the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

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]

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Say My Name

Google announced last week that, after several years of ubiquitous anonymity, it had finally decided on an official name for its Chinese site 谷歌 [guge], or literally, “song of the grain” or "song of the [silicon] valley." An article in the on-line technology journal Donews (summarized in English on Virtual China a few days later) reports Google has been working on the name since at least 2002, and that one employee compared the process to “trying to come up with a name for a child.” In the interim, a 2005 survey reveals that nearly half of all Chinese users simply use the English term “Google,” while the rest use an impressive array of unofficial homophonic monikers, with 狗狗 (gougou—“dog dog”) leading the pack with 25% (followed closely behind by 古狗 [gugou—“ancient dog”]).

There is a popular belief in China that children should be given “milk-names” or “little names” (奶名,乳名,小名, etc.) when they are growing up in order to prevent Yanwang 阎王, the king of hell, from claiming their souls. This practice is referred to aphoristically as 歪名好养活 --or using a “crooked” milk-name to insure the child will survive infancy--with 狗狗 (dog dog) frequently cited as a prime example of such a “crooked” name (see, for instance, the following discussion of Shanxi folk customs).

Undoubtedly benefiting from having an English name which is itself an unintentional misspelling, together with an assortment of crooked Chinese “milk names,” Chinese Google appears to have been blessed as destiny's child as it survived its infancy without any overt threat from demons, hellish or otherwise. The question, though, is what lies ahead. In particular, how will Google/Guge negotiate the competing demands of Google’s reputation for unbiased results, CCP demands for political control, Western critiques of human rights abuses, and underlying demands for market efficiency? Will its attempt to resolve these competing imperatives result in a Mephistophelian arrangement whereby the company sells its own soul? An early indication of the answer to these questions came on the same day of the name announcement, when Google chief executive Eric Schmidt specified that “the company had not lobbied to change the [Chinese] censorship laws and, for now, had no plans to do so.”

[And, indeed Google’s own website now includes a similar caveat, noting that “It is Google's policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so. When we remove search results for these reasons, we display a notice on our search results pages.”]

Perhaps another (inadvertent) hint to how the company plans to resolve these competing imperatives can be found in the new Chinese name itself. “Guge,” or “song of the grain,” evokes a long tradition of collecting Chinese folksongs—ranging from the arch-canonical Shijing 诗经 (Book of Odes, or Book of Songs), a collection of 300 anonymous folk songs ostensibly selected by Confucius from more than 3000 dating back to the early Zhou dynasty (circa 1000 BCE), to Chen Kaige’s debut film Yellow Earth 黄土地 (1984) (based on an essay by Ke Lan entitled, interestingly, "Echoes from the deep valley" 深谷回声), in which a 1930s Red Army soldier is sent to a remote village in Northern China to collect “bitter songs.” What these and countless other examples have in common is that the anonymous folksongs are then reappropriated for political or propagandistic purposes. In the case of the Book of Odes, for instance, there is a long hermeneutic tradition whereby apparently innocent songs (love ballads, etc.) are read as intricate Confucian allegories, just as the Communist party in Yellow Earth is interested in the folk songs for use as propagandistic instruments.

Google/Guge, needless to say, is the quintessential tool for this process of “harvesting” anonymous voices and images, and mobilizing them for new purposes. The only question, however, is, what kinds of “grains” will be harvested, and to what purposes will they then be put?
[To harvest
v. tr.
a. To gather (a crop).
b. To take or kill (fish or deer, for example) for food, sport, or population control.
c. To extract from a culture or a living or recently deceased body, especially for transplantation: harvested bone marrow.]
A case in point is the example of anonymous protester made famous during the 1989 Tiananmen protests after being captured on video and film attempting to block a tank’s path. On April 11, the day before the Google announcements, PBS’s Frontline aired a new show
on the so-called “tank man,” accompanied by an elaborate web-site (complete with streaming video of the entire program).

The (officially) anonymous tank man occupies a huge position within the Western imagination of China. In fact, in 1998, when Time magazine compiled its list of "Leaders and Revolutionaries: Twenty people who helped define the political and social fabric of our times," it included only two Chinese. Of those, one, inevitably, was Chairman Mao Zedong—whose own political power was very much grounded in his attempted control (and, ultimately, lack thereof) over the dissemination of his own image—while the other was none other than the “unknown rebel.” If Mao's identity has, in many respects, been reduced to that of the two dimensional image cultivated under his cult of personality, the "identity" of the anonymous lone protester is by contrast, precisely an artifact of the original, endlessly reproduced, image itself.

