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Life is a Show (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Sophorntavy Vorng. 2017.
A Meeting of Masks: Status, Power and Hierarchy in Bangkok
Copenhagen: NIAS Press
ISBN 9788776941970

The study
This study of urban Thai middle class identity and culture in Bangkok was initiated shortly before massive social unrest and subsequent violence erupted in late 2005. Consequently, the oppositional clashes and its political fault lines were to form the backdrop of the research, while the following questions begged for answer: How to make sense of the social, cultural, and historical forces that have driven the political conflict of the past decade, and shaped the protest movements that emerged? What are the implications of this struggle for Thailand’s people and democracy? What impetus does the country need to move forward from its political deadlock? (p. 6).

In her quest for answers, the everyday experience of inequality that pervades life in Thailand gradually became the key in explaining situations, such as both personally felt and structurally given. Easy explanations, such as class war, or the urban–rural divide, needed to be tamed by showing their complexity.

A main point of the study is the evolution of Bangkok’s geographic heart from the old palace and religious temple city where everything of importance was decided and took place to the new city with its hierarchy of temples devoted to the cult of consumerism, i.e. the malls. As a result, cultural notions of rank and hierarchy – with all that these imply, from living experience to politico-historical undercurrents – are the focus of the study (p. 8).

Because of her classical participation approach and subsequent personal bonds with informants, she highlights emic understandings that drive deep social discontent and political tensions, while trying to shed light on the complexity of social experience and personal frustrations. In her note on methodology, I was amazed to see that somebody with such a deep Thai-Sanscritic given name as ‘Beauty-Twice-Over’ was not fluent in Thai at the outset of the research. The other point of interest is that her conclusions regarding class and status identity are ultimately based on people’s self-assessments.

The narrative sets out on the historical classification of status in the sakdina system as a deeply entrenched model, then proceeds with reflections of the defining markers of contemporary middle-class membership and identity. These markers are both basic and in flux, such as observable in the shift from the monarchical-religious old city center to the dominance of the modern downtown consumption hub. This cultural dominance is tangibly expressed in middle-class fascination with high-society styles of life, while demonstrating the intense contemporary emphasis on wealth as an indicator of power, such as expressed in a pervasive preoccupation with status display, ‘face’, prestige and reputation (p. 19).

In the chapter City Above Countryside, we find an attempt to get to grips with the prevailing social unrest and the resentment of the rural and urban underdog strata that, under ‘democracy’, have become conscious of their disenfranchisement, which feeds into the rise of populist politicians whose demagogy attracts both the votes of the poor and the young – whether in Thaksin’s Thailand, Trump’s USA, or Duterte’s Philippines – and massive protests against the established order.

According to the author, contemporary middle-class life also breeds resentment because of the extreme social competitiveness of urban society, and frustrations stemming from the intense struggle over opportunities for education and employment. She elaborates further on how the emphasis on ‘face’, reputation, prestige, and material wealth translates into access to the networks and social circles that lead to opportunities for success, upward mobility, and economic and political power. In her conclusion, Sophorntavy suggests that this striking discourse of middle-class resentment, along with the discontent of the marginalized rural and working class segments of Thai society, has been instrumental to mobilizing popular support and legitimacy in the political turmoil (p. 19).

My fun in reading through her findings and deliberations was in the recognition they evoked. Was she analyzing things as a Thai or was she talking about the social life that surrounds me here in the Philippines? Naturally, her narrative and conclusions also evoked memories of my days in Thailand, especially of my three-year stint in Chiang Mai in the 1970s. When I set out on my research there, I made a serious mistake. Coming from an intensely egalitarian background where ‘just being yourself is already reasonably silly’, I thought that assuming a low profile equated with being polite and unobtrusive. Since I needed to introduce myself to all and sundry in a town where I knew nobody, I had cards printed with my Dutch and Thai given names on it, my family name, and under these, in Thai, ‘Researcher of Thai Culture’. The word ‘researcher’ is ambivalent, as in common parlance it squarely means ‘student’.[1]

Armed with this text and my address, I introduced myself to faculty members of the University of Chiang Mai, where I was shocked by the familiar and sometimes lofty treatment they accorded me. When I had established myself and had become better known, many of the same who had been condescending became apologetic or avoided me, and so I learned that demonstrating status is a must, and that not introducing myself as Dr Mulder had been a serious mistake, which brought John Cadet’s pun to mind,

‘Dr. Mulder,’ you feel like saying at this point, ‘Niels, old boy, how is it that after all these years, you still haven’t learned that wearing a mask is de rigueur in these parts and that without one, you’re more or less naked?’ (John Cadet, 2010)
Who you are is, or should be, socially irrelevant. One is the persona that one projects, and the individual who inhabits that persona is a personal affair, a nakedness that should be dressed up. At this point it is of interest to note that many or most identify with the mask they wear and are unable to deal with their actual deep self, an area which, according to Cadet, equates with ‘a frightening black hole’. This identification with mask, ‘face’, or prestige corresponds with a low degree of individuation that has been noted in both Thailand and on Java, and that has become a cornerstone in developing the social psychology of the Filipino.[2]

