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Personhood and political subjectivity through ritual enactment in Isan (northeast Thailand)

  • Visisya Pinthongvijayakul
Abstract

This article examines the relationship between an important local spirit cult and the construction of Isan political identity in Chaiyaphum province, northeast Thailand. Isan subjectivity has largely been studied through social or political-economic lenses. This study looks, however, at the spiritual experiences and ritual performances that crucially manufacture a local version of personhood. The spectacular annual performance of social memory and historical commemoration of Phaya Lae is constitutive of political identity for the people of Chaiyaphum province. I argue that the rituals surrounding the Phaya Lae cult enable the people of Chaiyaphum to perceive their subjectivity as Thais via the integration of the deity into the historical imagination of the state. I argue further that such local performances of spirit cults sustain Thailand as a ‘ritual state’ in which power and prestige are maintained by ritual enactments both in everyday life and ceremonial events. Through mediumship, the periphery draws charisma from the central Thai state and in turn ritually sustains the potency of the centre.

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Correspondence in connection with this article should be addressed to: visisya.p@chandra.ac.th.
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I would like to thank Chandrakasem Rajabhat University and The Australian National University's Thai Alumni Scholarship for sponsoring my doctoral research. My field research (2012–13) was supported by a Field Research Grant, Department of Anthropology, ANU, and the 2011 Thai Studies Field Research Grants from the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. This article draws on my dissertation. I would like to thank the members of my supervisory panel, Philip Taylor, Peter Jackson, Jane Ferguson, and Andrew Walker, for their comments and help in thinking through the project. I would also like to thank the two anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions. Finally, Cameron McLachlan deserves credit for his attentive work in editing and refining the ideas presented in this article. All the photographs in this article are mine.

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1 Phaya is equivalent to the English term ‘lord’. It is an honorific title of the local ruler.

2 Catherine Hesse-Swain, ‘Speaking in Thai, dreaming in Isan: Popular Thai television and emerging identities of Lao Isan youth living in northeast Thailand’ (PhD diss., Edith Cowan University, 2011); Keyes, Charles F., Finding their voice: Northeastern villagers and the Thai state (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2014); McCargo, Duncan and Hongladarom, Krisadawan, ‘Contesting Isan-ness: Discourses of politics and identity in northeast Thailand’, Asian Ethnicity 5, 2 (2004): 219234 .

3 See Johnson, Andrew A., ‘Re-centreing the city: Spirits, local wisdom, and urban design at the Three Kings Monument of Chiang Mai’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 42, 3 (2011): 511–31.

4 Terwiel, Barend J., ‘The origin and meaning of the Thai “city pillar”’, Journal of the Siam Society 66, 2 (1978): 159.

5 Walker, Andrew, Thailand's political peasants: Power in the modern rural economy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

6 Ibid., p. 104.

7 Wiphakphotjanakit, Toem, Prawatsat Isan [The history of northeast Thailand], 4th ed. (Bangkok: Thammasat University Press, 2003), pp. 1617 .

8 Johnson, Andrew A., Ghosts of the new city: Spirits, urbanity, and the ruins of progress in Chiang Mai (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014).

9 Keyes, Charles F., ‘National heroine or local spirit? The struggle over memory in the case of Thao Suranari of Nakhon Ratchasima’, in Cultural crisis and social memory: Politics of the past in the Thai world, ed. Shigeharu, Tanabe and Keyes, Charles F. (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002).

10 Phuong, Pham Quynh, Hero and deity: Tran Hung Dao and the resurgence of popular religion in Vietnam (Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2009).

11 Strathern, Andrew and Lambek, Michael, ‘Embodying sociality: Africanist–Melanesianist comparisons’, in Bodies and persons: Comparative perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, ed. Strathern, A. and Lambek, M. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 125 . Csordas, Thomas J., ‘Embodiment as a paradigm for anthropology’, Ethos 18, 1 (1990): 547 ; Csordas, Thomas J., ‘The body as representation and being-in-the-world’, in Embodiment and experience: The existential ground of culture and self, ed. Csordas, T.J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 124 .

12 Strathern and Lambek, ‘Embodying sociality’, p. 14; Mauss, Marcel, ‘Techniques of the body’, Economy and Society 2, 1 (1973): 7088 ; Mauss, Marcel, ‘A category of the human mind: The notion of person; the notion of self’, in The category of the person, ed. Carrithers, Michael, Collins, Steven and Lukes, Steven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 125 .

13 Skilling, Peter, ‘King, Sangha and Brahmans: Ideology, ritual and power in pre-modern Siam’, in Buddhism, power and political order, ed. Harris, Ian (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 182.

