Here I might compare both travelogues I read during our course this semester: the former namely J. Maartin Troost’s Lost on Planet China; the following namely Rob Gifford’s China Road. Whereas Troost reckoned with his experience abroad from the viewpoint of an unapologetic foreigner, both Gifford’s education in Chinese culture and fluency in Mandarin enabled China Road to resemble more of a ground-level, pith-helmeted ethnography. Indeed throughout his roadtrip Gifford would rub shoulders with busmates or hitchhike with Persia-bound teamsters. Hence whereas Troost’s cluelessness paired with his stand-up personality conduced entertaining situations, say, among Chinese prostitutes at karaoke bars, Gifford could sit down in privacy with those same prostitutes for a frank airing of grievances about Chinese morality and modernization.
Among the most interesting interviewees included those of the Uyghur minority from borderline Kazakhstan, whose weariness of China’s land exploitation and minority brutality reminds Gifford of the same in the United States. Just as Gifford refers to Chinese appropriation of the Uyghur lifestyle not unlike commercialization into shopping centers and theme parks, so too Marxist intellectual Slavoj Žižek critiques China’s “American-style socioeconomic transformation” of Buddhism whereby the Chinese marketize “Lhasa into a Chinese version of the Wild West with karaoke bars intermingled with the ‘Disney-like Buddhist theme parks’” (Žižek, par. 6). The private exchanges with locals enables Gifford to bring focus to their grievances against such colonialism and occupation, let alone critique the hypocrisy of China’s officialdom perhaps equally opinionated against imperialism otherwise.
Indeed for Gifford since China has wrestled with an inferiority complex following their humiliation versus Western superpowers, a lot of the infrastructural development throughout China bespeaks self-conscious, aspirational overcompensation to meet images of modernity from the reverse face of the globe. Gifford offers imagery of China’s transition from the kowtow to the air kiss within no more than a century. Perhaps among Gifford’s descriptors most relevant to me includes the comparison of present-day Shanghai with 1920s-era New York City. Yet whereas the immigrants fresh off the boat into New York City hailed from the old world to restart anew, Shanghai’s influx traceable to innermore China consists of refugees at work to modernize China’s old world into the new.
Here Gifford spells out the hesitancy towards China’s exponential growth rate whereby for instance although China’s industrialization wreaks havoc upon the environment, worldwide reliance upon China’s booming economy entails that nobody can afford for China to no longer consume at the current rate. This entails for Gifford the contradiction whereby the world wants China to stabilize and flatten out on the one hand and continue like so on the other. Gifford concludes with the recent movement to rediscover China’s essential heritage, contrary to the Maoist program to rid China of the old. Whereas Mao talked about the blank parchment of China’s people whereupon to inscribe socialism, the present-day situation bespeaks that China’s people strive for both the rediscovery of ancient Confucianist teachings and the self-sovereignty to inscribe that parchment themselves.
I almost prefer the earlier blog prompts assigned with reference sources because lately without the departure point of that literature I can hardly muster anything to write about. It seems the unremarkable circumstances of my daily living can inspire me to say far less than can critical literature having already reckoned with ground-level accidents of living. Instead of the primordial lived experience of subjectivity so-called the visceral, unreflective immersion of being-there, I noticed from the blogging process my observational detachment from daily living insofar as my preference to withhold my instincts and biases from carving up everything in advance of sober deliberation. Hence I tend to be quite unopinionated unless I can articulate my thoughts from beginning to end. That I prefer to negotiate the perspectives of the literature I reckon with rather than my own should be hardly any surprise. I realize of course the entirety of myself can never be fully self –present and –transparent because nobody can rationalize every contingency of themself beneath their consistent self-understanding. Yet I still criticize myself for the inconsistencies and dissonances of the few convictions I let myself embody.
If anything the demand to square and align my experiences into the templates of the blog prompts entailed that I carve up my overall experience abroad into concept-laden meanings instead of an undifferentiated, boundaryless manifold. In particular for this farewell post I have to parse my experience abroad into units of closure. For me the most rewarding of my experiences abroad have been apropos of the people I met among my on-campus peers as well as my faraway relatives whom I hardly ever visit. Given lately my improved fluency in Mandarin I can at least somewhat communicate with them. Doubtless I intend following my homecoming to resume communication both with my relatives here and with the peers I connected with over the past few months. Although I decided against another semester of the Mandarin program, I plan of course for continued maintenance of my Mandarin because after all I planned to study abroad here both for the valuable asset of subfluency in Mandarin and for the cross-cultural lens onto my studies.
Indeed since I expected the demand for Eastern-literature Americans to ensure the future value of graduates educated like so, I intended for my Gallatin concentration to be a cross-cultural comparative project between my Chinese ancestry and my interest in media and communication theory grounded in the Western tradition. I intended to fill in the blanks of neglected Eastern thought within the Western humanities. Although for sure throughout my schoolwork this semester I negotiated these antipodal traditions, I cannot profess myself to have fallen in love with this cross-cultural comparative project I intended. If anything my negotiation of these traditions has only enabled me to apprehend further dimensions of my motherland tradition—namely, of the West—from unexpected angles had I never approached my studies from here in the East. Since next semester I plan to supplement my studies with Professor Harkness for further inquiry, I can continue to sharpen and solidify my concentration in accordance.
