Review: Andrew Johnson’s “Ghosts of the New City”

Johnson, Andrew Alan. 2014. Ghosts of the new city: spirits, urbanity, and the ruins of progress in Chiang Mai. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

University of Hawai’i Link

Amazon Link

Review by Erik W. Davis

This book is about the idea of the city as a space similarly ‘haunted’ by magico-religious notions of charismatic power—power that retains its significance even in the face of Thailand’s transformation into a nation-state and current entrance into the neoliberal economic moment. (1)

This book is also an anthropologist’s response to Tony Day’s (2002) call for historical studies that take culture into account and draw connections between premodern ways of interpreting new forms of power and modern ones (see also Kapferer 1988). (2)

The quotes above indicate the thematic relations between such topics as the city, ghosts, urban development, and economic fluctuations. Another related question is asked a bit later: “What makes urbanity in Southeast Asia distinct from how it has been conceived in the West? How might the legacy of the city as a vehicle for articulating religious notions of power come to articulate ‘secular’ notions of power and progress?” (4) As such, Johnson sets his work in conversation with multiple disciplines, intersecting at his site: urban studies, postcolonial studies, development, religious studies, and of course anthropology.

He indicates in another mini-vignette how tall abandoned buildings, of the sort that loomed so large in people’s imaginations and in actual city-scapes after the 1997 economic crash, are associated with hauntings. It is this particular association that Johnson examines in the next chapter, and for which he sets the theoretical stage by referring to Derrida’s ‘hauntology.’

Beginning with a summary of a modern Thai horror film, Laddaland, Johnson discusses the cultural notion of charoen, which Johnson sees as underpinning much of the cultural connections that he examines in his book. Charoen—variably progress, development, improvement, potentiated power, etc.—points to a hierarchically organized world in which connections to the higher forms of existence are deeply important. In this chapter, Johnson also points out how modern Thai development conceives its anxieties that it may be separating from Charoen even as it pursues it in another dimension. Johnson then introduces the notion of watthanathan, or ‘culture,’ or ‘charismatic property,’ a neologism. He points to the historic articulation and imagination of the Thai royal city as precisely a diverse and cosmopolitan one, a place where the barami of the King “allows for charoen and the drawing-in of prestige, new immigrants, power, and wealth.” (9)

Chapter Two portrays a theory of the City as Magical Geography/Geographic Entity, with a particular set of interrelationships, and which includes an interesting discussion of the transformation of sovereignty in Chiang Mai under Kawilarot in 1866. I’m especially appreciative of the excellent use of Condominas’ theory of emboîtement as a sort of idealized fractal organization of the world.

Chapter Three represents the first culmination of multiple themes in the book; Johnson extends his discussion of power and urbanism farther. Beyond these extensions, this is largely a chapter that introduces us to the world of mediums, the personalities and performances. As such, it is less argument driven. The projects in this chapter include the following themes:

  1. That the nature of the locally imagined past is teleological: “[T]he past…exists is the present as a concretion of History is teleological. The past exists as potential for the future. It is the story of charoen, of becoming.” (87, 75)
  2. When it comes to mediumship in particular, and magic in general, people aren’t interested in the why nearly as much as the fact that the practices and personalities are effective. (quoting McDaniel on Thailand and Evans-Pritchard on the Azande, 88)
  3. Opening up a discussion about the proper theorization of mediumship. He cites scholars who point to the link “between spirit possession and the expression of traumatic or inarticulable stresses, especially those stemming from radical changes in status—in those cases, puberty, political marginalization, and marriage, respectively.” (80). He challenges this directly shortly thereafter:

Chapter Four describes the ways in which “Lanna Style” is instituted, reproduced, and articulated by those promoting it, largely folks from Central Thailand or professionals from the North attempting to parlay Lanna Style into a commodifiable career, without agreeing on any of the characteristics of Lanna Style.

Lanna Style Google Image Search

Lanna Style Google Image Search

The argument that has been building throughout the book is realized in Chapter Five: Chiang Mai is not merely a real city, but especially to those interested and appealed to by the fetishistic (‘postmodern’) aspect of “Lanna Style” and ‘Northern Culture,’ reified and appropriated for different types of projects (though all driven by consumption), far more importantly is a City whose Potential is eternal, and in need of re-realization.

Here, I shall return to the idea of charoen as a ladder. This idealized Lanna is a place several rungs up, past the missteps of Bangkok and the West. In this sense, Lanna is a place of desire, not what exists on the ground or even existed in the past. It lies in a future, farther up the ladder of charoen. But from the vantage point of the current, haunted, ruinous present, it is out of reach. Those who are constructing these narratives of an idealized past ‘local wisdom’ or watthanatham imagine this higher level and project their fantasies—those already informed by their own desires for modernity and bourgeois life and khwam charoen—on this higher rung. In reaching it, one can surpass the primitive past, the ruinous present, and the false steps taken by Bangkok and the West. (152)

The book concludes in a chapter titled “The city doesn’t have a future,” and which includes a brief investigation of hauntology and the curious relationship between magic and progress.

This is an excellent book, which I found thoroughly engaging. Some parts will represent other contributions throughout the various relevant literatures: ethnographic oral histories, biographies, and participant observation reports of such ‘exotic’ figures as spirit mediums, etc. What I appreciate about the best of these accounts, and Johnson’s is included in that category, is that they take the ‘exotic’ as examples from which we can learn more than mere that “In Thailand some people believe in Spirit Mediums.” I recommend it highly to students of Southeast Asia, at undergraduate levels and above, though lower undergraduate courses would find it occasionally rough going.


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