Reflections on Postmodernity: 'Streetlife China.'

By Dirlik, Arif | Social Justice, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Reflections on Postmodernity: 'Streetlife China.'


Dirlik, Arif, Social Justice


Michael Dutton, Streetlife China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Michael Dutton is in the opinion of this reviewer the most gifted China analyst working today with poststructuralist methods and concepts. His first book, Policing and Punishment in China, used Foucauldian inspiration to offer a sophisticated historical analysis of community and surveillance in China, not the least important aspect of which was to demonstrate a coincidence of utopiamsm and social control. In the present, equally sophisticated reader, Streetlife China, he pursues similar themes to the analysis of contemporary postrevolutionary Chinese society.

The material compiled in Streetlife China, written and visual, ranges from official documents, scholarly discussions of social problems, and interviews (conducted by Dutton himself) to art work and posters. They have been selected and organized to juxtapose emergent regimes of surveillance and control with "subaltern" tactics of resistance and subversion. The condition in either case is the commodification of everyday life. The regime's pursuit of a market economy undermines earlier ideologies and organizations of social control, which are themselves commodified in the process of marketization, creating a need for new forms of surveillance that seek to contain the social consequences of commodification without suffocating it. The market economy also leads to "the emergence of class in China; not just the new mercantile class that has grown rich with reform, but also of the subaltern classes that have not" (p. 3). Part and parcel of the "syntactical structure" (p. 6) of commodification, these classes counter the regime's supervisory efforts at social control by nomadic, molecular tactics of resistance and subversion, which is paradigmatic of the new form of politics in China. The practitioners of this new politics are not the "heroic subjects" of an earlier day, but a "floating" (mangliu) population (mostly of migrant peasants released from land) that ekes out an existence in marginal occupations that range from the respectable (such as household work or construction) to the criminal (beggary, theft, and prostitution). Their practices, however, have a wider social significance. In the last lines of the collection, Dutton tells the reader that "the tactical language" of the subalterns takes "many forms: stealing, embezzling, and ripping things off. These are but a few of the 'dialects' of subalternity and, if Chinese police reports are anything to go by, these have become the 'mother tongue' of an ever increasing number of speakers who are talking with louder and louder voices" (p. 284).

The readings are organized in six sections, with each prefaced by introductory remarks by the editor. The first section, "Rights, Traditions, Daily Life, and Deviance," offers readings on human rights and Chinese tradition, as well as on the part played by the "work unit" in defining social status. Dutton's choice of human rights as the entry into the volume probably stems from his belief that "human rights abuses in China are...less about heroic dissident voices being suppressed than about the desultory practices of the hooligans, pimps, prostitutes, and unemployed being extinguished" (p. 8). The valuable discussions of the "work unit" as a form of social organization stress the part it has played in state control of society, as well as perpetuating "feudal" practices of the past. Not belonging in a work unit also meant almost certain condemnation to "vagabond" (liumang) status. The section concludes with readings on the meaning of this status and one on homosexual practices in Beijing by the noted expert Jin Ren.

The second section, "The 'Strategies' of Government and 'Tactics' of the Subaltern," offers readings on emerging methods of supervision, official perceptions of social problems, and subaltern aspirations. Most readings in this section pertain to official regulations and activities to control vagrancy- especially of the peasant populations floating into the cities. …

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