After my formal responsibilities can be forgotten after an exam on Thursday, I plan to move in with family for a month until my homecoming. Hence my feelings about closure to the semester may be different from those of my peers. Instead I can express my delight to be immersed here across the globe for another month. Yet to be honest I look forward, as soon as I return home, to marathon the films I have to miss and have missed during my stay in Shanghai.
To be honest I can hardly suggest any worthwhile insight for prospective Shanghai study abroad students because I can hardly be an authority on the whereby for someone else to experience their life more fully. The primary authority and the ultimate referent of any such question has always been the personal experiencer. As always the content of and the lens onto any experience abroad depends upon the sovereign decision-making of the experiencer. Here the only insight I can offer would be to take command of yourself as the sovereign decision-maker of your own experiences.
They only justifiable standpoint of authority I can stand for must be my personal experience here contrary to any anticipatory preconceptions of those without. Prior to my arrival in Shanghai I had already heard from peers and family members enough cautionary tales that I persuaded myself into anxiety far in advance about the wayward Chinese mainlanders. By no means should I keep valuables in my hind pockets lest I be a schmuck for a subway pickpocket. From my parents I heard about the practiced stealth of the pickpockets here: willing and deft enough by way of a discreet incision to rummage through the knapsack of an unsuspecting passerby. Since for thfis reason the local subwaygoers here always harness their knapsacks frontward, I have persuaded myself to never sling any such bag over my shoulders without care like I would elsewhere. If not the pickpockets the decorum I accustom myself to expect elsewhere yet lacking among subwaygoers here likewise repels me from public transportation. The mob of subwaygoers devolve into a pushy competition to be in front as soon as doors open.
Although I dismissed as mere paranoia the warnings not to wear my bandana headband here lest I be incarcerated or beaten for resembling a Hong Kong protester, I sometimes internalize a self-conscious gaze from local passersby distracted by my appearance. Although given my Chinese features I can blend into a crowd far better than my study abroad peers, I still might not pass for a local given my attire and comportment. That once I was mistaken for a Japanese student seems not much better among the Chinese. For non-Asian crusaders of political correctness to encounter giddy locals eager for selfies with the racial misfit can be shocking. As far as brutality from authority otherwise, the infamous Chinese officialdom has been hands-off as far as our portal campus here. Any prospective students here would be thrilled to hear about on-campus accessibility of frequented social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Indeed I might dismiss most of those cautionary tales as overblown paranoia. Should an elder collapse to the sidewalk I should according to my mother continue to walk lest I be accused and sued for being responsible. I can speak from personal experience about none of the above incidents: albeit, perhaps because I observe those warnings to secure belongings to my person. Yet of course Shanghai has proven to be less treacherous than hearsay warned. For prospective students the caution necessary here should not entail paranoia.
A birthplace can also be a deathsite for those who localize themselves lifelong to the same geographical corner: whereabout most everything meaningful to them still centralizes despite the extremity of their corner towards the outskirts of the globe. Sure enough their hermetic corner soon outlines their entire worldview to the effect of such and such –centrism or –normativity. Among them the privilege so-called the Euro-normative colonial legacy has been the choicest trigger among twenty-something aged social justice do-gooders. According to liberal arts majors nationwide the ever-globalizing post-2.0 mediascape enables even the least travelled recluses to broaden their global consciousness. The ideal interconnectivity would enable equal accessibility to current events worldwide. Yet although the recent terrorist attacks on Paris induced compassion from most media fronts including televised headliner coverage and the superimposed Tricolore onto Facebook profile pictures, soon objections that media exposure of Paris marginalized same-day tragedies worldwide pervaded public discourse. For the social justice do-gooders the average Facebook user could hardly care less about incidents worldwide thanks to unequal media accessibility to those incidents. Such marginalization bespeaks an unjust Euro-normative public opinion: the lesser grievability of suicide bombings elsewhere due to the lack of Caucasian casualties.
Yet the marginality of those incidents in fact traces to far more mundane origin than Euro-normativity. Indeed newsworthiness includes many factors otherwise. The casualties worldwide demand equal grief of course. Yet if unprecedented large-scale coordination of terrorist attacks in peacetime Paris blindsided us more so than ongoing instability elsewhere, I can hardly be surprised at all. This by no means bespeaks the lesser grievability of non-European casualties. The salience of this or that geopolitical event over another by no means reflects the salience of this or that casualty over another. Those of us blindsided by Paris of course included Westerners for whom the attacks encroached far closer to home. Were social networks like Facebook across the globe to offer an overlay of the Lebanese flag and thereby marginalize the Paris attacks I cannot imagine being at all surprised or offended. Airwaves there likewise must be quite content to focus on local incidents. Rather than Euro-normativity the buzzphrase so-called selective humanity bespeaks quite unextraordinary humanness. Perhaps dissenters misattribute major-league systemic oppression in order that they can live up to the legacy of their predecessors whose activism mattered. Indeed their self-righteousness about the marginalized seems less about the marginalized and more about themselves: I was praying for the world all along, but where have you been?
