the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, May 12, 2006

Naked Gaze has moved!

Naked Gaze has moved laterally, and received a face-lift.
Our new home is
all existing content has been transfered over (with a more functional interface), and new content will be coming soon.
take care,

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Obscene Images (2)

In 2001, there was a small scandal when images appearing to depict a Chinese man eating a human fetus began circulating on the internet. The excitement surrounding the images—shocking enough in their own right—was further fueled by claims that they depicted a cannibalistic delicacy served in certain Taiwanese restaurants. Eventually, the furor died down, in part because it was ultimately revealed that the images had been taken out of context—that they actually depicted a performance art work by Beijing-based avant-garde artist Zhu Yu 朱昱 (of course, Zhu Yu’s claim that he was consuming an actual human fetus for the piece is just as shocking as the original claim that human flesh was being served in Taiwan restaurants, but it does not appear to have received the same international attention). (For further discussion, see here and here.

A similar scandal unfolded recently after John Dower’s and Shigeru Miyagawa’s course page and research project “Visualizing Cultures” was featured on the MIT home page on April 23rd. A vociferous protest developed among some Chinese groups on campus (protests which quickly spread, via the internet, far beyond the physical campus itself) about the use of these images, focusing in particular on the inclusion of a woodblock print of a war-time decapitation of Chinese soldiers by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War.

The original image (which appeared with the caption “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers”) was accompanied by a detailed explanation by John Dower specifying its historical context (a pdf copy of the original page is reproduced here):
The subject itself, however, and the severed heads on the ground, made this an unusually frightful scene…Even today, over a century later, this contempt remains shocking. Simply as racial stereotyping alone, it was as disdainful of the Chinese as anything that can be found in anti-Oriental racism in the United States and Europe at the time – as if the process of Westernization had entailed, for Japanese, adopting the white man’s imagery while excluding themselves from it. This poisonous seed, already planted in violence in 1894-95, would burst into full atrocious flower four decades later, when the emperor’s soldiers and sailors once again launched war against China.
Nevertheless, this detailed explanation would not necessarily have been obvious to more casual viewers—particularly among readers whose first language was not English (for discussions of this image among overseas Chinese language newspapers, see , for example, Chinese News Net, Ta Kung Pao and World Journal).

For instance, in very measured and reasonable early (April 25th) letter to the MIT administration, the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) drew attention to these issues of contextualization:
In particular, the vivid images of the wartime atrocities inflicted on the Chinese conjured up haunting emotions of loss and rage, not unlike those emotions people around the world feel toward the much better-known and more talked-about events of the Holocaust. Already, the outcry from MIT's Chinese community has been thunderous, and the distress levels severe. We do understand the historical significance of these wood prints, and respect the authors' academic freedom to purse this study. However, we are appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images.
Phrases featured prominently at the top of the page under Old China, New Japan include "Still, predictable patterns give order to this chaos. Discipline (the Japanese side) prevails over disarray (the Chinese)," and "In short, the Chinese are riotous in every way—disgracefully so in their behavior, and delightfully so in their accoutrements." The only circumstance under which these very racially-charged statements might be possibly acceptable is if they are being used to describe the depictions of the images. Yet at first glance, that purpose is far from obvious; instead, the text seems to suggest that it is reporting history itself. The issue of the blatant racism so prominently exhibited in these images and descriptions is not addressed until much further down the page, almost at the end of the article.
The CSSA’s claim in this letter (corrected four days later) that the events in question derived from an “art exhibit” (term used in the CSSA’s second open letter; the first refers to it as simply an “exhibit”) further illustrates the point of how even careful viewers might separate powerful images from their detailed textual commentary.

This problem of context was, of course, further compounded when the image started circulating (in e-mails, blogs, etc.) completely independently of its original “Visualizing Cultures” commentary. These issues of the global circulation of disturbing images mirrors the case of Zhu Yu’s cannibalism photo five years earlier. Another important parallel between the two cases concerns the issue of different epistemological orders. That is to say, in both cases an implicit distinction is drawn between how images are perceived and understood within the aesthetic context of an art exhibit vs. the more empirical context of a news article or a history project (though, curiously, while in the case of the cannibalism photograph, the revelation that it was part of an art performance apparently functioned as a mitigating factor, in the case of the decapitation print it was the inverse clarification that it was not part of an art exhibit which helped to calm some of the initial furor).

These questions of epistemological orders come to the fore in a somewhat different way in another exchange a few days later. On April 27th, CSSA published a second open letter to “CSSA Members and Other Members of the Chinese Community Worldwide” following its meeting with “MIT administration,” in which they announced, among other things, that it had been agreed that,
The Visualizing Cultures research team will address how it contextualizes sensitive content by providing appropriate language to prepare users for the graphic material depicted. The research team is looking to CSSA for feedback and future dialogue.
As stated previously, CSSA is strongly opposed to any irrational behavior. Any feedback from individuals on this issue is welcome.
Precisely one day later, however, MIT History professor Peter Perdue published a lengthy “Open Letter to Chinese Students at MIT,” in which he made a number of forceful and cogent arguments about the importance of intellectual autonomy. At several points in the letter, Prof. Purdue addresses his intended audience directly:
You are some of the best and brightest young people of China, who have come to MIT in order to pursue education mainly in scientific and technological subjects with the leading researchers in the world. Many of you, I am sure, plan to return to China to use the skills you learn here to help China become a truly modern country. […]

You, despite your passion, are not specialists in East Asian history. Like any field in the sciences or engineering, historical study requires intensive concentration, acquisition of essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing. Those of you who think that you know the history of East Asian better than these distinguished scholars lack the authority to make this claim. No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased. It is disrespectful of the dedication of serious scholars to make such emotional charges based on no evidence.
What strikes me as interesting about these statements is that that they appear to blur two different epistemological orders. Purdue posits a contrast between the students’ “passion” and the scholars’ “essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing,” and clearly valorizes the “thoughtful” approach” over the more “passion[ate]” one. He concludes that “No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased.” Perhaps, however, that is precisely the point—the controversy does not seem to be about empirical issues of “mistake[s]” in the first place, but rather the claim that the images are, by their very nature, disturbing to many viewers, regardless of the historical accuracy of the discussion in which they are embedded.

Stepping away for a second from the details of the MIT controversy itself, I would like to point out that, although the CSSA in this case is merely requesting more clearly contextualiztion, it would perhaps not be unreasonable to argue that certain types of images might, by their very nature be inherently unsuitable for reproduction on a nationally or globally visible forum such as the MIT web site.

In fact, there are actually many examples of images which one might reasonably teach in an academic context, but which many might object to their being distributed on a globally visible forum such as the MIT homepage (regardless of how much context is provided). To take an obvious example, Constance Penley teaches a famous course at UCSB called “Porn 101,” in which the students view and analyze an array of hard-core porn flicks (she also has guests speakers, such as director, writer and actor John Stagliano—otherwise known by his screen name of “Buttman”—whom Penley notes is actually more thorough and organized as a guest lecturer than many of her more “academic guests”). While this controversial course is very popular and well-received (she, Linda Williams, and Susie Bright are even working on a textbook), I suspect that many advocates of free speech within academia (including not only the participants in the current debate, as well as those who were critical of American newspapers’ general refusal to reprint the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons a few months ago) would be apoplectic if some of the images from Penley’s course (say, stills and clips from Stagliano’s most recent opus, Buttman’s Ass Adoro; or images from Zhu Yu's "Eating people" performance) were to be directly linked to their own university’s home page, irrespective of how much contextual explication were to accompany them.

To conclude by citing another open letter by MIT literature and culture professor Jing Wang:
The most important issue neglected in this debate is the questions regarding public access to educational and research materials posted online. OCW is a global medium and a global classroom. But is there such a thing as a singular "global" or "universal" audience for digitally delivered open content? What kind of room do we (or should we) allow technologically enabled audiences (of different ethnic cultures and nationalities) to partake in knowledge production? Do professors have the sole monopoly over knowledge production and dissemination in the age where knowledge is collectively produced?
[On May 2nd, the same day as Wang’s letter, it was announced that the page would be reposted, but even now, a week later, the original “Visualizing Cultures” link on MIT’s “opencourseware” site simply redirects to a page containing a number of official statements about the controversy by the MIT administration and others.]
(Part 2 of 3)

Obscene Images (1)

Sigmund Freud, who would have celebrated his 150th birthday on Saturday (one day after Marx’s birthday), began his scientific career, as Benedict Carey noted in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago, dissecting eels:
He examined hundreds of the animals, working long hours amid stench and slime, peering through a microscope at countless tissue samples, in search of an organ that had eluded earlier anatomists -- male testicles.

''Since eels do not keep diaries,'' the investigator, 19-year-old Sigmund Freud, wrote to a friend in the spring of 1876, the only way to determine gender was to cut and slice, ''but in vain, all the eels which I cut open are of the fairer sex.''
He ended the letter by sketching an eel, swimming through the text, its face fixed with a slight, Mona Lisa smile.
As psychoanalyst Mark Solms noted recently on NPR (and repeats again in the exhibit catalogue), this biographical detail is uncannily appropriate: the father of psychoanalysis, whose reputation is closely linked (for better or for worse) in the popular imagination with the notion of castration anxiety, appearing in an adolescent quest to visually confirm the existence of male reproductive organs of eels.

[And furthermore, to state the obvious, eels themselves can be considered quintessential “phallic symbols” (a theme developed in fascinating detail, for instance, in Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland; the subsequent film version of which was directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, 1992)—thereby yielding a paradox similar to that which the more mature Freud will later attribute women, whereby women function as symbols and visual reminders of the possibility of castration, while at the same time themselves standing as phallic symbols or phallic substitutes.]