While the anonymous figure of the “tank man” has become virtually synonymous with contemporary China in the West, it is nevertheless an icon which is virtually unknown to many younger Chinese. The Frontline site suggests one reason for this, with a page featuring detailed side-by-side comparisons of identical searches run on the regular Google and on the censored Chinese one (with virtually all references to the Tiananmen protests and other controversial subjects surgically deleted from the latter). [A reader’s comment on Peking Duck claims that the home page of the PBS “Tang Man” home page was shown in China, but that it was taken down within minutes (at least in parts of China)].

Anonymity is a powerful force. Just as anonymous figures like “unknown rebel” can be manipulated by outside forces (both Western and Chinese) for their respective political ends, similarly individuals can capitalize on their own anonymity in order to make a social/political/artistic statement. A case in point is the Beijing-based avant-garde artist Zhang Dali 张大力, who for many years in the late 1990s left a graphic "signature" of his own self-image—consisting of a minimalist profile with an accentuated brow-line and thick lips drawn with a single stroke of black spray paint—on public walls throughout the city (eventually moving on to more elaborate inscriptions, including carving profile-shaped holes out of abandoned walls). These iconic profiles function as self-portraits, indexical vestiges of Zhang's own surreptitious presence, while at the same time constituting signatures of anonymity itself, graphic traces which could conceivably be linked to virtually anyone, or to no one in particular.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Cooked Books

Last Wednesday, the A.C.L.U filed a motion for dismissal in U.S. v. Patel (Operation Meth Merchant), claiming law enforcement officials had discriminatorily targeted South Asian grocers in their methamphetamine drug sting in Rome Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. As evidence, the motion cited the testimony of an undercover agent, identified as “John Doe 2,” who described how he was directed by the officers he worked for to make targeted purchases, during which he was instructed to say specific things, including
statements such as “I need it to go cook” or “Hurry up, I’ve got to get home and finish a cook.” When John Doe 2 expressed concern that people who manufacture meth would neveroffer such unsolicited and incriminating statements, the officers (a) ordered him/her to make the statements subsequent to the paying for and receiving the products and (b) explained “that the Indians’ English wasn’t good, and they wouldn’t say a lot so it was important for [him/her] to make th[ose] kinds of statements” to support the arrests.
When the grocers sold the agents otherwise innocent products (cold medicine, aluminum foil, etc.), the State then used the agent’s vernacular “unsolicited and incriminating statements” as evidence that the grocers had been informed of what the agents intended to do with said products.

The term “cook” lies, therefore, at the crux of the U.S. v. Patel case, but furthermore provides an evocative hinge around which to bring together two concurrent and overlapping discussions within the Long Sunday community. On the one hand, there is a thread which takes the current reappropriation of the Spanish Civil War rallying cry “no pasarán,” by some “two-a-penny right wing proxies” in the recent anti-American protests in France, and uses this as a pretext to reexamine Derrida’s reading of Celan , and particularly his poem “Shibboleth” On the other hand, there is next week’s on-line symposium on Spivak’s “Scattered Speculations of the Question of Value,” together with several discussions which have already been disseminated in advance.

At the heart of the U.S. v. Patel motion is the verb “to cook,” which was used by the drug agents as a sort of shibboleth—silently marking, as Derrida writes in Sovereignties in Question, “the multiplicity within language, insignificant differences as the condition of meaning.” Indeed, what is ultimately at stake is not the word’s literal, conventional meaning, but rather a slang, underground meaning. In fact, as many have observed, the fact that all of the discussions of the case in the media have found it necessary to explain that “to cook” is slang for preparing crystal meth suggests this alternate meaning of this term is far from universally known, making it all the more surprising that an immigrant with poor English skills would necessarily understand the reference. John Doe 2’s testimony notwithstanding, the logic of Operation Meth Merchant is predicated on attributing the grocers with linguistic competency (or even super-fluency) in American English. Rather than serving as an invitation of inclusion, however, the “to cook” shibboleth instead reaffirms the xenophobic prejudices already in place.

