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Telos 151 (Summer 2010): China: Critical Theory, Market Society, and Culture

Telos 151 (Summer 2010), a special issue on China, is now available for purchase. Click here to order.

In this issue, Telos turns its attention to China and a set of diverse encounters between Critical Theory and contemporary Chinese society and culture. Recent issues of the journal have focused on various theoretical or thematic topics, in order to explore aspects of particular conceptual problems. The alternative editorial choice, evidenced here, to organize a discussion of a single country has, frankly, been rare in the history of Telos. When all is said and done, theory can have a hard time focusing on a particular case and its materiality, rather than trying to deduce an account of an abstract problem from some internal logic. Therefore the decision to organize a collection of essays defined in this way—the China issue—has epistemological consequences and poses questions regarding the relationship between theory and its material object. This choice also invites a certain heterogeneity of perspectives, in terms of both methods and values. At stake here is less the internal consistency of theoretical paradigms than the agility of addressing the complex and inconsistent movements—changes, breaks, fragments, returns, developments—in the aggregate of experiences circumscribed by the name of the empirical place. Those experiences and that place, moreover, should also call the purist presumptions of theory into question or at least allow for scrutinizing implicit ideological commitments. Theory cannot be oblivious to the particularities of historical experience: so Telos turns to China. Nor however can experience evade examination by Critical Theory.

Classical Critical Theory developed in response to transformations in economy, society, and culture, especially in western Europe in the shadow of both Communism and National Socialism. At stake was a seminal change in the character of capitalist economies, the transition out of a notionally liberal nineteenth century into an era of monopoly formations, blurring the border between private and public spheres. The paradigmatic contrast between a nineteenth-century liberalism and a twentieth-century collectivism, whether understood as progressive or regressive, underpins much of the argument of western Marxism. Such macroeconomic restructurings of capitalism also accompanied profound revisions in the productive process itself, the final displacement of skilled artisanship by the serialized processes of Fordism, with traumatic consequences for the self-understanding of labor. Meanwhile the political aspirations of labor, the working-class movement, collapsed: suppressed in Russia by the Bolshevik dictatorship, and integrated in the West into regimes of social safety nets—in both cases, disappointing utopian revolutionary hopes. The subversion of traditional structures in the work world, alongside the withering away of the culture of autonomous individuality, paved the way for the expansion of the state, the intrusion of political institutions into previously neutral public and decidedly private spheres. Hence the model of the expansive state, in both dictatorial and social-democratic versions, that encouraged—thus the cultural criticism of Critical Theory—a conformist culture, a manipulative culture industry, and a modernized authoritarianism: progressive structures became the pretext for regressive subordination to bureaucratic administration. Here the Marxist legacy, examining the structure of the economy and claiming some correlation of cultural structures, merges with Weberian anxieties about bureaucratization, themselves offshoots of Nietzsche’s critique of the degradation in mass culture in which innovation and spontaneity face organized hostility.

To ask about Critical Theory in China might of course involve going back to the sources: Weber on China, for example, but Kafka as well. In his encounter with China, some Chinese intellectuals aver, Weber turned a “normative” lens on the ancient culture with little reflection on the culturally specific particulars of the protestant drive for capitalist modernity. While Weber reveals what ancient China was lacking, his implicit projection of a universal modernity telos for China has been challenged in recent Chinese critiques. Yet the project in this issue of Telos is not that intellectual history or textual philology (perhaps future discussions will address that aspect of the problem). Rather, what we try here is what has defined Telos for decades: thinking Critical Theory further. How does the bundle of questions that has defined Critical Theory—bureaucracy and domination, innovation and particularity, capitalism and its metamorphoses, reification and democracy, art and emancipation—how does that bundle become redefined and how can it help understand the dramatic changes underway in China? It is surely a moment for Critical Theory, not only in the sense of the increasingly reflective and critical reception of western theory in China, but especially in terms of the character of the transition. Is the acceleration of capitalist development, spearheaded ironically by the Communist leadership, progressive or regressive? How do emancipatory possibilities coexist with rapidly widening social differentiations? Can the spread of private rights coexist with the regulative and interventionist state action in the name of distributive justice and in defense of public assets? The PRC, after all, is a people’s republic based on the constituted socioeconomic rights of the people and public ownership of land and resources. How does contemporary memory conjure the revolutionary imagery of the past—and do its utopias survive other than ironically? The essays collected here try to raise these questions from the Critical-Theoretical tradition in relation to the Chinese present, which in turn puts pressure on Critical Theory to recalibrate its inherited metrics.