Although I agree with the prompt that travel broadens the mind, I without a doubt cannot claim to be rid of that unextraordinary humanness whereby whatever closer to me relates to me more. I overhear passersby speak Mandarin almost nonsensical to me. As a result I find in myself the belief that I can never relate to them as much: the mundane revelation that humans can never assimilate one another to be selfsame. A distance separates me from a workaday Chinese grocer of a misfit open-air market. There must always be centrality and marginality relative to oneself. That a Chinese grocer hauls a wagon of the local harvest from street corner to street corner in order that a wife and child back home endure the winter of course relates to me far less than the American undergraduate whose student debt saddles future plans to be an architect. Yet that I recognize the equal richness and complexity of their lives—routines, aspirations, and responsibilities all at stake—means I can measure the grievability of their prospective deaths irrespective of me: indeed quite the same.
Although right now I struggle to think of an incident appropriate for this prompt, of course I know my complaint here must be the most unjustifiable of all—namely, that since my arrival in China I have experienced no traumas of note to write on. Mindful of this I settle for the lesser incident whereupon I had to miss my flight to Lanzhou because I forgot to bring my passport for identification. Given that I had never been an airbound traveller both overseas and unaccompanied I never thought to even need my passport to board the plane. Although that I had to return defeated and stranded back to my dormitory frustrated me at that moment, I needed only to reschedule a flight for the same timeslot the following day. The incident cost me a day and a fee alone: neither too troublesome.
Otherwise the only mishaps to befall me would be mundane and budgetary. Since my arrival in Shanghai my account at the Bank of China had been my source for cash. Whereas several years ago during my previous visit I received one hundred dollars USD from my grandparents, before the semester began I received one thousand dollars USD from my grandparents for pocket money during my stay here. Given the exchange rate in my favor I downplayed budgetary responsibility. A meal from a street food vendor costs me fewer than a couple of dollars USD after all.
Yet since the eventuality would soon approach that I would exhaust my reserves I requested by wire transfer several hundred dollars USD from my Bank of America account to be relayed to my Bank of China account. The mishap here entails the processing delay for wire transfers to China in particular for reasons unknown. Across the several weeks I budgeted my remainder to an ever-thinning daily budget given my fear of a delay longer than expected. Several days after the expected arrival of my funds I resorted to online grocery services for their Paypal compatibility. Even though given the next-day delivery and variety of local and overseas staples I considered survival on frozen casseroles at worst a mild inconvenience, of course I recognized the unsustainability and disadvantage of a cashless lifestyle.
The mind-numbing customer service bureaucracy to resolve my missing funds between timezones the direct inverse of each other could be avoided no longer. The eventual unravelment of the mystery steered me again to the Bank of China bank tellers whose matter-of-factness that my funds had simply not yet arrived discouraged me from my mission. Yet following my determined insistence the bank tellers somehow happened upon my funds. Indeed after the bank teller counseled with a superior I received a detailed receipt of my transaction. Whatever behind-the-scenes procedure enabled my funds to be seen at last puzzles me still. Although I should have enough money to budget until I return home, perhaps I should initiate a wire transfer sooner than later in expectation of transactional delay. Yet the reverse wire transfer in case of unused funds seems like even more of a hassle.
Whereas from the lineage of Western thinkers indebted to the Enlightenment evolved the impulse to codify the world into atomic, irreducible facts, for ancient Chinese scholars the world should be seen much rather like a holistic system of interdependencies whereby processes and relationships interact instead of discrete objects. Hence just as the former mechanistic worldview predicates itself upon an analog of the world as predictable, rationalizable clockwork, the following organismic worldview compares the world to a living organism. Whereas the mechanicist relates to the universe from behind an objectifying scientific gaze, the organicist alleges no such buffer between himself and the universe.
The mechanistic worldview for anthropologist Robert Weller established “roots in the post-Enlightenment Western sundering of nature from culture” (Weller 131) consisting of the rift “between a nonhuman environment and a world of human artifice” (Weller 129). This post-Enlightenment discourse can be traced to the unprecedented scientific progress of the era whereby for instance Newtonian physics assured the knowability of an orderly universe to humankind provided that rationality withhold explanatory validity to itself over appeals to superstition and religiosity. Since as a result Chinese “modern education abandoned early Chinese categories for thinking about nature in favor of Western scientific ones” whereby human rationality dominates the universe, as soon as the twentieth century “this new, globalized understanding of nature became an important part of the anti-religious attitudes that all Chinese governments showed” (Weller 130). Yet official secularization by the Chinese government in pursuit of “images of ‘modernity’” from the West mismatches private expressions of Chinese citizens on the ground (Weller 130). Whereas the mechanistic worldview coincides with the Western scientific gaze whereby human subjects distance themselves from their objects of analysis, many Chinese religious legacies on the other hand inform the organismic worldview. Hence there should be no surprise about “the idea of an ‘anthropocosmic’ world” whereby the universe and humankind can be distanced no more than “the ‘unity of heaven and humanity’” enables (Weller 125).
