Monthly Archives: September 2011

Lusting and Learning in the Periphery

There is a trend in historical research on colonialism to draw a connection between sexual desire, knowledge of colonized peoples, and power. In other words, imagining non-Western women as exotic and erotic is a direct product of the Western desire to dominate through power and impose our forms of knowledge—knowledge that will then further justify our power and desire.

I think they are on to something–but only to a point. Looking at myself, the connection between desire and knowledge is obvious. All of my loves have been foreign women—and all except one have been women from Asia. It is impossible to separate my lust to understand foreign cultures from my sexual and emotional desires. I can not imagine having a partner who grew up in the suburbs like me, can sing the same TV themes from the 70s and 80s, followed the same predictable school trajectory, and gets stressed about the same petty career issues as me. Boring! I want to know about lives different from mine, emotions that I have never felt and experiences I have never imagined. These desires led me me to obsessively read anthropology and history books for years. But those books were never enough. I needed to travel, flirt, fuck and make love. And lying naked in bed, hearing stories of childhood, looking out the window at unfamiliar scenery, learning of the people, ideas and ghosts that live there, feeling the pussy and smelling the hair of my lover and parter. . . . that’s as close to paradise as I’ve ever been.

But there is another dimension to the academic analyses: the power; the objectification and exoticization of foreign women; the implication that such relationships are about domination and submission; that love can not be part of the picture in conditions of hegemony and inequality. These implications do not  hang so heavy over a relationship in which the woman has many years of Western-style education (I know less about the relatinships of Western women and non-Western men, so will not presume to talk about them). But they force their way in when she is uneducated, rural, different. Such relationships are never easy. They are even harder when these analyses nip at the corner of your mind, digging relentlessly for any  guilt and self-doubt they can find.

But is such a relationship really any more colonial and ‘hegemonic’ than treating far away and less wealthy people only as unfortunates who need our help? Isn’t that the colonial project par excellence—to convince people that their lives are unfortunate, that they need to be educated, that they need our assistance, that they can not form regular relationships of love, lust and family with us but only relationships of assistance and receiving? Like the academics and international NGOs of today, colonial officials also did investigations, collected oral histories, expressed concern for lack of development, insisted that the lack of education was a problem, criticized local governments, tried to get people to work harder in more ‘moral’ occupations, and were critical of sexual relations across cultural borders (more about this last point in the next post). I can’t help but think that they (i.e. colonial officials, academics and NGO workers—and we should throw in a few businessmen and embassy workers while we are at it) wouldn’t do better if they traveled the world to make friends, fornicate and make families. Then the flow of knowledge and resources would really begin, only now as a two-way street.


Bicycling across large bridges is one of the joys of my life. The great bridges are beautiful and sensuous, sweeping across the sky with geometric perfection. At night, their lights trace elegant curves that float free of the earth and urbanity below.  Riding across them is both calming and thrilling, following a gentle rise and fall while taking one into the middle euphoric panoramas and revealing precipitous drops into churning water. Form, function, thrill, beauty, utility, and even a sense of spiritual uplift—it is all there in one perfect package. Riding the arc of a bridge is one of those rare moments when my random thoughts and worries fall away, when I am exactly where I want to be.

But as I come down from that arc, returning to my thoughts and learning, bridges become a problem, a challenge to my intellectual habits. They exemplify all of those things that my ego is invested in criticizing. They are a challenge to my historical career devoted to elaborate skepticism of modernity, social technology and power. Because the bridges are modernity, power and technology perfected, in all of their inhuman scale, coldness, order and utility. They are the product of state intervention, big money and big corporations, with all of the hierarchy, greed and hubris that these things imply. They epitomize the modern drive to dominate nature, to make the surface of the earth ordered and transparent, to mock and destroy natural barriers with mountains of steel and asphalt. They are less the product of individual human creativity than of decades of accumulated technical knowledge, political bartering, infrastructural obsession, and the rampaging egos of men like Robert Moses. They sacrifice human community and the organic landscape for the sake of speed, steel and pomposity.

