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7 Wathakam: The Thai Appropriation of Foucault’s “Discourse” Thanes Wongyannava1 Whose Camel Is It Anyway? One of the first appearances of the now-accepted Thai translation of the term “discourse”, wathakam, was in a satirical article, “On the Discourse of Camelology”, published in a 1988 issue of the journal Jotmai khao sangkhomsat (Sociology News and Notes) (Anonymous 1988). This parody of Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse begins with a story about an international research team consisting of a Frenchman, an Englishman, a German, an American, a Japanese man and a Thai who are assigned to undertake a comprehensive study of the camel. The Frenchman goes to the zoo to see the camel, spends half an hour there, converses with the gardener, throws bread to the camel, uses the end of an umbrella to tease the animal and then goes back home, where he writes an article of profound observations for his academic journal. Meanwhile, the Englishman goes to an oriental country with a basket of tea and camping gear to observe the camel in its natural habitat. After spending a couple of years in the country, he writes a thick tome that is full of information but lacks any structure or conclusion. The German scoffs at the Frenchman’s nonsensical unregulated behaviour and the Englishman’s ungeneralisable statements, locking himself away in his room in order to write many volumes on camels under the title “The Idea of the Camel in My Thought”. The American, who admires all of these erudite Europeans, raises funds from the private and public sectors to establish a Camel Studies Center that collects all published books and articles on camels. The Center also gives grants for Camel Studies research projects, and invites the Frenchman, the Englishman and the German to be guest lecturers at international Camel Studies conferences. For the Japanese, producing canned camel meat presents a good business opportunity, so he forms a joint venture with the Thai under license from the Thai Board of Investment and opens a factory to process canned camel meat for export to America, France, Germany and England. The Thai, while reading this story, begins to feel really hungry, and he decides to try the camel meat, mixing it with spices for extra taste. Fried camel meat with ginger turns out to be a very tasty dish, and eventually he sets up his own factory to produce canned fried camel meat with ginger and exports it to the European Union, so helping Thailand become a newly industrialized country. 154 Thanes Wongyannava When it comes to analyzing this survey of various stereotypical national approaches to academic research, the author of this spoof concludes that the discourse of camelology lacks self-reflexivity and ignores important knowledge about camels produced by internationally respected institutes of camel studies. The present state of knowledge of camels is found to impact on the power relations between camel riders and those who do not ride camels, amongst the camel riders themselves, and, most importantly, between camel riders and camels (Anonymous 1988, 17). While clearly intended to be humorous, this article nevertheless makes the serious and non-trivial point that the impact of poststructuralist and postmodern theoretical trends in Thailand may not be at the level of theory. The Thai relationship to Western theory may essentially be very pragmatic. The article points to the fact that the will to truth is not a Thai preoccupation, and that the obsession with the Western search for truth is perhaps too alien an enterprise to arouse enthusiasm amongst Thais (Jullien 2002). From the Thai perspective, so long as an idea or a theory is useful or practical it will be accepted and warmly welcomed. Indeed, Thai scholars like to compare understanding academic texts to eating, often describing books as either being “digestible” (yoi dai) or alternatively as “indigestible” (yoi mai dai) and causing (intellectual) indigestion (mai yoi). Once a foreign text is edible and digestible it is accepted into the Thai intellectual world. Underlying its parody, “On the Discourse of Camelology” also makes the non-trivial assumption that French critical theory is a kind of commodity that can be consumed. Françoise Lionnet disputes this view and argues that, “French theory is not a transportable commodity, but an activity of interweaving thought and reality, a universal activity of hybridization” (Lionnet 1998, 132). In contrast to Lionnet, I suggest that theory can be considered a kind of commodity to the extent that it carries its author’s name as...


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