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.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Select your Passages, Dosie-doe

Torture of Intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, from here

Today I went back to an already-published translation of Yang Jiang's essay "The Years of the Horse and the Ram," going through all of it very carefully, selecting and typing up passages and ideas.

My reading of the essay will emphasize how Yang Jiang turns the experience of trauma into a story of growth and adaptation, from an escapist, 'helpless little lamb' to a combative, and (above all) intuitive explorer of the affective atmosphere of the early Cultural Revolution. In this narrative of overcoming we see Yang Jiang at first question who she even is, but soon she remembers her humanist values. I will present evidence from the theme of service that show how she continues to invoke one of her mother's values, and so partly continues to see herself as a 'good mother and worthy wife.' Because of the deep literary motif that occurs in this as in all her essays, we might call her 'good mother, worthy wife, and talent of the boudoir (caixiu).'


Monday, August 9, 2010

Beijing Doll: Beijing Bomb, More Like

Beijing DollBeijing Doll by Chun Sue

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"I knew that this novel, which records my youth and that of others of my generation, would only reveal its true meaning and value with the passage of time."

OK stop right there. I'm wary of the contemporary 'book' (I'm not going to call it a novel, because I demand a story structure for that) that thinks it can simply photograph in writing the way the author and her friends live, day to day, and call that a novel. I'm wary and weary of writing that calls attention to the author in the first few sentences -- if you can't give us some 'why' other than 'It's me!' in those first few sentences, well, increasingly I will put the book down. Lastly, I am now officially suspicious of any claims to represent "a generation." Clearly, what Chun Sue really means is not a "generation" but a group of middle- and upper-class urban kids, and not even most of those, but the ones who get into sex and rock'n'roll. And not even most of those -- just the real losers who can't even practice, and don't even seem to enjoy fucking. No doubt this is still a large portion of Beijing teenagers, but it hardly counts as a 'generation.'

Chun Sue's protagonist, Chun Sue, is mildly interested in writing. She is ever curious about boys. She is bold enough to speak rudely to her parents. She finds high school to be alienating, constricting, and unfair. She's doing her best to figure herself out, and the occasional boy.

Other than that, she seems have little curiosity for the outside world. And this story reflects that: it has little crisis, only one monotonous conflict (teenage girl self vs. teenage girl self, dontcha know), and, oddly, no climax that I can see. Was it her relationship with Mint, or G.? Was it that decision to quit school again after quitting before and going back? Was it deliberate not to have a final moment of growth, to leave her in this late teenager state of being?

What worries me the most is, why did Howard Goldblatt do this piffle? What was he thinking as he plodded through all this stuff? The only thing I can think is that the 70-year-old dean of Chinese-to-English novel translations wants to expand his range to cover it all, and leaped at a work that seemed to 'speak for the new generation.' I hope he wasn't one of those aggravating readers who take Chun Sue's alienation as further evidence of the distinctive changes taking place in China. Bull. shit. If that's the case, then my kid sister's life in San Antonio is evidence of the distinctive changes taking place in China.

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PhD Progress: Ye Hanyin's MA

An example of the Chinese aesthetic of "all mixed in" (yunji): Xiao Huisong, "The Grace of Earth" (bronze), from this page

One of the things I have to do to get this writing project done is: read similar writing projects by previous students. This is a task that is always both interesting and painful, because I alternate between feeling in kinship with my fellow writers and in competition with them. I alternate between thinking their writing is much less incisive than mine and thinking that I can't possibly read as well or as much as they can.

That's normal, I'm guessing.

One graduate student thesis of great interest is from Taiwan, by a girl named Ye Hanyin. I'm very impressed in some ways by the thesis -- it takes on the full scope of Yang Jiang's writings, which ranges from drama to translation to fiction to essay, so there are a lot of bending the mind around to try to read some very disparate types of material. In other ways, of course, I don't see Hanyin's writing as having the same insights that I have had, and so she seems inferior. But at the end of the day I think I just like the virtual community created by having in my hands the words of someone else who spoke on the same thing I am speaking on.

A few notes on what I read today:

I'm going to be reading from Ye's three chapters on the essays of Yang Jiang. Today I read a small section from the first of these chapters called "The 'Invisibility' Perspective for Creative Writing." "Invisibility" (yinshen) refers here to Yang Jiang's own self-description in the essay "The Cloak of Invisibility." But where my reading of the essay emphasizes that Yang Jiang wished to avoid ambition and take an "lowly and insignificant" place in society, and that this helps her to intuit what other people around her were thinking and feeling, Ye's take instead emphasizes the form of Yang Jiang's writing:
In her essays, we often cannot see the author’s own happiness, anger, sadness or sorrow, for she selects a cool, collected writing perspective. No matter what the theme, her laughs show no teeth, and her anger makes no sound.
Ye often describes this writing style as a kind of "distance," though it is one through which the reader can intuit the true feelings of the author:
But this writing distance by no means creates coldness, because even though the pieces document the facts objectively 客观地纪实, still we can see the sincerity of the author.
The representative example of this is in Yang Jiang's representation of suffering in life. She speaks of it simply, coldly. "He held my hand and said, 'That was the telephone. Your father is already dead.'" Ye (and, I remember now, others) praise such lines for the great affective force they have by keeping the pain held in reserve. The hint at what she must have really been feeling is enough to give us something which we feel is the truth, as Chinese readers. (Sorry for pronoun confusion -- I'm trying to identify as a Chinese reader.)

Now, here's sort of a random idea that I will try working into my dissertation chapter's conclusion tomorrow:

If we return to Stephen Owen’s Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, we can see that the idea of "latent" (yin, the prefix for yinshen, "invisible;" this is also a female-gendered) expression occurs in the 5th-century work Wen xin diao long (Literary writing and the carving of dragons). In chapter 40, Owen translate and explains the verse as an opposition between “latent” (yin) and “out-standing” (xiu)in poetic language. The “latent” is definied as “the layered significance beyond the text;” the term "beyond" here shows the special value to Liu Xie and his followers, that the "latent" indicates deeper truth; this truth is the affect (qing); it is the “truth” (yi) of the writing.

Developing the idea further, Sikong Tu’s eleventh “category of poetry” is the category “reserve” (hanxu) which praises the category by saying,
Though the words do not touch on oneself,
It is as if there were unbearable melancholy.
In this there is that ‘someone in control,’
Floating or sinking along with them.
(This sentiment has been applied to Yang Jiang many times, not only above, but in Hong Zicheng as well). Here, what remained a vague sense of affect as a mode or something in Liu Xie’s formulation is more clearly an affective subject.

