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  • The Human–Machine Continuum in Maoism: The Intersection of Soviet Socialist Realism, Japanese Theoretical Physics, and Chinese Revolutionary Theory
  • Tina Mai Chen (bio)

Twentieth-century science shared a belief with the century’s revolutionary projects in a dynamic malleability and fluidity of form that conjoined machines to human beings. Projects that developed out of this shared belief addressed issues of social organization, science, and creative imagination. Together, they invoked spatial alignments and embodied practices that reconceptualized the boundaries between humans and machines. Throughout the century, East Asia, the Soviet Union, and the United States acquired meaning and form partially in relation to the ways in which human–machines populated particular spaces. At the same time, who and what constituted humans, humanity, and machines emerged out of interactions between interconnected landscapes and the creative imagination. The other articles in this cluster draw our attention to these dynamics in texts of science fiction and animated television series. This article shifts our attention to the ways in which revolutionary theory and scientific knowledge informed each other and were mediated through transformation of the natural landscape in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao Zedong, revolutionary theorist and leader of the PRC from 1949 to 1976, conceptualized dialectical materialism as part of broader twentieth-century conversations about the potential for particular scientific methods, materials, and social organization to enable collective human liberation. As such, reading PRC popular cultural mediations of science and revolutionary theory in a manner that is attentive to the operation of human–machine continuums in the metaphors, visual imagery, representational bodies, and landscapes provides new insight into mass subjectivity in Maoist China. [End Page 151]

Voluntarism, permanent revolution, and mass mobilization are considered key concepts in Mao’s articulation of socialism. Each draws upon an understanding of materialist dialectics that productively can be explored through a focus on a human–machine continuum. The specific ways in which humans and machines interacted within Maoism to promote a process of qualitative transformation not only provides an alternative approach to study of Maoism. It also highlights the shared discursive terrain linking Mao’s interest in Japanese physicist Sakata Shochi to circulation within the PRC of How the Steel Was Tempered, a Soviet socialist realist novel with two filmic adaptations. These texts further resonate with representations of land-reclamation campaigns and the forging of collective forms that united tools and abled and disabled bodies as the basis for qualitative change in the PRC. A human–machine continuum thus can be seen as central to socialist transformation as envisioned by Mao.

Productive Intersections, Juxtaposed Texts

Recent scholarship on nature in the Maoist period foregrounds the devastating consequences of the modernizing claim that man can control nature (Shapiro 2001). Scholarship on science in the People’s Republic of China analyzes the intersection of modernization frameworks with mass popularization and international circulation of scientific knowledge and culture (Johnson 2011; Schmalzer 2008; Schneider 2010). This essay focuses on the highly politicized engagement with specific scientific ideas that were encapsulated in Maoist dialectics and Mao’s assertion that “human knowledge and the capability to transform nature have no limit” (Mao 1977, 138).1 In Maoist praxis, the linked transformation of man, nature, and society along an infinite trajectory can be unpacked through juxtaposition of: (a) Mao’s interest in Japanese theoretical physicist Sakata Shoichi; (b) the theoretical development of Maoist dialectics; and (c) mass subjectivity expressed through land-reclamation projects. These strands informed one another and resulted in specific mass-cultural forms of embodiment that exemplified the desired qualitative transformation of human and machines within a human–machine continuum.

The realm of science was central to the conceptualization of a human–machine continuum in Maoism. As Edward Friedman (1983) [End Page 152] argues, the optimistic engagement by Chinese intellectuals with the revolutionary transcendence of Einsteinism since the May Fourth Period (1919–25) informed Mao’s ongoing interactions with physicists and electron theory. Analysis of Mao’s relationship with Sakata Shoichi, and Mao’s writings in which he invokes Einsteinian metaphors, deepens our understanding of the political projects driven by Maoist dialectics, continuous revolution, and the unleashing of energy by mass mobilization. It also, as Friedman details, highlights geopolitical concerns...


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pp. 151-181
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