Baudrillard in Bangkok

Magritte, La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images), 1929

A simulacrum is a likeness, image or effigy; bearing a superficial similarity to its original, it is a placeholder or sign for the real thing, a representation rather than a replication. The instrumental suffix –crum signifies something which might be used in a simulation, like a baby doll in a nativity play, a CPR dummy, or a scale model of the moon for rehearsing the Apollo mission. The French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, however, galvanised the word with post-modern magic, stratifying its meaning into three or four gradations. In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), the simulacrum becomes something more than a mere likeness; it is the image that ‘murders’ reality. The violence of the hyperbole is startling. This is the treason of images. 

There are four orders of simulation.

“Such would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum. In the first case, the image is a good appearance — representation is of the sacramental order. In the second, it is an evil appearance — it is of the order of maleficence. In the third, it plays at being an appearance — it is of the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation.”  

So, let’s try an analysis. I’ll take a subject close to home. Just up the street, in fact.

There’s a stunningly beautiful woman standing by the entrance to an entertainment plaza in a certain South-East Asian capital of some ten million souls. Or ten million people, rather, there being far more souls than bodies in this city. 

Her name is Mew. 

She’s standing in the entrance, in a sexy dress, swinging a hip. Tall as a model, with jutting breasts and a teasing smile, she is perfect from every angle as long as she keeps still. The simulation is betrayed by the hyper-feminine exaggeration of her movements. And her voice, when she speaks.

Is ‘Mew’ a first order simulacrum, of the order of sacraments? Does this impersonation of a woman defer to the original? Does ‘Mew’, in his life-long yearning to be one, acknowledge the ineffable nature of woman?

Arguably yes — and for that reason he has kept his penis.

The majority of ladyboys do, and not just because they are still saving up for this last and most expensive staging point on their transformative journey. Value lies in difference, as Baudrillard says, and it is the penis that acknowledges the sovereignty of the original and makes the kathoey a work of art, of the order of sacraments, a first order simulation. The simulation is revealed as artificial, groping towards reality… at least, by the end of the night. 

They keep the dick because the dick is money. 

Let’s not assume, then, that Mew wants to be a perfect illusion. Rather, she is a flickering double-image: half-moon, futanari, khatoey. Without her penis, the ambiguous tease, the post-modern flirtation, would be lost. Reconstruction of the genitals would be a stupid and irredeemable mistake, signalling the end of the performance and consignment to the lowest rung of femininity, and she knows this. Her penis matters as much to her as to any man – it is her livelihood, her value, and her sacrament. 

But Mew is both more and less than a work of art; she’s simultaneously a first and a second order simulacrum. Mew’s simulation of a beautiful woman does indeed threaten the original – the Bangkok bar-girl – by trying to steal her customers. The fact that she costs more than a girl suggests that the precession of simulacra is, in this field, already an economic reality. 

You might think she has a different clientele, but there is a big overlap, and Mew, believe me, loves nothing better than to seduce a ‘straight’ man. Of course a straight man, led astray by her, can no longer be counted as straight, exactly, though since he has no desire for sex with men you cannot say he is gay either, or for that matter bisexual. 

She is magical only for as long as you are deceived by her appearance. Once she exposes her secret penis, her business is to usurp the anima in your mind and your bed – to be better than a girl. If she can do that, she graduates, no longer a work of art but an evil appearance; of the order of malefice. Masculinity and femininity die in a murder-suicide, and resurrect themselves in a new synthesis.

The physical changes Mew has gone through are mirrored by the remodelling that occurs within the psyche of her customer. I know men who only like chicks; some of those chicks just happen to have dicks. There are men who could never be attracted to another man, but who are seduced by ladyboys and eventually grow to enjoy them more than the women they simulate. In some cases they become, in time, fixated on the simulacrum. Now they can’t fancy a woman unless she’s not a woman. 

In such a case, the original object of desire has disappeared, to be replaced by its image, a simulacrum now masking the absence of the real, which persists only in rotting shreds clinging to certain points on the map. All notion of an original is forgotten, and only the fiction remains. Such a man inhabits the dark side of the half-moon, so to speak, a world of copies without originals, signs to nowhere and portraits of no one. It is not real, but it is not unreal either – it is hyperreal. Mew, I’m sure she’d be thrilled to learn, is the perfect illustration of French post-modern social theory. I’ll have to try to explain that to her some time.

Futanari – literally ‘to be of two kinds’, or ‘dual forms’ – exhibit the precession of simulacra, and their absence from the text of Simulacra and Simulation is an inexplicable oversight on Baudrillard’s part. However, the fact is that the burgeoning of androgynes in Asia is rooted, not in French social theory, or even in biology or genetics — but in rumour, theatre, and folk religion. 

