Literary Sensory Studies at ACCL Changsha 2019

This year’s conference for the Association of Chinese and Comparative Literature will take place at Hunan Normal University in Changsha July 17-19. Together with eminent scholars Michelle Yeh of UC Davis and Melinda Pirazzoli of University of Bologna, I’m hosting a panel on Sensory Literary Studies.

2096272747_cfc8b757eb_b‘What is that?’ you may well ask… Defining sensory studies, anthropologist David Howes writes that ”sensory studies involves a cultural approach to the study of the senses and a sensory approach to the study of culture. It challenges the monopoly that the discipline of psychology has long exercised over the study of the senses and sense perception by foregrounding the sociality of sensation” (Howes 2013).

What I should like to do, is apply some of the insights from this growing field of research to the study of literature as an important cultural practice where sensory vocabulary and concepts are codified and challenged.

14761272204_9b31c9166b_bToday, the cross-disciplinary field of sensory studies encourages us to acknowledge how “sensory experience is socially made and mediated” and to think that senses are “not simply passive receptors. They are interactive, both with the world and each other” (Howes 2013). By comparing culturally and historically diverse sensory modes and codes, as well as seeking to include internal senses such as sense of pain (nociception), of one’s own muscles and organs (proprioception) and temperature (thermoception), researchers are challenging the conventional pentagonal sensorium.

vintage-eye-examination-posterIn this panel, we want to continue the sensory discussion in the literary arena; to think and talk about the ways in which Sinophone fiction and poetry can portray, disrupt and re-conceptualise sensory experience. Our aim is to start an academic conversation about the possibility of ‘Literary Sensory Studies’ and suggest some of the interesting and fruitful paths such a subfield might take. By bringing together sensory analyses of classical poetry, modernist literature and contemporary fiction, we hope to show the concept’s wide-ranging applicability in terms of literary scholarship.

Spatiality of Emotion Review

The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality, Ling Hon Lam (Columbia University Press, May 2018)

97802311879471Ling Hon Lam encourages us to think of emotions in terms of space; when we sympathize with a character in a play or feel something for another person, that emotion takes place, for it moves us outside ourselves. In Chinese this relation between space and emotion is described by the term qingjing; a scenery of feeling or in Ling’s translation an “emotion-realm”.

In Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China, Ling presents a critical history of Chinese theatre evolving from early religious performances without human audiences, through the introduction of sympathetic spectatorship to a new understanding of theatricality in a Chinese context. Through his “genealogies” of various aspects of Chinese theatricality—often described in relation to their European counterparts—human emotions are recast as external events that take place between individuals rather than within a subject.

As a preliminary, Ling seeks to reconceptualize the foundation of modern drama in ancient religious rituals involving dream travel by shifting the European focus on ritual dream theatre as “making present” another world to the Chinese focus on dreamscapes of “deliverance” and thus repairing the “reduction of spatiality to psychology, [which has] unfortunately shaped the way we understand theatricality.”

Ling introduces to Anglophone readers the concept of emotion-realm (qingjing 情景) to describe this external emotive situation. The word qingjing, when used in daily language, refers simply to a situation or a state of affairs, but by breaking up the term and translating each character literally as qing = emotion and jing = realm or landscape, the resulting concept of “emotion-realm” enhances the focus on human feeling in relation to space. Historically, Ling explains, the connection between emotion and spatiality in theatre was brought about through the introduction of spectatorship and the construction of sympathy in the spectator. Where ritual dream theatre was performed only for the gods or the diseased, the introduction of human spectators who could recognize and sympathize with the events on stage created an intermediate space or “emotion-realm” between the dream world of the drama and the experiential world of the viewer.

Due to its ambitious scope and serious engagement with previous scholarship as well as its insistence on linking concepts of theatricality to ontological philosophical discourse, Ling’s book is an extremely demanding read, which requires some degree of patience, especially in the non-specialist reader, with long convoluted sentences of highly abstract meaning.

