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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.1 (2001) 253-266

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Government from Below:
The State, the Popular, and the Illusion of Autonomy

Ralph A. Litzinger

To write a history of the culture of the popular classes exclusively from inside those classes, without understanding the ways in which they are constantly held in relation with the institutions of dominant cultural production, is not to live in the twentieth century. —Stuart Hall


In his seminal essay “Notes on Deconstructing the ‘Popular,'” Stuart Hall argued that the study of popular culture should always begin with what he termed “the double movement of containment and resistance.”1 Hall reminds us that throughout the long transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism, there was a continuous struggle over the languages, traditions, [End Page 253] and ways of the laboring classes, the uneducated, and the poor, the so-called popular classes. “Capital had a stake in the culture of the popular classes because the constitution of a new social order around capital required a more or less continuous, if intermittent, process of re-education, in the broadest sense.”2 But the term popular also pointed to a process whereby “the people” erupted, made their culture known to the ruling classes in unpredictable ways, and thereby complicated the transformative projects of capital and state bureaucracies. As with Antonio Gramsci before him, Hall implored us to think of the popular as not only a site where capitalist power is affirmed but also a site of opposition. He did not view the popular as residual or subsidiary to economic transformation but as the primary space of struggle, an “arena” of both consent and resistance, a contested zone of meaning, feeling, sentiment, and signification.3 He ended this important and often cited essay on an upbeat note. The popular, he wrote, “is partly where hegemony arises and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture—already fully formed—might be simply ‘expressed.' But it is one of those places where socialism might be constituted.”4

Stuart Hall wrote these hopeful words about socialism in the late 1970s. The 1990s, to say nothing of the new millennium, seem to present us with a very different space and time. This is a space and time that arguably demand new thinking on the fate of the popular and the categories of the people, the state, and society. This, in fact, is precisely what these extraordinary essays do, as they focus on the question of the popular in the context of postsocialism and neoliberal globalization in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. We encounter nostalgic longings in advertising in Hong Kong, spirit-medium cults in Taiwan, and a number of case studies from the People's Republic of China (PRC) examining the popular consumption of self-health books, the state promotion of a leisure weekend, cultural discourses that seek to negate the West as the agent of modernity, and the figure of Tibet in the mountain resort of Chengde. Some of these essays attempt to render visible zones of subaltern agency, culture, and everyday practice that speak back to power. Some of them suggest that alternatives to global capitalism and rampant consumerism can only reside outside the state. Others suggest that the state itself must be approached as a productive agent in the cultural politics of everyday life. They all, taken together, draw attention to the shifting [End Page 254] articulations between state and society in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and they raise important, if not troubling, questions about the theorization of the popular in the time and space of global capital.


Whether approached as a critical term, a descriptive signifier, or a material practice, the popular in China, throughout much of the twentieth century, was linked to the question of who speaks for the nation and who names its subjects. This is the main theme in Li Hsiaoti's essay. For Li, the meaning, uses, and political potentialities of the popular are to be located not only in Western...


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