‘Joining tracks with the world’

‘Joining tracks with the world’ The impossibility of politics in China

Rebecca E. Karl

Shortly before the October Revolution, Lenin challenged his comrades: ʻI donʼt know how radical you are or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.ʼ [1] A large part of Leninʼs challenge was to defamiliarize reality so as to find the possibility of transforming it. Indeed, in the 1920s, Lukács identified Leninʼs particular genius as his explicit focus on revolution as ʻan everyday issueʼ, [2] the recalling of radical philosophy to its ostensible vocation of finding a possibility for politics. This possibility entailed, as Lukács put it, ʻthat the recognition of a fact or tendency as actually existing by no means implies that it must be accepted as a reality constituting a norm for our own actions.ʼ For, he added, ʻthere is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies – namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development.ʼ [3] In this light, today one could well ask how to be as radical as reality, when contemporary analysis becomes ever more resistant to radical totalization, as leftist radicalisms slip into endless particularisms or into quotidian totalisms that appeal more to nominalism than to historicity, while rightist radicalism roots itself ever more firmly in some version of theocracy. Indeed, it seems that analyses of contemporary life increasingly can only configure our current moment through that totalization identified by Hegelʼs eternal present, or that symptom of history that presented itself as a defining moment of the historical itself and that was thence the occasion for an immanent philosophy of a global unfolding and a return. As in Hegelʼs moment, today eternality has become enshrined as the end of politics.

This is quite clear from the vantage of contemporary China, where the Hegelian eternal present that renarrated global contingency and historical disjuncture in the early nineteenth century into historicist inevitability has been adduced, perhaps paradoxically, to the endless standstill of Hegelʼs enabling Oriental nightmare. Recall here Hegelʼs India: the dreaming beauty of ʻenervation in which all that is rough, rigid and contradictory is dissolvedʼ, where what remains is ʻonly the soul in a state of emotionʼ. [4] Combine this dream state with the despotic servility figured by Hegelʼs version of the Chinese state, a ʻprosaic Empire, because the antithesis of formʼ, where the political is impossible even to think due to the turpitude of generalized slavery. [5] Strangely, this negative Oriental standstill, where subjectivity is either absent or is but a general subjection to an identity of all in a regime of the same, appears to have been transformed in todayʼs China into a positive dreamed-for culturalist anti-political supplement to the post-political eternal present of a common global post-revolutionary moment. Despite this culturalist reversal, it is, nevertheless, easy enough to recognize todayʼs eternality as nothing other than that conceit long ago identified by Walter Benjamin as the whore of history, antithetical to any logic other than that of accumulation. [6] Thus it is, as Jacques Rancière noted not long ago, that ʻthe state today legitimizes itself by declaring that politics is impossible.… To evacuate the demos, post-democracy has to evacuate politics, using the pincers of economic necessity and juridical rule.ʼ [7]

That the state as such, in the economic and juridical terms indicated by Rancière, along with the cultural terms suggested by Hegel, is proclaimed the transcendent subject of the revenant hauntings of an updated eternality is, perhaps, no coincidence. Nevertheless, the conflation of eternalities is still puzzling. On the one hand, in the world at large, there is a current fantasy of a formless global Empire powered by a multitude working either servilely for, or in shifting identities against, juridical and economic necessity in separate but equal culture gardens. On the other hand, from the Chinese perspective, theirs is a culturally defined historical Empire, now a powerful nation-state finally converging with global capital. How, then, can history be both an immanent eternal present and an eternal standstill simultaneously? Or, perhaps, a more radically situated question might be: how is it possible to think these eternalities simultaneously and what does it mean for the possibility of politics in our present moment? In what follows, I want to suggest that however we answer this question, or even howsoever we pose it, the analysis will have integrally to include how the impossibility of politics has been culturally and politically produced in China today, where the conflation of eternalities seems all but completed as an ideological task.