This linkage between crystal meth and community inclusion/exclusion in rural Georgia, furthermore, has a curious postscript. In September, 2005 (about four months after the conclusion of Operation Meth Merchant), it was revealed that when Atlanta suburb resident Ashley Smith was held hostage by escaped convict Ben Nichols back in March, she had actually not used a copy of Rick Warren’s Christian best-seller, A Purpose-Driven Life to placate the escaped con, as she had initially claimed, but rather had used some crystal meth which she happened to have on hand. From opiate of the masses, to genuine opiates....

The verb “to cook,” meanwhile, also stands at the threshold of Spivak’s seminal essay, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value” (1985). Near the beginning of that piece, Spivak is given pause by the overdetermined significance of the term:
It is our task to suggest that, by lifting the lid of that seemingly unified concept-phenomenon, Marx uncovered the economic text. Sometimes it seems that cooking is a better figure than weaving when one speaks of the text, although the latter has etymological sanction. Lifting the lid, Marx discovers that the pot of the economic is forever on the boil. What cooks (in all senses of this enigmatic expression) is Value.
Spivak’s stress on this “enigmatic expression”—including its para-pharmaceutical connotations as elaborated above—inadvertently raises the question the roles of fetishism and addiction in the production of value.

What if what cooks is, in fact, an addictive drug such as crystal meth? Derived from common household products, crystal meth is reputed to be a highly addictive and physically devastating drug. What determines the value of such a drug? What is the place, within a theory of commodity fetishism, for a logic of fetishistic desire or physiological addiction?

These twin themes of linguistic shibboleths and fetishistic consumption, meanwhile, come together in the recent phenomenon of Jeffrey Gitomer’s “little red book” series. A few weeks ago, Gitomer (identified on Amazon as “the world’s leading expert on selling”) published Little Red Book of Sales Answers: 99.5 Real World Answers that Make Sense, Make Sales, and Make Money (2006), which is a sequel to his modestly best-selling (300,00 copies) 2004 volume, The Little Red Book of Selling: 12.5 Principles of Sales Greatness .

Troping on Mao’s famous Little Red Book, Gitomer’s aphoristic capitalist bibles are similarly designed to be memorized in small chunks and applied to a wide variety of situations. Both Mao’s and Gitomer’s texts, therefore, arguably are concerned as much with a sort of linguistic or discursive competency (how to say appropriate things in appropriate situations), as they are with teaching actual knowledge or ideology (in The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic, Haun Saussy argues that the hyper-politicized Book of Odes 诗经 was traditionally used much the same way).

Gitomer’s texts, furthermore, are apparently as concerned with the dynamics of consumption as they are with selling. As the Publisher’s Weekly notes in its short review of the 2004 volume, Gitomer is not merely concerned with selling, but also with the psychology of buying:
If salespeople are worried about how to sell, Gitomer (The Sales Bible) believes they are missing out on the more important aspect of sales: why people buy. This, he says, is "all that matters," and his latest book aims to demystify buying principles for salespeople.
Why do people buy things? More generally, how would a theory of value account for commodities which are literally festishized (not to mention the objects of physiological addiction)? For instance, how would Gitomer explain that appeal of his own books--an appeal which, even if it certainly falls well short of addiction, may nevertheless be productively compared to the fetishistic appeal of texts like the original Maoist Little Red Book (or, for that matter, Warren's A Purpose-Driven Life)?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Know Thyself

With America’s first idol, Kelly Clarkson, having just won two awards at the Grammy’s back in February; and with Hunan Satellite TV having just announced that the second season of their own Chinese spin-off, “Supergirl” [or "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Voice Girl Contest," as English-language news articles invariably note in delight] last year attracted more than 400M viewers for its finale, and made more than $12M (US) in overall profits (and will be coming under increased regulation in subsequent seasons), it would therefore perhaps be appropriate to revisit the debut album of Wang Ti 王媞, the runner-up in China’s first Supergirl competition in August of 2004 (before it became the mass phenomenon that it is today). Before proceeding to the finals, Wang Ti had won the Chengdu regional finals amidst a couple of controversies.

