Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual Culture

By Rojas, Carlos | The China Journal, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual Culture


Rojas, Carlos, The China Journal


Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual Culture, by Sheldon H. Lu. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. xiv + 264 pp. US$56.00 (hardcover), US$22.00 (paperback).

Sheldon Lu's Chinese Modernity and Global Biopolitics: Studies in Literature and Visual Culture is a timely and welcome interrogation of the aesthetic and libidinal politics of globalization, together with the processes of spectatorship and commoditization that underlie those politics. Insistently interdisciplinary and exuberantly eclectic, Chinese Modernity develops its argument through an examination of a wide range of literary and visual texts, as well as social and cultural phenomena. Lu moves effortlessly from discussions of international beauty pageants to avant-garde performance art, from late Qing literature to contemporary television melodramas. The book's strengths lie in its provocative juxtapositions of disparate works and phenomena, and its use of these juxtapositions to explore the biopolitical dimension of transnational cultural production and consumption.

Lu opens his book with a thoughtful theoretical introduction that examines the relationship between processes of globalization and transnational circulation, on the one hand, and the dynamics of erotic and affective investment, on the other. In each of the subsequent chapters, he then discusses a different constellation of texts organized loosely by genre (including literature, art, cinema/television and "multi-media"). The book concludes with a "Historical Conclusion" and a "Postscript" that address the notions of "Chinese Modernity" and "Chinese Postsocialism" respectively.

The book's analytical perspicuity, together with what is arguably its greatest blind-spot, is dramatically illustrated in the chapter on the work of the contemporary avant-garde performance artists Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan. Both Ma and Zhang began their performance careers in Beijing's "East Village" artist community in the early 1990s, and their subsequent fame is largely predicated on a series of works featuring their own naked bodies-Ma Liuming for his famously transgendered performances as his feminine alter-ego, Fen-Ma Liuming, and Zhang Huan for dramatically masochistic performances in which he places his body in situations of actual or symbolic self-abasement. Lu's analysis of these works emphasizes their status as performances when, in fact, they are actually quite hybrid-with visual representation (such as photography or video) being not only a crucial element of the works themselves but also one of the key ways in which the performances are subsequently viewed, analyzed, disseminated and transformed into commodities. This photographic dimension of Ma's and Zhang's art, however, is all-but-invisible in Lu's discussion. While his book reproduces a dozen photographs of their performances, it at no point identifies the actual photographers responsible for taking the pictures.

Perhaps the most intriguing reference to photography in Lu's chapter on Ma and Zhang can be found in a short parenthetical note following his discussion of their famous 1995 collaborative performance work, "To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain": "It is interesting to notice how the ownership of this work is claimed. Ma or Zhang? One person owns the copyright of the photograph and the other the copyright of the video" (p. 81). Even here, however, Lu still doesn't explicitly name the photographer responsible for the image of the performance reproduced in Chinese Modernity (for the record, Lu Nan was responsible for the black and white photographs of the performance, while Ba Gen'na took some color photographs). This question of the identity and perspective of the photographer is not merely academic, since it was only after the "To Add One Meter" performance that Zhang and Ma both began to assert moref interest and control over the visual reproduction of their "own" performances, while many of the images of the earlier performances that helped make them famous were taken by photographers who were artists in their own right (in particular, the fellow "East Village" artist Rong Rong, who subsequently claimed the legal rights to the photographs in question). …

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