As intriguing as this account of the adolescent Freud’s compulsively cutting open of figuratively castrated, phallic eels might be, what is perhaps even more intriguing is the description of the Freud’s doodle of an (effeminate?) eel, “swimming through the text” of his handwritten letter to his friend. Dating from the very beginning of Freud’s scientific career, when his focus was more on anatomy and physiology rather than the workings of the psyche, this playful doodle suggests an early attempt to engage with issues located at the limit-point of visual representation—using a visual sketch as a displaced substitute for the invisible (or non-visible) object of investigation.

By the same token, this eel doodle similarly stands at the figurative entry-point into the on-going exhibition of drawings from throughout Freud’s career at the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s press release describes the exhibit in explicitly visual terms:
Freud’s stockpile of must-see scientific drawings and diagrams from throughout his nearly 60-year career has been largely absent from public view. […]

“This is the Freud you don’t know,” said Miriam Mandelbaum, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Academy. “This is Freud as he has not really been presented in popular literature. His scientific training is overlooked.”
In using terms like “must-see,” “absent from public view,” and “overlooked,” the NYAM press release deliberately plays off of the same issues of visibility and invisibility which lie at the heart of the exhibit itself. The exhibit demonstrates the degree to which Freud, who was an accomplished draftsman, systematically moved from illustrations of visible anatomical and neurological structures, to schematic illustrations of inherently "invisible" delocalized mental processes. A similar progression can be seen within the history of psychology itself, from Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous photographic catalogues of hysterics in the 1870s and 80s, to Freud’s eventual use of the “talking cure” to diagnose the non-visible, unconscious foundations of hysteria and other neuroses. In other words, one of the central elements of the Freudian method consists in making visible the non-visible, while the same time stressing the a priori importance of that nonvisiblity in the first place.

Indeed, within Freudian theory in general, the unconscious tends to be described as that which remains buried from view, though Jon from Posthegemony in a very interesting post notes that, in a late essay,
Freud turns this metaphor on its head. In "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," ruins stand for what is clearly in view, in front of the analyst's face. And the issue here is why what is so straightforwardly visible, uncompromisingly material, should be strangely denied or disavowed.
That, indeed, is perhaps one of the central paradoxes of the psychoanalytic inquiry--that it purports to reveal that which is, be definition, not visible, though the method of this inquiry is, at the same time, predicated on the conviction that the workings of the unconscious are nevertheless ubiquitously visible, if only one knows how to look for them—a paradox concisely summed up in the tag-line of the X-Files (which Zizek is fond of citing): “The truth is out there.”

Speaking, however, of talking cures and adolescent angst, Freud’s eel doodle brings to mind the recent brouhaha over “Harvard sophomore” Kaavya Viswanathan’s alleged plagiarism in her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (for which she signed the half a million dollar book contract two years ago at the age of 17—coincidentally the same age as Freud at the time of the doodle). Joining a growing list of memoirs which turn out to be not what they claim (see James Frey and JT Leroy), Viswanathan ultimately defended herself by claiming that “I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words...Any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.” Although subsequent commentators have been openly skeptical about the truth value of this claim, most nevertheless appear to accept the inherent intelligibility of the terms of the explanation itself. As the Harvard Independent remarked, for instance,
Viswanathan’s explanation certainly sounds reasonable — what young writer hasn’t been inspired, perhaps to the point of slavish imitation, by the work of a particularly affecting role model? But was McCafferty truly such a figure for Viswanathan? [emphases added]
What is perhaps most interesting here, therefore, is not so much the question of whether Viswanathan did or did not “unintentional[ly] and unconscious[ly] adopt other writers’ words, but rather what the incident reveals about the status of psychoanalytic concepts and terminology within contemporary culture. That is, even in an intellectual climate in which Freud is routinely mocked for his over-reliance on sexual explanations (a caricature I like to refer to as “vulgar Freudianism”), concepts such as that of the unconscious (a foundational element of modern psychoanalysis) have by and large been successfully naturalized and internalized by contemporary American culture.

On a similar note, the same NY Times article further observed that
Some of the plagiarism may have happened because she has a photographic memory, Ms. Viswanathan said. ''I remember by reading,'' she said. ''I never take notes.''
Although the Times doesn’t explicitly attribute the phrase “photographic memory” to Viswanathan, the choice of words here is revealing. To begin with, it would appear that the term “photographic memory” is being used here in a very colloquial sense, rather than necessarily implying a precise analogy with workings of a camera. Indeed, Viswanathan’s claim of unconscious appropriation would appear to closely mirror Helen Keller’s similar explanation that she had internalized (though, we may safely assume, not in a “photographic” way) Margaret Canby's "The Frost Fairies" in her story "The Frost King":
I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read become the very substance and texture of my mind.
[In Slate, Joshua Foer uses the Viswanathan incident as a pretext for unleashing a detailed critique of the whole notion of “photographic memory”—a term which he rather mysteriously insists on interpreting very literally (in the sense of the mind functioning like a high-resolution camera) though it is not at all clear that Viswanathan or anyone else was using it in that way].

Like the “unintentional and unconscious” phrase, however, what is most interesting about the reference to “photographic memory” is perhaps not so what it says about Viswanathan, but rather what it reveals about contemporary culture. More specifically, the impulse to think of memory as operating photographically is arguably a symptom of a more general phenomenon which Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” famously referred to as the “optical unconscious” ("The camera introduces us to unconscious optics…."), or the degree to which visual technologies such as the camera have come to inform the ways in which we perceive the world.

If Freud’s eel doodle as a 17 year old can be viewed as a figurative entry-point into his subsequent engagement with the non-visible during his professional career, another, much more famous, image (or rather, a pair of images) marks one symbolic end-point of that same trajectory. The image in question is a famous portrait which Salvador Dalí sketched of Freud when he was 82. On July 19th, 1938, Sefan Zweig introduced Salvador Dalí to Freud, during which meeting Dalí made a surreptitious sketch of Freud, which subsequently provided the basis for ominously morbid pen and ink drawing. Zweig, however, refused to allow either sketch or drawing to be shown to Freud, on the grounds that the sketch revealed Freud’s imminent death (Freud passed away a year later, on Sept. 23, 1939). Like the eel doodle, therefore, the Dalí sketch similarly uses visual images to represent that which effectively lies beyond the reach of the gaze (i.e., the eel gonads, and Freud’s deadly cancer. From the non-visible to the visible, from eros and thanatos, these twin images nicely encapsulate one component of Freud’s legacy.
(Part 1 of 3)

Friday, May 05, 2006

As Time Goes By (3)

On this day in 1818, Karl Marx was born in a three story house in the town of Trier, the oldest town in Germany. Although baby Karl and his family only lived in the house for a little over a year before moving to a smaller one nearby, this house (which was not definitively re-identified until 1904, nearly a century later) has been made into a small museum in Marx’s memory.

Recently, as an extension of the increasingly popularity of “Red Tourism” 红色旅游 in China (in which Chinese tourists visit the route of the Long March and other locations enshrined in CCP history), more and more of the guests visiting the museum come from China. In fact, of the 35,000 visitors to the museum each year, a third come from Asia, particularly China. As a result, Chinese visitors currently outnumber German ones, and that the majority of the signatures and comments in the guest book are in Chinese. Accounts differ on the question of the attitudes of these Asian tourists, with some reports describing the Chinese visits in quasi-religious terms (of their making a “pilgrimage” to a “shrine,” etc.), while others stress the more commercial dimensions (one stop among many arranged by commercial tour groups)—two dimensions which are nicely brought together in the NY Times’ use of the phrase “mecca of the Chinese tourist class” in the title of their article.

What do these visitors encounter when they visit this figurative “house next door”? Is it inhabited and occupied, or merely an empty shrine? The tourists see several small exhibits, including both biographical information on Marx as well as material relating to the Marxist legacy in countries throughout the word, including China. Richard Bernstein in the NY Times reports that part of the exhibition is devoted to Chinese Marxism, referring to the Long March led by Mao in the 1930's as a ''mythologized'' event and speaking of the massacre of thousands of students and others during the violent suppression of the Tiananmen democracy movement in China in 1989. The museum also contains a number of first editions, including ones of The Manifesto of the Communist Party and Capital, as well as “photographs, manuscripts, letters, a small volume of poetry handwritten by Marx for his father, and a further volume of folk-songs compiled for Jenny von Westphalen, his future wife.” In addition, the house features furniture that “dates to the period in which the Marx family lived and reflects contemporary living conditions,” although, of course, none of the Marx family’s original furniture has survived.

What are the implications for Marxism’s legacy (and, more importantly, our understanding of that legacy) of these large groups of Chinese tourists—some apparently devotees of Marxism and Maoism, while others converts to the new deity of capitalism—visiting Marx’s birthplace, filling the guest book with Chinese autographs and commentaries, and responding to the museum’s characterization of Chinese Marxism ? To understand the implications of this possibly rather queer scene, it would be useful to begin with the physical setting, and specifically the house’s furniture—that is both original and reproduction, authentic and imitation (dating “[from] the period,” yet not the original Marx furniture).

