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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Rethinking Things and “Thingness” in Modern Chinese Culture
2: The Revolution Will Be Mediated: On Newborn Socialist Things
Monday, March 22, 2021
12:30pm – 2:00pm EDT
New York University, United States
Whereas the contemporary era in China is often depicted in terms of rampant, ideologically vacuous commodification, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) is typically cast as a time of ubiquitous politics and scarce goods. Indeed, with the exception of the likeness and words of Mao Zedong, the media and material culture of the Cultural Revolution are often characterized as a void out of which the postsocialist world of commodity consumption miraculously sprang fully formed. I instead argue that the Cultural Revolution media environment and the ways in which its constituent elements engaged contemporaneous discourses of materiality and political economy anticipated the widespread commodification now so closely associated with the Reform Period (1978-present). To that end, this paper offers a brief history of the “newborn socialist thing” (shehuizhuyi xinsheng shiwu), which, as a technical term originating in the 1950s, refers to a harbinger of a progressive future emerging in the present. Not only did newborn things, always at odds with “old things,” help define socialism as a transitional stage of development prior to communism, they also promised to integrate the material and the social under one conceptual roof. I develop a historical methodology inspired by the relational nature of the newborn thing, which traces fugitive constellations of objects, bodies, institutions, and social formations pertaining to the Cultural Revolution’s media environment. Of particular interest are the forms of mediation enacted by and through these constellations and the dialectic they were often said to create with the commodity-form.