FORUM Brainstorming

Michel Hockx, “Finding the Text in the Study of Modern Chinese Literature”

In my past research on Chinese magazine literature from the early twentieth century and on Chinese online literature from the early twenty-first century I have tried to express my scepticism about Eurocentric definitions of the notion of “text.” Why is a novel something we can approach with the tools of literary analysis and interpretation, but not a magazine? Both are basically a pile of paper held together by two covers, but for some reason a “close reading” of a single issue of a magazine is not an acceptable approach. Instead, magazine issues are routinely broken down into smaller units, individual stories or poems, for instance, which are then subjected to literary analysis as “works” in their own right. So dominant is this paradigm that it even affects the way in which China’s modern literary heritage is preserved, in databases of digitized magazine material broken down into individual text files, ignoring all non-textual contents (covers, illustrations, advertisements) and obstructing any attempts to recreate the experience of holding and browsing through a magazine.

Similar problems occur when working with online literature. When I first presented a paper about an online poem, discussing both the poem and the large numbers of responses from readers that had appeared in the same online space immediately following the poem, I was told to my genuine surprise by my audience that of course I should not look at those comments and only focus on The Text.  My argument that what they were seeing on screen (i.e. poem plus commentaries) was in fact the text was simply dismissed. Standard methods of interpretation and analysis fail spectacularly when confronted with texts that are radically multi-authored, highly unstable, and often do not possess clear beginnings or endings. This despite the long-standing Chinese tradition of publishing editions of texts that include commentary. Whereas the text + commentary format has survived into the present day and is in fact perfectly suited to the new media, any attempts to include commentary into a literary analysis as part of The Text are difficult to carry out.

Although I have no problem at all with comparative approaches to literature that emphasize the commonality of the literary experience across different times and spaces, I feel that the relative significance of magazine publication and the text/commentary format in Chinese literary practice (and possibly also in practices elsewhere in East Asia) justify attempts to develop a set of regionally-focused approaches to literary texts. Those approaches, in turn, could constitute part of what East Asian Media Studies might entail.

In my presentation I hope to support my tentatively formulated ideas through two short case studies. The first draws on material from a famous case of literary censorship from 1916. It shows how even censors of literature in this period conceived of magazine literature as something more than just a collection of individual texts. The second case study looks at a remarkable online fiction magazine which has integrated commentary into its production of literary texts.

Keith Howard, “Sounding Korea”

The sonic representation of a country has much to do with a mediatized iconicity, fashioned both by temporality and the politics of representation. Iconicity is often different within a country than that regarded as representative abroad. Again, with the Korean peninsula divided into two competing states, soundworlds emanating from South Korea (Republic of Korea) have greater familiarity abroad than do those from North Korean (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), while the soundworlds of the two states are markedly different. Sonic representations are also, of course, contested, and in respect to South Korea the recent rise of Korean Wave has for many, at home and abroad, displaced the measured strains of kugak (Korean traditional music) by a contemporary K-pop that is at times imitative of elsewhere and which is always visual and highly choreographed in a way that can marginalize sound – music – itself.

Today, tourist guides present two competing sides to South Korea’s cultural production. One is anchored in a sense of tradition: royal palaces and Buddhist temples, stone steles and brass bells, silk costumes, Confucian ceremonies to commemorate royal ancestors and shaman rituals to transport the dead to the other world. The second celebrates what Korea has become: TV dramas and films, pop music, cuisine, fashion, and plastic surgery. Kugak, Korean traditional music, fits the first. With ‘Winter Sonata’, the TV drama directed by Yun Suk-ho that at the beginning of the new millenium proved such a hit in, first, Japan then elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East, Korea as a tourist destination flipped from the first to the second. Hence, in 2004, figures collated by the Korean Tourist Organization indicate that for the first time more tourists visited Korea to tour the sites where ‘Winter Sonata’ was filmed than to explore Korea’s cultural history. Where the first represents difference, the second is packaged with the familiar through what Iwabuchi would term the glocal, but within a glocalization that embodies cross-regional affinity. In one direction, the second, then, moves towards what, in respect to the 2012 phenomenon of Gangnam Style, Tim Byron in The Vine called ‘shared currency which can be taken as a known in a world which is increasingly nicheified’. But it does so by balancing Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) notion of deterritorialization, where cultural flows are bilateral and where shared technology and imaging removes distance to make the local global with something of John Tomlinson’s (1999, 2003) notion of reterritorialization, where the impetus towards globalization is counterpointed by localizing forces.

