a set of piano variations carrying on into infinity.

Eternal tourists seem to keep moving because there's nothing else to do. It's not that they/we/whatever think that the next stop will necessarily resolve the ennui, but maybe there's something unnameable and unknowable, however distant it might be.

My mind is drawn back to the legend of Tantalus, who in Greek myth spent the afterlife in a lake beneath a plum tree. When he reached up for a piece of fruit, the branches would raise up. And when he bent down for a drink, the waters would recede.

During the Dark Ages, theologians like Evgarius of Pontus, commented on the monastic hermits that lived in the harsh regions along the Black Sea coast. Alone with their thoughts, their minds so often didn't turn inwards, towards the heavenly father that scholastic thinkers believed was reachable through wisdom and logic, but towards a darker place. Lonely, slothful, and restless, they fell slack in their clerical duties and eventually stopped living like humans altogether. Acedia, Evgarius called it.

And this was believed to be a laziness, a refusal to take the effort to know Christ, and an intentional turning away from all that was good and right and humane.

What this point of view gets right is that the state of acedia is as much as anything else a temptation. When one accepts everything fading to gray, there is a certain peacefulness, a letting go. And it provides a justification for one's own unhappiness-- a depressive realism, as certain psychiatrists call it.

So we find whatever bright spots we have as a way of taking solace-- the sun setting over the Olympic Mountains, a box of faded photographs, the smile of someone next to you in bed in the blue light before sunrise, a book of Flannery O'Connor short stories, a white ceramic cup of jasmine tea.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Creative Destruction

The other night I was walking around the intersection of Rama 9 and Ratchadaphisek. Above looms a massive façade, stretching with what looks like blocks down the busy road. It blinks with multi-colored lights, on again and off again, waving like auroras.

The same ad copy greets me every few meters as I walk down the road:


All under a photo of a handsome, pale, Pan-Asian male in a cardigan, sipping a coffee in his bamboo-floor condo, fawning over his equally handsome, pale, Pan-Asian child.

To build this new CBD, the clearances have begun. When urbanists and geographers make the claim that Bangkok mirrors Los Angeles, this is the sort of place they're thinking of-- isolated towers separated by vast parking lots, 25th story Japanese-fusion restaurants and rooftop terrace bars, palm trees silhouetted against a golden sunset.

You are recognizably in a place in transition. Entire neighborhoods seem to have been demolished wholesale, leaving vast tracts of blasted flatland, a few houses remaining here and there, lonely as prairie homesteads, separated by fields of rutted soil. The new skyline hasn't been built yet. Now there is only wasteland, and the cranes that hang overhead like the slender legs of an enormous arachnid.

I'm reminded of Baudelaire in his Paris Spleen. Mass destruction becomes the essence of modernity. During the Haussmannization of Paris, the broad, military boulevards (beautiful, yes, but could there be a more totalitarian mode of building? "Champ de Mars"-- how fascist is that?) cut across in ignorance of the old city. On the edge of the new boulevards, the rag-dressed residents of the old Medieval slums stare into new cafes.

I suppose the same sentiments were expressed by Marx when he said that "all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

On the right, Joseph Schumpeter famously claimed that "this process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in."

Now, a great many neoliberal economists will provide arguments about why this is a good thing, invoking the principle of lower prices thanks to greater efficiency and the axiom of economic liberalization preceding political liberalization, meanwhile invoking the twin bugbears of Mao and Stalin as the sole alternative option. But I have to conclude that these are mere bromides, poorly supported by empirical evidence and, on a more philosophical level, ultimately and deeply inhumane apologias delivered by the apparatchiks of Empire.

In the fields around Rama 9, we don't see what was destroyed-- we only see an emptiness, a cipher. Perhaps we see Baudelaire's street children begging at streetside bars in Sukhumvit 11, but this particular strip is a massive void.

And yet there is something so rapturous about it-- the flicker of distant lights, the lunar emptiness, the ice-blue glow of sodium vapor bulbs, the rush of oncoming traffic.

Because, despite all of the claims about postmodernity, we are still aching to be moderns. We don't want to give up on the thrill of the present, the near-sexual infatuation with the now.

The result is a dissonance, a raw ecstasy running headlong into rational empathy. Recognizing this dissonance, for me at least, tends to result in an especially bleak view of humanity's prospects.

The writer Marshall Berman claimed that the spirit of modernism was to embrace the uncertainty and contradiction of contemporary life, to thrive on the thrill of this modern moment, to see it for all its myriad possibilities and potentials. It's a lovely idea, and I'd like to embrace it, but I'm not so sure, and most certainly not as hopeful.

But I suppose that's my strategy at the end of the day. I continued walking down the road until I came to the bar where my friends were and ordered a vodka-tonic. And the next day I sat down at the coffee shop and started to write the above paragraphs.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On Pastiche

Every city has at least two faces. One face is the city as it appears to the walker in the street. The other is the city as it is seen as a whole.

From the pedestrian's view, Bangkok is a tangle, a wonderfully complex maze of side streets and markets, canals and footbridges, artisans' shops and wooden houses. It is a massive city of small-scale neighborhoods.

But from a taxi speeding along the Don Mueang Expressway an entirely different Bangkok is revealed. It becomes so obviously flat, constructed on a baking plain near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. It is a flatness that only deltas can have, and as such it fits the same topographic profile as Venice, Alexandria, and New Orleans. The skyscrapers are the induced delusion of verticality in an estuarine city.

And from this vantage, the city becomes a horror. The endless flatness is punctuated here and there by cheaply built apartment blocks, painted egg-yolk yellow and swimming pool-tile blue, the residents' laundry hanging from balconies, window frames rusted. And from every angle, unbelievably high electric pylons march diagonally across the landscape, before becoming obscured in the smog-hazed distance.

The same back alleys that strike the walker as so full of life-- corner stores and kids playing football in the street, groups of middle-aged men idling their way through the Sunday afternoon over a case of beer-- are revealed as dusty, cinder-block canyons of identical shophouses, planned in vast, oblong developments delineated by plastic-choked canals that have long since ceased to irrigate the rice fields.

It is Brasilia in reverse. In the absence of grand-scale modernist planning, we have a city that, while often lovable and homey on the ground, is an amoebic blob from the bird's eye. Even the Buddhist temples, contributors of rooflines that give Bangkok an exoticism to the Western tourist, reveal their sameness. The constantly repeated three-tiered red roofs remind me of nothing more than a thousand Pizza Huts.

The concrete apartment blocks, the squat office buildings, the carbon-copy townhouses might be ugly, sure, but at least they are functional. I don't find them bothersome per se. What are truly contemptible are the countless, manifold attempts at imitation, especially the wholesale copying of historic Western architectural styles.

You see every piece of pastiche nightmare, again, from the freeway. The cityscape bristles with primary-colored mansard roofs, with concrete arches that attempt to replicate Tuscany or Provence, the chintzy Mediterranean villa McMansions of the gated communities of the north suburbs, the velvety baroque sleaze of the towering bordellos on Ratchadaphisek Road, the cast-off Roman colonnades and Ionic capitals, the faux-brick imitations of London dockyards, the toy windmills and aluminum red barns stolen from the set of Green Acres. Robert Venturi and his giggling, self-fellating architectural compatriots suggested that we "learn from Las Vegas." In an absolute and willful ignorance of cultural, environmental, and utilitarian considerations, the commercial builders of Bangkok have learned with the diligence of Confucian scholars.

What might be equally horrifying is when Bangkok commercial architecture makes attempts to replicate past Thai forms with hyper-industrial materials. A particularly hideous and familiar example is found in the false rustic-brick fronts with simulated peeling paint at Asiatique. I'd also point to any number of steroidal rice barns-- complete with buffalo horns and rusted plows-- that serve as music venues.

Now one could argue that this sort of adaptation and imitation isn't new. Human behavior can probably be summed up as bricolage, and syncretic aesthetic sensibilities have developed all around the world. In Bangkok specifically, one can look at the shophouses of Chinatown, built with features adapted from the Portuguese. Or the Grand Palace, with its deeply Thai roofline grafted onto a Georgian structure.

But those old buildings were built to last. The new Bangkok commercial architecture looks painfully cheap and throw-away and plastic. The architectural detritus gives the metropolis the appearance of a toy city built by a massive toddler, easy to destroy and easy to replace.

It should be no surprise that these structures are deeply prone to the flooding and typhoons that mark the season cycle, and those built in the early '90s are already ravaged. Whitewashed cornices and concrete Cupids become streaked with acid rain, taking on the look of worn-down styrofoam stacked high, encasing greasy, sliding-sash windows. Inevitably, all of these buildings will crack like Playskool furniture left out in muddy front yards, sun-faded, leering over the surrounding belts of slums, saying nothing to the citizen-observer quite so much as "fuck you, Bangkok."

