Archive for the ‘News’ 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.


“Blow up the Internet!”

March 14, 2011

The other day, I was waiting for a slice of pizza at my favourite spot, when a regular came in and struck up a conversation with one of the owners. “Lucy,” he said “all the excitement in the middle east is ruining my business. With the rise in the gas prices, the truckers can’t afford to operate, and we’re losing insurance deals.” The man, it seemed, was some kind of insurance broker. This is what I like about downtown: office types brush up against the unemployed and grad students, and you never know what type of conversation to expect while waiting for a piece of hot, Halal Hawaiian.

The man ordered a vegetarian slice and went on talking. “But do you know what the crazy thing is? They say all this chaos happened because of Facebook!” I thought about adding my two cents worth at this point. It’s a small pizza shop–standing room only–and so conversations between strangers do not seem entirely uncalled for. I thought about mentioning the rising costs of food, youth unemployment and tyrannical governments to the list of possible causes for unrest, but kept silent, hoping for further illumination. The man didn’t disappoint. “Facebook… can you believe it?!” he continued, “That’s why the first thing Mubarak did was unplug the internet.”

Happily, Lucy chimed in in support of the popular protests, noting that “they just see how we live and want the same thing for themselves.” I hope, actually, that they do a little better, and that the experience of living under tyranny for so long has engendered a longing for freedom and political engagement that surpasses Western lethargy in the face of oppressive and irresponsible governance. But the insurance broker’s sudden fear of social media and the revolutionary power of the internet struck me as a bad sign, given the recent proposed American legislation for an internet kill switch. While supporters of this legislation point out that the circumstances that would allow the President to utilize the switch differ from Mubarak’s opportunistic deployment–the switch could only be thrown in response to a significant cyber threat to American security–it does not seem like such a threat would be difficult to “generate” should circumstances dictate a strategic advantage to killing web-based communications on the part of the powers that be.

Last November, a successful cyber attack managed to temporarily shut down Iran’s nuclear program. The Stuxnet bug had the effect of speeding up and slowing down centrifuges in such a way as to cause them to breakdown. Because the bug’s effects took the appearance of random fluctuations in the centrifuges’

"Ok, which one of you was traipsing around here without the fuzzy slippers?"

rotor mechanisms, the virus went unnoticed until critical damage actually occurred. Though transmitted via data sticks rather than the internet, the Stuxnet bug seems symptomatic of a new era of cyber-warfare. In this context, what is to stop a Western government from sounding a “cyber emergency” as an excuse to initiate an internet blackout were a political situation like those occurring in the middle east to make such a move desirable? With the politics of national security playing an increasingly significant role in justifying state power, we should think twice about granting these types of powers to elected officials. At the same time, it is only to be expected that the middle Eastern demonstration of the emancipatory functions of social media should cause alarmed reactions from governments in the “free” Western world. What is sad to me is the number of people whom I imagine would gladly follow the call to greater state control of the internet if it would somehow safeguard the profit margins of banks and insurance firms.

Extra! Extraneous!

April 19, 2010

A late night trip to the magazine rack!

Finishing a 25 page paper that you’ve been intently focused on for several days is a bit like surfacing from a diving bell that’s been sitting at the bottom of a lake: there’s a whole world up there that’s been going along on its merry way, and which an entire news industry will do its best to prevent you from noticing. For instance, I was shocked to discover that the Vatican has decided to forgive the Beatles for their wayward lifestyles and is finally admitting that Strawberry Fields is a catchy tune, regardless of whether the Sgt. Pepper’s album has sold more copies than the Bible or not. But I can’t imagine the Pope will ever forgive John Lennon for the humanistic messages of his solo career–doesn’t Nostradamus have some kind of prediction about that?

I don't get it.

Then there’s Time’s revisiting of the glories of World War Two, which must be some kind of strategy to booster support for the War on Terror, so we can get that over with and move on to the next excuse to kill people. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, Maclean’s had to resurrect an equal and inverse spectre, perhaps to deflect attention from the totalitarian tendencies of the current Canadian government. I should have stayed in the "homemaking" section.

And the National Post had a cover story about safari adventure vacations that I have no idea what to do with. As far as I can tell “The Real” is speeding by my neighbourhood 24 hours a day in form of five lanes of traffic contributing to local smog levels. Ok, maybe popping my head out from under the cover of my books wasn’t such a good idea after all!

But then Rebel Ink came to the rescue. Not only did it feature a picture of my future wife, there was a feature on skateboarding and punk legend Daune Peters. Peters has an ambition to cover his entire body with tattoos before he dies. He also has only six of his original teeth. I don’t know why I find this comforting after browsing through the other newsstand offerings, but I do. I guess tattoos are the opposite of newspapers: they don’t get replaced every day and they don’t give you the illusion of being “in touch” with the greater world. But you can, sometimes, read them on the bus. Which reminds me of a joke: what’s black and blue, red and blurry, and over forty?

Outdoing Ozymandius

March 26, 2010

The view from an ice age condo

From a tiny fragment of finger bone found in a Siberian cave in 2008, researchers have surmised the existence of another species of human who might have walked the planet alongside Homo neanderthalis and the Homo sapiens from whom we moderns have descended. The cave, apparently, was a pretty good spot, because people were living there for over ten thousand years. But the strange fact of the sliver of a finger being the only trace remaining of an entire species of hominid leaves one to wonder about the transience of life — not to mention the question of whom else might have disappeared whilst we waited for the ice to melt.