And they are gorgeous, erotic, mysterious. They reveal the folly of my alienation from much modern human endeavor. They speak to my soul. They show that my soul is not only a product of nature, but also entwined with those complex and frustrating collective endeavors and hubristic ambitions of human society.

Leary on Libraries

You can use the library, but beware, it’s just like a narcotic. Library books are very dangerous addictive substances. Like heroin, books become and end in themselves. I made the suggestion two years ago at Harvard University that they lock up Widener Library, put chains on the doors, and have little holes in the wall like in bank tellers’ windows, and if a student wanted to get a book, he would have to come with a little slip made out showing that he had some existential, practical questions. He wouldn’t say that he wanted to stuff a lot of facts in his mind so that he could impress a teacher or be one up on the other students in the intellectual game. No. But if he had an existential problem, then the library would help him get all the information that could be brought to bear on that problem. Needless to say, this plan didn’t make much of a hit, and the doors of the Harvard Library are still open. You can still get dangerous narcotic volumes without a prescription at Harvard

                                                         Timothy Leary, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

What can Timothy Leary learn from history? He would learn that book smuggling network and underground reading cultures would surely develop. Certain books would develop auras of special power and magic, nurtured and ritualized by cult followings. Some followers would accumulate extensive esoteric knowledge of certain books, while others would engage in abusive misuse and misinterpretation . . . . which is not much different than current usage, except that the influence of teachers and therapeutic/educational claims would be much less pervasive. A violent legal and social struggle over the proper use and meaning of particular books might even emerge.

What can we, the professional book-pushers of academia, learn from Leary? Well, once the addiction sets in (as with most narcotics, only a fraction of the users will become hardcore addicts) the pleasure and thrill of books will inexorably decline. Reading will ultimately become a burden, one that we feel ambivalent about, both dreading and desiring at the same time—but a burden nearly impossible to quit.

Critics (rescue me, because I am one too)

Many historians like to criticize capitalism. They criticize not only the exploitation, but also how it has come to dominate our cultural and symbolic lives. Others like to critique the state and its attempts to manage populations and impose social control (or, with no sense of irony, to criticize its failure to live up to responsibilities of social intervention).

The problem is that nearly all of these critiques accept the basic world-view of materialism and rationalism that is so fundamental to the power and justification of capitalism and the modern state in the first place. In this world view, a meaningful life will be attained through social order, management, development, physical health, material accumulation, career advancement, physical comfort, and rational choices based on awareness of our basic biological nature. A failure to achieve happiness through these methods shows only that we have failed to properly understand and execute the methods–that we are losers.

The critics often shift the blame for our problems from our own failings to “them” and their capitalist institutions. But they leave the basic goals of life intact–material accumulation, development, stability and avoiding death and discomfort. Alternatives views are stigmatized as flaky New Age mysticism, quackery, fundamentalism, utopianism, decadence or mental imbalance (although “traditional cultures” are often given more slack). But once we reform the state, end oppression, save the earth, or achieve justice, create community, encourage human empowerment or appreciate diversity, what do we do with it? Will we still just be looking for the latest new restaurant, remodeling the kitchen, losing weight, avoiding death, upgrading our phones, and making sure our kids get into a good college so they can replicate the entire cycle?

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

                                                                       –Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting

Anthropological Thailand

Following up on my personal experience of misinterpreting Thailand as recounted in the last post, I’d like to show I am not alone. Obtuse interpretation of rural Thailand seems to be routine in the social science that I read.

To be fair, not all of the social science was as obtuse as I was. The anthropological characterization of families in northeastern Thailand as having a “tendency towards matriliny” and a favoritism towards youngest daughters helped explain a lot about how money, property and power flowed through Luna’s family, and how Western men and their money were so readily incorporated into Thai family life. Stanley Tambiah’s work on the different layers of Buddhist, Brahmin and animistic ritual also helped me make some sense of the the various ghosts, spirits, monks, charms, healers and animals that wandered across the local landscape.