Art historians, have, over the course of the past couple of centuries, tended to smile at what we now regard as monstrosities, think of them as the kitschy artifacts of a more innocent era-- and maybe even find a strain of beauty in them. Despite my serious doubts about whether these structures will be so lucky, or even survive (think of all the imploded Vegas casinos), I have no power over what future observers will think of when they look out at the skyline of the new Bangkok. So I point my eyes forward, take a sip of my coffee, and do my best to laugh rather than despair.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Fate of Mes Aynak

Within a couple of months, in all likelihood, a few pieces of construction equipment will climb a highland track in a remote area to the east of Kabul. They will begin to scratch away at the earth, dislocating stones and drilling deep bores, piercing the vast reserve of sulfide minerals at the heart of the mountain range.

Two thousand years ago, this was an intersection of beliefs, a point on the transit route between the empires of the East and the West. Through these dusty passes came caravans loaded with silk and cinnamon, ultramarine and celadon.

Now it is a remote nowhere on the fringe of human dominion. Above here are the vertiginously high Spin Ghar Mountains. Irrigation systems provide enough snowmelt for agriculture, and, in a province where only a fifth of adults can read or write, the local people's existence relies on what they can extract from a lunar landscape.

Here are the old monasteries of Mes Aynak. As at other archaeological sites the world over, new layers are constantly being found, cities atop cities, a new town always superseding a predecessor. Here were Chinese and Persians and Punjabis and Greeks, Zoroastrians and Shiites and Nestorians, and the countless peoples and faiths that have long been forgotten, their practices unrecorded, their deities beyond memory.

What remains is the Buddhist city, an arrangement of temples and wells and steles. Once, this area was ruled by King Menander, who sat in a throne hall asking the Buddhist sage Nagasena about consciousness and perception. Faithfully adopting the tenets of this new religion, he commissioned the building of stupas with Grecian columns and Corinthian capitals. The Buddha statues of his kingdom possessed the same straight noses and impassive curled lips of the Olympian gods as rendered by Praxiteles.

And as the city fell out of use, it became a simple campsite. Countless armies warred over control of the region, as progressive waves of Mauryas, Parthians, Sassanids, and Mongols marched through, only to be followed later by Brits and Soviets and Americans. It's hard not to think of this area as a cursed place: a lovely mountaintop garden torn apart by the demons of history.

Yet it survived. Unlike the Buddhas of Bamiyan further west, it was never targeted for destruction by the Taliban. Their troops camped here, on the run from the Northern Alliance.

But its destruction is imminent, not because of the old reasons of ideology or religion or feudalism, but for reasons of simple economics in a neoliberal era. With global copper prices quintupling in value over the past decade, and with Afghanistan becoming just stable enough to pillage, the mining companies are moving in, and within six months, the arches and friezes too, will pass into memory.

The mining industry refers to this area as part of the Tethyan Eurasian Mineral Belt, named for the prehistoric ocean that was dried as magma from the mantle of the earth surged to the surface. The ocean, in turn was named for the titaness Tethys, who, in legend gave birth to the rivers of the world. Even the history of a name passes from myth into geology into engineering into business.

There's been some sound and fury in the West about the site's destruction. Online petitions have been drafted, which, as with virtually all Internet-based activism, are exercises in self-congratulation. Global mining syndicates continue their pillage, and the Afghan elites who run the country from their condos in Dubai continue to line their pockets. A Kickstarter fund has been started to fund a documentary film about the site and the project. But that, at the end of the day, will probably be some very lovely footage of a site that will have already ceased to exist-- a rather more intellectual equivalent of a snuff film.

The Anglo-American news media is at pains to point out that the company with the contract to mine the copper reserves at Mes Aynak is, of course, a Chinese company, thereby absolving the profligate consumers in the NATO member states of any guilt.

Every article and every campaign, the above paragraphs included, are alienated experiences predicated on a deeply abstract relationship to the site of Mes Aynak. Somehow we want to identify with these temples will almost certainly never visit. Regardless of all of the entirely good reasons we want to preserve a piece of history-- archaeological knowledge, aesthetic virtue, preservation of the cultural heritage of a third-world nation-- much of our desire is something ineffable. It's that beyond the logic of capital that seems to dictate and delimit our daily life, we still aspire to some difficult virtue that lies just beyond a distant horizon.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Human Condition at Poipet

For all of the exoticism advertised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the baking plains of East Central Thailand remind me far more of Arkansas or Tennessee more than the sun-dappled beaches one sees on billboards. This is the Thailand of scrapyards and used car lots, hand-painted signs directing motorists to stop for coffee or noodles, Coca-Cola billboards, and bonfires burning in gravel lots with solitary huts of plywood and tin rusting in the corner. In the distance, the worn-down nubbins of old mountain ranges emerge from the level plain, eaten away at by millions of monsoon seasons, countless mudslides, and the humidity that transforms the ancient granites and metaconglomerates into quartz fragments and vermilion-colored silicate mud.

The highway terminates at the syphilitic border settlement of Aranya Prathet. Beyond is the Cambodian city of Poipet, a casino town just a few hours from Bangkok. In the wastelands around the border, you can feel the ghostly presence of the countless Khmer Rouge refugees who once streamed across the border in the late 1970s, and Aranya Prathet, with its desultory town square and squalid market, seems a testament to the cruelty and ugliness of old wars.

I get out my pen and notebook in the buffet in a lightless casino basement, which is as depressing and tawdry as a lightless casino basement in a Cambodian border town sounds. The food here has a sickly, sugary, fatty quality to it-- rubbery, greasy eggs, croissants that leave oil slicks on the roof of your mouth, gristly, gray pork-- that mirrors the activities going on outside the buffet gate.

Upstairs, 50 year old Thai women in jewel tones, all of them looking like they're participating in an Imelda Marcos lookalike contest, affix themselves to video poker and roulette wheels that rotate electronically under glass like pies at a diner. This isn't Las Vegas or Macau or Monte Carlo or even Atlantic City. This is the equivalent of those bleak Mississippi and Illinois towns that look to legalized gambling as a way to rebuild their devastated, post-industrial communities.

All, here, is luxury. Or rather, "luxury," ease, cheap entertainment: low-stakes gambling, gaudy stained-glass chandeliers that look stolen from the bar of an Applebee's, sugary cocktails, sour-faced hostesses, stages festooned with lavender bunting, and grotesque singers in the Wayne Newton mode, hair thinning, with the overfed yet sickly look common to decaying third-tier celebrities and Henry VIII.

A casino is made all the more disgusting by the sheer earnestness of it, its plainspoken and hard-nosed attitude, Nevadan decadence on top of Chinese cynicism and wreathed with Southeast Asian bourgeois kitsch. Why yes, the architecture seems to say, we want your pension money. The great race to build bigger and more high-tech casino resorts in Vegas throughout the '80s and '90s built greater and greater temples to Mammon. But in Poipet, they don't even bother to cover up the corrugated ceiling-- this is a temple to, at most, the 99 baht sale.

But, at the end of the day, what makes Poipet more horrifying than its American equivalents it that it is a Southern casino town transported to the third world, staffed by refugees and surrounded by filthy-faced Khmer children picking up trash and hawking cheap plastic trinkets, looking sad and stoic. Beyond the green zone of entertainment venues, the surrounding landscape of Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey Province is littered with landmines and inhabited by some of the poorest, most exploitable people on the Asian continent.

This is the face of modern fascism. The fascist architecture that marks Poipet isn't the grand scale neoclassicism of Albert Speer, but rather the hearty gemütlichkeit of fake Bavarian cottages, the plastic imitations of a mythic past-- look no further than the stabbing concrete attempt at an Angkorian gate that marks the entrance to Cambodia. Inside the hulking entertainment palaces, the middle classes ensconce themselves in the fantasy of affluence. Outside, a peasant girl, her face smeared with red clay dust, stares into the smoke from the trash heap, and watches as it obscures the rising evening star.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Desire for Something Else

It lies back in there somewhere, deep in the recesses of early memory. The sweet smell of an attic, the cardboard boxes with the outdated logos of various American conglomerates and long-defunct department stores, and the endless piles of old magazines.

In the detritus of industrial America, I knew I would find something, some answer, some key. It was a belief I was never able to articulate, but that always lurked in my consciousness, like the feeling of looking out on an empty yard and not being able to recall where one last saw light of this quality, this hue.

So I looked through the magazines. Certain places evoked an immense exoticism: the scented jungles of Southeast Asia, vast, snowy islands in Northern Canada, the windswept steppes of Central Asia. Places at the margins of what we deem to be "civilization," where the experiences of positivism fray. They remained vast territories where death came from the primordial landscape, where human life still occurs in strict tandem with the season cycle and where animist myth still holds greater credence than the laws of planetary motion.

And there was my lifelong love of the map-- a beautiful tool that has been eclipsed by the admittedly more precise and useful version offered by Google. Maps of my own era were fine, but I was more interested in the earlier versions: maps with odd corners of Africa and Australia still marked "unexplored"; maps of old American entities long since passed into obscurity, the Lincoln Highway and the Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio Railroad, Western outpost towns with names like Aladdin, Wyoming and Kremlin, Montana; the old nations and cities that conjured up a more romantic era of travel-- Cochin China and Austrian Galicia, Danzig and Adrianople-- and those sepia-postcard spellings like Roumania and Tokio.