Marx himself was not uninterested in furniture, and one of the most famous passages in Capital uses furniture, and specifically the figure of the wooden table, to illustrate the “queerness” of the commodity form:
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. […] The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” every was.
While the popular mid-nineteenth century practice of “table-turning,” or spirit divination, was originally of American origins, it is nevertheless clear that in making this allusion Marx also had in mind another corner of the world that he was following closely during this period: China:

[In an 1850 discussion of China’s Taiping Rebellion, for instance, Marx made some uncannily prescient remarks about “Chinese socialism”:
The hitherto unshakeable Central Empire experienced a social crisis. Taxes ceased to come in, the State fell to the edge of bankruptcy, the population sank in masses into pauperism, broke out in revolts, maltreated and killed the Emperor’s mandarins and the priests of the Fohis. The country came to the verge of ruin, and is already threatened with a mighty revolution. And there is even worse. Among the masses and in the insurrection there appeared people who pointed to the poverty on the one side and the riches on the other, and who demanded, and are still demanding, a different division of property and even the entire abolition of private property. When Mr. Gutzlaff, after twenty years’ absence, returned once more to civilised people and Europeans, he heard talk of Socialism, and asked what that was. When it was explained to him he exclaimed in consternation, “Shall I then never escape this pernicious doctrine? The very same thing has been preached for some time by many people among the mobs in China.” […]

Chinese Socialism, bears much the same relation to European Socialism as Chinese philosophy does to Hegelian philosophy. It is, in any case, an intriguing fact that the oldest and the most unshakable empire in the world has in eight years by the cannon-balls of the English bourgeoisie been brought to the eve of a social revolution which will certainly have the most important .results for civilisation. When our European reactionaries in their immediately coming flight across Asia finally come up against the Great Wall of China, who knows whether they will not find on the gates which lead to the home of ancient reaction and ancient conservatism the inscription, “Chinese Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity."]
In fact, in Capital itself Marx makes an explicit comparison between table-turning and the contemporary turmoil and tumult in China. As Derrida notes in Specters of Marx,
[The table] goes into trances, it levitates, it appears relieved of its body, like all ghosts, a little mad and unsettled as well, upset, “out of joint,” delirious, capricious, and unpredictable. It appears to put itself spontaneously into motion, but it also puts others into motion, yes, it puts everything around it into motion, as though “pour encourager les autres” (to encourage the others), Marx specifies in French in a note about this ghost dance: “One may recall that China and the tables began to dance when the rest of the world appeared to be standing still — pour encourager les autres.
The tables and other furniture of Marx’s house, therefore, speak, on the one hand, to the process by which “common, every-day” objects “step forth as commodities” and are thereby “transformed into something transcendent.” How, in other words, the furniture and other artifacts in the Marx House are invested with value precisely through the process of being placed within a global circuit of ideological exchange. And, more specifically, the in/authentic furniture of the Marx House conjures up the image of Marx’s famous American “dancing tables,” together with the allusion, just below the surface, to China’s own dance when the rest of the world “appeared to be standing still”….or shall we say sleeping?

These questions of how to commemorate Marx’s birthday bring to mind another recent anniversary—that of the Chernobyl disaster which took place 20 years and two weeks ago. In addition to the general amnesia that arguably surrounds the event (particularly in the context of many current discussions of nuclear energy), there is a more specific detail which is often forgotten: the original and official name of the reactor was the “V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station” (the name “Chernobyl” was borrowed by the city by the same name located about 18 km up-river from the reactor). The reactor therefore, functions as a miniature allegory for the Marxist-Leninist foundation of the USSR (and, arguably, of global Marxism), and its own subsequent meltdown--a reactor founded on commemoration and messianic promise coming to be associated with unimaginable devastation and, subsequently, endemic amnesia.

My previous discussion of Chernobyl’s anniversary concludes with a consideration of two movies, both of which conclude with the female protagonist’s reencounter with her former lover and/or his (grand)son after approximately 50 year separations. [In Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987), the former 1930s Hong Kong prostitute returns as a ghost in the 1980s, and is ultimately reunited with her former lover through the assistance of his son. In Samson Chiu’s Golden Chicken 2 (2003), meanwhile, the former 1990s Hong Kong prostitute Ah Kum is united, in 2046, with the grandson of her former lover—though he doesn’t realize who she is. In both cases, the 50 year interregnum alludes to the Deng’s 1987 promise that the political structure of Hong Kong would remain unchanged for at least 50 years following the “return” to PRC control in 1997]. In both of these films, the themes of spectral returns and alienated encounters with (grand)sons (both of which are played out against the backdrop of the hyper-capitalist Hong Kong’s alienated “return” to the communist PRC) can be seen as an illustration or allegory of Derrida’s point about the inherent heterogeneity of Marx’s legacy—of the many different “specters” of Marx are received by his many “sons.” In “Marx and Sons,” for instance, Derrida speaks of a “faithful-unfaithful heritage of ‘Marx,’ unfaithful for being faithful (‘unfaithful for being faithful’; with a view to being faithful and, at the same time, because it is or would be faithful).”

In 1987, the same year as Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, Yu Hua 余华 wrote a short story called simply “1986”—with the year 1986 signifying, in this context, not the Chernobyl disaster, but rather the anniversary of Chairman Mao’s death (in 1976), as well as the anniversaries of the official beginning and end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Like Rouge, “1986” is about the return of a ghost—a high school history teacher who was abducted from his home a decade earlier by the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards, and who was subsequently given up for dead and forgotten. He returns now, in the middle of the Dengist economic and political reforms of the mid-1980s, but finds that no one , not even his former family, recognizes him, and consequently proceeds to impart horrific violence—first, symbolically and imaginatively, on the other townspeople, and second, literally?, on himself (ritualistic performing the traditional Chinese “five punishments”—branding, castration, dismemberment, etc.—on his own body).

Yu Hua’s image of the ghost-like history teacher, abducted at a moment of political extremism and returning now, during a period of political and economic “reform,” unrecognized, and finally dismembering himself in order to attract attention—strikes me as a very suggestive metaphor for the position of Marxism within today’s world.
(Part 3 of 3)
(Cross-posted with Long Sunday)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

As Time Goes By (2)

In one of Johnny’s (David Thewlis) many rants in Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), he suggests at one point that the Chernobyl meltdown was one of the signs of the impending apocalypse:
In the same Book of Revelations, when the seven seals are broken open... on the Day of Judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison
a third part of all the waters, and a third part of all the land, and many, many, many people will die. Now, do you know what the Russian translation for "wormwood" is?
- No.
- Chernobyl. Fact!
[This monologue has also been adapted into a song by The Orb in their 1997 CD Orblivion]. Although Johnny’s etymology cited is slightly inaccurate (the name of the Ukranian city is actually derived from the word for mugwort [Artemisia vulgaris], which is related to but distinct from wormwood [Artemisia absinthium]—and this is not even considering the question of whether the New Testament Greek term apsinthos [ἄψινθος] itself necessarily refers to the absinthium genus), the resulting association between the Chernobyl meltdown and the Biblical prophecy has, nevertheless, become enshrined within popular culture.

As it turned, the Chernobyl disaster, horrific as it was, did not presage the impending apocalypse (despite what some might think of the current world [dis]order), though it may very well have contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union three years later. The issues of premonition and anticipation, furthermore, are relevant now as we observe the recent twenty year anniversary (on April 26) of the disaster.

Anniversaries are solemn occasions, moments to reflect, to both look back and to look ahead. It is surely not a coincidence that this anniversary has coincided with a energetic lobbying drive on the part of the US nuclear industry. For instance, on April 25th, the eve of the Chernobyl anniversary, it was announced that Christie Whitman, “former administrator of the EPA,” and Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, had agreed to lead a public relations campaign in favor of nuclear power. As the NYTimes noted at the time, however, the choice of Whitman is rather ironic, given that during her two and a half year period at the helm of the E.P.A., she oversaw the creation of rules for the storage of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain--rules which were subsequently thrown out by the courts “because they covered only the first 10,000 years of waste storage, while peak releases of radiation were expected after that time.”

[For its part, Greenpeace has released several reports on nuclear power over the past couple of weeks, noting, among other things, that since 1986 (the year that Patrick Moore himself left Greenpeace), there have been nearly a quarter of a million cancer cases (nearly 100,000 of which were fatal) as a direct result of the Chernobyl disaster, and tha,t in the US, there have been nearly two hundred “near-misses,” any of which could have resulted in an “American Chernobyl.”]

In other words, the recent nuclear energy campaign is not only seeking to foster what Limited, Inc. forcefully calls a “monument of amnesia,” but furthermore its central arguments are grounded on a sort of inverse amnesia—an unwillingness or inability to look, not into the past, but rather into the future. This inverse amnesia applies not only to the nuclear energy lobby’s refusal to reckon with the very real possibility of another catastrophic failure, but also to its failure to effectively address the problems relating to the long-term problem of effectively storing radioactive nuclear waste. This double amnesia—this simultaneous obliviousness to both the past and the future—results in a sense of being myopically trapped in the present.

A fascinating engagement with of this chiasmatic intersection of anticipation and amnesia can be found in the recent Hong Kong comedy Golden Chicken 2 金鸡2 (Samson Chiu Leong Chun 赵良骏, 2003), the sequel to the 2002 box office smash and critically acclaimed Golden Chicken (also directed by Chiu). Drawing on the tradition of the (in)famous late nineteenth century courtesan Sai Jinhua 赛金花 (featured in many literary and cinematic works, including Zeng Pu’s 曾樸 1907 novel A Flower in the Sea of Sins [Niehai hua 孽海花]) who allegedly helped save China during the Boxer Rebellion), as well as Shi Shuqing’s 施叔青 more recent “Hong Kong trilogy” 香港三部曲, that similarly takes a late nineteenth century (fictional) prostitute by the name of Huang Deyun 黄得云 as a metaphorical figure for Hong Kong—the Golden Chickens center around the eponymous figure of a prostitute (a “chicken,” in Cantonese slang) by the name of Ah Kum 阿金 (her name literally means “gold”) (Sandra Ng 吴君如), who then becomes an allegorical figure for Hong Kong itself.

