China and Inner Asia
The “material turn” in literary and cultural studies inverts the longstanding relationship between humans and things, emphasizing the role that things play in shaping individual consciousness and collective subjectivity. The reified commodity, the fetish, the gimmick, or the token of exchange: at stake in this emerging scholarly subfield on the animation of objects are new modes of sociopolitical critique and mediological reflection. This panel probes beyond this shift in scholarship by investigating key historical episodes in modern and contemporary Chinese culture, where things—material or metaphorical—are invested with a life of their own. Exploring how various things and their status as objects, or thing-ness, inspire, constitute, and renew literary creativity, cultural production, and ideological assertion, the papers shed new light on the unsettled subject-object relationship in modern China. Anatoly Detwyler’s paper addresses the politics and aesthetics of the handicraft in the work of Shen Congwen at the dawn of China’s propaganda era. Laurence Coderre surveys the importance of “new things” xinsheng shiwu in the remaking of socialist culture during the 1960s. Paola Iovene’s focus is on the uses of petrochemicals in 1970s cinema both as the material substrate of film and as narrative trope. Finally, Renren Yang examines how the computerized things are weaponized, domesticated, and democratized in contemporary Chinese fantasy fiction about informatic control. In sum, the panel complicates the meaning of materiality by questioning what constitutes the historically contingent—and material—conditions of our understanding of thingness.