It wasn't so much that I was nostalgic for another era, but, as I grew older, more that I wanted to radically negate my surroundings. The more standard breed of teenage nerd stuck to Dungeons and Dragons or Final Fantasy VII or whatever, but I had an 1898 atlas prefaced by the stern face of President William McKinley.

But of course, this vision has little to do with the exigencies of real travel. Those hours spent with maps and photos have nothing to do with the hardship, the occasional bouts of sickness, the insectarium cheap hotel rooms, the occasional scams and cons, the terminal boredom of long waits at rundown train stations, the ugly habit of fat package tourists being waited upon by native servants, the even uglier habit of young backpackers looking to drink rum-and-Cokes on every continent and still have the gall to call it enlightening, and the awful recognition that you are probably not much better yourself.


I was sitting in a nowhere zone somewhere in Nong Khai Province. Red mud and intermittent rain and the butts of cheap Thai cigarettes stomped into the dirt. We were waiting for the border to open, in the humid pre-dawn. It was too dark and I was much too tired to read. I tried to fill the mindless void, but ultimately was alone to confront it.

But times like that are good for reflection, when you're far form home and wondering how you got there, how the hell it is that you've arrived in this godforsaken place on what was once the front line of the Cold War, where now there are groups of men sitting silently in the dark, smoking and staring.

I cycle back through my memory, through the chain of events that led me to this one specific place. And inevitably I arrived back in that attic, back to the thoughts of a blonde-headed kid in snowbound Iowa who saw a picture of a Papuan perched in a treehouse above the rainforest and wondered if, some day, he might sit there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Notes from the Outpost of Sangkhlaburi

I had some vacation time, so I'd gone up into the mountains around Sangkhlaburi. It's a remote place, four hours' bus ride from its own provincial capital.

Getting off the bus you feel like you're in a true outpost, all wooden buildings and steep streets without order and design. Beyond the lights of the town are the vast forests of the Dawna and Tenasserim Mountains, and beyond them, the war-torn states of Lower Burma.

Three memos written in my notebook at a cafe:

1. I'm sleeping so much here-- the weather saps one's energy with its schizophrenia, cold rain alternating with blistering heat. Everything is thick, humid, moreso even than Bangkok. The entire town seems stifling and waterlogged, prone to immense fungal growth.

2. And there's something sinister about its locale next to the Vajiralongkorn Reservoir, the old town submerged under the new. In the dry season, the ruins of the old temple emerge, but in the monsoon, everything remains hidden. The water immediately below my room is dense with lake weeds. I imagine trying to swim in the murk, my legs swept at by sinuous underwater greenery, like ghosts trying to pull me down into the gloomy depths.

3. I climb to the grand pagoda that looks out over the reservoir and find it devoid of worshippers. Statues representing the days of the week scattered around the edges of the central tower, out of order, mixed up, left to gather dust or perhaps never finished. At the base, a few rough-hewn wooden figures have gathered the gifts of devotees: a silver-leafed tree (the old symbol of fiefdom in the Siamese Empire), candles of many-colored wax, bottles of syrup-sweet red soda, and a pale statuette looking remarkably like a Buddhist Virgin Mary.

Sangkhlaburi is a tourist town on one level, but it is also a purgatory, a transit point. It is a town of unfulfilled dreams and failed developments, an inheritor of all of the ugliness that has happened in this region-- imperialism both local and European, colonialism, economic conquest, displacement, forced migration, socialist purges, capitalist destruction, holy war, tribal battling, and the general shittiness of mankind.

This is a town of milling orphans and teak houses clinging precipitously to mountain slopes, occupied by nationalities on the run. The red sarong of a girl indicates her Mon ethnicity-- a people who once commanded vast swaths of present-day Myanmar and Thailand, but have now been consigned to remote backwaters, their ancient language and script fast becoming relics. There are the Karen, fractured by 70 years of civil war, the longest internal war on the planet. Saddest of all are the Indo-Burmese, refugees from an unremembered nation. Their ancestors were the indentured labor of the British Raj, were slaughtered in the Rangoon race riots of 1930, were purged as collaborators after the Ne Win military coup in 1962.

And there are the countless women with hollow eyes and missing teeth, carrying massive loads on their backs and puffing cheroots in the rain. Their clothing comprises a set of signs and symbols as emblematic as national flags, but unreadable by I, the Westerner, the tourist.

And yet it's a lovely place, a remarkably lovely one at that. The mountains here are a prehistoric boundary, a seam at the meeting point of the Indian, Eurasian, and Sunda plates. It is a border both geological and cultural, separating two old warring empires. Humanity's use of the hills is transient. The mountains stand as impassive as the Buddhas of the temples they contain.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Aesthetics of Desolation

Growing up, my parents had filled the childhood home with art books of every description, laid out on coffee tables and stacked on bookshelves. I never really drew a line between these and my picture books. As a child, there was something remarkably rapturous about each one, a transcendence that could only be expressed by Magritte or Klee or whoever.

Every book on my parents' shelf seemed like it had the potential to be a portal into another world. But the art books were so immediate in their impact on my mind. Here was the world of events that all took place in one time period, or one rough color scheme, or with certain recurring motifs, certain types of people, certain reappearing names for people and places. Each painter wasn't so much a real person, but a self-contained universe.

As I grew older and was able to put these names into some larger context, some narrative of art history, my raw feelings about these artists still lingered. Even as I attempted to describe one artist as the bridge from one school of painting to another, I would still have the residue of an old bias for or against them: the way that their painting looked, re-printed in a coffee table book with worn corners, spread out on the warped hardwood of my bedroom floor, in the light of a quiet summer afternoon.

It was thus that I rediscovered Andrew Wyeth, a painter so often derided for his sentimentalism. In the era of gestural abstraction and grand-scale minimalist sculpture, he was an unapologetic realist working in the vein of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. In the era of Vietnam and Watergate, he painted rural American scenes that seemed to stray altogether too close to the most repulsive forms of right-wing nativism, regardless of the technical and compositional talent he admittedly possessed.

But this analysis is superficial. Beyond the content of the paintings-- a woman in an old-fashioned black dress, a farmyard-- Wyeth seems to actually be cutting far under their surface. Every house is full of long, skeptical shadows, every lace curtain is yellowed with filth, every white wall looks scratched at, the paint cracked. The ordinary people he paints have mottled skin and chipped teeth, uneven stubble and ill-fitting, stained clothes. Even his spring flowers are muddy and trodden-upon.

And yet there is this sense of longing. The painting for which he is most renowned, while seemingly a charming rural scene is, deceptively, a depiction of the isolation of a girl whose legs are withered from polio, her face obscured.

It was a vision that struck a chord with me. The photographs I took as a kid with a disposable camera were all of closed-down factories and windswept prairies. I'm not sure which I encountered first-- Wyeth's impression of the world around him, or my own sense of rural desolation, but the two fed each other. In the art book I remember so well-- beige binding, gold lettering on the side-- there seemed to be some kind of solution. It was prism for all the uncertainty I felt around me, refracting raw feelings into a cogent, visual representation.

Of the countless attempts to locate a precise theory of aesthetics, all have failed. The old purposes of art-- religious genuflection, an expression of transcendental human experience, a search for the essential meaning of art or one specific type of art, a Marxist exposition of the dialectic of class struggle-- all seem like fool's errands. The metrics we use to determine our appreciation of art-- technical quality, sheer visual passion, conceptual truth-- are all deeply flawed.

Self-described postmodernists often advocate a sort of artistic anarchism, declaring that anything goes. On the opposite end of the epistemological spectrum, evolutionary psychologists and their ilk claim that we have a specific evolved aesthetic sense that dictates our perceptions of beauty and truth. My own personal perspective seems to be that the postmodernist approach more aptly describes contemporary art as well as more traditional forms, but both positions seem equally flawed, equally lonely, and equally likely to produce terrible art, whether that terrible art is Damien Hirst in the case of the former or shopworn romanticism in the case of the latter.

Schopenhauer claimed that art is a pure experience which we use to insulate ourselves from the horror of being. And, at the end of the day, when I walk into a museum, that's all I really hope for. My perspective may be informed by my awareness of culture, history, biography, ritual, religion, technics, mathematics, and composition, but my primal hope is that, for a few hours within the gallery, I can set myself straight with whatever is beyond its walls.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

10 Stories I'll Never Write

I keep a file on my computer called "Miscellaneous Writings." Initially, I envisioned this as a seedbed for ideas I would have later on. But it increasingly developed into a repository for ideas that would never come to fruition-- an infinitely expandable library of half-conceived thoughts, interesting ideas that could never lend themselves to a compelling narrative, brief sketches, quips and bons mots, short reviews of books by Tanizaki Junichiro, Cesare Pavese, Susan Sontag.

A significant numbers of the ideas contained here came to me in dreams. Typically, they seem utterly lucid and brilliant in the early morning haze. By the time I'm on the train to work, I realize just how shit they are. These are interspersed throughout the list, but don't expect me to reveal which stories they actually are.

