Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy – 我们从这里走向何方:全球视觉经济

In the postcolonial study of Asia and the non-Western world, the act of comparison has usually meant using Euro-American standards to judge non-Euro-American cultures. In the academic realm of literary studies, this has translated into questions such as: does China have the epic? Does India or Japan have the novel? Does Korea have science fiction? These enquiries echo earlier European views that cultures in Asia and Africa have no history, philosophy, religion or literature to speak of. We are now at some distance from such ethnocentric views but the longterm effects of their comparative assertions remain influential.

By ‘comparative’, I mean the habit of juxtaposing two sets of phenomena while relying on only one of them as a source of criteria for judgement. Bestowed upon the source is the status not only of an object of study but also provider of rationality: the terms of comparison. In colonial and postcolonial contexts, non-Western cultures are typically judged – seen – through terms or conditions that, instead of emanating from the cultures themselves, are derived from another source which is deemed superior.

Comparison in such a scenario is never a neutral assemblage of countries, cultures or cultural productions, but is often an implicit way of classifying, viewing and presenting things with ideological assumptions. How to get at some of these ideological assumptions? How to grapple with the terms embedded in some of the most commonly encountered acts of comparison across cultures? These questions lead to more specific ones: how to understand the work of comparison in terms of visuality as other than simply an arrangement of two or more things side by side, as though on a table?

Such questions about visual comparison were behind my choice of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor (1987) as a way to introduce the politics of reading and seeing modern China in my first book, Woman and Chinese Modernity (1991). Looking back, I think I was trying to articulate a hitherto unattempted way of analyzing modern China that was not straightforwardly historical or literary but that would allow us to probe how some of the more customary historical and literary ways of seeing China arose. I borrowed from feminist film theory, from history and literary criticism to show how China can be understood as an objectified image in East-West comparative studies. The last Manchu emperor, Pu Yi, lived from 1906–67. His reign began in 1908, when he was only about three, and ended with him becoming an ordinary citizen in the People’s Republic. Into this chronology, Bertolucci introduced a story, a cinematic narrative, which placed Pu Yi in the position of protagonist. For me, the nuances of this cinematic narrative – involving gendered, cross-cultural and philosophical ramifications – offer important clues concerning comparison in visuality: China was cast in a feminized, ethnicized and exoticized position in relation to a Western gaze.


Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy - 我们从这里走向何方:全球视觉经济

Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor, 1987, film still. Courtesy: Visual Icon

The Last Emperor was preceded, about 15 years earlier, by another Italian director’s interpretation of China: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, China (1972), a 220-minute documentary capturing vignettes of everyday life in various Chinese cities and villages during the early 1970s. Together, these two works constitute a unique diptych of the poetics and politics of China in the global visual economy of the postwar period. If economy designates a mode of social interaction based on financial transactions,  then visual economy can be taken as a mode of social interaction based on the transaction, manipulation, circulation and consumption of images.

What are some of the key ingredients of this global visual economy involving modern China as image? These two films by Italian neorealist auteurs offer some clues. First is the reminder of a bygone imperial order, with all the accoutrements of the splendour of empire and nobility, down to the details of culinary, sexual, kinship and familial rituals that seem, at once, quaint and fascinating. In Bertolucci’s hands, the last emperor was memorably presented as a dreamer, prisoner, pawn and perpetrator of violence against his own people (in the puppet state of Manchukuo). During the regime change to communist China, this former sovereign – unlike his fellow royal rulers in Russia, Japan and various European countries – was given the opportunity by his new government to undergo reform, after which he was allowed to live out the rest of his life as an ordinary citizen: a gardener. By the 1960s, China was experimenting with a socialist organization of national life in full gear and precisely those elements that are captured in Bertolucci’s film through the life of an emperor are seen in Antonioni’s through the lives of ordinary people: giving birth, working at the factory, shopping for food in the market, preparing meals, cycling on the street, practising tai chi in the park and chatting at a teahouse .

The visual media involved here are, obviously, photography, documentary and film, as well as archived footage of various kinds. But what also organizes these images is a silent frame that tends to exhibit modern China in a certain overdetermined light. This silent frame is soldered onto the kind of visibility China has in today’s global visual economy. (It is important to consider visibility as material, like a special facade or varnish, rather than as a condition of transparency.) This silent frame is effective as a motor of dissemination; it is what allows those outside of China to observe, to take an interest in China in an admixture of curiosity and repulsion. In some of my other work (‘Violence in the Other Country’, 1991, and ‘King Kong in Hong Kong’, 1998) I use the phrase ‘King Kong syndrome’ to describe this state of affairs, in which China is always displayed as a primitive Other that must be monitored and tamed. 

