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The Absent Southeast Asian Futurism: On The Long Walk
February 16th, 2022Type: Image
Author: Chu Feng-yi Editor: Rikey Tenn
Note: Originally titled: Event Horizon, Reincarnation, Psychoanalysis and the Absent Southeast Asian Futurism: Review on Mattie Do’s “The Long Walk”, the author refers Dawn Chan’s discussion on the global myth of techno-Orientalism.
Mattie Do, The Long Walk (2019); image courtesy of artist

Born into a poor family in which the parents are overwhelmed by work, a little boy can only go out with a young female ghost who died in an accident. The impoverishment of the family forces the father to leave home to work in the big city, which leads the ill mother to death due to lacking of care… Fifty years later, the boy becomes an old man, a part-time psychic medium who recycles electronic scraps for living. The young female ghost one day shows her ability to travel through time, which makes the old man see the possibility of going back to the past to change his mother’s fate… Director Mattie Do’s 2019 work “The Long Walk” is one of the films screened in the 2021 Asian Art Biennale’s cinematic program. The director’s description of the future in Laotian countryside and her application of Asian religious concept of reincarnation in the film perfectly echoes the main theme of the biennale: “Asian Futurism”.


Techno-Orientalism as Event Horizon

“Is it possible to be othered across time?” With this question, Dawn Chan commences his discussion on the problem of techno-Orientalism in his article “Asia-Futurism”.(註1) Techno-Orientalism implies a dualistic structure between the Subject, which is the West, and the Other, which is the East, or Asia, or more precisely in Chan’s notion, Japan. Japan’s incredible economic and technological development in the 1970s was viewed by the West not only as the new element for their exotic other, but also as the manifestation of the fear or the anxiety about the rise of Asia.(註2) Following this critique then comes the question: “How can we resist or avoid techno-Orientalism?” If any high-tech, utopian description of Asian future can potentially be the West’s other; and if, as Toshiya Ueno argues, techno-Orientalism is a self-looping “mirror stage” or “image machine” that makes the West and even Japanese themselves to generate an always illusory Japanese culture,(註3) isn’t the best solution is to cancel or to dispossess Japan/Asia’s rights to generating more high-tech imagination of future?

If this seemingly absurd contention is for Japan/Asia to delineate dystopian futures or to highlight the dark side of technological development, these in fact have been one of the major themes of Japanese/Asian futurism, and therefore have been proved failed in escaping from the force field of techno-Orientalism. On the other side, if Japan’s strong economic and technological power in the 1970s could serve as the Oriental high-tech other for Westerners, why can Asia’s dystopian self-depreciation not serve as another form of other, by which the West can cast their guiltiness, pity and sympathy for the miserable Third World? Frankly, whether its utopian or dystopian future, we can always find a perspective on Asia that serve the end of the West.

Techno-Orientalism is therefore a peculiar perspective, a special singularity with its enormous capacity to create a vast event horizon.(註4) All subjects in this event horizon(註5) automatically download and generate a specific type of narrative that serve Westerners. There is no chance for subjects in it to escape, but only to be influenced at the cognitive, emotional and spiritual levels. This is the real issue that Dawn Chan tried to deal with: a huge gap in cultural power/force between the East and the West, between Asian and white people. The gap not only forms various sci-fi texts in which Asian characters play insignificant roles, but also causes, in Chan’s words, the relative invisibility of Asian people in international contemporary art exhibitions.(註6) Because of this gap of power/force, Asia has been thrown far away from the Earth, turning into a satellite that eternally flows in the space around the central planet, as how Baudrillard describes Japan.(註7)

Mattie Do, The Long Walk (2019); image courtesy of artist

The question therefore is: why this peculiar perspective has such enormous force in this universe? Reflecting the location of Southeast Asia in Asian futurism might give us some clues, or even the answer of escaping. If the abovementioned contention “dispossessing Japan/Asia’s rights to delineating its high-tech future” is absurd, the sentence becomes unthinkable when we change the subject to Southeast Asia. What is the high-tech future of Southeast Asian? It seems that the region has never enjoyed this rights to taking this type of futuristic imagination . This “pre-dispossession” reveals the monopolization of the term “Asia”. Almost all kinds of discussion on Asian Futurism focus on East Asia (mostly Japan and China). Other parts of the continent, including Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and even India, have once again been thrown away, turning into the satellite of the satellite (moonmoon).


