Tag Archives: lecture

Framing a Socialist Face: Studio Photography in Late Mao China

By Penny Yeung

On Monday, March 26th, Professor Nicole Huang, chair of comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong, delivered a talk on her research project in progress, titled “Framing a Socialist Face: Studio Photography in Late Mao China.” The talk was held at the Alexander Library Pane Room and is part of the ongoing China Lecture Series organized by Asian Languages and Culture.

One of the driving questions behind Prof Huang’s research is, in her words, “What constitutes a Chinese socialist face in visual representation, particularly in photographic portraiture, during the late Mao period?” Prof Huang began by highlighting issues of periodization and her specific choice of the “late Mao period”—which spans the 1970s and the early 1980s—to delimit the temporal scope of her study. Typically, the year 1976 is cited as a turning point in contemporary Chinese politics and has served as an anchoring date for much research in the social sciences. But as cultural practices rarely change overnight, Prof Huang argued that looking at the late Mao period allows for a better account of the changes in patterns of cultural production and consumption. Three essays by Georg Simmel, published in 1901, 1903, and 1908 respectively, on physiognomy and the aesthetic significance of the human face in modernity provided additional framing. Prof Huang pointed out that for Simmel, the “face flourished and circulated at a wider level at the onset of modernity.” The human face was often glorified, as the “coherent [wholeness]” it embodied and symbolized stood in as foil to the forces of fragmentation and alienation wrought by modernity. Her research asks whether Simmel’s insights are translatable to the late Mao context.

Prof Huang then shared from the part of her research that focuses on commercial photography. To investigate how practitioners apprenticed themselves to the trade and developed a set of aesthetics, Prof Huang conducted extensive interviews with commercial photographers who had worked during that period. Her talk led the audience through a fascinating account of how commercial photography grew and thrived as an industry during turbulent sociopolitical times; in fact, commercial photo studios saw the “largest increase during the Cultural Revolution.” As she explained, because the Red Guards had ransacked studio settings and backdrops in 1966, the dearth of accessories led photographers to turn to light as the predominant element which they could manipulate in their trade, and later, their art.

Prof Huang’s talk spotlit one photographer in particular—Zhu Tianming, an eminent practitioner and theoretician to come out of that period. Like most commercial photographers, Zhu began his career through apprenticeship in the 1930s and had no formal training or education in the arts, but by the 1960s his theorizations had begun to be circulated by the national photography society and came to constitute some of the earliest Sinicized theories of photography. Zhu theorized about the use of lighting, tones, and contrast to “sculpt the Chinese face.” He also differentiated between the kinds of gradation used to photograph male and female subjects. Zhu’s practice informed his theory, and yielded portraitures that are unmistakably inflected by elements of race, gender, nation, and class. The locale of Shanghai, where Zhu was based in his later years, adds another dimension to this study. As a hub of film production, the city provided a milieu where commercial photographic practices experienced a cross-fertilization with cinematic techniques; as a result, some of Zhu’s work, too, bears a “Hollywood imprint.”

While the Socialist face, like the body, could be politicized, trained, molded, and aestheticized, Prof Huang argued that the “highly tempered Socialist face was set loose a bit in the experiments of Zhu” during the transitional period. In time, the techniques Zhu experimented with and which were disseminated through his writings solidified into a new orthodoxy. Prof Huang emphasized that the consolidation did not transpire in a linear fashion; practices in their earlier guises could still be observed late into the transitional period. It is also important to note that with practitioners setting the standards, the new orthodoxy encompassed practices of individual agency rather than developing as a set of state-sanctioned norms.

Prof Huang’s rich lecture sparked many questions and comments from the audience. The lively Q&A touched on issues including how discourses of nation and nationalism may have played a role in influencing aesthetics; regional and national variations; the place of racial minorities; the relationship between aesthetic shifts and the politics of the transitional period; and possible parallels and divergences from other sociopolitical contexts.

Ato Quayson’s Lecture: “On the Affliction of Second Thoughts: Mode of Doubt in Postcolonial Tragedy”

By: F. Joseph Sepulveda

As part of AMESALL’s Distinguished Speaker lectures, Ato Quayson gave a compelling talk on the topic of second thoughts in postcolonial fiction. He began by showing a clip from the Indian film The Lunch Box (2013) that features a middle-aged man contemplating his image in the mirror. He lingers and appears to scrutinize himself doubtfully, as if he does not recognize himself. We then hear his inner monologue where he describes sensing the smell of his deceased grandfather, and he wonders if it is not his own smell that he has detected. Indeed, he wonders if he has not grown old. This moment of self-reflection, doubt, and misrecognition is Quayson’s departure point on what he will elaborate as the thought-image-affect nexus.  For Quayson the scene exemplifies a moment of interpellation where the man feels himself being hailed by the memory of his grandfather, and this memory confirms for him his old age.


