Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media

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Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media

IDEOGRAPHIC MODERNISM This page intentionally left blank IDEOGRAPHIC MODERNISM China,Writing, Media christopher bus

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christopher bush


Oxford University Press Oxford University Press, Inc., publishes works that further Oxford University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education. Oxford New York Auckland Cape Town Dar es Salaam Hong Kong Karachi Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Nairobi New Delhi Shanghai Taipei Toronto With offices in Argentina Austria Brazil Chile Czech Republic France Greece Guatemala Hungary Italy Japan Poland Portugal Singapore South Korea Switzerland Thailand Turkey Ukraine Vietnam

Copyright © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016 Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Oxford University Press. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Bush, Christopher, 1968– Ideographic modernism : China, writing, media / Christopher Bush. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-19-539382-8 1. China—In literature. 2. Chinese language—Writing. 3. Modernism (Literature) I. Title. PN56.3.C6B87 2009 809’.9335851—dc22 2009021437

135798642 Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper


I would have to invent a new medium to properly thank everyone who in some way helped this book along. The early, now almost unrecognizable seeds of this project are to be found in a dissertation written at UCLA, with the guidance and support of Emily Apter and Samuel Weber, Kathleen Komar, Andrea Loselle, and Haun Saussy. Haun in particular found ever-new ways to challenge, delight, and instruct; his own work and example were, and remain, indispensable. The teaching and feedback of Michael Marra, Vincent Pecora, and Kenneth Reinhard were no less important for being largely unofficial. For friendship and general inspiration, Ben Kolstad, Lev Libeskind, Marcella Munson, Jason Smith, Wendy Swartz, and Michael Taormina were ideal peers; Julie Townsend was peerless. The unexpected generosity of Sam and Roz Berkman not only helped with the timely completion of the dissertation but remains for me a model act of random kindness. I reenvisioned the project from the ground up during a period of professional itinerancy that included stops at Harvard and Indiana universities, during which time the conversation and mighty brains of Jeremy Fantl, Faye Halpern, Ivan Kreilkamp, Steven Shoemaker, and Suzanne Young kept me going. The wildly generous support of the Princeton Society of Fellows enabled the majority of the work on the project in its final form. It would be impossible to list everyone in the Society of Fellows, the Council of the Humanities, and the department of Comparative Literature to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, but I must name at least Jonathan Abel, Sandra Berman, Claudia Brodsky, Bianca Finzi-Contini Calabresi, Ben Elman, Doug Finkbeiner, Tony Grafton, Dominic Johnson, Christian Kaesser, Ben Kafka, Esther da Costa Meyer, Sue Naquin, Eileen Reeves, Andrea Schatz, Martin Scherzinger, P. Adams Sitney, and Hairong Yan. My regular conversations with Anne-Maria Makhulu were essential to the



book as a whole. A special note of thanks is due to Carol and François Rigolot, especially for their support during the final year. Mary Harper’s role in the Society of Fellows is so crucial that Princeton really should name a building after her, and she was even more crucial to my experience than to that of most fellows. When the Mary Harper Center is built, there should stand before it statues of Cass Garner and Lin Detitta, whose patient support and unfailing good humor helped make Joseph Henry House a home. Leonard Barkan’s esprit is the lifeblood of the whole Society; he provides the supreme model of fellowship. By standing in for Leonard for a year, Michael Wood did the impossible with what can only be described as Michael Wood-like grace. For kind words, sharp insight, or suppers, thanks go to Jeff Dolven, Keiko Ono, Susan Stewart, Kerry Walk, and Amanda Irwin Wilkins. Last and most: Wey-wey Kwok, Blue Montakhab, and Benjamin Widiss are first-ballot entries into the Friend Hall of Fame. The final revisions for this project were undertaken at Northwestern University, where I have benefited from the exemplary intelligence and good sense of my new colleagues, most especially Scott Durham, Michal Ginsburg, and Jane Winston. Although we have never been institutionally affiliated, it would be difficult to reckon how much I have learned over the years from my colleagues-in-conference-going, among whom I must mention Eileen Chow, Michelle Clayton, Jane Gallop, Pericles Lewis, Colleen Lye, Kyoko Omori, Josephine Park, Carlos Rojas, and Rebecca Walkowitz. No one could ask for a better band of friends than Timothy Billings, Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven Yao. I have nothing to add here because the book itself is a kind of extended acknowledgment of their collective erudition, inspiration, and wit. Eric in particular has been deeply involved in the evolution of this project, reading more drafts than anyone should ever read of anything. I am enormously thankful to Shannon McLachlan of Oxford University Press for her insight and assistance throughout the production of the book. Brendan O’Neill’s promptness and professionalism made my life easier and kept everyone on the brisk schedule we had set, for which I am grateful. I would also like to acknowledge the work of two anonymous readers for the press, whose comments were helpful during final revisions. The book, I dedicate to the memory of Ñacu ñ án Sáez, my first French professor, who somehow found the time to take aside a struggling student and explain to him: “Your problem is,



you don’t understand that you want to learn French.” He was right. I wish he were around to read the book, and I hope he would have liked it. Soo La Kim and Spencer Kim Bush don’t need the book; everything else is dedicated to them.

