Archive for February, 2013

Chris Coles and Bangkok Noir Redux. And Redux. And Redux….And Redux…

Posted in สะพานลอย with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2013 by สะพานลอย

Paint by Numbers

Those indefatigable academic men at work from Down Under over at New Mandala have given Chris Coles pride of place in a February 15th posting in which the paint-maker describes, yet again in the event that you’ve missed his bizarre explanations in the past (or if you failed to purchase the book called Navigating the Bangkok Noir), why his art is exactly like German expressionism, why it is important, why writers like Stephen Leather (Banging Bill’s Wife) and Christopher G. Moore (Pattaya 24/7 and The Wisdom of Beer) are part of this “noir” movement, etc, etc. 

It is somewhat surprising that the learned professors who run New Mandala have allowed Coles to drone on and on about this topic, although perhaps less surprising that Saphan Loy’s response to the post was moderated out of existence. It went something like this:

Chris Coles’ guest post has all the hallmarks of a self-serving, self-congratulatory navel-gazing think-piece clearly intended to revive a moribund interest in his book of the same name, and to generate some sympathy for this idea that his work and the work of others somehow constitutes an expressionist movement unique to Bangkok’s grim underbelly. There are so many things wrong with this from an intellectual perspective that it is difficult to know where to begin. First, there is something inherently artificial in attempting to broadly create an “artistic” movement of expatriate “artists” (mostly down-on-their luck expatriates who also happen to spend inordinate amounts of time in Bangkok’s brothel districts while scribbling implausible stories on bar napkins), where there simply is none. Coles lumps his own painting efforts, the macabre neon results of which are perhaps best-suited for the interior of a carnival funhouse, with the scribbling of typists like Christopher Moore, Stephen Leather, and Jon Burdett, whose collective fictive output is largely unreadable and place an undo strain on wood-pulp processing factories as well as the digital backbone of the Internet. In fact, Stephen Leather has recently taken to giving away digital copies of “erotic” short stories on Amazon with titles like “Banging Bill’s Wife.”  The most commercially popular of this sorry lot is Jon Burdett, but even his Bangkok-based stories do little justice to the nuanced reality and cultural complexity of living in a place like Thailand, and they have little to no bearing on Coles’ imagined “noir” movement. What is equally distressing about this whole misguided effort is that the concept of noir, as an extension of the German expressionism that Coles so admires, is essentially being grafted onto one very narrow aspect of Thai urban culture, namely the red-light districts that cater to white foreign men. There is very little of the native Thai voice to be found in his concept of Bangkok noir (or Southeast Asian noir) or whatever; and when Thais do appear, they are merely prostitutes, drug dealers, or murderers or corrupt public servants. One can hope and think and try to will into existence some grand artistic movement until the water buffalo comes home. But if other scholars, writers, art critics, and historians of Southeast Asia are directing their gaze elsewhere, or fail to see any artistic merit whatever in the examples Coles provides, then the overly ambitious Bangkok noir movement is destined to be consigned to the collective digital shrug of the Internet’s ever-shortening memory.   

coles3

Now, Lek and I occasionally read some of the postings over on the New Mandala site, which we had mistakenly believed was a place of lively academic debate and rigorous intellectual exploration. (Lek finds anything with too many words “boring”.) Instead what one has come to expect from New Mandala is a small coterie of like-minded individuals, exhibiting all of the mutually masturbatory inclinations of a left-leaning graduate school seminar, who seem to save the lion’s share of their consternation for the institution of the Thai monarchy and the threadbare cliche of corrupt Southeast Asian politics (the amount of ink that has been spilled tilting after this windmill in the Western academy shows no signs of drying, so long as another PhD can be squeezed profitably from the tired hackwork of political scientists flummoxed by Southeast Asia’s historically-grounded patron-client networks.)

Poseidon Massage Parlor

Here is Coles’s take on corruption in Bangkok (or Southeast Asia by extension):

A world where endemic corruption is not only considered to be “normal” and “permanent” but even “essential”.

In most of these artistic works, there always seems to be double helpings of Impunity, disenfranchisement, South East Asia Big Men, a complete lack of any meaningful Rule of Law, almost no actual rights inherently belonging to the individual.

Coles makes clear in the beginning of his post that he is not an intellectual, but an “artist”. He admits this probably to deflect attention from the weakness of his arguments and the implausibility of his observations (generally limited to the area in proximity to Bangkok’s red-light districts). Even so, in a forum like New Mandala, the claims he makes here about the absence of Rule of Law in Southeast Asia, and the lack of “actual rights belonging to the individual” should at least invite some scrutiny or critical circumspection, at the very minimum. Instead, the editors at New Mandala decided that Coles was immune from pointed criticism, and so his post has all of the characteristics of a bully-pulpit, a kind of meandering journey through a painter’s untutored mind.

Homosexual Bars in Bangkok

We will leave this tired story (which shows no signs of going gently into that noirish night) with some parting words from Coles, which have the nasty chemical buzz of paranoia the kind usually associated with psychedelic drug abuse:

Individuals are frequently and arbitrarily subject to state and Big Man violence, selective and biased law enforcement, sometimes even assassination and disappearances. 

The View from Above

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