Chinese philosopher Feng Yu-Lan invokes historical materialism for an originary explanation of anthropocosmism in “the aspirations and inspirations of the farmer” of ancient China (Feng 19). Since contrary to the mercantile society of maritime ancient Greece the continental geography of ancient China prioritized agriculture over commerce, Feng posits the innocence and simplicity of the farmers—the “farm and crops…which they immediately apprehended” (Feng 24)—to be the origin point of Chinese philosophy. In contrast, the merchants of Greece handled these material goods not until after operations using “abstract numbers in their commercial accounts” (Feng 25). This abstraction away from immediate apprehension exaggerated the “demarcation between the subject and the object” relevant to Western epistemology yet “never seriously considered by Chinese philosophers” (Feng 25) whose groundedness upon the materiality of agriculture precluded need for this. For them “the knower and the known is one whole” (Feng 25). Indeed for instance the Yin-Yang spatio-temporal theory of the anthropocosmos harmonized into a coherent whole both directionality and seasonality “and furthermore maintained that these phenomena are closely interrelated with human conduct” (Feng 134). Hence for ancient Chinese civilians their oneness with the universe must be harmonized by means of the agreeableness of their conduct according to their spatio-temporal conditions. Whereas humankind relates to the clockwork universe from a distance to rationalize and thereby dominate the lawful domain, the organismic universe collapses the distance between natural and cultural such that humankind represents a cell embedded within rather than an authority apart from the universe.
Feng, Yu-Lan. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1948. Print.
Weller, Robert P. Chinese Cosmology and the Environment. Chinese Religious Life. By David A. Palmer, Glenn L. Shive, and Philip L. Wickeri. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 124-36. Print.
Urban theorist Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place defines such a setting in contradistinction to home and the workplace. The setting should be not only neutral territory disengaged from financial and occupational obligation, likewise the neutralizer of socioeconomic unevenness among frequenters and newcomers alike. For Oldenberg the younger American generations tend to shun a community lifestyle instead for privatization at the expense of these community spaces. My recent experiences here among relatives and their friends sentimentalize my upbringing given that my immigrant parents and I alone relocated to the United States to the effect that I lacked these experiences of Chinese familial culture. At least for now I celebrate that I can participate with relatives overseas, yet as soon as I return home I expect of course to reenter that attitude of the rat race shared among American young adults.
Besides the food and drink the light-hearted banter comprises the primary activity of Oldenburg’s third places: hence the typical instance of restaurants. Doubtless my fondest experiences thus far here have taken place at restaurants: in particular the meal shared among my uncle, aunt, and cousin, as well as their friends over hot pot. From the midpoint crock earthenware brimful of simmering broth the radial arrangement of raw proteins, bean sprouts, bok choy, egg wontons, and udon noodles among a greater variety of morsels entice the diners to submerse them into the broth for impatient cookery until mouthfuls can be at once savored for the flavor and regretted for the oral scald. The setting here conduced kinship and conversation among us per Oldenburg’s definition. Since for the holiday my relatives invited several families to join us for dinner, my first-hand initiation into Chinese food and drink culture could be memorable indeed. In fact these families had raised their twenty-something aged children together since primary school. For years this restaurant has been a usual spot for these families to gather at a private dining room for special events.
Given the notorious kerosenic toxicity of China’s national liquor baijiu I might liken the motions to toast at every opportunity to a manner of hazing the foreigner. From the six families each of the patriarchs at some point during the evening circulated the room to toast us young adults for future success, their lifelong matriarchs for their persistent beauty and intelligence, and at last the patriarchs themselves. Although several of the young adults had been missing from the table to study abroad in France for instance, often the toastmasters welcomed me to their family in their absence. Since several people toasted me in particular I of course drank to excess sooner than expected, yet soon after the early rounds the same could be said of everybody. Here the appropriate descriptor renao defines a standard for Chinese get-togethers to be high-spirited and rambunctious: hence the Chinese obsession with firecrackers during holidays. If for Chinese celebrators the louder the better, my experience here could be considered the best.
Although given the sometimes cringeworthy flippancy of author J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue Lost on Planet China I understand the gripes from reviewers about cultural insensitivity, Troost’s preface offers readers the good-natured self-defecation that although, true, the author has written a lot about faraway places, Troost writes here from the viewpoint of a Chinese-illiterate outsider whose first-person account of the experience abroad must be told via the flat-out honesty of this stand-up personality, lest Lost on Planet China be both as bland and as pliant beneath authoritative thumbs as dishwater. The travelogue warrants Troost’s hesitancy to declare his occupation to Chinese officials: according to Troost travellers must never declare themselves writers on their visa applications here. Doubtless Troost’s travelogue would be less than appreciated by the immigrations officers or any other readers too keen on humorless, no-nonsense political correctness: Troost expected far in advance to narrate an experience consisting of sludge-replete skies, prostitute solicitations around every corner, and uncouth mainlanders always hocking loogies among grosser bodily eliminations along sidewalks and in public spaces. Although I can confirm quite a few of Troost’s accounts of the locals, of the unrelenting xenophobia Troost experienced here I, Chinese-born and in appearance until I open my mouth, of course cannot comment with any first-person experience apart from my alarm at Troost’s accounts: the slang pejorative laowai, or “old outsider,” always within Troost’s earshot throughout the country. I again experience relief to be at least somewhat inconspicuous within a crowd. While at one point Troost almost stumbled into an outnumbered street brawl, most of such encounters entailed selfies with giddy locals.