Again, the representative example of this aesthetic form is the technique of reserving expression of unhappiness to encode the intensity of the unhappiness. As Owen says, "[U]nhappiness is revealed as the ground on which one speaks of something else.”(328)

Thus we get back to Ye, who used her section to point out that Yang Jiang gives us the feelings of unhappiness through reserve; or as I like to put it now, Yang Jiang writes so that we intuit the unhappiness there. The technique here is actually quite traditional, though Ye does not seem to know it. She does end her section with an important quote by someone named Chen Yali who has an article from 2002 about the "wisdom" in Yang Jiang's essays. The quote praises Yang Jiang's reserve (hanxu) using the very same term that Sikong Tu wrote about in the 9th century: “be reserved, mixing it all in; contained, and not exposed” 含蓄蕴籍、含而不露. This phrase can't possibly have started with Chen, and shows that somehow I've come round with two lines of thought to much the same place. More on how this works when I figure it out.


Music@Menlo free downloads: Antonio Vivaldi and George Crumb | Classical Minnesota Public Radio

Music@Menlo free downloads: Antonio Vivaldi and George Crumb | Classical Minnesota Public Radio


Monday, August 2, 2010

Mencius was a Racist

King Zhuang: Chineseness, ho! Giddee-yup! This is from the "State of Chu" Theme Park at Mo Hill, Wuhan. Pic from this person's blog

One other thing I did today: finished revising my summary of another paper for the upcoming conference at my university. If you are interested in the perspective of a progressive Confucian on nation and ethnicity, check out the story of of certain Chinese scholars, by all means, read on...The ‘Nation’ Philosophy of He Xiu (129-182 CE)

Professor Huang begins his essay by saying, “Since ancient times, our country has been a collective body of many nations (minzu), with both elder brother nations and younger brother nations that are organic parts comprising the Chinese nation (Zhonghua minzu). As early as the Warring States era (5th-3rd centuries BCE), Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BCE) had already said, ‘All within the four seas is like one family.’”

He Xiu (129-182 CE) also believed that following the progress of society, all non-Chinese “barbarians” would become one with the Chinese. When these barbarians eventually occupied equal positions among each other, and had peaceful and good relations with each other, helping each other in need, then the attachments between nations would be as one family under Heaven. In He Xiu’s work we have thus the first theory of mixing between nations and the unification of the nation-as-family (guojia). Professor Huang points to this achievement as an important sign of progress in Chinese history.

He Xiu was a Confucian scholar of the Eastern Han dynasty (25 - 220 CE) whose main focus of study was the canonical Confucian historical text The Spring and Autumn Annals, and especially the Gongyang Commentary. The Gongyang Commentary is one of three ancient and canonical works that provide expositions on each entry of the Annals; the plan of the Gongyang Commentary is to analyze each event and figure of the Annals by identifying who deserves praise and blame. Professor Huang’s thesis is that He Xiu’s metacommentary to the Gongyang Commentary inherits the true position of Confucius regarding non-Han barbarians. Like Confucius, Huang’s understanding of the concept of ‘nation’ (minzu) predicts progress towards the Great Unity (da tong).

1. The Historical Origins of “Distinguishing Barbarian and Chinese.”

The ancient events recorded in The Spring and Autumn Annals demonstrate that from the earliest times Chinese rulers sought to govern not only the Chinese people, but also various types of non-Chinese, who are called collectively the yidi (“the barbarians of the east and the barbarians of the west,” hereafter “the Barbarians”).

Confucius himself believed that the Collective Chinese (zhuxia) represented civilization and progress, while the Barbarians represented wildness, barbarity (yeman) and backwardness. Confucius believed it was the mission of the Collective Chinese to gradually reform the Barbarians and bring them up to the level of progress of the Collective Chinese, with the final goal of realizing the ideal of the Great Unity.

In the Analects, Confucius said, “The Barbarians’ have their rulers, unlike Collective China, which is without.” As Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200 CE) commentary emphasizes, there is no sense of superior or inferior here, because Confucius allows that the Barbarians at least have rulers, and it is possible that the Chinese might lose good rulership.

The Analects also has an anecdote that goes, “The Master wished to live among the nine barbarian peoples of the east. Somebody said, “But they are filthy, how could you go?” The Master said, “When the Superior Man lives among them, what filth will there be?” Zhu Xi’s commentary explains that the Superior Man will transform the barbarians, thus removing any “filth.” Following Zhu Xi, Professor Huang says this proves that Confucius thought the Barbarians could become civilized, and therefore closer to a Chinese state. Chinese people, on the other hand, were also vulnerable to retrogression back into Barbarians again. Both could change. Thus we see even more clearly Confucius’ attitude of acceptance towards others, says Professor Huang.

But Confucius was not entirely accepting. Inasmuch as the Barbarians were an obstacle to the development of the Chinese civilization, the two groups could never have equal positions. The Barbarians could at best be open to transformation, but the Barbarians could never be allowed to transform China. (Professor Huang notes here that his use of the term “China” refers to an ancient concept of place comprising the lower and middle drainage basins of the Yellow River. When he says “China” throughout this essay, he means this ancient concept, and not the modern nation-state.)

Confucius reveals the attitude known as “Respect the King; Reject the Barbarians” in his comments about Guan Zhong (725-645 BCE), general and chief minister to Duke Huan of Qi (d. 643 BCE). “The Master said, ‘Guan Zhong was the chief minister to Duke Huan. The Duke became hegemon over the feudal lords, bringing unity to all under Heaven. The people enjoy his gifts down to the present day. But for Guan Zhong, we should now be wearing our hair unbound, and the lapels of our coats would button on the left side.” Confucius clearly characterizes the Barbarian practices (unbound hair, lapels folding over on the left) of daily living as backward.

This contradictory stance produced what Huang calls a “doubled” influence on later Confucians. The more progressive Confucians such as the Gongyang School allowed for the mutual transformation of the Chinese and the Barbarians and so emphasized the slogan “Change the Barbarians with Chinese” to advance their plan for working together to realize the Great Unity. Others held closely to “Reject the Barbarians” and worked only to sever relations, to deepen enmity, and to create a strong sense of “self-enclosure” (ziwo fengbi) among the Collective Chinese. Professor Huang calls for readers to spurn this attitude, for it actually obstructs common progress toward the Great Unity.

