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.


Blogger bittersweet.tooth said...

facinating and insightful analysis on these groundbreaking works. thanks for such a good read :)

12:13 PM  

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