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  • Impermanent Longings
  • Brett Farmer (bio)
Ghostly Desires: Queer Sexuality and Vernacular Buddhism in Contemporary Thai Cinema
Arnika Fuhrmann
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. xii + 255 pp.

In her classic sociological study of haunting, Avery Gordon suggests that ghosts, routinely dismissed as vestigial hangovers of premodern superstition, function as vital elements of contemporary social life. As obscene figures of liminal otherness, ghosts index the vast and often violent exclusions of modernity, reanimating the lost, conjuring the invisible, speaking the unutterable, and, generally, refiguring the taken-for-granted operations of social reality. "The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person," she writes, "but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life" (Gordon 1997: 8).

Arnika Fuhrmann mines the rich materialist indexicality of ghosts to dazzling effect in her brilliant new study of queer sexuality and Buddhist-coded tropologies of desire in contemporary Thai cinema. After years of relative decline, Thai film experienced a marked renaissance in the turbulent historical aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis that hit regional economies hard, Thailand in particular. The diverse corpus of film work that ensued—often denominated the New Thai Cinema—defies easy taxonomic assignment, but one of its common features is a striking fascination with the twin themes of ghostly return and the minoritized sexual personhoods of women, homosexuals, and kathoeys (Thai trans feminine subjects).

This concurrence of cinema, haunting, and queer sexuality is constitutively yoked by Fuhrmann to broader issues in the contemporary Thai polity, notably the postcrisis resurgence of nostalgic cultural nationalism that combined traditional Buddhist-coded appeals to social and economic discipline with novel state-driven modes of regulatory sexual attention. "After 1997," she notes, "new cultural and social policy took recourse to bodies and sexualities and national cultural identity and citizenship came to be closely articulated with normative prescriptions for sexuality" (6). [End Page 563]

The recurrent stories, themes, and motifs of ghostly return that pervade Thai cinema of the past two decades signal cultural and aesthetic responses to the fraught sexualization of Thai national identity and citizenship. Occupying a dynamic nexus of textual representation, governmentality, and desire, these films blend issues of minoritized sexual identifications with "Buddhist-coded anachronisms of haunting [to] figure struggles over contemporary Thai sexualities, notions of personhood, and collective life" (7). The use of the word struggles is operative here, as Fuhrmann stresses the complex affective and political negotiations staged by these films around sexuality, desire, and selfhood. Surveying a broad range of texts from mainstream, independent, and avantgarde practices, Ghostly Desires is equally attentive to how these films support hegemonic discourses and how they constitute counternormative queer feminist possibilities "that represent sexual personhood in ways that challenge nationalist prescription" (6).

In theorizing the distinctive thematics of queer spectrality in Thai cinema, Fuhrmann advances her linchpin concept of "Buddhist melancholia," an affective and temporal configuration rooted in Buddhist conceptions of desire, loss, and impermanence. In doctrinal Theravadin Buddhism the doxa of impermanence is traditionally deployed to signal the futility of desire and prescribe a spiritual ideal of detachment. In popular form, however, its function is considerably more dynamic. The classic Theravadin practice of meditation on death is exemplary of the ambivalence of Buddhist melancholia, where a sustained contemplation of morbid decay services an ostensible pedagogy of erotic disavowal while advancing a phantasmic spectacle that actively engenders desire and allows for various modes of eroticized attachment. In this sense, Buddhist melancholia functions as "a trope of mobility" that "infuses prescriptive affective trajectories, in which attachment is the mere foil to inevitable expiration, with elasticity" (18). In turn, Thai films of ghostly haunting draw from the mercurial excess of Buddhist melancholia "to negotiate problematics of desire, sexual personhood, history, and the vicissitudes of attachment" and "furnish alternative models of sexuality for the present" (19).

This central argument about the counternormative productivity of Buddhist melancholia is developed in Ghostly Returns through four case studies, each addressed to a key film text or artistic configuration of the cinema of ghostly return. The first engages Nonzee Nimibutr's 1999 heritage film Nang Nak—a major commercial and critical success that was instrumental to the postcrisis renaissance...


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