The Gongyang Commentary inherits this bifurcation. It stands for strong defense against the Barbarians and opposes any transformation to the Chinese by the barbarians. Professor Huang provides a few examples to this effect; this translator will point out the example of Duke Huan of Qi, whose minister Guan Zhong was celebrated by Confucius (see above):

The Spring and Autumn Annals, entry for the 30th year of Duke Zhuang of Lu (664 BCE):

...The Man of Qi invaded the Hill Rong.

The Gongyang Commentary says,

“The Man of Qi invaded the Hill Rong.” Here it refers to the Marquis of Qi, so why does it say “a man?” To blame him. And why does it blame him? Zisi Sima said, “I think he was moving against them too quickly.” This was most likely a war, so why does it not say “war?” Because in the Annals enemies speak of war to each other, and the Duke of Qi’s actions against the Rongdi was only an expulsion, nothing more.


Professor Huang says the tradition interprets the commentary to be in praise of Duke Qi of Huan based on its argument that the affair was not a “war,” which would mean between equal parties, but just an “expulsion,” which means that the Barbarians are not equal to the Chinese. This manner of aggrandizement of nationalist figures and events is very common in the Gongyang Commentary.

However, the basic element of civilization is not to be determined by race, but by certain teachings. The most important of these teachings is that of “humaneness and morality” (renyi daode). As another example from the commentary shows, the Chinese can lose their humaneness and morality, while the Barbarians have the ability to gain humaneness and morality:

The Spring and Autumn Annals, entry for the 30th year of Duke Xuan of Lu (597 BCE):

Summer, in the sixth month on Yi Mao, Xun Linfu of Jin lead his forces in war against the Prince of Chu at Bi. The Jin forces were routed.

The Gongyang Commentary says,

High ministers do not make enemies of the ruler. So how is it that the men named here made an enemy of the Prince of Chu? We must say here that proper ceremony was observed not by Jin, but by Chu.

Chu originally was a Barbarian state, but they demonstrated over these years their humaneness and morality. Here, they defeated the Jin forces but went on to release and return prisoners from the war. Therefore it is Chu that observes proper ceremony, and so must be taken as Chinese. Jin on the other hand is an ancient member of the Collective Chinese, but they hoped to strike at Chu when Chu was at its weakest. Thus they demonstrate a lack of humaneness and no concern for proper ceremony. They were the Barbarians. There are more examples of this self-criticism among the Gongyang historians, which makes more evident their belief that another nation could become Chinese, and conversely, Chinese kingdoms could stray from the Way.

However, a major Confucian tradition throughout this period held just the opposite view. Thinkers like Mencius thought that the Barbarians could never be changed (which makes Mencius narrow-minded and prejudiced, in Professor Huang’s opinion). This distinction based on race and geography continued under the Han, we can see Mencius’ influence in the “debates on salt and iron” for example. (Huang here refers to the gathering of experts to discuss the state monopolies on salt on and iron in 81 BCE.) The Han historian Ban Gu (32–92 CE) famously wrote in his Discourses in White Tiger Hall that “The Barbarians are not born of China. They are not transformable by the rites. Consequently, they are no subjects of China.” This view today, says Prof. Huang, deserves the strictest criticism.

2. “Progressive Barbarians”

Such is the context for He Xiu’s agenda, which is to oppose the perspective tied to race and place and instead advance the ancient Confucian wisdom that the Barbarians could have a role in the Great Mixing (da ronghe) of Chinese nations. This early theorizing now deserves to be celebrated as exemplary, says Huang. As before, it is a two-sided, contradictory theory, one that both maintains a firm difference between Chinese and Barbarian, and yet provides a mechanism for both sides to change. As the saying goes, “The Barbarians will become Earls.”

Professor Huang provides several examples from He Xiu’s metacommentary to the Gongyang Commentary that shows he retains a firm nationalism that advocates strong defense against the Barbarians. But that does not subtract from his confidence that one day, through gradual progress into Chinese culture, the Barbarians would merge with Collective China:

It is because the earth had not met with great cities and great masters that they must be rectified by means of the Middle Kingdoms (Zhongguo). These Middle Kingdoms are the kingdoms of justice, and of proper ceremony. Those who hold them, govern the patterns that lie behind all civilization (wen). The Superior Man cannot govern with justice and proper ceremony by means of a system lacking in justice and proper ceremony; consequently, he absolutely never says “hold.” “Rectifying them,” we speak of as “attack.” The High Minister who ‘holds’ the Son of Heaven and so rectifies using these Middle Kingdoms, and ‘holding’ the Middle Kingdoms is not possible, so how much less is a High Minister who ‘holds’ the Son of Heaven! This is the reason why to downgrade the Barbarians and to respect the Son of Heaven is a proper way to speak.


He Xiu believed that the Barbarians were “born of Heaven and Earth” as much as the Chinese, and that their backwardness was only a temporary phenomenon. He thus changed the position on Duke Huan of Qi’s attack on the Hill Rong from “praise” to “blame,” because Duke Huan’s methods were unnecessarily violent, and even lacking in humaneness.

He Xiu felt that whenever the Barbarians showed any interest, Collective China must welcome them with open arms of encouragement and support. The main figure to demonstrate this interest is King Zhuang of the Chu, whose armies defeated the Jin in the Battle of Bi in 597, as we mentioned above. King Zhuang’s reign was marked all over by transformation of his kingdom into something more civilized, and more powerful. There is a line in the Annals from the 18th year of Duke Xuan of Lu (591 BCE) that says very simply, “On the day Jia-xu, the Prince of Chu passed away.” He Xiu remarks that this death was recorded here because the king’s conduct was worthy. The Barbarian had indeed become an Earl.

In other parts of his metacommentary, He Xiu realizes that with the passage of great amounts of time, cultures that were once perceived as “Barbarian” could become indistinguishably Chinese. Again, Chu provides the model example, from the time of King Zhuang, the same intrepid “Prince of Chu” who defeated the Jin at the Battle of Bi (see above), the Kingdom of Chu became more and more Chinese; by He Xiu’s lifetime, it was fully a part of Collective China. Professor Huang provides other examples here as well.