To be sure, the pessimism evoked by ʻimpossibilityʼ in the case of China could be heard as a repetition of the lament, in that old McCarthyite accusatory mode, about why China has been lost and who lost it, now to capitalism rather than to socialism. Yet the false and misplaced nostalgia for a radical China as an alternative to global capitalism does not capture the impossibility to which I refer: that is, the apparent impossibility in China for the elemental constitution at the level of intellectual or cultural practice of an antagonistic politics of alienation, in the Leninist or, more immediately, in the Brechtian sense of that term. [8] This type of politics strives ʻto look at things from an alien standpointʼ, [9] a standpoint that resides in ʻthe strangeness of the everyday, pointing up that contradiction with the familiar … that protest[s] against … technocratic interpretationʼ. [10] It is thus not a sociological conceit, through which economic rationalization and freedom from tradition produce an occasion for the rerouting of potential pathologies into complicit social identities through the atomistic identification of social problems. It points, rather, to a historical process that, in Fredric Jamesonʼs words, ʻreveal[s] what has been taken to be eternal or naturalʼ. In short, an elemental component of politics is to look at and act on the conditions of life so as to turn the purportedly eternal into the historical. [11] It is precisely this view that most intellectuals/technocrats and cultural producers in China today resist with great vigour in their quest to become self-identically one with what is often called normality.

Facilitating and shaping this view in the 1980s and 1990s, there emerged in China the ascendance of an equation drawn by intellectuals/technocrats and cultural producers between personal historical experience and political reality. This equation posits an unmediated transparency to their particular historical experience as the singular reality of politics, to which the past, the present and the future must answer. While I am mindful that much China scholarship today celebrates these last two decades as the moment when personal historical experience was actually liberated from politics (with the death of the revolutionary narrative), nonetheless the displacement of contemporary social antagonism and conflict to the unmediated claims of intellectuals/technocrats and cultural producers to their experiences of the Maoist past has resulted in the denial of a claim on experience and politics to any but themselves. This presents not an erasure of politics but rather a powerful reinscription of the political, albeit now in the guise of technocratic normality and culturalist assertion. Such a figuration of a singular historical experience as the reality of politics not only displaces politics to the repudiated past while disallowing and disavowing the possibility of politics in the present, it also becomes a necessary support for the wild socio-economic restructuring of Chinese society that helps produce and reinforce the profoundly revanchist conflation of antiand postpolitical eternalities.

In China today, the ideological naturalization of this conflation is most often presented as the normalization of everyday life. This normalization is underpinned by an endless pursuit of the commodification of labourpower and primitive accumulation of capital in support of the economic and juridical necessity of the state and its new class referents. Indeed, normality is most often promoted as the urgent pursuit of the convergence between China and the world summed up in the phrase ʻjoining tracks with the worldʼ. This is but the articulation of a naturalized economism of the social and political history of backwardness catching up with the capitalist West/Japan and Chinaʼs own purported proto-capitalist past. [12] ʻJoining tracks with the worldʼ has become one of the most powerful desires to emerge from Chinaʼs 1980s and 1990s, and it is no coincidence that it was during this very period that the Mao-era experiences of many intellectuals and technocrats were ineluctably transformed into the universalized negative definition of politics in general.

Global convergence

Initially proposed in the early 1980s as a policy of ʻopening China to the worldʼ that simultaneously promoted the domestic imperative ʻto get rich is gloriousʼ, the all-encompassing injunction to join tracks with the world, which was a combination of these two slogans, was seen in the 1990s as an ostensibly less crass, more potent, and apparently more benign call for the depoliticization – or normalization – of Chinese society after Mao and the more recent disruptions of the 1989 social movement. Joining tracks with the world has hence become the way to conjoin the domestic repudiation of politics and an affirmation of Chinaʼs unbroken statist-cultural past with global immanence. It is in this sense a powerful indicator of the definitive turn to capitalist-style modernization, encoding within it all the suppressions that such a turn suggests. These suppressions are efficiently encapsulated by that other bit of mystification: the appeal to transition as an economic and juridical necessity mandated by historicist inevitability (unlike in Maoʼs time, when the equally obfuscatory claim to transition from socialism to communism was understood as a continuously revolutionary act of collective human will). Here, the relationship between socio-economic crisis and historical transition is not only shorn of socially antagonistic and conflictual historicity, but the concept of mass lived history is displaced to the sphere of historical remnants, reappearing as a lamented vacuum in belief requiring technocratic management (most often, repression of so-called ʻfeudalʼ remnants/ survivals).

