Sunday, December 26, 2010

Promethea by Alan Moore

Promethea: Book One (Prometea, #1)Promethea: Book One by Alan Moore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If Prometheus, the man who stole fire from the gods and gave it to men, figures technology, then Promethea must figure the imagination. In Alan Moore’s vision, she grew up in America, with 18th century roots in obscure colonial poetry, and only came of age in the twentieth century, in comics and pulp fiction. A riumph of wit and responsibility working together, Promethea also gives a role in the boyish field of comics to the figure as imagined by Hélène Cixous, the French feminist who mastered psychoanalysis, the better to dissect phallocentrism.

Promethea is ambitious, yet fun-loving, meta-fantasy familiar to readers of The Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Apparently Moore sees the Immateria as more than a metaphor for the imagination -- it’s something like a lifestyle for him now. Still, even though Wikipedia reserves a whole section of his entry on “Religion and Magic,” it’s clear that learning Kaballah and conducting ceremonies are only variations, or perhaps extensions to the art of story telling. Perhaps they are primarily more social or theatrical in nature -- Moore has the look of a wizard or some other master of secret powers, and if he were to speak spells in my area, I would pay to hear it. The political content of Moore’s work also speaks to a view of human society as populations brought together and broken asunder all by successes and failures of the imagination, a point he makes very vividly in Promethea by recalling the horror of war expressed by Wilfrid Owen. These interests in what are called “magic” and “anarchism” become, in Moore’s stories, much less like radical theories and much more like the sort common wisdom that we should be teaching our children.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Yang Jiang And Bing Xin

Yang Jiang with Bing Xin, Xinhua File photo re-published online January 16, 2008

This article on Yang Jiang will get a mention in my dissertation. The author, Yu Jun, is a blogger; click here to read his musings on sickness and suffering, death and life. Warning: you have to listen to Karen Carpenter if your speakers are on.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Story Note: Wang Zengqi's "Buddhist Initiation"

Wang Zengqi, folk culture expert, writer, editor of a volume on food writing I'd like to see. He also illustrated a reference work on the potato, which has me dreaming of a volume of food writing. (From Fang's introductory biography). Thanks to this blog for the picture.

Chinese Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: An Anthology in English (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 1496)Chinese Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: An Anthology in English by Zhihua Fang

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I picked this up so I could read Fang's translation of "Buddhist Initiation" by Wang Zengqi. It's a ridiculously poor translation of a story that already lacks conflict and tension.

The introduction to the book has some real howlers, e.g. Fang on the 1980s in China: "It was a magic, romantic and wondrous time that will never be again." Astoundingly, Fang's bumbling historical introduction does not even mention "Buddhist Initiation."

I can see no reason to look at this volume, unless you need to read stories by Gao Xiaosheng, Tie Ning and/or Wang Zengqi quickly, in poor English that will leave you suspecting that Chinese literature really is inferior.

(Apparently the "Garland Reference Library of the Humanities" is another one of those near-vanity publishers that will publish practically anything, with no attempt to vet or consult with peers in the field.)

Finally, a response to the story "Buddhist Initiation," at least in this English translation:

Wang Zengqi’s “Buddhist Initiation” is about a town where a Buddhist monastery and an earthy citizenry exist in harmony. People love and respect the monks, even though the monks don't obey the vinaya codes that prohibit eating meat and having sex. The story drifts from scene to scene with lyrical writing about land, as well as detailed portraits of the various monks, children, old ladies, street merchants, etc. etc. that fill the town. There is a sort of a protagonist, a child named Mingzi who wants to be a monk, but also likes this one girl Yingzi. Will he be able to have both? Yes.

Like so much of Mark Twain's writing, place and language are bound so tightly together, this piece is probably not a good choice for translation. As Carolyn FitzGerald has suggested in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, we can apply David Wang's term "imaginary nostalgia" to describe the idealized network of landscape and portrait that comprises these compositions. Note that I say "compositions" and not "stories" because landscape and portrait do not a story make.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Feminism note: Literary Feminism?

Cast photo from a recent production of "Making Lies from Truth" (Nong zhen cheng jia) by Yang Jiang; from this page

Dooling, Amy. Women's Literary Feminism in Twentieth-Century China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

After reading the long introduction to this book, I'm troubled once again by "feminist literary theory." Let me try to state the idea behind this big term very simply: literature ought to represent females in such a way as to highlight the need for feminist consciousness and feminist transformation. The resulting "feminist narrative" will either portray traditional patriarchal society negatively, which highlights the need for change, or it will portray female subjects who contribute substantially to the change, either simply because they understand the problems women face or because they come up with ways to actually change society.

