Introducing Chanon Adsanatham

Introducing Associate ProfessorAmanda Bailey
  Chanon Adsanatham

What is your current project, and what led you to it?

I’m writing a book about kaya karma (embodied conduct) as a major form of cultural rhetoric in the Thai rhetorical tradition. Drawing upon archival and field research in Bangkok, I show how this rhetoric significantly shapes the Thai ethos, social memory, and cultural milieu, examining four historical exigencies as cases in point. I analyze how Thai monarchs used genteel manners to subvert colonialism in the 1890s, how a lower-ranking nineteenth-century Thai queen (Sukhumala) employed righteous conduct as a means to gain influence in the royal court, how governmental mandates on “Thai behavior” re-shaped cultural consciousness in the 1930s, and how a civic revolt in which citizens splashed their blood in public spaces reformed democracy and nationalism in 2010. By looking at how Thai leaders, women, and disenfranchised citizens utilized kaya karma as powerful rhetoric, my book presents a theory of conduct rhetoric to expand rhetorical studies and our understanding of the gestural modality beyond the realm of oratory and composing.

I came to study conduct rhetoric by stumbling upon a set of personal letters of Queen Sukhumala at my friend’s house in Bangkok years ago. I’ve never heard of the queen before because she’s marginalized in Thai history. My friend, a descendant of her majesty, told me that she was the first woman to work as a private secretary to the King of Siam, composing important political documents on his behalf. This knowledge led me to read her letters with great care and interest. I began to notice that she places much emphasis on the significance of kaya karma. From there I began to think: “Wow, here we have a woman who was known for her eloquence, but she is emphasizing conduct—not language—as the primary means to affect others. There’s more to conduct here that I need to better understand. It’s a form of rhetorical action.” That’s how my project got its start.

What are you most looking forward to as you begin teaching this fall? Can you tell us a little about your approach to the topic?

This fall I’m excited to teach ENGL 487 Foundations of Rhetoric, a class on rhetorical theory. In this course, we’re going to approach rhetoric as a global, multimodal art, so we will examine canonical theory from the Euroamerican tradition alongside non-traditional perspectives from women, ethnic minorities, and non-Western cultures. In particular, we will focus on how students can use rhetorical theory to make sense of various “texts” surrounding their lives, drawing upon contemporary examples in pop culture, politics, and digital spaces. Ultimately, I want students to see rhetorical theory as a form of practice and power: It can help them gain rhetorical consciousness and critical sensibility so they can become informed authors and audience of arguments in everyday life. Rhetoric is ubiquitous everywhere we go.

What was the last book you read that you really enjoyed? Why?

I read a two-volume Thai historical fiction called Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj. It’s a classic and rightly so. The novel depicts the life of a Thai woman who lived through four major periods of Thai history. It begins in the late nineteenth century, a time of European influence and modernization, and it ends in 1946, a period when absolute monarchy abruptly came to an end. Pramoj’s prose is absolutely beautiful, and the historical and cultural details are so rich and captivating. There’s an English translation of the novel too.

What occupies your time and interests when you aren’t teaching and researching?

I have two major interests outside of teaching and scholarship: cooking and baseball. When I’m not working, I like cooking up a new dish by experimenting with different ingredients. I find this to be relaxing and fun at the same time. There’s nothing better than cooking for the friends and family you love. What can beat good food, conversation and company, right? Aside from cooking, my other favorite activity is going to a baseball game. It’s one of the sports I watched growing up, one which I enjoy very much. (Go Rays!)

If you weren’t a professor of rhetoric and composition, what do you think your occupation would be?

Hmm…I have always wanted to become a teacher ever since I was in grade school, so teaching is my dream job. But if I weren’t in academia, I think I would be quite happy working in the animal care/rescue/welfare field. I love animals, especially dogs. I can see myself working in a veterinary hospital, rescue shelter, or wildlife agency of some sort.