Interview by Mack Hagood
Mack Hagood: Bangkok is Ringing brings us into the center of the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok during 2010 and 2011—a truly historic moment in Thailand that garnered international attention. Was the movement your original object of study when you headed to Thailand as a PhD candidate? What precipitated the movement and what unfolded after you arrived?
Ben Tausig: This massive occupation, and the movement that initiated it, was not my original object of study. Although I was interested in music and politics, and although the Red Shirts had been gaining energy for a while when I began my research, the dynamics of the movement would have been impossible to predict. But on arriving, the occupation of central Bangkok was just underway, and unsettling everything, so it would have been impossible to turn away from what was going on, no less the extraordinary role of sound in the protests. So I turned towards them. And then the movement remained so active – and so central to Thai politics – for so long that it seemed wise to stick with it. Moreover, in time the Red Shirt movement began to find performative echoes in other places, especially parts of the Arab Spring, which only made it feel more relevant.
Mack Hagood: Your book explores the protest movement through sonic performance and media of sounding and listening, revealing “uneven geographies of sound” made up of smaller “sonic niches.” Please walk us through some of these actors and media and how they feed and enact a protest movement.
Ben Tausig: The book is structured like the protests themselves. It is divided into seventeen chapters that vary in length, scope, and tone, and that at different points reflect or conflict with one another. That’s exactly what it was like being inside the Red Shirt camps. They were ad hoc spaces full of internal variations of class, region, and aesthetics. And their sounds often tracked with these differences. I call the subspaces within the rallies “sonic niches” because, like ecological niches, they existed in a state of flux, as well as in profound and dependent relation to neighboring spaces. Moreover, they were highly sensitive, and it wasn’t unusual to hear one of them disappear entirely due to some small change in, say, police enforcement of a public amplification law. Political movements are typically coalitional like this, as Mouffe and Laclau remind us. The elder bookseller whose formative experience of dissent was the Marxist movements of the Vietnam War era may not have much to say to a kid from the northeast who adored billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And it follows that the performative proletarianism of the former’s songs for life folk tunes did not always mesh well with the latter’s hip-hop. But they and their sounds found ways to coexist under the banner of a movement that they each believed would benefit them.
Mack Hagood: One of your main theoretical interventions is to dispute the common claim in sound studies that sound is unbounded and transcendent. You make a careful study of how sound is often constrained and you enlist it “to help us understand how agency caroms and fractures, how political actors often find themselves bouncing off walls rather than frictionlessly through them” (6). Can you describe how themes of constraint, blockage, patience, and persistence operate through the book in terms of sonic and political agency?
Ben Tausig: This theme arose from firsthand experience of the protests. They were so densely crowded that one could only ever experience them while partially or totally stuck, for example making long and arduous sojourns (we’re talking hours) across, say, 50-meter stretches of road to buy a bottle of water or find a friend. For those who know Bangkok, this feeling of being stuck is achingly familiar, because traffic is so intense and the roads so poorly accommodated to it (on this as a historical problem, see the work of Claudio Sopranzetti, who was in Bangkok at the same time, and who analyzes mobility very well). In my case, this experience suggested itself first as a metaphor for the ways that sound, as an agent of political force, is likewise beset by many stubborn obstacles. But why stop at the metaphor? After all, protest movements depend upon sound to announce themselves as totalities, to produce an affective sense of unity, and to make specific points emphatically. I began to reflect on the mundane ways that sound did not travel freely at Red Shirt events, and to consider how this lack of mobility could help us think about obstacles to political change, as well as to the performance of a desire for political change.
Mack Hagood: I was thrilled to learn about the cultural and political valences of luk thung and molam, genres of Thai music that some western readers may have encountered through reissues on the Sublime Frequencies label. You also movingly describe some musical moments involving these genres. Can you talk a bit about their history and importance in the Red Shirt movement?
Ben Tausig: Amporn Jirattikorn as well as James Mitchell have written about the political history of these genres, as has Terry Miller (in an earlier moment). Sublime Frequencies typifies a relatively new kind of “world music,” a phenomenon that has been analyzed by Portia Seddon and David Novak, among others. Briefly, decades- or even centuries-old genres circulate today in a weird and remediated fashion that requires – decidedly! – a new auditory ethics. That’s a long way of saying that most western listeners who hear mor lam and luk thung are likely to do so through media products that obscure their political valences. In what we might call hipster-colonial commerce, these genres are typically marketed and heard as psychedelic or otherwise exotic – a familiar and regrettably orientalist framing – whereas in practice they contain a rich poetics of exclusion from political power. That poetry can tell us a great deal about how people identify with rurality in Thailand, especially as a moral ground within a country that’s long been a site of unregulated, exploitative capitalist development. The Red Shirts’ use of these genres therefore necessitates a closer examination of the latent possibility of a left-wing instinct that has been unnaturally excluded, one might well say repressed, from political discourse (Communist political parties, for example, are formally illegal). The possibility of the eventual return of the left, even as a kernel, therefore cannot be ruled out after considering how mor lam and luk thung functioned for the Red Shirts. This was an exciting part of the research, and I still hold out hope for this kernel to grow, even though it is an interpretation that has not yet been borne out.