First of all, some viewed Wang’s victory over runner-up Zhang Hanyun 张含韵 as being attributable to looks more than singing ability (in a twist, however, it was argued that Wang Ti had won precisely because she was less attractive than Zhang—with the reasoning being that in the second round the very talented but not particularly attractive Ji Minjia 纪敏佳 was voted out, after which there was a text-message campaign by viewers complaining that the Supergirl had become a beauty contest rather than a talent competition, and that it was precisely backlash from this e-mail campaign which lead people to narrowly select Wang Ti over the more traditionally attractive Zhang Hanyun in the regional finals.

Secondly, there was a question of the extent to which Wang Ti was qualified to represent Chengdu in the first place, given that she was actually from Shandong province, and furthermore had subsequently lived in the US with her parents for several years. When asked about this controversy, a representative of the Chengdu competition explained, that the winner of the regional competition will represent the Chengdu regional finals, and not the city of Chengdu itself, at the national competition (她代表的是成都赛区而不是成都). (This is a rather astonishing claim given the importance traditionally placed in China on regional affiliation as a basis for identity).

Released in June of 2005, the eponymous album has the somewhat recursive title of 《媞名》 –literally meaning “Named Ti,” and punning precisely on the homophonic binome literally meaning (among other things) “title [of an article]” -- 题名. This theme of reflexive identity, in turn, becomes an ironic pivot point in one of the album’s two hit singles: 《知已》which might be translated as “one who knows you [intimately].”

《知已》 is a love song, and adopts the voice of a young woman whose boyfriend has just broken up with her, telling her that he prefers that she be his “best friend” (知己). Sung in Cantonese (the only song on the album not sung in Mandarin), the song’s lyrics begin:









Am I overthinking things, that you regard me as just a sweet friend?
I drink the tea you have drunk from, but leave my hugs for you
Those ‘hers’ of yours are too changeable; I can’t tell which are real and which are false
You yourself are also too cruel, frequently dragging me along to see one of those ‘hers’
I clearly like/love you, I clearly want to embrace you
Why have I been demoted to being your ‘best friend’? How many times have I wanted to leave you,
But each time I couldn’t bear to quit you; I love you to the point that I come to crave life and fear death.
I'll play games with you, in order to comfort myself....

These lyrics are actually quite shocking. Shocking—not so much on account of their thematization of female desire (which, indeed, has become quite common-place in contemporary Chinese culture), but rather for the violence which they imparts upon the title phrase “知己”. Translated here, for convenience, as “best friend,” the phase actually means significantly more. Literally “someone who knows you,” the phrase suggests someone who knows the subject as well as he knows himself. For instance, the locus classicus for the phrase is a line from the 刺客列传 section Sima Qian’s 3rd century AD classic, Records of the Historian 史记, which reads: 士为知己者死,女为悦己者容”。 “A gentleman dies for one who knows his heart; a lady makes up her face for one who pleases her.” To have a 知己 is, therefore, not something to be taken lightly, but rather it is privilege for which one might even be willing to sacrifice one’s own life.

This linkage between intimate familiarity and death, in turn, builds on the famous anecdote of the Spring and Autumn Period lute master Boya mourning his friend Zhong Ziqi 伯牙吊子期 (discussed in various early texts, including the Liezi, Xunzi, and Huainanzi). Ziqi was said to be Boya’s ideal audience, his 知音, always understanding exactly what he was playing. When Ziqi died, therefore, Boya smashed his lute on the grave and vowed never to play again: 鐘子期死,伯牙破琴絕弦,終身不復鼓琴,以為世無足復為鼓琴者.

Closely related to the 知己 (“one who knows you [intimately]”) in the Records anecdote, the 知音 (“one who knows [your] sound or music”) in the Boya anecdote uses sound/music “音” in the place of the pronoun indicating reflexive identity “己” in the “知己” formulation. The attitudes toward death in these two formulations, furthermore , inversely parallel—in that, in the latter, one is willing to die for the sake of a “知己,” whereas in the former, it is the death of the “知音” which makes one willing to renounce one’s passions. In Wang Ti's song, meanwhile, the 知己 relationship is presented as being a poor substitute for romantic attachment, and it is precisely the latter (and not the status of being or having a “知己” which makes the narrator “crave life and fear death.”