I'm almost on board with this feminist project, though I'm troubled by the following: there is a strong 'ought' to feminist narrative, a kind of demand as to what needs to happen in literature. There seems to be some conflict between the demand for feminist narrative and the analysis of "agency" in women's literature. Feminists both look for agency and try to push what they know of agency onto the text, which I think is why they tend to undervalue the simple application of traditions and conventions in their literature. And since the literary quality of a text is partly reflected in its dense network of interactions with writing tradition, literary quality, too, is undervalued.

In my own terms, feminist literary criticism doesn't, at least here in Dooling, express any overlap between "agency" and "affect." Companionate marriage, for example, is a kind of primary affective connection that allows for agency in both parties -- that's what "companion" means, right? And this kind of relationship can arise in Chinese writing as a reinvention (Dooling's word would be "rewrite") of conventions, including Confucian convention. The difference I seem to have is perhaps slight: I say a 'rewrite' can have less parody and critique than feminists normally look for, at least until they begin considering middlebrow literature perhaps, which field forces them to consider how literature works on readers who won't accept challenges that raise their levels of anxiety and ambivalence. People want happy endings.

More on this in my dissertation to come.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Wenxian tongkao: Chinese History Geek Note

"Da Qin" (Rome?) in the Wenxian tongkao

I had an encounter with the Wenxian tongkao at reading group last week. HJ, who seems to have really been animated by our readings from the 1602 Ricci map of the world, was looking into the mention of a certain class of people known as 'dwarves' in the Shan hai jing, who have their own land south of the region of Da Qin -- which reference point said in later sources to be Rome, but in the Shan hai jing it is the land west of the western ocean which borders the central continent (zhongzhou), following the older Chinese notion that the landmass was surrounded by all sides on water, and all resting on the back of a turtle, I believe.

Anyway, the map says somewhere (sadly I forget where) that a certain dwarf people live in caves to take refuge from large predatory birds. They attack the birds nests themselves in the spring, destroying the eggs. The business of predatory birds, and the defensive and offensive strategies against the birds, appear in the Shan hai jing and many, many later sources which tell upwards of a dozen variants of the story in as related in the commentary to the Shanghai guji edition. HJ also supplemented a single line from the Wenxian tongkao, a fairly important historical work of the Northern Song (1224) -- see Endymion Wilkinson page 526, Table 33, item 8, please. The page now stored in my email also includes a long and fascinating entry on "Da Qin," below which comes the entry on the dwarves, which variant of the original description also says that the Da Qin people protected the little dwarves from the predatory birds.


Back to the Blog, Back to School

Yep, that's how I feel; thanks artist Tom Richmond

It's the first day of school at the University of Minnesota. I'm always so nervous!

Huichung, Emily Chua. “The Good Book and the Good Life: Bestselling Biographies in China’s Economic Reform.” The China Quarterly, 198 (2009): 364-380.

Here's a source that AW recommended; it will surely come up in my next chapter, on the phenomenon of progressive humanism as a mass intimate public in contemporary Chinese culture. Huichung doesn't identify this intimate public, but she describes the larger field of Chinese publishing that surrounds bestselling biographies as one in which old stories take on new market orientations. She calls it a mutually generative relationship between revolutionary ambitions and commercial enterprise, but I'm not convinced this describes Yang Jiang's work effectively. Unlike Yao Ming's biography, for example, Yang Jiang never seems to think wealth or industry are important, and unlike Wang Meng, she only rarely uses the discourse of the nation, particularly in its intimate form which Huichung spots in the term "aiguo xin" (the patriotic heart).

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mindmap reading: Leo Ou-fan Lee

August 23, Chapter 3 in formation after reading Leo Ou-fan Lee's article "On the Margins of the Chinese Discourse" (1991)

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. "On the Margins of the Chinese Discourse: Some Personal Thoughts on the Cultural Meaning of the Periphery." Daedalus 120.2, The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today (Spring, 1991): 207-226.


Inspectional Reading: Affect and Emotional Exhaustion

I hope the model had fun posing for this photo I found at this page, which also reports that it can happen to anybody (studies were done!).

This blog by psychology researchers at the University of Sheffield awakens me to the value of scholarly research blogs in inspectional reading. In this entry, we can quickly learn two key terms: "interpersonal affect regulation," or trying to change someone else's feelings, and "intrapersonal affect regulation," or changing one's own feelings.