Apart from the consistent comedic payoff of Troost’s commentary, I likewise enjoyed the historical content throughout the travelogue: in particular I took interest in Troost’s account of Mao’s catastrophic regime because prior to reading this book I had been less than knowledgeable. After Mao ordered an extermination of sparrows in order that grain crops might be better fertilized and harvested, the ensuing plague of locusts starved China to the effect of tens of millions of casualties. Mao then still exported grain in order to meet quotas in keeping with those of Western superpowers. Whereas any public iconography of Joseph Stalin can be seen few and far-between (aside from in Harbin, China according to Troost), throughout the travelogue Troost comments on the omnipresence of Mao’s likeness throughout public spaces and in possession of private citizens. This normalization of Mao’s likeness baffles both Troost and me alike. In fact my uncle, to my bafflement, dangles a pendant of Mao from his rearview mirror. Although in accordance Troost comments a lot on the backwards-looking (or otherwise all-around amnesiac) public consciousness here, the quite sudden, unexpected ending to the book leaves behind a reflection of North Korea across the Yalu River. Although “once, not so long ago, China had been like that place across the river” (Troost 378), as soon as his sightseeing dinghy sputtered out and stranded him at the North Korean shoreline, Troost begged for China to take him back. Troost by no means neatens up a deferential account of a less than shipshape experience abroad, yet still acknowledges the leaps and strides of China’s advancement during the past decades.
The bygone golden era of one-to-many broadcast media hearkens back to the Huxleyan paranoia that mass –produced and –mediated culture monopolizes the freethinking of the bovine, slack-jawed audience. Besides of course this myth of the uncritical masses impressionable to the whim of any telecast, the dawn of many-to-many online media likewise discredits the overblown paranoia of mass-media brainwashing. Indeed the advent of user-generated content sharing empowers the informal, horizontal exchanges between like-minded patrons over the top-down, official statements from depersonalized organizations and bureaucracies. Hence of course travellers nowadays defer to the user-generated databases of first-person experiences for more accurate judgment on those tourist organizations. The informalization of the travel industry likewise applies to accommodation and transportation given the mainstream advent of ride-sharing and couch-surfing intermediaries such as the app services Uber and Airbnb. Any paranoia of organized exploitation from corporations seems to lower in accordance with the rate many-to-many online media popularizes.
The multimedia richness of, say, three-dimensional virtual previews of tourist destinations likewise inform expectations to a higher degree of accuracy. Yet perhaps this availability of information nowadays detracts from the mystique of uncharted territory: although the more organized trafficking of information during the pre-2.0 era constrained the availability of insight, perhaps the lack of information mystified the destination to thereby enhance the experience. On the other hand perhaps as for de Botton this mystification of expectation might dampen the real-life experience of the destination. At any rate just as 2.0 media enables the preplanning of a strict around-the-clock timetable, the same at-hand technology enables the more improvisatory traveller to plan off the cuff. Whereas pre-2.0 tourism demanded strict financial bookkeeping lest the budgeter abroad end up the underdog of the classic scenario whereby the traveller runs out of money and survives on tin soup for a week, present-day tourism enables impromptu banking and booking for travel spontaneity without the risk. Hence perhaps these 2.0 websites, rather than deprive the mystique from travelling, more so diversify options for travellers because nowadays users can fine-tune their media diets. This belongs among the many game-changing improvements from a one-to-many, mass-media culture to an online sphere. That tourism 2.0 empowers the decision-making of the generic traveller lacks for me any appreciable downsides.
That social media might cheapen experiences abroad can be unproblematic for the decision-maker whose smartphone remains offline. Perhaps detractors of tourism 2.0 more so bemoan the surrounding social environment obsessed with around-the-clock connectivity to social networks and information outlets otherwise like news sources. Or perhaps detractors bemoan the ever-increasing effort required for web-savvy tourists not to travel through the lens of an Instagram filter.
About halfway through the assigned chapter from The Art of Travel I planned to restate the Wildean quote I cited for my arrival blog post—but to my surprise I came across a citation of the same quote here: “Wilde remarked that there had been no fog in London before Whistler painted it” (Botton 13). Of course I cannot resist Botton’s encouragement to restate this among my all-time favorite quotes.
At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.