Wang Ti’s rejection of the reflexive “知己” formulation in her song comments ironically on the way in which Wang Ti herself problematizes issues of identity and reflexivity. Winning the regionals based on her looks due to a viewer backlash against contestants being selected for their beauty; achieving fame through a competition premised on repackaging quirky individuality for the largest mass audience; representing Chengdu (or the Chengdu regional finals) despite the fact that she herself is not from Chengdu; singing her first hit song in a dialect (Cantonese) which she presumably did not speak, Wang Ti (or the public persona of "Wang Ti) is a bundle of contradictions.

These contradictions also extend to the title of Wang Ti’s album and hit song. While the song title takes a classic ideal of reciprocity as identity (“knowing you as I know myself”) and essentially overturns its significance (suggesting that it marks an unfortunate demotion from simply having someone to hold you tight), the title of the album similarly reifies reflexivity to the point of making it virtually meaningless. As noted above, the title is simply a binome consisting of Wang Ti’s given name (which is itself a relatively rare character 媞 (meaning “happy” or “glorious”) not found in most single-volume dictionaries, and which simply consists of juxtaposed characters for “woman” 女 and “is” 是 (“woman is…..”). As discussed above, furthermore, the title of the album, “媞名 ,” therefore, literally means “Named ‘Ti,’” but is also a precise homonym for another pair of virtually identical binomes: 提名—which means “to nominate [for election]” (appropriately enough, for a show which is alternatively held up as a model or as an ironic parody of the democratic process); and 题名, which means “a title [of an article],” "an autograph," or "the act of signing of an autograph."

This conflation of identity and name, this reduction of identity to a name which, it turns out, is itself an open-ended tautological construction (Wang Ti is “Ti” is “woman is” …), this assertion of identity, this act of naming which signifies its own erasure, is perhaps best represented through the homophonic gesture of signing an autograph, that is—to quote Derrida from the conclusion of “Signature, Event, Context”—“in the form of the most improbable signature.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Double Vision

This past Wednesday, 19 year old Ryan McFadyen became the first (and, to-date, only) member of Duke’s lacrosse team to be disciplined, following revelations that he had written an e-mail expressing an intention to invite strippers to his drm room, then kill and skin them:
[…] all are welcome.. however there will be no nudity. I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off [….]
Even as McFadyen was being suspended, however, large crowds were attending the “Bodies the Exhibition” exhibits in New York, London, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay. Combining pedagogy with prurience, these exhibits consist of actual human cadavers which have been skinned, partially dissected, and then mounted in a variety of athletic poses. In a short editorial in today’s NY Times, Francis Clines describes one what might imagine to be a typical reaction:
“Guy was alive, a whole person,” said a wary teenager as classmates checked out the thinker. “It’s not my place to stare.”
But the lad did. The cadavers—22 of them—pretty much stared back.
Juxtaposed together, as if on a split screen, the parallels between these two scenes of flayed flesh are rather startling. Just as Cline’s New York teenager is split between a pedagogical imperative to watch, and a socialized proscription against gazing at that which is deemed improper or obscene (at least in proper company), he struggles not to stare (“It’s not my place to stare”), but at the same time cannot tear his eyes away. Similarly, the Duke teenager explicitly disavows an explicitly erotic scopophilia (“there will be no nudity”), precisely in order to replace it with a more ob-scene scopophilia—of skinning, or making visible that which should be hidden from sight.

A similar splitting of the gaze can be found in a climactic moment near the end of Zhang Yimou’s debut film Red Sorghum 紅高梁 (1987), in which Japanese execute two Chinese as all of the townspeople of the rural Gaomi township in Shandong province are forced to observe. The first of those executed is the bandit leader “Spotted Neck,” whom the Japanese have ordered be skinned alive by his own butcher. In an act of mercy, however, the butcher first stabs the bandit leader in the stomach, thus killing him instantly. The Japanese then bring their second victim, a respected local known as Brother Arhat who had run off to join the Communist underground, and instruct the butcher’s assistant to skin him alive. Unlike his (now-dead) master, the terrified young assistant does follow the Japanese’ orders, but his first cut (just before the camera itself cuts away) is also a merciful one: a deliberate slicing though Uncle Arhat’s closed eyelids.