The Spacetime Curvature caused by the Density Difference in Modernity Development

From the West to the East, and from (East) Asia to Southeast Asia, there goes through an obvious axis—the gradient of difference made by the disproportional density of modernity development.(註8) This disproportion of modernity density involves two aspects: One is physical/material, referring to the gap in economic and technological development, and the other is metaphysical/cultural, referring to the difference in cultural power/capitals. These two aspects interact with and reinforce each other, because a region’s material affluence will increase its cultural power, and the strong cultural power of a region will facilitate the accumulation of its material resources.

While most of the discussions on techno-Orientalism focus on the metaphysical/cultural level, The Long Walk puts its emphasis on the material disproportion, both between the West and the Third World, and between the urban and the suburban. The film does not entirely reject the high-tech future of Southeast Asia. It still shows towering skyscrapers, supersonic jets, and cyborg-style human-machine hybrids/implantations. However, these images of advanced technology not only all lack of Oriental elements, but they are also far from the audiences: Skyscrapers only appear as image background; supersonic jets only come into distant view in the high sky; the latest cyborg gadgets belong to a remote friend from a far-away city; even the basic electricity infrastructure is brought and constructed by an NGO far from the West. Technology in the rural area is either the remanence of urban life (e.g. scrapped electronic components), or the oppressive control and surveillance system set by the ruler (e.g. implanted ID chip with tracking function). “Future” only pertains either to distant big city or to the far West. No future is detected in Southeast Asian countryside. The future in rural Lao described in the film is almost the same with the present, constituting messy gardens, bungalows and thick jungles. Time in Southeast Asian countryside seems to freeze.

Event horizon in cosmology refers to the largest comoving distance from which light (and causality) emitted now can ever reach the observer in the future.(註9) Severe time dilation occurs when an outside observer sees an object moving toward an event horizon, and the time of the object seems to stop when arriving its edge. It is a perfect analogy to what happens in rural Lao described in The Long Walk. At the edge of the event horizon caused by the vast density difference in modernity development, time also stops. Notably, the cease of time is not absolute, but relative, according to which measurement an observer is using. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction The Lost World, it is the “evolutionary” time that freezes at a plateau in South America.(註10) In The Long Walk, two types of time cease. The fist type is the time driven by material development (i.e. the economic and technological development). This is the timeline we are all familiar with, the timeline of modernization that can be drawn between the West and the East, and between the urban and the suburban.

Mattie Do, The Long Walk (2019); image courtesy of artist

The second type of time in the film, however, is the one driven by psyche. In this timeline, the flow of time ceases not because economic and technology stops developing, but because a person’s psyche stops evolving, or in other words, because his or her psyche is prisoned. This is reincarnation, and is what happens to the old man in the story.


Psyche as the Major Driving Force of Spacetime

This is why The Long Walk is so different from other “time travel” films. While many such movies take the first type of linear time as the major spacetime structure, putting emphasis either on “grandfather paradox” or on “multiple universes” to construct the story plots, none of them seems to appear in The Long Walk. Although events and material facts in the story do have changed due to the deeds done by the observer (time traveller), the world/spacetime of the observer does not change much. This is the reason when the protagonist comes back from time travel, he barely knows what had been changed, because what had been changed is the world (spacetime) external to the old man, not his internal psyche.

In fact, it is the psyche that plays the crucial role in the chain reaction caused by the time traveller. In other words, the spacetime (universe) is changed because of the change of protagonist’s psyche, not because of the changes of material facts. In the original storyline, the boy’s mother died from illness, which caused him profound senses of loneliness and lost. These emotions explain why in this spacetime (universe), the old man targets old ladies to be prisoned and murdered, because these old ladies are taken as the substitutes for his deceased mother to compensate his lost. The old man convinces himself that he is doing good to these women by saving them from their miserable lives, but what he does—burying them secretly in the jungle, preventing them from reincarnation, and forcing them to keep him company—is indeed selfish. Even his motivation for going back in time to save his mother is the desire for her companionship. When realizing his efforts eventually end in vain, he still wish the younger self could burry his mother in the jungle, making her a ghost that eternally orbits him (another analogy to the abovementioned relationship between the West and the East).