The researcher's main proposition here is that these affective actions exhaust the subject, which she suspects may have something to do with blood sugar -- emotional work is real work, apparently. I don't know that this proposition would be useful to me, but I am tempted to ask whether "interpersonal affect regulation," represented in literary texts, has some power on the reader. Thus I have a glimpse of how to connect affect to reader response theory.


Inspectional Reading: Affect in Sociology

"Affect" happening live, online?

Jarrett, Kylie. "Labour of Love: An Archaeology of Affect as Power in E-Commerce." Journal of Sociology 39.4 (2003): 335-351

I need to understand exactly what "affect" means if it is to be the keyword of my entire dissertation, so it will have to be the subject of a set of inspectional readings. The big difference that I am putting into inspectional reading this time around is that it must feed directly into real writing, right away.

Sociological studies of affect seem to me to be useful especially in two main sections of my dissertation:

Chapter 1, section 1, "Affect in Chinese Literature"
{identity, symbolic capital, are social relationships always emotional?}
Chapter 4, section 1, "The Role of Affect in Intimate Publics"
{defining "middlebrow" literature, new (online especially) venues for the expression of social identity, user-response reveal the self-interested consumer, the readership as a community, or overlapping communities: do they have power? do they give immaterial labor? is it an example of flexible consumption? What is the role of "love," "goodwill" for the genre? Do they repudiate something? Do they embrace something?}

Here, Jarrett's article argues that social movements, a spirit of volunteerism that resulted from social movements, transformations of the Fordist economy into an economy full of "flexible consumers," and the value given to community among online consumers all work to produce e-commerce consumers "specifically as creatures of affect" with the power to produce creative content (like Amazon product reviews) and to shape production.

This argument has implications for the construction of "collective identity" (Fischer 1996, 181), the emergence of "network economies of scale" (Evans and Wurster, 1997/1999: 29, 2000: 15), modes of resistance to mass-marketing (Miller, 1998: 193, perhaps contra Baudrillard's model, 1981? also Harvey 1990), the productive power of affect (cf. Abercrombie 1991, esp. p. 177), the "love" of brands (Davidson 1992, 26-7, Klein 2001: 7) which leads to immaterial labor (Negri 1996,1999). Perhaps the new communities are a profound challenge to the class-bound identity?

Leisure Reading: Perelman v. Yau in Mathematics

4-minute video version of the story by Ray Uzwyshyn

Thanks to my friend B. for pointing out this 2006 New Yorker story of the solution to a famous problem in mathematics called the Poincaré Conjecture.

I'm fascinated by the figure of Grigory Perelman, the elusive Russian who clearly believes his distance from institutional centers is necessary for creative work -- the problem is that mathematics is in fact a collaborative enterprise, so he still must communicate with people at certain times and in certain places.

But on the other hand, the Chinese mathematicians present an even more urgent problem, the problem of requiring compensation for producing knowledge. Perelman's statement "If the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed" is a beautiful ideal, but more common, and finally more understandable, is Yau's ambition: “We want our contribution understood. ... If you can attach your name in any way, it is a contribution.”


Back to Mindmaps

First Vision of Chapter 3, August 18

After a long break to participate in a conference and suffer generally from paralyzing anxiety, I'm back to writing.

My anxieties are numerous: I read too slow, I don't work hard enough, I'm not very good at abstract, syncretic thinking. But all of these weaknesses are ones that I can and should be working on. And I am, I think. It is very disappointing to see how little I accomplished this summer, but the only thing to be done, I suppose, is push on, and work harder.

My committee members were very disappointed with my writing, I think, and with good reason. The greatest weakness is that I presented little to no critical voice, and instead presumed to simply channel the voice of Yang Jiang -- this, of course, does not count for much academically. To fix the problem, I decided I needed to write a "treatment" of how the chapter would go and what it would accomplish. It turns out I had already written this "treatment" ; it's called a "prospectus." How stupid I was to have forgotten and ignored my own old writing!

Still, the new "treatment" is considerably more detailed and more sophisticated than the old "treatment." So there is that. And more importantly, this "treatment" ought to serve as a map for the rest of the chapter.

Time to get writing!


Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading Friday: "Ethnography of a Chinese Essay"

Wang Meng at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 2009. Looks like his voice is still projecting! (From wikipedia)

Scoggin, Mary. Ethnography of a Chinese Essay: Zawen in Contemporary China. Dissertation: University of Chicago, 1997.