Much of this turn is obvious from media accounts of China, even if these accounts, in the United States at least, oscillate between applauding the supposed apolitical pragmatism of Chinaʼs current development policy and suggesting some veiled sinister content to it. In fact, this latter sinister reading remains quite prevalent, as the USA continues to attempt to displace its self-inflicted economic woes onto the purportedly unfair robustness of the Chinese economy, supported by supposedly unfair currency controls, among other factors. [13] More recently, the special issue of the Business Day section in the New York Times entitled ʻOutlook: Economy & Businessʼ (6 December 2004), was almost entirely devoted to the Chinese economy: its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for investment, and its global dangers. The lead article is entitled: ʻThe Two Faces of China: Giant Global Producer is Expanding its Role as a Consumer, Creating Threats and Opportunitiesʼ. It is also often exemplified in impeccable Cold War terms (speaking of remnants!), such as in an opinion piece published in the New York Times, written by a graduate student at Oxford, who cautioned that Chinaʼs 2003 launch of a manned spacecraft was merely a continuation of the Communist obsession with centralized control and global domination familiar from the Soviet era. [14] Thus, in China, joining tracks with the world has become a normative ideology both of the state-led and intellectual/technocratic desire for economistic global convergence and privatization of domestic resources at any social cost, and, consequently, of a policy of intensified commodification of domestic labour-power and capital accumulation on a local and global scale. By the same token, Chinaʼs joining tracks with the world has become just as celebrated as it is feared among non-Chinese commentators: celebrated for its modernizationist promise of bringing democracy to China as an inevitable by-product of the sovereignty of the market (that old conceit, now refurbished), and feared for its auguring of the rise of a control-obsessed and essentially uncontrollable China intent on taking its supposed culturally and historically indicated rightful place in the world. [15] Indeed, it may be well to recall here the document ʻRebuilding Americaʼs Defensesʼ, written by the now-notorious Project for the New American Century in September 2000, which states quite clearly that ʻthe new strategic center of concern appears to be shifting to East Asiaʼ, specified further on as the necessity for the USA to ʻconstrain a Chinese challenge to American … leadershipʼ.

The desire for global convergence and everyday normality has Zhao Bandi, Zhao Bandi and Panda, 1999found voice not only in the media, or among Chinese intellectuals and technocrats; it has also reverberated widely in China scholarship in the United States, which, in any case, was always more impervious than other academies to taking seriously Chinaʼs historical revolutionary realities. In broad strokes, indicative of these reverberations is the new boom in longue durée economic histories of China that posit Chinese modernity avant la lettre. This is done most often by pushing modernity back to the monetarization of the Song dynasty economy (twelfth century), an uncanny echo of 1920sʼ imperialist Japanese scholarship, [16] as well as a haunting recapitulation of Max Weberʼs analysis of China in his Sociology of Religion. Also prevalent are economic-culturalist studies positing an ʻalternative modernityʼ reaching back to the commercialization and urbanization of the midand late Ming dynasty (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) that postulate a unique Chinese temporality and template of modernity as historiographical antidote and salve to a supposed Eurocentric History ruled by the repudiated grand narrative of the modernity–capitalism nexus. [17] The reverberations can also be seen in the seemingly effortless return in the 1980s to pure culturalist analyses of China that emphasize the cultural continuity of Chinaʼs past with its present – that is, those that posit the eternality that is culturalist China – and that focus on those so-called traditional values that survived through five thousand years to adapt to the contemporary needs of global capital the age-old civilizational stability defined by a petty commodity economy ruled by a civilizing elite. [18] Or, finally, they are present, in a different idiom, in the vengeful resuscitation of political histories (these actually never disappeared) that posit the persistence of despotism as Chinaʼs essential and unchanging state form from the dawn at least of unified imperial time to the present. This is most recently exemplified in the blockbuster films by Zhang Yimou, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, whose representations of early dynastic politics resonate powerfully with the eternal despotism of Chinese rulership.