While the original Golden Chicken features Ah Kum at her physical prime in the early 2000s, Golden Chicken 2, by contrast, opens in the year 2046, with Ah Kum already in her 80s. Like the Sai Jinhua in Zhang Chunfan’s 张春帆 informal sequel to Flowers in the Sinful Sea, Jiuwei gui 九尾龟 (Nine-tailed tortoise, 1910)—in which the now-elderly Sai must rely on her stories (rather than her body) to satisfy her customers—Ah Kum, in the 2003 sequel, is now a rather youthful-looking octogenarian (thanks to extensive plastic surgery), and when she encounters a young man (played by Chapman To 杜汶泽) disconsolate about losing his girlfriend (whose name is written [tattooed?] in black ink [and in English] under his eyes) and his consequently about to take a handful of “memory-erasing pills,” Ah Kum must rely on her memories and stories (rather than her physical charms) in order to cheer him up.

Like Forest Gump, Ah Kum proceeds to launch into a detailed account of the highs and lows of her own life, on the logic that bad memories make the good memories all the more memorable ("Looking back over all my years, even the saddest ones offer sweet memories"). She focuses in particular on two periods of her life: the early 1980s when she was still a school girl, and the SARS epidemic of 2003. She describes with gusto an array of bizarre (and occasionally tragic) characters, such as the mental patient who is unable to recognize his wife and therefore is constantly searching for her or her replacement (and who, as a result, has developed a body-hair fetish under the belief that when she ostensibly first left him, the only thing she left behind was a strand of hair). The narrative thread which stitches together all three time periods covered in the movie, however, is Ah Kum’s on-again, off-again romance with her cousin and childhood sweetheart, Quincy (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau 张学友 ), whom she marries for a day in 2003, after which he divorces her and is immediately imprisoned for embezzlement. During their earlier reunion during 1990s, however, she had accidentally gotten pregnant, secretly borne his child, put it up for adoption, and now (in 2046) one of her goals is to track down and make contact with her grandson.

Revolving around the theme of memory-erasing pills, GCII is located at a unique juncture of commemoration and anticipation. The 2003 SARS epidemic, for instance, is presented as Ah Kum’s flashback, but the movie’s use of deliberately distressed archival footage of the epidemic and other contemporary events gives the movie a sense of a prophetic “nostalgia for the present”—an uncanny anticipation of how the present will be remembered several decades in the future. Similarly, just as GCII looks back at the precedent of early twentieth century novels such as Flower in the Sea of Sins and Nine-tailed Turtle, it simultaneously looks forward—in its thematization of memory-erasing pills and, in the separate subplot about the mental patient constantly searching for his wife because he is unable to recognize her—to movies such as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Peter Segal’s Fifty First Dates (both of which were released in 2004, the year after GCII).

The most obvious instance of this sort of anachronism, however, can be seen in director Samson Chiu’s dialogue with the celebrated HK auteur Wong Kar-wai, and specifically his long-awaited film 2046 (also released in 2004, the year after GCII). Part of the significance of the year 2046 for both Chiu and Wong is that it represents the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control—an anniversary which is particularly significance because it represents the outer limit of Deng Xiaoping’s famous promise that “Our policy on Hong Kong will not change for 50 years after it is reunited with the motherland in 1997.” [Another Hong Kong movie which similarly brings together Deng’s 50 year promise with preternaturally young former prostitute searching for her lover & sons from a past life, is Stanley Kwan’s 关锦鹏 1987 film Rouge 胭脂扣. In Kwan’s film, the protagonist is a 1930s prostitute who attempts to commit double-suicide with her lover, and then returns looking for him 50 years later as a ghost.]

Chiu very explicitly plays off of these political connotations ("You know what Hong Kongers are gifted at--they are gifted at forgetting"), but also uses the Dengist notion of arrested anticipation and suspended temporality to gently poke fun and the notoriously slow production of Wong’s long-delayed 2046 (GCII concludes with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the debut screening of Wong’s film—more than 45 years after he started working on it at the end of 1999). [This dialogue between Wong Karwai and the more popular director Samson Chiu is remiscent of the long-standing dialogue between Wong and his former collaborator Jeffrey Lau 刘镇伟. For instance, Lau's 1993 film was an explicit take-off (based on the same Jin Yong 金庸 novel and featuring many of the same actors] on Wong's long-delayed Ashes of Time 東邪西毒 (which did not appear until 1994, the year after Lau's parody of it).

Ackbar Abbas famously argues, in Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, that Hong Kong cultural identity only became an object of intense concern under the shadow (during the late 1980s and 1990s) of its anticipated extinction following the 1997 Handover. Samson Chiu’s GCII, meanwhile, implies that it is precisely the under the threat of potential amnesia (in the form of the memory-erasing pills) that memory and commemoration in turn become possible (both in the form of Ah Kum’s extended flashbacks, as well as her confirmation that the broken-hearted man she encounters on the roof-top in the year 2046 actually represents a tangible link to her own past).

Borges, in his story “Funes the Memorious” (Funes el memorioso) argues that the ability to (selectively) forget is an enabling condition for memory itself (not to mention sanity). The implication of Chiu’s film, however, is somewhat similar, that it is the very possibility of forgetting which functions as a condition of possibility for the drive to remember. As Derrida, Archive Fever, argues with respect to the archive (which is distinct from memory, but similarly predicated on “forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory),
There would be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression. Above all, and this is the most serious, beyond or within this simple limit called finiteness or finitude, there is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression or destruction drive. […] (19).
Returning to the anniversary of Chernobyl and its implications for a rational energy politics, we might argue that the very literal "death drive" underlying many current discussions of nuclear energy (together with the “monument of amnesia” on which they are premised) should be viewed, not as a simple negation of the creation of a an archive and for a consideration of future directions, but rather as a catalytic condition of possibility for the same.
(Part 2 of 3)

Monday, May 01, 2006

As Time Goes By (1)

In “The House Next Door,” episode 46 of the 1990s BBC sitcom “As Time Goes By” (Sydney Lotterby, dir.), Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) and Jean (Dame Judi Dench) are startled by noises coming from an empty house next door. While the noises turn out to be just those of the former owner returning to take away some boxes, this disturbance nevertheless sets in motion a chain of events which further strengthens the bonds of the unlikely family at the center of the series.

The premise of “As Time Goes By” is that Lionel and Jean dated briefly, were separated for 38 years when he is sent to fight in the Korean War, and then accidentally become reacquainted (and fall back in love) when Lionel attempts to date Jean’s adult daughter (whom he has recently hired to be his secretary). “The House Next Door” episode, therefore can be seen as a miniature allegory for the series as a whole—the unfamiliar (i.e., strange noises next door, the mother of one’s employee and date) turns out to be familiar; and a space of absence (i.e, the empty house, the 38 year interregnum) provides the opportunity for the strengthening of existing ties.

More generally, the themes of memory and remembrance within the series (Lionel’s and Jean’s preservation of their memories of their former love over nearly four decades of separation) are now doubled back onto the series itself, which concluded its run last year and has now been released in its entirety on DVD.

These themes of memory and commemoration came to assume an unanticipated significance this morning when I visited another “house next door”: Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent film and media blog by that name. Rather than finding the expected discussions of current happenings in the world of cinema, there were instead two announcements stating that Matt’s 35 year old wife Jennifer Dawson had passed away unexpectedly this past Friday (she was reportedly in excellent health, and the medical examiner apparently still does not know the cause of her untimely death [“For now, the chart lists ‘cardio-pulmonary’ as cause of death, which, as the doctor put it, ‘That's a fancy way of saying we don't have a fucking clue’”] The couple has two small children, 2 and 8 years old).

For me, the title of Matt’s blog evokes two associations. First is the image of an empty house (as in the one in the “As Time Goes By” episode), representing an imaginary space or reality parallel to our own, and serving as a figurative reflective screen with which we can both identify but also project our fears and fantasies. That is one way of understanding the function of cinema and television. Second, is the image of an actual neighbor’s house, whom one might visit to borrow a cup of sugar or chat about the weather. That, in turn, is one way of thinking about the virtual communities enabled through the internet.

I didn’t personally know Matt Seitz or Jennifer Dawson. My only connection to them, beyond reading “The House Next Door,” was that several weeks ago I approvingly discussed his review of Ice Age 2 (in fact, it now seems oddly appropriate that that discussion itself took as its starting point Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man, which she wrote in memory of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had passed away two years earlier). The announcement of Jennifer’s passing, though, has jolted the “House Next Door,” for me, from the first sense of “house next door” to the second—creating a shock of recognition, a sense of a vicarious community created around a very real and tangible loss.

Speaking of virtual communities, I don’t (yet) post many comments to other blogs (though I am an avid reader), but felt compelled to write a little something to his:
Hi Matt,
Checking your blog on Monday morning to read about film, and seeing this shocking news leaves me somewhat speechless. Though we don't know each other, please accept my sincere condolences.

For what it is worth, film is inherently about memory, memorials, and commemoration, and therefore, at the very least, it is reassuring to know that Jennifer's memory will be in very capable hands.

