[REVIEW] “Not Definitive: A Review of Survive and Resist: The Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics” by Michael Tsang

{Written by Michael Tsang, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Amy L. Atchison and Shauna L. Shames, Survive and Resist: The Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics, Columbia University Press, 2019. 249 pgs.

Survive and Resist The Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics

Survive and Resist: The Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics has an eye-catching and interesting purpose: to understand how dystopian narratives can help explain how the increasingly dystopian world and its politics operate, and what the public can do about them. Someone with a high social consciousness would have found the premise appealing; unfortunately, the book has a number of flaws that would potentially bar Asian readers, or Cha readers interested in Asian literature, from learning much.

As a “guide”, the book aims for breadth, not depth, of knowledge. It offers concise debunking on various governmental forms from federal and confederal systems to parliamentary democracy and proportional representation; on tactics used by oppressive regimes that range from fear-mongering and censorship to infiltration and outright suppression; on resistant strategies from non-cooperation tactics and legalistic resistance to underground activism and the value of solidarity. The content is made very accessible with a readable language and quick-bite style, complemented with many pop-out summary boxes, illustrations and charts that summarise key points in a visually stimulating way. The overall presentation speaks both to the urgency of the problem of growing dystopian realities we face today and to the possible need to find a jargonless vocabulary and grammar that can be related by as many members of the public as possible to maximise solidarity.

At the same time, if solidarity is indeed what the book is aiming for, then one must question the book’s lack of (East) Asian examples of both activism and literature. While the references to (totalitarian, illiberal, authoritative) dystopias and “non-violent” activism campaigns are wide-ranging—from Hitler to Erdogan, the Soviet Union to Myanmar, the Liberian Women in Peacebuilding Network to the #MeToo movement, there is a lack of detailed contexts and examples from Asia and particularly East Asia, except several pages on Gandhi and passing mentions of the “Tank Man” photo before the Tiananmen crackdown or North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. For readers of Cha and Asian literature in general, then, the book demonstrates an unmistakable Western bias that one would not usually expect to see from a book published by a reputed university press and marketed globally.

The range of dystopian narratives and texts also tends to be Anglophone or of Western origin, from Orwell’s 1984 to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Huxley’s Brave New World to Katsoulis’ All Rights Reserved, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Perhaps the premise of the book can be more accurately described as: using Anglo-American dystopian texts to refract the world’s dystopian governments. In an era of “decolonising the curriculum”, this seems to produce an unfortunate insensitivity to the offer of creative and trans-medial texts from other parts of the world.

In addition, organising the book’s chapters and sections around “tactics” and “strategies” often means that the role of literature becomes secondary—it only exists to provide handy examples a few lines long that can illustrate the tactics in question. Much less attention is paid to the deliberation of these texts as texts. In other words, literature (which in my view should include all other forms of creative expressions, from films, documentaries and TV shows to graphic novels, comics and video games—which is not the case here) is important to this book only through the thematic inspiration it gives via its plot (i.e. the “content” of the story), but not through explorations of aesthetics (the “form”).

The decision of a university press to publish this book, then, is remarkable in two senses: first, in successfully dispelling the impression of “serious, academic writing” that university presses usually give, but second, in endorsing a reproduction of Western-centric epistemology that is in dire need of discussion and reflection. I rephrase this in the form of several questions:

What kind of bias is created by producing this “definitive guide to dystopian politics”—as the book’s subtitle suggests—while using a majority of Anglophone texts? And with this impoverished representation of non-Anglophone texts, we can ask: what does language offer in terms of dystopian politics? What crises, and what resistance? Finally, moving beyond the predominance of “written” literature: how do other media texts register dystopian contexts? The highly flexible languages of limb movements in dance or the interface of digitality in video games, or the intricate stage devices in theatre—all pregnant with symbolisms—can be particularly fertile grounds for dystopian expression as well. How do other forms of ‘new’ creative medium talk about dystopian worlds?

I proffer in this review that Asian contexts and texts have much to contribute to the issues explored in the book. Take Hong Kong for instance.

It is both poignant and ironic to read that “everyday acts of nonviolent resistance can and do work. Nonviolent resistance has brought down governments in Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe” (original italics). The lack of substantial gains after the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the radicalism in the 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong provide potential counter-examples here, and highlight how 1) Hong Kong has come to a point where nonviolent resistance may no longer be effective; and 2) our obsession with “nonviolence” forecloses meaningful and careful discussion on the very notion of “violence”. In the case of Hong Kong, how radical protesters make philosophical differentiations between a categorical damning of “violence” versus what they perceived as “the gallant use of force” and the creative use of hindering tactics is a topic that needs research. This exploration on the fine line between perceptions of “nonviolence” and “violence” is also relevant to the growing Black Lives Matter protests at the time of writing.

Meanwhile, the rich body of artistic and creative expressions created in response to the Umbrella Movement and the anti-extradition protests not only dialogues with Survive and Resist in many ways, but even probes into areas not covered by the book. The dystopian independent Hong Kong film Ten Years, composed in an interesting form as a vignette of five short films, is a handy example. Through the figure of a taxi driver, the short “Dialect” touches on questions of language politics and resistance I asked of the book above, by exploring the tension between the rising persuasiveness of Mandarin and the attrition of Cantonese. The short “Self-Immolator”, featuring an old lady who sets herself on fire in protest, inspires reflection on whether self-immolation, practised in places like Tibet, can be considered “non-violent”, a point unexplored in the book. And, unlike the book’s overwhelming focus on plotlines and themes, the vignette and collaborative form of Ten Years itself can also be read as a statement of resistance and survival, as I have written in a review of the film.

Unfortunately, this guidebook is not definitive, judging by the many omissions and invisibilities it produces. In saying that the book gives nothing more than a nod to Asia, perhaps we could turn the argument around and say that the book needs a more self-critical, self-reflective sequel, to which Asian experiences have much to offer.

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Michael Tsang.jpgMichael Tsang is a native of Hong Kong, and is Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, working on a project on world literature and East Asian publishing industry. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, researching on Hong Kong English writing. His broader research interests are on world and postcolonial literatures with an Asian focus. He writes stories and poems in his spare time, and is always interested in languages, literatures and cultures. In April 2012, Michael joined Cha’s editorial team as Staff Reviewer. He is an editor of the academic journal, Hong Kong Studies (Chinese University Press). Visit his Newcastle profile for more.  [Cha Profile]

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