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Chiang Mai Citylife > Articles > Bananas and Porn

Bananas and Porn

By James Austin Farrell

If I went to Japan (if I had enough money to go to Japan) on one of the many new tours now available to the Thai parvenu, I guess the spectacle of my itinerary would be the pornography tour, or, as it’s apparently known to nudging and winking Thai ladies, a trip to the “gift” shop.

A gift, in this case, might be a two hour video of squealing girls dressed in nothing but raincoats surrounded by a hundred naked men. Clearly, I’m hanging out with the wrong Thais, because my souvenirs are usually crispy, and drenched in oil…although they did once squeal. 

To be honest, I like Japanese porn quite a lot. I guess I’m a fan, a mass consumer, but not because of the “panoply of fetish pornography” (thanks, Wikipedia) that such material offers. Rape simulations and Goukan Purei don’t do much for me, but Japanese pornography is actually, for the most part, quite a wholesome affair. I like JAV (Japanese Adult Videos) for its blushing secretaries, for its aesthetic traditionalism. You see, believe it or not, I’m a bit of a sexual purist at heart, and I think sex should be beautiful and good-natured. JAV, in its better moments, retains these qualities; whereas in America and Europe, they’ve made sex mean. I don’t get off on couples telling each other to fuck off, or spitting into the hair of an incredibly bitter one night stand. I don’t like that at all. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on in years.

This isn’t exclusively a porn story; I did that years ago. I’m not going to bother telling you things you already know, like the fact that the majority of people watch a lot of porn (even the ones that purportedly don’t), or that some guys are into watching incest porn by the time they’re 15 (even the ones that purportedly don’t). 

I wonder if I’ll get that past the editors? 

Don’t worry, I’ll get high-brow in about 350 words.

Anyway, one of the aforementioned editors recently went to Japan on a media tour (see page 42). “Thai ladies love the porn shops,” she told me. Naturally, I was intrigued, and the creaking vault that is my mind opened to allow in a draft of prurient images that now constituted this information. 

These little sex-shop loving Thai ladies are literally everywhere you go on the tour package, I was told. And so came the pleasing vision of Thai women stocking up on DP vibrators, giggling as they smuggle them through customs. 

Ladies, there is nothing wrong with the desire to insert something into your vagina. But sadly, what you will later discover (if you haven’t already stopped reading), is that something might also be at work on these trips to Japan that is really perverse and a bit weird, and not at all related to the beautiful, natural, ecstasy of an orgasm. A perversity far from the wonderful consumption of physiological euphoria, but something much closer to the frigid nature of another lover: money. Moreover, it is a perversity that we, the people, the vast majority of us, might not even be aware of: conspicuous consumption.



The Search for the Holy Grail

Everyone talks about conspicuous consumption these days, or at least consumerism, and if you’re a little more on the ball than most people you might even go on about commodity fetishism. Nowadays, with the creepily casual “like” button and the proliferation of “humanistic” slogans, we’ve also become mass consumers of noble causes and their phraseologies. Like the ones above. Is there any escape? 

I think you know what consumerism is all about. We, the people, the vast majority of us, are mass consumers. We are in many ways programmed automatons waiting at the end of every production line, ready to spend every last penny, or more often money we don’t have, on what’s trendy, cool, sexy, or at least better than what the neighbour has. We’re like starving little kittens sucking on trillions of nipples hanging from the omnipresent body of a very clever and shrewd fat cat. 

Fair enough, you say, what else is there to do? We live in a consumer climate. If you don’t like it, join another conga line… and good luck with that. 

An example of this kitten/cat analogy were the herds of people all over the globe not long ago lining up outside the shops selling the new iPhone 5S. This is a popular madness symptomatic of the modern world, and so it’s portrayed in the media, for the most part, as just a bit of eccentric fun. 

But there’s always someone ready to poop on your party. 

This desirous vice in the form of consumerism, we have been told, can be ruinous. Not only is desire in the face of our innate consumer insatiability a loser’s game if you listen to Buddha, but the overabundance of yesterday’s products, along with that sneaky bugger, planned obsolescence (designing mostly non-essential stuff to break or require an update after a short period of time), creates a lot of waste and diminishes our world’s essential natural resources. On top of that, the desire may create implacable debts and imperishable envy. Buying things might even become our raison d’etre, which may not be a good thing.   

   
   

Thailand is a country with a booming economy, according to anyone who writes about money, but in the last five years household debt has “skyrocketed”, according to the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. Business is booming and there are a lot more “things” that the average Ja-A might require if he is to become a man of modernity. Much of Thailand’s food industry, for instance, is now branded, when in the past it was, well, just food. Brands and gadgets have become staples in the Thai consumer diet, and Thais are borrowing feverishly as you read this.

Social media has undoubtedly put conspicuous consumption into hyper-drive. Before the days of social media, the process of generating envy wasn’t nearly as easy as it is now. I mean, it’s not like you could carry around that plate of foie gras to show off to mates who could only dream of eating a tortured goose’s liver. 

Changing Trends 

In the past, one of the Holy Grails of consumerism in Thailand was the Harrods  bag. You had to go all the way to London to get one, and that meant you had to have cash to burn. But just so you know, the Harrods bag is now so yesterday. In fact, you can buy one at MBK or online at www.shoppinglondon4thai.com. 