"The harder you try to forget something, the more it will stick in your memory. Once I heard someone say that if you have to lose something, the best way to keep it is to keep it is to keep it in your memory."
(Wong Kar-wai, "Ashes of Time")
And, in fact, the last movie review which appeared on “The House Next Door” before Jennifer’s death (one day before, to be precise) was on issues of memory, remembrance and amnesia in relation to United 93:
The unofficial graffiti tag of 9/11 was “We Will Never Forget,” yet this film, which is dedicated to the memory of all who died, is ironically designed to make you erase everything but the 100 most emotionally intense minutes of 9/11. Given all this, it seems no surprise that Greengrass’ last film, The Bourne Supremacy, was a blockbuster action sequel about a government-trained killer with amnesia. This new movie is a different kind of amnesiac agent: It’s propaganda produced by, and for, the malleable center of the American psyche, a place where political leanings are built from Tinker Toys.
Amnesia and nostalgia are, as Andreas Huyssen argues in Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, inextricably intertwined, and it is arguably the awareness of our potential to forget which thereby creates the imperative to remember. In this context, the subtitle of “The House Next Door” (the blog, not the sitcom episode) comes to assume an unexpectedly poignant significance: “A long strange journey toward a retrospectively inevitable destination.” The “retrospectively inevitable destination” being our own mortality, or the process of commemoration which it makes possible.
(Part 1 of 3)

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Shock of the New

Mao Dun’s 茅盾 1929 novel Rainbow 虹 contains a famous scene in which the teenage protagonist Mei Xingsu is walking home from school shortly after the May Fourth protests of 1918, and catches “a glimpse of several eye-catching magazines arranged in the window of a bookseller’s shop. Each and every one had the word ‘new’ in the title.”

The “feeling of rapture, of exhilaration” which Mei experiences which exposed to these publications and their contents is both the result of a “shock of the new” (to paraphrase Robert Hughes), but also a shock of recognition, as this eighteen year-old “new youth” sees publications which directly mirror her own sensibilities. The definitive "new" publication of this period was the journal New Youth (新青年; La jeunesse), but when, shortly afterwards, Mei’s cousin and new husband attempts to cheer her up by buying some of these same publications, he ends up buying willy-nilly “any book with ‘new’ in the title, which is why books such as A New Introduction to Hygiene, New Methods for Playing Baseball, and even A New Approach to Sexual Intercourse were mixed in with the pile of New Youth and New Tide.” Though it never fails to “bring a smile to her lips,” Liu Yuchun’s erroneous purchase of “new” publications such as New Methods for Playing Baseball is arguably not entirely misguided, insofar as the term “new,” for Mei, has shifted from being a mere adjectival modifier, to being an object of fixation in its own right.

Wherein lie the origins of this May Fourth period fascination with newness and children or youth? Of course, the attention to youth as a site of potential social transformation is itself nothing new. Prominent precedents include Huang Yuanyong 黃遠庸, Lan Gongwu 藍公武 and Zhang Junmai 張君勱 ‘s 1912 founding of the Journal of the Young China Association《少 年中國周刊》, Liang Qichao’s 梁啟超 1899 essay “Ode to Young China” (Shaonian Zhongguo shuo 少年中国说), or four centuries earlier, Li Zhi’s 李贽 1590 essay “Ode to the Child-like Mind” (tongxin shuo童心说) (which itself harkens back to Mencius). Nevertheless, this May Fourth “youth” discourse represents the intersection of these earlier Chinese precedents, on the one hand, and a body of medico-political knowledge which was being introduced into China during precisely that same period, on the other.

An early indication of this hybrid discursive genealogy of the May Fourth concept of “youth” can be found in Chen Duxiu’s 陈独秀manifesto, “Call to Youth” (Jinggao qingnian 敬告青年), in the 1915 inaugural issue of New Youth. Here, Chen specifies a parallel between the relationship of youth to society, and that new and lively cells to the human body, wherein,
the old and rotten cells are constantly being weeded out, and openings are thus created which are promptly filled with fresh and lively cells. If this metabolic process functions correctly, the organism will be healthy; but if the old and rotten cells are allowed to accumulate, however, the organism will die. If this metabolic process functions properly at a social level, society will flourish; but if the old and corrupt elements are allowed to accumulate, society will be destroyed.
Although the medical underpinnings of this bio-social metaphor are left comparatively vague in this 1915 essay, they are elaborated in considerably more detail in another essay Chen wrote the following year on the Élie Metchnikoff (1845-1916). The younger brother of Ivan Ilyitch—immortalized by Tolstoy in his story "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch"—Metchikoff achieved received the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his work on the immune system, and then spent the final decade of his life working on the possibility of extending human longevity.

Chen stresses Metchnikoff's discovery of the significance of white blood cells, or leukocytes, in the immune system, and specifically their ability to engulf and absorb harmful microbes. To describe these white blood cells, Metchnikoff coined the term "phagocyte," derived from Greek terms "phago" (to eat) and "kyto" (tool), and which Chen translated into Chinese as "shijun xibao," or "bacterium-eating cell." What initially begins as a strictly medical discussion, however, quickly takes a socio-political turn when Chen asks rhetorically whether the white blood cells can be seen as acting out of a sense of duty to the larger body, or whether they are simply pursuing a narrow course of individual self-interest. The answer, he feels, is clear: they are simply acting in their own self-interest, to feed themselves. This explains the apparent paradox which Metchnikoff observes, whereby as the body ages and loses its vigor, the white blood cells, by contrast, may become overly active, attacking elements of the body itself (from the nervous system to the cells responsible for hair pigment), "mistakenly" regarding them as foreign pathogens. After a further discussion of the role played by intestinal bacteria in the aging process, Chen repeats Metchnikoff’s conclusion that once a way is found to control (or even eliminate) these "cannibalistic" white blood cells, it may be possible to extend human mortality by a century or more (49).

Beyond the specifically medical dimensions of Metchnikoff's work, Chen appeared fascinated by the social implications of this phagocytotic model, and specifically its implications for an understanding of the relationship between "altruism" and "individualism" within the body politic. What we see here, therefore, is Chen's use of biological metaphors to provide a model for a position of constructive social criticism, one which avoids the dual dangers of self-effacing conformism and "altruism," on the one hand, as well as that of "absolute individualism" (e.g., the white blood cells which destroy the body itself), on the other.

A similar immune system metaphor then reappears a couple of years later in Hu Shi’s胡适 opening article of a New Youth special issue on Ibsen. After discussing the literary and social implications of Ibsen’s work, Hu Shi concludes with a medical metaphor inspired by the figure of Dr. Stockman in Ibsen's play, "Enemy of the People":
It is as if [Ibsen] were saying, "People's bodies all rely on the innumerable white blood cells in their bloodstream to be perpetually battling the harmful microbes that enter the body, and to make certain that they are all completely eliminated. Only then can the body be healthy and the spirit complete." The health of the society and of the nation depend completely on these white blood cells, which are never satisfied, never content, and at every moment are battling the evil and the filthy elements in society, and only then can there be hope for social improvement and advancement.
When read in conjunction with Chen's 1915 and 1916 essays, this idealistic discussion of altruistic white blood cells comes to assume a somewhat darker valence, whereby it becomes evident that “evil and filthy elements” which are the targets of the white blood cell’s phygocytotic fury will inevitably include not only “harmful microbes that enter the body,” but also “old and rotten cells” from the body itself. Therefore, in this essay – published in the same year as Lu Xun's 鲁迅 positing, in "Diary of a Madman" 狂人日记, of cannibalism as the quintessential metaphorical condition from which traditional society must extricate itself – we here have instead an implicit argument in support of figurative cannibalism, a call for social "white blood cells" to seek out and consume "the evil and filthy elements in society." An act of collective self-awakening, therefore, implies a process of self-alienation, a systematic identification and excision of unprogressive elements.

There is a paradoxical logic in this progression from Chen Duxiu, to Hu Shi, to Lu Xun. Somewhat independently of the meaning which they each originally might have intended the metaphor to convey, this metaphor itself can nevertheless be read deconstructively, suggesting a body at war with itself, with the underlying implication being, however, that this condition of civil conflict is, in fact, part of the status quo. Young and lively cells must, for the benefit of the whole, seek to eliminate and replace old and tired ones. The boundary between productive regeneration and cannibalistic self-consumption, therefore, is an exceedingly tenuous one, largely contingent on the speaker's attitude toward the elements which are doing the "consuming." While Metchnikoff originally suggested that the elimination of these white blood cells had the potential to forestall the aging process, in the metaphorical formulations of these May Fourth reformers, the white blood cells' ability to feed on ossified portions of the body politic instead becomes instead a potential asset—suggesting that it actually necessary to combat social cannibalism with cannibalism, devouring those reactionary elements of society before they can succeed in devouring us.

In this three-year span of New Youth (sandwiched between the beginning of the New Culture Movement in 1915, and the official beginning of the May Fourth Movement in 1919), we therefore find a rather unlikely dialogue between three leading intellectuals of the period. Although Chen Duxiu, Hu Shi, and Lu Xun each occupied very distinct ideological and political positions—Chen Duxiu being one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party and Lu Xun worked closely with many leftist leaders (though he made a point never to join the Party), Hu Shi, by contrast, ended up siding with the KMT and emigrating to Taiwan. Despite these manifest differences in their political and aesthetic orientations, all three figures nevertheless converged in their interest in appropriating this relatively new model of the immune system, and immediately translating it from a specifically medical/biological sphere, into socio-political and literary-cultural ones.

In this way, Metchnikoff’s white blood cell model is an excellent example of the ways in which new forms of medical knowledge were being introduced into China during this early twentieth century period, and simultaneously being brought into dialogue with indigenous discourses on similar topics (in this case, a discursive tradition from Mencius to Liang Qichao on the relationship of youth and social transformation).

More generally, this white blood cell model is not merely an example of this process of intellectual translation, transformation and appropriation, but also functions as an excellent master trope for that process itself. The immune system is itself essentially a machine of self-recognition and self-reproduction, one which functions by reducing processes of identification to the barest heuristic strategies. In fact, the immune system can even be seen as a quintessential sublimation of the process of self-identification, whereby the process of "identification" operates essentially independently of the "self" which it ostensibly presupposes.

The coherence of the organism, therefore, is itself premised on a continual struggle of identity politics at the cellular level. Phagocytotic consumption on the part of white blood cells represents a conceptual limit-point for our understanding of cannibalism – it is, in a sense, not "true" cannibalism, because the cells only devour that which they recognize as "Other." At the same time, however, the functioning of these cells illustrates the degree to which these categories of Self and Other are never a priori givens, but rather are themselves the product of metaphorical processes of reading.