Evocative of the famous eye-slitting scene in Buñuel’s surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), this merciful slicing of the eye/lids represents not only a challenge to the physical integrity of the human corpus, but also a challenge to the viewing subject him or herself. Clearly intended to spare his victim from having to watch his own skinning, the sliced eye/lids at the same time also suggest a bifurcation of the gaze, whereby the viewer is figuratively split between a partial identification with the victim put on display, on the one hand, and a position of more distanced spectatorship, on the other hand. In other words, what is at stake here is effectively a crisis of suture, a challenge to the viewer's ability to suture over the "cut" introduced into his or her ostensibly unified field of vision.

In somewhat more practical terms, the slicing of the eyelid in this scene is allegorical of the splitting of the work’s authorial gaze, as director Zhang Yimou 張艺谋 appropriates and adapts Mo Yan’s 莫言 novel by the same title from earlier that same year. In fact, the eyelid slicing was added by Zhang Yimou, as Zhang took Mo Yan's novel and adopted parts of it to suit his point of view.

This splitting of the authorial gaze, in turn, came to provide the premise for Mo Yan’s 1995 novel Republic of Wine 酒国 —in which Mo Yan’s authorial persona is figuratively split into two halves, with one have appearing as an establishment author (by the name of “Mo Yan”), and the second appearing as Li Yidou, a free-spirited doctoral candidate in liquor studies who idolizes Mo Yan (particularly on account of his Red Sorghum). Like Mulberry and Peach and Farewell China, this theme of split personality speaks directly to the way in which the subject is torn between competing societal expectations.

While the sliced eyelid/eyeball scene in Zhang Yimou’s film does not occur in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, Mo Yan nevertheless integrates a rather similar scene into his more recent novel The Sandalwood Sentence (2001). Set in the same Gaomi township as Red Sorghum, this latter work takes place some three decades before Red Sorghum—in 1900, during the height of the Boxer Rebellion. The novel revolves around a young woman by the name of Meiniang, and her relationship with three different father-figures, on the one hand, and their respective positions within a geopolitical power struggle between the Empress Dowager Cixi, the governor of Shandong province (and future president of the Republic) Yuan Shikai, the German imperialists, and the Boxers, on the other hand. More specifically, Meiniang's biological father is Sun Bing, a star in the local "Cat melody" opera tradition, while her father-in-law is Zhao Jia, a retired imperial executioner. Meanwhile, her "god father" is Qian Ding, the County Magistrate, on whom Meiniang develops a perverse crush even as the magistrate is threatening her own father with death.

At one point, Magistrate Qian Ding's brother, Qian Xiongfei, was executed by Zhao Jia (Meiniang’s father-in-law) for having attempted to assassinate Governor Yuan. The method used is the classic "lingchi," or "death by a 500 cuts," and the narrative describes in considerable detail how Zhao ritualistically cuts off each progressive body part, solemnly names it, and then feeds it to the dogs (all the while carefully insuring that the subject remains alive until the very end).

Near the end of the execution, Zhao Jia notes that he has the option of removing either Qian’s eyes or his lips. Zhao ultimately opts for the eyes, and is privately relieved when Qian closes his eyes before Zhao excises the first eyeball. With the second eye, however, Qian adamantly keeps the eyelid open, forcing Zhao to cut it out with Qian staring back at him. This moment represents a crucial point in the execution, where the gaze of the audience (and of the executioner) is directly challenged by the gaze of the victim himself.

Reminiscent of the “Bodies the Exhibition” scene which Clines describes in his Times editorial, this moment of returned gaze is challenging in part precisely because it undermines the presumptive unity of subject’s own gaze. This question of the potential detachability of the gaze (and it is significant that Lacan cites the gaze as the quintessential “partial object,” or potentially detachable bodily appendices), in turn, has important implications for issues of self-perception and cultural identification. Given this thematization of the detachability of the gaze, it is certainly not coincidental that Sandalwood Sentence concludes, as does Republic of Wine, with an elaborate splitting of Meiniang's father Sun Bing's consciousness (while he is on the receiving end of an extraordinarily long and traumatic execution).

