Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Scale of Scatter: Rethinking Social Topologies Via the Anthropology of 'Residual' China

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Scale of Scatter: Rethinking Social Topologies Via the Anthropology of 'Residual' China

Article excerpt

Introduction: the folds of the Bamboo Curtain

On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic of China (PRC) from the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, the symbolic center of the former Imperial capital. Elsewhere, on the margins of the new nation, with far less ceremony, Western social scientists were forced from their fieldsites, compelled to turn over their fieldnotes, and expelled from the country. Once evicted, they would not return for over three decades. The lowering of the Bamboo Curtain was the signal event in the anthropology of China, nipping in the bud what the dean of British China anthropologists, Maurice Freedman, (1) called "a great leap in Chinese studies" (1979a [1969], page 414) on the part of "Anglo -American anthropology." Yet, while Freedman noted that at the time of China's closure, "the outlook was unpromising" (1979b [1963], page 381), two decades on he suggested that anthropology had actually gained much through its focus in the intervening years on 'Residual China' [ 1979a [1969], page 414; "that residue of 'China' left beyond the control of Peking" (page 413)]. Indeed by 1974, reflecting on the recent thaw in Chinese relations with the West, he was moved to "wonder, as the prospect of field work in China itself seems to get closer, whether one ought to view it with some alarm, instead of the usual messianic enthusiasm" (1979c [1974], page 45).

At first blush, such alarm seems a rather unanthropological sentiment. Yet, the Bamboo Curtain's sealing off of China after 1949 was not so much the end of anthropological research into topics sinological as the catalyst for the invention of novel modes of rendering China an object of anthropological study. The curtain's movement was, thus, not so much a fall as a fold, insomuch as the end of China anthropology on the familiar terrain of Euclidean space was followed by the rise of China(s) in more-than-Euclidean topologies with anthropologies to match. Specifically, while the Bamboo Curtain foreclosed then -dominant models of working on China by way of village-based studies in what John Law and Annemarie Mol (2001; Mol and Law, 1994) might call regional or volumetric space, (2) it opened up new topological vistas for sinological inquiry. In important respects this move away from Euclidean space in the Cold War anthropology of 'residual China' parallels more recent developments in actor-network-theory (ANT)-influenced approaches to spatiality more broadly.

In recent decades, scholars have increasingly come to terms with the unpredictability of the relationship between intimacy, locality, and geographic proximity. In anthropology it is now commonplace to speak of a world in motion (Clifford, 1988), a global space of flows (Appadurai, 1990), or complexly reterritorialized time-space (Ferguson, 2006; Gupta and Ferguson, 1992; Tsing 2000). In making sense of such complex and discontinuous spatialities, some sectors of the discipline have increasingly drawn upon ANT-derived understandings of nonlocal intimacy and translocal standardization (eg, Blaser, 2009; de la Cadena, 2010; Oppenheim, 2007; Riles, 2001; Tsing, 2010). The notion of the network as, amongst other things, a precarious yet durable conduit for the 'immutable mobiles' (entities enabled to move between contexts with a minimum of distortion) of scientific knowledge has been crucial to an ongoing reconceptualization of translocal interconnection.

Yet, even as after-ANT (aANT) (3) has moved beyond the network [prompted by in part anthropologically inspired critiques of early ANT formulations, eg, Lee and Brown (1994), Star (1991), Strathern (1996)] as be all and end all, placing it, increasingly, in a broader ecology of topological forms that includes the mutable mobiles of fluid space and the mutable immobiles of the topology of fire (Mol and Law, 1994; Law and Mol, 2001; and below), anthropology has been somewhat slow to adapt this broader spatial vocabulary to its own purposes. …

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