[REVIEW] “Theories, Methods, Objects, and Localities: A Review of Method as Method” by Liang Luo

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

Carlos Rojas (special issue editor), Method as Method, V16: N2 of Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature. Duke University Press, 2019.

Twenty years ago, as a graduate student newly arrived in the United States from mainland China, I was propelled to wrestle with issues such as “Chineseness as a theoretical problem”, “the ethnic supplement”, “the logic of the wound”, and “the hegemony of Mandarin”, as discussed by Rey Chow in her introduction to Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory. Many of the issues raised in that volume still resonate in the field today, not least in the recent revamping of the Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese (established in 1997) into Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature (inaugurated in 2019). As the second issue and the first special issue of the journal, Method as Method not only actively intervenes in the ongoing debate on theory and modern Chinese literature, but also energises the field with fresh insights, signalling a “methodological turn” in modern Chinese studies.        

Carlos Rojas

Taking Lu Xun’s work as its starting point, Carlos Rojas, in his editor’s introduction to the volume, titled “Method as Method”, proposes to denaturalise both theories and objects and attend to their mutual formations by inviting us to focus on methodologies. Here method is presented as a way to enable objects and theories to speak to each other in productive ways. In his essay “Translation as Method”, Rojas tests this promise by reading translation as a method for negotiating not between different languages or dialects but rather between difference voices. This translational approach, he argues, offers a way of examining the possibilities and limits of fictional writing when it attempts to manifest the voices of socially marginalised figures. For Rojas, both Lu Xun and Yan Lianke attempt to grant their readers a voice or a vision they want to convey but they themselves may not share or have access to (232). He further argues that a similar translational framework may be at work when critics attempt to access fiction’s own attempts at rendering these marginalised voices.      

This attention to authorial intention and audience reception continues in Christopher Rea’s essay, “Hoax as Method”, in which Rea stipulates eight ways in which the notion of hoax can be used as a method to interrogate human nature, the discernibility of truth versus fiction, and the nature of creativity. Hoax as method, according to Rea, can be used to rewrite cultural history, to manufacture a reputation (“the ‘higher-truth defence’ of literary impersonation” 242), to displace one type of value with another by reconsidering the boundaries between the authentic and the inauthentic, to accrue power, to dramatise vice and virtue, to beguile the time, to challenge perceptions of reality, and finally, to exalt ingenuity. In the end, Rea drives home the argument that the hoax provokes us to rethink the terms of creation and alerts us to an ongoing contest between the storyteller’s methods of indirection and the audience’s methods of detection.

Plastic China (2016), dr. Jiuliang Wang

These inquiries into the power and limits of representation and misrepresentation witness a fascinating twist in Margaret Hillenbrand’s “Ragpicking as Method”, where she highlights the missing human figures as symbolic victims of a kind of translational or representational violence, or a hoax, in Rea’s term, as shown in the (mis)representation of precarity and waste in contemporary Chinese visual culture. Hillenbrand calls out such omissions as part of “a sustained practice of appropriation, effacement, even cruelty in the artistic representation of precarity in China” (263). She follows by a rigorous analysis of how waste and waste picker mutually impact each other, forming a symbiotic relationship between object and subject. However, the hyper-visible waste in contemporary Chinese art speaks to the invisible waste pickers and their lack of representation in the same art. In this context, Hillenbrand celebrates Jiuliang Wang’s 2016 documentary Plastic China as shifting focus from the artist as ragpicker to the ragpicker as artist, and “a singular transition in the Chinese representation of precarious lives” (286). In this sense, the 11-year-old girl ragpicker Yi Jie’s passage to artistic personhood throughout the documentary becomes a methodologically significant act, countering the “cruel gazing” (289) in those artworks ostensibly about China’s most vulnerable people.       

Yomi Braester, in his “Panorama as Method”, finds the physical insecurity of the rooftoppers in one of his case studies resonating with the economic precarity discussed by Hillenbrand and highlights how the vulnerability of the workers and the daring of the rooftoppers mirror each other, yet the former remain invisible, as are the structural and ideological causes of their lack of privilege (309). Braester recognises the panoramic view as an ideological construct, for him, panorama as method redefines the rapport between built environment and artefacts capturing its image. Braester furthers the special issue’s “methodological turn” by articulating how method not only validates the objects of study but, more importantly, insists on the practicalities of inquiry. In this case, panorama as method challenges accepted paradigms about the relationship between the modern subject and urban space, including the well-known distinction between cartographic vision and street-level immersion, which could be fruitfully used to analyse the relationship between built environment, image-making, and ideology in many other media forms.      

