Archive for the ‘Marxism’ Category

China’s Ban on Time Travel

April 14, 2011

The attention of Kulturbot surveillance satellites were called away from cataloguing some spectacular sunspot activity today by news that the Chinese government has banned television and film that feature plots about time travel. As explained in the China Hush blog, the decision to ban time travel was made by the Television Director Committee on April 1st, due to the “disrespect for history” demonstrated by the genre:

From the end of last year, the time-travel themed drama is becoming more and more popular. Most of these time-travel dramas are based on real historical stories but with many newly added, and usually exaggerated elements to make it funny and more attractive. Nothing is off limits in this television genre. While some find it hilarious, others think the exaggeration and even ridiculous elements added into the story is a real source of annoyance and is a disrespectful for history. (from the China Hush blog)

Though having all the characteristics of a good April Fool’s prank, the alleged declaration does not seem to be a hoax, and it raises interesting questions regarding the utopian and political potential of narrative in its relation to history. Echoing Plato’s criticism of poetry in Book II of The Republic where Socrates would ban any representation that does not provide a model of virtue for citizens to emulate, the Chinese government complains that “The producers and writers [of time travel stories] are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

More than simple frivolity, the time travel genre allows for a form of escapism that might speak to needs and desires that contemporary Chinese social reality cannot satisfy for the majority of subjects, opening into what Fredric Jameson describes as the utopian class dimension of narrative. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious (Cornel UP, 1981), the feeling of “rage, helplessness, victimization, oppression by a common enemy” generated by the situation of subjugated workers produces a sense of class solidarity (289). It is the awareness of the threat posed by this “sullen resistance” that produces the dominant class’s own sense of solidarity as a kind of mirror image of the original and foundational subaltern consciousness (289-90). The affect that binds groups together, even when limited to a particular segment of the total population, has its roots in “the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopian or classless society” (291). Thus, alongside the “negative hermeneutic” that seeks to unmask the ruling class interests served by dominant discourses, Marxian scholarship must also practice a “positive hermeneutic” that identifies the Utopian promise within a text or practice.

"By the Key of Time! Where am I going to go now to get a decent dumpling?"

This element is “anticipatory” (296) in that it announces or prefigures the arrival of a post-class social order, even while the text in which it appears might coopt the utopian element by pretending that the hoped-for eventuality has already come to pass.

While the ideological-Utopian interpretive technique developed by Jameson is useful for deciphering the latent class dynamics of Western cultural texts, where everything from car commercials to TV sitcoms to Hollywood films can be seen as exhibiting these dual tendencies, nowhere are issues of class consciousness more pressing than in China, a country whose post WWII industrialization has seen the largest enclosure process (the capturing of previously rural populations in urban factory environments) in human history. By exploiting the hokou laws (the official household registration system implemented by the communists in the 50s to control the migration of populations) Chinese industry is able to create a system of migrational labour that employs the offspring of rural families without offering them the social services and resources available to urban families. Lured to the city with hopes of a better life, educated rural youth find themselves working ten or twelve hour days in large factory complexes whose working and living conditions have made suicide into a form of political and existential protest. (It should be noted that Western investors, manufacturers and consumers are prime beneficiaries of this exploitative labour system, and so the periodic token Western protest against Chinese human rights abuses constitutes a hypocritical and ideological position).

In this context, it should come as no surprise that Shen Hua (“Myth”), China’s first time-travel TV drama projects fantasies of political empowerment and social revolution into past history, and that this displacement of Utopian energies should be perceived as a threat to the current regime. As the China Hush blog explains, “The play depicts how a young adolescent travels through time to the China of 2000 years ago and becomes [a] sworn brother with Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, (both are prominent military leaders and political figures during the late Qin Dynasty period of Chinese history) and eventually ends up being an army general leading troops of thousands of soldiers. [At] the same time, his twin brother and [family] in modern [time] is fighting with a mystery man to find him.”