These issues of detachable gazes, in turn, are developed very explicitly in a remarkable scene near the end of Jia Pingwa’s 1993 novel Fallen City. In a suggestive intertextual play on the infamous canine penile transplant scene in Li Yu's Qing dynasty erotic novella The Carnal Prayer Mat, the character Ruan Zhifei has, not his penis, but rather his eyes surgically replaced with those of a dog. Later, Ruan asks the protagonist Zhuang Zhidie if he can see any difference between his old eyes and the new ones (he can't), and goes on to observe that:
I originally thought that changing my eyes would make me look bad, but I subsequently realized that all eyes actually look alike. The eyes of those pretty girls may be attractive, but if you extract them and place them on a table, you could claim that they were human eyes or pig eyes and it wouldn't make a bit of difference on way or the other. The question of whether a pair of eyes is good-looking or not, is really dependent on the face which contains them.
In asking whether the new eyes are good-looking (haokan) or not, Ruan is asking whether they are attractive, but the Chinese, like the English, is ambiguous on this point, insofar as the phrase “good-looking” could also be interpreted to mean “seeing easily or well.” Underlying this grammatical ambiguity, meanwhile, is a more substantive question regarding the nature of sight itself. What is the precise linkage between oneself and what one sees? To what extent are one's gaze and one's image located at the boundaries of the Self, and consequently potentially transplantable? To what extent is one's awareness of one's "own" image itself contingent on a fracturing of one's gaze, on the ability vicariously to appropriate a gaze which is always-already located outside oneself?

Although the eye transplant scene in Fallen City is clearly fantastic (resonating in interesting ways with Spielberg’s more recent Minority Report), it nevertheless evokes the burgeoning practice of cosmetic surgery (not to mention shows about cosmetic surgery like Nip and Tuck ). Most cosmetic surgery is motivated by a kind of split gaze, wherein the subject perceives his or herself though the gaze of implicit societal norms and expectations, and therefore it is appropriate that one of the most common surgical procedures for Asian women are blepharoplasties, or the creation of a fold of skin in the upper eyelid (to produce a more "Occidental" appearance). Literally a cutting of the eyelid, this procedure reflects a pre-existing “cut” at the level of the gaze, wherein Asian women come to view themselves through the normative eyes of their Caucasian peers.

Friday, April 07, 2006

"The Shocker"

Last week Antonin Scalia made a controversial hand gesture when asked, inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, about those who might question his impartiality on matters relating to the separation of church and state. During the ensuring controversy, Scalia defended himself by suggesting that anyone who thought the gesture obscene must have been watching “too many episodes of The Sopranos,” whereupon the Boston Herald responded by interviewing several of the Sopranos actors themselves for their views:
It’s not like grabbing your crotch, not that bad an obscenity. But it’s an obscenity. It’s something you would do after paying a bookie, to your bookie, but not something you would do in church.
said one;
It’s not that bad, but I wouldn’t do it to my mother. No way. Would I do it in church? These days, maybe. It depends if the priest was giving me the hairy eyeball.
said another (and, in the process, adding to the existing confusion the additional question of what, precisely, it means to give “the hairy eyeball"). An animated debate ensued over the hermeneutics of chin flips, during the course of which the original photographer, Peter Smith, was “fired” by the Catholic weekly for which he occasionally worked (but nevertheless retained his "second" job as a professor at Boston University).

This miniature scandal about the semantics of obscenity is reminiscent of an imbroglio several years ago involving a similarly opaque hand gesture, known colloquially as the “Shocker”—a gesture which, the NY Times observed in a different context, is “a sexual reference understood by most college students but by few over 22.” The consequences of this semantic generation gap became most pronounced when it was brought to the attention of the administrators of Hanover High School in Pennsylvania that more than 30 seniors had posed for their yearbook photos making the gesture in question. Upon belatedly realizing what had happened, the administrators ordered that the photos in question be destroyed and re-taken, and that the students not only pay for the re-take but furthermore perform one day of community service. In the ensuing controversy, however, the decision to have photos re-taken was overturned (they were airbrushed instead), and the principal ended up resigning soon after.