Finally, Professor Huang admires how He Xiu is able to hold to a vision of the Great Unity that ought to drive forward the progressive connections between Barbarians and Chinese, despite the preponderance of failures in the historical record. For He, this is only reason to continue work for the ideal, “to employ the mind ever more deeply, and in more detail. Consequently we must worship humaneness; we must mock that there are two names [“Barbarian” and “Chinese”].” 用心尤深而详。故崇仁义,讥二名

For Professor Huang, He Xiu’s vision is worthy of consideration as one of the most outstanding examples of in the early developments of a Chinese theory of “nation.”


AAS 2011

Ah, Hawai'i, land of long shiny tables, potted indoor ferns, and bland leaders in pantsuits

I worked a good portion of the day on a proposal for a panel on Chinese writing for the 2011 meeting of AAS (the Association for Asian Studies). It's a lot of annoying red tape, and there is no guarantee our panel will be selected, but it does make me feel ever so professional. Delegating, being a team-player, coming up with ideas, keeping in touch with scholars...

Panel abstract: Chinese Prose Today - The Discursive Power of Sanwen

Chinese prose retains a unique power to serve and shape readers of all ages and all classes. In books, literary journals and on the internet, non-fictional prose writing is the central platform for discourse about the individual, communities, and the environment. But what role does prose writing have in the massive changes taking place in China and around the world today? How does Chinese prose writing serve its diverse and mercurial readership? This panel takes steps to answer these questions by bringing together recent work on the themes, genres, and modes of Chinese prose, along with the theoretical challenges that prose presents. We aim to map prose writing as a diverse art that crosses multiple boundaries including those between fiction and non-fiction, as well as tradition and modernity. Chinese prose reconsidered just might offer the model for a consciousness that celebrates the world in all its multiplicity by portraying the specific attachments that illustrate empathy towards each other and the world they live in. By putting the manifestations of this empathy at the center of our readings of Chinese prose, we push towards a fuller evaluation of the prospects and pitfalls of writing in China.

My Abstract:

The Biographical Essay and Communities of Affect: The Vocabulary of the Empathic Civilization

How do human beings attain a consciousness that is collective and empathic, trans-personal and trans-local? This question, which gains so much urgency in the face of an ever-more densely-connected world population, has been the concern of Chinese prose writers during every period of China's century of revolution. And one literary form they have always turned to is the biographical essay. Now gaining wider attention as the flagship form of the larger field of Chinese "life writing" or "auto/biography" (zhuanji wenxue), biographical prose that takes as its object the life course of representative, exemplary individuals has served Chinese writers looking to change social values.

In this paper I will demonstrate the broad continuity of the biographical essay by defining the "portrait" as the basic unit of expression in major essays of both the early 1960s and of the 1990s. I will also summarize the role of the "portrait" in critical conversations in 1961 (the "year of prose") and in the early 1990s (a period of "prose fever"). What emerges in this examination of "the portrait" is the central role of the exemplary life in building communities of affect in Chinese writing. I argue that, despite wild swings between ideological and subjective, the central concern of Chinese prose remained the same: to provide a discourse of affect that can help readers organize and appropriate sensual memories of crises past, to bring readers together to face the future.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Note: Bad Comedy

Just a few notes to remind myself how difficult it can be to find good entertainment with a netflix instant disc...

Emma (1972) I thought this British television adaptation of the Jane Austen novel would be funny, but it is acted so bloodlessly, we begin to lose interest from the first scene.

How About You? (2004) More accommodating indie film fans will find here a charming story about what youth owes to old age, and vice versa. I tried to like it, but the motifs of pot for pain, strife between sisters, and eccentric old folks were simply too bound by simple convention. I've seen it all before. Vanessa Redgrave's supporting role was entirely underwhelming.

Who's Harry Crumb? (1985) I think I just wanted to remember what it was that made John Candy so famously funny. Answer: utterly pointless physical comedy. I think I was too old for this film back in 1989.

Brewster's Millions (1985) This is the very scene where A. and I stopped the film. It becomes all to clear here that combining Candy with Pryor yields only images of both naked.

World's Greatest Dad (2004) I know better than to ever trust a film that casts Robin Williams as a 'serious' protagonist, but A. hasn't learned, so this one is his fault. As with How About You? the main problem is that the film hopes to construct something meaningful out of a thin tissue of conventions and clichés. Some are extremely old, such as Williams' entire role, which is too close to Dead Poet's Society for comfort. Others are new variations: where DPS gave us queer boy suicide, WGD offers straight boy autoasphyxiation. Who says there isn't progress?


Saturday, July 31, 2010

Movie: Frankenstein (1931)

Trailer to Frankenstein

Our lazy afternoon viewing was James Whale's 1931 "horror classic." What makes a movie a "classic?" Innovative camera work, mainly. Frankenstein has some truly incredible visual offerings: burying a man out in a creepy graveyard, complete with angel of death. A windmill out on a precipice. Arcs of electricity in a mad scientist's lab. The appearance of the monster. A scene in which the monster kills a little girl.

But perhaps the deepest lesson to get from watching Frankenstein, or any "classic" movie, is about maintaining your love of craft in a world that best appreciates convention. There are horrible character actors here: the guy playing Dr. Frankenstein's dad is just terrible, and even Boris Karloff's own performance is, for me, overrated. The story has been mangled twice over since "Mrs. Percy Shelley" (yes, that's what it says in the opening credits!), leaving us with a version in which Frankenstein's murderous nature can be explained by installation of the wrong brain, and both Dr. Frankenstein and his fiancée Elizabeth live to the end, presumably happily ever after. The evidence is clear: Hollywood made a blockbuster out of the Frankenstein story, and they very likely distorted Whale's directorial vision as well. But Whale is a professional, which means here that he fills the picture with just the conventions the audience wants, with just a touch here and there of features that might possibly challenge the viewer (Frankenstein says he knows what it means "to be God," little girl murder, Swiss wedding dances). He didn't abandon his project because he had to compromise on his vision. That's certainly a lesson for the young person.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Theory Live

"And now he's here once again to capitalize on people's emotions."

Berlant, Lauren. “Intuitionists: History and the Affective Event.” American Literary History, 20:4 (Winter 2008): 845-60

I call this "live theory" because I'm responding even before I finish the essay. I think Berlant's writing lends itself to that -- much as with reading in Chinese, some translation and paraphrase is necessary along the way.

