[REVIEW] “Beyond Tired Old Boundaries: A Review of Method as Method” by Jennifer Anne Eagleton

{Written by Jennifer Anne Eagleton, 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.

Method here is used as a “prism” to tease out our underlying assumptions and presuppositions about things, helping us to reassess how conceptual categories are constituted in the place in the first instance. Diffracted into three areas—”Translational Processes”, “Ecological Paradigm”,and “Mapping”—the focus is on object as methodology rather than on the result of a methodology. This gives us as researchers other unique perspectives on the subject and thus extend analysis beyond tired old boundaries.

Translational Processes

Translation is usually discussed in terms of “gaps”—what is lost or artificially “gained” through the work of the translator. In this first group of essays, social realities are figuratively translated into cultural representations, the gaps between the realities and representations, rather than what is “lost in translation”.

In the first essay, “Translation as Method”, Carlos Rojas, who is also the guest editor of the special Method as Method issue of Prism, talks about the voices that gets “left out” of the text and the “interplay” between them, in particular voices that have been marginalised as well as the gaps between them. In the examples given of different types of translation, those who don’t actually “speak” (and these might be peripheral characters in a fictional work) actually have much to say (in their silence). If the translation is done in a certain way, different voices may have a different “pitch” compared to another way of translation. The narrator in a piece of fiction, for example, has other voices embedded within them that need to be teased out. The essay contrasts the translation work of Lu Xun and Yan Lianke and discusses their faithfulness in meaning and form (“direct translation”) and translation that is “technically accurate but comparatively rigid” (“hard translation”. This “hard translation” may still produce a “profound sense of defamiliarisation, that, in turn, is essential to the translation process” (p. 229). I suspect that there will always be a battle over so-called “faithfulness” and “equivalence” in translation. 

In the second essay in this group, “Hoax as Method”, Christopher Rea discusses fictional works about tricks or hoaxes. While translation itself implies the possibility of transposing meaning from one medium to another, the hoax on the other hand wants to do the precise opposite: using one form to deliberately misrepresent the contents of another (of course, translation done badly can also misrepresent, but often this is incompetence rather than intentional). However, as Rea shows, the idea of “hoax” can open up new meanings on the nature of creativity and cultural representation. And as Rea says, deception may be “intrinsic to art” (p. 253). That is, because “the Arts” deals in aspects of authenticity and identity. Committing a “hoax”, we think why an author has positioned something in a particular way, their intention for the audience and themselves. We can think of “creative biographies” of individuals, where a writer may insert themselves in the text to compare the then and now. Rea says that cultural history can be rewritten in a kind of “alternative history, manufacture a reputation, alternate value imposition”. Perhaps we need to think whether our representation (even with good intentions that we can be somehow fair and equitable) is actually a hoax in disguise?

The next essay, “Ragpicking as Method” by Margaret Hillenbrand, largely discusses urbanisation in social structures and the representation of these structure through the use of garbage, the discarded. Garbage, represented as art is seen here in a relationship with precarity. This “dump art” becomes an appropriation—disembodiment: “precarity is essentially the new subaltern” (p.266). The “truth of a society is in its detritus. The socially peripheral points to the symbolically central” (p. 275), Hillenbrand posits. In artworks that are based on refuse (as in trash, rubbish) people are usually absent. This can be seen as exploitative, since often the story of people who are impacted by this detritus are sidelined while it is all about the artist’s artistic creation. The artist may think that they are giving voice to these people, but in these people’s absence, their message is neutralised. However, in the documentary “Plastic China”, one young girl takes back her subjectivity by interacting with her environment, and her “capacity to aspire” (p. 288).

Yomi Braester’s “Panorama as Method”, the last essay in this section, is all about viewpoint. Focusing on large urban screens, exhibition hall models, Braester also looks at the contemporary practice of “rooftopping”, in which people climb up to various precarious roofs of buildings for selfies, the idea that moving in and out of scale can give different perspective on issues. This, rather like the macro and micro picture of the same representation, which can lead to a decentring which in turn can give extra definition to an issue through defamiliarisation.