Mack Hagood: I hesitate to pursue this next line of questioning, both because it may simply be a reductive and facile cross-cultural comparison and because it may seem to signal political commitments I don’t own. However, while reading Bangkok is Ringing, I couldn’t help but think repeatedly about the political rallies of Donald Trump. There are so many similarities: a rural political movement sneered at by many among the urban and educated; a wealthy, media-savvy, populist leader who, like Tahksin, benefitted from and perpetuated neoliberalism while also railing against its social ills; a similar ecosystem that sprung up around the rallies of chanting, blaring music, homemade media, and political performativity—even the red color of the iconic MAGA hat! I have often thought that those of us working in the politics of sound, media, and affect studies should be doing a lot more work on Trumpism. What insights did the Thai example provide as you watched these events transpire in the United States? Does your sonic approach provide us ways of understanding what is happening here now?
Ben Tausig: Absolutely. Politically and economically, Thailand tends to foreshadow certain global developments, perhaps because capital is quite free to operate as it wishes there, so it bumbles into crises with less friction. That’s an undeveloped theory, but I am not the only one to notice it. And indeed, Thailand had a billionaire populist before the US did, although one could also draw comparisons to George W. Bush, who was elected at the same time as Thaksin. It is highly ironic that there is even an argument for the emergence of a leftist politics within the Red Shirts, given what a violent, autocratic neoliberal Thaksin could be (he bears some similarities to Duterte). But the fact remains that some percentage of Red Shirts joined the movement in spite of Thaksin, not because of him. One can therefore draw some meaningful connections between the Red Shirts and the American populist right, and it is worth reading Kasian Tejapira’s prescient insights from 2006. But the comparison has its limits.
Meanwhile, yes, I think sound studies can draw some narrow comparisons here. Sonically and otherwise, Trumpism cast itself as a puncture of elite spaces. The Red Shirts cast themselves in much the same way. Their occupations were provocatively staged in the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan parts of Bangkok – precisely the areas from which they as working people were excluded. They blared rustic songs, voices, and timbres in the most refined districts of the country. Some Trump supporters were likewise given, especially in the winter of 2016-17, to entering public spaces that they felt were the province of liberals, and shouting insults as a form of spatialized comeuppance against people (and, ostensibly, a system) they disliked. The comparisons stop, of course, when we consider the racial privilege at stake in the U.S. case study, not to mention the homophobia, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that explicitly underwrote Trump’s election. But I do think there was a similar value in both instances to using sound to penetrate the spaces of a political opposition.
Mack Hagood: You have taken it upon yourself to self-produce an audio version of your book, which is available on your website. What opportunities and challenges does the audiobook format present to academia?
Ben Tausig: I’ll link self-promotionally here to a brief piece in the Journal of Popular Music Studies that came out this summer, and summarize it by saying that there are enormous opportunities right now for sound studies, as well as music studies, to imagine new kinds of critical published products that combine conventional analysis with audible material. But we also have to be very thoughtful about the economics of these ventures, given where academic publishing is today, and the pitfalls that come with shiny new objects (namely, that scholars could be asked to do even more uncompensated labor than they already perform).
Mack Hagood: Finally, is there any conversation or debate that you find most interesting in sound studies right now? Any current plans or projects that intervene in it?
Ben Tausig: I am always drawn to deep anthropological work on sound, especially that which addresses people and spaces outside of the United States and Europe. This is a lack that I believe emerged from the early tendency in sound studies to canonize experimentalist composers as well as philosophers of sound, namely John Cage and Murray Schafer, who despite their allegedly global thinking were firmly grounded in traditions of European art music. Cage and Schafer certainly give students of sound a lot to work with, but there are also enormous presumptions in their work about sound and its relationship to nature, gender, race, and modernity. Feminist sound studies is another growth area now, and it has produced some excellent and urgent critiques of the ways that sound studies has defined noise, for example. And as a body of scholarship it comprises probably the most powerful critique of the Cagean and Schaferian traditions. Tara Rodgers and Marie Thompson are two essential thinkers here.
I do have a new project, and it is an effort to think about some of the conversations referenced just above. It is a historical study of the cosmopolitan aural and musical world of Bangkok (and elsewhere in Thailand) during the Vietnam War. The period that Benedict Anderson called “The American Era” was an era of unprecedented economic development, at the center of which was music and nightlife. I’m therefore examining the stories and legacies of musicians – Americans, Thais, Filipinos, Europeans – who were active in Thailand during those years, as well as the asymmetrical auditory relationships between U.S. soldiers and the Thai people who served them in a nascent hospitality industry, including sex workers. The project has already gotten pretty deep and it is lots of fun to combine archival research with interviews and ethnography.