Other stories were inspired by very specific experiences-- listening to one song, or reading one short story, or watching one movie. These sorts of experiences yield a great creative outflow within a few hours of the actual experience, but fail to have any real staying power-- they are mere images, fragments of dialogue, and settings.

Like all junk drawers, it grows in complexity and mystery while rarely yielding anything of value. So consider the following to be the steel washers, gummy electrical tape (bought for a home improvement project 5 years ago), expired coupons, and wheat pennies of my literary pretensions.

1. The story of the unspoken feelings between two old friends, told entirely through emoticons.

2. A day in the life of a professor of animal languages at a major American research university, rooted in the parlor-game absurdity of so much contemporary analytical philosophy.

3. A variation of the Canterbury Tales retold in the bar of a seedy budget motel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (called, of course, the Canterbury), with the pardoner as a gay antique dealer, the wife of Bath as a soccer mom, the clerk as a broke grad student, etc.

4. Close biographies and micro-level stories from one single Seattle neighborhood over the course of 100 years, using a fake (but potentially real) coffee table book of oral histories of said neighborhood. This coffee table book will be attractively priced at $29.99, and available at the Made in Washington Store in Pike Place Market.

5. The story of the last two weeks of someone's life as told through items in his or her garbage bin. This person has just committed suicide, or been hit by a car, or something equally dramatic.

6. A documentation of the presence of the map of a city that may or may not exist as it occurs, seemingly at random, through sketches in the margins of notebooks, frost crystals on icy windows, and other meeting points of intention, causality, and stochasticity.

7. Story opening: "Amy and Liz were at a bar in Pioneer Square drinking Diet Cuba Libres after work on Thursday." Where it goes from here, I don't know.

8. An observation: when I look at black and white photos from the early 20th Century, everything looks like it should be depicted in black and white. When I look at color photos taken in the same years, everything looks like a BBC costume drama. The story will be the analysis of color (one color, or maybe a class of colors, or maybe the entire spectrum) as it wanes and waxes over the course of centuries.

9. A postal worker begins reading other people's letters. He develops whole mythologies about who they are, what they do, but is ultimately overwhelmed by the stupidity and the venality of the people around him. He documents his own failures in a book he calls The Book of Disappointments, consisting of letters, bills, and other ephemera, followed by his commentary on them. The story follows the postal worker as he writes the book, including some of the letters and some of the commentary.

10. Two young men watch the Beijing Olympics in a house in some anonymous part of the West Coast, eating nachos. It's one of those houses with sheets for curtains that has the aura of a permanent hangover. An argument over something unknown and unknowable begins between the host and his girlfriend. The other is left alone in the livingroom, watching North Korean gymnasts.

By committing these ideas to the never-to-be-written, I am fully consigning them to their fate. Even if I am struck, for some reason, to continue writing one of these stories, my own stubbornness will almost doubtless preclude the urge to write them.

Italo Calvino wrote, in the introduction to If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, the story of all the books we'll never read that stare down at us, glumly, from their shelves at the bookstore. As more and more books are published year in and year out, this list expands indefinitely. My own to-read list expands at an exponential rate, and I am quite comfortable with the fact that I will die before ever reading a great many of these books.

Likewise, it is useful to take account of the things we'll never write. I won't call them books-- they are the ideas that must be disposed of before we can compose the things we want the world to see. Consider this short piece to be my salute to all the dross that we dispose of as we write, all the half-formed ideas that must be tossed aside in the creation of something greater.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Industrial Civilization

Lately, I've been spending hours looking at the photographs-- or "typologies," as they preferred-- of Bernd and Hilla Becher.  We see a water tower, a blast furnace, shot in a strict, almost clinical style.

Function is transformed into aesthetic. This plain, positivist architecture could some day be as worthy of beauty and admiration as the spires of the Hagia Sophia.

I've always had this fascination with industrial ruins. In other countries and other times, children could look around them and see the Romans and Cathars, the Wars of the Roses and the Ottomans and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Growing up in Middle America-- too far east for cowboys and Indians, too far west for minutemen and redcoats, too far north for Yankees and rebs-- this was the dramatic history around me. Past civilizations hadn't left cathedrals and battlefields, they'd left smokestacks and grain elevators.

When I first studied art history, I came upon Charles Demuth's paintings of the factories of his Pennsylvania hometown, and he called one of them "My Egypt."

And when I drove up to Minneapolis and wandered along the soft banks of the Mississippi River, it struck me as no coincidence that the 19th Century wheat barons had built their mills as the temples of industry, with Hellenic columns and massive arched windows.

As my home nation began its long, slow, brutal process of deindustrialization, industrial imagery took on a trendiness. 30 years ago, this was probably cool. Since then, it has become thoroughly obnoxious. We might fetishize shiny chrome and exposed brick, but we have scrubbed it clean of all of its implications. When I see a pile of rusting, jagged metal, it no longer looks like a pile of rusting, jagged metal, but a sculpture.

And now that I live in the new industrial sphere of Southeast Asia, the gloss dissipates, and I am left with the brutal contradictions of industrial capitalism.

I come home to the smell of welding flux wafting up to my apartment from the tangle of Chinese machinists' shops below me. The city of Bangkok is ringed by vast industrial estates. On the expressway to Chonburi, past the appropriately if charmlessly named Bearing Road, the landscape turns into Antonioni's Red Desert: low buildings covering acres of land; jagged rooflines beginning to rust in the tropical humidity; workers originally from Chiang Rai and Samut Sakhon dressed in identical blue boilersuits; 50-meter tall electricity pylons marching off into the sunset, the same pylons that grace the backgrounds of Stalinist paintings.

For the Thais, the imagery of industrial positivism is not retro, it is the present. They reserve their nostalgia for the old peasant Siam, memories of teak houses by the canalside, gardens of tamarind trees and jasmine flowers, the motion of the catfish in the rice paddies.

The old lie of post-industralism was that the new "information economy" would liberate humanity from the Dickensian mills. What has happened is that we are more dependent on the mills than ever before. Entranced by our computer screens, we are reliant upon a massive network of steel works, refineries, coal-fired power plants, mining operations for fossil fuels, tungsten, chromite.

Those of us who have or have had jobs in the suburban office parks and "revitalized" city centers of the west live in a tidy green illusion. In the tropics, one hears screaming from beneath the earth.

Monday, August 13, 2012

36 Images

I took a train to a remote area of East Bangkok to go to a movie. 36, a new Thai experimental film directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit. The theater stood at the wrong end of RCA, in a half-demolished shopping center surrounded by low-slung '70s brutalist concrete.

The film is a series of long takes, occurring chronologically but seemingly without pattern. Two movie studio employees, Oom and Sai, take photographs of odd places around Bangkok-- an apartment building, an abandoned love motel, a vacant lot where a clinic once stood. As Sai looks through her old hard drives, she finds her photos destroyed, with only a few oblique shots remaining. She returns to the places, and finds what has changed and what has disappeared. Oom has long since disappeared. At the end, we see the desktop of Oom's computer, with one photo of the two of them still there.

Over the past few months, my phone has periodically had trouble receiving text messages. So many phone calls have started with "Did you get my text?"

As I left the theater and turned on my phone, my inbox was suddenly flooded with messages. Here were all of the parties I hadn't attended, all of the reminders to bring something somewhere. I'd been relying on this little device to mediate my social life, and, in sequence, were all of the mechanical failures that had translated to personal inaction.

Digital memory supersedes organic memory. Our digital memory is supposed to be a metaphor for human memory. But unlike human memory, digital memory is but an imprint, stripped of any subjectivity, rendered in bright plasma screen colors and encoded in countless binary digits.

And while this digital memory is more visually and auditorily perfect than our own, it is equally immaterial, easily replicated and easily deleted. We may hold on fast to our personal recollections, constantly replay them in our heads over the course of our lifetimes, hunt down the photographs and souvenirs and albums that reflect those memories. By comparison, digital records are as fleeting and ephemeral as cicada shells.

Somehow the old forms of recording-- cassette tape, Polaroid film-- become objects of nostalgia. These devices that, at mid-century, seemed so cutting edge and blatantly positivist, now seem quaint. We use lo-fi recording and photo alteration techniques to smear the digital memory with Vaseline.

Because we're yearning for subjectivity, for some notion of authenticity and humanity. We stare at the screen, and it might as well be a void. Walter Benjamin was correct in that the age of mechanical reproduction, the work of art would be stripped of its ritual meaning. But that didn't mean that the artistic endeavor was married to the high-minded ideology Benjamin envisioned-- rather, it became far more of a commercial enterprise than he could ever have imagined.

The title of the movie comes from each of its consisting of 36 unmoving shots, each meant to represent one photo on a film roll. Digital representation trumps mechanical representation, old places are destroyed. But somewhere in there, we can still find sentiment.