This essay begins by giving me the idea that Yang Jiang’s essays, both as collections and as fragmented vignettes living their own lives all over the internet, act analogously to The Intuitionist or Pattern Recognition in that, like historical novels, they attempt to capture the affective response to the historical crises. If you can capture exactly what it was that we felt, then you can bring together the two opposing views that history determines us (structure) and that we determine history (agency). I pictured this at first as a closed door and person approaching. The person reaches out, opens the door, and walks through. The door shuts. Which determined what just happened, the person or the door? Clearly it was a process of the person’s immediate response to the circumstance of the door. The door didn’t make the person go through it. Similarly the person did not choose to open the door rather than simply pass through without opening it. Structure and agency affect each other.

Of course, most of the time the circumstances are far more complicated than one person and one door. Berlant asks, “ does the aesthetic rendition of emotionally complex sensual experience articulate with what what is already codified as “knowledge” of a contemporary historical moment? How is it possible for the affects to sense that people have lived a moment collectively and translocally in a way that is not just a record of ideology?” Imagine if the only way to tell the story of 9/11 was with CNN news clips. Now imagine how much we add by writing novels that tell the intimate experience of the disaster. What does making the novel add? As for the second question of Berlant, I think immediately to the South Park parody of Alan Jackson’s song about 9/11: sometimes it is just a record of ideology.

Berlant proposes the to answer the questions by analyzing how people respond to such historical novels with intuition -- in this, she seems to be doing the same work as the makers of the South Park episode, exposing how intuition overrides critical judgment -- but I’m sure in a nicer way. For one thing, the plot of a historical novel is experienced in two ways at once -- it happens in your mind as an immediate experience, with the same perspectives as the characters. But it is also known to have occurred in the past. “[D]espite the singularities of affect, the historical novel points to a unity of experience in an ongoing moment that historians can later call epochal, but that at the time was evidenced as a shared nervous system.” (847) Translation: Even though “feelings” can only be had by one person, and even then they can’t have exactly the same “feeling” twice, with the historical novel we can make it seem like a whole group of people was having “feelings” together. Again, when we tell the story of 9/11, we do something -- like say where we were at the time -- that implies we were feeling something similar (a break in the daily routine, say. A shock.)

We have to check out what genre our novel is, because genres each manipulate the feelings of the reader in a different way: the ghost story makes you scared, for example. In Berlantese, genres are “a loose affectual contract that predicts the form that an aesthetic transaction will take.” Marxists like Lukacs first mapped out the conventions of the historical novel, and even realized that these conventions were linked to feelings, but they did not work out how different conventions activate different feelings. They did not have a science of “affect,” which is another way of saying that they didn’t care much for each other’s feelings.

A historical novel takes as its theme the past, but the feelings the story makes us feel are feelings that have to do with the historical present of the author. “Affect works in the present.” (848) This helps me solve the problem of what is so important about old people’s writings. Old people begin to see all of their experiences as “emergently historic,” especially if they have lived through multiple crises.

More to come.


Note: Pu Songling's "Twenty Years a Dream"

“Twenty Years a Dream" adapted for Chinese television

As I was cleaning up a messy file in my desk, yesterday, I came across a copy of the story “Twenty Years a Dream” as translated by John Minford in his recent version of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. This morning, in no hurry to get started on the difficult writing of my dissertation, I took the time to read the story again, and now I just have to put down a few comments, which I will try to do quickly.

The story begins
Yang Yuwei went to live on the banks of the Si River, in a studio out in the wilds. There were numerous old graves just beyond the wall of his property. At night he could hear the wind soughing in the poplars, like the sound of surging waves.

He sat up l ate one evening beside his lamp and was beginning to feel very lonely and forlorn when he heard a voice outside chanting some lines of verse:
In the dark night the cool wind blows where it will;
Fireflies alight on the grass, they settle on my gown...”
Over and over again he heard the same plaintive, melancholy lines chanted by a delicate woman’s voice. The sound intrigued him greatly.
The boy meets the girl; I’m always fascinated to find that the basic desire for the most basic of attachments indeed appears over and over in all cultures, in all times! But already we have here some very important conventions at work that make this story distinctively Chinese. Yang Yuwei is man who has come to live “in the wilds.” What he finds attractive about the lady is that she seems so cultivated, so delicate. Her poem is full of symbols, as is the entire story -- symbols stand-in for whole stories, stories within stories. It is important to realize that this is a real erotic feature for him; “intrigued” is a very physical response. Even after Yang realizes that this girl must be a ghost, “He felt himself strangely drawn to it.”

He listens to her “melancholy dirge,” aroused (er, “intrigued”) and thinks of a great way to establish communication: to reply to her couplet with “Who, alas, can know your heart’s secret sorrow, As you stand at moonrise in your cold torquoise sleeves?” I love that the girl’s image is one of the wilderness, one to remind us perhaps that fireflies mate by flashing their lights at each other, males flying in search of a female to alight on. Yang takes up this role, but gives his girl a new image of herself as a fancy lady, alive and standing?” It was just the right thing to say to her.

Thus begins the relationship. “You are indeed a gentleman of such refinement and cultivation, sir!” She tells him her story, that she is from Gansu province and died on a trip at age 17. “Yang wished to make love to her without further ado, but she would not.” But he can’t, because she’s a ghost and sex with her would kill him. “So Yang held back, merely toying with her breasts, which were as virginal and soft to the touch as freshly peeled lotus kernels.” This last is an image from Chinese poetry that elaborates on the idea that what is so erotic about the girl is the great “refinement” and “delicacy” of her body and her persona -- nothing more delicate than a ghost, I guess you could say.

The two continue to cultivate an attachment that is figured by literature. She notices he is in to Yuan Zhen’s “The Lianchang Palace” and is all, “Oh my god, that is my favorite Yuan Zhen poem too! We have so much in common!” (not a real quote, obviously) Unable to have sex, Yang and Locket are able to become good friends with common interests. She does creates her own poetry compilations with great calligraphy, teaches Yang to play ‘Go,’ and plays him songs on the piba. And he loves to listen, especially to her happy songs.

Their relationship is nearly ruined when Yang’s “boorish,” “nasty” friends learn of his girl and want to become audiences to his attachment, but the most boorish of them all, Wang manages to perform the service of ridding the girl of a bullying demon. She responds by acknowledging her debt to him and recognizing him as a friend also (though of course he must respect her closer position to Yang than his now). The story ends as in dreams come true: the girl can become a real girl with just a little sex, blood and nourishing broth. , helps make poetry collections, That the story is essentially boy meets girl, boy faces major challenges to get girl.

