Monthly Archives: June 2013

Shanzhai

Felix Salmon linked to this Foreign Affairs article by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman about the economic benefits of Chinese piracy. As Salmon notes, the upshot of the article is that the U.S. should stop wasting its time trying to get China to respect intellectual property restrictions, because Chinese knockoffs represent little in the way of lost sales and actually serve as innovation, counter to the belief that “real” innovation must be incentivized through the guarantee of long-term rents. Under the Chinese model, the rentiers lose and consumers benefit from the knockoffs — seen less as inferior copies and more as ingenious improvements, a shift marked by the changing connotation of the Chinese word shanzhai: 

As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Once a term used to suggest something cheap or inferior, shanzhai now suggests to many a certain Chinese cleverness and ingenuity.” Indeed, Beijing seems to believe that shanzhai is something to cultivate. In 2009, an official from China’s National Copyright Administration declared that “shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people.” He added, “It fits a market need and people like it.”

Imitation is a creative act of cultural signaling; it produces social value in and of itself. Shanzhai, “the cultural creativity of the common people,” seems like it could be applied more broadly to all sorts of creative immaterial labor being performed by consumers, an alternative label for what gets called “curation” or “remix culture” when it’s not called piracy or theft. Shanzhai seems like it could mark the point at which imitation transcends itself and becomes a form of originality.

American culture is perhaps too saturated with the ideology of intellectual property to properly acknowledge and herald that moment; instead artists are supposed to want to disavow the work they copy or engage in some Oedipal struggle with their inspirations, as Harold Bloom argued in The Anxiety of Influence. It’s fascinating to imagine a culture in which remixing occurs without the overhang of anxiety, where doing détournements is not a minor act of rebellion but a mode of patriotism.

Celebrating the straitened improvisation of shanzhai, which originally meant “bandit stronghold,” might seem reminiscent of those efforts to dignify relative poverty with hipster cachet — to think it’s cool to find ingenious ways to do more with less. Soul food is so delicious, and such humble ingredients! What innovative architecture and use of found materials in that favela! But shanzhai subtracts authenticity from that patronizing and nostalgic view of improvisatory ingenuity. Shanzhai is an ethic of unabashed appropriation that is openly parasitical. It doesn’t pretend to compensate those at the margins of globalization’s consumer markets by lionizing their exemption from the soulless phoniness of mass-produced conveniences. Instead it highlights their ambivalent inescapable relation to consumerism.

Shanzhai is celebrated by management consultants for its daring disruptiveness, as in this Booz and Co. report. Raustiala and Sprigman argue that shanzhai is a way to counter inequality by making cheap goods seem as satisfying as what they are copying. “Chinese authorities hope that the relative freedom to copy might help ease or at least mask the yawning economic divide in China.” But they also note that at the same time, shanzhai enhances the aura of the copied originals, serving as a form of advertisement for the allure of the “genuine” items.

Copies of Western products, as a result, do not necessarily represent lost sales. Instead, they often serve as effective advertisements for the originals: gateway products that, in the long run, might spur demand for the real thing as China’s burgeoning middle class grows … Although shanzhai products are celebrated, those Chinese who can buy the original products generally do.

It would be great if counterfeit chic damaged the integrity of the brands it copied — if IP piracy and détournement worked as an attack on consumer capitalism — but it doesn’t. It just strengthens the hold of chic over the consumer imagination. You can’t travesty your way to revolution.

Shanzhai strengthens the status hierarchies articulated by possession of “real” luxury goods and makes those goods more desirable. It makes “the genuine” seem even more rarefied by comparison. To do some shanzhai on Baudrillard, a surfeit of fakes makes for hypergenuineness.

Status, it turns out, is an experiential good that cannot be knocked off or mass-produced. No matter how democratizing in principal, consumerism relies on pre-existing inequalities to continually resuscitate demand and secure profit; it rearticulates those status disparities in the process of remedying material want for more of the population. Consumerism addresses material deprivation by exacerbating status imbalances. This is the story of capitalist development in a nutshell.

Shanzhai is not antagonistic to consumerism anymore than Tumblr “curation” and memification of pop culture are antagonistic to the culture industry. It is also not antagonistic to a classed society, the way communism was once supposed to be. The bandit stronghold is full of copycat outlaws hoping to become legitimate.

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Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater

In honor of finding a copy of this book in a thrift store 15 years too late, here are some notes I took on The Pumpkin Eater when I read a blurry photocopy for a seminar when I was in grad school. Unfortunately they’re pretty useless if you haven’t read the book recently; I didn’t bother to contextualize anything back then.