I walk back to the canal boat pier through Makkasan past the ruins of old houses and offices, over train tracks, below freeways, beneath billboards and vinyl banners for new condo developments. I take a shortcut across what was once someone's tile floor. A spirit house is surrounded by climbing vines. Inside, a pudgy ceramic god guards over the people that left years ago.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


How perplexing it is to revisit a city you visited before, trying to identify the places you remember. What street runs parallel to the river bank? What was the name of the cafe where I met Natalie for a beer? Which bus was it that ran to the monument visible from the other side of the center city?

The city in question is Vientiane, a minute capital of a minute nation. It is overwhelmed by the turbid brown Mekong that separates it from Thailand. Under the heavy sky of the monsoon season, the city is perpetually drowsy. Only a handful of people are on the street, a couple of bearded backpackers and a few local girls in embroidered silk sarongs. The launderettes and restaurants are lifeless, and the masseuses that normally tout their shops stare dejectedly at the walkway.

A handful of temples grace the riverbank, the sole remnant of pre-colonial Vientiane. Surrounding them, the old city is French: mango trees shade narrow streets, heavy teakwood shutters adorn shophouses, restaurants are named L'Alsace and La Côte d'Azur. The new city to the east is Soviet: massive arches stand alongside dusty concrete boulevards with Communist names: Kaysone Phomvihane (the first Secretary-General of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party), 13 Singhakhom (or August 13th, the date of decolonization). A ten minute walk from center to periphery traverses the complete spectrum of history and ideology.

As I walked into the Musée Nationale, that spectrum is reflected in the exhibits. The history of Laos is a complete reversal of Marx's conception of progress. Tribal and feudal society is suddenly transformed into Marxism-Leninism. Marxism-Leninism rapidly becomes authoritarian capitalism in the Deng Xiaoping mode. Rather than proceeding dialectically, time becomes a chaotic set of accordion folds. We see Lahu fabrics decorated with images of bombs and helicopters, Buddha statuettes carved from the aluminum of downed American fighter planes.

My country played no small part in this process. The poorly blown up photos of Lao intellectuals holding up signs reading "À bas Monsieur McNamara" speak for themselves. And the Mekong River, the artery that gives life to Laos and her neighbor states, is a name associated in the American imagination with bloodshed and atrocity and the slow decline of our national dream.

Slowly, the wounds are healing. The guns have fallen silent in the hills. Laos is still a ragged landscape, marred with landmines. The local people in Xiengkhouang Province have taken to using rusted bomb casings as fenceposts. Vines curl around them now, obscuring the flaking instructions written in English, Russian, and Vietnamese.

I went for one last long walk along the quay at dusk. As clothing stands and food stalls were set up, I found myself walking out beyond the lights to the back alleys in the west of the city.

Beyond the edge of town, a thin veil of mist obscures a set of low mountains that straddles the border. Behind me, I can hear the sound of children playing, the screech of an electric guitar through cheap speakers in the introduction to a mournful luk thung song. Before me is the dark swirl of the Mekong River, a vast volume of water bearing masses of foliage fallen from the jungles that lie upstream. As the sun sets, I turn back, walking alone among the big families congregated around the noodle shops.

As I trudge back to the hotel, I walk past a shop called "Douangdeuane." Roughly translated, it means "Astral Weeks." I get back to my hotel room, and I put on the first track of the album: "To lay me down / In silence easy / To be born again / From the far side of the ocean."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Far Shore

The other day, I got a ride with a cab driver who spoke a decent amount of English. Her husband, it turned out, was a fellow American.

The story unfolded; they'd been together for over a decade now, and he'd been living visa-free and under the radar for most of that time. "The police, they don't care about what white people do," she told me.

His son, my own age, was living in Thailand as well, teaching without a university degree in a bleak Bangkok suburb, a nightmare zone of industrial estates and boxy white houses and swampy, overgrown abandoned cane fields out beyond Phra Khanong.

In these corners of Asia, squalor can be covered up by superficial respectability. The outcasts, the failures, the desperados of the Western world wash up here. European skin is the mask they can use to conceal their manifold scars.

I've been asking myself a lot lately, as all those who have chosen to live far from their place of origin do, why, exactly I am here. I came here with a vague idea of what I wanted to do, I had my brief honeymoon, and now I have to ask myself a hard question: how long can I stay here now that the briefly flickering candle of novelty has gone out?

Expatriates in Bangkok have a tendency to go through a second adolescence. Liberated from the expectations of their native society, they indulge in whatever vice floats their way, be it sex, alcohol, drugs, or some combination thereof, all readily available at bargain prices. You see them in various states of inebriation, their eyes fixed forward, stumbling down Sukhumvit Road.

They come in all types, but are predominantly men. Some are the stereotypical red-faced lechers. Others are younger sybarites, with close-cropped hair and designer T-shirts. There are the eternal travelers for whom expatriation in a newly industrialized state has become another way to save money. And yet others are the losers running, half-heartedly, from their own responsibilities and failures back in their home countries, faceless and shapeless. I do sometimes meet those farangs who came to Bangkok for highly specific reasons, but for most, they came to Thailand through a strange alchemy of dissatisfaction, fear, lust, alienation, loneliness, curiosity, and international currency exchange rates.

This isn't a new thing. George Orwell was writing about the same scene in Burmese Days. The hateful white people are still here. Merely replace the overgrown maidan and gin-soaked billiard room with a happy hour in Asok. Instead of teak merchants and colonial officers, we have the precise equivalents of Flory and Lackersteen and Veraswami in the era of global capitalism.

I've gotten used to this world: the parties and faux-English pubs; the detritus of empty Sangsom whiskey bottles and crushed up blue packs of L&Ms littering whitewashed balconies; the bitter conversations about life in Thailand; the endless string of men who seem to hate nothing more than the Thai people who stand in the way of their mindless pursuit of the pleasure principle, and their utter contempt for the Siamese nubiles that they persuade to suck their dicks.

We've gone through the massive process of decolonization and globalization, of the fall of old empires, of the incipient rise of new ones. And yet the same brutal, sneering colonial attitude remains.

Which of course begs the question in my own mind, where do I fit into all of this? Is there a better way for one to live on a far shore?

I don't know. I can't know. Lying in bed at night, my mind oscillates between narrative and counter-narrative. It's as if I'm on a perennial trans-Pacific flight, jet-lagged but unwilling to sleep, half-dozing, half-wide awake, vaguely looking at the flickering LED light and listening to the warm hum of the engine, not sure which side of the ocean is Here and which side is There.

So I try to fix my mind on the things that embed me in this place at this time. I step off the train into a rainy dusk near Lumphini Park. The street vendors are grilling strips of meat rubbed with fresh herbs. The lights of the offices are turning off and the lights of the apartments are turning on. A flock of birds flies upward, flies out over the canals, moving in formation towards an unknown point.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Image and Material

About a month ago, I was wandering through the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Amid the textiles and pottery, I came on a painting by a not terribly well-known Thai artist named Pongdej Chaiyakut.

From another angle:

In the grid, we have an unsettling group of images: crushed skulls, moon-faced generals in uniform, baby elephants that look weirdly fetal and primordial, stray dogs with their assholes open.

This is, in reality, the imagery of what people see every day in the news and on the streets, rearranged and contorted as if seen in a dream. The viewer is really seeing the lurid crime scene photos plastered across the front page of every Thai scandal sheet newspaper; the massive military parades, commandants in sunglasses saluting the tricolored flag; and the grimy curs that lurk on every street corner, mangy and sunburned, too lackadaisical and degenerate to even bark.

The farang tourists come to see a sun-drenched little kingdom by the sea, the golden Buddhas that recline amid temple bells, the heavily misted monsoon forests that tumble down the sides of the mountains; in this romanticized vision, even the peasants and urban poor are little more than pastiche images providing local color. Look underneath the freeway, and find another world entirely.

And what I love about artists like Pongdej is their unabashed willingness to confront this other world.

Ordinary people in Thailand have fought, tooth and nail, for real democracy since the fall of the absolute monarchy, against the petty despots that have so often come to power here. It's taken decades, but the country seems, shakily, in fits and starts, to be moving toward that ideal.

Yet there is the lingering taste of fascism. Its aesthetic expresses itself everywhere. At the level of "high culture," it is faux Greco-Roman concrete, and epic, three hour long nationalistic cinema in which the integrity of the kingdom is perpetually assaulted by faceless outside forces. At the level of popular culture, it is soap operas and the tabloid press. In a fascist climate, focus group-tested media becomes therapy. Intellect becomes paranoia, despondence.

What we get is a hologram. The horror and grit as well as the humanity and the beauty of daily life are trapped within a fleeting image. Inundated in reproduced image, it becomes harder and harder for us to accept what goes on under the dancing sheen of digital light.

As someone who claims to be politically and socially aware, I try to and have to keep alive the hope that someday, somewhere, people will awaken from their stupor. Marx called this principle class consciousness, Thomas Paine called it common sense. I can't say I know what an ideal society might look like. All human action is buried in obscurity and contradiction. But at the end of the day, I am trying to hold onto the same vision: that guided by some distant star, we can find out how to be less awful to each other.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Text and Solitude

The monsoons are coming in, and I've taken refuge in one of the many giant malls that dot the vast expanse of North Bangkok. I don't know where I am. It could be Lat Phrao, Huay Khwang, Din Daeng.