As Jacques Rancière points out in The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), “the word utopia harbours two contradictory meanings” (40), being both a “no-place” or the break-down of all accepted understandings of place, and a proper place of complete presence “where what one sees, what one says, and what one makes or does are rigorously adapted to one another” (ibid). Rancière notes how this ambiguity is exploited by historical regimes, who’s attempts to make reality conform with utopian impulses more often lead to the kind of ideological obfuscation that Jameson’s hermeneutics are designed to debunk. Rancière sides with the necessary unreality of utopia as a fictional “reconfiguring [of] the territory of the visible, the thinkable, and the possible” (41) which offers an imagined horizon from which to judge the present. This concept is similar to the Marxian vision of a (perhaps always to come) classless society that provides the coordinates from which to make effective political critique of the here-and-now. Projected into the past, as in the case of the banned Chinese television drama, Utopian critique points toward Alain Badiou’s concept of the political event whose eruption into actuality retroactively changes popular opinion about what is and isn’t historically possible. To this extent, the Chinese government is right to fear the power of fiction to harness and focus the energy of dissent, but there is a great irony to the fact that the Marxian analysis that best captures the political dimension of historical discourse should issue from Badiou’s revisiting of the very Maoist heritage that laid the foundation for the rise to power of the current Chinese regime.


Take this Overdetermination and Shove it!

September 2, 2010

While struggling through Althusser’s “Contradiction and Overderemination”, I was trying to come up with an actual example the illustrate the idea that a single event can focus and filter the energy of a host of complex “secondary contradictions” inherent, but not immediately visible in the larger cultural and economic structure. Then former flight attendant Steven Slater got hit in the head by one too many pieces of overhead luggage, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley fridge, deployed the inflatable emergency chute, and slid his way to freedom and unemployment. Heralded almost immediately as a folk hero whose spontaneous act of resistance spoke to the secret pain of service industry employees everywhere, Slater became a minor celebrity, and was even given the VIP treatment at a Barry Manilow concert he attended the next weekend. CBC called the episode “one of the most awe-inspiring and cathartic resignations in labour history“, while the National Post pointed out that his reckless deploying of the chute could have injured workers on the ground.

What gets left out of most of the available media coverage is that, according to Mr. Slater, the woman who had attempted to retrieve her overhead luggage before the plane landed had fought with another passenger over use of the space at the beginning of the flight. On the other side, there are accounts from passengers claiming that Slater had been short with them over trivial matters, as well as insinuations that he may have been drinking before the flight. For the most part thought, Slater’s exchange with the irate passenger is presented as the “final straw”, the factor that tipped a background sense of alienation, exploitation and abuse over into the realm of demonstrative action. His protest was rendered all the more effective by the smooth, cavalier manner in which he pulled it off, skipping past airport security to his car which got him home before the police had even been notified. He even had enough presence of mind to collect his own carry on baggage.

The media response to this event is instructive in itself, producing a blogosphere debate over whether Slater should be considered a hero or felon. But the either/or construction of this discourse acts as a mythologizing screen for the complexities of actual social contradictions and relations which can be seen as overdeterming this event. For instance, the focus on the potentially harmful or emancipatory effects of Slater’s actions, the debate on whether Slater or the passenger was ultimately at fault, distracts from the fact that both the passengers and employees on airlines are placed in a position of discomfort and possible peril by an industry that packages the need for dangerously overcrowded flights as a response to consumer market demand.

As one might expect, an ad hominem attack has been launched by the press against Slater, but his request to have his job back is the appropriately political response to his action. By registering what was the hidden reality of his actual employment situation and making it visible in an immediately understandable way, Slater entered into what Ranciere calls the realm of properly political thought and action. Due to structural but largely invisible factors, Slater the airline employee was already excluded (along with the passengers themselves, and the pilots and ground staff) from the systems that would secure and maintain his well being (a properly historical understanding of this state of affairs would have to look at the massive deregulation that restructured the aviation industry in the late seventies and early eighties, with this development itself being placed in context of the state-corporate-union perpetuated monopoly that developed prior to this). His flamboyant gesture simply made this concealed estrangement a reality with mass-media visibility. His request to be reinstated in the airline industry is not a concession, but the proper culmination of this political act: by seeking to be included within the given social field as a radically excluded individual, Slater becomes a concrete figure for a universal situation of disenfranchisement produced by modern service industry (for both its employees and consumers in this case).

The wrong thing to do would be accept the offer to host a reality TV show based on the whole experience.