How do we chart the emergence of sonic icons? We could adopt a ‘close reading’ of the construction of music or sound as a text; with different sets of tools, Musicology and Media Studies, sometimes in competing ways, would often claim to do this. Again, Ethnomusicology would typically ask how consumers perceive the iconicity, interpreting interview data and, quite often, learning to participate in music’s production. Again, those who approach their study from a regional focus will tend to build an account investing a greater – or exclusively – historical understanding. The texts themselves, though, as well as attempts to access contemporary understandings of them, can have a tendency to blur and marginalize often uncomfortable realities: the discussions and debates, and the practices and the ideologies, that over time have championed one soundworld over another. Much of this happens well outside the artistic practice itself. But, is it desirable for a Media Studies (or Musicology) perspective to take on such a detailed study, and to what extent does the specificity so often associated with East Asian Studies impact on the ability to understand mediatized production on a broader, cross-cultural scale?

In this presentation, I will explore these issues by taking three sonic icons and attempting to unpack their ‘resonances’. First I introduce the internationally iconic soundworld of kugak, Korean traditional music, with which South Koreans identify. It is a soundworld taught in schools, featured in films and TV dramas, and presented at national and international events. Contrasting this, the internally representative soundworld of North Korea, celebrated through the ‘ideologically sound’ lyrics of songs, forms my second example. Imitative of socialist realist songs elsewhere, this soundworld negotiates propaganda to serve as a crucial part of media presentations as well as public ceremonies and festivals. I will argue that these two contrasting soundworlds actually constitute resolutions to experiences that were shared – colonialism, war, and the need for rebuilding. Third, I move to recent years, and to ‘Gangnam Style’ – a track that is decried by lovers of K-pop, but a track that has been both deterritorialized in myriad parodied ‘selfies’, tearing apart concepts of the model minority and Asian difference, and also reterritorialized as a global success that, once its Korean words have been lost, is celebrated in Korea.

Suggested Preparation for the Workshop:

  • Find and listen to the three soundworlds: kugak (also romanized as ‘gugak’) is easy to find, and North Korean songs of various sorts increasingly populate YouTube; compare ‘Gangnam Style’ proper (Psy’s version) with (a) parodies, asking what remains of the Korean original, and (b) other contemporary K-pop, looking for commonality and difference.
  • Look for definitions and discussions of ‘Korean music’ and ‘K-pop’: what is missing from the discussion, and how is artistic production defined as something ‘Korean’ and/or in terms of something broader.

Thomas LaMarre, “Media Geography: Between Media Studies and East Asian Studies”

East Asian Studies, while professing to study an area or region, is in fact grounded in the study of nations, national cultures, and national languages. Oddly enough, but maybe not so surprisingly in light of how knowledge is produced within our fields, the gesture of stepping up the pressure on students to master more than one  language has not significantly changed the tendency within East Asian Studies to ground analysis in national paradigms. The result has been expertise in more than one national paradigm, rather than alternatives to them. There has, of course, been a good deal of critique of nations and nationalisms. Within the Japan field, critique of nationalism has been especially pronounced, to the point where it has almost come to characterize the field itself, or at least to characterize the key tensions of the field. Naoki Sakai signaled the central problem some years ago: East Asian Studies tries to ground its knowledge by treating the nation as a particular that expresses the universal through co-figuration. Put another way, when Japan, China, are Korea are studied in isolation or brought into relation, it is with reference to the West or some other universal. Such an approach makes it the fate of Asianists to generate particularistic data, while thought — thinking itself — happens elsewhere. East Asian Studies remains thoughtless, unthinking.

Media Studies, in contrast, tends not to dwell on the nation or nationalism. When geopolitical paradigms or questions of power crop up, the tendency is toward a high degree of localization (these specific actors in these specific places) or toward some sort of general or global paradigm, such as biopower or ontopower. Naturally, one might question whether Media Studies truly offers a non-national model of power and geopolitics. Doesn’t a lot of work in Media Studies simply presume the nation, working within a national language and only addressing events within a national context or national-imperial context? And doesn’t Film Studies, for instance, continue to organize research around national cinemas even though it claims not to be basing research on national cinemas? Such questions are apt, and yet we shouldn’t be too quick to drop the challenge of Media Studies (or Film Studies) by concluding everything is in the end centered on nations. Let’s try to stick with the challenge. What might happen when Media Studies encounters East Asian Studies?