Even though the classic saying on Aristotelian memesis insists art imitates life, for Wilde life much rather imitates art. The mutual constitution of the processes mimesis and anti-mimesis whereby art imitates life imitates art problematizes the classic model of representation. A passage from The Art of Travel offers an unproblematic account of realist painters “adhering to the classical and until then relatively undisputed notion that their task was to render on canvas an accurate version of the visual world” preexisting symbolic representation—hence van Gogh’s complaint that “no one has painted the real southern Frenchman for us” (qtd. from Botton 8). Yet from this apparent possibility to misrepresent a real-life object or event, not only to media audiences likewise to oneself, I want to problematize the relationship between the truth of the object and event falsified and the symbolic representation of the same object or event. In contrast to the assumptions of the possibility to misrepresent, for discourse and textuality theory the truth and the symbolic representation coextend rather than the former precede the following.
Hence just as for cultural theorist Stuart Hall the textbook model of representation demands from the media analyst a critique of any differences between (1) the imperfect, perhaps even doctored replica, hence misrepresentation, of (2) the real-life object or event wherefrom the capital-T Truth can derive unmediated, likewise for French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida the Western philosophical tradition too assumes the Truth preexists irrespective of symbolic representation: the longstanding bias of logocentrism in Derrida’s terminology. In effect logocentrism prefers speech over writing insofar as the distance from Truth wherefrom speech verges much closer than does writing according to logocentrism: whereas the presence of the speaker situates the hearer closer to firsthand, unmediated Truth already once-removed via speech, graphic symbolization can at most transcribe speech such that writing thereby situates the reader twice-removed. Rather, for Hall and Derrida the distance between matters of fact (indeed truth diminutive) and their representation collapses because symbols cannot be disentangled from the meaning of whatsoever symbolized: the process of representation itself constructs any matters of fact represented. Hence Hall and Derrida doubt the presupposition of a capital-T True Frenchman for van Gogh to represent. The meaning of both the London fog and the Frenchman alike can neither preexist nor exist irrespective of symbolization.
According to Foucault the demand for complex institutions to exact control at the personal scale called for enforcement of fixed routine. Hence the introduction of Discipline and Punish compares mid-eighteenth-century public executions to the around-the-clock timetables enforced onto prisoners as soon as the nineteenth century. Whereas the spectacle of public execution engaged the raptness of spectators all convergent upon the centralized power of the sovereignty thereby demonstrated, the regulation of every moment into discrete, surveyable functions such as prayer, tutelage, and supper represents discipline “in a form that is the exact reverse of the spectacle” (Foucault 217). Here Foucault differentiates between the bodies regulated by each method of discipline: the former whereby the all-powerful say-so of an unforgiving sovereignty intimidates droves of unnamed spectators; the following whereby bodies become regulated insofar as the surveillability of each identifiable body moment by moment. Hence the transition to a discipline of surveillance atomizes the masses into discrete, nameable actors, whose performances can be observed, recorded, and codified.
Although a more thorough exposition would better represent Foucault’s project here, for this assignment I can settle for the payoff of my above exposition alone: the self-enforcement of routine can be the surest method of discipline for college students like myself. In particular for me any Friday represents the strictest regimen of my week. Rather than classes or internships or part-time work exact an around-the-clock timetable onto me, I self-impose a no-nonsense schedule to capitalize on an entire day per usual without these formal commitments. Indeed the conventional advice for college students to conduct each day as though a full-time job structures emptiness between classes into discrete, surveyable functions: for instance I often do laundry or another menial task weekday mornings because I always begin class rather late at 11:15am. If not I often dedicate the morning to a less taxing reading assignment or casual studying so that I can tick whatever have you off from my to-dos. Whereas during weekdays the hour-long interval between my morning and afternoon classes structures for me a lunchtime, I must prearrange and hold fast to an interval for myself on Fridays lest my sloppiness delegitimate my sense of self-discipline.
Many iterations of a discipline of surveillance exacted onto me from early childhood onward conditioned my self-discipline and self-surveillance according to Foucault. Any system of surveillance like the schoolyard regulates and distributes bodies moment by moment and zone by zone, respectively, such that bodies interiorize a suspense of surveillance: the spatio-temporal micromanagement of bodies ensures I could be observed, recorded, and codified at any moment or zone. Here Foucault refers to the relation between the observable body and the indeterminate observer whereby the body
“[…] who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound, and permanent are its effects” (Foucault 203).
Indeed for Foucault I interiorized this indeterminate, Schrodinger-esque observer such that I ended up the observer of myself. Thenceforth I self-enforce an around-the-clock timetable because otherwise this interiorized self-observer has to delegitimate itself: unacceptable for me.
For this blog entry I’ll transcribe my real-time experience afoot here and there more or less without direction to stylize a more stream-of-consciousness narration of this up-and-coming residential neighborhood: toward the front of our dorm the old-fashioned, workaday vendors whose open-air, boxy storefronts mismatch not only one another likewise the grand commercial plaza behind us. Just around the corner of the gate from our residential grounds I swing a left onto this dim-lit street of misfit businesses: past a single-room soup kitchen vacated for the labor to sweep the grounds and scrub down the dining room, a late-night karaoke bar furnished with barstools and lounge seating yet hardly any people save for an off-key soloist I imagine onstage somewhere beyond view from the entrance, beside an all-hours convenience store several middle-aged men squatted atop miniature wooden stools concentered upon a tabletop boardgame. A passerby hugging a brimful basket of laundry had eyes on me until I disengaged my own gaze from my smartphone.