Ecological Paradigm

Interrelationships exist between different entities and forces within a larger environment. And like all environments, balance or otherwise has an impact on how that environment develops in the future. The interactions between flora and fauna are in symbiosis with each other.

Robin Visser in “Ecology as Method” considers Sinophone “eco-fiction” in terms of “Hanspace agri-logistics” which combines Han “scientific rationalism” with Mongolian “eco-centralism”. Beijing exoticises the ethnic other in its territory. This ethnic other somehow exists in a pristine state vis-à-vis the urban other. However, as the author states, novels such as Wolf Totem “work to identify and establishes hegemonic ecological ontologies” (p. 376). The grasslands are romanticised against Chinese civilisational values. In holding all this material up as positive representation of the ethnic other, it subverts it. Wolf Totem, “appropriates indigenous ecological perspectives to criticise Maoist destruction of the environment” (pg. 321). This is ecological imperialism in the guise of praise of traditional culture.

In “Cannibalism as Method” by Lorraine Wong, “cannibalism” is taken to mean “assimilation” and, to extend the metaphor, it could be conceptualised and add another element to either, “indigeneity and colonisation” with Hong Kong being a case in point…. as a “gradual and orderly” and then “gobbled up” (since the middle of 2020). Prior to 1997, colonial Britain had a kind of surface relationship to Chinese culture. And all ecosystems do not necessarily work together in harmony. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek (1989, pp. 274-5) tells us that the future is the “supreme object of ideology” and that it is “without form, shape or colour: it demands yet exceeds all figuration”. Beijing seems to be privileging a future where Hong Kong is increasingly assimilated into the mainland despite promising a high degree of autonomy as part of the “One country, two systems” framework; Hong Kong’s unlikely hope was that its future would remain as it had in the past (Eagleton 2020). The Hong Kong body is now being quickly swallowed with the introduction of the National Security Law in mid-2020.

Belinda Kong’s “Pandemic as Method” uses the concept of pandemic as a “set of discursive relations rather than a natural phenomenon… related to discourse of power” (pp. 368-368). I do not think pandemics are ever posited as neutral. You need a transgressor, not the virus itself (which is not given culprit status), but the facilitator of the spread. Regarding recipients of the contagion, the Asian body and its various cultural practices, Kong states: “socially and culturally, the fear-inducing trope of planetary contagion works to consolidate and intensify historical forms of racial othering” (p. 369).  This “bio-orientalism” is “multiplying the objects of identification” and that pandemic is treated as a “series of discursive relations, a product of layered histories of power that in turn reproduces the myriad forms of biopower” (p. 369). During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the very name “SARS” mimicked that of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region, an “SAR” of China. As a hotspot in the disease outbreak, the government of the region had to shore up its idea as being a “world-class city” rather than an Asian locale where serious disease could break out (Eagleton 2004). The author gives us two heuristics to use in analysing texts: pandemic as “an archaeology of imperialist knowledge. And Pandemic discourse to highlight the theoretical nexus between orientalism and biopolitics”. The fear effect of the “Asian contagion” is still ever present, bound up in the exotic “other” (p. 381). This essay was written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and shows that (bio-)orientalism as a practice remains very much entrenched in crises arising in Asia.

Mapping Regimes

In “The Precession of the Simulacra”, Jean Baudrillard discusses a one-paragraph story by Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”, in which a map is made that is so extremely large and detailed it covers the whole empire. After a while, the map begins to become tattered with use, and the citizens of the empire mourn its loss. Under the map, the real territory has turned into a desert, a “desert of the real”. In its place, a simulacrum of reality—the threadbare mega-map (or should it be said, a meta-map)—is all that is left. This “exactitude” of mapping is about the “ideal of representation”, in which the “gaps are filled in”, in order to leave no room for uncertainty and therefore fear. One methodology, like maps, does not fit all (Borges, 1998).

