School Work

Progress and Its Ruins

Cultural Anthropology Thailand Chiang Mai Ghosts and spirits Southeast Asian Studies
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  CA PROGRESS AND ITS RUINS: Ghosts, Migrants,and the Uncanny in Thailand ANDREW ALAN JOHNSON National University of Singapore In the 2010 film  Laddaland   [Golden Land], one of the highest-grossing Thaihorrorfilmsofalltime,afather,Thi,moveshisfamilyfromBangkoktoasuburban,gated community, Laddaland, in the northern city of Chiang Mai, where he hasacceptedahigh-rankingnewjob.Thefamily’sinitialdrivethroughthecommunity’sstreets is a montage of Americana-inspired clich´es: broad streets, freshly mowedlawns, two-story homes, a friendly guard at the gate, and even a pair of childrenplaying with a golden retriever in the spray of a sprinkler. Thi’s family membersare reluctant to leave Bangkok, however, and view coming to Chiang Mai with amix of resentment and dread.Suchreluctanceprovestobewellfounded:Laddalandrevealsadarkunderbelly beneaththemanicuredlawnsandwell-keptstreets.Theneighbor’swifeshowssignsof being abused, and Thi’s new boss turns out to be “lending” himself money fromthe company’s coffers. But the event that sets off the community’s slide into ruin isthe murder of a Burmese maid by a Caucasian man living in the neighborhood. 1 Asthe maid’s ghost returns to haunt the streets, the town’s clean and modern veneer begins to peel away. 2 “Urgently Selling” signs appear on the neighbor’s houses,the streets become overgrown with grass and littered with palm fronds, and thegate guard disappears, leaving the gates wide open. Other aspects of Thi’s life alsocrumble: His boss, having embezzled much of the company’s fortunes, flees andleaves the business to collapse; his wife’s lecherous former boss reappears; and hisdaughter begins coming home late or not at all. At the end of the film, as ghosts CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 28, Issue 2, pp. 299–319. ISSN 0886-7356, online ISSN 1548-1360.  C  2013 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/cuan.12005  CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 28:2 multiply within the community, Thi, unable to distinguish between his family andmalevolent ghosts, accidentally shoots his son. Laddaland  , with its themes of chaos, poverty, and violence lying underneathseemingly modern, clean, and rational suburban life, resonated with many of thehorror stories people told me during my field research. In the film as well asin these stories, things that appear to be modern and full of prosperity are infact tainted by foreign presences—indeed, the communities themselves come toepitomize a profoundly unfamiliar way of life. Financial, moral, and supernaturalcrises intertwine. In short,  Laddaland   and the stories of haunted communities showthe link between the idea of (and desire for) progress and the uncanny. Enteringan orderly, prosperous, and exclusive community does not protect one from ruin.Despite the gates and security guards, ghosts and criminals are able to infiltrate.Many residents with whom I spoke wondered why they had wanted to live in thecommunities in the first place and felt thus alienated from their own desire and thereasons for their move.Many of my informants saw high-rise buildings and suburban gatedcommunities—both of which I henceforth call “communities of exclusion”—assymbols of Chiang Mai’s forward progress and development. However, the imagesof ghosts and foreigners that appear repeatedly in these sites in everyday popularstoriesrepresentthemanifestationofanxietyaboutsomethingfundamentallackingin this “progress.” Here, I analyze stories of ghosts and hauntings as expressinganxiety regarding the impossibility of knowing whether the community has “pro-gressed,” in the Thai idiom of   Khwam charoen , or if such seeming progress is only aveneer over something more sinister. 3 In each of the stories related here, those living in these communities of exclusion express their desire for a particular form of existence—one that is charoen  (progressive), orderly, and prosperous. But in each story, the communityis not how it appears. Instead, it is invaded by forces that this discourse of   khwamcharoen  purports to have overcome: “undeveloped” ethnic others or “superstitious”ghosts. These stories and their popularity indicate that this idea of a modern,progressive, and unbreachable community rests on uneasy foundations. 4 THE UNCANNY, CHAROEN  , AND ESSENCES Max Weber (2003) famously predicted that modernity would disenchant,removing the realm of the magical and religious from rational, modern society.But his prediction is contradicted by much recent anthropological work on theuncanny reemergence of the magical and ghostly. Mladen Dolar (1991:7) argues 300  PROGRESS AND ITS RUINS that this should be no surprise: modernity and the uncanny are, in fact, connected,as the decline of the formal religious sphere as the sole location of the unearthlyhas led to the release of the uncanny into the realm of the everyday. In citing theuncanny, Dolar draws, as I do, on the Freudian idea of   unheimlich , that speciesof horror that emerges when what was previously thought to be surpassed (andnot merely