Archive for the ‘representation’ 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.


Genocide as Metaphor, and the University as Political Space

October 17, 2010

The most recent Canadian episode in the ongoing debate over the right of anti-abortion groups to display graphic images on university campuses has been unfolding in Ottawa at Carlton University where five anti-abortion activists were arrested on Monday, Oct. 4th for refusing to remove signage that compares abortion with acts of genocide. Banning the images, claims the protesters, is a violation of their freedom of expression. They go further to argue that the images are not being banned because they are offensive, but because of the anti-abortion cause that they represent. A similar claim was made by the Youth Protecting Youth student organization at University of Victoria, B.C., who were denied club status by the student union, and had to fight a legal battle to have their status and funding reinstated (the university and club reached a settlement in July 2010).

This controversy raises interesting questions about the university as a politicized space. University students across Ontario will be familiar with the poster vendor Imanginus that sets up displays in student centres several times a year. The incursion of these images, which run the gambit from high art, to popular film, to commodified images of women and cars, have yet to produce an outcry from students that such imagery infringes on their right to enjoy the common spaces of the universtiy. The poster sales are largely accepted as part of the on-going commercialization of common space on university campuses, as is the selling of advertising spots in campus washrooms, where cell phone companies pitch a better deal on text messages while male students return the liquid deposit on the last two pints of beer they just drank.

I agree with the anti-abortionists that the reason they are discriminated against is that a large number of people disagree with the political position they are attempting to represent with their imagery. Abortion is an issue that triggers strong political divisions and emotional responses (the psychology of which has not, to my knowledge, been adequately investigated). Groups like the protesters at Carlton are no doubt aware of this, and they have chosen to display imagery designed to provoke a strong response. While one of the protesters claimed (on CBC radio) to be showing the “reality” of abortion, what they have in fact produced with the 8’ by 4’ images is a visual metaphor to express the strong feelings they have against the practice of abortion. These images are metaphoric rather than an “accurate” representation, because abortion is not genocide; the protesters use of this term can only be a polemic and non-literal application.

Genocide is the attempt to systematically kill an entire population due to their perceived ethnic, racial or national affiliation, and is motivated by complicated social, political and psychological factors which a number of modern thinkers, like Hannah Arendt and Arjun Appaduri, have struggled to articulate. While such campaigns do, by definition, include the youth and even the unborn in their targets, age alone is not a determining factor in genocide. Depicting abortion practices in this way thus grossly misrepresents and distorts actual, historical instance of genocide. The protesters need to recognize this, and to adjust how they represent their actions to the media.

A less generous interpretation of the protester’s choice of imagery would read the posters as symptomatic, as indicative of an unresolved contradiction within the psyche of the protesters themselves. Why, despite clear historical evidence to the contrary, do these individuals choose to understand abortion as genocide? Perhaps their setting upon this term reflects an apprehension of the dehumanizing aspects of modern medical systems of power and knowledge, which, in their most destructive aspects, can reduce human beings to mere mechanical placeholders in an impersonal, technical formula. Modern biopolitical models of power, as Hardt and Negri argue, infiltrate individuals to the level of drives and biological processes, and tend to discount the actual subjective experience and agency of its subjects. Perhaps an intuition of this lack of recognition of sentience on the part of biopolitical society is being projected onto a suitable (because mute) subject by anit-abortionists. The unborn human fetus becomes a receptacle for the anxiety people feel over the incursion of biopolitical power into their own lives and subjectivity. Put simply, the modern state, in its most oppressive aspects, refuses to recognize the agency of its subjects in a manner akin to the way anti-abortionists claim society refuses to recognize the sentience and agency of the unborn child. What needs to be investigated is the nature of the cathexis between abortion activists and the potential, unformed human life with which they identify. What projections, identifications and possible disavowals are being hoisted upon the fetus in this discourse?

One response to the anti-abortionist’s use of metaphoric imagery would be to allow them to present these images, but to set up, alongside them, auxiliary displays that educate the public as to the actual, historical instances of genocide, thus providing a historical context to balance the protesters’ distortion of the term. The misrepresentation of history would then become an opportunity for introducing actual politics into the public space of university campuses.

For more arguments about how the Genocide Awareness Project distorts the issues surrounding a woman’s right to control her own body, please follow this link.