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Issue 199

Where Do We Go From Here: The Global Visual Economy

The power of visibility: on postcolonial seeing and being seen

BY Rey Chow in Features , Thematic Essays | 31 OCT 18

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.

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 picturewe 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.

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 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.