Tuesday, September 24, 2013


We all have the books we've never read that lurk around our house. They sit on their shelves, ignored but for an occasional dusting, cursing us. But when so many readers use devices of one kind or another to mediate their reading, the books we've never read hide from us in unopened folders.

So I decided to take a look through the vault, and found a set of PDFs I'd downloaded nearly four years previous. I had a lot more free time back then, and was still quite dedicated to that big project of cultural studies, the "postmodern" dissection of human knowledge. And I wonder why, four years on, do so many of them remain unopened?

My first introduction to this project, so often known with a wonderful smugness simply as "theory," began a little less than a decade ago. I arrived at my little liberal arts campus, a gawky 17 year old with a boxful of my high school idols. Ferlinghetti. Kierkegaard. Camus. And god did they look fantastic on the bookshelf of my dorm room, next to the posters of R. Crumb comics, the Interpol LP sleeves, and the giant beneficent head of Jack Kerouac with that quote about the mad ones and the burn burn burning.

But these were adolescent heroes. At smoke-hazed house parties, in my English classes, I was suddenly surrounded by a whole new raft of predominantly French surnames. I knew that these writers, or at least a passing awareness of them, seemed to go hand-in-hand with any number of other things that I felt were worth my time: various psychedelia, whole bottles of red wine, noise rock, sex with arty girls.

And as a freshman, my attempts at theory-- much like my attempts with the psychedelia and the red wine and the noise rock and the arty girls-- were stabbing and met with mixed success.

But looking back, I don't think my embrace of theory was in any way insincere. The avenues of thought offered by European celebrity intellectuals suggested that whatever progress I thought I'd made was illusory, that I needed to revise my worldview. That struck me as a challenge, and off I went with a thick stack of reading material-- glossy new Verso editions, classic texts re-bound in plain, primary-colored card, LOC catalog numbers stamped on the spine in white ink. The opacity of French academic prose didn't faze me-- if anything, it emboldened me. This was not writing for weak minds, and I fully believed that it was only in the France at the height of the evènements de mai '68 that academics had the courage to fire such volleys at the system.

And, for some time, I swore by the power of theory to change lives. Each text I read seemed to swing a hammer at some bias, some invidious way in which the logic of late-capitalist society had penetrated my psyche. Reading became a giant Whac-a-Mole game, and I smashed away at orientalism, at phallocentrism, at the spatial fetish, at scientism.

But at some point, I began to read less and less theory. Slowly, I started checking out fewer and fewer library books by Gilles Deleuze and Herbert Marcuse, and instead opted for William James and Primo Levi. It happened so imperceptibly slowly that, looking back, I have to wonder why it happened.

The story of the postmodernist apostate returning to the humanist fold has, in the past decade or so, become something of an intellectual cliche. Any number of center-left magazines abound with the narratives of onetime theory fanatics recanting their heresies. These stories have a few common themes: a citation of some of the sillier claims made by big-name theorists (Jacques Lacan being a particularly egregious offender), a misty-eyed recollection of a foolish and idealistic youth, and a return to soberer thought-- typically the world of cognitive science and its unfalsifiable handmaiden, evolutionary psychology.

But that seems like bullshit too. Because a lot of theory does have value. As Terry Eagleton pointed out, we-- society as a whole, and especially those of us who like to think about things and write about what we think about things-- cannot return to a pre-theory age of innocence. The conversation has changed.

I still read theory from time to time. And not only because a lot of it is dense and interesting in the same way good poetry is-- Jean Améry, Theodor Adorno, and Roland Barthes were perhaps better stylists than philosophers-- but because a good metaphor can provoke us out of an intellectual slumber. In earlier eras, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein refused to systematize their philosophies, and no one doubts their importance and influence.

But the problem lies in the fact that it is just a set of provocative metaphors. The more I read, the emptier I felt. When you boil the world down to nothing but contradiction and a truth that might not even be intersubjective, you're left with a sickly feeling of inability.

Which of course allows for neoliberal capitalism, in all its ruthless, mechanical efficiency, to completely logroll any attempt at liberation. After I graduated from college, I spent the wet Seattle winter of 2008-09 in a rat's-nest apartment, with unemployment spiraling upwards, with working class black and Latino homeowners waking up to find the properties they'd invested their life savings in valueless. Somehow, all of the metaphor systems that suggested the predominance of the virtual, the evil of late capitalism lying essentially in its dullness, and the suggestion that the welfare state is in many ways as evil as the 19th Century liberal-capitalist state due to its totalizing quality-- ideas I can pin to Baudrillard, Debord, and Marcuse, respectively-- turned to dust when I was faced with a dwindling bank account, an empty e-mail inbox, and the marginal, insecure position I held in the much-vaunted "creative economy" when I finally found employment. All that was solid had, as Marx had put it, melted into air.

Yet whole swaths of the left still seemed entrapped in the mode of Baudrillard and Debord and Marcuse and their disciples, most of them operating under the baleful influences of orthodox Freudianism or the dark seductions of late-period Nietzsche.

A perfunctory look at any number of anarchist and left-wing blogs or the cultural studies shelf at an academically inclined bookshop or any of the manifestos issued by the erstwhile leaders of the Occupy movement-- oh how my hopes were dashed there-- will reveal a certain writing style. This cant is characterized by delirious cold opens, a sense of deathly ennui, and a poetic airiness without admitting its essentially literary character. It's been imitated enough to be commonly parodied, it doesn't sound nearly as good in English as in French, and it's something I self-consciously try to steer away from when I edit my own writing. And I hope to the god I've never believed in that anyone who reads what I write doesn't class me with those assholes.