In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Donna Haraway presents a critical over-view of more recent Western medical models of the immune system, suggesting that these models suggest a notion of "identity" as merely an amorphous, decentered play of difference:
Pre-eminently a twentieth-century object, the immune system is a map drawn to guide recognition and misrecognition of self and other in the dialectics of Western biopolitics. […]

Does the immune system – the fluid, dispersed, networking techno-organic-textual-mythic system that ties together the more stodgy and localized centers of the body through its acts of recognition – represent the ultimate sign of altruistic evolution towards wholeness, in the form of the means of co-ordination of a coherent self?
"In a word, no," she writes, in reply to her own rhetorical question. The notions of "self" presupposed by these immune system models are, instead, continually contested and always-already "under erasure." While Haraway posits that this deconstructive turn in immune system models represents a specifically "post-modern," late twentieth century development, my reading of these May Fourth period texts suggests that many of these deconstructive implications were latently present in the model all along.

I will conclude this consideration of the discursive genealogy (elaborated within the pages of New Youth itself) from Chen Duxiu’s 1915 “Call to Youth” to Lu Xun’s 1918 fictional critique of cannibalistic society, by returning once again to the image of Mei Xingsu perusing the bookstalls in late 1918, entranced by the promise of newness heralded by New Youth and other publications. One essay title in particular jumps out at her, and it is one which speaks directly to the dark underbelly of the glimmering sheen of “new youth”: “The Cannibalism of Traditional Morality” 吃人的礼教.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Eyes Wide Shut

During a briefing near the end of President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the US (his first), Cheney was caught napping (though the vice president himself insists that he was simply studying his notes at the time ). Whether or not he was actually asleep is, of course, not as important as the appearance he projected, especially given that this sort of diplomatic trip is frequently all about ritual and symbolism (a fact which General Macartney, for instance, understood all too well more than two centuries ago when he lead the first official British embassy to China in 1793…and adamantly refused to accede to accepted protocol by kowtowing to the Qianlong Emperor [see James Hevia’s discussion of this incident in Cherishing Men From Afar]).

To the extent that ritual and protocol were crucial components of President Hu’s trip, it is safe to say that the visit was hardly an unqualified success, given that it was “plagued by gaffes that upended months of painstaking diplomacy over protocol and staging.” In addition to Cheney’s surreptitious powernap, President Hu also had to deal with pro-Falungong hecklers, a prominent reference to China as the ROC (the official name of Taiwan), the omission of an official State dinner, together with an unceremonious grab of his sleeve by his chummy US counterpart.

Cheney’s powernap suggests an ironic inversion of the old Napoleonic chestnut about China being a sleeping lion—only that now China is without question wide-awake (and poised to “shake the world”), while it is arguably the US which, like its current Vice President, has been caught napping. At the same time, however, even in awakening, the Chinese government has frequently found it useful to play possum. For instance, a few days ago the Guardian announced that the Chinese government had, over the past several months, begun to crack down on select artworks displayed in select galleries in the Dashanzi art community (developed three years ago out of a reconstructed arms factory in the northern section of the city). Targeted works included,
an oil painting by Gao Qiang depicting a sickly yellow Mao Zedong bathing in a Yangtze river the colour of blood… a child-like depiction of the 1989 Beijing massacre by Wu Wenjian, who uses stick figures to illustrate tanks and soldiers shooting at people…. [and ]the centrepiece of the celebrated artist Huang Rui's first solo exhibition on the Chinese mainland: a cultural revolution slogan made up of banknotes bearing Mao's portrait.
Although government censorship of privately-displayed art is certainly not a good thing, what is interesting about this report is not so much the censorship itself, but rather that it was so long in coming and so specific. After all, calling for the quiet withdrawal of a painting showing the Great Helmsman bathing in a river of blood seems relatively mild for a government which previously sentenced two of the three protesters who defaced the Tiananmen Mao portrait with paint to a cumulative 36 years in prison, and a third was sentenced to life (all three have now been released, after spending a collective 40 years behind bars).

Although the Chinese government currently turns a blind eye (generally speaking) to all but the most provocative of these sorts of avant garde art works, this has not always been the case. One of the predecessors of the current Dashanzi art community, for instance, can be found in the so-called Beijing East Village artist commune, informally founded near a garbage dump North of Beijing around 1993. which are often explicitly critical of the government, Mao Zedong, etc. While the government has, in the past, been rather repressive of these sorts of artists, more recently it has more or less turned a blind eye to their work. Among the young performance and visual artists who lived and worked there was Zhang Huan 张洹 currently best known a series of startlingly graphic and masochistic performance works. In the early and mid-1990s, Zhang Huan and his colleagues basically lived the ideal of the avant-garde artist—living on society’s margins, constantly risking arrest, arranging impromptu performances primarily for other artists, and generally not giving much thought to how their performances would be recorded for posterity or how they would be marketed.

Now, a decade later, many of these same artists are in a very different situation. Several of them (including Zhang Huan) have emigrated, but even those who have remained in China find that the government is generally tolerant of all but the most transgressive works, while the artists themselves have become much more attentive to the status of their works as marketable commodities (and, indeed, a vicious struggle has emerged between Zhang Huan and other performance artists, and the photographer Rong Rong 荣荣 who took many of the photos which subsequently helped make the artists famous.

One of the artists most emblematic of this general transformation in contemporary Chinese avant-garde art is Ma Liuming 马六明. Part of the original East Village community, Ma Liuming’s early works revolve around his transgendered performances as his alter-ego, Fen-Ma Liuming 芬·马六明, in which he would pose, frequently nude, and underscore the contrast between his decidedly effeminate facial features (accentuated with make-up), and his slight yet undeniably masculine physique. (Since, like several of the other East Village artists, Ma Liuming frequently performed nude, he was perpetually threatened by China's anti-obscenity statutes, and at one point was even arrested and imprisoned for two months).

The tension, in these transgendered performances, between visual appearance and a sense of “interior” identity was further accentuated when Ma Liuming subsequently began using taking sleeping pills while performing on stage—a practice which he quickly proceeded to combine with allowing members of the audience (particularly when he was performing abroad) come up on stage and pose with his slumbering, transgendered form).

These images of Ma Liuming’s unconscious form on stage being manipulated by (foreign) audience members is strikingly apt, insofar as the dimension of his work which is most frequently stressed in foreign discussions (namely, that of gender identity, and its national, racial, and ethnic implications) is one which he appears to disavow. As the title of an interview proclaims, “My performance has nothing to do with gender,” and although this particular line does not appear in the published text of the interview, the interview more than corroborates its sentiment (for instance, when what he thought of his first transgendered performances, Ma replies simply that he thinks he looked pretty). Instead, Ma seems most interested in the pure aesthetics of his works, combined with their marketability (for instance, he notes with satisfaction that gay men are particularly interested in purchasing his works).

[One partial result of this emphasis on pure aesthetics is that, given his aging body, Ma Liuming has, over the past couple of years, stopped performing nude altogether, and has instead shifted to a series of performances and videos of himself simply sleeping. As uninteresting as this sort of performance might perhaps sound, it is worth remembering that Andy Warhol’s first film, Sleep (1963), consisted of nothing more than his friend John Giorno asleep….for more than five hours (partially looped to allow it to run for a full 8 hours, thus replicating a normal sleep session].

The series of splits between Ma Liuming and his transgendered alter-ego, Fen-Ma Liuming; between his early emphasis on embodied performance and his subsequent emphasis on the photographic representations of those performances; and between his transgender work and his more recent “sleep” series, in turn, bring us back to the image of Cheney’s dozing through Hu Jintao’s briefing. For instance, the disassociation between form and content in the Ma Liuming/Fen-Ma Liuming dichotomy suggests the way in which Bush himself is often seen as a pure figure-head (a performative construct who, as Jodi Dean has recently suggested, “has no interiority to speak of), while the true intelligence and power behind his decisions are provided by Cheney and some of Bush’s other trusted advisors.

More generally, the presidency (currently occupied by a man who famously makes a point of going to sleep before 10:00 PM and sleeping a full 8 hours every night) may actually be capitalizing (like Beijing) on this perception of a somnambulancy as disavowal of responsibility (the same way, to draw a rather imperfect comparison, the sleeping pill Ambien is now being accused of having the potential to make some users sleep-walk and sleep-eat with abandon).

This perspective on presidential slumber, in turn, returns us to Cheney's catnaps, and specifically the monsters produced by this dream of reason, the historical nightmare from which we are
we are desperately trying to awake.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Still Free"

Late last week, Marc Ecko, the organizer of the “Still Free” Air Force One hoax (consisting of the anonymous circulation of a grainy, two minute video which appeared to depict several hooded figures spray painting the words “still free” onto the side of the president’s plane [on the fusilage in the center of the image reproduced here]) came forward to claim ownership over his creation, and to explain how he had accomplished it. Rather than relying on trick photography or computer simulation, he instead rented an actual 747 and painted it to look like the real Air Force One, and then proceeded to film the surreptitious defacement of his new creation with black spray paint.. As the Associated Press reported on Saturday, the resulting video was so convincing that even the Air Force itself was initially confused, and had to double-check and make sure the plane was unscathed:
"We're looking at it, too," said Lt. Col. Bruce Alexander, a spokesman for the Air Mobility Command's 89th Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One. "It looks very real."
Col. Alexander’s confusion over the reality of the video, in turn, resonates with the Ecko’s own claim that, “I wanted to do something culturally significant, wanted to create a real pop-culture moment." The irony here is, of course, that the “reality” of the resulting “pop-cultural moment” is very directly grounded in the blurring and breakdown of boundaries between reality and representation. Air Force One was not “really” defaced, but the simulation of that defacement (together with the cultural stir which it produced) was, nevertheless, quite “real.”