The Pumpkin Eater

Much of this novel seems to dwell on pointlessness and inevitability, and I suppose these two ideas lend themselves easily to contemplation of atomic bombs. But the narrator doesn’t seem to have that on her mind here, she seems to think of the inevitability and pointlessness of love, which is apparently doomed to break down into meaningless fights and reconciliations. The narrator realizes that love will not ward off evil — that it is, in fact, the typical impetus for evil.

Giles is a case in point. He seems fairly decent, someone who is not dangerously self-involved, or actively malicious. He never lost his temper. He had been tolerant. But his love for the narrator taught him how to hate, and that hatred led to his futile attempts at subterfuge, his lying to Jake and Mrs. Armitage. His fruitless love for her humiliated and cheapened him just as her love for Jake ruined her. The novel suggests that it is beside the point to ask why they love only where their love breeds self-destruction. That sort of love is inevitable; only that sort of love is authentic.

The dust seems an apt metaphor — inevitable, unpreventable. Eventually it becomes pointless to worry over it; one either chooses to continue to sweep it away continually, or one lets it settle thickly over everything. Time passes in the way that dust settles, creating pointless nuisances and useless squabbles. Or rather, life passes this way when you are as passive and nebulous as the narrator. As she relates toward the end, hers was not the mind that could fashion out a plan, that could conceive of reasons for planning. In another passage, she had already explained to Giles that reasons, whatever they were, seemed insufficient. “Reasons don’t have consequences, only actions.” In a sense this is true, but in other sense, it is completely false.

It presumes that one can only be acted upon, that one cannot be decisive. Why are women unable to be decisive, active? The narrator suggests an explanation in her advice to Ms. Evens, the pregnant woman who consults her for help. “The tears fall so easy when they take away love. Be a man, Mrs. Evans. It’s all that’s left for you.” Women’s supposed predilection for love, for a love that takes control of them and guides them past evil, is their downfall. But in the end, she suggests it’s not a gender issue: “I’ve know men more weakly and willingly victimized by circumstances than I. Even, love which is believed to obsess us, can preoccupy some men to the point where they stop fighting successfully, working well, making sufficient money.” It is simply a matter of having something to distract one from the “fear, unhappiness, cowardice, lack of faith.” These are the things that constitute evil in people, and they are the result of love unchecked by a more preoccupying occupation. Perhaps it was enough for the narrator when she was perpetually having her children to be distracted from it.

If evil is as defined above, that is consistent with how Mrs. Armitage had used Mr. Simpkin as her conception of evil initially. What is evil about Mr. Simpkin seems to be his pragmatism and the coarse way in which he pursues gratification for himself without gesturing toward loving or sharing or any of those things. The narrator’s action toward seeing him is one of the few decisions she makes, and she doesn’t understand herself. It’s like Mersualt on the beach killing an Arab — she calls him simply because the “afternoon became intolerable.” They make a plan, the sort of plan she is no longer capable of making at the end. She is precise down to ” giving Mr. Simpkin exactly time to tell his staff that he was going out for a while, to put on his coat and hat and drive from the paper works.”

This sort of deliberation, this sort of conceiving an end, and moving directly for it, constitutes evil for her. It is draining love of its illusions and its romance, and leaving only the sexual component, and the way in which such things at least alleviate boredom. He is contrasted with the clergyman’s son, who is a complete klutz, and is not merely shy and awkward but flatly uninterested. She seems to continue to interpret his awkwardness as innocence and purity, a kind of sincere emotion, when in fact it was probably closer to revulsion and confusion for him.

In her other great active choice that we see depicted, she goes to the vicarage to see him, and he refuses to see her. But she is surrounded with “magic” and goes home singing, singing about her love. Why? Yes, it was clear to her that she wanted this awkward boy, clear enough that she could act on it, but what becomes of it? “I loved him more, if anything, but my love now grew anxious, sharp, even resentful. I even told myself that I hated him, which was an elaboration of love that I couldn’t understand and which filled me with misery.” This is the preferable alternative to the coarse, practical and detached Mr. Simpkin.

It seems like a pretty lousy choice. But again we see the kind of unrequited love that becomes resentment; we see the way that any involvement of feeling will create an imbalance between two people that will transform any relationship into a kind of battle, we see that love is the germ of all spiteful emotions, the root of evil.