This third section deals with essays that use the “Border”, the “Cold War”, and “Script” as method, while the last essay in the book is “Asia as Counter-Method”.  In “Border as Method”, Shuang Shen looks at the expanse of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and the mythology of the “borderless world”. Cross-disciplinary “maps” of the social, historical, geographical and geopolitical practices of Chinese societies, as borders between these societies and other societies is where transition, repression, and exchange happen. All is connectivity and “B/ordering”. Shen cites Georg Simmel: “The boundary is not a spatial fact with sociological effects, but a sociological fact with spatial form” (p. 397). Severe violence comes from bordering (in the story being analysed); and this form, this conceptual space, especially as regards to literature cannot be analysed just on the idea of the centre-periphery dichotomy. For example, a comparison between physical boundaries, boundary crossings and discursive boundaries before, leading up to and after the introduction of the “One country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong highlights the relationship between different boundaries. Border landscapes are everywhere, and despite everything, borders will never disappear entirely, despite many who say that due to globalisation the world is becoming borderless. I see a backlash to this happening.

In “Cold War as Method”, Petrus Liu looks at the Cold War as a methodological concept in studying Chinese literature, since it often acts as an “enduring ‘problematic of the present’”, despite the actual “war” ending decades ago.  An interesting point is that there are many “periodising markers” (p. 409) of other markers of a time, such as neo-liberalism and post-market reform of that time continue to inform literary studies, but not the Cold War, which is simply seen as a “time frame” rather than something that has informed the “cultural logic of the present”.

“Script as Method”, the next essay in this section, by Laikwan Pang and Chun-kit Ho, details the political struggles involved in publishing materials in different versions of the Chinese script. This is not only the case of whether to use simplified characters 簡體字 or traditional ones (the latter often called “complex characters” 繁體字, which maybe gives “tradition” more semantic weight, thus being a more solid bearer of Chinese culture). The authors state that “the two scripts could not be understood as simple variations of the same set of language, but the shifts between them involve actual translation”, terminology, political meaning, not a simple shift in the same characters (p. 432).

The last essay in this volume, Hsiao-hung Chang‘s “Asia as Counter-Method”, looks at the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan as a point of departure. I suppose the “counter-method” is between what the author calls “bloc asia” (written in lower case) as a virtual aggregate of “Area Asia”. The former is the method, that is, the “aggregate” of the “potentiality” and is “the contingent product of an interaction of different transhistorical, transregional, transnational, and transcultural forces” (p. 457). Asia with a capital “A” is the actual geo-historical region and its constituent parts.

Try as I might, I cannot really do justice to the robust methodological “meat” contained in each essay in this volume. Each method detailed here needs to be chewed over carefully and thoughtfully.

REFERENCES

Borges, J.L. “On exactitude in science”. In J.L. Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by H. Hurley. New York, Viking, 1998.

Eagleton, J. “SARS: ‘It’s as bad as we feared but dared not say’: Naming, managing and dramatizing the SARS crisis in Hong Kong”. English Today 77, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2004. This article can be accessed at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/english-today/article/abs/sars-its-as-bad-as-we-feared-but-dared-not-say/D12FE9A005764CAF3D4C2EAC879E6C0D.

Eagleton, J. “Hong Kong’s unlikely hope: That its future remains its past”. Journal of Future Studies., 25(1): 45–54, Sept. 2020. This article can be accessed at: https://jfsdigital.org/articles-and-essays/vol-25-no-1-september-2020/hong-kongs-unlikely-hope-that-its-future-remains-its-past/.

Žižek, S. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London; New York: Verso, 1989.

Other reviews on the same work in Cha:

How to cite: Eagleton, Jennifer Anne. “Beyond Tired Old Boundaries: A Review of Method as Method.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 11 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/11/method-as-method/.

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Jennifer Anne Eagleton.jpg

Jennifer Anne Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since October 1997, is a committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and a Civic Party member. She has been a close observer of Hong Kong politics since her arrival in the city. She was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project (2011-2013), and in 2012 completed a PhD on how Hong Kong talks about democracy using metaphor. Jennifer has written a number of language-related articles for Hong Kong Free Press and is currently compiling a book combining Hong Kong culture, photography, and political metaphor. A previous president of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, Jennifer is also a part-time tutor of stylistics/discourse analysis at OUHK as well as a freelance writer, researcher, and editor on cultural topics. In her spare time she collects Hong Kong political pamphlets and artefacts.

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