restricted access The Cold War, Imperial Aesthetics, and Area Studies
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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 45-65

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The Cold War, Imperial Aesthetics, and Area Studies

Ban Wang

In my local library in East Brunswick, New Jersey, military artifacts, weapons, and photos are on prominent display as a reminder of the days of the world wars, the military interventions of the postwar era, and the sacrifice of young men who grew up in local neighborhoods. If you want to know Chinese culture and history, you have no difficulty finding about thirty or forty books just a few steps away. These books can be readily divided into two categories. One set idealizes a long tradition of Chinese cultural heritage and the other is mostly narrative accounts of harrowing experiences of living in contemporary China. Books like Red Azalea by Anchee Min, White Swan by Jung Chang, and Red Flower of China by Zhai Zhenhua form a genre of semiautobiography. They tell stories of personal tragedy, tortuous bildungsroman, the purgatory experience under the "totalitarian regime." The first set seems to freeze China in a comfort zone of ancient civilization; the narratives appeal to an audience that would still like to see a "Red China" with demonic intents of the enemy.

In the wake of September 11, the proximity of the military memorabilia to books about China takes on uncanny significance. If the unconscious structure can be traced in physical layout of mundane objects, we may detect a hidden standoff between the weapons for national security and the fantasies of China or other foreign countries as real or imagined threats. The memorabilia testify not just to the world wars but also to the more extended agenda of national security through military interventions during the Cold War. We have been told that the Cold War ended in 1989 and things have moved on to the globalization track. The Cold War, with its confrontation between sovereign nation-states of leviathan power, its mutually assured destruction policy, and its ideological conflict, has gone the way of the dinosaurs. We are entering into a new age relieved of big power's confrontation and threat, blessed with accelerated economic momentum and free flows of capital without borders: where the modernist style of international politics is obsolete, taken over by the postmodern fluid dynamics of trade and commerce, under the imperial supervision of the supranational jurisdiction of an international system.

Events since September 11 came as a shattering blow to this myth of globalization. By conjuring up the specter of the Cold War, they compel us to question the neoliberal forecast of the global circuit of capital accumulation [End Page 45] and circulation and to reevaluate in a more realistic fashion a suddenly revealed force field of power struggle. The numerous references in the aftermath of September 11 to Pearl Harbor, the world wars, and the Korean conflict, the nostalgia about "the good old days" of the citizen army and righteous heroism, and the elevation of an elusive terrorist group into "the Enemy" endowed with state sovereignty "at war" with us, suddenly turned the clock back a half-century. The tremendous display of sentiments, passion, phobia, and policy initiatives is redolent of the Cold War. It is as if America and the civilized world had lived in a soothing dream, only to be rudely awakened and thrown back to the rugged terrain of Cold War conflict, to the paranoiac security needs, the bloody conflict of giant powers, the tightening of boundaries, and the hysterical assertion of national identity. Does the specter of the Cold War signal the return of the repressed lurking beneath the discourse of globalization? Does this return really signal any real change in the world system or simply reveal its secret? How does this event alter the production of subjectivity in the sphere of culture? How does it affect the area studies? These are the issues I will explore.

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