Not surprisingly, the first impulse is to nationalize media, to speak of Japanese Media Studies, Korean Media Studies, and so forth. When a scholar picks up a manga or video game or anime series and treats it as an isolated object, the presumption still seems to be that this object is culturally Japanese, Chinese, Korean. Then, aware that such a stance is problematic to say the least, the scholar will try to show how the Japanese object, for instance, speaks back to its national culture, contests it. It is possible to have your cake and eat it too.

But then how are we to deal with the global dissemination or transnational movement of the very same Japanese object? One strategy is to adopt the insider perspective, to wit: non-Japanese don’t really understand the Japanese depths of this object, and so we scholars will explain it to them. Fans often reinforce such a gesture, trying to get as close to the original as possible, reveling in cultural exegesis. Similarly, localization studies strive to reassert the initial Japaneseness of such commodities by showing how companies “culturalize” them in other places. Rarely is it noted that, even as those doing localization speak in terms of national culture, the actual impetus for localization has a great deal to do with profits, employment, unions, industry guidelines, and government regulations. And how does some guy in a production studio suddenly become an expert in his culture anyway? Conversely, other commentators refer us to de-culturalized or culturally odorless products, which don’t seem to require localization at all. Ultimately, however, on both sides of the fence, the point of reference remains national culture — as if nationness is there or should be there, but has been somehow stripped away.

Arjun Appaduria provided a succinct statement of the basic problem of area studies some years ago:

Much traditional thinking about ‘areas’ has been driven by conceptions of geographical, civilisational, and cultural coherence that rely on some sort of trait list—of values, languages, material practices, ecological adaptations, marriage patterns, and the like. However sophisticated these approaches, they all tend to see ‘areas’ as relatively immobile aggregates of traits, with more or less durable historical boundaries and with a unity composed of more or less enduring properties. (2000: 75)

As Appadurai indicates, the problem is a manner of thinking that presupposes a preexisting set of cultural, ethnic, or racial traits or properties enclosed within territorial sovereign boundaries. Put another way, the normative understanding of nations becomes transformed into a normative understanding of areas. Indeed, such a conflation of nation and area seems implicit in the very formation of area studies. The risk, then, is that trying to replace the nation with the area produces regionalism in the form of nationalism, that is, supranationalism, akin to Japan’s Pan-Asianism.

To avoid such a normative approach, Appadurai proposes:

… an architecture for area studies that is based on process geographies and sees significant areas of human organization as precipitates of various kinds of action, interaction, and motion—trade, travel, pilgrimage, warfare, proselytisation, colonisation, exile, and the like. These geographies are necessarily large scale and shifting, and their changes highlight variable congeries of language, history, and material life. Put more simply, the large regions that dominate our current maps  for area studies are not permanent geographical facts. They are problematic heuristic devices for the study of global geographic and cultural processes. (2000: 7)

This is where I think Media Studies might do something more for East Asian Studies than supply it with new objects to feed to machine of national cultural hermeneutics. Media Studies invites a reconsideration of how we are thinking about nations and areas or regions by calling attention to other geographies, geographies of media processes.

Media geography, however, is not a simple solution, a quick fix. This is why I would like to distinguish, albeit tentatively, different registers of analysis related to Media Studies. Media geography would build on (at least) three materials fields. First, in the lineage of Communications Studies, Media Studies calls attention to the role of infrastructures or networks, but infrastructures are not so much inert substance laid across the land. Their materiality is quite active. Second, Media Studies shares with STS (science and technology studies) an interest in the operations and transformations of technological devices or media platforms — non-human actors, as it were, whose action is put in relation to networks but not reducible to them. Third, Media Studies draws on the tendency within Film Studies to look at audiovisual form and structure from the angle of their inverse side, that is, the processes stabilized or ‘concretized’ to generate them. This is where an account of image truly comes to address its multisensory character, and to acknowledge the primacy of movement in the formation of its sensorimotor schema.

In contrast with Appadurai’s evocation of the post-national, however, media geography cannot assume in advance that we are past or otherwise ‘post’ the nation. So many infrastructures, for instance, are undeniably national or nationalized. So many platforms are closed, or never entirely open. So many audiovisual processes give way to normative structures. Still, the status of the nation or area within media geography will foil our tendency to assume or fall back on frameworks based on preexisting cultural properties or imagined communities, which will have to give way to more ‘activist’ ways of understanding our areas.

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