The four core chapters are very well-researched and combine critical readings of classical Chinese dramas with contemporary theories and concepts from object ontology and affect theory to gender and performance studies. Chinese terms and models are introduced and used in dialogue with English and German terminology in innovative and enlightening ways, for example in the deconstruction of the phrase sheshen chudi 设身处地 (putting oneself in the other’s situation) in comparison with Einfühlung and sympathy.

The prologue and parts of the final chapter, however, depart from the historically informed genealogies of the core chapters to engage in semi-philosophical discussions, in which Heideggerian arguments are used as premises for conclusions without being themselves critically assessed. While the connection of space and emotion in the term “emotion-realm” is both interesting and pioneering when used in concrete analysis, the prolonged abstract discussion of it in terms of 20th century European philosophy, but without the internal logic of philosophical argument, seems less useful.

Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China is a heavy read with rewarding and informative rabbit holes into the development of essential aspects of Chinese drama in comparison with their European counterparts. The book combines an extensive knowledge of theatre history with a creative use of contemporary theory to critically re-examine the formation of spectatorship and theatricality in a Chinese context.

This review was first published October 2018 on asianreviewofbooks.com

Ecologizing Taiwan: Cities, Sounds and Supersensitivity

On October 13th, the Taiwan Studies Workshop ‘Ecologizing Taiwan: Nature, Society, Culture’ organised by Michelle Yeh and David Der-wei Wang took place at University of California, Davis. Inspired by Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, the workshop sought to “extend the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as environmental concerns”.

Ten scholars from across the US and one from faraway Sweden (basking in the Californian sun and finding it a bit hard to focus on academic pursuits) presented their work on aspects of contemporary Taiwanese culture and history in relation to various interpretations of ecology.

I was happy to note that several presenters engaged with sensory aspects of film and fiction, something I myself find particularly interesting:

Ling Zhang from SUNY-Purchase shared her research on aural strategies in Chen Yingzhen’s novellas, including narrative voice, ambient sounds and collective singing.

Pao-Chen Tang from University of Chicago presented an analysis of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film The Assassin from 2015, which focused partly on the animal qualities strived for in martial arts practice and partly on the autistic features of the film’s protagonist and how they enhance her professional prowess. However, it also touched on supersensitivity as a motif in hit man films as well as a stereotype in the representation of people with autism.

Under the title ‘Urban Ecologies: The Flora and Fauna of Fictional Taipei’, I presented my work on the role of plants as markers of place and ethnicity in Chu Tien-hsin’s 朱天心 ‘The old Capital’ 古都 together with the interspecies communities described in Wu Ming-yi’s 吳明益 short stories about Taipei.

My aim was to add an urban dimension to the flourishing discussion about ecoriticism in Taiwanese literature and to argue that the city presents not only a possible but an essential site for human engagement with the so-called ‘natural environment’. Furthermore, I think fictional narratives offer new and less discipline specific ways of engaging with human beings and their curious ant heap cities as part of, rather than anti-thesis to, nature and nature writing (自然写作).

All photos taken by me in Taipei, April 2017.

Intimate Stories from Taiwan

Review of “Contemporary Taiwanese Women Writers: An Anthology”, edited by Jonathan Stalling, Lin Tai-man and Yanwing Leung.

In his foreword to this anthology, Jonathan Stalling eloquently describes how “Taiwan literature, like its complex writing systems, exists as a palimpsest of the cultural contact points, overlapping languages, peoples, and histories that have paved the way for one of the most vibrant literary scenes in the Sinosphere and the world beyond.” The aptness of this delightful description is borne out by what follows, namely 11 diverse, yet eminently readable, short stories and essays written between 1976 and 2013.

If any single thing connects all these stories, it is intimacy. Each of these very different narratives (some are simple and anecdotal, others elaborately literary and still others read like personal reminiscences or diary entries) circles around human relationships. The array of intimate relationships include the emancipation of a meek young woman from her egocentric husband; the invention of a much longed for imaginary son by a single woman tired of playing the field; the extremely brief but life-changing mentor-student liaison between a successful fake socialite and an up-coming rich-husband hunter, as well as the parasitic mother daughter bond presented in sensuous and colorful prose—almost like a revolting yet fascinating surrealist painting.