Even a respectable platform such as The New York Times seems to adhere to this rule. Whenever it reports on China, the picture we get is typically one of an oppressive and repressive regime – a monster flexing its muscles wherever and whenever it can on the international stage while brutalizing its own innocent people. Most recently, for instance, The New York Times reported how China had begun using facial-recognition technologies to track ordinary citizens on the street. It is, of course, reasonable to be vigilant about state surveillance mechanisms anywhere. My point is simply that, when it comes to China, reports about state surveillance tend inextricably to be entangled with the King Kong syndrome, so that an older paradigm of seeing – of demonizing – a non-Western culture remains in force. This point can also be applied to Iran, Iraq and many Muslim countries.

Visibility on the global scene is thus much more than a physical or empirical matter of vision. Practices of seeing and being seen have much to do with those criteria of comparison: those asymmetrical terms of judgment, or double standards, which undergird viewings and discussions and continue to direct the way particular images are activated, assessed and trafficked around the world. In the case of modern China, precisely because the residual aura of an imperial past continues to be fantasized with nostalgia – in China, among Chinese-speaking audiences outside of China and in the West, presumably for different reasons – visibility tends to carry within it the charge of the King Kong syndrome. The insinuation is that this long-living, alien culture may pounce on us at any time if we do not watch – and, by watching, control – it. When they encounter obstacles while reporting news in China, for instance, some Western journalists have been known to say that they will retaliate by ‘doing the human rights story every day’; the only viable visibility they are willing to grant China, in other words, is that of a transgressor of human rights.


Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy - 我们从这里走向何方:全球视觉经济

Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor, 1987, film still. Courtesy: Visual Icon

From the imperial past to the communist present, through world-famous images, there is a persistent pattern of casting China’s visibility in the form of a story of development: one not necessarily economic but, rather, political. The Cultural Revolution decade, from 1966 to 1976, was typically represented by images of Chinese masses waving their little red books in public gatherings, of Red Guards parading those who were found ideologically incorrect and burning books and other suspect belongings. There are also images of the lone protester in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989; images of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to the People’s Republic of China, in 1997; and of the more recent Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, in 2014. The story of development repeatedly told through these images is of a sluggish movement toward enlightenment and democracy, China’s obsolete way of doing things being the main obstruction.

In the age of social media, the global visual economy is also one in which specific types of non-Western portraiture, situation, action and scandal can become viral and thus ‘real’. A logical question follows: how does such a global visual economy mediate postcolonial cultures’ self-perception and self representation? However discomfiting this may sound, one ongoing outcome of such an economy seems to be the incitement to postcolonial cultures to make themselves legible – and to continue to strive for legibility – by performing in certain manners before the gaze of the world’s cameras. Two brief examples give us a glimpse into the complexities of these self performances, which are, strictly speaking, works-in-progress. 

Visibility in the ‘democratic’ or Euro-American sense is assimilated to transparency. But, after the Tiananmen Square protests, Beijing, like many non-Western regimes around the world, seemed to rely – mistakenly, it soon learned – on an older, premodern dynamics of seeing and being seen. Visibility in such a dynamics is a matter of the exercise and demonstration of power as might, especially in a context of political turmoil and unrest. Power remains centralized and pointed and communicates its messages through active display: for instance, the display of violence. The more that democratic forces in the West such as investigatory journalists, politicians, artists and academics thought they were helping to monitor, and thus restrain, Beijing by vigorously watching it, the more Beijing felt it was being taunted. What was understood in one political context as a rational, peaceful mechanism of ‘civilized’ surveillance and policing – through journalistic narration, sensational images and dramatization across media reports – was taken in the other political context as an interference and a provocation. China thus rose to the challenge by putting its best foot forward – by crushing its own people with tanks. 

The function of visibility adopted by Hong Kong’s political activists during the Umbrella Movement was that of transparency: becoming visible, it was thought, was a way of creating a public sphere where disagreements and conflicts can be safely aired, openly discussed and hopefully resolved through a shared space with some form of consensus. While authoritarian state power was firmly denounced and resisted, another form of power was advanced and distributed precisely through the visible acts of contestation, protest, dissent and mass mobilization. As Hong Kong’s activists performed their grievances across international media circuits, however, they were also, if only unwittingly, playing out some of the dire precarities specific to the global visual economy in postcolonial times and spaces.