The other harbinger of evil for Mrs. Armitage is Mr. Conway. “As it happens,” Mr. Conway says, “I love Beth.” What does his love drive him to do? “I’m going to go off now and lay every woman I can find and I’m going to tell Beth every time I do it. I’m going to make her suffer, by Christ.” Mr. Conway is not so different from Mrs. Armitage herself. After her endless argument with him she realizes that “You learn nothing by hurting others; you only learn by being hurt. Where I had been viable, ignorant, rash, and loving I was now an accomplished bitch, creating an emptiness in which my own emptiness might survive.”

Just as Mr. Conway is driven to know more than he can stand (“Is it true that when he’s in bed he likes to …”), so is the narrator, reading letters that will destroy her, asking the questions that can’t be answered without savaging her. The novel is bent on convincing us that this is what love becomes, an excuse for two people to hurt each other, to empty each other of dignity and emotion so that they can co-exist inevitably together because there will seem to be no way out. A pointless affair that looms inevitably, that renders reasons meaningless.

I hope this is meant to be a cautionary tale, that this is to alert us to what can happen when we’re intent on escaping the responsibility of reasons. When we escape that responsibility, we end up taking on guilt for everything. Mrs. Armitage cannot escape the idea that she is at fault for everything, that her indecision had brought it all on.

Is the evil that Mr. Conway represents different from the evil that Mr. Simpkin embodies? How are they equivalent? Simpkin makes love emotionless, and so, too, does Conway, by transforming into blind belligerence. But Simpkin never pretends to love, he’s at least sincere in that pitifully small way. Simpkin is comparable to Jake in his indiscretions, but Mrs. Armitage is comparable to Mr. Conway in her ragged persistence. Everyone seems to be culpable.

Then there is Irene. Irene is absurdly vain, and obvious, and she seems very desperate for something, a victim of the notions of self-esteem put forward by women’s magazines. The narrator is appalled by her, as we are, but the fact remains that she, and those like her, are generally rewarded for their pains. Though she is embarrassing, she herself has no shame, and it is wasted embarrassment. Irene is able to reduce life to strategizing, turn relationships into a game where attention is extorted rather than shared. If its not an extortion, than its an exchange, as with Simpkin. The lesson: love is not about sharing or exaltation or self-discovery; it is about deception and bartering, it is a marketplace where attention and sex and dignity are turned into exchangeable goods.

In the section about the narrator’s youth, the same sort of covert sexuality is going on that is going on in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. “There had to be a sexual incentive for everything: that was why we went to church and were fairly attentive in scripture, biology, and English Literature.” She explains that “we plodded on with Latin only in the faint hope that we might one day be able to understand Ovid. We had not yet encountered medical textbooks, which would have provided a sharper spur.” There is something similar going on there as there is in Spark’s novel, a similar exploration of the way sex is sublimated and romanticized. There’s something wrong with boiling things down to sex, to have to pursue sexual excitement covertly, because it renders medical texts and Ovid equivalent. It makes Mr. Simpkin’s modus operandi viable. It makes girls think that a crush on a gay preacher-to-be is what love ought to be.

Later the narrator wonders why she hadn’t ever really had any friends. Here she remembers Irene, and sees that Irene at least knew how to exchange herself for something, while Mrs. Armitage had consistently given it away. She doesn’t have “a wealth which is perpetually renewed,” regardless of how many babies she has. pregnancy, motherhood, these are alternate ways of avoiding personal consequentiality. Pregnancy is just something that happens to her, and sets her life into a recognizable order, and frees her from making choices. Pregnancy, motherhood, these keep her from becoming an actual person. When she can’t have babies anymore, she casts about for another identity, and we see how sad it is. “I began drinking because the thought that I was drinking gave me a kind of identity. . . I could say to myself, ‘I am a woman who drinks.’ It was the positive action rather than the brandy that gave be courage.” This relates back to her belief that actions define someone more than reasons, or convictions, but that seems to be exposed as a fallacy here. Before she was a woman who had babies. Now she is a woman who drinks. She may as well not have thoughts, if she intends to conceive of herself that way. Sometimes it’s hard not to lose patience with such a person, as she pursues a self-destructive course that is not even redeemed by behavior that is at least dangerous, dramatic, or dissipative, or decadent. She pursues a course that humiliates her as it destroys her, and she is horribly conscious of the humiliation all the while.

Sexting and self-expression

Yesterday, after Nathan Jurgenson mentioned it on Twitter, I read a 2012 article from New Media and Society called “Sexting as Media Production: Rethinking Social Media and Sexuality,” by Amy Adele Hasinoff. The gist of it is that consensual sexting isn’t inherently harmful to teenagers or adults, to women or men. Nonetheless, sexting panic has been deployed to find new levers of control over female sexuality, new ways to secure female docility, negating sexting’s potential to counter the effects of other forms of gendered control.