But many anthropologists were especially interested in house structure and food taboos–to the extent of constructing elaborate cosmologies, mentalities and social worlds on the basis of what they found. All very good and standard anthropological practice. But I could not recognize any of the houses or eating habits from my experience. If anything, I was struck by the relentlessly ad hoc nature of house construction, dependent more on available money, materials and construction talents than on the spatial manifestation of socio-cultural assumptions. And I was deeply impressed by their commitment to eating nearly anything in the landscape that could be digested. And if it couldn’t be digested, they would rub it on as a salve. The only reluctance to eat that I ever noticed was when I tried to cook something.

A lot of that anthropological fieldwork had been done in the 60s and 70s. Maybe things had changed since then, and the old habits had been lost? That explanation of my anthropological gap fell apart when I read Étienne Aymonier’s accout of his travels through the region in 1883-84 (Isan Travels: Northeast Thailand’s Economy in 1883-1884. Trans. Walter I.. Tips. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2000). He had little to say about houses, but his impression of eating habits was exactly the same as mine. He also described courtship rituals, sexual customs and a variety of recreational practices (humming kites, rockets, drinking) that evoked my experience of northeastern Thailand much better than the most of the anthropologists did. Even the randy old men on the internet forums often described and analyzed rural Thai life better than some of the anthropologists.

I also read a lot of sociology about migration to Bangkok. They wrote about the precariousness and drudgery of rural life that made emigration necessary.  They described farmers aching to leave because of misery and drudgery of rural life, but who only left because they were compelled and displaced by mechanization and modernity. They wrote about how emigration undermined communal labor exchanges. They described a rural economy that somehow both could not provide enough work and sustenance to the people there, but was also suffering from a lack of labor because of extensive emigration. They described migration as a problem that needed to be solved.

It was rubbish. Migration to Bangkok to work for a few months was generally understood as a choice to endure drudgery and hard work, not to escape it. The main reasons to do it were to earn money for dowries, funerals, to pay off gambling debts and to buy those machines that were supposedly pushing them off the land (but actually making their farming lives easier). People who did not like to work in Bangkok explained it was because life was easier and more secure at home–they could always find something to eat, somebody to take care of them and didn’t have to work nearly so hard. Communal labor exchanges were flourishing (although some research has shown that the frequency of communal labor varies greatly from village to village. Aymonier claimed that Khmer speakers commonly engaged in communal farming but not Lao speakers). Migration was not an epic exodus, but a routine possibility of rural life.

The sociologists often had plenty of empirical evidence that showed the same things that I had seen. But they were determined to frame it in terms of that stereotypical migration narrative of people compelled by poverty and exploitation to seek a better life in the city, where they wanted to become like us but run up against insuperable obstacles. They are people who need our help, a problem that requires our intervention.

The migration sociologists were drawing on standard myths of U.S. immigration and NGO benevolence to interpret their research. The anthropologists are more perplexing to me. Were they really in the same country as me? Some of them did their fieldwork while working as officers rural relief projects for NGOs or UN organizations. They relied on a limited number of informants, and all of their interactions must have been colored by their positions with these institutions. But this certainly does not account for all of the anthropologists.

I can only conclude that their research and analysis was overdetermined by their preconceptions of what anthropological knowledge should look like, of what facts were relevant and how they could be interepreted. It is much like the way I selected and interpreted facts about Luna’s behavior to fit with widely circulating narratives of Thai behavior that reinforced my own insecurities (see previous post). I am also more suspicious of Aymonier’s extensive descriptions of local governance, taxation and political ties to Bangkok than I am by his descriptions of daily life. France’s geopolitical interests in the region colored his interest in the former topic too strongly. It is not necessary to get caught in this trap. Tambiah’s work on Thai religion constantly recognized the complexity and multiple interpretations by local actors while still producing some generalizations and interpretations about how it all fit together. But the trap is hard to avoid, especially if we want to speak to our other social science colleagues in terms they can understand.

The trap is harder to avoid the more we try to make our knowledge ‘relevant’–i.e. link it to our career ambitions, disciplinary knowledge, moral commitments, political attachments, sexual identities, whatever. The more we want to be relevant, the more we encase that knowledge in methodological trappings, generalizations and concepts that try to establish its universality and objectivity. The more effort we put into this kind of communication, the more likely we are to deceive ourselves and spout bullshit. This is not an iron law, just a tendency. . . . But I haven’t even yet mentioned the writings on sex work in Thailand. They follow this tendency through to the bitter end in contradictions, blind spots, unsustained conclusions and polemics that seeped in urgent relevance and insecurities of all kinds.

