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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 267-275

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What Is Wanting?

Tani E. Barlow

Certainly the essays here represent a collective argument about what it means to shrug off the tyranny of “theory.” We are invited to bypass the popular assumption that a transposable thing called theory rules supreme in critical studies and instead consider what, at least in the main, the Luce collaborators are provocatively reasoning, is a historical or epochal breech—the event since 1992 of a burgeoning Chinese commodity culture and state fostering consumption. Judith Farquhar makes this point about letting go and reinvention most elegantly when she invokes what she discerningly calls “the domain of the popular” in lieu of the more ideologically charged term “popular culture.” Because she deduces that to recycle the term popular culture might reinstate older theories and thus their rather predictable findings, Farquhar decides to park her usefully ambiguous term, “the domain of the popular,” in what remains (at least in her thinking) an indeterminate historical process where the “people's conscious memories of history [End Page 267] are less important than the difference that has been worked in them by history.”

Virtually all of the essays here either tacitly presume or directly assert that the court of last resort for pop culture studies ought to be history. Since there is little doubt in my mind that this historical turn does hold the key to thinking about the present, it is worth highlighting how several contributors are handling the question. Li Hsiao-t'i is refreshingly prosaic. He understands the history question to be mundane and implies that it is at bottom a matter of periodization and genealogy. He forwards evidence that the original historical event or initial coming into visibility of Farquhar's domain of the popular probably began in the 1930s when the elite cultural left undertook, for “probably the first time since the late Ming,” an investigation into “what their fellow city dwellers read, listened to, and watched for entertainment.” (Prosaic or not, the fact that Li stresses the singularity of period undercuts the older, temporal nebulousness of the public culture paradigm.)

Also entrenched in this history question in a fashion that allies her analytically with Farquhar, Li, and Eric Ma, Jing Wang provides a crisply definitive framework for the amorphous domain of the popular and calls on us to practice what she summarily refers to as a process of “cataloguing.” “This practice” of cataloguing, she argues, “capture[s] the flow of the historical transition of 1990s China,” which is heading toward nothing short of “the birth of a new political rationality invested in making a new hierarchical structure open to complicitous and multiple partnerships.” Out of the subterranean flow of historical time and historical debris, in other words, we can see in Jing Wang's tightly argued work the flashing up of an extraordinary event. A new political rationality in the shape of state practice is fostering a national, internal pleasure market aimed at fostering adequate consumer-citizens. Their advent becomes visible, Wang argues, through the prism of public policies that are being aimed precisely at that end. The history of the domain of the popular is only legible, in other words, if you consider the agents of policy making and if you develop scholarly methods for determining what is evidence, and then think and write about it. (This point Jim Hevia's evidentiary argument about history, multiculturalism, and the ethnic theme park underscores.) [End Page 268]

In the spirit of extending the Luce scholars' valuable analysis, two significant questions can be raised: What is an adequate historical method? What does a history of social desire look like? Wang has set out boundaries for the project—the state question and Chinese popular culture—and also suggests that policy debates are the key archival source. Doing so, she has asked for a renewed emphasis on method, and to a laudable degree Farquhar, Dai, and Li seem to concur. The broader question has to be what this shift or opening involves. Eric Kit-Wai Ma's “Re-Advertising Hong...


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