These stories also possess a kind of sensuality, which begets a different type of intimacy—between reader and text this time—that is deeply satisfying and engaging: interior and private smellscapes in “A Place of One’s Own” share the protagonist’s sensation of how “body odor from Liang-ch’i floated up toward her, the faint smell of cigarette smoke and perspiration. She had never had a male in this room before.”

In “Taipei Train Station”, the mind’s eye of the reader is called upon visualize the public and exterior space of a city where “buses dashed over streets, their metallic sides aglow in the light. The shine and swish they left in their wake enveloped the city as if with fish scales that flashed with every move.”

These stories describe Taiwanese society from 1980s to 2010s (with the notable exception of the final story “The Fish”, which—dating from 1976 and dealing with the Cultural Revolution in mainland China—hangs on like an out of place appendix) and thus also touch on the tremendous changes in economy, politics and lifestyle that took place during those years.

A literary showcase of life in such transitional times is displayed by the generational conflict at the heart of Chung Wenyin’s “The Travels and Lover of a Junior High Girl”. Here, the protagonist’s mother, who was born in poverty and has finally risen to a life of wealth and luxury, refuses let go of her Gucci purse to go swim with her children. Her daughter, on the other hand, who has grown up in relative affluence and financial security, longs for untraditional love affairs and a simple life closer to nature: “I truly wished that my mother would come and see the fates of other women — take off her expensive shoes, tread barefoot on the earth, and feel the chill or heat.”

The cultural and linguistic amalgamation, which Stalling describes as characteristic of Taiwan literature, is exemplified in several of the stories: in “The Story of Hsiao-Pi” the Taiwanese Mrs Pi struggles to speak Mandarin with her Guomindang husband; in “Seed of the Rape Plant” the protagonist’s Japanese housewife schooling proves redundant in modern-day Taiwan; and the narrator in “The Party Girl” comes to realize that a knowledge of foreign languages is essential in order to crash and successfully shine at fashionable gatherings.

But why a separatist anthology of only female authors? Dr Olga Castro wrote last year in in The Conversation that “in an ideal world, women’s presence in literature and translation should not have to be ensured by gender-specific prizes, anthologies and supplements. Instead, their work should be placed in generalist and genderless ways alongside men’s.”

Our world, however, especially when it comes to translated works, is far from ideal. According to Castro (who cites the VIDA Count of women in the literary arts), “generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies…”

This anthology therefore does its bit to redress the balance. And from a Sinophone perspective, it bears witness to the remarkably rich literary scene in Taiwan as well as to the fact that a not insignificant number of the island’s best authors happen to be female.

Fortunately, these stories have more in common than the fact that they are written by Taiwanese women. They are short and delicious samples of human curiosity, humor, suffering, politics and love. They are very well translated and well mixed as if for a literary buffet. The editors have thoughtfully provided bibliographical information on each story’s original publication so that the hungry reader can easily sample more of new discovered favorites.

First published for asianreviewofbooks.com

Xiaoshuo.blog

erwai tushuguan (2)For some time, it has been dawning on me that what I am really interested in is not so much what is written in and about China (as the old name of this blog writingchina would seem to suggest), but rather all sorts of narrative fiction written in the Chinese script(s). (I dare say the intelligent reader will have noticed this long before I did).

Taiwanese nature writing, postcolonial Hong Kong concept lit, Sinophone fantasies from European backwaters, Southeast Asian urban fables, Shanghai quotidian novels, borderless online scribleries in simplified character slang: I want to investigate and celebrate all of it!

