Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Weight of Signs

On hungover Sunday mornings, I've taken to going on long walks through the shopping malls of Bangkok. One can find secret passageways, down long, white hallways, across hot asphalt alleyways, between littered chicken bones and smashed mangoes. Somehow the world becomes less pressing-- the things you regret from last night, the noonday sun-- when you're in an air-conditioned bubble with so much sensory stimulus that you don't have to choose any one thing. Simply turn your brain off, listen to your headphones and get lost in the white noise.

Which is how I wound up at Center One, one of the handful of cheap, chaotic shopping centers clustered around the Victory Monument. In a city where the large-scale malls inspire the same degree of devotion as the golden temples of the old city, this is but a minor shrine-- a few chain restaurants, mobile phone shops, and cosmetic counters, all fitting its location next to a large technical school. But far more than anything else, there are the countless tiny vendor stalls with their piles of women's clothes.

Each shop has its name written in balloon-shaped Roman script, and each is a testament to the truly awful taste of petit-bourgeois Thai teenagers. In every stall, you see the same merchandise-- giant Minnie Mouse bows, knock-offs of dresses worn by K-pop stars, gaudy costume jewelry, gathered together in cluttered racks and particle-board discount bins.

What I find repulsive about these isn't the cheap fabric and general ugliness-- I'll leave those critiques to more fashionable people than myself-- but the sort of transcendental image that they're trying to project. A lot of this is an import from Northeast Asia. Within the Japanese sphere of economic influence, Tokyo necessarily expanded its aesthetic values to the then underdeveloped states of Southeast Asia in the years around the Second World War. And this sort of kawaii or proto-kawaii attitude has permeated international pop culture in Thailand since then, from Japanese enka singers back during the '40s and '50s to the modern hallyu-- the Korean wave of pop stars, fashion, and soap opera.

And in that mall basement, it strikes me as especially garish. The women are giggling schoolgirls-- eternal virgins wrapped in ribbon. They pair perfectly with the men-- passive, kittenish, heavily made-up male teen idols with perfectly coiffed hair and plastic surgery to give them occidental features. Combined, it is a pop culture idiom that blends the moronic adolescent consumerism of my own country with the bitterly hierarchical Confucianism practiced on the shores of the East China Sea.

I want to sit down, and wind up at a chain restaurant, with a strawberry smoothie with more refined sugar than strawberries in it.

And I have to realize that despite my own opinions, despite my attempts to learn a language, to be a part of another country, I remain so explicitly an outsider, not only through the color of my skin and hair, but through my own sense of otherness. When I'm in an American shopping mall, I can scoff all I want, but I can comfortably read the semiotics of it. But here, I barely know what I'm looking at. Not only am I alienated from consumer society as a whole, but from the form that consumer society has taken in a culture on the far side of the planet.

I'd like to think that my response is one of good taste versus bad taste... that not only am I responding viscerally, but that I'm pursuing a line of thought in the tradition of Adorno's critique of the culture industry, the Marxist and Gramscian critique of the commodity fetish, and Veblen's studies of the leisure class. These are claims that I can make with far greater confidence back in the States. But especially when I'm less aware of the sign systems being processed, I start to think that my political readings of the aesthetic are simply an intellectual smokescreen. Rather than making a lucid analysis, I'm terrified that I'm simply deeming my own bias and ennui to be an absolute truth.

This is the trap into which I fall. Everything is shaded thusly. Depression becomes reasonable acceptance of life in a late-capitalist society. Happiness becomes collaboration with the invidious forces of primitive accumulation. Loneliness is our natural state in an atomized modernity.

Of course there are countless antidotes to such a way of thinking-- religious people take faith in the idea of otherworldly salvation, capitalist enthusiasts make dubious claims about the equally otherworldly "free market," bohemian types choose to simply to inhabit a bubble, and certain types of postmodernist try to celebrate the hybrid and the liminal-- all of which seem equally lonely and/or defeatist.

I sit in my corner, hide out with my book a little bit. And then when I leave the mall I walk out into the late afternoon in Santiphap Park. Old couples picnic by the little pond, a few workmen tearing down the old love motel on Rangnam take a smoke break on the far soi. And stepping out into fresh air, the signs rearrange themselves into something more cogent. And I am here, in a port city of 15 million people, and like the countless others who pass through here I'm trying to make sense of it, trying to extract some kind of meaning.

A light rain starts to fall, and this is one of those moments, when the whole city opens up like a flower at sunrise, and it, for 30 seconds, is just as lovely.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Ruins of the Contemporary World

At least a couple times a week, I find myself on the highway that extends north from the Din Daeng area of Bangkok towards Don Mueang Airport, through a set of dismal, sprawling nowhere suburbs, past minor government ministries, bottling plants, overgrown cane fields, and gravel lots filled with abandoned buses. And immediately to the west, it is impossibly not to notice the concrete arches and columns that flank the railroad tracks. Most people assume at first that they are a project under construction-- a new highway, or a new metro line.

At first, they seem to be blank, geometric abstractions, their purpose uncertain. But as their function faded over the years, their form took precedence. One has a stencil at its base, another bristles with rusted, cement-daubed rebar. Like the terra cotta soldiers at Xi'an, their seemingly identical profiles reveal their personalities on close inspection, and you see the individual features of each pillar.

This, in the dizzy years of the Thai Economic Miracle in the late '80s and early '90s, was the first stage of the Hopewell Project, a planned high-speed rail and road route to link the Hua Lamphong Railway Station to what was then Bangkok's primary airport. The project was suspended under the Anand Panyarachun government, but was still considered a viable plan until 1997.

But after the 1997 devaluation of the baht and the accompanying collapse of most East and Southeast Asian economies, the remnants became a stark reminder of overexuberance and its consequences, an ugly precipitate of the business cycle.

But they aren't alone. Bangkok is a city of abandoned spires, of half-completed office towers and unfinished condos, its skyline broken by the gray hulks of stillborn development. And there are the projects abandoned in the earliest stages-- fields littered with concrete stakes, drained marshes with lonely cracked, asphalt roads leading into their depths-- that are as oblique and mysterious as pictographs in the desert.

It reminds me, rather, of California City-- the radically failed attempt at grand-scale modernist urban planning in the Mojave Desert. Or, more contemporarily, to the half-built suburbs that blight the edge of countless Sun Belt cities, my own home nation's equivalents of Bangkok's unfinished ruins. What could be lonelier, more fatalistic than those cul-de-sacs-- the heart of America's white-picket-fence collective fantasy-- falling to pieces amid an arid wasteland?

We don't want to see the vision of the contemporary world-- something so embodied by the image of the modern skyline (and, to a lesser extent, the superhighway and the mega-suburb)-- already going decrepit. It remind us too much of the not-too-distant era in the future when everything we inhabit will be relegated to the history books, or simply forgotten.

But it seems to me that these remnants are almost essential to contemporary life. In a neoliberal economic landscape marked by radical concentrations of wealth, abrupt crashes, and the celebration of massive fiscal risk as a healthy manifestation of the investor's animal spirit, they are in one way not images of our world destroyed, but our world distilled.

A final question: how long will the ruins remain where they are? Built with the latest techniques of concrete reinforcement, they aren't easy to demolish, and some of them remain quite structurally sound. Eventually someone will come along and clear them, no doubt. But part of me-- any pragmatic considerations of economics, safety, local wishes, and urban aesthetics aside-- wants the city to keep them as somber reminders. They are a network of monuments, commemorating this era's desire and greed, and ultimately, its fate.