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Public Culture 12.2 (2000) 457-475
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Modernity's Media and the End of Mediumship?
On the Aesthetic Economy of Transparency in Thailand
Rosalind C. Morris
A funny thing happened on the way to the STET (the Stock Exchange of Thailand). In November 1997, I returned to Thailand amid a financial catastrophe that has since been labeled the Asian economic plague, to begin an ethnography of capitalist crisis. I imagined that it would be a project on the politics of transparency--that ideological pointing stick by which the market has appropriated for itself the function of regulating the state where once it was the function of the state to regulate the market. I was, and am, interested in how capitalism in Thailand disguises itself as mere monetization, and how money's total and totalizing mediations have come to be experienced in the contrary idioms of immediacy and eternal present-being. I wanted to pursue the ways in which the rhetorics of transparency and visibility have been conceived in aesthetic domains where calls for the end of mimetic representation mirror and reiterate calls for disclosure and objectivity in the economic domain.
Before I got to the STET, however, a nationally renowned spirit medium named Chuchad appeared on a cable network talk show, hosted by a former academic, and confessed to twenty-six years of fakery. In a narcissistic act of tele-technic encompassment that the doubt-ridden Quesalid could probably never have imagined, Chuchad not only theatricalized his newfound skepticism but also invited all mediums to join him in renouncing their dissimulating practice. 1 Ultimately, [End Page 457] he called for an end to mediumship itself. This extraordinary event elicited newspaper coverage and cocktail party gossip even among the rationalists of Bangkok's elite. Nonetheless, the television broadcast was merely the anticipation of an even more spectacular disclosure that Chuchad would stage in a press conference: he would reveal everything, the tricks of his trade as well as the more scripturalist versions of Dhammic truth to which his recent reflections had led him. Having already devoted six years to the study of mediumship, I could not resist this strange and haunting invitation, which was directed as much at spectators as at mediums. Needless to say, I deferred the stock market and went in search of Chuchad and mediumship's end to Chantaburi, the city of Chuchad's residence, southeast of Bangkok.
Such flamboyant media savvy as Chuchad's is relatively recent but no longer exceptional among Thailand's contemporary spirit mediums. Thirty years ago, it was uncommon for spirit mediums to use or permit themselves to be represented via the mass media. Photography was implicitly forbidden, imagined in the terms that Balzac had once conceived of daguerreotypy: as a demonic receiving device that had the capacity to retain and thereby diminish the photographed subject's substance. More than most sites, mediumship seemed to retain a commitment to the etymology of the Thai words for photography, kaan thaay ruup (taking pictures). Kaan thaay can mean either taking or wasting, and even defecation. In combination with ruup (picture/s), it suggests not only taking pictures but also a concomitant transformation and discharge. 2 For mediums, the risk of photography was not only doubling, but transformation, substitution, and displacement. Television, for its part, was still available mainly in Bangkok. And cinema had not yet assumed the populist forms of home movies and videos. To the extent that spirit practices were brought into conversation with the mass media at all, it was as the auratic threshold of representation whose enframement as tradition had precisely been the result of mass mediatization. But then, thirty years ago, spirit mediumship was itself imagined as being on the verge of disappearance. Its "persistence," as folkloric and ethnographic texts expressed the matter, was conceptualized largely in terms of atavism and/or residue: as the repressed orgiastic impulse buried, along with Brahmanism, within Thailand's syncretized Theravada Buddhism. 3 It was also located on the periphery of the nation's geo-body, a popular...