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Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 393-401

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The Politics of Life and Death in Thailand

Christophe Robert
Cornell University

Alan Klima. The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002; 317 pp..

Why, asks Hal Foster in The Return of the Real, this fascination with trauma, this envy of abjection today? He notes the recent tendency to redefine experience in terms of trauma in art, academic discourse and popular culture. In art and theory, the discourse of trauma brings the critique of the subject to its most radical conclusion: there is no subject of trauma, the position is evacuated. In popular culture, on the other hand, trauma is treated as an event that guarantees the subject. The subject, however disturbed, rushes back as witness, testifier, survivor. This is a traumatic subject and it has absolute authority, for one cannot challenge the trauma of another: one can only believe it, even identify with it, or not. And Foster concludes: In trauma discourse the subject is evacuated and elevated at once (168; author's emphasis).

These preliminary comments are helpful heuristic devices for approaching Alan Klima's TheFuneral Casino. It is quite probable that Klima would disagree at the outset with this way of framing his book, in particular since he is opposed to the "violent assertions" and "facile and offhand interpretive statements" he often finds in (un-named) "Lacanian approaches in anthropology" (300, n.12). He identifies with Buddhist conclusions on the question of the subject, which resonate with the initial position Foster outlined: the position of the subject is evacuated. [End Page 393] And his situation as an activist-ethnographer resonates with the second position Foster outlines, that of a subject rushing back as witness, testifier and survivor. Informing these two positions, bridging them, and occupying the position of the "real," lie the traumatic events which form the core of this book.

In May 1992, the Thai army massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pro-democracy protesters, many of them students, in Bangkok. Klima was there, among the shocked students and bystanders running for their lives, and trying to find cover from the bullets. This event forms the core of The Funeral Casino. This massacre—as witnessed and experienced by the ethnographer, by pro-democracy activists, by families of the deceased, and as constructed in Thai commemorative memory, media and propaganda—was the most recent in a series of violent crackdowns on pro-democracy movements in Thailand. October 14, 1973, October 6, 1976 and May 1992 form a cycle of violent repression and killings which Klima juxtaposes as the bloody undercurrent to the triumphant discourse of Thailand as the poster child of Cold War U.S. military policies and World Bank/IMF development.

On the basis of four years of fieldwork in three different locales in Thailand Klima examines how these gory events articulate with and illustrate Buddhist conceptions of death and funeral exchange (exchange with the spirits of the departed), and constructions of modernity and national identity in Thailand. Part I, "The Passed," examines the genealogy of political corpses in the context of the appearance of an event, the protests and killings of May 1992. This event is analyzed as part of the unfolding of progressive politics in Thailand in the confluence of political protest, free markets and images of death in the pro-democracy movement. Part II, "Kamma" is a commentary on the media relations of shock and remembrance, focused on a powerful analysis of Buddhist meditation on death images and funeral gambling.

The main theme of this book is exchange. This is a common point of departure for an anthropological account of funeral practices. This is especially true in a Southeast Asian context, where the dead are never simply dead, but whose departed spirits occupy a realm adjoining that of the living, and communicate with it, through ritual and medium possession. In Thailand, as Klima indicates, the Buddhist notion of kamma (the law of cause and effect which rules every unenlightened being) underlies the entire social field. Klima's larger...


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