The surname of the hoaxer--fashion designer-turned-video game developer Marc Ecko--, furthermore, itself evokes this confusion between reality and simulacrum. “Ecko” reads as an aural echo of the word “echo,” which itself describes a copy of an original sound. [In fact, the caption to the original AP image actually misspells Ecko’s name as “Echo” (true as of Sunday evening; it is possible that the AP may subsequently correct their mistake)].

On his “stay free” website Marc Ecko now emphasizes the fictional nature of the video (this “does not depict a real event”; the “foregoing fictionalization and dramatization was not real”), and furthermore emphasizes that is was his intention to encourage viewers to “think critically about freedom of expression and speech and the government’s responses to the same.”

Though the website includes a number of interesting links on the history of graffiti, etc., nowhere does it allude to what must have been one of the primary objectives of the hoax, this autograph of anonymity: namely, helping promote the eponymous Marc Ecko Enterprise’s new video game, “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure.” This game has as its protagonist a graffiti artist named Trane in a corrupt urban environment, using his graffiti skills both to compete with other artists, as well to “expose the oppressive mayor and set the city free.”

Though set in a virtual world, Ecko’s game nevertheless makes a considerable effort to anchor itself in reality, incorporating, for instance, “authentic tags from more than 50 actual graffiti artists from all over the world.” This archivist tendency, furthermore, is replicated within the logic of the game itself. As Jason Allen notes in his recent review, the character Futura (based, apparently on an actual graffiti artist by the same name) instructs Trane at one point to “know his history,” and tells him that every time he “sees a legend's piece around the city, he should take a snap-shot of it and put it in his Black Book.”

[In this respect, "Getting Up" resembles another game apparently still under development. Entitled “EyeWitness,” and designed by students at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, the game’s is a photographer documenting atrocities committed during the “Rape of Nanking”—and the photographs which he takes are adapted from actual archival images of the incident.]

This layering of representation and simulation in the Air Force One hoax, meanwhile, is reminiscent of another recent artistic intervention. Last September, as part of the some of the carry-over from the 2003 celebration of Central Park’s sesquicentennial, a rather unusual art work was displayed in the waters around Manhattan. When Robert Smithson--the American artist known for his work with large scale art pieces, known as “earth works” or “land art,” in which the work is integrated within the natural environment—passed away in 1973, he left unfinished a project which he had sketched three years earlier--a project consisting of a tugboat towing a barge containing a replica of Central Park around Manhattan. Last September, the art organization Minetta Brook, in cooperation with the Whitney Museum, carefully recreated Smithson’s sketch, complete with living trees. Then, for a week in mid-September, the tugboat patiently towed the man-made island around the island of Manhattan.

If the story ended here, it would be an interesting commentary on the intimate imbrication of reality and simulation, with Central Park (itself a completely “artificial,” man-made site which is carefully manicured to make it look as “natural” as possible) serving as the inspiration for a project idea Smithson sketched out near the end of his life—a project which would remain unrealized until being carefully (re)created 35 years later.

However, the story actually does not end here. One morning toward the end of the island’s one week run, it found itself unexpectedly pursued by a motorboat [in bottom left of the photograph reproduced below] carrying a small-scale replica of one of the 7500 saffron gates which had adorned New York’s Central Park (the real one) the previous February as part of Christo and Jean-Claude’ vast installation piece, “The Gates” exhibit. As the creators of that earlier work note, when Central Park was created a century and a half ago, the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead originally planned to install a series of steel gates to lock the park at night. Dissatisfied with the specific gates which the designer proposed, Olmstead ultimately jettisoned the idea of the gates, though many of the entranceways continue to be referred to as “gates.” Christo and Jean-Claude, meanwhile, first had the idea to install an array of cloth replicas of the steel gates as early as 1979, but it was not until 2003 that they were finally able to secure permission from the city for their project. Like “Floating Island,” “The Gates” functions as a belated incarnation of an artistic vision from the past (in the case of “The Gates,” it is actually a double vision, looking back both to 1979, but also to the 1850s).

This interloping, parasitic avant-garde art work in pursuit of “Floating Island,” meanwhile, turned out to be orchestrated by some “art studenty” twenty year olds, who thought the Gates project was “stupid, and wanted to make a joke about it.” The art students’ insistence on anonymity (they apparently refused to identify themselves or even speak much about what they were attempting to do), together with their ironic appropriation of the symbolism of the "Gates" project, stand in stark contrast to the insistence on propriety on the part of Christo and Jean-Claude themselves (their web-site warns sternly that “Fabric, parts and separate Gates are NOT for sale and NOT available for any use whatsoever”).

The timing of Smithson’s posthumous project, furthermore, is not insignificant. It was on the 15th of September that “Floating Island” began its daily journey around Manhattan—just days after the fourth anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks. The improbable mobility of Smithson’s island, therefore, stood in stark contrast not only to the patent immobility of Central Park itself, but also to the general standstill to which most of Manhattan was brought on the day of the attacks (and, to a lesser degree, for weeks afterwards). Meanwhile, President Bush on that same day was anything but immobile, spending the greater part of the day on Air Force One, initially going in circles over Florida, and then following a much larger circuitous route over the Southeast before finally returning to DC more than 10 hours later.

In this way, the anonymous motorboat pursuing “Floating Island” brings us back to the Air Force One hoax. Air Force One is not only a symbol of the president’s mobility (as exemplified by his actions on 9/11), but also of his links to the military (e.g., the Air Force itself) and, by implication, his status as Commander in Chief. Just as “The Gates” and “Floating Island” represent the belated fulfillment of a dream dating back to the 1970s (in the case of both works), or even to the mid-nineteenth century (in the case of “The Gates”), it has been frequently observed that the Iraq War (which the events of 9/11 were used to justify) could also be seen as the belated realization of an unfulfilled goal dating back to the early 1990s—namely, Bush’s Oedipal desire to one-up his father by sucessfully deposing Husein.

Ecko’s Air Force One graffiti hoax (and its position at the margins of the real), meanwhile, evokes Baudrillard’s (in)famous claim that “the Gulf War did not take place,” and his argument that the technologization of warfare has created a situation in which some kinds of military engagement are conducted as though through a giant video game, resulting in "a masquerade of information: branded faces delivered over to the prostitution of the image, the image of an unintelligible distress." (Virilio makes similar arguments in his War and Cinema). This argument about how simulation comes to assume the force of reality, is, of course, directly relevant to the current Iraq War (which, though it involves far more "direct" combat than the first one, was nevetheless grounded on numerous false premises which have come to have assume the force of reality),
in turn, mirrors (or echoes) Robert Smithson’s own eloquent observations about how “time turns metaphors into things,” and how he seeks “the fiction that reality will sooner or later imitate."

Friday, April 21, 2006

Writing at Speed

“I am writing [this piece] at speed,” Spivak writes (at speed?) at the beginning of Ghostwriting, her 1996 rejoinder to Derrida’s long-awaited Specters of Marx (1995).

