- On Ghostly Desires: Queer Sexuality and Vernacular Buddhism in Contemporary Thai Cinema by Arnika Fuhrmann
Thailand, Nonzee Nimibutr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, queerness, melancholy/melancholia, haunting, negativity, temporal critique
Review Essay I: Rachel Harrison
There are perilously few academic works on Thailand that explore the junctures between critical theory and cultural production. Arnika Fuhrmann's Ghostly Desires is an exception—a deft and delicately defined analysis of the intersections between queer sexuality, vernacular Buddhist tenets and Thai cinema, tales and images. Thai cultural studies has struggled for some decades now with the question of what to do with "theory". The field has been dominated—perhaps even marred—by a predilection for rich tapestries of empirical data in preference to forms of analysis commonly deprecated as somehow abstruse. Fuhrmann's work contributes in significant ways to rebalancing that (inter)disciplinary failing. Not only does she take on cultural texts often labelled rarefied and recondite—such as the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Thunska Pansitthivorakul or the artworks of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook—but she also addresses these from a multifaceted theoretical perspective that moves well beyond mere socio-political contextualization. [End Page 181] One example of this achievement is Fuhrmann's desire to theorize Thai cultural studies through the wide-angled lens of "Other"
locations beyond the regional boundaries of the Thai nation-state. She refers, for instance, to Bliss Cua Lim's Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (2009). For Fuhrmann, Lim's work serves a purpose similar to her own, in that it "scrutinizes the ghostly as a terrain of critical force" (Fuhrmann 2016, p. 20). But this terrain is itself so often elusive, inscrutable, unhomely and haunting in nature. In the translation of supernaturalisms into homogenous time, for example, Lim upholds Henri Bergson's plural treatment of time while also arguing for "the refusal of anachronisms, and the recognition of untranslatability, that is, the avowal of immiscible temporalities" (Lim 2009, p. 13, italics in the original) as a critique of "the world-historical project of modernity that hinged on colonialism" (ibid.).
"From this novel theorization of temporality emerges", Fuhrmann writes, "the assertion that the past is never left behind but persists into the present and remains coeval with it" (Fuhrmann 2016, p. 19). While she acknowledges that concepts such as these are "not necessarily globally applicable" (ibid., p. 49), Fuhrmann is not alone in being enticed by the analytical promise they might hold for the Thai cultural case. The same could be said of the ways in which Fuhrmann is drawn to discussion of "noncontemporaneous contemporaneity" in the work of Harry Harootoonian (2007; see Fuhrmann 2016, p. 20). Ghostly Desires relies on the question of time (and the untimely) to do the (much-needed) work of cultural and critical disruption. But the extent to which we can explore the cultural specificities of these concepts in a notably different cultural context defines the limitations of such frameworks. Are there points of interruption or hiatus in the implications of homogenous time for Thai cinema? Does the semi-colonial nuance of Siam/Thailand's history inflect the development of ideologies of progress in that particular locale, where imperial expansion made felt its effects via a significantly different trajectory from that affecting other locales? Certainly Fuhrmann agrees with the observation made by Tamara Loos and by scholars working the fields of Thai anthropology and religious studies that modernity in Thailand has never been solely [End Page 182] secular. The implication of this concurrence, however, is to call into question Bliss's linking the ideology of progress and patterns of imperial expansion.
Staying with the question of time that is so central to the expression of Ghostly Desires, the complex texture of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand further invites inconsistencies in the sensation of time. Fuhrmann is at pains, and rightly so, to dismantle the various strands of Buddhist belief and practice that are at play in Thailand, noting that she draws on vernacular rather than doctrinal variations in this spiritual realm. But the...