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’

Main Image: Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor, 1987, film still. Courtesy: Visual Icon

Rey Chow

Rey Chow is Anne Firor Scott professor of literature and the current director of the literature programme at Duke University, Durham, USA, and distinguished visiting professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong. Chow’s recent books include Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (2014) and Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture (2012). With James A. Steintrager, she is co-editor of the anthology Sound Objects (2018, forthcoming). With some modifications, this text is based on a public lecture delivered at Duke University in September 2017.

Issue 199

First published in Issue 199

November - December 2018

Features /

Rey Chow
The Last Emperor
Decolonizing Culture
Where Do We Go From Here?

在亚洲和非西方世界的后殖民研究中,比较行为通常意味着使用欧美标准来评判非欧美文化。在文学研究的学术领域,这一问题转化为:中国有史诗吗?印度或日本有这部小说吗?韩国有科幻小说吗?这些调查反映了早期欧洲人的观点,即亚洲和非洲的文化没有历史、哲学、宗教或文学可言。我们现在与这种以种族为中心的观点相去甚远,但他们比较论断的长期影响仍然存在。所谓“比较”,是指把两组现象并列在一起的习惯,而只依赖其中之一作为判断标准的来源。赋予源的不仅是研究对象的地位,而且是合理性的提供者:比较的术语。在殖民和后殖民语境中,通常通过术语或条件来评判非西方文化,这些术语或条件不是源自文化本身,而是源自另一个被认为优越的来源。在这种情况下,比较从来不是国家、文化或文化产品的中性集合,而是用意识形态假设对事物进行分类、观察和呈现的隐含方式。如何理解这些意识形态的假设?如何解决嵌入在一些最常见的跨文化比较行为中的术语?这些问题引出了更具体的问题:如何从视觉的角度理解比较的工作,而不仅仅是将两个或更多的事物并排排列,就像在桌子上一样?在我选择贝尔纳多·贝尔托鲁奇的电影《末代皇帝》(1987)作为第一本书《妇女与中国现代性》(1991)中介绍阅读和观察现代中国的政治的方式时,背后隐藏着有关视觉比较的问题。回首往事,我想,我正在试图阐明一种迄今为止尚未被认可的分析现代中国的方式,这种方式既不直截了当,也不直截了当地涉及历史或文学,而是允许我们探讨一些更为传统的历史与文学看待中国的方式是如何产生的。我借用了女权主义电影理论、历史和文学批评来展示在东西方比较研究中,中国如何被理解为一个客观化的形象。最后一位满族皇帝Pu Yi生活在1906—67年间。他的统治开始于1908年,那时他只有三岁,最后成为中华人民共和国的普通公民。在这个年表中,贝托鲁奇介绍了一个故事,一个电影叙事,放置溥仪在主角的位置。对我来说,这部电影叙事的细微差别——包括性别、跨文化和哲学上的分枝——提供了有关视觉比较的重要线索:相对于西方人的眼光,中国被置于女性化、种族化和异国情调的位置。Bernardo_bertolucci_the_last_emperor_1987_._.._courtesy_._icon Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy - 我们从这里走向何方:全球视觉经济 Bernardo Bertolucci,《末代皇帝》,1987,电影《静止》。礼仪:视觉图标。