restricted access 6. Coming to Terms with the West: Intellectual Strategies of Bifurcation and Post-Westernism in Siam
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6 Coming to Terms with the West: Intellectual Strategies of Bifurcation and Post-Westernism in Siam Thongchai Winichakul Introduction One of the most troubling questions in Thai society since the nineteenth century has been how to deal with the farang, the Thai word for the West, Western, and Westerners (see the introduction, Herzfeld and Pattana in this volume). Over this period, the farang has been a temptation as well as a threat in the Thai imagination, a seductive but dangerous Other (Thongchai 2000b). To Thais of all social strata, the relationship with the West has entailed a paradoxical set of desires: how to catch up with the West without “kissing the asses of the farang” (tam kon farang); how to be like the West yet also to remain different; how not to love the West despite its attractions; and how not to hate it despite its obnoxious dominance. These conflicting desires have always been seriously contested among Thais of different classes, political persuasions and ideological inclinations. In short, the issue has been one of how to come to terms with the West? A recent study on Thailand’s relations with Burma provides an example. Pavin Chachavalpongpun has demonstrated that the historical relationship between Siam/ Thailand and Burma has depended on notions of Otherness, enmity and foreignness—in opposition to ideas of self, friendship and Thainess (Pavin 2005). Otherness here means not only Burma but also the West, and Pavin argues that different views on international (read “Western”) norms of human rights, democracy, and diplomacy have also played major roles in Thailand’s changing policies on Burma. While studies on the influences of the West in Thailand have shown a diverse range of responses, from dramatic Westernization to the persistence of Thai culture and identity, few have attempted to understand the patterns or logic of Siam/Thailand’s cultural encounter with the West. Why, in some cases, has the tempting West been regarded as a positive model that Thailand should follow, yet chastised in other situations as a path not to be taken? Is there any intellectual or cultural logic in the selection, and can this logic explain the ambiguous allure of the West in Thailand? The intellectual strategies which have been engaged in Thai cultural history for coming to terms with the West remain a largely unexplored field of inquiry. What were the historical contexts of these strategies? Have the different strategies operated separately or in relation to one another? How have they changed over time? 136 Thongchai Winichakul This chapter is an initial attempt to examine these issues and provide preliminary answers to the questions it poses. It discusses two of the various intellectual strategies that have been deployed in dealing with the West. One, originating in the mid-nineteenth century, is an epistemological framework for selecting Western knowledge and influence by means of a conceptual bifurcation between the spiritual and the worldly which remains widely used today despite, or because of, its simplicity and imprecision. The other strategy is a much more recent cultural critique of Thailand’s intellectual domination by the West. Inspired by postcolonial studies, it attempts to establish a “post-Western” intellectual framework for dealing with the West. After discussing each of these strategies in turn, I critically assess their implications in broader cultural and intellectual contexts. PART ONE The Conceptual Bifurcation between the Material and the Spiritual In April 1995, Phra Thammapidok (then known by his former clerical title as Phra Thepwethi), perhaps the foremost scholar-monk of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand after the renowned Buddhadasa Bhikkhu gave a lecture to Thai monks who were going to take up residency at Thai temples in the United States as part of the on-going Thammathut (lit. “Dharma ambassadors”) programme (Phra Thammapidok 2002).1 Apart from giving advice on the duties of Buddhist ambassadors, Thammapidok criticized the decadence of American society and the limitations of Western civilization. The respected monk gave his views on the failures of American society (used interchangeably with “the West” in his speech) that Thais should learn from in order not to repeat. Thammapidok claimed that Westerners are advanced in material development but spiritually backward, while for “Easterners” it is the other way round. He stated that two of the West’s most pressing problems, the environmental crisis and violent conflicts among human groups, can be attributed to the paradoxical outcomes of the high material but low spiritual conditions of the West. Thammapidok argued that during the industrial age America created a...