However, the plan does not go as expected. When the boy fails in saving his mother with the money he obtains from the young female ghost, the old man goes back in time once again and kills his mother, with the firm belief that he is doing good for her sake (saving her from her illness). What has the old man changed with this horrible deed is not only the material fact (the death of the mother), but also the psyche of the boy. From the perspective of the boy, the mother dies not from natural disease, but from the murder conducted by an other. It therefore changes his psyche: he feels no longer loneliness and lost generated from his mother’s natural death, but powerlessness and resentment when witnessing his mother’s murder. This is exactly the reason when the old man returns to the future and finds out what “he” had prisoned and killed were not old ladies any longer, but younger females. The old ladies are the substitutes for his deceased mother, but the younger females are the targets that he abreacts his anger and commits violence. In other words, the change of the psyche is the major cause for the change of the universe (spacetime).

Mattie Do, The Long Walk (2019); image courtesy of artist

Desire/lack as the Major Force of Reincarnation

Separation anxiety, trauma from the primary family, lost/lack and desire … these motifs renders The Long Walk a suitable subject for Lacanian psychoanalysis. The analytical concept of object petit a proposed by Lacan refers to the imaginary object that causes desire. It is the object that a child imagines its mother desiring for, and it is the object (the father’s phallus) that the child think itself lacking of. Lionel Bailly (2012) describes object petit a as a fragment of the Phallus;(註11) it can be transformed into various substitutes that represent desires and lacks, such as fancy sports car, the latest technological gadget, or a particular person. Since object petit a is only the imaginary substitute for the capital Phallus, it can only be partial, fragmented or remanent, referring to the desire and the lack that can never be fulfilled.

We can easily identify many these objects in The Long Walk. To the protagonist, the young female ghost is an object petit a, a substitute for his mother. The murdered old ladies are objects petit a that also fulfil the position of the protagonist’s mother. The dismembered little fingers are objects petit a, the substitutes for the murdered victims. They are displayed in the showcase, seeming to function as the objects that mystically prevent the souls from reincarnation and ground them in the substantial world.

The latest technological gadget as object petit a that Bailly mentions has a particular meaning to this film, because in the story, the disproportionate development of modernity is the root for all the sufferings, and thus for all the lost and the lack of the protagonist. It is the cause of the family’s impoverishment; the reason why the father has to leave to work in the big city; the cause that the family lacks sufficient economic and medical resource to take care the mother. What the old man do for the living—recycling abandoned electronic components—is also a metaphor of object petit a, because electronic scraps are indeed the remanence and the fragment of technological development that refract the distant wealth, prosperity, ease and safe of modern life. In fact, the desire for modernity development has always been the subtext in the film, and it is perfectly presented in the scene when Lina’s friend pays her visit. The young female friend represents not only the technological advance and affluence of the big city (when she shows off her latest gadget), but also the most obvious object of sexual desire in the story (when she firts with Lina). Even the solar panels are objects petit a; they are substitutes by which the Western NSO group convince themselves that they have made efforts to improve the poor condition of a Third-World country, just like the old man convinces himself that he is saving the women by murdering them.

From this point of view of psychoanalysis, desire (or the lack that causes the desire) is the main force that animates the movement of psyche, and is therefore the major driving power for reincarnation. It is not that Southeast Asia has been “pre-dispossessed” with the rights to imagining a high-tech future. It is that the concept of “pre-dispossession” is a curious paradox itself. The idea implies that the Subject is deprived of something before he or she possesses it. But how can we deprive a person of a thing that the person has never really possessed yet? If anything like that exists, it can only be purely conceptual, or imaginary. It is something that the collective (including the Subject itself) believe everyone must have, but a person can never really have. It is the capital Phallus, the imaginary object that a child believe it must have but can never have. The release from reincarnation is therefore to see the root of the desire and the lack, and to deal with this desire structure of castration anxiety. From this point of view, maybe dis-possessing the rights to futurism (imagining a high-tech future) is not absurd at all as it overtly seems. After all, futurism is indeed a movement that origins very recently from Europe, and the values it adores, such as modern, speed, efficiency and technology, have not been really appreciated until very late. Maybe, “future” is just a desire, a lack, a Western capital Phallus, and a specific form of reincarnation.