Writing at speed...In his subsequent “anachronis[tic]” (both “premature and belated”) response, Derrida would implicitly toss this phrase back at her, suggesting in “Marx & Sons” (1999) that his most celebrated translator had, perhaps, read him too speedily, not attentively enough, identifying a “misreadings,” including “errors [which] stem from an outright inability to read…” (223) (e.g., he notes that she quotes him critically [immediately after a somewhat bizarre interlude about watching a retrospective on Marx on the Today show while “doing my exercises”] for claiming that “We won’t repoliticize,” when Derrida, in the passage in question, actually wrote the exact opposite: “There will be no repoliticization, there will be no politics otherwise.”)
Riding at speed….is at the heart of another recent rejoinder, the 2001 film Beijing Bicycle, Wang Xiaoshuai’s 2001 remake of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic, The Bicycle Thief. Wang’s film is about a young itinerant laborer from the countryside, Guo Liangui (Cui Lin) who comes to Beijing for work, and is subsequently hired by a courier service. As a condition for his employment, moreover, he must accept one of their band new mountain bikes, the payment for which would subsequently be garnered from each of his pay checks until the bike is completely paid off. In this way, Guo acquires speed and mobility, but at a price. Almost immediately after he finally succeeds in paying it off, the bicycle is stolen. Subsequently repurchased by a preppy secondary school student by the name of Jian, the bicycle comes to provide the hinge for a most improbable dialogue between radically dissimilar Beijing teenagers.
Writing at speed….Despite the professed speediness of her 1996 essay, Spivak’s dialogue with Derrida and Marx is actually one of consummate slowness, dating back nearly two decades. “Ghostwriting” builds on earlier essays, including her 1985 essay “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value,” in which she notes that this was actually her “third attempt at working over these questions.” The first attempt was in “Marx after Derrida” (1984), followed by “Speculations on Reading Marx: after reading Derrida” (which was actually an “extended version of ‘the same [first] piece,’” and, in any event, was not published until 1987, two years after “Scattered Speculations”). Finally, there is yet another essay (or essays?) on the same topic which is not mentioned in “Speculations,” yet nevertheless chronologically straddles each of the preceding interventions: namely, her “Limits and Openings of Marx in Derrida,” first presented as a lecture in Paris in 1980 (and published in French the following year), but not published in English until 1993 (in a revised and expanded form in Outside in the Teaching Machine). Each text in this continuing dialogue, therefore, is part of an elaborate palimpsest, carrying echoes of preceding interventions, as well as anticipations/promises of what will follow (as Keith asks, "how can one concentrate on just one text, when so many other texts are woven into it”).
Beijing Bicycle is a similarly-tangled intertextual intervention. Not only is Wang’s film directly inspired by De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, but furthermore it explicitly tropes on a number of more recent works. For instance, the first bicycle fight scene quotes quite directly from a parallel scene in Jiang Wen’s 1995 debut film In the Heat of the Sun—down to the protagonist’s extending beating of the crumpled body of a rival long after the fight has ended). Bicycle is also in dialogue with Wang Xiaoshuai’s own corpus of work, in that it is directly informed by the trouble his earlier films such as The Days and So Close to Paradise had with the censors. Equally importantly, Bicycle is implicitly in dialogue with Wang’s Frozen (2000), a provocative film about Beijing performance artists which Wang directed released anonymously so as not to cause unnecessary controversy for Beijing Bicycle, which he hoped would have a much smoother ride through the approval process. Finally, Beijing Bicycle is also directly in dialogue with one of the classic novels of the early twentieth century China: Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi, about a poor Beijing rickshaw puller’s symbiotic relationship with the rickshaw which is both his livelihood as well as a direct concretization of his own labor.
Writing at speed… Part of the significance of speed and timeliness for this two-decade long (anti)dialogue is that the dialogue itself is explicitly grounded on notions of promises, contracts, debts, etc. In “Ghostwriting,” for instance, Spivak frames “Speculations” as a “textualized answer” to the “question of value” (but the footnote to this passage makes clear that it is just as importantly an “answer” to the question of Derrida’s perspective on Marx); and she compares the ghost of Marx that Derrida is haunted by” to “the structure of a promise…” (s0metim3s concludes with a consideration of this passage, though in a somewhat different context. These thematics of promise, contract, and debt are, of course, central concerns in Derrida’s Specters of Marx itself.
Motivated by the promise of his former boss at the courier service that he would be rehired if he succeeded in tracking down the stolen bike, Guo vows to scour the city until he finds it again (he had made a proprietary mark on the bicycle just before it was stolen). Improbably, he ultimately does succeed in finding it, now owned by the prep school student Jian (who stole money from his father to purchase it after his father reneged on his earlier promise to buy him one). Caught, therefore, between two promises (viz., Guo’s boss’, and Jian’s father’s), one of them broken), the bicycle functions to suture together different temporalities, spaces, and unexpected social relationships.
Writing at speed… In “Ghostwriting,” Spivak notes that her first essay on Derrida for Diacritics (18 years earlier) took her a year to write, but that now she is “writing at speed,” in part because “life has become harder in the intervening years.” (Amerdeep Singh discusses the interpenetration of Spivak’s tempo of life and her writing). In the second paragraph of “Ghostwriting,” meanwhile, Spivak specifies that she intends not only to write this essay “at speed,” but furthermore to “write at ease.” “Speed” and “ease” might initially appear to be opposed to one another—with speed connoting a post-Fordist emphasis on efficiency and production (time is money), and ease connoting a space a space of leisure, or relaxation, of deliberate slowness. In “Ghost-writing,” however, Spivak is using “speed” and “ease” as parallel terms, suggesting that “at ease,” here, suggests a release not so much from compulsory speed per se, bur rather from an economy grounded on the compulsory regulation of speed.
At one point in Beijing Bicycle, Guo shows up a bathhouse to pick up a package from a certain “Mr. Wang.” The receptionist, however, insists that, in order to enter the bathhouse, Gui must first undress and shower. He reluctantly does so, looking decidedly grumpy, whereupon he is dressed in a frumpy robe and lead into the massage area to look for Mr. Wang. When he subsequently attempts to leave, however, the receptionist continues to insist that he pay for the shower, despite the fact that, as he points out, it had been she herself who had insisted he take the shower in the first place. Here, therefore, we have the pampering of the bathhouse functioning as a luxury for some, but as a luxury for some, but as considerable hardship for someone like Guo, who is clearly longing to escape this oppressive (and exploitative) “leisure,” and speed away on his bicycle as soon as possible.
Writing at speed… in “Ghostwriting,” Spivak implies that it is her unusually intimate and convoluted relationship with both thinkers that makes it possible—and perhaps even necessary?—for her to write so speedily. On the one hand, at the beginning of “Ghostwriting,” she notes that a friend has suggested that perhaps she feels “proprietorial about Marx,” a suggestion which she herself does not deny. On the other hand, she notes in “Limits and Openings of Marx in Derrida” that she has “fallen into a habit of deconstruction over the past twenty five years”; and three years later, in “Ghostwriting,” she elaborates that, “My relationship to ‘deconstruction’, whatever that may be, has become more intimate, more everyday, more of a giving—away, and in—habit of mind, a kind of tic that comes in to warn in the thick of what is called activism.” Caught between feeling “proprietorial”—or shall we say possessive?—about one of the most influential theorists of property and possessions; and gripped—shall we say “possessed”?— by the “habit” or “tic” of deconstruction, Spivak, in pursuing this dialogue between Marxism and deconstruction (between possessiveness and possession), is, in a very real sense, developing a dialogue with herself.
Caught at an impasse over two competing and (within the logic of the film) equally valid claims of ownership, Gui and Jian reluctantly agree to a rather astonishing compromise: they will Solomonically split their respective rights to the vehicle, with each of them using it on alternate days. In this way, the mountain bike oscillates between two markedly different valuations. For Gui, the teenager the countryside seeking work in Beijing, the bicycle is a means of subsistence, the hard-earned product of his labor (50% is deducted from every 10 Yuan delivery until the debt is repaid in full). For Jian, the prep school student whose middle-class family is, perhaps, slightly less wealthy than those of his friends and classmates, the bike is all about social status, and sex appeal. Both teenagers, therefore, perceive the bicycle as representing an extension of their identities—in the sense that others not only view them through the lens of this possession, while they themselves have internalized (become possessed by) the unique rhythms and habits of the possession.
Writing at speed… This speed is, at some level, an affirmation of the degree to which the act of writing is itself embedded within an economy of production and consumption. Writing, one may assume, with the help of modern technologies such as the word processor, a device which, as Spivak notes in “Speculations,” “is an extremely convenient and efficient tool for the production of writing. It certainly allows us to produce a much larger quantity of writing in a much shorter time…” Yet Spivak is nevertheless sanguine about the possible promise of this computational speed and efficiency, arguing (somewhat mysteriously) that “we are, however, present at the inception of telecommunication and, being completely encompassed by the historical ideology of efficiency, we are unable to reckon with the transformations wrought by the strategic exclusions of the randomness of bricolage operated by programming”; and, later, “the computer, even as it pushes the frontiers of rationalization, proves unable to achieve bricolage, to produce a program that will use an item for a purpose for which it was not designed” (128).
Leaving aside the odd assertion that bricolage is no longer possible in the age of global telecommunciations, suffice it to note that this essay’s juxtaposition of Spivak’s and Wang Xiaoshuai’s texts is itself, needless to say, a deliberate act of bricolage—the bringing together of otherwise unrelated elements in the hope of creating a new whole—to reflect further on the status of value and the subject. Building on a pair of (impossible) dialogues—Spivak and Derrida in dialogue over Marx; Spivak mediating between a dialogue between Derrida and Marx, etc.—we introduce here a third, equally unlikely dialogue—Spivak and Wang Xiaoshuai.

The contemporary Beijing of Beijing Bicycle is similarly centrally concerned with the status of textual production within an economy transitioning from one based on traditional human labor (e.g., the bicycle couriers) and one based on the near-instantaneity of global telecommunications (e.g., the invisible content of the business packages Guo delivers back and forth all day pertain in no small part, it is safe to assume, to the businesses which are currently at the forefront of Beijing’s and China’s “modernization."
Writing at speed… Does the temporality of the modern telecommunications necessarily obviate the possibility of bricolage? Underlying this rather mysterious question is Spivak’s underlying concern in the essay, which is the relevance of Marxist theories of Value, and of the subject, within a contemporary era of telecommunications. In the process of addressing this question, she critically examines the “continuist” presumption underlying the signifying chain labor→money→value→capital:
Let us now consider the discontinuities harbored by the unified terms that name the relationships between the individual semantemes on that chain. Such resident discontinuities also textualize the chain.
[“Textualize,” here, appears to be used as a figure for Derridean différerance, but at the same time it inevitably carries connotations of its more “literal” meaning, i.e., of writing.] The nub of this critique is her deconstruction of the relationship between “use value” and “exchange value,” and more specifically her claim that it is precisely the apparently “parasitic” exchange value which provides the conditions under which use-value becomes possible in the first place: “Exchange-value, which is some respects is the species term of Value, is also a superfluity or a parasite of use-value…. “ Or, as she puts it more concisely in “Limits,” “How many of Marx’s readers remember that use-value appears only after the appearance of the exchange relation?” (106).
The question which Beijing Bicycle brings into focus, however, is the role of fetishism and fetishistic attachment within the exchange relation. Guo relies on his bicycle for his economic livelihood, while Jian’s equally strong attachment to the vehicle (informed by his association of the bicycle with his girlfriend’s desire, by his Oedipal relationship with his father, and by his complex relationship with his friends) underscores the intricate interpenetration of these monetary and psychic economies. Even in the case of Guo, his attachment to the bicycle, his willingness to endure considerable physical punishment in order to regain it, would appear to vastly exceed its objective monetary value for him (it is true that it was his means of employment, but surely the courier service was not the only company in Beijing at which he could be hired).

One might be tempted to view these latter sorts of fetishistic or addictive attachments to commodities as parasitic to the underlying monetary economy within which they are embedded, and perhaps they are, indeed, parasitic in a Derridean sense—providing the conditions under which monetary value becomes possible in the first place.

[Cross-posted at Long Sunday]