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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 137-169
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Critical Iconography, Minor Literature, and the Un-Making of a Modern Chinese Mythology
Xudong Zhang *
In "Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism,"Raymond Williams demonstrates how the historical symbiosis between the modern and the urban can be reconstructed, both historically and conceptually, in five successive steps. It all starts with an historical experience whose novelty has all but escaped us: a "crowd of strangers" on the street which is unknown, indeed, mysterious. Within this crowd emerges the lonely individual, whose paradox of self-realization in isolation culminates in an "extreme and precarious form of consciousness," namely the monad of subjectivity. The third moment can be found in the imagined objectivity confronting the new-born subjectivity, which Williams calls the "concealment" and "impenetrability" of the city. This would be the London in Conan Doyle--foggy, dark, intricate, a huge crime scene necessitating an isolated but penetrating rational intelligence that finds its form in the detective novel. 1
Williams's conceptualization of the city/modernity then takes a sharp, dialectic turn, as the alienating concentration of men and women in the city also gives rise to a new unity or "human solidarity." Cast in this light, the image of the mob turns into that of the "masses" and the "multitude" with democratic and revolutionary potentials. Finally, the modern metropolis becomes "the place where new social and economic and cultural relations, beyond both city and nation in their older senses, were beginning to be formed" (MP 44). The initial strangeness seems to [End Page 137] find its sublation in "the vitality, the variety, the liberating diversity and mobility of the city" (MP 43). Williams's tone is not a celebratory one. Immediately he points out that one cannot separate the new metropolitan form from the uneven development of capitalism, from imperialism and colonialism whose "magnetic concentration of wealth and power" in imperial capitals underlies the "cosmopolitan access to a wide variety of subordinate cultures" (MP 45). This hierarchy is not understood in merely military terms, but "in terms of development and thence of perceived enlightenment and modernity" (MP 44). All this, however, does not invalidate the cosmopolitan culture of the bourgeois metropolis, as the latter's complexity and sophistication of social relations are usually "supplemented by exceptional liberties of expression" where "diversity and dissent [take] hold" (MP 44).
This duality of the metropolitan character shows a family resemblance that leads to two crucial questions of modernity. One is the still mystifying operations of commodity, market, and capital, whose unrelenting raw force as well as nimble capacity to generate new forms, desires, and ideologies remain at the center of a monumental intellectual enterprise of historical cryptography, phenomenology, and narratology. In this respect, Jacques Derrida's astonishing work of 1994, The Specters of Marx, is not only a timely reminder of the ghost of an oppressed past that never left us, but first and foremost an intellectually conscientious evocation of the ghost, indeed, a specterology of Capital itself, which must inspire a new reading of the city: it is impossible to have a fruitful reading of the modern metropolis without a historical-material analysis of capitalism. 2 This leads to the second point of reading the metropolis, which is simultaneously a reading of culture at its most intricate and monumental. In his "Theses on Philosophy of History" (1940), Walter Benjamin observes that "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." 3 In the urban context, violence goes far beyond the brutal physical destruction, reconstruction, and decay of cities throughout their existence, or the institutionalized control or "administration" of their residents. It is to be understood not only in terms of economic and power relations underscoring the city as a text and a culture monument, but also in the realm of the city's symbolic representation and organization, in terms of the willful erasure of community, experience, memory, and narrative by the victorious conquerors who, as Benjamin tells...