Quayson persuasively described–through close readings of Henry James, African literature, and Fanon–what he calls the “viscerality of thought,” that is, the way that inner dialogue can produce thought affliction. His concluding reading of Fanon’s famous scene of interpellation as a Negro in metropolitan France highlights his investment in readings that engage the body, affect, and inner dialogue. He asserts that Fanon’s theory occurs through moments where his black body is not simply interpolated by the other but becomes “discombobulated” by such hailing. He essentially calls for reading Fanon and others as writing a theory that emerges from the body and takes place through a reflection on subjection as it occurs in the reiteration of repetitive encounters, where experience and its interpretation occur simultaneously and “generate a discursive delirium.” Exploring postcolonial film, fictions, and theory ranging from Lacan to Fanon, Quayson’s talk was thought-provoking for those of us interested in psychoanalytic, postcolonial, and affect theory.



Rosi Braidotti Lecture: Posthuman Feminism

By: Bernabe Mendoza

On February 18th, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Columbia University hosted the fascinating and influential feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, who lectured on Posthuman Feminism. The backdrop to her talk was her classic feminist text Nomadic Subjects (1994, extensively revised in 2011), as well as her latest book The Posthuman (2013). But rather than focus on these texts, the first half of her lecture centered on the feminist genealogy of this term and how it is we got to this present, troubled moment of the post-human. In other words, what were the historical forces that impelled us to move away from Eurocentric humanism that configured the human vis-à-vis White Bourgeois Man. She correctly asserted that we lack a set of terminology for thinking beyond the “human” and how this further problematizes humanity’s future. The second half of her talk focused on recent and creative feminist responses to this problem of the human, which included Sue Austin’s Deep Sea Diving and Lu Yan’s Uterus Man.

Despite having read both of Braidotti’s texts cited above and finding them interesting, I was not sure what to expect from her lecture, but I was pleasantly surprised. She was engaging, energetic and funny, and throughout her lecture was aware of her embedded, embodied and situated location as a European feminist, which I found refreshing. She remains a complete and unapologetic Deleuzian focused only on the disturbing present and readily admits that she has no will or desire for thinking futurity or utopia. For the Q&A after the lecture, I voiced my concern and discomfort with the very term “post” human, and how it mimics and reifies humanism’s expulsion of so many people from the category of the human. Later, she thanked me for the warm intelligence I had brought to the table, and I likewise found her incredibly warm and fiercely intelligent. While I may not agree with everything she had to say, I know for sure her heart is in the right place and fighting the same fight against the dehumanization of the nonwestern world (along with western women) by the colonizing mind. I look forward to hearing her speak again.

David Scott Lecture: “Michael Manley and Political Will”

By: Shawn Gonzalez

On February 26, the Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies (RAICCS) celebrated its new status as an institute with the inaugural Sylvia Wynter distinguished lecture. Carter Mathes opened the event by discussing the new status of RAICCS. Dean Peter March also delivered a welcome message. Then, the audience watched a video about the history of the institute, which provided an overview of its programs including research, teaching, postdoctoral fellowships, and visits from scholars, artists, and performers. The video also outlined future directions for the center, including its upcoming graduate certificate.

David Scott, professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, presented his lecture “Michael Manley and Political Will.” The lecture focused on Michael Manley’s book Politics of Change: A Jamaican Testament published in 1974, during his first term as Prime Minister of Jamaica. Although this text is usually read in light of Manley’s later career, Scott urged the audience to set aside the familiar lens of tragedy. Instead, he focused on how Manley constructs his political will in this text and argued that an attention to political will is valuable in our current political climate which seems so distant from Manley’s. He ended the lecture by considering this earlier age as an intellectual inheritance. He asked the question of how we can both claim and be claimed by this inheritance.


David Scott in conversation with Yarimar Bonilla and Carter Mathes

After the lecture, Yarimar Bonilla and Carter Mathes responded to Scott’s presentation. Bonilla drew connections between the political moment Scott described and three other contexts: Guadeloupe in 2009, Puerto Rico during recent debates about the island’s political future, and the United States during the current election cycle. Bonilla questioned how the concept of political will could inform our understanding of all three contexts. Mathes considered how Manley’s book was initially read in the United States and made connections with other figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Peter Tosh. He also compared the narrative Manley constructs in Politics of Change to related literary representations including Sylvia Wynter’s Hills of Hebron and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. These responses were followed by a broader discussion with the audience.