If memory serves (and it tends to serve some agenda), I first visited Huaqiangbei (formerly the Shangbu Industrial Park) in 1995, when it was still primarily a manufacturing and residential area, but didn’t know what I was looking at. The big ideas in my head had to with workers rights and feminism, and so I was aware of the factories, the state sponsored housing, the few department stores, including the then still operative Friendship store, and the iconic Shanghai Hotel with its surprisingly good Cantonese dim sum. I noticed that neighboring Gangxia and Tianmian were under construction, but glossed this new urban morphology as a “new village.” I didn’t realize that the scale of immigration and construction that happened during the 90s and defined “Shenzhen” for me would be different enough from the 1980s that friends who arrived during the Special Zone’s first decade laughing asserted that Shenzhen was changing so quickly that if they didn’t visit a neighborhood for several years it was easy to get lost; Shenzhen in 1989 and 1999 were two different cities. And that was almost two decades ago.
Shenzhen is a bookish city. Even a click over to the English language Alibaba site for “Book Printing in Shenzhen” suggests the extent of how many books are printed in the city. We are so awash in books that it is possible to use them instead of wallpaper when decorating. What’s more, many of my favorite cafes are not only decorated with books, but also serve as lending libraries via 青番茄, a Shenzhen based NGO. All you have to do is register online and then you are free to lend and return books at any of their almost 2,000 participating cafes in China. Continue reading
Today, there was an exhibition opening in the afternoon and a performance of The Hairy Ape this evening. Suddenly, culture all over Shenzhen. Impressions, below.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s 1944 essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception helps us think through the idea that capitalism in the West functions like socialism in China. The point, of course, is the attempt to control social processes to benefit a few, whether they be investors (as in the States) or cadres (as in China).
In the quote below, for example, I have replaced “consumer” with “the People (人民)” and “producers” with “cadres”. Note that as with the critique of censorship in China, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the Western cultural industry focuses on the enforced passivity of the intended audience. Note also that A&H lament the fact that the cultural industry has coopted enlightment to its own ends. Similarly, the critique of cultural production in contemporary China emphasizes how the progressive ideal of liberating workers, peasents, and soldiers has been subordinated to maintaining Party hegemony:
There is nothing left for the
consumerPeople to classify. ProducersCadres have done it for him. Art for the masses has destroyed the dream but still conforms to the tenets of that dreaming idealism which critical idealismsocialism baulked at.
The result of systematically subordinating human creativity to monolithic ends (profit in the West and political power in China) results in boring, predictable literature and art:
Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but the specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change. The details are interchangeable. The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero’s momentary fall from grace (which he accepts as good sport), the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter’s rugged defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all the other details, ready-made clichés to be slotted in anywhere; they never do anything more than fulfil the purpose allotted them in the overall plan.
Adorno and Horkheimer assumed that the extent to which art and literature liberate or nourish or enhance a human life pivots on the the extent to which an individual actively participates in the realization of a work. They followed Kant in understanding that this participation is rational; the work of appreciation is to classify and organize aesthetic experience, creating a critical consciousness. In the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (在延安文藝座談會上的講話), Mao Zedong also posited a beneficial kind of aesthetic engagement, albeit revolutionary rather than critical because he followed Marx. For Mao, socialist art and literature would facilitate the mental work of transforming one’s half-feudal, half-colonial consciousness into revolutionary consciousness.
I’m actually an advocate of both critical and revolutionary consciousnesses, especially when used to hone each other. Today, however, I’m wondering how it is that human societies end up in these painful and painfully similar cultural ruts. In other words: what’s the generalized (or mass) appeal of repeated bouts of boredom? Indeed, maybe what’s at stake isn’t boredom, but rather our anxiety about the fact that true repetition is impossible. In other words, what if we’d rather be bored than confront the irrefutable freshness of every moment? To the extent that we can’t step in the same river twice, it follows that we can’t watch the same
movie model opera twice.
Thought du jour: when Mickey Mouse stepped through the looking glass, he found himself among a Red Brigade of Women, who were applying to study in the United States, where they might realize their Chinese dreams.