This coffee shop has comfortable chairs, and I'm sitting here scratching at my e-book reader. Living in this country, my typical sources for a steady supply of books are no longer available. So I've been downloading and collecting, and trying to come to terms with a magnetic screen.

For someone who holds books in such high esteem, it feels somewhat uncomfortable to transpose the experience of reading a novel to yet another session with a screen. I've always had this feeling that books were somehow different from any other medium-- I've watched lord knows how many awful movies, how many hours of trashy television, but most every book I've read has been a book written for a higher purpose, whether it be art or philosophy or science. When I engage with a screen, I expect it to be nothing more than a distraction, even if it turns out far more than that. But when I open a book, my hope for it is that it might be a sole point of light in a world I so often find to be venal and disappointing.

And this might be because reading a book is such an inherently solitary and personal experience. The act of reading is a full confrontation with oneself. I stare at the words on the page, and come face to face with my own thoughts, my own prejudices, my own hopes and fears.

This is what makes the act of opening a book so remarkable, especially at this cultural moment when there is an enormous pressure on all art forms to be maximally social. Even when we are alone in our rooms, we are plugged into a network, pressing like/dislike buttons on websites, chatting with friends, writing in comment threads, looking through our acquaintances' photos, poking into the lives of Facebook friends, gaming socially, buying socially, reading online magazines and newspapers that develop content based on its potential to go viral.

Which means that for so many of my generation, the act of reading a book is a little intimidating. I know so many people-- fiercely intelligent, curious people-- who pick up one, maybe two books over the course of a year. When one is ensconced within one's network for an entire waking day, the idea of not only being alone but radically alone can be terrifying.

It's not that people are dumber now than they were in the past. Consider that the average young American probably reads now more than ever before. With the constant access to a stream of information, we are constantly submerged in textual ephemera, in text messages, e-mails, articles, blogs, Tweets, chats, and wall posts.

But when I go into the 2 hour cycle of e-mail/Facebook/Youtube/Reddit/various blogs/various newspapers, I emerge exhausted, somehow wanting more from each site, somehow feeling insufficiently entertained. No matter how much raw text I consume online, I will never feel invigorated or fulfilled by it.

It is this textual inundation that makes the notion of a solitary, concrete text that much more therapeutic. I open a book. I read a paragraph about light and color, and it seems that every page flies out at me.

Which brings me back to the coffee shop. All around me, teenage couples split slivers of cake, expatriate men chug coffee while their Thai wives send text messages written in a script their husbands can't read, and office workers peck at their smart phones. Outside, the monsoons blow hard against the flimsy tents of the street vendors. I sit by the window, skirting the line of separation between a harsh reality and a plastic middle class fantasy. I look briefly at the words in front of me, before closing my book, and I couldn't be happier to be alone among the crowd.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Streets of Bangkok

I'm walking through the streets of Bangkok at dusk. I pick up small pieces of the conversations going on around me, the rapid-fire Thai of taxi drivers and fruit sellers, many of them speaking the thick patois of the Northeastern provinces.

It's a city so often called heartless, a vast and sprawling megalopolis with suburbs dribbling out across the marshy plains of Central Thailand. Expatriates cling to Silom and Sukhumvit Roads, dusty strips of pirated DVD stands and streetwalkers and seven year old girls selling flowers, office and shopping complexes spiraling upward, away from the contradictions of street-level life.

But I've become far fonder of the older sections of the city, especially around Hua Lamphong Station, where numerous passageways narrow down to a couple of meters wide. Walk down Yaowarat Road, a long boulevard lined with food stalls and hung with Christmas lights, a million chirpy conversations at every streetside table in Thai, Chinese, and English. Turn left or right, down into one of the sois, and the streets are empty, the shop doors locked. A fluorescent light glows as an old man eats noodles and drinks beer and watches the TV news, but otherwise the old neighborhoods are devoid of life.

The buildings down here are of uncertain architectural vintage. A few stylistic details stand out, an occasional Victorian window or art deco clock. Built at some anonymous point between 1880 and 1950, they look, to the Western eye at least, removed from time or place. At night, their heavy wooden shutters seem permanently closed off to the world. The power lines hang low over the pavements, and walking home through here, the walker can feel as if a net is slowly descending from above.

Largely forgotten, these streets hold the key to the memory of an older Bangkok, a sunny tropical port town where golden stupas were the highest points piercing a multi-hued tropical sky. The spirit and the memories of the old city, uncomfortable in its modern, glass-and-steel armature, shifts around in the night. It is a rotten leg twisting against the brace.

If we look deeper, below the asphalt, we find many of the old canals that once crossed the area now buried under roadways. Bangkok was built on primeval marshlands, and due to overbuilding and climate change, will quite likely soon sink into the loamy soil. Listen late at night to the storm drains, and you can hear slowly running water-- the sound of the city slowly being reclaimed by the swamps.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Imagined Yugoslavia, A Real Malaysia

I spent an afternoon walking through the belt of parkland that girds the western end of Kuala Lumpur's central business district. As I approached the hill crowned by the National Monument, the path became lined by abstract sculptures laid out amid the palms and raintrees.

In each sculpture, I was reminded, eerily, of the spomeniks that Marshal Tito erected in the former Yugoslavia to commemorate the defeat of fascism in Europe. Except rather than great monoliths falling to pieces in the Balkans, these are built on an intimate, small scale and neatly maintained in a tropical garden.

At Korenica
At Kuala Lumpur
At Podgaric
At Kuala Lumpur
At Ostra
At Kuala Lumpur
Was there a connection? Or was this just another sign of the universalizing tendencies of abstract sculpture? In so many sculptures where form trumps representation, where syntax outpaces semantics, everything starts to look the same.

This convergence of form and idea has happened to me, to everyone, hundreds of times before. We see something that looks like something else and we wonder if these two things are connected by some common strand of thought and experience. Perhaps there is a connection here. These Malaysian and Yugoslavian sculptors could have both studied under the same art theorists, or read the same books, or been to the same galleries. The great mass of collective experience buries whatever connections may or may not exist.

The image is translated from the former Yugoslavia to Malaysia, a country few Western media outlets cover. It is a small, peaceful country, quietly developing into a first world state, a serene peninsula balanced above the equator.

I've never been to Eastern Europe. My encounters with the Balkan states have been a few Bulgarian and Croatian friends, the writings of Danilo Kis and Ismaïl Kadaré, and the grainy images of the shellings of Sarajevo and Belgrade that dominated the newscasts of my elementary school years.

But I've spent weeks traipsing up and down the western coast of Malaysia, wandering through the rabbit's warren of old Kuala Lumpur, walking along the seaside in Penang, sipping tea and hiking through plantations in the Cameron Highlands, eating laksa and nasi lemak and curry puffs.

I encounter the reflection of the imagined Yugoslavia in the Malaysia I know so well. If I had first seen these sorts of structures in a Malaysian garden, I would have wandered off, maybe thought about what I'd seen over a cup of coffee, and then forgotten about them. But having only seen them in photographs, I can take flight with them, weave a narrative about their existence heavy with the weight of ideology and modernity.

Instead, I look inward. I stare at the sculpture perched over the ornamental pool, and place it in the continuum of experience. It is the monument that looks like the monument that I saw in a photo that reminds me of something I know about history, which is something I read in a book or saw on TV. I follow my idea back through the infinite regress of memory, until those memories become too hazy to recognize as such.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Thailand: The Five Senses

What shocked me most when arriving at Suvarnabhumi International Airport was that there was no shock. It was as if the previous two years, two years so fraught with their own human dramas, had simply ceased to be.

With the culture extremely familiar, what remained was to rediscover things. The ideologies and attitudes of the people seemed logical and comfortable. Yet the sheer sense-data of the built environment had the capability to jar me. Stepping off the plane, I was confronted with a completely different aesthetic experience. My understanding of the Thai weltanschauung is ultimately going to be mediated by this experience. Beliefs and assumptions express themselves in painted doors and wreaths of jasmine smoke.

Seattle is blue and gray and green. Restful tones for hushed people. The swampy outskirts of Bangkok are technicolor, red clay-tile roofs and grids of sun-kissed alleys separated by bottle-green canals. Moving into the heart of the city, I enter a maze without pattern or form. I walk down Rama IV Road, lined with steel and glass skyscrapers and the concrete walls that surround embassies and corporate headquarters. But then I turn down a side alley, and I am in a rural village, with children lackadaisically pedaling bicycles and old women sitting cross-legged on bamboo mats. Bangkok is a city without shape or form, but this doesn't make it monotone. It is like Borges' Aleph, every potential place swirled into a single point.

Bangkok, like all cities, has an entirely different sonic existence up in the air and on the ground. From high atop a skyscraper, or even on a sixth floor balcony, it's difficult to separate the city's sounds from those of any other. In the aerial city, you hear jackhammers, police sirens, the rumble of traffic, bird songs. There will be variations on this theme; the tone of the police siren and the species of bird will vary from country to country. But ultimately, it is a difficult thing to discern; even the maw lam beat of upcountry Thai music is hard to separate from the reggaeton blasted out of car windows in every city in the Americas. It is on the ground that the city sounds exotic to American ears. The frying of foods, the buzzing of tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis, and the rapid polytonal patter of Thai conversation fill the streets. Locality and terroir emerge as one descends from the concrete towers.