Both of these incidents revolve around hand gestures that derive their impact not only from their sexual connotations (whether real or imagined), but more importantly from their status as a kind of private language. By “private language,” I don’t have in mind Wittgenstein’s famous discussion of the possibility (or, he argues, lack thereof) of a language that is truly private and only meaningful to the speaker him or herself (“[C]ould we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give expression to his inner experiences - his feelings, moods, and the rest - for his private use?....”). Indeed, the controversy in both the Scalia and Hanover High incidents is predicated on the existence of a community which understands the significance of the gestures in question. Instead, I have in mind here something more along the lines of the kind of covert communication described in Stallybrass’ and White’s classic study The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, wherein the sense of frisson created by certain kinds of utterances derives precisely from the knowledge of the rifts which those utterances create between “in-groups” and “out-groups.”

Therefore, the notion of a “private language” developed here is informed less by Wittgenstein than by Baudrillard’s notion of obscenity. As Kellner observes in a recent speech, “for Baudrillard, the society of production was passing over to simulation and seduction; the panoptic and repressive power theorized by Foucault was turning into a cynical and seductive power of the media and information society.”

In “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media," Baudrillard posits a crucial distinction between the spectacle and obscenity:
the spectacle is never obscene. Obscenity begins precisely where there is no more spectacle, no more scene, when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.
The implication here is that it is precisely the transparency of our media-saturated world, the knowledge that one’s actions are potentially visible by a vast audience of anonymous viewers creates the potential for a specific kind of obscenity located precisely at the border between the private and the super-public.

It is precisely this quality of ubiquitous transparency which paradoxically creates an impulse for self-commemoration. For instance, there is a well-established connection between photography and death. Barthes, for instance, observes at one point that “each photograph always contains this imperious sign of my future death,” and Derrida similarly argues that “the spectral is the essence of photography.” Perhaps it is precisely on account of this natural affinity between death and photography, therefore, that the photography of death can easily veer into obscenity. A case in point in a recent Reuters piece on the phenomenon of mourners using cell phones to take pictures at funerals in Japan: “I get the sense that people no longer respect the dead. It's disturbing," a funeral director told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.”

[Klingensmith, in a thoughtful posting on this topic, notes not only that the photo accompanying the article appears to have been cited out of context, but furthermore that this is simply an extension of a longstanding practice of photographing the dead:
Before the camera phone, one had to make an advance decision to bring a camera, specifically in order to capture a last glimpse of the departed, in defiance of what seems like a widespread belief that such behavior is an act of disrespect. Camera phones may make it easier to act on the important but difficult desire to preserve the memory of the dead as dead, returning death as a part of life rather than allowing the continued denial of its presence.
This is undoubtedly true, but at the same time continues to acknowledge the “widespread belief that such behavior is an act of disrespect.”]

These twin impulses toward commemoration and obscenity are, of course, particularly evident in the Abu Graihb scandal. Susan Sontag, building on her argument in her recent book Regarding Another’s Pain, has argued that a crucial element in the scandal is not merely the torture itself, but more importantly the compulsion to pose, to photographically record one’s transgressions for the public and posterity:
To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's life, and therefore to go on with one's life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera's nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share in the community of actions recorded as images. The expression of satisfaction at the acts of torture being inflicted on helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story. There is the deep satisfaction of being photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond not with a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of them.
This self-defeating impulse to create a visual record of one’s crime—a visual record which, in turn, may provide the basis for subsequent prosecution—is grounded precisely on the subject’s awareness of his or her position within an imminently visible, media-saturated world.

An excellent example of this imbrication of visibility and obscenity can be found in the opening scene of City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002), in which a Rio De Janeiro gang of armed boys (who happen to be chasing a chicken, but that’s another story) run into the protagonist, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has recently started working as a photographer for a local newspaper. Rocket initially fears that they will shot him (in retribution for [accidentally] having one of his pictures of them published in the newspaper), but instead the gang invites him to shoot them—their desire for fame being equaled perhaps only by the newspaper’s desire for their photos (Jana Prikryl makes a similar point in a very nice article in Believer a year ago). In subsequently photo sessions, the gang repeatedly hams it up for Rocket’s camera, borrowing from the same archive of martial/machismo poses and gestures which we find again in the Abu Graihb photos.

Final, to conclude this discussion of the relationship between hyper-transparency and obscenity by returning to Scalia’s controversial hand gesture, it is undoubtedly welcome that the Supreme Court as a whole continues to resist general pressures for self-publicity (and more concrete pressure from Congress) to televise their own proceedings.