I study modern Chinese cultural history for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most prominent of them is that 20th century China presents a particularly rich example of the way aesthetics and politics are fused together. With the foreign colonial impingements that occurred in China during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the eventual loss of the dynastic social order, generations of intellectuals in that country turned to a variety of cultural forms- from vernacular literature to newspaper reporting to filmmaking- to reflect on what a modern Chinese society could be.
Aesthetic forms of all kinds flourished as a way of not only exploring the damning inequalities that existed in Chinese society, but to expound modern ideas regarding individual autonomy, gender rights, and social equality to Chinese audiences. Before a better social world was built in China, it was imagined and popularized in the pages of its fiction, in the images of its painters, in the dreams of its young people.
Can one short story radically change the way a people think about the world around them? Do cultural forms and the way we use them matter in our attempt to build a fundamentally more equal world?
These are precisely the questions that led me toward the study of the cultural dimensions of the Chinese revolution, a field of inquiry that I have spent the better part of a decade pursuing. Cultural history is created through a slow, considerate process of reading. One needs to comb over old documents, trying to make meaningful connections between them, trying to locate just how specific cultural forms were operating in a long ago past.
As such, most of my working days are spent quietly locked away in an office pouring over historical texts, trying to come up with nuanced ways of reading them. Bit by bit, reading by reading, you create a sense of the past and the ideas and movements that defined it. It is necessary work- if we had no sense of the past beyond our shores, how could we ever hope to know the world around us? And yet the production of history requires a certain analytical distance, a certain scholarly remove, that allows one the time, patience, and broad-mindedness to make the crucial connections the endeavor requires.
So when events such as those of the past week occur, it can be particularly difficult for us scholars to do our work. I am referring of course, to the terrible tragedy that occurred last Thursday regarding Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. I found myself sitting in my office on Friday trying to process the enormity of what had occurred. I read about the terrible loss of life- 80 children, almost 100 global health researchers, entire families lost. I waited breathlessly along with the rest of the world for more information- I wanted to know who had fired the missile. I wanted to know if the Russian government had supplied it. I wanted more information, quick culpability, decisive action…
…and so all I could do was sit in front of my laptop and refresh, refresh, and refresh. The comments sections of the NYTimes and the Globe and Mail became the only voices of conversation one could find. Theories were bandied about, outrage was fomented, predictions regarding what would happen emerged by the hour. The terrible bloodshed in Gaza loomed just a click away, further compounding the sense of impotent anxiety everyone felt. Then the pictures from the crash site appeared: chortled metal, burned out, twisted fuselage, the everyday items lying charred amidst the grey shrub….such a density of human experience wiped out in seconds by the careless actions of a few soldiers thousands of miles below.
Press conference after press conference followed. Soon, Obama appeared on my laptop: stoic and measured. Obama seems increasingly incapable of providing comfort in times of distress. The spark of rhetorical brilliance we know he’s capable of seems more remote than ever, hammered out of him by six years of bruising domestic politics and international crisis-management. Ukrainian government representatives appeared, using more strident but equally as un-comforting language. The Russian foreign minister stood defiant. The CNN talking heads gabbed on and on as an exasperating trickle of information rolled in.
Nothing helped, for nothing could change the basic fact of what happened: senseless slaughter in a field in Eastern Ukraine.
My own work was impossible to return to. In the face of such bruising and immediate violence, how can one calmly retreat to the oceanic remove of history? Historical documents communicate in often muted and indirect ways. They need a patient, experienced, and immersed interlocutor to give voice to them. Given that I work with documents written in vernacular Chinese, they need an equally patient hand to translate them properly into another idiom, so that readers in the English speaking world can understand them in a critical way.
All of which is to say, as the images of burning wreckage danced in my mind, as thoughts of the moment of impact coursed through my consciousness, no scholarly work was possible. Of what use is literature, film, personal essays, and philosophic debate in times such as these? More to the point, of what use is the cultural historian commenting on these forms? No poem or painting or novel is going to change the terrible tragedy of this week’s events: the rocket blast that wiped out in a split second the lifetime of love and purpose embodied by each one of those passengers.
Will a short story or a film take away the lifetime of mourning that awaits their loved ones?
Of course I know I’m being rash. I know that literature, film, and poetry are in fact crucial to our collective humanity. Indeed, it is only through the auspices of those aesthetic forms that we may be able to process events such as those of last week, that we may be able to find some kind of understanding, if not comfort, for the suffering we are forced to endure in this life.
But the poems and stories will be written later. The comfort of the aesthetic text will only come after some distance, no matter how small, has been achieved. Maybe we can indulge in the pleasure of literary language or filmic montage in the future.
But for now, all we have is the CNN update, the damning press conference, the formality of state processions, flowers left by consulate gates, and the desire to know more.
Caught in the throes of the incident itself, all we can do is work through the digital swirl and streaming coverage, the relentless desire to refresh, the painful outrage that has taken over the normal rhythms of our minds and bodies.
I want to unplug, to go for a walk, to think quietly about the lives that were lost. But the sorcerous powers of the laptop and the iphone are relentless. There is a new morsel of information, a new image of the events, that has surely been released, and I need to see it!
But why? What feeds this relentless refreshing?
Is it a desire for vengeance? But vengeance against whom? Against the rebel who knowingly or unknowingly shot down a commercial airliner? Against the state power that armed him? Against the commanding officers and the public culture that filled his head with ultra-nationalist ideas in the first place, so that he could even contemplate such a thing as taking another human life in the name of his nation? To whom are we to seek vengeance for the chain of human misery that was unleashed last week?
Or is our relentless clicking borne out of an even deeper desire than this, out of a kind of ferocious anger at ourselves? For how can we justify the violence we do to one another? How can we fight against the impulse for bloodshed that seems so omnipresent within us? What is History but a question of power and domination, a grinding chain of coercion written over land and bodies, in place after place, time and again?
In a field in Eastern Ukraine lies 300 bodies. A proxy-war has reached out to bring its slaughter to a cross-section of global citizens. And we stand in shock, trying to make sense of it all.
It seems, for now, all we can do is click, click, click…one wishes it was not so. One longs to do more, but what? Certainly one hopes that comfort will arrive, at some point.
And peace- what can that word mean in times such as these? It seems fragile, wavering, light-years away.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.