Although by appearance alone the benumbing onscreen glow might seem to insulate me from my surroundings, the utter receptivity of my senses for this exercise embeds me very much here and now. Yet I know my obsessive phrasing and rephrasing here disengages me from real-world immersion at least somewhat. In fact just now I received an instant message from a recent friend on the Chinese app WeChat: “Fine, happy that it’s the weekend. Might be going out in a bit?” as a response to a tentative earlier arrangement to meet up tonight. Maybe then this real-time transcription was a poor idea—at least on my smartphone. In fact my writerly friend whose storytelling far exceeds mine prefers pen to notepad rather than a word processor because—aside from of course the nostalgia for a pre-technological age—the obsession with the alignment and proportion of the words on the onscreen page distract him whereas handwritten transcription somehow loosens up such neuroticism. I find myself likewise neurotic, phrasing and rephrasing every sentence.
I remember another night not a couple of blocks this way from the convenience store I bought the chubbiest pan-fried dumplings from a cart vendor I assume quite popular among the locals given the many occupied tables I remember set up beside him. Yet tonight maybe because of the hour I again swing the corner toward the all-hours fast food chains down this street. Here I spot another street vendor seated alone beside a wheeled grill. These street vendors can be found anywhere throughout the country: along the grillside precarious rows of metallic trays with skewered proteins and vegetables for individual selection. After I pile a handful—cabbage, lamb, and eggplant—onto an empty tray I hand off to the owner of the cart for him to step behind a metal buffer and ignite the grill. I wary of the cookery now aflame yet hidden from view because I recall sanitation can be suspect for these street vendors. Yet the owner relieves my suspicions after some strangerly chitchat. Since still I struggle to speak the language, the owner simplifies by asking questions like, say, whether I come from the United States. After a quite affordable transaction the owner bundles the skewers into a plastic bag so that I can takeaway my late-night snack back to my dorm.
Maybe my subpar storytelling translates this into a rather bland encounter—or else I think maybe the real-time transcription precluded any soft-focus hindsight romanticization. Indeed from an assigned reading several weeks ago de Botton describes this process whereby “the confusion of the present moment was receding, and certain events had begun to assume prominence, for memory is in this respect similar to anticipation: an instrument of simplification and selection” (Botton 15). The selective details transcribed here cannot capture the unbroken stream-of-consciousness tide of here and now. This of course represents the constraints of language to delineate true from false, intelligible from unintelligible, and wordable from unwordable. Perhaps my real-time transcription coheres the truest account of the experience even though the act of transcription itself indeed disengaged me from real-world immersion.
If, according to recent trends, a fact cannot render the world unless predicated upon symbolic representation, any matter of fact must therefore be a discursive fact mediated through language inasmuch as cannot be said of property, causality, and the world otherwise unless in terms of meaningful, humanmade constructs. Hence the most fashionable theories of knowledge nowadays appeal to the representation of the world to human beings by means of textuality and discourse: the greater articulability of this or that populates the commensurate granular resolution of the matrix wherefrom such and such materializes itself to us as fact. Any discursive limits to articulability should be interrogated for that excluded from dialogue and thus from the aletheiac worldview of the discoursers: although, say, popular culture of same-sex relationships mobilizes relevant discourse for consumers, same-sex practices remain unthinkable for many rural Chinese civilians lacking adequate “dimensions to evaluate each other” in terms of (Tu & Lee 995). The multi-dimensionality of human interpretation depends on the discursive resources available to represent and mediate the world.
From an assigned reading last week Solnit describes the endangered Native American language of the Wintu tribespeople “who don’t use the words left and right to describe their own bodies but use the cardinal directions” (Solnit, par. 21) whereby the tribespeople orient themselves by their embeddedness relative to surroundings and the world at large. I likewise recall reading about the Himba tribe from southern Africa whose unusual color vocabulary consists of only four attributions such as zuzu representative of deep blues, reds, greens, and purples. A crew of researchers projected onscreen an image of a dozen squares, then instructed a tribesperson to identify the sole square of a different color. Although from a dozen green squares seeming identical to Western eyes the tribespeople identified straightaway the sole square of a different green, the same tribespeople failed to do so when presented eleven green squares alongside a blue square quite distinct to Westerners. Hence the Himba likewise perceive within the constraints of their discursive resources.
Although whether during my education in Mandarin for these past years I add more and more to my discursive resources has yet to prove itself to me, perhaps I need to become an unreflective thinker and speaker before I can toggle between discursive modes of interpretation. Given the tonal dependency of the language whereby the slightest lilt can vary meaning, I wonder whether Chinese traditions and superstitions based on such homonyms map out those terms closeby on the mental landscape. Or whether the consistency of sentence construction to prioritize temporal and locational orientation likewise structures perception somehow. Yet since I learned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of favor, I question the assumptions of linguistic relativity behind recent trends in textuality and discourse theory. For now I should rather focus on practical Mandarin because I, born in China myself, can speak only broken Mandarin. During conversation with locals I sometimes feign Mandarin more broken than my current proficiency or else I fear they might mistake me for an inbred primary speaker instead of a Westerner relearning the language.