Minford seems quite right to compare the “platonic relationship” here (though I won’t agree to that term) to Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu. I think even that it would be a good idea to assign the story along with the book at the end of the semester, the better to talk about the role “elegance” and “delicacy” play in Chinese life writing.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

At Least I'm Un-Making Progress

Palmer's Lodge, Hampstead, London, (June 2010)

Daruvala, Susan. Zhou Zuoren and An Alternative Chinese Response to Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

I revisited the first chapter of Susan Daruvala’s book about Zhou Zuoren to get a sense of how she writes the “theoretical frameworks” that I have been told more than once is my greatest weakness.

“Nationalism and Modernity,” the central section of the chapter, elaborates on the antagonistic forces that Zhou Zuoren’s philosophy opposes. A careful reading of this 11,000-word piece was more than a little xingku, and ultimately left me unsatisfied because it does not give any role to literature. But I’ll bracket that criticism for the next few paragraphs to summarize what this work actually offers: a passionate response to a set of readings that shows one student’s effort to understand why and how nationalism dominates modern societies.

* * *

Daruvala first sets out to set as the object of her concern the emergence of the nation-state, which occurs after the growth of long-distance trade and big cities. The word “modernity” describes this emergence, but is applies equally well to a new self-consciousness and capacity for reflection: how do we connect the two?

For one thing, the emergence of the nation-state is the emergence of people who see themselves as parts of a greater whole. They become willing to live and die for their country. This sentiment spreads out of England in the 18th century into other European nations, and their colonies.

But if some are willing to die for their country, inevitably others came to question whether this was the best practice. Perhaps there are times when one should ask not what one can do for one’s country, but what one’s country can do for one? And perhaps if the answer the country gives is “I shall make you into a productive tool,” then the contract between citizen and state may begin to look unfair. The Holocaust of course constitutes the extreme example of how unfair this may become.

For Liah Greenfeld, it is particularly important to understand that German elites were driven to create a nation-state out of a ressentiment, a sense of inferiority, against the more successful English. One wonders if they ever considered that the English were helped along themselves by their fear of Napoleon! In any case, we must remember that in addition to ressentiment, pure greed is a major factor driving the formation of nation-states; if we picture capital as a thing, we can look back on history to see the English, Germans, etc. carefully structuring the state and the nation to better serve it.

Books and print media have the key role of disseminating the discourse of nationalism: only with the help of books and newspapers could the English amplify their sense of Englishness; that they also became racists along the way is an inevitable feature of the rhetoric used in this discourse. Daruvala does not spell out this rhetoric, but I am reminded of the concept so popular at the moment (2010), that it is easy and efficient to build group identity by identifying the outsiders.

I lament this rhetorical pattern, which is so completely common even on the news reports I’ve heard just today, but I am also fascinated by its power and versatility. To see this, one only has to consider the emergence of nationalist discourse in the colonies: elite colonial subjects always want to become their masters: from the English, we have India.

Looking at the colonies is useful because it allows us to see that in the discourse of nationalism, “nation” and “modern” mean much the same thing. Nation-builders hoped that they would become modern, and hence more rational, and hence more fully free and rational; they did not see that they actually were making themselves into tools for the service of capital. Gradually a “stance of disengaged reason” makes a person begin to see herself as merely a part of the whole unable to change the whole. (Scientific discourse encourages this “stance of disengaged reason.”)

Eventually, the understanding that the parts ought to leave the whole alone becomes a moral claim. This, Daruvala will go on to claim, is what happened in China during and after the May Fourth Movement.

Meanwhile, nation-builders continue to think that having a modern nation will make them rational. As Paul Ricoeur argues, the drive to be ever more rational is a feature of humans, but goes awry when they build structures that serve capital, instead of attending to “what is most living and creative in them.” Another Frenchman, Patrick Tort, points again to the rhetorical pattern of evolution and progress which is a crucial part a larger “para-scientific ideology.” Just as we serve capital, we have come to serve science and rationalism. The unfortunate consequence of this service is amnesia, as Renan has said: “ a crucial factor in the creation of a nation.” (I suppose the way this works is as follows: I can play video games, what use have I of chess? I must form a nation-state, what use have I of Catholicism or Confucianism? Renan’s point was apparently directed at the French, who say “We have France, what use have we now of Spanish-speakers?”)

“Progress,” tied as it is to rationalism, pictures civilization as a warring party with nature. To identifying “civilization” with nations is to picture yourself fighting with other nations. Alternatively, civilization could be “open structures” separate from nations, which might allow more room civilizatons to co-exist.

Perhaps, since the nation has evolved as the organization best-suited to grow capital, that opposing the nation would help oppose capital? Tagore certainly thought so.


Despite the eloquence of Tagore’s anti-national vision (apparently he told a crowd of Japanese in 1916, “The people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with the cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power called the Nation.”), my objection to Daruvala’s account is that neither she nor Tagore have given any hint that “the Nation” is the source of the greed that drives civilization to care for the needs of capital rather than the needs of people. I think I see what she is driving at, however: if we can awaken ourselves to the fact of our slavery, we can begin to fix the problem. If we can remember the older habits, like filial piety, that make us serve people, that can help displace the service of capital. This is somehow a larger umbrella into which I can place the lessons of the “queer art of failure” and “against recovery” from recent readings. But all lack a real vision -- so far. I’ll be patient as I continue to study Daruvala with great care.


Story: "I Bought a Little City"

A young Barthelme. Thanks to the Guardian books blog - this entry is part of a long series surveying the short story.

I have listened to all of the New Yorker fiction podcasts, and I am now filled with complex feelings about the short story. It seems to me the form that privileges the craft of story first, entertainment value second, and lastly social and political commentary. For comparison's sake, most television and genre fiction seems to go for entertainment value first, followed closely with social commentary; craft recedes into the background, even in the most highly-crafted works. In poetry, craft is probably everything, and poems with social content or entertainment value per se are now an endangered species.

That is preliminary bullshit, but it matters to the young critical thinker still too afraid or too plagued by petty anxieties and self-inflicted handicaps to write. I don't write, precisely, but I do comment. To comment seems the biggest procrastination of all.

Enough. Now I procrastinate even comment.