These ghostly echoes have taken on a life of their own, even as the more than half-century-old Weberian bias in China scholarship in the USA continues to direct historiographical focus on statism (now sometimes articulated in the fashionable Foucauldian terms of governmentality and disciplinarity), and on enduring cultural values and the petty commodity economy as the natural state of Chinese social (now often fashionably called subaltern) equilibrium and micro-resistance. The importation into China of these perspectives on Chinese history, along with the enthusiastic reception accorded this scholarship among Chinese scholars, who began their historical revisionisms in the 1980s when freed from the Maoist straitjacket, have helped fuel the popularization in Chinese intellectual circles of Weber as guide to the correct ethos of modernity. (As always, Weber is an obvious social-scientific antidote to Marx.) It has also assisted in the reinstantiation of a historicist positivism that wishes to rejoin contemporary Chinese history to the supposed noncapitalist modernity of Chinaʼs unique past, while simultaneously connecting the contemporary moment to the capitalist modernity of the global present. This combination has effectively foreclosed possibilities for that alien view through which to specify a politics in China, other than through the potent pseudo-politics of culturalist anti-Eurocentric difference.

The convergence of these trends can be succinctly indicated through a brief consideration of a recent rewriting of a Brecht play, which was the subject of a workshop and several performances in October 2003 at Bard College in upstate New York. The play had been performed previously in Shanghai and other locations in China. Entitled Brecht in China, the day-long event revolved around Shanghai dramatist William Sunʼs play Gods and the Good Person of Sichuan, which was based on Brechtʼs The Good Person of Szechwan (1940–41).19

Gods and the good person of sichuan

According to Sunʼs presentation preceding the performance, the intention of the new drama was to reflect upon and criticize Brecht, primarily from the perspective of what Sun named as Brechtʼs sexist Orientalism in choosing a Chinese prostitute as the protagonist of his play. Thus Sunʼs purpose, as he stated it, was to politicize Brecht, by correcting for Brechtʼs sexist Orientalist deficiencies, so as to adapt Brecht for Chinese urban and Western audiences, for whom, apparently, facile charges of sexism and Orientalism define the horizons of the political. What Sun did not mention was how he turned Brechtʼs critique of modern capitalismʼs inroads into everyday life at the initial stage of its consolidation into a celebration of the eternality and universality of the capitalist market and culturalist identity. That is, Sun transforms the originalʼs critical exposition of the general historical conditions described by the consolidation of capitalism in a pre-capitalist society into a heroic identitarian fable about Chinese finding their proper place in the eternalized culturally redemptive experience of a globalized market economy. Rendering Brecht into a generic exemplar of a white Western male proponent of stereotypes about China and Chinese women, Sunʼs play proceeds to instruct on the virtues of a fair and uncorrupted free market in an essentialized China through the medium of the wise use of money and credit bestowed by gods.

In Sunʼs drama, three gods appear at the beginning in the guise of Minerva-type, Jesus-type, and male Olympian-type figures. Whining and clueless, these Western gods – and they were doubly marked as Western because they were performed by white Bard students, while the other roles were performed by actors from Shanghai – bumble around in the complex social landscape of what is depicted as contemporary China. This site could also be the arbitrary pre-revolutionary location of Brechtʼs imagination, [20] thereby ambiguously reflecting the pre/post-revolutionary temporal conflation that serves among many Chinese intellectuals as a way to erase socialism as a legitimate historical moment altogether. In this unidentifiable spatial-temporal limbo, the gods – who, in Brecht, are not racially or ethnically marked21 – go looking for the ʻgood personʼ who can lend materiality to their idealist view of human nature.