So, when ‘Beauty-Twice-Over’ finds that hiding behind the mask of status display and all that it entails characterizes life in contemporary Bangkok, does she reveal something surprising, or does she merely confirm what Thai sociologists stated in the 1970s, viz. that the primary Thai values are wealth, power, seniority, rank, and being the boss, all of which give rise to a style of life that I at that time characterized as ‘presentational’. By its own logic, this style triggers intense competition for power and status, and a flagrant display of status symbols. [3]

Recently, this was once again confirmed in a letter from a junior colleague who, after 14 years of ‘deep immersion’ in life in Thailand, summarized his experience as ‘There is something deeply pathological about Thainess as you show it's all superficial aesthetic truth as if ethics mattered. Thais are pre-Kantian and barely individuated abject subjects’. Whereas this more or less jibes with mine and others’ observations, the question remains whether ‘show’ and ‘ingratiating behavior’ are specifically Thai, as related observations often reminded me of life in the Philippines and, especially, Java where I characterized life in the Jogjakarta around 1970 as a great wayang performance or a plain theater of shadows.[4]

The advantages of retrospect and comparison shed light on certain assumptions that beset this study of cultural notions of rank and hierarchy. The most obvious is the idea that hierarchy and all that it implies is a legacy of the sakdina classification of social ranks. Since we find a parallel classification in European feudalism, ranging from king via dukes and counts to baronets and other minor peers, we may safely observe that sakdina was nothing more than the formalization of an existing condition, viz. social hierarchy.

Social hierarchy is the primal condition in which a child is born; its ancestors, its parents are its moral and actual superiors to whom the child should feel its ‘debt of gratitude’ (ni. bunkhun (Th); utang-na-loob (Tag/Fo); utang budi (J)), and fulfill the duties it implies. This is at the basis of a moralistic view of social life that stands at right angles with modern sociology or class analysis. Social problems are moral problems,[5] and so, in the moralistic view, the modern idea and democratic practice of equality equate with the chaos of people who do no longer know place and duty, who act outside Sophontavy’s kalathesa, i.e. appropriate time and place.

This brings us to the point of which she is well aware, viz. the loose connotation of ‘class’ in English. Sociologically, class is a relation to the economy, and so, labor as working class is not ambiguous, but the idea of ‘middle class’ is. In a moralistic social order, one had better think of estates in a layered social pyramid; in doing so, ‘middle class’ becomes the Third Estate, i.e. the emancipated citizenry or burghers.

A fact of life that our author is very much impressed with is the importance of connections in the social rat race, an opinion that possibly reveals the hidden assumption that being judged on one’s merit is more desirable than connections and ingratiating behavior. Again, there is nothing specifically Thai about the latter two, as is obvious from the text of a letter-to-the-editor in the Philippine Daily Inquirer of 10 April 2017:
the ease by which one can acquire a gun and illegally possess and carry it, assured in the thought that one can easily get away with any violation of the law by pulling some influence or through bribery
or, as her informants assure her, ‘through the right connections or the fact that one is high-up one even can get away with murder’. This jibes with my experience of life in my Philippine neighborhood where I personally know of several cases.

In narrating her study, the author gives place of pride to the collective resentment inherent of a complex, division-ridden society – currently smoothed over by a military junta and a new, assertive head of state – and the personal resentments of individuals who suffer from or complain about their experience of the urban rat race. Another way of putting the problem was already noted in the 1970s when the tensions called forth by rapid social change resulted in psychology-oriented local and World Health Organization research that produces stunning figures about the dire state of psychological well-being;[6] apparently, some 40 years further on, this situation persists.

In sum, under the felicitously pointed title A Meeting of Masks, we find a delightful, often anecdotic narrative of exemplary fieldwork and in-depth interviewing. So, whereas I recommend the procedure, I take exception to the interpretations that resulted from certain hidden assumptions that came to light by way of comparisons through time and place, or through applying the author’s beloved stepping stone, kalathesa.

[1] Niels Mulder, Professional Stranger: Doing Thailand During its Most Violent Decade: A Field Diary, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2009.
[2] Niels Mulder, Inside Southeast Asia: Religion, Everyday Life, Cultural Change, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000, 204-5.
[3] Niels Mulder, Inside Thai Society: Religion, Everyday Life, Change, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000, 48.
[4] Niels Mulder, Mysticism in Java: Ideology in Indonesia, Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 2005, 152-3.
[5] Mulder, Inside Southeast Asia, 77-81.
[6] Mulder, Inside Thai Society, 49.

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