One way to take great heart for one’s dissertation-in-progress is to consider what successful dissertations have done before. After reading Mary Scoggin’s chapter profiling how three different writers use zawen to make political statements, I realize that a dissertation chapter can be short, can leave stories unfinished, and will most likely have parts that are confused and need reworking still. Further, literary considerations seem completely pushed to the side: Scoggin’s writing is often inelegant. And why shouldn’t it be? As an anthropologist, she takes her work more as a report than as a literary project.

Chapter 6: Zawen and Ideology.

Chapter six begins with one example of a parable that is often used for political criticism:
Confucius was traveling through the Tai mountains when he came upon a woman weeping at a tomb. He had his disciple ask her why she wept so bitterly. She said that in the past her father, husband and now her son had all been killed by a tiger. Confucius asked her why she did not leave this place. She replied, “because there is no harsh government here.” Confucius turned to his disciples, “We can see from this, harsh government is more ferocious than a tiger.”
Zawen writers like Liu Jia, Lan Ling, and Wang Meng all manipulate a system of such literary allusions to express social and political content with varying degrees of irony. When we observe closely how these writers work, we can see that all along China’s newspapers and literary journals have been places for them to participate in just the kind of political critique that seekers of civil society in China have called for:
In a typical contemporary Chinese scenario, when a part-time free-lance writer composes and essay and sends it to the literary department at a major paper, the writer is ordinary, while the literary editor is “official.” Then, when the editor submits the essay to her boss, the chief editor, for approval to print it, she is an ordinary office worker, while the chief editor is the “official.” Then again, when the Provincial Committee member picks up the paper just to read it like any other ordinary reader, and sees that an incendiary essay has been published by a writer who also happens to be, or have ties to, a rival in we come full circle we may have outlined a significant political event....The practice of writing and publishing intentionally provocative zawen operates as effective social criticism and a builder of moral communion--”friends” -- and rivalry -- “enemies” -- in newspapers and journals: precisely that public sphere where social analysts often look for “civil society.”

Following, she gives three brief profiles of such writers and the circles of friends and enemies they create.

Liu Jia took over the editorship of the “literary supplement” to the People’s Daily from Lan Ling at the beginning of the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” in 1957. This leftist ideologue carried forward the highly ideological, non-artistic mode of zawen writing that dates to Lu Xun, Mao’s 1942 “Talks,” and Liu Jia’s own theoretical essays from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. During the 1980s, in his retirement, he helped establish a community of leftist zawen writers to advocate for essays in a “New Tone,” “the tone of people who have turned themselves around and taken the power of their own role as masters (Liu Jia 1987: 2)” The main characteristic of this “New Tone” is what Scoggin calls “a base-line emotional state” (236, Scoggin reminds us that music and emotions are deeply connected in traditional Chinese aesthetics); this emotion is one of restraint: do what you can, don’t criticize too much.

Lan Ling actually started the “literary supplement” to the People’s Daily in 1956, during the “Hundred Flowers” campaign; he fell victim to the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” in 1957. Also influenced by Lu Xun’s zawen, Lan Ling favored earnestly critical pieces, such as one of his own against a Qingdao City nursery school that sheltered the children elite officials (243). “The task of zawen, according to Lan Ling, is not to conduct investigative reporting, but rather to reflexively respond to the normal affairs that anyone may encounter in daily life.” After his years of suffering and exile, he emerged in the 1980s to attack “ultra-left” politics, tracking their intensity against the cycle of flowering and withering of zawen publication: his point is clearly that a critical public sphere depends on diverse and sociable zawen production. Unlike Liu Jia, Lan Ling believes that zawen are properly literature, not simply “mules” for politics, though political content is very important.

Wang Meng’s few 1980s zawen reveal an ambitious, even cocky, craftsman of insinuation; Scoggin seems to observe his work only very briefly so that she can establish the great emotional range inhering in the term “tone.” In recent years, the more diverse set of approaches favored by Lan Ling and his followers (and which Scoggin calls “Lu Xun-style zawen) has gained more popularity than Lu Jia’s “new tone” idea.

These profiles are all of ambitious, major political participants; one wants to contrast this with the deliberately reserved Yang Jiang. Can Za yi yu za xie be considered zawen? It is short, impressionistic writing. It does contain literary allusions. It often takes the form of portraits -- I really wonder to what extent Lu Xun, Liu Jia, Lan Ling, Wang Meng, Deng Tuo and Wu Han wrote portrait-style zawen that I might compare to, say, “Granny Lin” or “Lucky and Nimble.” As for political content, we may heed Scoggins warning that “We may look at a sample of social criticism and not see it,” often because of its dense literary qualities.


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