By contrast, Brechtʼs play, whose setting is an ambiguous place but a specific temporality of socioeconomic crisis, begins with Wang, an itinerant peddler of water. Wang delivers the opening monologue:

I am a water-seller in the capital of Szechwan province. My job is tedious. When water is short I have to go far for it. And when it is plentiful I earn nothing. But utter poverty is the rule in our province. All agree that only the gods can help us. [22]

Wang thus waits by the city gates for the gods to appear; when they do, in addition to providing them water for free, he offers to find them shelter for the evening. As he goes on an initially fruitless search, the gods discover a false bottom in his water ladle. They do not accuse him of duplicity to his face, but he is discounted as the ʻgood personʼ they are looking for, even though he does find them accommodation at a prostituteʼs, who vacates her room to make space for them.

In Sunʼs version, the temporality of the events is universalized by beginning with the gods; this universality is soon reinforced upon the discovery of the false-bottomed ladle, whereupon one of the gods breaks from character, turns to the audience, and pronounces: ʻIt is fine to have a free market but you must not cheat people.ʼ Sun here mobilizes the wellknown Brechtian dramatic device of direct address to the audience. Yet this device – what Benjamin called ʻthe interruptionʼ – is intended to unsettle empathetic audience identification with the characters, not to produce identificatory catharsis. [23] Its effect should be an irruption into what could be taken as a linear flow of performative–historical time; it is not supposed to reflect a linear universalized temporal flow into a presumed homogeneous space emptily occupied by the stage/audience in subconscious mutual recognition. As Brecht explained this effect, which was derived from his understanding of Chinese opera:

The efforts in question were directed to playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play.… The alienation effect intervenes, not in the form of absence of emotion, but in the form of emotions which need not correspond to those of the character portrayed. [24]

The interruption is hence an excess not to be contained, rather than a supplement to existing terms of convention. Sunʼs mobilization of direct address as a temporal-spatial extension thus turns Brecht into his absolute opposite. His scene is intended to depict a moment of cathartic experiential identification rather than a historicized moment of social antagonism and the possibility of a politics.

If at the level of formal dramatic device, Sun turns Brecht into his opposite, he does exactly the same at the level of content in this scene. As Jameson has remarked in general terms, Brechtʼs project was to express the ʻpeculiar realities and dynamics of moneyʼ, [25] to represent money as the alienating commodity-form that underpins the reification of everyday life in capitalism. In Sun, Brechtʼs exposure of money as commodity-form is turned into the universalization of commerce into the present and future of sovereign markets without context. Thus, Sunʼs god, who pronounces upon the goodness of the free market by selectively criminalizing cheaters, fully enters into and reinforces the reification of the money-fetish by positing a perfectly transparent relationship between money and the market. The play is recast into a morality tale of potential individual heroic action within the confines of the eternalized time–space of the commodity and the market. In Brecht, money – via Wang, the water-seller; and Shen Te/Shui Ta, the prostitute/her cousin – both unifies and disrupts the dramatic action along the lines of a fundamental antagonism between ʻgoodnessʼ and the demands of commodification in the specific historical conditions of conflict between pre-capitalist and capitalist accumulation; whereas in Sun, money is merely an eternalized functional and transparent medium towards the perfection of markets and the more perfect isomorphism between markets and the sovereign individualʼs pursuit of freedom and goodness.

This effect is culturally reinforced at the end of Sunʼs play. By the end, the Western gods become frustrated by the problems demonstrated by their chosen one – the good-hearted prostitute, Shen Te, turned wily shopkeeper, Shui Ta, through her gender-bending transformation into her tough-minded male cousin. Indeed, they become quite alarmed at the womanʼs inability to remain good. At this point, they descend from their divine perch, musically accompanied by the first chorus from the Internationale. Shedding the ethnic/racial difference that is presumed by Sun to be the sexist Orientalist cause of their – and Brechtʼs – distortions of China, the gods thus become selfidentically Chinese so as to sympathize better with the prostitute/shopkeeper. That is, they identify the source of their frustration as being too distanced by their divinity and Western-ness from the reality of human/ Chinese life, and decide that the remedy is to become human, which, it turns out, is Chinese. This evidently appeals to the transparency of racial identity/personal experience that corrects for a historically distorting Eurocentrism. It also serves as a reference to the ideal racial inclusivity of Chinese civilization, here figured as inherently levelling through the market and thus as the true fulfilment of the promise of the Internationale.