Fear, Love and Historical Method

Four years ago I met a Thai woman, Luna, who became my girlfriend. She is from an area of rural Thailand, near the Lao border, where many of the women who work in the bars, massage parlors and sex industry of Thailand come from. Luna has not worked in the sex industry. But the atmosphere of sexual commerce that lingers over foreign men and certain parts of Bangkok definitely made our relationship possible. It created the context of easy flirtation the helped us to meet. It encouraged the early and open expressions of desire that extended that brief meeting into an encounter of several days, saving us from the missed opportunity that would surely have been the result of our usual reserve. It also made the adoption of a Western boyfriend into her family and rural community relatively smooth, following the example of the tens of thousands of Western men who already built houses and settled with their Thai wives throughout the countryside.

This easy atmosphere of sexual connection also generates riveting stories that circulate widely in the bars and online forums frequented by expat men. They include stories about huge dowries amounting to tens of thousands of dollars for marriages that only lasted a few months; stories about Thai women receiving money sent from multiple foreign boyfriends which they used to support their Thai boyfriends; stories about the many sick buffalos, elderly parents, leaking roofs, busted tractors and police graft that Thai women conjured to get more money from besotted foreign men. Stories about men who built houses, bought cars and renovated farms for their wives only to be locked out once the money was finished. So often the punchline is, “I’d heard all the stories, but I was sure that my girl was different.”

Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer is a great example of stories circulating about the relationships of Western men and Thai women.

Luna told me similar stories, including variations in which women extracted money from their Thai husbands working in Taipei which they then used to party with their new boyfriends. A couple of times she even translated phone conversations we overheard in Bangkok, when a woman was coaxing money from a foreign boyfriend or discussing best strategies of managing her boyfriends with one of her Thai friends.

Thailand Fever by Vitida Vasant and Chris Pirazzi

Being who I am, I spent much of the following year reading books by anthropologists, sociologists, historians and journalists on rural life and sex work in Thailand. I came across a book, Thailand Fever which, despite the lurid title, is a practical guide written in Thai and English by a Thai woman and American man to help Thai-Western couples better understand each other. Most of the major problems they describe revolve around family and money. They write that Thais gain much of their sense of self-worth by being “generous” and showing their ability to support their families. They would often willingly hand over the bulk of their earnings to be used by their families, under the expectation that their family would take care of them when they were in need. This was very difficult for Western husbands, who resented the unpredictability of demands for money, the constant drainage to extended family, and the general lack of control over their financial choices and future. This could easily degenerate into the wives thinking that the men were stingy bastards who didn’t care about family, and the men thinking their wives were just gold digging whores who didn’t care about building a family with them.

My mom had raised me to believe that thrift and practical financial sense were primary virtues. I showed her this book. She concluded that it sounded just like prostitution to her. Cultural differences or not, it was not love, not family, just financial exchange. I had already spent a lot of money to help Luna finish the roof on her house, pay off her car and buy a tractor. Some of that money was not spent in the way that she had told me it would be spent when I gave it to her. I was pretty uncomfortable about it.

One night, about a year after meeting Luna, I was lying in bed at three in the morning in a jetlagged haze at the edge of sleep. Scenes from my recent visit to Thailand were playing through my head. Suddenly I fixated on a moment when Luna had introduced me to a Swedish man and his wife who lived in the local county town. I recalled her body language and pride in showing me off, his nervous attempts to avoid the eyes of both Luna and his wife, his coldness to me. It was so obvious. He was an ex-lover, she was showing me off to an ex-lover! Luna had always told me that she had not had sex with any man since her husband had died nearly a decade before. She had lied to me.