Such sophisticated exploration of different modes of relationality continues in “Cannibalism as Method”, in which Lorraine Wong examines how, in a primetime Hong Kong TV series Tian yu di, cannibalism captures something fundamental about Hong Kong’s subjectivity in the post-1997 period. She argues that the relevance of the series is more evident now than in 2011, as Hong Kong goes through another round of anti-government protests dating from the Umbrella Movement of 2014. For Wong, cannibalism offers a method of exploring modes of relationality between Hong Kong and mainland China along an open-ended historical horizon, a horizon that nevertheless remains from an earlier time of the Tiananmen student movement (348). Consequently, “Cannibalism as Method” helps to frame and reframe reality in revealing ways and opens new horizons by breaking down preconceived boundaries and dislodging dichotomous thinking in identity politics. As a result, it prepares the ground for the formation of Hong Kong subjectivity beyond the logic of indigeneity and colonisation.

Echoing Wong, Belinda Kong treats pandemic as a set of discursive relations, a product of layered histories of power that in turn reproduces myriad forms of biopower in the new millennium, in her exciting and timely essay, “Pandemic as Method”. Though written and published before the Covid-19 pandemic and focusing on the 2013 SARS outbreak, Kong’s proposed heuristics for pandemic as method are insightful interventions into our contemporary moment, attesting to the analytical prowess of “Pandemic as Method”. The first of the two heuristics deploys the pandemic concept for an archaeology of imperialist knowledge; the second deploys pandemic discourse to highlight the theoretical nexus between orientalism and biopolitics (369). For Kong, pandemic as archaeology shows how infectious disease discourse epitomises the insufficient de-imperialisation of contemporary conditions of knowledge; while pandemic as bio-orientalism reveals how Asia has been variously and strategically cited within US discourses of infectious disease and biosecurity as the threshold of bioterrorism as well as the biological other that justifies pre-emptive biodefense.

Against such an imperialist logic on Asia and following Kuan-Hsing Chen’s work on Asia as method, Petrus Liu’s “Cold War as Method” treats Cold War not just as a state of geopolitics but a persistent structure of feeling that shapes the emotional landscape of contemporary Chinese culture (425). Reconceptualising the Cold War as a method for analysing contemporary Chinese cultural formations, according to Liu, opens ourselves to a much broader range of interpretative possibilities and analytic tools, which allow us to ask more nuanced questions about affect, embodiment, belongingness, identity, and dystopia in a divided Asia. Liu contrasts the portrayal of “Asia the Invincible” (Dongfang bubai) in Jin Yong’s original novel with that of the same figure in the 1992 film Swordsman II. Conceived as a political allegory to demonise Mao in the novel, “Asia the invincible” becomes a psychologically damaged and sexually aberrant monstrosity as the price he has to pay for his political ambition; but the 1992 film turns Asia into one of the most iconic and celebrated queer figures in Chinese-speaking cinema, a self-affirming transgender woman (portrayed by the talented and scene-stealing actress Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) who takes much pride in her newfound gender identity as well as her martial powers (417-8). Liu concludes that the film’s ostensible interest in the sexual narrative requires the deep cultural logic of the Cold War, that it is the Cultural Revolution and its Cold War legacies that explain the emergence of the main character through the concept of Cold War as method.

In “Border as Method”, Shuang Shen continues to explore the Cold War in the Chinese world as Liu does, as “not just a state of geopolitics but a persistent affective structure” (399). Recognising Sinophone studies has put in place its own borders that are yet to be critically confronted, Shen proposes “Border as Method” to bring attention to how the geopolitical, the social, and the cultural articulate each other at all scales, subnational, national, and global. Malaysian Chinese writer Ng Kim Chew’s fictional rewritings of the history of Malayan communism, for Shen, offers useful analytical heuristics that allow us to understand Cold War divisions as historical constructions and implore us to imagine alternative futures beyond the Cold War. “Border as Method”, Shen concludes, thus could enable us to reconnect literature with the sociopolitical world in new and innovative ways while reenergising the borders both inside and outside literature, so as to rethink history and imagine new ways of being (404).