The convergence here between the particular universality of ʻChinese-nessʼ with the commodity economy as the utopian site of universal identitarian freedom, which collapses an idealized past into the present and future, stages almost exactly, albeit only in part, Weberʼs concept of the good society. Ostensible non-antagonism in the social realm, now globalized and gendered male, thence becomes the domain of an anti-politics describing the normalization, or purported depoliticization, of everyday life. In this sense, the radical transitional moment of which Benjamin speaks – that stops time in order for a critical analysis to take place – is transformed into the historicist concept of an inevitable transition to the (non-cheating) market as naturalized regulator of the lifeworld. This is articulated to the culturally authentic Chinese through the transformation of the Western gods into Chinese as fulfilment of the deradicalized promise of the Internationale, which, it transpires, is universally globalist rather than historically internationalist. As in Brecht, the superstitious appeal to divinity is invalidated. Yet, in Brecht, this unmasking is a comment about the unsalvageable ahistoricity of the concepts of human nature and the divine. [26] In Sun, the disruption is merely a displacement of history – past and present – onto a putative West/China cultural divide, which leaves intact the eternality of the self-identical Chinese combined with capitalism as a fantasy of the present and a future without politics or the fetish of the divine. It stages exactly the desire for ʻjoining tracks with the worldʼ.


My purpose in raising this episode – which, unique as it may be, is far from an isolated symptom27 – lies in the ways that Sun claims to be politicizing Brecht. What interests me is not how far Sun deviates from some authentic Brecht, but the absence in Sun of contradiction, antagonism or alienation as a fundamental constituent of capitalist social relations and ideolWang Jin, To Marry a Mule, 1996ogy. Not only is Sunʼs recasting of the play antithetical to Brechtʼs alienation as a performative device that, in Benjaminʼs words, ʻmakes visible the element of crime hidden in all businessʼ, [28] it is also thoroughly antihistorical and anti-political – not merely apolitical – in so far as the specificities of socio-historical antagonism are dissolved into a meditation on an eternal human nature in response to the market as an ahistorical situation. [29] Indeed, Sun transforms the historical problem of the Chinese market into the eternality of a culture clash – much as British commentators and many subsequent scholars did with the Opium War in 1839 – the resolution to which appears to be for everyone to become Chinese as a universal subjectivity facilitating an inclusive post-political experiential identity of perfect market sociability.

Voicing the concerns of a now-dominant intellectual/technocratic class that has joined tracks with the world – beset as individuals may be for their dissident views on one-party rule or corruption, among others – Sunʼs play efficiently stages a fantasized isomorphism between, on the one hand, a post-political interpretation of the West/China divide as culture clash resolvable through participation in markets and everyone becoming authentically ʻsubalternʼ so as to experience this transparency fully, and, on the other hand, the post-revolutionary views of that class, who wish to transform their experiences of a Maoist revolutionary politics of antagonism into the singular reality of politics as an experience of victimization. This represents no appeal, as with Lukácsʼs version of Lenin, to a ʻreality more real … than isolated factsʼ. Rather, it appears both as a class expression of the fear of the re-eruption of the putative cycle of the mass violence of Chinese history, and as an ahistorical claim to the conflation between the eternal present of markets and the eternal standstill of cultural subjectification, now as guarantor of Weberian individual freedom rather than as definition of Hegelian traditional stagnation.

The cultural forms of this ideological configuration took some time to coalesce in post-Mao China. In its now popularized version, difference is construed similarly to Perry Andersonʼs genetic approach to European history in his Lineages of the Absolutist State. That is, uniqueness is articulated in Weberian terms by drawing on a culturalist–statist conceit of origins – in Andersonʼs case, Europeʼs genesis in Roman classical antiquity and the Roman state; in the Chinese case, Chinaʼs origins in Confucianism and the imperial state-form. Here, Chinaʼs putative exceptionalist past becomes a basis for a reconceptualization that emphasizes the enduring culturalism of China as adequate explanation for the necessity and fitness in the present of its convergence with global capital. Obscuring the restructurings of Chinaʼs social and productive relations under pre-revolutionary imperialist capitalism, revolutionary socialism, and post-Mao capitalism, such a theoretical configuration concludes that the enduring essence of Chinese civilization over thousands of years that allowed it to emerge from the twentieth-century socialist-revolutionary aberration is attributable to the isomorphism between intellectual/ technocratic elites, the state, the global economy, and the self-identical subjectification of all as engines of modernization. This isomorphism becomes the ideological realm of an anti-political possibility of convergence – joining tracks – with the world.