"I Bought a Little City" by Donald Barthelme is "absurdist" in the sense that a man cannot, in fact, purchase Galveston, Texas, to rule over as absolute monarch. Perhaps even more absurd is just how much the protagonist debates with himself before selfishly inflicting injustice (he shoots another man's dog -- not quite a beating offense). But the story's truth is that if we were to give high office to any of the whining social commentators of the land, from our finest poets to the most unimaginative dolts, they would very likely fail to uphold fairness and decency in the realm. The best they would be able to do is hand the land back, and move away from the center.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Minor Memoir: Rao Yuwei

NTU back when it was Taihoku Imperial University. From this great page of old posters, postcards and such.

I made a small study of the wikipedia entry for Rao Yuwei this morning, and I’m left with the feeling that it might be a part of my Vancouver talk in December, one of the places where Yang Jiang’s essays have an afterlife. Either that or possibly a footnote in my dissertation somewhere.

You see, the article begins by saying that Rao was a professor and chairman at the Taiwan National University. But in the second sentence it says that he was a graduate of Tsing-hua University in the same class as Qian Zhongshu. Under the final section of his entry, “Influence,” there is only one paragraph to the effect that his 1986 memoir of his days at Tsing-hua contain one section of note that records his impression of Qian Zhongshu, citing Yang Jiang for the use of the excerpt.

Did Yang Jiang’s mention of Rao Yuwei lead to his wikipedia biography? It’s very possible. The section in question reads:
Of our classmates, Qian Zhongshu left the greatest impression. He was profoundly accomplished in both Chinese and English, and quite knowledgeable in philosophy and psychology. He spent all day studying widely old and new texts from China and the West. But the strangest thing was that when he came to class, he never wrote in his notebook. He would just bring some book that had nothing to do with the class to read as he listened. But when exam time came, he was always number one. He loved to read himself, and always encouraged others to read.
I find it a little that the author describes this passage as “important materials about Qian Zhongshu’s life at university.”

There are other reasons for having a Wikipedia entry for Rao, I suppose. He helped found the Foreign Languages and Literatures department at National Taiwan University in 1947, along with other KMT adherents who had come over from mainland China, and a few Japanese scholars who stayed on through April of 1947 before going back home one after the other. An uncredited line in this entry says that Rao asked Qian Zhongshu to join the department at NTU, but Qian Zhongshu refused.

In a memoir serialized in the Liberty Times Literary Supplement, Qi Shiying’s daughter Qi Bangyuan remembered that Rao Yuwei used to drive an American military jeep up and down Roosevelt and Heping roads, sometimes to give her a ride. He did not offer any advice on being a young professor, however.

Rao was only a professor a few months himself, before taking a job in the American news industry in Singapore. The author of the entry speculates that top talent like Rao, Qian or Yang Jiang would not have liked working at NTU in the early days, when the salary and prestige of the university was very low.


The Public Sphere in China

Hanjiang Road, Hankou (Thanks, wikicommons)

Rowe, William T. "The Public Sphere in Modern China." Modern China, 16:3 (July 1990): 309-329

What makes modern society so different from ancient societies? Is it just that we have new ways of working in groups on larger, more complex projects than before? Does having ways of working in groups make us any better at communicating with each other, or at fighting for the rights of the weak and injured in the world?

Writing just after the translation into English of Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, historian William Rowe reviews 1970s and 1980s work to analyze Chinese social structures in terms of the growth and decline of a “public sphere.” Most scholars answer the first question above with an affirmative to the second question: modernity is about the growth of long-distance trade, which necessitates new social structures such as newspapers, coffee houses, popular literature, trade guilds, neighborhood elites, and street repair teams. Habermas’ work specifically laments the transformation of the public sphere of the European bourgeoisie into a place where mass opinion is manipulated by large corporations, mass media, advertising, the ideology of social rights, an enormous bureaucracy, mass political parties, and highly-organized interest-group politics.

The work of China scholars, however, does not always lament. Research on 18th- and 19th-century Chinese social structures often celebrates attention to the “public” (gong) as a class of citizens, in contradistinction to “private” (si) concerns that were negatively encoded in the tradition for their exclusion of anyone outside the family; gong was also most often distinguished from “official” guan, which according to ancient ideals was a support to the larger community, but which was notorious for serving its own needs as a larger, more malevolent version of “private” actors. “Public” social structures included gongjian, special offices “authorized for use on local community projects such as road and irrigation work repairs.” These kinds of local elite structures continued to evolve through the early 20th century, when they began to realize that they were more effective at management than the imperial system.

Rowe admits frankly that the accounts available by 1990 had not developed the history of how this locally-based “public sphere” was “foreclosed” by the expansion of the “official” (guan) sphere under the late Qing, then Yuan Shikai, and then the KMT. The question, “Did an autonomous public sphere disappear in twentieth-century China, and, if so, at what moment?” remains intriguing and incompletely answered. Now that the Chinese government has scaled back from the peak of its intrusion into the intimate sphere, the question of both the intimate sphere and the non-governmental public sphere have become active topics for discussion again.

Rowe suggests that Habermas has “much to say” for students who would write the histories of “domesticity, friendship, and intimacy in China,” but leaves this aspect of history mostly outside the scope of his article. I take away a number of points, however, which I believe are applicable to my work so far (against my better judgment, I first put these down as a list, because they are still so fragmented in my mind):

“Why” attempt to find an analogue to “the public sphere” in Chinese history? Because we are looking for the opportunities that life offers for criticism. In doing this we follow the tradition of the Frankfurt School. between “public” and “gong” in Chinese history?

We are interested in the historical changes to people, and their values. Where Habermas studies the creation of the bourgeois (burgerlich) class which at first imposed its will on what was to become the notion of the “public sphere,” in China we must follow along the local elites who so often took responsibility for mass communication, education, and even repairing the roads.

For Yang Yinhang, a crucial component to popular sovereignty was the rule of law and an independent judiciary. I wonder how contemporary readers, intellectual or otherwise, understand Yang’s values, and his disappoinments?

My own focus on a woman who seeks only to remember her most personal and intimate relationships at first seems to put the economic origins of the local elite class out of my scope. But this is not quite the case; Yang Jiang remembers the centers of wealth in her own clan, in the Qian clan, and in the people she knew as a child in Shanghai. Uncomfortable feelings about one extremely wealthy family in Shanghai helps us to understand how Yang Yinhang and his family distinguished its own modesty and concern for social justice. The contrast of Yang’s more open and progressive home from the Qians also highlights the diversity of approaches to the tradition and such matters of public taste as “elegance” (ya).