I sat up in bed. Dozens of episodes flooded my mind. She had been lying to me all along. I was just as foolish as the guys in those stories. I turned on the light and got a pencil and paper to write down the evidence, just to make sure I wasn’t getting carried away. I wrote a list of seven things that suggested an affair with the Swedish man, not only in that encounter but also in questions Luna had asked about what I thought about him and what other foreign men had told me. Then I wrote a list of 41 other suspicious circumstances not related to this incident. They included lies she had told me about money; the male foreign “friends” who frequently called her on the phone; the lies she told them; the many stories she told me of friends who manipulated money out of men; her enormously strong libido, sexual skills and knowledge of sexual words in English that belied a decade of supposed abstinence; her attempts to stop me from having contact with other local foreigners; and her general evasiveness on several other issues including her medical problems.

To be balanced, I also wrote a list of things that pointed towards my being able to take Luna at her word. I came up with 19 points. The most significant ones included the fact that she did indeed have successful work purchasing and manufacturing clothes and bags for sale in Italy; she has clearly been a hard worker most of her life and not relied on handouts from others; most of what she had told me about her family and travels seemed to be true; she was not a very good liar and I could usually catch her when she did; she never tried to hide her conversations with other foreign men; the tone of her interactions with other foreign men were very different than with me (helping her get away with lies told to them in a jokey context); and, as she once pointed out to me, if she wanted a rich foreign husband who could give her a lot money she could easily do a lot better than me.

I compared the two lists. The evidence either way was all circumstantial. But it was all specific events and facts, the kinds of things that could be footnoted if I were writing a history book. This was the method of the historian: accumulating facts, developing an argument, and then using that argument to shape further investigation. And the balance of evidence leaned towards the argument that I was being duped about something. How much I was being duped, however, was still unclear. I was sure that she was at least lying about her sex life. I did not have a big problem with that if it was only an issue of modesty or shame. I was a bit more worried about what was happening while I was in the U.S. (casual sex was OK, but not the multiple boyfriend scenario). My real fear, however, was that I was being manipulated out of my money just like the men in those stories, that I was only a sugar daddy. More than sexual betrayal, this was a fear that that generated shame and self-contempt. So I engaged in further investigation.

In our next conversations on the phone and video chat, I started to bring up my suspicions. Luna denied any direct questions about relationships with other men. Her responses were the usual evasions and assurances I had heard before. She persuasively insisted that love mattered more than money to her: a person can always work and make more money, but real love is rare. I could not catch her in any lies other than those she had already admitted. None of my doubts were confirmed. But my fears did not recede—this was still a repetition of the same behavior I had already documented in my lists. Then one day my end of the video chat suddenly cut off, although I could still see her. I saw panic in her eyes. “Where are you,” she typed, “Not leave me please.” And, convinced I had disappeared, she started to cry. I was an asshole. Not only now, but I had been for months. Whatever lies she had told me, she was sincere in wanting to make this work.

Luna and I are still together after four years. All of my suspicions were dead wrong. The historical method failed me. I should have gone with the original gut instincts that brought us together, not the fears that developed later. Some of the problem was cultural difference. The more I believed I was developing an objective, evidence-based method, the more I blinded myself to the culturally-based assumptions that went into the gathering and interpretation of my facts. Sure, I had read plenty of culturally sensitive books about Thailand. I’ve even written academic articles steeped in claims of cultural sensitivity about other places. I was intellectually convinced. But living it was a different matter.

But more important than cultural misunderstanding was the pervasive narrative of fear and paranoia that overdetermined my interpretation. By far the predominant story available in which to interpret my experience was one of manipulation, lies, foolish self-deception and prostitution. This was only reinforced by the general stigma against men who got involved with rural Thai women and sex workers. This had nothing to do with culture. It has everything to do with the way in which media fears predetermine our conclusions.

Our relationship is still very difficult. We have very different expectations about the appropriate circulation of money—cultural awareness doesn’t easily change the basic concepts of virtue drilled into us as children. And Luna is also burdened with the versions of paranoid stories about Thai-Western relationships that circulate among Thai women. These are the stories of “butterfly” men, always unreliable, always looking to get laid with as many women as possible, only out for sex and never for love. Her fears about my infidelities pervade and grind away at our relationship as much as my fears about money.