On a final note, what is also significant about Sunʼs drama is how it dovetails with many intellectual trends in the United States, which themselves have staged a turn to anti-political forms of culturalist knowledge. Most salient in this context is how Chinaʼs commercialized noncapitalist past is now held up as a model that is not only particularly Chinese (that is, culturally so), but also, miraculously, particularly suited to the contemporary demands of global capital. In this configuration, the historical incommensurability among experience, politics and the past is recuperated as a symmetrical desire for a continuous anti-political, non-antagonistic path of modernization. The impossibility of politics in China is hence founded upon the repudiation of politics as a disruption of or distraction from a desired unity among state, capital and the intellectual/technocratic and cultural producing classes. As Henri Lefebvre wrote apropros Brechtian stage narrative, it ʻcondenses a becoming analogous with practical becoming: the exploration of potentialities, the transition from possibilities to actions and decisionsʼ. [30] The absence of potentiality is no better illustrated when the limits to possibility are inscribed in the combination of an eternalized market and cultural prowess. These limits are only reinforced when an ostensibly feminized Orientalist China is protested, only to be transformed into the fantasy of an authentically culturalist China, which becomes the very definition of the site of a global anti-politics joining tracks with the world.


This essay was originally prepared for the Radical Philosophy conference in November 2003. I want to thank Peter Osborne and Stella Sandford for inviting me to the conference and for their patience in waiting for revisions; and Mark Neocleous for his comments on my paper.

1. ^ Cited in Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets, Wittenborn Schultz, New York, 1951, p. xviii.

2. ^ Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, Verso, London, 1997, pp. 11, 13.

3. ^ Ibid., p. 18.

4. ^ G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree,

Dover, London, 1956, p. 140.

5. ^ Ibid., p. 106.

6. ^ Benjamin writes of this distinction: ʻA historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the ʻeternalʼ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past.ʼ In ʻTheses on the Philosophy of Historyʼ, in Illuminations, ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt, Schoken Books, New York, 1969, p. 262.

7. ^ Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, trans. Julie Rose, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999, p. 110.

8. ^ Bertolt Brecht, ʻAlienation Effects in Chinese Actingʼ, in John Willet, ed. and trans., Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic, Hill & Wang, New York, 1964, pp. 91–9.

9. ^ Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1, trans.

John Moore, Verso, New York, 1991, p. 20.

10. ^ Ibid., p. 20.

11. ^ Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method, Verso, London, 1998, p. 47.

12. ^ The idea of ʻnaturalized economismʼ is taken from Harry Harootunian, who uses it to discuss Japan in the Meiji period. See Overcoming Modernity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001, pp. 300–306.

13. ^ See here the numerous calls for China to float its currency on global markets, to move more quickly in taking down trade barriers, etc. Donald Evans, then commerce secretary, visited Beijing at the end of October 2003 to deliver the most strongly worded message to date on these issues (see, for example, reports in the New York Times, 28, 29 October 2003; and broadcasts by CNN). Yet, most economists unaffiliated to the Bush White House or to industry groups agree that if China were to float its currency, it would potentially lead to a collapse of the Chinese economy because of structural weaknesses in Chinaʼs financial sector, among others.

For the irrationality of the displacement of blame for the US economyʼs weakness onto China, see Joseph Stiglitz, ʻPlaying by the Bookʼ, South China Morning Post, 9 October 2003.

14. ^ Jacqueline Newmyer, ʻWill the Space Race Move East?ʼ, New York Times, 20 October 2003, p. A17.