IMG_2441The term xiaoshuo 小说 – which today means any kind of narrative fiction writing, from novels (long fiction 长篇小说) to novellas (medium fiction 中篇小说), short stories (short fiction 短篇小说) and flash fiction (tiny fiction 小小说) – has a long and complicated history in Chinese culture. The essentially diminutive term xiaoshuo (literally small talk), used traditionally to refer (somewhat derogatorily) to “minor philosophical discourse or a type of unofficial, inferior history” (Lu: 39), with strong negative connotations of rumour and gossip rather than of pure fabrication and artful creation as in the latin fictio.

Several scholars (see below) have written fascinating accounts of how the xiaoshuo genre (as well as the attitudes toward it) developed from Confucian warnings against its deceitful nature and the notoriety (and popularity) of the strange and supernatural zhiguai tales to the canonised masterpieces of Ming/Qing serial fiction and today’s cyber romances.

So – in an effort to make it simple and do what it says on the tin – welcome to the new cleaned up & ad free (I hope!) version of my blog on fiction in Chinese: xiaoshuo.blog

 

Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng (1994): From Historicity to Fictionality – The Chinese Poetics of Narrative.

Zeitlin, Judith (2006): ‘Xiaoshuo’ in Moretti, Franco (ed.): The Novel: History, geography, and culture.

Is the Author back from the Dead?

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Heidi Yu Huang’s lecture ‘Worlding Hong Kong Literature: Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas’ at the University of Gothenburg’s Bernhard Karlgren seminar series.

One of the interesting side issues that cropped up during question time was the relevance of biographical information in academic literary analysis. Dr. Huang confessed herself fascinated by Dung Kai-cheung’s private life as well as his creative work, and was able to point to many direct influences (Dung wrote his dissertation on Italo Calvino, a fact that will surprise no one familiar with his work) and amusing anecdotes (Dung’s fictional universe is highly geographical and apparently certain sites in his works correspond to places where important events in his own life took place).

File:Roland Barthes Liburutegiko plaka Ahurtin.jpgIf, like me, you have received an education heavily influenced by the structuralist dictum “the author is dead,” you will find yourself shrinking from engaging with any kind of biographical reading. However, in the case of Dung Kai-cheung (and perhaps many postmodern writers), his writing self-consciously portrays literature of any kind as an invented reality that mirrors not the ultimate reality but a conglomerate of personal realities.

Even academic readings always take place from a personal perspective (albeit, hopefully a rigorous and well-informed one), so does writing for that matter, as well as any kind of communication, which is, I think, partly what Dung’s stories make so clear; reality is always already mediated.

So in the spirit of Dung’s pseudo-academic literary style, where do we draw the line between fiction and life? I’m still to brainwashed to do biographical readings, but I’ve stopped discouraging my students from doing so (with the added factor that biographical criticism is much stronger in the Chinese academic tradition).

File:Reading-jester-q75-760x753.jpgAs long as what we are seeking from the author’s life is not a fact sheet (any search for intentionality still seems both impractical and pointless to me), but rather just another perspective, which, along with socio-historical context, literary theory and previous scholarship might help make our independent analysis more interesting, it might not be such a bad thing to include.

As Paris-Sorbonne professor of English literature, Frédéric Regard puts it in a humorous but rather apt essay on this conflict between inclination and indoctrination: “I therefore find myself in an awkward position: I am in desperate need of a theory capable of reconciling my degenerate tendencies [reading literary biographies] with my enviable filiation [as part of the academic establishment]. At the same time, I find myself unable to support nostalgic attempts at reintroducing the ideal of a fixed, ‘authorised’ meaning: the recovery of the author’s ‘intention’ as the unique source of the text is not on my agenda.”

 

Barthes, Roland (1977): ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image—Music—Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Dung, Kai-cheung 董啟章 (2014/1997): Dituji 地圖集. Taipei: Linking Press.

Dung, Kai-cheung (2011): Atlas: The archaeology of an Imaginary City. (Translated by Dung Kai-Cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall). New York: Columbia University Press.

Regard, Frédéric (2000): ‘The Ethics of Biographical Reading: A Pragmatic Approach.’ The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume XXIX, Issue 4, 1.