Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Becoming a Global Subject: Language and the Body in Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Becoming a Global Subject: Language and the Body in Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Article excerpt

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In public and academic discourses, it is the metaphorics of flow and fluidity that has most visibly dominated descriptions of the historical phenomenon we think of as contemporary globalisation. It has become axiomatic to speak of national borders dissolving and leading to the worldwide circulation of goods, people, information, images and cultures. For sociologist Manuel Castells, for example, writing as early as the 1980s, what makes contemporary globalisation as effected by developments in information technology distinctive is the way a 'space of flows' has emerged alongside the older 'space of places'.1 Arjun Appadurai's memorable use of 'scapes' (e.g. mediascape, technoscape, ethnoscape, ideoscape) to characterise a complex, interrelated and shifting global cultural economy has been influential in arguments about the diminished significance of the nation-state as a conceptual and organisational paradigm in thinking about modernity and culture.2 Zygmunt Bauman has called the current state of global modernity 'liquid,' justifying his description on the grounds of modernity's 'self-propelling, self-intensifying, compulsive and obsessive "modernization", as a result of which, like liquid, none of the consecutive forms of social life is able to maintain its shape for long.'3 Metaphors of flow and liquidity imply, of course, lack of friction and obstruction, ease of communication, and flexibility of subjectivity. It is easy to be seduced by such tropes; the problem, as Anna Tsing has pointed out, is when this metaphorical language is adopted uncritically and universally rather than viewed as part of specific and localised claims about scale commensurate with, if not undergirding, certain investments in notions of globality and locality.4 Indeed, critical detachment from the rhetoric and poetics of flow in discourses of globalisation is also necessary, I argue, in order to be able to attend more carefully to questions about representations of embodiment and materiality that would otherwise be elided in considerations of globalisation. What happens to the explanatory force of accounts of smooth globalisation when the body comes into the picture? What does it mean to be, not just a global subject, but an embodied global subject?

These are questions that bilingual writer and film-maker Xiaolu Guo provokes in her debut novel in English published in 2007, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.5 Guo's novel is striking for its preoccupation with bodies, materiality, and tactility.6 The narrator and protagonist of the novel is a character named Zhuang Xiao Qiao who calls herself 'Z' for short in the face of English speakers unable to pronounce her name and unwilling to try, a common enough move that is shorthand for the hegemonic tendency of globalisation to simplify or subsume cultural and linguistic differences for the sake of dominant groups. Z moves to England for a year to learn English as part of a not entirely selfwilled process of transforming herself into a global subject and embedding herself even more firmly and irrevocably in the social, economic, and linguistic networks that characterise modern day globality. Building upon this basic plot premise, the novel explores the phenomenological way language intersects with the body as it represents Z's embodied bilingual subjectivity while she learns English and encounters the West. What does it mean in visceral and corporeal terms to learn a new language and how is the acquiring of cultural knowledge figured in bodily images in the text? As Z seeks to figure out her place in the world - the relationship between home and away, and Chinese and Western cultures - as part of her global subjectivity, the word-flesh nexus assumes symbolic and narrative importance and the body becomes a slippery and paradoxical signifier of liberation and entrapment, selfsufficiency and deficiency, as well as communication and non-communication. …

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