大约15年前,在影片《末代皇帝》之前,另一位意大利导演对中国的解释:米开朗基罗·安东尼奥尼执导的《中国钟国》(1972),一部220分钟的纪录片,记录了当时中国各个城市和村庄的日常生活。这两部作品共同构成了战后全球视觉经济下中国诗学与政治的独特写照。如果经济指定了基于金融交易的社会互动模式,那么视觉经济可以被视为基于图像的交易、操纵、流通和消费的社会互动模式。作为视觉形象的当代中国视觉经济的关键要素是什么?意大利新写实主义者的这两部电影提供了一些线索。首先,它让人想起过去的皇室秩序,以及帝国和贵族的辉煌,直到烹饪、性、亲属关系和家庭仪式的细节,这些仪式看起来既古怪又迷人。在贝托鲁奇手中,最后一位皇帝作为梦想家、俘虏、典当和对自己的人民(在伪满洲国)实施暴力的罪犯而令人难忘。在政权向共产主义中国转变的过程中,这位前君主——不像他在俄罗斯、日本和欧洲各国的王室统治者——被他的新政府给予了进行改革的机会,之后他被允许作为普通公民度过余生。伊森:园丁。到了20世纪60年代,中国正全面地试验社会主义的民族生活组织,而这些在贝托鲁奇的电影中通过皇帝的生活捕捉到的元素在安东尼奥尼的电影中通过普通人的生活被看到:分娩,在工厂工作。在市场上买食物,准备饭菜,在街上骑自行车,在公园里打太极,在茶馆里聊天。这里所涉及的视觉媒体,显然是摄影、纪录片和电影,以及各种各样的存档镜头。但是,这些图像的组织也是一个无声的框架,在某种超乎寻常的光线下往往呈现出现代中国。这个沉默的框架被焊接到中国在当今全球视觉经济中的能见度。(重要的是把能见度看作材料,比如特殊的立面或清漆,而不是透明的条件。)这种无声的框架作为一种传播动力是有效的;它使得那些在中国以外的人能够观察,能够对混合着各种古玩的中国产生兴趣。和排斥。在我的另一些作品中(“在其他国家的暴力事件,1991,和‘香港金刚’,1998”),我用“金刚综合症”来描述这种状态,其中中国总是被显示为一个必须被监视和驯服的原始人。像纽约时报这样的拉格拉斯似乎坚持这条规则。无论何时,只要它报道中国,我们通常看到的画面就是一个压迫和镇压的政权——一个无论何时何地,只要它能够在国际舞台上展现它的肌肉,同时残酷对待它自己的无辜人民的怪物。例如,最近,《纽约时报》报道了中国如何开始使用面部识别技术来跟踪街上的普通公民。当然,在任何地方警惕国家监督机制是合理的。我的观点很简单,说到中国,有关国家监管的报道往往不可避免地与金刚综合症纠缠在一起,因此一种古老的、看待——妖魔化——非西方文化的范式仍然有效。这一点也适用于伊朗、伊拉克和许多穆斯林国家。全球视野中的能见度远不止是视觉上的物理或经验问题。观看和被观看的做法与那些比较标准有很大关系:那些非对称的判断条件,或双重标准,它们支持观看和讨论,并继续指导特定图像在世界各地的激活、评估和贩卖方式。就现代中国而言,正因为帝国历史的残余光环继续被怀旧所幻想——在中国,在中国以外和西方讲中文的观众中,大概由于不同的原因——可见性往往在其中承载金刚综合征。隐含的意思是,如果我们不观察——并且通过观察、控制——它,这种长期存在的外来文化可能在任何时候突然袭击我们。例如,当他们在中国报道新闻时遇到障碍时,一些西方记者称他们将通过“每天做人权故事”来报复,他们唯一愿意承认的中国,换句话说,是一个违法者。人权。CHOW-BODY-JPG Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy - 我们从这里走向何方:全球视觉经济贝纳多·贝托鲁奇,最后的皇帝,1987,电影仍然。礼貌:从帝国过去到共产主义现在的视觉图标,通过世界著名的形象,有一种持久的模式,以一个发展故事的形式投射中国的可见性:一个不一定是经济的,而是政治的。从1966到1976,文化大革命十年典型地表现为中国民众在公共集会上挥舞着红色小册子的照片,红卫兵在游行中展示那些在意识形态上不正确的人,焚烧书籍和其他可疑物品。在1989的天安门广场事件中,还有一个孤独的抗议者在坦克前面的影像;1997的香港从英国移交给中华人民共和国的图像,以及2014的香港最近的伞运动的图像。通过这些图像反复讲述的发展故事是一个缓慢的走向启蒙和民主的运动,中国过时的做事方式是主要障碍。在社会媒体时代,全球视觉经济也是其中特定类型的非西方肖像、情景、行动和丑闻可以成为病毒,从而“真实”的。一个逻辑问题如下:这样一个全球视觉经济如何调解后殖民文化的自我感知和自我表现?不管这听起来多么令人不安,这种经济的一个持续结果似乎是煽动后殖民文化通过在全世界的照相机前以某种方式表演而使自己变得清晰——并继续努力争取清晰。两个简单的例子让我们瞥见这些自我表现的复杂性,严格来说,这些自我表现是在进行中。“民主”或欧美意识中的能见度同化于透明度。但是,在天安门广场抗议之后,北京,像世界上许多非西方政权一样,似乎依赖于


Comments are closed.