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Introduction The Allure of Ambiguity: The “West” and the Making of Thai Identities Rachel Harrison1 … Palipana wrote lucidly, basing his work on exhaustive research deeply knowledgeable about the context of the ancient cultures. While the West saw Asian history as a faint horizon where Europe joined the East, Palipana saw his country in fathoms and colour, and Europe simply as a landmass on the end of the peninsula of Asia. (Michael Ondaatje 2000, 79) Must the project of our liberationist aesthetics be forever part of a totalising Utopian vision of Being and History that seeks to transcend the contradictions and ambivalences that constitute the very structure of human subjectivity and its systems of cultural representation? (Homi Bhabha 2004, 29) Overviews Reviewing the Tate Britain gallery’s 2008 exhibition of British Orientalist painting—“The Lure of the East”—Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif takes exception to the work of William Holman Hunt. She decries him for having come east primed with “an ideology and a fantasy to impose upon the landscape and the people.”2 Her mistrust, echoing Edward Said’s monumental text, Orientalism (1978), is directed at the ways in which power and fantasy combine in a manipulation of “The East” and its peoples. There is little need to rehearse the detail here of Said’s well-known views on the hegemonic construction by the (arguably monolithic) West of a stereotypically archaic, irrational, fantastical, uncivilized and (equally) monolithic East.3 But it is these processes of cultural construction that lie at the core of our approach to The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, taking as its foundation a strategic reversal of the dominant Orientalizing gaze that Said and others have called into question. The effect here is in part to emphasize, as Dipesh Chakrabarty eloquently argues in both his wider work Provincializing Europe (2000) and in the foreword above, “the limits of European thought”, highlighting instead the benefits of displacing European categories from the locus of their original signification.  Rachel Harrison In taking the concept of Orientalism as the starting point of this study we acknowledge, however, that the projects of power entailed in the converse processes of “Occidentalism” differ in their dynamic. Orientalism, as Rana Kabbani (2008, 43) argues, has always rested on the premise that the West knows more about the Orient than the Orient knows about itself. The same cannot be said of the construction and commodification of the “West” by the “East”, as we examine in this volume through a specific focus on Siam/Thailand’s relationship to Western Europe and the United States, from 1850 to the present.4 This relationship encompasses the aesthetic, the social, the political and the psychological. At the same time, we strive to recognize the fractured multiplicity of cultural and racial identities, features which pervade the construction of Thainess (khwam-pen-thai) in the face of its encounters with and absorption of Westernness (khwam-pen-farang), and the ensuing farang-ization, as Pattana Kitiarsa phrases it here, of Thai identities. The repeated use of the Thai term farang in this volume refers literally to a “white person” or Caucasian, though it emerges more broadly from “����������������������������������������������������������������������������� a set of pan-Asian identification markers for the West, Western peoples, and Western-derived things” (see Pattana in this volume). Glossed in Hobson-Jobson (Yule and Burnell 1903, 352–4), the cognate word Firinghee is noted to have derived from the Farsi: Farangi or Firingi and the Arabic: Al-Faranj, Ifranji or Firanji referring to a Frank. As both Michael Herzfeld and Pattana Kitiarsa observe in this volume and define at greater length in their chapters, the term reached Siam via Arabic- and Farsi-speaking traders. The focus in this volume on the Thai encounter with the farang, and all that it constitutes, generates an emphasis on convergence, assimilation, transculturation, transmediation, each recalling Said’s observation in Culture and Imperialism (1993, xxix) that, “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolithic”. Linked to this is the importance of ambiguity, a term brought into play in the volume’s title, its theoretical underpinnings and the evidence of its empirical findings. Chakrabarty acknowledges this when he raises in his foreword the difficulty/deferral of naming or categorizing, or of definition. Bhabha’s assertion (1986, xv), that the “very place of identification, caught in the tension of demand and desire, is a place of splitting”, provides an important indication here...


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