What did the Harrods bag represent? Philosopher Roland Barthes might have called the representation a “second order signification”. The first order being something made from plastic used to carry things in. The second order would be something like, you’re rich, you’re refined, because not only have you been to London, but you’ve bought something in a shop where Britain’s royalty used to buy their Earl Grey tea. Here’s a shocking statistic: according to spending research company Global Blue, this year in London, Thai tourists spent more than any other nationality. 

What does this signify?

Someone I will later introduce in this story believes it is a consequence of Thai culture in general being more pliant to, and less critical of, the overtures of mass-marketing and advertising than people of other cultures. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Since Japan opened its doors to Thais this year with their no-visa temptation, the Bangkok Post reported in August that “30,200 people from Thailand, the sixth-largest market, travelled to Japan in July, up 84.7% from a year ago.”

For a current proof of elevated status, you must now be a purchaser of bananas. And no, certainly not the healthy, natural, cheap things you buy down the market. I’m talking about hermetically sealed, modified, mutated banana twinkies. I’m talking about the Tokyo Banana. 

These banana snacks are so sought after by Thais, according to the Thai tour guide on my editor’s trip, that due to increased demand, shops in Japan now have a limit to how many people can buy. The craze, and I mean that literally, is such that Thailand’s most popular forum, Pantip.com, published a photograph of one Thai man gone bananas buying nine boxes. 

On the first page, someone comments: “Just nine? I got 20!” 

Long lines of Thais were waiting outside shops for their banana twinkies, the editor told me, and some people wheeled them out in purpose-made massive trolley-like bags (to fit 20 boxes, able to carry onto the plane). 

What’s peculiar is that most of the people posting on Pantip said they didn’t actually like the taste of the Tokyo Banana.

Needing Stuff

We are mentally bullied into buying things; we know that now. Marketing and the exploitation of the of mind apropos buying products or buying into political ethos was taken to another level by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the so-called Father of Public Relations and Modern Advertising, who figured out that you could sell the public any old bullshit with the right kind of advertising. You could flog sugary-toxic drinks to the world, or carcinogenic fags to then mostly non-smoking women, by manipulating the ego. Bernays often referred to the public as the herd. Aggressive, mind-controlling advertising campaigns were born.

Chiang Mai based professor Dr. Wayne Deakin delivered a speech earlier this year at the first International Conference for Language, Literature and Cultural Studies (ICLLS) on why he thinks Thailand has become a very susceptible target to the pandemic of consumerism and commodity fetishism, so I thought he’d be a good person to consult for this story.

“Commodity fetishism is Marx’s term for the situation wherein commodities become the dominant market force,” Deakin told me. “A process in which the true labour-value of products is mystified (or hidden) and replaced instead by a universal value (as opposed to individual value), which is dominated by the product’s exchange value on the open market. The social relation between producers is hidden and objectified in the commodities themselves. In other words, we no longer see or perceive the truly social relationships behind the production, as the commodities take on an objective value of their own. Marx goes on to compare this mystification to that of religion, wherein he argues once again that products of the human brain are mystified and viewed as having an autonomous life of their own.”

Therefore, and back to second order signification, a banana twinkie, as it sits in its airless trap, has a mystical and even mythical value of its own, one which we, the masses, have given it. Examples of this phenomenon, whether it is concerned with our beliefs or the snacks we prefer, pervade all strata of culture and society. 


Questions of Thai-ness 

“Prime Minister Yingluck Shinnawatra this year started a campaign for Thais to promote ‘Thai-ness’ abroad,” said Deakin, “but how can this be firmly established when Thais are not even sure of their identity or history at home – and by history I am of course referring to the slow, homogenising movement of late capitalism eastwards. They are unsure of the true nature of the historical signs they have incorporated into their own cultural discourse. All of these signs need demystification and historical understanding.”

In simpler terms, I think he means that Thai-ness (in the modern sense, not the traditional Ministry of Culture sense) should be vigorously analysed as the country moves progressively (but maybe na?vely) towards this western capitalist consumer paradise. A new Thailand has emerged, and it is one strongly tied up in western consumer capitalism. Thai-ness has changed, and perhaps part of this change is going through a thoroughfare of consumer manipulation. 

Deakin talks of an “uncritical appropriation of the values, commodities and brands that are associated with this spread/contagion” of western consumerism. 

“The danger,” he adds, “is the fact that underlying this is arguably a still essentially feudal culture, which has skin-grafted western capitalist practices and values onto a culture that has yet to have the prerequisite social stratification in place. Social stratification is a term that comes from rock strata, used by sociologists, to figuratively describe the social layers within a society. Thai culture has a feudally layered society, thus, not the correct social strata for this capitalist model to function as it has done in the west over the past 150 years or so.” 

As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.”

Let us all bear in mind, we’ve been tricked. 

Does it matter if hordes of Thai people are not even enjoying their banana twinkies?
Does it matter if we skip a very real and perfect moment of history, selling off a piece of the present for stock in an uncertain future? Because that’s what it’s all about in the end, this conspicuous consumerism gig. It’s probably the best definition of a flagrant waste of time, but it’s a waste of time we all buy into. 

Perhaps we can take hope in those lines of Thai ladies whose bags hold instruments that help create youthful, ecstatic, orgasms. Perhaps I should conclude with this: if you buy a vibrator, then buy one that will last. And when you use it, make damn sure you enjoy every second.