the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Friday, May 05, 2006

As Time Goes By (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anonymous s0metim3s said...

Carlos, when you're done, do you want to xpost this to LS, or would you prefer a link back from there? Or should I just go ahead and compile, notwithstanding this still being written?

2:17 AM  
Blogger roger said...

Carlos, great post. One thing, though, about the Chernobyl anniversary – it is sorta misleading to call it an anniversary. Chernobyl is now here, and will be here, for the next 60 centuries. The sarcophagus in which it is now encased badly needs replacing. Probably, it will have to be replaced 3 or 4 times a century. Our pyramid of sacrifice will keep on giving. And of course we have to hope that no earthquake strikes in the next 6,000 years. And remember, the Chernobyl design is still being used – it is used at the nuclear reactor that provides Petersburg’s power, and it is used by something like 5 other nuclear power plants in the former U.S.S.R. Meanwhile, capitalism keeps triumphing. The latest capitalist triumph was the arrest of the Yevgeny Adamov, who, taking a leaf out of Halliburton’s book, realized that there was no need for the 5 billion dollars allocated to the department of energy for nuclear safety to really go to nuclear safety, when it could go to, well, cocaine, cars, the kids, bodyguards, the house, and the good life in general. Actually, he was extradited to Russia from Switzerland and imprisoned on a 110 million dollar fraud charge to keep him from being indicted in the U.S. on a much more severe charge. Friends, you know.

Myself, I think nuclear power will head down the same road as cars – just as we have gotten use to about a million car fatalities a year worldwide, we will simply get use to little spikes of birth defects and cancer. There is no getting off the treadmill of production. One of the mysteries of Chernobyl still is – what is inside the sarcophagus? The idea at the moment is that 170 tons of uranium dioxide are sealed in the reactor, and that the have formed a new kind of mineral, combining with the stuff dumped on the reactor in the aftermath of the explosion and other minerals of the reactors original structure. They have sent in robots, of course, in the last twenty years, but in certain areas, the electronics of the robots were immediately destroyed by the high ambient radiation. Chernobyl is literally the first human construction that we can’t see. We have created a blind spot. And of course, the sarcophagus around the structure isn’t even linked to the concrete slab put under the structure, which itself, in 6,000 years, might suffer a wee bit of deterioration.

Another link to the symbols of communism that might be relevant to your series: the May 1st parade in Kiev was not canceled by Soviet officials as atom bomb amounts of radiation were coming out of the damaged reactor in 1986. So the parade was held, outside, in the usual way, while a cloud of radiation swept through Kiev. Due to vagaries in the dispersion of radioactivity, some of Kiev became more radioactive than parts of the forbidden zone. Of course, twenty years later, the Chernobyl denial industry, headed by the IAEA, Putin, the Ukrainian government, and other interested parties, think it is silly and hysterical to suspect that irradiated populations might suffer chronic and unexpected diseases and psychological problems. Unless you show up with a handful of cesium at the IAEA offices, you will not be counted as a casualty.

Oh well. Chernobyl is a planet we will definitely hear from again.

9:25 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

This is very useful. Your points about Chernobyl are very well taken. Of course, the point about anniversaries not marking a terminus, but rather a recognition that the people/events in question continue to remain with us is, of course, one of the central points I have been trying to make in my discussion of spectral returns.

On a separate note, I was very intrigued by your remarks that "Chernobyl is literally the first human construction that we can’t see. We have created a blind spot," as I am currently writing a few things regarding imagery and obscenity (to come soon).

8:24 AM  

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