Mattie Do(left) and Chu Feng-yi(center)

From Psyche to Material

In her article “Retrogression: Futurisms in Asian Styles,” Chien-Hui Kao follows Dawn Chan’s discussion and lists three types of Asian curatorial practices that respond to the recent trend of futurism in the contemporary art world.(註12) The first practice is collaborating with the Western technological artistic groups to depict and to elaborate improved futurisms for the mankind. As discussed previously, since the West can easily find a perspective that serves its ends either from utopian or dystopian imagination of Asian future, the simplest method is to neglect this potential position of the West, and to focus on making contribution to the future technological development as a proud member of the global community. The second practice is “ethnoecological futurism,” that is, drawing on local ecological knowledge and practices to conceive and to develop approaches alternative to the Western modernity, and to create a different version of future that is sustainable and Earth-friendly. The third is the practice of re-enchanment, a similar method to the second one but referring to local myths, cosmologies and mystical knowledge and practices.(註13) The Long Walk can be viewed as the third practice, with its application of local mystical cultures and practices to deal with the issue of disproportional development of modernity.

A problem is, as previously mentioned, the techno-Orientalism in Asian futurism is in its essence a self-reinforcing system driven by the accumulations both of physical/material resources and of metaphysical/cultural power. The proposal made by The Long Walk—release from reincarnation—is only metaphysical, and seemingly for individual only. When lacking of making changes at the material level, to what extent this proposition can help us to really escape from the force field of techno-Orientalism and futurism? To what extent we can transform our psyche improvement into material augmentation? Can we apply this method to the collective? And what scale of the collective and what form of the organization we can expect to achieve this ideal? A local religious group? A local community? A city? A state? A modern nation (such as Bhutan)? A transnational mega religious organization? Or the whole mankind? And how powerful we can expect this proposal to be? An advice? A political ideal? A religious dogma? Or we just only need the idea moderately restrain the expansion of techno-Orientalism and the accelerationism behind the mainstream futurism in our time? The story continues…

[1] Chan, D. (2016). “Asia-Futurism”, Artforum.
[2] See Morley, D., & Robins, K. (2002). Spaces Of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes And Cultural Boundaries, Routledge; and Hough, K., Crum, J., Bascara, V., Liu, W., Chu, S. Y., De Kosnik, A.,... & Park, C. (2015).Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia In Speculative Fiction, History, And Media. Rutgers University Press.
[3] Ueno, T. (1999). “Techno‐Orientalism and media‐tribalism: On Japanese animation and rave culture”. Third text, 13(47), 95-106.
[4] Singularity (a.k.a spacetime singularity) is a condition where density is infinite and thus its spacetime curvature (gravity) also becomes infinite, such as the center of a black hole. Event horizon is the boundary beyond which the spacetime is so curved that even light emitted from inside cannot reach outside observers.
[5] An event horizon is a boundary around a black hole inside which events can not affect an outside observer. n an expanding universe, the speed of expansion reaches — and even exceeds — the speed of light, preventing signals from traveling to some regions. A cosmic event horizon is a real event horizon because it affects all kinds of signals, including gravitational waves, which travel at the speed of light.
[6] Chan, D. (2016). “Asia-Futurism”, Artforum.
[7] Baudrillard, J. (1988). America, London: Verso.
[8] The author borrows the idea of density to respond the theory of singularity and event horizon in the Physics.
[9] Light speed is the limitation of the movement of all messages and matters, hence the very speed of causality.
[10] Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir, The Lost World, 1912.
[11] Bailly, L. (2012). Lacan: A beginner's guide. Simon and Schuster.
[12] Kao, C-H. (2019). “Retrogression: Futurisms in Asian Styles”,Artouch. (written in Mandarin).