Wuxi, with its dialect, its customs of teasing, it’s strong local community, makes it an ideal place for Yang Jiang. The influence of Qian’s Bofu, and the Wuxi teahouse culture, on him is directly connected to his production of a novel in Yang Jiang’s formulation.

Yang Jiang’s own practice is characterized as an appeal to public opinion. There is a basic faith that public opinion has not degenerated wholly into mass opinion. Yang Yinhang’s older and undeveloped view that an informed reading public could help in the creation of an informed and influential public opinion lives on in Yang Jiang.

There is a centuries-old war of the word “gong” in China -- does the responsibility of the public interest lie in the central government, or in the hands of its private citizenry? If self-interest (si) could be understood as crucial components of public interest (gong), then gong and si need not be opposed. This tradition is what Yang Jiang is trying to describe in her own family.

We can see this idea at work in Yang Yinhang’s dedication of his home to an elite activist from the late Ming. Yang Yinhang at the time had hope that an elite-led local public sphere might still be a force for political good using tools like the newspaper and the legal office.

The form of the essay lends itself to combining social comment with the deeply personal and subjective, with making symbolic the details of everyday living. In doing so, it shows itself a proper form to inherit the old tradition that would make gong out of si. No wonder it remains the major form for so many Chinese readers.


Berlant and Intimacy, Again

An example of the many interactions intimacy can have with institutions

Berlant, Lauren. “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 281-288.

On the third reading of this small, dense essay, I am just beginning to realize how difficult it is to use any of what Professor Berlant is saying, because I have not only to translate her often disconnected terms and propositions, I have to sift through carefully staged generalities and ambiguities to create statements that might apply directly to what I am thinking about. I thought once before that at the very least, writing under the influence of theory was less difficult than translating Chinese scholarship. How wrong that was!

Therefore, to help prepare the theoretical portions of my dissertation, I will begin going through American theory very, very carefully, tasting my thoughts along the way. I have time.

Berlant opens with a vision of intimacy as an element of stories that call us to look inward at intimate relationships between people, but also calls us to look outward towards "institutions of intimacy" that we hope will help us lead the lives we wish to lead. I find mysteriously intriguing Berlant's comment that intimacy as an element of stories is suited to simple elegance:
"I didn't think it would turn out this way" is the secret epitaph of intimacy.To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures, and at its root intimacy has the quality of eloquence and brevity.
Certainly, I do not at the moment see the connection between this form that intimacy takes and its dual inward/outward nature. All I have is an inkling.

The next three paragraphs are very unclear, but involve the ideas of therapy and jurisdiction (which I suppose we can understand as the law as an institution). Berlant's point seems to be simply that the stories we tell about intimacy have an influence on such institutions ("intimacy builds worlds")

Next, Berlant states the scope of the essays in that number of Critical Inquiry: the essays investigate the complex relationship between intimate life on public life and vice versa. For example, a billboard may suggest strongly that abortion is wrong: the public sphere has a message about the intimate sphere. But the intimate sphere may have something to say back to that. And so on and so forth. There are huge philosophical battles here: we Americans tend to consider private life more real than private life. How does all this happen? asks Berlant. "How can we think about the ways attachments make people public, producing transpersonal identities and subjectivities, when those attachments come from within spaces as varied as those of domestic intimacy, state policy, and mass-mediated experiences of intensely disruptive crises?" (283)

In the USA, we perpetuate a divide between public and private that does not accurately describe many of our institutions, which in fact "can be read as institutions of intimacy." Habermas understood that if the public were to take up a role as critic, then "collective intimacy" must the ideal of the public in cafes, newspapers, and at home. "Persons were to be prepared for their critical social function in what Habermas calls the intimate spheres of domesticity, where they would learn (say, from novels and newspapers) to experience their internal lives theatrically, as though oriented toward an audience." (284) But it didn't work because people were driven to read and watch stories that are pleasurable, not merely instructive. It becomes hard to tell the difference between pleasure and critical function. Special interest groups begin to realize that many stories demean them, which calls into question whether we should ever have striven for a collective intimacy -- isn't it always a dream of omnipotence by some privileged class?

But intimacy is actually a very diverse, "wild thing:" we can find stories of people who walk dogs, or fetishists and their objects. Berlant reveals her interest in the marginalized people whose stories often go untold, and ask us to question, why are there so few plots? Single people, queer people, can become "unimaginable" even to themselves, thus wasting "world-building energy." Therefore there is a major need to "rethink" the narratives, presumably to increase to total diversity of narratives, of ways of being. "To rethink intimacy is to appraise how we have been and how we live and how we might imagine lives that make more sense than the ones so many are living."

When we consider intimacy, we always see tacit "fantasies" in the stories that people fight to show us and make us believe. When a certain kind of intimacy becomes an issue, we see people argue for it eloquently. When a population loses its sovereignty, the stories they produce can be expected to be bitter. Many, many kinds of trauma affect contemporary societies everywhere, but these traumas are now mass-mediated events, including testimony from those who suffer that offers a "shocking" message about intimacy (I'm not sure what Berlant means here: is she saying that the Haiti earthquake survivor shocks with her appeal via intimacy, or is she saying that we learn of our true intimates when they are sheared away, and this is shocking?)

To recap, Berlant's vision is of a set of essays that will further conversations about "the modes of attachment that make persons public and collective and that make collective scenes intimate spaces." My project would seem to engage only the first of these two rough divisions to the project -- I present stories by a single author that show intimate attachments becoming public. For me, the form of the Chinese essay is an intimation, in that it communicates with readers using spare signs and gestures. The essay shows us the personal details, sometimes of attachments and sometimes not, but always to form a multiplex attachment with many readers -- this is the power of the symbol. I take it as well from Berlant that it is crucial to attempt to understand how such stories affect and are affected by institutions such as the law. Certainly there are reciprocal relationships between stories and institutions that deserve consideration, though this aspect of the work remains most mysterious to me. Some clues that Berlant leaves include: check out the hidden divide between stories that instruct and those only meant to entertain, check for the most marginalized populations and their strategies, and think about to what extent the entire society is experiencing trauma through mass-mediation.


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