Critical Theory, at least in its Benjaminian version, tried to link new technologies to social change. It is therefore fitting that we open this collection with Lu Xinyu, a leading figure in the Chinese theory discussion and simultaneously in the criticism of documentary cinema. Her paper addresses Derrida’s repetitive return to the figure of China, the status of China in his work, and the ambiguous role of the reception of deconstruction in China. The “cultural wars” in the West between Critical Theory and post-structuralism, between what were once called “German theory” and “French theory,” reemerges in Lu Xinyu’s account as the discrepancy between the reception of western thought in the 1980s under the banner of the Enlightenment and the 1990s—or, polemically, post-Tiananmen—dissemination of deconstruction. The critique of western metaphysics, flattened into the tendentiousness of anti-Eurocentrism, produces unanticipated results in the Chinese context, where the prominent anti-Eurocentric and anti-imperial position, named here as the legacy of Lu Xun, drew productively on precisely the same Enlightenment deplored by deconstruction. Chinese postmodernists since the early 1990s, however, have misread Derrida’s work as the fragmentary and destructive logic of commodity and market, trashing significant and integrative cultural symbols and narratives, especially those concerning Lu Xun. While Lu Xun’s critique of European hegemonic powers and the valorization of Chinese national independence can be politically aligned with Derrida’s work as incomplete motifs of the Enlightenment, Chinese postmodernists have deprived deconstruction of its political, critical edge. Or have they only revealed an uncritical potential embedded within the deconstructive agenda?

Reflecting on transitions in Europe in the first third of the twentieth century, Critical Theory gave primary attention to the contrasts between democratic and authoritarian regimes, or between liberal and illiberal cultures. Given the German genealogy of much Critical Theory, it is no surprise that the collapse of the Weimar Republic, i.e., the disintegration of a liberal democratic regime and its replacement by a violent dictatorship, took on a determining role in the interpretive paradigm. Those categories remain extraordinarily durable, but the narrative has become more complicated: how do liberal and illiberal, democratic and authoritarian elements intertwine in China? Kerstin Klein discusses the implementation of a new normative and structural framework for political reforms in China since the beginning of the post-Mao era. More recently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has announced that it is setting out on a new self-declared path to establish itself as a permanent ruling or “governing” party (zhizheng dang) instead of remaining a “revolutionary” party. The implication of the terminological change is that the CCP reiterated its long-term pledges, inscribed in the Constitution, for its citizens to become new masters of the country and to enjoy democratic rights in a more extensive way: rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee. Klein argues that all past efforts to pursue political reforms have made an important difference, generating a reformed type of new authoritarianism. To this the standard tools and concepts of political theory, based on the liberal and illiberal divide mortgaged to the cold war context, seem woefully inadequate. The familiar diagnoses of politics and liberal modernity do not have space to identify participation and democracy within a one-party authoritarian state; Klein consequently proposes a less dichotomist approach that would bring to the fore not only the differences but also the similarities between liberal and illiberal societies. Nonetheless such an analysis must also be clear about the limits of political reforms in new authoritarian societies.

The rapid transition to a market economy, relegating the egalitarian utopia to the revolutionary past, has impacted Chinese society and politics intensely, generating new forms of social disparity and tension. Proceeding from the 2007 Property Law (Wuquan fa), the first formal legitimation of private property, Haomin Gong investigates the dialectical nature of unevenness in postsocialist China, arguing that unevenness is fundamentally paradoxical: the end of it is at once a utopian state of fullness that serves as its destination, and a state of nonentity and dissolution, which it constantly defers. This complex reading of unevenness provides a new perspective, through which critics can examine social, political, and cultural situations in contemporary China. Gong looks particularly at uneven developmental strategies, uneven politics, and cultural unevenness, and especially the history of imbalances between “economism” and “culturalism.” Rebecca Karl addresses a corollary topic, the recourse in 1990s China to a discourse on privacy and individual rights, which she simultaneously locates in a global context. She places the emergence and traction of that discourse in China in relation to liberal rights theories and neo-liberal discussions of the legal individual in the modern and contemporary world. In this comparative and historicized juxtaposition, she contends that China’s rights discourse is both specific to its postsocialist history of juridical elaboration, while also participating in the wider turn toward the absolute value of individual rights in the global legal regimes of the 1990s and beyond. Instead of focusing on the rights discourse, Hai Ren examines the political implications of risk. During the historical event of the Chinese government’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong, the Chinese state undergoes a profound transformation, in which the socialist country turns into a neo-liberal state. This change fundamentally contributes to the development of Chinese society as a risk society, in which the state reforms governmental institutions in order to redirect responsibilities and redistribute risks to individuals. In this context the idea of the middle class is conceived as an insurance measure that addresses emerging and enduring risks of the Chinese neo-liberal state. These changes shed light on the interconnection between the management of risk and the reconstitution of the middle class, a pressing issue in the current global economic crisis. In contemporary China, the emergence of the middle class question is inseparable from the ways in which the Chinese state reconstitutes its political representation of the Chinese people.