As Hasinoff details, “educational” “safety” campaigns urge teenage girls to efface their gender and sexuality in their online presentation for their own protection and shield themselves with a distrusting attitude toward any contacts online, who should all automatically be assumed to be predators. At the same time, assertive use of social media is depicted as shameful disinhibition. Hasinoff notes that “a dominant fear” about girls’ access to smartphones “is that the immediacy and ease of mobilemedia communication undermines their supposedly innate desires for chastity.” Of course, that desire for chastity is a patriarchal imperative, part of the process of assuring that women behave as property rather than desiring subjects in their own right.

Since I’ve written before about the potentially disinhibiting effects of social media, I took this paragraph as a bit of a rebuke:

Some observers worry that mobile phones and the Internet cause adolescent girls to engage in risky or non-normative sexual behavior. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating the dangers of MySpace, online safety expert Parry Aftab argues that teenagers are ‘disconnected from the immediate consequences of their actions online, [so] many “good” kids and teens find themselves doing things online they would never dream of doing in real life’. She notes that they post photos and texts online in which they appear to be ‘drunken sluts’. Likewise, a panicked newspaper article about online predators on MySpace quotes a psychologist worrying that teenage girls are ‘acting in a very sexually provocative way’ and are ‘disinhibited’ by the Internet. By placing the explicit blame on technology, these commentators denounce teenage girls as ‘sluts’ for expressing their desires online. There is no parallel widespread discourse that technology causes boys to create sexual images or to be ‘provocative’ — being sexually inhibited is not expected or desired for boys, and accessing online pornography is usually seen as normal for them.

Hasinoff probably goes a little too easy on the commentators she mentions here, who seem to rely on an untenable distinction between what people do online and what people do in “real life.” Online behavior is “real” and has “real” consequences; indeed, consequences tend to be greater because the behavior is archived and far more easily reproduced and redistributed.

Online space isn’t “unreal”, but it space is new enough to be subject to different modes of social control, so different forms of personal expression occur there. The space itself is unevenly policed, and it’s still contested; it is disinhibiting in the sense that the norms for that space aren’t completely codified and standardized. But a process of translation is taking place, with gendered norms being rearticulated to accommodate new technological affordances.

The basic ideology behind these norms is the same: Evidence of male sexual desire is unproblematic; evidence of female sexual desire is a provocation. Sex is done to women and  harms their integrity unless they take the proper care to prevent it. Otherwise they throw the gasoline of their untempered sexuality onto the flames of male lust and are consequently responsible for the resulting explosions.

That there is a male audience for sexualized images of girls is taken for granted and seen as unalterable, whereas a girl’s choice to engage with this presumed audience is seen as her fault. The implication of this ideology is that a girl’s natural desire is not to consume sexuality, as it is for boys; rather it’s to be consumed as a sexual object. As a result, her temptation is to self-objectify, just as a boy’s temptation is to consume pornography. The hysterical discourse about these temptations has the ultimate effect of normalizing such behaviors as the appropriate risks for gendered subjects to engage in, leading them down the road to heteronormativity.

The genuine risks, the ones that would jeopardize the reproduction of patriarchal society, are thus not broached by subjects, male or female. The defiant self-creating impulse is channelled into safe territory and neutralized. Self-expression unfolds through preordained controversies; the rebellious T-shirts are preprinted and ready for purchase.

A familiar bait and switch occurs in all the fretful concern trolling about sexting. To protect girls from objectification and exploitation, which doesn’t allow them to “be who they are,” they are essentially encouraged to be sexual ciphers, or to be nothing at all. The commentators and “experts” noted above tend to attack female assertiveness by regarding it as deluded self-objectification, behavior somehow impelled by “the culture” rather than by autonomous desire. Female assertiveness is automatically proof of female false consciousness.

Yet no one’s desire is autonomous  — if total autonomy from contextual influence is the standard, then we are all operating from false consciousness all the time.

Despite the apparent concern over female objectification, “non-normative” sexual behavior doesn’t involve female objectification but female assertiveness. It’s “risky” because it threatens existing power relations. This assertiveness is not only is a matter of sexual self-presentation but might also include girls consuming images as boys do, or proliferating their affective bonds or role-playing across a spectrum of performative possibilities. Disrupting the norm of female passivity would also necessarily involve encouraging male self-presentation, male self-objectification. It would involve the rejection of promiscuity as a male achievement or female disfigurement — the dequantification of sexual expression and the dismantling of the idea that chastity is tradable property.