Then what comes post-postmodernism? Being the sort of person who loses sleep over things like the correspondence theory of truth, I sort of flail about. I pick up book after book, whether it's science or philosophy or sociology or whatever. I read them with the same enthusiasm and for the same reasons my countrymen devour books by simpering self-help gurus.

So all I can say, without answers or solutions, is that I will continue to sit under my pile of books, no matter how futile it might be. Read and read and read, and do your best to ignore the abyss that keeps threatening to swallow you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Saturday, Late Afternoon, Middle Sukhumvit

It's late afternoon on a strip of Middle Sukhumvit. I'm out for a day of shopping-- looking through discount paperbacks at a used bookshop and glossy coffee table books I can't afford at Kinokuniya, idling over a cup of tea, ogling the expensive liquor selection at Villa.

The solitary walker in Bangkok will occasionally encounter sections of utter loveliness-- there are the rotting old canalside neighborhoods near near the river, the procession of white bridges with spilling bougainvilleas over the Khlong Prem Prachakon, the broad, tree-lined plaisances of Ratchadamnoen Nok and Phaya Thai, the old hyper-specific neighborhoods-- districts of luthiers and tanners, flower markets and Afghan jewellers, that dot the more antique sections of the city.

But there are also countless neighborhoods that make your skin crawl. A neighborhood like that around the Phrom Phong metro stop seems fine in the evening-- the shop windows are brightly lit, the bars and restaurants are just starting to fill up, and you might be a bit drunk yourself, you might be on your way to meet friends, you might have a date.

It's in late afternoon, during the smoggy, saffron-colored stage an hour or two before sunset, that it is at both its most horrifying and its most pathetic. The sois are exhaust-choked canyons lined with '60s shophouses, some of them left to rot, carrying the scars of typhoons, car crashes, smashed windows. Others bear garish renovations-- there is nothing more uniquely atrocious and tasteless than plaster Corinthian columns framing blue tinted-glass windows. Tourist restaurants-- the sign says THAIFOOD WESTERN FOOD VERY CHEAP-- serve up watery curries and thin, limp cheeseburgers with wilted lettuce. And above all else, there is the omnipresence of the sexualized industries-- whether as direct as strip clubs, or as indirect as sports bars with waitresses in skin-tight dresses advertising Beer Chang. And for the clannish Japanese businessmen that make their homes in this neighborhood, cracked signs indicate karaoke bars where Thai girls in bunny ears and schoolgirl outfits get felt up by Johnny Walker-soaked keiretsu functionaries.

The architecture and the commerce of the area are mirrored by the denizens. A sickly red wet-season twilight sets in. Stringy backpackers with serious suntans and filthy t-shirts cross the intersection in swift-moving twos and threes. A small group of heavily made-up young women in lacy white dresses have just finished doing a promotion for a brand of skin cream and they sit down, exhausted from having spent the day standing and smiling in four-inch heels. Toadlike white men, sweating through their shirts and their buzz cuts, mill about, led on invisible leashes by squat, flat-nosed Northeastern Thai wives with rusted complexions and knockoff Gucci bags. The beggars go out of their way to degrade themselves for extra pity. Aiming squarely for the tourist market, the legless drag themselves on their bellies across the rough pavement, and the armless wave their stumps like flags at a parade.

I often tell my friends in more northerly climes that the character of Thailand is rather Mediterranean-- Vespas and great food, coups and messily parked cars, ancient civilizations and primary colors, guitarists and prizefighters. But in the humid, sighing, late afternoon around here, Bangkok reminds me more of Weimar-era Berlin-- likewise a decadent society in perennial economic and political chaos, a furious nightlife catering to those rich enough to be insulated from this chaos, its streets filled with disfigured panhandlers and cackling streetwalkers.

And for this very reason, I've felt powerfully drawn, lately, to the expressionists and their fellow travelers.

The leering faces make up the carnival masks of James Ensor.

Half the amphetamine-riddled faces I see on the street could be in Egon Schiele paintings.

And the slum children, the old ladies, the hunchbacks, inhabit the woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz.

It should be said that this sense of decadence and decrepitude is by no means unique to Bangkok-- plenty of places from Rome to New Orleans to Prague to Shanghai to Buenos Aires have similar reputations. But I've rarely been any place that has the same sense of innate rot, a flagging ferroconcrete sigh of a place sinking into the salt marshes.

I sometimes find the proximity of horror in Bangkok to have a certain comforting quality-- stare the devil in the face every day and blow him a raspberry. I can claim that I'm living comfortably in a contradiction, willing to confront the miseries that define the lives of vast numbers of working people haunted by the specter of capitalism, living without first-world blinders. I can maintain my world-weary edge, and posit myself as not one of those foreigners in Thailand, the mindless horde who refuse to face themselves or their place in the world. And while there is at least a grain of truth in these stances, they are also postures of self-deception. I construct a narrative for myself in an attempt to justify my own uncertainties, insecurities, and instabilities.

All of which leads me to something of a dead end. Now, I'm sitting here in front of a coffee, feeling glum. The sun has finally fallen behind the rain clouds, leaving only a smudge of light on the far horizon.

This neighborhood at night seems jet-black at times. Certain roads are lined with brightly lit white towers, while others project a rather jankety but homey street carnival mood with their food stalls and machinists' shops. But this stretch of Sukhumvit right now is only empty restaurants and dirty signage, the steely glare of emptied office buildings and an architecture that, after sunset, absorbs the blackness of night into its steel and masonry armature.

But some stories, I'm afraid, have no resolution in real life. No matter what stories I try to weave about where I am and where I am going and why I am here, I'm left with more questions than answers. The city yields nothing. No theme, no plot, and no real sense of character, but the streetlights do line up to form an ellipsis in the soft rain.