14 See Jackson, Peter A., ‘The performative state: Semi-coloniality and the tyranny of images in modern Thailand’, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 19, 2 (2004): 219–53; Jackson, Peter A., ‘Markets, media, and magic: Thailand's monarch as a “virtual deity”’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 10, 3 (2009): 361–80.

15 Jackson, ‘The performative state’; Jackson, ‘Markets, media, and magic’; Geertz, Clifford, Negara: The theatre state in nineteenth-century Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

16 Jiamthirasakul, Somsak, ‘Prawatsat wan chat thai chak 24 mithuna thueng 5 thanwa’ [The history of Thai national day: From 24 June to 5 Dec.], Fah diew kan 2, 2 (April–June 2004): 70121 .

17 Taussig, Michael T., Mimesis and alterity: A particular history of the senses (New York: Routledge, 1993).

18 Mae (mother) is a term of respect used when addressing older women.

19 Winichakul, Thongchai, Siam mapped: A history of the geo-body of a nation (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994); Toem Wiphakphotjanakit, Prawatsat Isan.

20 Tambiah, Stanley J., World conqueror and world renouncer: A study of Buddhism and polity in Thailand against a historical background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 120–31.

21 Ibid., p. 112.

22 Brightman, Marc, Grotti, Vanessa Elisa and Ulturgasheva, Olga, Animism in rainforest and tundra: Personhood, animals, plants and things in contemporary Amazonia and Siberia (New York: Berghahn, 2014); Harvey, Graham, Animism: Respecting the living world (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

23 See Bautista, Julius, The spirit of things: Materiality and religious diversity in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: SEAP, Cornell University, 2012).

24 There is a wide range of literature that contributes to the understanding of the role of things in shaping human subjectivities. For example, Walker, Harry, ‘Baby hammocks and stone bowls: Urarina technologies of companionship and subjection’, in The occult life of things: Native Amazonian theories of materiality and personhood, ed. Granero, F. Santos (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009), pp. 98113 ; Descola, Philippe, ‘Societies of nature and the nature of society’, in Conceptualising society, ed. Kuper, Adam (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 107–26; Kohn, Eduardo, How forests think: Toward an anthropology beyond the human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); de la Cadena, Marisol, Earth beings: Ecologies of practice across Andean worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

25 See Peleggi, Maurizio, ‘The plot of Thai art history: Buddhist scripture and the myth of national origins’, in A sarong for Clio: Essays on the intellectual and cultural history of Thailand, ed. Peleggi, Maurizio (New York: SEAP, Cornell University, 2015), p. 81.

26 Peleggi, Maurizio, The politics of ruins and the business of nostalgia (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2002), p. 34.

27 Peleggi, ‘The plot of Thai art history’, p. 81.

28 Leys, Ruth, ‘The turn to affect: A critique’, Critical Inquiry 37, 3 (2011): 434–72: Stewart, Kathleen, Ordinary affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007): Gould, Deborah, Moving politics: Emotion and ACT UP's fight against AIDS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009): Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Frank, Adam, Shame and its sisters: A Sylvan Tomkins reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995): Massumi, Brian, Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

29 Leys, ‘The turn to affect’: 436.

30 Gould, Moving politics.

31 Leys, ‘The turn to affect’: 435; Shouse, Eric, ‘Feeling, emotion, affect’, M/C Journal 8 (Dec. 2005), journal.media-culture.org.au/0512/03-shouse.php (last accessed 25 Sept. 2016).

32 Gould, Moving politics; Ahmed, Sara, ‘Affective economies’, Social Texts 79, 2 (2004): 117–39; Navaro-Yashin, Yael, ‘Affective spaces, melancholic objects: Ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 118 .

33 Ong is a title and classifier for sacred and royal beings.

34 The majority of northeasterners are culturally and linguistically close to the people of Laos, a country that is considered backward in the central Thai imagination. Moreover, Isan is politically contested in Thai nationalist discourse, and has had a long history of conflict with the central power of Bangkok.

35 See also the cult of Ya Mo in Khorat, in Keyes, ‘National heroine or local spirit?’.

I would like to thank Chandrakasem Rajabhat University and The Australian National University's Thai Alumni Scholarship for sponsoring my doctoral research. My field research (2012–13) was supported by a Field Research Grant, Department of Anthropology, ANU, and the 2011 Thai Studies Field Research Grants from the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. This article draws on my dissertation. I would like to thank the members of my supervisory panel, Philip Taylor, Peter Jackson, Jane Ferguson, and Andrew Walker, for their comments and help in thinking through the project. I would also like to thank the two anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions. Finally, Cameron McLachlan deserves credit for his attentive work in editing and refining the ideas presented in this article. All the photographs in this article are mine.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
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