Against the risk of being too far-removed from the assigned topic of disorientation in the literal sense, here I want to thematize an idea recurring from my previous post—namely, the process of image-making a symbolic model of the external world whereby the “environment suggests distinctions and relations” as the image-maker “selects, organizes, and endows with meaning what he sees. The image so developed now limits and emphasizes what is seen, while the image itself is being tested against the filtered perceptual input in a constant interacting process” (Lynch 6). If the relations and distinctions of the model entrench themselves deeper and deeper such that future perception must square and align itself to those features, the process of image-making thereby resembles a bleak, self-perpetuating feedback loop whereby the image-maker accustoms himself to converge asymptote-like upon this particular mapping of the world. Yet of course for Lynch “what we seek is not a final but an open-ended order” because a model of the world or the world itself “ordered in precise and final detail may inhibit new patterns of activity” and modes of seeing (Lynch 6). How else to conduce an open-ended model of the world than openness to getting lost so to speak within that model even if the world seems mapped out without error?
Even though I thematize the above in a figurative sense, I might still restate much of the above to describe verbatim an experience of getting lost in Shanghai. By the evening of my arrival date I had been in contact with a friend staying per our arrangements at the Sofitel in downtown Puxi reputed to be the entertainment hub of Shanghai. Upon my resurface from the subway I regretted those arrangements: self-sabotage into the unavoidable ordeal of getting lost among throngs of pedestrians aglow from the storefronts, billboards, and high-rises altogether to resemble the technicolor gameplay of a pinball arcade. At the moment without use of my smartphone I instead had a burner-like Nokia model with messages from my friend. The landmarks cited such as a nearby Burger King may have been useful had those franchises not been reproducible at various other sites along the pedestrian mall. Thenceforth of course I mapped out an inaccurate model of the world, then reconciled any uncharted territory in accordance with the model—in Lynch’s words, the model “so developed now limits and emphasizes what is seen” (Lynch 6) not unlike confirmation bias. Here the overlap of my literal and figurative readings of image-making can best be seen: my greater undue surety invested in the model encouraged my commensurate closed-mindedness to getting lost within; this self-perpetuating feedback loop closed me off from any mapping of the world otherwise.
For objects and events to contain the oversaturation of their significance within their discrete, self-defining bounds lest any unit of meaning lose itself in a boundaryless unintelligibility, the experience of those objects and events must be an ongoing process of selective trimming, editing, and framing whereby those very objects and events here presupposed in themselves cannot exist beyond this grid of intelligibility superimposed by experience onto the world. Irrespective of experience perhaps indeed the world much closer resembles a boundaryless unintelligibility such that excesses of meaning oversaturate entities of experience beyond the thinkable limit so-called brimful until the Derridean proposition can hold water so to speak whereby “the problem is not that there is no truth, but that there is ‘too much’” (Flax 200). Hence the seeker of knowledge should count on—rather than a quest for atomic, irreducible truths in the world—an interrogation of the methods used to trim, edit, and frame that boundaryless unintelligibility into a coherent, intelligible narrative of the world. Indeed by means of such narratives alone can anything be alleged true or false.
Just as experience must “omit and compress” (Botton 14) the chaos of the world to thereby “lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting woolliness of the present” (Botton 15), so too in artwork “we find at work the same process of simplification or selection” (Botton 13). Hence the experiencer represents the world to himself much like the artist does on canvas or the advertiser does on television: both processes likewise selective, imagistic, representational, fallible, and impressionistic. Even though a Dickens novel might offer itself to be mimetic of the cobblestone alleys, dewy twilights, and log taverns of the English countryside abloom with tulips and daffodils, surely any reader savvy enough must interpret the novel to be indeed a narrative not quite mimetic of the world in itself. Yet of course the novel informs perceptions of the countryside, expressed here by Oscar Wilde:
At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them.
Hence although for Wilde life imitates art more than art imitates life, perhaps there exists the mutually constitutive process of mimesis and anti-mimesis whereby art imitates life imitates art.
Although Chinese-born and brought up speaking Mandarin, I remember close to nothing prior to my immigration to the United States during early childhood—including my former bilingual articulacy. Since besides my parents my entire family lives in China, any communication between us has always been a challenge: whereas English-taught cousins and I can barely manage brief, halting conversation, an impenetrable language barrier prevents exchange between my grandparents and me. The impossibility of interpersonal contact across continents and language barriers alienates me from my family such that I feel like a stranger among them. I arrive in Shanghai dislocated from what it means to be Chinese. Yet perhaps my divorce from the culture might benefit my travels considering I experience Shanghai as a boundaryless unintelligibility not yet carved up into loaded meanings. Whereas my immigrant parents think of China in terms of their expat prejudices alone, I harbor none of those prejudices being quite divorced from my family, and thus I plan for utter receptivity to the oversaturation of meaning otherwise excluded had those prejudices monopolized my perspective.