Attempting to develop regional knowledge that extends beyond nation and discipline, which can undermine eco-ontologies informing what Belinda Kong calls bio-orientalist necropower, seeking to avoid the trap of Cold War knowledge categories analysed by Petrus Liu, and echoing Shuang Shen’s take on geopolitics as a historical process of bordering, Robin Visser proposes “Ecology as Method”. For Visser, ecology as method works to identify and destabilise hegemonic ecological ontologies. Her essay is centrally concerned with proposing ecology as a method to acknowledge the impact of the Anthropocene on conceptual frameworks of governance. She uses three case studies as instances of strategic appropriation of indigenous ecological knowledge by reifying indigenous culture in the service of the nation-state (327). Through these case studies focusing on Mandumai’s Mongolian-language eco-literature (in Chinese translation), Guo Xuebo’s eco-fiction, and Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, Visser comes to a critique of Han writer Jiang Rong’s novel as co-opting indigenous knowledge to strengthen the centre, as opposed to Mongolian writer Mandumai’s critique of environmental racism and Mongolian-Han Sinophone writer Guo Xuebo’s exploration of the dynamics between indigenous and exogenous knowledge of ecosystems (336).

Laikwan Pang and Chun-Kit Ko, in “Script as Method”, continues Rojas’s translational method in their treatment of the complicated and simplified Chinese writing systems. A mentality of translation is important, they emphasise, in order to explore the vigour, difficulties, and creativity of post-1949 Chinese cultural productions as represented by these two script systems. A revealing case is when the fantizi versions of banned materials become accessible to mainland Chinese readers, effectively confronting censored materials’ original readership with a more complete “translation” than what was available to them (442-3). Script as method, for Pang and Ko, thus means appreciating the intersubjectivity of the other group of Chinese people, whose unfamiliar script is an invitation for understanding and an opportunity to transcend one’s horizon. Pang and Ko consider Chinese language users blessed with the scripts’ internal split, which could help resisting its fossilisation and totalisation (449). Echoing Shuang Shen’s insights on “Border as Method”, they celebrate this internal bifurcation of Chinese language and a world literature with borders, as they believe that borders, border crossers, and borderland experiences within and among the pan-Chinese communities are important to contemporary Chinese literatures, allowing new and shifting forms of identity to emerge.

The concluding essay by Hsiao-Hung Chang, “Asia as Counter-method”, is translated by Carlos Rojas. Chang traces the influence of Mizoguchi Yūzō’s thesis of base entity and pluralistic perspective on Kuan-Hsing Chen’s concept of Asia as method and treats Chen’s method as developed out of a “geo-colonial historical materialist” framework (463). Chang proposes to differentiate a “bloc asia” as a virtual aggregate from an “Area Asia” as a concrete geo-historical region, using it as a method to theorise the possibility of taking Taiwan or Asia as a counter-method. For her, while it is important to have Area Asia function as a strategy to successfully challenge Eurocentrism and transgress prescribed national boundaries, bloc asia is no less important in highlighting cultural vitality as its potential strategy of anti-imperialism. Both of these options constitute real battlegrounds of thought and action in a globalised age (464). Chang concludes by arguing that perhaps the possibility of Asia as method lies precisely in the possibility of a continual opening up of a not-yet Asia and a not-yet method.

As a whole, Method as Method presents a rich tapestry of methodological approaches highlighting the mutually constitutive relationship between objects and theories, the symbiosis between artist and critics, the revealing translational processes between voices and scripts, the power and limits of representation and misrepresentation, the importance of borders and border-crossing, and the potentiality for Asia as method and counter-method, among many others. These and other methodological approaches represented in this special issue not only actively intervened in debates on theory and modern Chinese literature, but also presents new challenges and propels new generations of students to continue wrestling with terms such as theories, methods, objects, and localities.      


Other reviews on the same work in Cha:

How to cite: Luo, Liang. “Theories, Methods, Objects, and Localities: A Review of Method as Method.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Jan. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/01/15/method/.

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Liang Luo is an associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China (Michigan, 2014) and The Global White Snake (Michigan, 2021). She is working on a new book and documentary project, Profound Propaganda: The International Avant-Garde and Modern China.

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