Every country has a unique olfactory profile. Indians and Mexicans often describe the nostalgia they feel when they are suddenly struck by the smell of Delhi or Guadalajara on American city streets. Thailand is diesel, cockroachy sewer gas, and grilling meats-- the ubiquitous sticks of chicken and pork that roast on smoky fires on every street corner, tended by dark-skinned Isan women in straw hats and floral-print shirts. This is the background odor, punctuated by the odd top or base note: the raw alkaline smell of a fish market, the burning of joss sticks outside a Chinese temple, the rotten smell of curries in steam trays that have been sitting in the afternoon sun, and the eerie frigid scentlessness of the city's office towers and multistory shopping centers.

Newly arrived at Suvarnabhumi, I don't feel the city around me. Instead I feel the air conditioner, the same cool, dry 22 degrees Celsius that graces every international airport and shopping mall on every continent. As I step into the outdoor heat of Bangkok in the hot season, the heat drapes itself over me like a cloak. For the past week, I've carried this thin, sticky layer on my arms. Even in an air conditioned office, no sensation can occur without the heat, at least as a reference point. After a soft summer rain, the heat has waned somewhat, but now it pulses with the fetid smells of sewage that has been washed out and rearranged. The heat is not decreased, merely transformed.

The flavors of Thai food are linked with memories of the first time I had each dish, and with the dishes that I consider to be the best and worst examples of a dish. As I try to sample all my old standards-- khanom jeen gaeng khiao wan (green curry over cold rice noodles), khao man gai (chicken and rice with ginger sauce), hoi thawt (mussels fried with eggs)-- I am trying to fix these plates in front of me within the continuum of memory. Reacquainting myself with Thai food, I am not just eating, but corresponding my experience to memories of other plates of food and to something like the ideal form of the dish in front of me.

When I first came to Thailand three years ago, I was overwhelmed with sensation from every angle. Slowly, over the course of a year, I eventually located the critical points of what semioticians call the umwelt, the underlying network of signs that are omnipresent in human society. Coming back here, I am immersed in it, and it's like seeing an old friend at a cafe and finding that, while he might have a different haircut or a new job, is still his old self.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Middle America

I'm on the bus on Interstate 80, traversing the route between Des Moines and Iowa City. I tick off the little towns I haven't thought about in years. Mitchellville: where our car broke down. Colfax: the old 19th Century spa town once famous for the curative properties of its mineral springs. Side notes for Guernsey, for Brooklyn, for South Amana, for What Cheer.

After Seattle and before going back to Asia, I'm bouncing around the odd corners of the rural Middle West that shaped my childhood. In my hometown, one thing has stayed the same, another has changed. I'd forgotten how many details I could remember. A grain elevator or the detail on a church window reminds me that it exists.

Beyond the specific details, I'd forgotten so much about what the Middle West is. Fallow fields and black earth, gravel alleyways, the width of residential streets and front lawns and languid, muddy rivers. In Seattle, everything goes up and down, the streets crowded with houses, whaleback hills rising from the sea. And in the Midwest, all existence seems to spill out like milk across a table.

This is ultimately the place that molded me. All places are ultimately existing in reference to what I learned here. Whether I have chosen to embrace or reject them, the aesthetics and the ecology of Middle America are my oldest and deepest benchmarks for how I construct my vision of the world.

When I went to the art museum in Des Moines, every piece seemed to encompass some learning experience. The architecture of the building, the individual paintings occupy my earliest memories of the concept of art. In these cold, graceful hallways designed by I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, I learned about color and light and technique, representation and abstraction, concept and application. It was here that I sat as a 12 year old beneath a twisted ladder and ballet slippers affixed to an Anselm Kiefer mixed-media painting, and realized I was looking at a degree of sadness and horror I'd never experienced.

My visits back here are rare. The last time I spent more than a couple weeks in the town I grew up in, I was a teenager. Walking down the streets, that old feeling of being 17 and preparing to leave home nags me. As I drive down 13th Street, I feel like I've just finished up a day of mowing lawns and am going to drive into the sunset with a Camel tucked behind my ear, Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes playing way past the distortion point.

I leave soon. Flying over Iowa, you look down on the neatly intersecting roads corresponding with the grid pattern imposed by the Northwest Ordinance. From the air, I will look upon on a constellation of memories, cleanly parsed out by section and township lines. I'll order a whiskey and soda, and watch them slowly recede into the distance.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Goodbye Letter

I've been sorting through stacks of paper over the past couple of days: oddities collected over the years, scribbled short stories, tourist maps, postcards, letters, sheets of blank paper with coffee stains. My life seems to be composed of pieces of paper, and I'm trying, by sorting and cleaning, to get these pieces of my life in order before I fly away.

In a few days I will say my final goodbye to the city I called home for nearly three years. When you're about to move away from someplace, daily actions take on a ritual quality. I'm spending my last week wandering, stopping in at a favorite bakery for a last croissant, a favorite dive bar for a last beer. I go to the Frye Museum to take one last look at a portrait by Franz von Stuck that unfailingly gets under my skin.
You try to compress all these favorite indulgences-- these plates of sushi, these trips to the corner coffee shop-- into a shorter timespan. The normal processes of my day to day life, the long nights spent staying in with a book, the eight hours at the office, the numbing bus and train rides home, dissipate, and I'm delighted to find myself on vacation in my own city.

But all of those indulgences are only bright spots. One's real affection for place comes from the background noise, the momentary twists and vague impressions of ordinary life. I'll certainly miss the coffee at Trabant and the whiskey cocktails at Liberty. But I'll also miss the unnameable and the ineffable: the sudden loveliness of seeing multicolored lights on the far side of the the lake as I sit at my dining room table after midnight; the time when my bus home was rerouted and I had to take a long detour walk through Interlaken Park on a winter afternoon; and above all else, the cold, watery light that pierces the clouds and turns gray, dirty backyards into storybook English gardens.

When I walk through the streets of Capitol Hill and Eastlake and the Central District now, I am traversing the labyrinths of my own memory. When you live somewhere for as long as this, and spend a lot of time walking around to boot, the streets are filled with specific images and memories. Every corner has the story of an acquaintance you waved at in a restaurant window, of a curb you tripped over at 2 AM on your 22nd birthday, of a long kiss goodbye. Were I to live in Seattle for the rest of my life, I would continue to discover an infinite number of new labyrinths, of houses behind other houses, of immaculate gardens behind high fences, of alleys that have mysteriously remain unpaved, of hidden stairs running down hillsides.

But memories unfailingly supersede other memories. As landscape changes, it erases the reference points, the signposts in the remembered city.

Having lived here for a few years, my memories are now at a saturation point. Knowing I'm about to leave, I can't help but be overcome with nostalgia as I walk home late at night. The cherry trees are in full blossom, and the days are getting longer and warmer. On that long walk down the north face of Capitol Hill late at night, I listen to the same song over and over again.

Now that I finally found the one thing I denied, it's now I know do I stay or do I go, and it is finally I decide that I'll be leaving in the fairest of the seasons.

--Nico, 1967

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Map Reference: United States of America

I am in the map room on the top floor of the Seattle Public Library, staring down at a map of the United States. It can be any map, old or new, emphasizing physical details or political details, in color or in black and white.

Staring down at the tangle of rivers and railroads, I try to make sense of what I see. I try to correspond these neatly typed place names and these geometric symbols-- each represents a cleanly categorized type of real entity-- to my own perceptions of where these things lie in relation to one another. To my own memories of these places, to the photos and drawings I've seen, to the stories and descriptions people have told me. When we look at a map, we try to take all of these representations and all this subjective stuff and compress it into the structuralist confines laid down by Rand McNally.

In Asia and Europe, so many names correspond to the histories and myths of a landscape, the names etched out through millennia of recorded history. Village names refer to battles, to the patron saints of local parishes and the miracles these saints performed, to forking rivers, to fields of rice and turmeric, to long-gone castles. This is a landscape of what Marx called the regime of primitive accumulation, those Medieval approaches to the distribution and control of land and wealth.

But in the United States, place names are generated not by the edicts of a count or a priest, nor are they slowly made standard over the centuries by the habitus of local people. They are, by and large, a product of the state and of the commercial institutions. We have countless names cribbed from the Old World. The East Coast is full of towns named for the birthplaces of the colonists. Further west, so many of them seem to have been culled at random-- a Madrid, a Lisbon, a Persia, and a Pekin named by entrepreneurs who likely never set foot there. And between the imported names, we have the names of the heroic figures of the capitalist era: the pioneers and postmasters, generals of the Revolutionary and Civil and Mexican-American Wars, railroad men and their daughters who would marry their fathers' junior executives.