Traditional clothing in Japan made it easy to dissemble gender; for instance, a woman could easily dress as a man to gain access to a prohibited area. A man could dress as a woman and hide a weapon or contraband in the belt bag. Security guards were therefore posted at key points in the city to perform body checks, and whether or not their origins lay in actual cases of clitoromegaly or hermaphrodism, the sensational stories told by these guards became popular and widespread.

In theatre, the conventions of Onnagata led to all kinds of identity-play, culminating in early 17th century Wakashū kabuki, which used casts of adolescent boys to play both male and female roles and dwelt on erotic themes. Surviving oral elements of Japanese folk-religion hint at tales of gender transformation; deities such as dōsojin had ambiguous gender, and were represented by both phallic and yonic symbols. Belief spread that people existed who could change their gender with the phases of the moon, and the term hangetsu or ‘half-moon’ (半月) was coined to describe such beings. From there the half-moon  becomes a character in anime and manga, explodes into pornography, and onto the streets of Tokyo, Manila and Bangkok.

The hangetsu is not surreal, it’s hyperreal, like the various chimaera of folklore modelled in a thousand forms all over Bangkok, from the golden singh tigers guarding the Royal Palace to the kinnara birds adorning the lamp-posts, to statues and reliefs of the Great King Naga. Once you start looking, impossible creatures of the mythical forest of Himmaphan are everywhere. Mew, I guess, is just another one of them.  

Baudrillard’s paradoxes do not strike us as counter-intuitive in the least — not in Bangkok, for sure. Here, hyperreality seems both imminent and immanent. But Bangkok, believe it or not, is no different from anywhere else in this world. Like the corruption, the commodification of everything is just more obvious here. But the rest of the world is not, qualitatively speaking, any different. As the reality-principle approaches its epochal crisis, hyperreality seems to breathe from every surface, artistic, sexual, political, technological, theoretical. Biologically-inspired robotics have quickly manifested Philip K Dick’s vision in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – a title which neatly encapsulates the short-circuiting of reality that Baudrillard describes. Robotic cockroaches and mules and cheetahs and snakes and fish and dragonflies already exist; once the bees are gone, leaving Google’s micro-drone pollinators to service Monsanto’s genetically engineered plants, how long before humanoid robots will climb from the cinema screens to hunt us down in packs? At that point, the precession of simulacra will be nearing completion, and we will feel, too late, the murderous capacity of the image. 

But let’s not worry about it, for long before that day arrives, along comes Mew’s friend Wan, tottering on her stack heels, swinging her arm and bubbling, as always, with laughter. Wan ran away from home at twenty and ended up in Pat Pong, working in a khatoey bar where most, though not all, of the girls were boys. That was the bar’s selling point, and why it was called ‘GUESS’. Runaway Wan was adopted by the ladyboys, who liked her and showed her the ropes. So it was natural that she should borrow their mannerisms, and her persona become a salute to them. Those angular gestures rubbed off on her, the ironic hands, the gaily swinging arm – and she could be very gay, very funny, always pushing the joke, staccato laughter peppering her speech until it was almost incomprehensible. She had her hair dyed blonde, spiky like an anime character, with one side shaved, which grew back in her native black, giving her a two-tone, punkish look. A stud in the tongue and one in the nose, tattoos visible on her right arm and left shoulder, and she was good to go.

It was part of her job, and the standing joke, to keep the customers guessing. Sometimes she would shove tissue paper down her shorts to make a little bulge — a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. It’s positively Shakespearean. More to the point, essentially Baudrillardian: the simulation of a simulation. Wan was the original the ladyboys were copying. When she copied their copy and paid homage to their homage, she became, not a fake, but a fake fake. 

“It plays at being an appearance: it is of the order of sorcery.” 

And always a great conversation starter!

A few years ago, I heard that one of the big fashion houses, unable to beat the incessant wave of rip-offs, deciding to compete with them and bringing out a ‘fake fake’ line — that is, an authentically branded article posing as a fake, cutting corners to create a cheaper product. 

I don’t know if that caught on. But Wan did – she was extremely popular; fake fake with a strap-on, of the third order of simulacra of Nana and Pat Pong. 

One thought on “Baudrillard in Bangkok

  1. Reblogged this on the lethal text and commented:

    Futanari – literally ‘to be of two kinds’, or ‘dual forms’ – exhibit the precession of simulacra, and their absence from the text of Simulacra and Simulation is an inexplicable oversight on Baudrillard’s part. However, the fact is that the burgeoning of androgynes in Asia is rooted, not in French social theory, or even in biology or genetics — but in rumour, theatre, and folk religion.

    Liked by 1 person

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