15. ^ The controversy sparked by China analyst Arthur Waldron in the pages of Commentary Magazine is indicative. See Arthur Waldron, ʻThe Chinese Sicknessʼ, Commentary, vol. 116, no. 1, July/August 2003, pp. 36–42; and the responses to this essay in Commentary, vol. 116, no. 2, September/October 2003. The most critical response was signed by eleven political scientists from various universities in the USA, along with one from Taiwan. While each of the critics pointed to specific exaggerations and misrepresentations by Waldron, not one disputed his essentializing of despotism as a Chinese ʻsicknessʼ (exemplified most recently for Waldron in the handling of SARS in summer 2003).

16. ^ See the recent Philip Huang/Ken Pomeranz controversy, in Journal of Asian Studies among other places.

17. ^ See, e.g., Timothy Brook and other late-Ming, earlyQing cultural historians.

18. ^ These are the so-called Confucian capitalist arguments.

19. ^ I should thank Kristin Bayer here, as it was she who brought the programme to my attention and who arranged for my visit to Bard to participate in it. She is, however, absolved of all responsibility for the opinions and analysis expressed here.

20. ^ As Brecht notes in his journal for July 1939, ʻthe city must be a big, dusty uninhabitable place.… the vision is of a Chinese cityʼs outskirts with cement works and so on. There are still gods around but aeroplanes have come in.ʼ Bertolt Brecht, Journals, 1934–1955, ed. John Willett, trans. Hugh Rorrison, Routledge, New York, 1996, p. 30.

21. ^ Indeed, one suspects that Brecht would never have marked them in such a fashion, as his critique is aimed at a universalist ideology of transcendence and eternality, which can be represented equally well by Chinese and Western gods. That is, it is the transcendence of ideological divinity that is the target of Brecht; not, as in Sun, their Westernness.

22. ^ Bertolt Brecht, The Good Person of Szechwan, trans.

John Willett, Arcade Books, New York, 1994, p. 3.

23. ^ Benjamin, ʻWhat is Epic Theater?ʼ, in Illuminations, p. 150.

24. ^ Brecht, ʻThe Alienation Effectʼ, in Brecht on Theater, pp. 92, 94.

25. ^ Jameson, Brecht and Method, p. 13.

26. ^ Brecht commented on the various misreadings of his play; in his journal entry for 7 January 1948, he writes: ʻthe Szechuan play [was interpreted as] a religious (atheists being godʼs loyal opposition) condemnation of the two-soul structure.ʼ Journals, p. 384.

27. ^ A rare counter-example is a play performed in Beijing in 2000 and 2001 entitled Che Guevara at the Central Academy of Drama. Essentially an attempt to recuperate Che and his revolutionary authenticity from the detritus and dominant repudiation of revolution, the play was a phenomenal box-office success, even while audience reaction to it was mixed. Chinese liberals lambasted the endeavour as a regressive step back towards Maoism, even while it was defended in the pages of Dushu (Readings), the most prominent ʻnew leftistʼ journal in China. The play was self-consciously called an ʻepicʼ, not so much in the Greek vein but in the Brechtian sense. (For Brecht on ʻepic theaterʼ, see ʻThe Epic Theater and its Difficultiesʼ, in Brecht on Theater; and Walter Benjamin, ʻWhat is Epic Theater?ʼ) For an analysis of the Che phenomenon, see ʻChe Guevara: Dramatizing Chinaʼs Divided Intelligentsia at the Turn of the Centuryʼ.

28. ^ Walter Benjamin, ʻBrechtʼs Three-Penny Novelʼ, in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, Random House, New York, 1989, p. 202.

29. ^ For this as a convention of bourgeois theatre, against which Brecht wrote and conceived his whole project, see ʻAlienation Effects in Chinese Actingʼ, pp. 96–7.

As Brecht writes: ʻThe bourgeois theater emphasized the timelessness of its objects. Its representation of people is bound by the alleged “eternally human”. Its story is arranged in such a way as to create “universal” situations that allow Man with a capital M to express himself: man of every period and every colour. All its incidents are just one enormous cure, and this cure is followed by the “eternal” response: the inevitable, usual, natural, purely human response.ʼ

30. ^ Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, p. 22.