And there are the names inherited from slaughtered Indians, the names of great chiefs, the names that describe the myths of the wendigo and the Happy Hunting Ground. Their meanings are transcribed by local historians and sealed in dusty histories that moulder in county courthouses and small town libraries. So many of the languages that encode these meanings are forgotten by all but a few scholarly linguists and a few ancient Indians on remote reservations. Those elderly last few speakers of Pawnee and Osage have no one left to speak to, and the languages that carried the chants of the Sun Dance and the potlatches are forgotten. Their names for rivers and mountains remain, but they are little more than novelties for history buffs and students.

I live in a city named for a chief who famously told Governor Stevens and his men in Olympia that his people had no concept of land ownership. Governor Stevens looked back at him, shame-faced, and promptly removed Chief Seattle and his men to a patch of land on the other side of the Sound. They named a city for the man and a river now lined with Superfund sites for his tribe, still federally unrecognized. His daughter, Princess Angeline, died a pauper selling Indian baskets to tourists, watching a city grow along the peninsulas she was born in. The city fathers, feeling nostalgic, named a side street for her that cuts jaggedly through the South End.

As America dialectically unfolds into a new information age, the names of our streets have ceased referring to robber-barons and Babbittian developers. They refer to abstract concepts, readily marketable to a consumer society. Vast tracts of suburbia are given pastoral names straight out of Wordsworth. Within the nameless and shapeless swirl of houses, schools and parks are built, likewise named for abstractions. In places like Phoenix and Las Vegas, schools are named Cactus and Bonanza and Liberty, vague images inhabiting an imagined reality without reference points.

Eventually, human memory will dissolve all the input of nomenclature. All these place names will be overwritten with human experience. Kuala Lumpur, a city of gleaming mosques and ornate row houses, means "muddy estuary" in Malay. And the lovely names of Shiloh and the Marne are associated with nothing but war and death. Meaning is not a product of intrinsic nature, it is a product of history and struggle and collapse and redemption played out in space and time. Walking through the tracts of suburbia, I hope, vaguely that some day, the venal world we erect will someday seem as saintly as Chartres.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Dream-City

For years I have been haunted by a city that appears in my dreams. This isn't a recurring dream, but rather a motif that appears in countless dreams. I can't remember when I first began to dream of this city, but somewhere in my adolescence, I became aware enough to recognize this city as such.

Perhaps I am dreaming of one place, perhaps of many. I don't think that distinction applies here. As far as I can tell, it is a boundless urban space, extending as far as I can see, lacking clear divisions or boundaries, infinitely entangled and complex. Yet I can pull out distinct landmarks in this city: an antique rooftop water tower, a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes, a sludge-choked canal, a hotel with long verandas and bougainvilleas wrapped around high trellises. I can't remember how many times I've seen them. All I know is that I have encountered them, and they have permanently embedded themselves within my dream-city. Our waking world shows a remarkable similarity. We may have a memory of a specific house without knowing where it is or the conditions under which we saw it. All we know is that we saw it somewhere.

If we experience our dreams as the conscious mind sorting out all the empirical stuff that we process in our lives, then it stands to reason that this dream-city is composed of elements of the places I've visited and of my visual and auditory memories of those places. Certainly, individual buildings and patterns are borrowed from my everyday life. From an early memory of Kansas City, I recognize a looming pair of candy-striped smokestacks. From Seattle, there is a darkened bar with red candles at every table and a waitress with a tattoo of three black geometric symbols gracing a pale wrist. This city agglomerates my memories, my anxieties, my flawed perceptions, and my logical deductions, recombining them into a seamless nowhere and everywhere.

The dream-city is filled with names and places that correspond to real names and places in the real world. They seemingly lack meaning; they are places I have been, places I've never been, places I've seen in photos, places I've read about, imaginary places in novels and fairy tales, places I only know of as reference points on maps. These names correspond to an entirely mental geography. This city is Nairobi, Oregon, located in the heart of Germany, anchored by the bristling minarets of the Bosphorus and girded by the Danube which empties into the Indian Ocean, which is just outside the city-- you arrive from that seashore via the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México, disembarking at the Finland Station.

A high percentage of the qualities and images seem to derive from early childhood. I grew up in a locale going through its growing pains, too small to be considered a city-- an overgrown prairie town, just big enough to have a tiny shopping mall. As the mall attracted business, the old Main Street had languished. What was left were antique stores, biker bars, shoe stores that had whole sections for diabetic footwear. Above the shops, the second floors of the old brick frontages had apartments, offices, and small, secondary retail outlets. As my parents shopped, I would run around the stores and behind the stores, looking at the patterns in floors covered in little hexagonal tiles and ceilings gridded with identical pressed-tin panels. Behind, in the dusty brick alleys, were steaming grates, crushed wooden pallets, and bags of hair from the barbershops and beauty parlors. These forgotten labyrinths still come back to me in daydreams, and in my sleep, they seem to overtake all other reality.

My happiest dreams and my nightmares seem to be embedded within this maze of reconstituted memory. This infinite space is a reservoir of dramas of a magnitude I have never experienced. I've fallen in love with utter strangers, I've thrown myself off a narrow bridge. It is almost like this is a laboratory of experiences and emotions, and I am the white rat, unsure of its purpose.

As I awake, the shape of the city remains for a second, appearing almost as a weakly tinted transparency held between my eyes and the world around me. Its light and its shadows linger around the edges of my eyelids. But I am finally in the unequivocal here and now. The city is sliding from view. By the time I step in the shower, it is a few images and a remnant of whatever emotions I was feeling. By the time I'm on the bus to work, it is a fainter version of that perception. And by the time I'm pouring my second cup of coffee, mid-morning, I can only remember concrete narratives and images that I have chosen to remember, that I have repeated to myself, that I have written down. It is at this point where the conscious mind has seemingly conquered the unconscious, and enforced logical and real patterns onto a remembered unreality. I have a snapshot: an empty hallway, a radio antenna. It is all I have, and I won't have it for long.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Image of the Railroad

I'm riding the bus through the switchyards south of Downtown Seattle, in the industrial zone along the Duwamish River. On one side are the reedy woods on the west slope of Beacon Hill where homeless people camp and on the other is the looming concrete hulk of the Harbor Island Bridge.

Mostly these are intermodal yards. Brightly painted shipping containers stand in stacks, decorated with the names of Chinese and Swedish shipping firms. Where the port and the switchyards meet, the gantry cranes that hang over the harbor move the containers around like Legos.

Off to one side, I can see a few hopper cars sitting on a siding, seemingly stranded, surrounded by freeways and vast empty lots. I glance up from my book. Emblazoned on the sides are names I'd long since forgotten: Cotton Belt, Golden West Service, Wisconsin Central.

My earliest memories are populated by freight trains. Across the street from my childhood home, an old branch line ran towards somewhere north, I never knew where. Minnesota perhaps, maybe all the way to Canada. I imagined that the engine I saw in the morning would soon pass through great pine forests and slow down as it neared yawning open pit mines on the frozen tundra.

The sounds of the railroad were omnipresent: the horn of the engine, the bell at the street crossing, the grinding noise of metal on metal. Lying in bed, I would hear the dull rumble of an approaching train, and the light of the headlamp would cast across the wall of my room, briefly illuminating my books and my Kansas City Royals pennant.

As I got older, I read the history of the railroads. i jotted down the numbers of the battered diesel engines. I wrote down the faded names on the sides of boxcars, names that seemed to encode an old industrial America I would never see: Saint Maries River, Seattle & North Coast, Frisco Line. Buildings were renovated, cars were crushed and recycled. But these boxcars were purely utilitarian and therefore unmodified. They were fragments that seemed as lovely and mysterious as Inca pottery.

During my teenage years, this raw fascination began to turn into a more conscious fantasy. In my room I listened to Simon and Garfunkel and read On the Road. Late at night, I walked around town, down towards the old Chicago Northwestern depot. Standing on what had once been a bustling platform, I watched the cold lights of the chain stores flicker between freight cars. I was surrounded by the logos of contemporary Middle American life: Target, Long John Silver's, KFC, Joann Fabrics. But it seemed as if all I would have to have done was ran, jumped onto the ladder at either end of that boxcar, and I would have been on my way to the Mississippi Delta or the deserts of Chihuahua. The flashing red light at the tail of the train retreated into the night. I almost believed that if I chased it I would arrive in a land of wild mountain streams, of apple harvests in the British Columbian autumn, of illicit kisses with tragically beautiful waitresses whose breath tasted of Lucky Strikes, of visionary sunrises in the High Sierra.

This is all terribly adolescent. As you grow older, the romantic visions of your high school years, whatever those might be, inevitably fade or mature into more adult goals and plans. The world when you're 18 years old could not be more open, and as you age, you come to realize how many potential lives you could have lived that will never come to fruition.

And yet I doubt those teenage hopes will ever truly die. I find them catching up to me at dull moments when I'm walking around the city, chopping onions for soup, waiting in line at the post office.

I cross the Jackson Street Bridge. On the tracks below, the express is ready to disembark for Portland. I can't help but wish I was on board as it puffs creosote smoke into the icy early evening.