Far from being an expression of an lone individual’s deviance, Hasinoff writes that “sexting could help girls find new ways to express their sexual needs and desires and even perhaps rewrite some of the gender norms that ask girls to be passive and acquiescent in intimate heterosexual relationships.” It’s no accident that this sort of discourse among teenagers is actually illegal, as Hasinoff points out. (When teens sext amongst themselves, they become child pornographers from the point of view of the law.)

Assertiveness is culturally conditioned. If girls self-objectify for attention in ways boys don’t appear to, that’s because gendered orientations toward objectification have already been inculcated. So female assertiveness may take the form of conformity to the sorts of sexual self-commodification that get rewarded with quantified online attention. Such girls are then decried as “fame whores” or “narcissists,” or victims at best, for operating according to the logic of sexual objectification instead of internalizing and absorbing its contradictions silently. Hasnioff points out that “girls are often expected to develop sexual desires and modes of sexual expression that bear little evidence of their saturation in mass media representations of sexuality.” While it may not change the coercive context in which such choices are made, conforming to such representations nonetheless doesn’t undo one’s exercise of agency.

Still, as Hasinoff notes, girls’ behavior is not regarded as a type of subjectifying “media production” but instead as objectifying no matter how much agency they seemed to exercise in mediating themselves. They are held responsible for the lousy forms of self-expression patriarchy encourages them to take — forms that then seem to justify their being denied further agency when necessary.

Hasinoff wants researchers to focus on sexting as “media production” because this “would encourage researchers to ask different questions about the risky features of personal sexual media and about the new forms of communication and self-expression that sexting might enable.” One such question: “When girls use mobile media to produce their own pornography, how are they challenging the sexism of the commercial media industries and how are they reproducing it?” And how are they doing both at the same time? Can they be extricated, or is any challenge to this sort of commercial sexism immediately assimilated as a reaffirmation of it?

That is a more salient risk then the idea that girls will become “disinhibited” and give away their precious sexual property, whose value depends on its scarcity, its being kept out of circulation. (Some of my writing about risk taking on social media is colored by this sexist idea.)

Better to regard risk as stemming not necessarily from the content of what’s shared but from media producers using media channels that they don’t fully control. The problem is not with their decision to produce sexual content (there are lots of potentially good reasons to do this) but with the potential for it to be redistributed by unscrupulous recipients or interloping third parties. “If social media content producers have ownership over their private images,” Hasinoff writes, “the focus of sexting safety campaigns should clearly be to reduce unauthorized distribution.”

But producers don’t have that ownership. We are as alienated from the value of the content we make for social media as women are from the value their sexuality makes for consumerism. Self-expression, sexuality, are mediated as someone else’s property. All sorts of obfuscating pretenses are necessary to keep us producing this value without controlling it. It seems to belong to us because we are held responsible for it; sometimes we may even want to to provoke such accountability by making the content more and more “extreme.” Risk taking is not just a matter of seeking action, as I argued before, but it’s also a way to get social confirmation that one’s actions are really one’s own.

At any rate, the imperative to protect both social media and patriarchy means that most likely we will continue to act as though the real risk lies in exposing society’s sexual hypocrisy.

Poetry has a right to children

William Empson wrote the following “pat little theory” in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) about the limitations of 19th century poetry, but it seems like it still might apply to contemporary “new sincerity” art, or any work seeking to evade cynicism on one side and elitism on the other.

For a variety of reasons, they found themselves living in an intellectual framework with which it was very difficult to write poetry, in which poetry was rather improper, or was irrelevant to business, especially the business of becoming Fit to Survive, or was an indulgence of one’s lower nature in beliefs the scientists knew were untrue. On the other hand, they had a large public which was as anxious to escape from this intellectual framework, on holiday, as they were themselves. Almost all of them, therefore, exploited a sort of tap-root into the world of their childhood, where they were able to conceive things poetically, and whatever they might be writing about they would suck up from this limited and perverted world an unvarying sap which was their poetical inspiration. …  An imposed excitement, a sense of uncaused warmth, achievement, gratification, a sense of hugging to oneself a private dream-world, is the main interest and material.

If you are trying to escape irony and phoniness and defensiveness, you have no choice to seek some original source of truth and warmth and goodness, which inevitably leads to the blankness of childhood, that golden era of one’s personal consciousness when hermeneutics were blessedly beyond and trust was an instinct rather than a choice. If this glorification of childhood is not to lead to the conclusion that is better to die a child than corrupt one’s innocence, youth has to be framed as a nostalgic tourist attraction, a place we can get away to when we can spare the time, and thereby remember what it is like to be before forgetting.