repressed) reemerges (Freud 2003). As such, the uncanny is especiallyrelevant when looking at concepts of progress and the middle class—that groupso heavily invested in progress and modernity—as well as the doubts and dis-turbances in appearance of outward prosperity and rationality. It is precisely thisconnection between the uncanny and tropes of progress that I seek to build onhere.The rise of new realms of the uncanny has increasingly become a focus of anthropological attention. In Diane Nelson’s work in Guatemala, similarly to myThai case, such occult forces have to do with the breakdown of national (middle-class) conceptions of the home. For Nelson, when indigenous groups began toassert their difference from the body politic, the end result was, for many, ahorrific doubling of the national “family”: “modes of Latino identification—beingthat which everyone else aspired to because of its attachments to whiteness, themodern, and the future—are suddenly under question and rendered uncanny”(1999:26). Such a breakdown of familial ideas—in the Thai case, of the living andthe dead—is what makes my work different from that of others in Thailand andLaos (cf. Klima 2002, 2006; Morris 2000; Langford 2009), for whom the livinghave active relationships of exchange and obligation with the returned dead. In mywork, such familiar ties do not exist; as notions of progress break down, the ghoststhat emerge are alienated from the living much as the living are from them (seealso Johnson 2012).Expanding beyond the scope of the national and the familial, many anthropol-ogists have pointed out how, as neoliberalization pushes for rationalized linkagesamong the subject, production, and politics, this modern and rational plan for thecontemporarymomentofglobaleconomicsnonethelessunearthsoldanxietiesthatsuch modernisms also come with limits (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999; Morris2000). Some of the most inspirational work on this front has come from Jeanand John Comaroff’s (1999) idea of “occult economies,” based on their research inSouthAfrica.FortheComaroffs,theneoliberaleconomy,whichenrichessomeandimpoverishes others, parallels concepts of magical misfortune, leading to the huntfor the new, “occult” forces at large that have “stolen” the prosperity previouslyassumed to be coming to all. 301  CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 28:2 Following the Comaroffs, one could paint the “ghosts of bad death” in ChiangMai’s urban landscape as new demons brought forth from ambivalence about theunequal distribution of power in living spaces in the city. But there is more tothis story, as the sudden “enchantment” of the economic is not entirely somethingnew in Chiang Mai. Rather, ghosts emerge owing to the failure of older magic: charoen .  Charoen  indicates prosperity, enlightenment, wisdom, and wealth at once.As I detail below, it is a word that points to the inner progressive state of a thing,rather than its outward appearance. During the 20th century, the mantra of   charoen  became associated with idioms of national development, the figure of the Thaimonarchy, and reform Buddhism to assure Thais of the inevitable, supernaturallypowered, and moral nature of increasing wealth and prosperity, especially for themiddle class. 5 The 20th-century project of national development thus occurredunder the auspices of supernatural forces, which ensured the motion of   khwamcharoen  and the forward march of progress. Such a sense of spiritual, moral, andrationalprogressensuredthatghostswouldnotemerge,anassurancenotbuiltintoother idioms of progress ( kan phatthana , as I detail below). 6 It is now, however, ascrisis after crisis challenges these assumptions about progress that uncanny spectersgain greater power.Thisconcernwiththeinneressencesofthingsmightatfirstseemtocontradictearlier ethnography on Thailand. Penny Van Esterik (2000) has characterized Thaisociety as concerned with surfaces over inner states, a feature Peter Jacksondescribes as having reversed Western privileging of essences over surfaces. For Jackson, in Thailand, “it is the surface image that has the power to mould the inner being” (2004:211). But these studies focus on the point of friction between thepublic sphere and the private sphere, where state power acts swiftly to correct anydisruptions in the public order but remains unconcerned with private practices. Incontrast, the disruptions I consider here are those that occur in the most intimateof spaces, the home.FollowingJackson’sideaofthe“regimeofimages”(Jackson2004),the charoen home is assumed to inform, direct, and reflect the  charoen  status of its inhabitant.But moving into these new spaces was traumatic for many of my informants. Thestrangenessofthesespacesisproductiveofdoubt:myinformantsdoubtedtheir(ortheirhome’s)innerqualityof  khwam charoen .Inshort,itwasthefailureofJackson’sregime of images to work in the way it should. While every effort to ensure thatthe home’s image would remain  charoen , as cracks began to appear (occasionallyliterally) in infrastructure, society, and economy, those thought-to-be-overcomeelementsreemergedintheformofghostsandmigrants.Thesestories,then,arethe 302
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