The terms of the social transformation—rights, risk, inequality, and commercialization—take on prominent forms in the cultural sphere, which both celebrates and contests the transition. Haiyan Lee begins with recent controversies about well-known authors joining or withdrawing from the Chinese Writers’ Association in order to reflect on the status of literature in the age of marketization. Distinguishing between writerly and readerly conceptions of literature, she examines the theorization of literature in relation to politics and morality under both socialist and capitalist conditions. Instead of alternatively celebrating the loosening of the ideological straightjacket and lamenting literature’s marginalization and vulgarization by the market, she scrutinizes the claim that literature is inherently democratic and emancipatory and asks whether it is possible to position literature in today’s China beyond the binary of official propaganda and mass entertainment. Navigating literature’s vicissitudes between partisanship and commodity, Lee’s discussion of Chinese literature contributes to the broader debates on the relationship between aesthetics, politics, and ethics, and more specifically the questions of citizenship, the public sphere, and cosmopolitanism. Magnus Wilson examines the growing phenomena of canon-mockery, online spoof (e’gao) culture, and the specific case of Red Classics (Hongse jingdian), a revolution-themed restaurant now operating in Beijing. Though complex and in some respects contradictory, these can be seen, along with Chinese avant-garde art, as symptoms of an incipient postmodernism in Chinese culture. But unlike the greater liberal tolerance that this might imply, Wilson argues that the ironic distancing that such phenomena express, in practice, matches the prevalent ideological cynicism that sustains the hedonistic/authoritarian postsocialist Chinese political order. In the final essay, with an appropriately redemptive title, “Saint Mao,” Christian Sorace contends that revolutionary politics always involve a political theological dimension, which both sustains and corrupts the revolutionary project. From this angle, he critiques Alain Badiou’s philosophical attempt to use religious concepts for secular ends while draining them of their religious content. For Sorace, Badiou’s attempt to salvage the figure of the militant from the sanctity of the Party is doomed to failure. The basis for this claim is the history of the Chinese Communist Revolution. “Saint Mao” is not an indictment of the Revolution. Conversely, it argues that the genuinely revolutionary dimensions of Chinese modern history need to be remembered, preserved, and fought for. Nonetheless, it also traces how these emancipatory “Events,” as Badiou would call them, became sacralized over time and transformed into political-theological decorations of state power. History, however, gives sense to ambiguities in Mao or perceptions of Mao. The revolutionary impulse is not incompatible with saintly Mao because Mao emerged in the Cultural Revolution as an anti-statist, anti-bureaucratic figure outside the Party, rallying the energy of social revolt. The saint and the revolutionary become united, across historical distance, in the image of Mao in the Anyuan Coal Miners’ strike and his cultic figuration in the Cultural Revolution.

This is a wide-ranging set of essays attempting to address contemporary China within a supple set of theoretical terms. Needless to say, many topics remain to be discussed—disseminations of new technology, China as a political actor in the world system (foreign policy), the socialist practice that laid the ground for the “great leap” of the last thirty years of reform and boom, legacies of older traditions, religions, minorities, and Tibet, let alone the emergence of forms of social unrest. Of equal importance for future consideration would be the representation of China in the West, in the diaspora community and outside of it. Hopefully by devoting this issue of Telos to China and Critical Theory, a first step has been taken toward a longer conversation.

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