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Abbreviations Prologue

xi xiii

Introduction “no better instrument”: The Chinese Written Character as a Medium 3 1. “visible nature” Image, Photography, and the Apparition of China


2. “simply the form” Inscription, Phonography, and the Chinese Scene of Writing


3. “to imitate the Chinese” Mimesis, Cinema, and the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


4. “shocks in China” History, Telegraphy, and the Crisis of Spirit Works Cited Index




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RBI, RBII, etc. for volumes of Roland Barthes, Œuvres complètes GSI, GSII, etc. for volumes of Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften SWI, SWII, etc. for volumes of Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings PO for Paul Claudel, Œuvre poétique PR for Paul Claudel, Œuvres en prose OCI and OCII for volumes of Victor Segalen, Œuvres complètes PVI and PVII for volumes of Paul Valéry, Œuvres complètes CI and CII for volumes of Paul Valéry, Cahiers (Pléiade) OED for the Oxford English Dictionary

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prologue Imperial Media/Imperial Messages: Modernism and the Myth of China To parody a well-known saying, I will say that a little formalism distances one from History, but that a lot brings one back to it. —Roland Barthes, Mythologies

All this refers not to Kafka, but to—China. —Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”

“The Emperor, so it is said, has sent, from his very death bed, to you, you alone, his pitiful subject, a tiny shadow fled, cowering, to the furthest distance from the imperial sun, a message.” So begins Franz Kafka’s short, parabolic text “An Imperial Message.”1 The message in question has been entrusted to “a powerful, tireless man” who “moves

Most translations from French and German texts are my own. Parenthetical citations give the page number for the original-language source first, followed (after a semicolon) by the page number for a published English version. In cases where only one page number is given, this indicates either that no published English translation is readily available, or that I am citing an existing English translation, as indicated by Works Cited entry. Barthes, OCI, 685; 112. Benjamin, GSII, 430; SWII, 810. 1. “An Imperial Message” was originally published in 1917 and would later form part of the longer story “The Great Wall of China,” published posthumously in 1931. The shorter text is often published and interpreted as a freestanding text. I will discuss the longer version in my final chapter. For the sake of consistency, all citations of the short text here refer to its appearance in the longer story in Franz Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen (296; the shorter, independent “Eine kaiserliche Botschaft” can be found on 138). The page numbers for this edition are followed by those of the Corngold translation.



easily forward like no other.” “But the crowd is so enormous,” the narrative continues, and the palace’s residences “are without end.” We are told that the messenger is even now [immer noch] “forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace.” He will never reach the palace steps and if somehow he were to, even then he would not be able to push his way through the crowd and down the stairs. And even if he were to accomplish that, then there would be the courtyards and after the courtyards the surrounding second palace, repeating the whole process again before reaching the next palace, and “so on through millennia.” If the messenger were somehow to reach the exterior of the outermost palace—“but never, never could this happen”—he would find himself merely in the innermost part of the residential city, “in the center of the world. […and] [n]o one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with the message of a dead man” (296; 120). Although this messenger will never reach “you,” still, the parable concludes, “you sit at your window and when evening comes dream it to yourself.” Such a parable is, in brief, typically Kafkaesque. Even if we recognize as in some sense typically “Chinese” the paradoxical, Zenonian space of the setting, still this would seem a case in which one should not be distracted too much by the historical costumes or the foreign accents. After all, as Walter Benjamin writes, “Everything [Kafka] describes makes statements about something other than itself” (GSII; SWII, 496). And as Michael Wood writes more specifically, “Kafka’s China is a place of infinite, elaborate, patient, uncertain interpretation—but then so is everywhere else in Kafka, so we need not linger over this characteristic in itself” (Wood, 330).2 The ultimate claims of the following book concern the status of this “in itself,” not just in Kafka’s text but in the text of Euro-American modernism, even modernity, as a whole. To put my central claim as bluntly as possible: for all its talk of globalization and transnationalism, contemporary modernist studies knows less and cares less about China than did many writers and thinkers in the modernist era itself. As a result, the extensive traces of China in the text of literary modernity

2. Deleuze and Guattari directly oppose Benjamin in this respect: “Kafka deliberately kills all metaphor, all symbolism, all signification, no less than all designation. […] There is no longer a literal meaning nor a figurative meaning, but a distribution of states in the unfolding [l’éventail] of the word” (Deleuze and Guattari, 40).



have largely been read over or read out of the history of modernism. Ideographic Modernism seeks to restore the lost historical and interpretive significance of that presence. By applying appropriately divergent ways of reading to the diverse ways in which a series of modernist authors made use of China, I argue that much of modernism’s China that has been dismissed as offhand, allegorical, ornamental, or merely formal in fact constitutes a rich archive of historical artifacts. I correspondingly argue that the particular historical relationship between “China” and “the West,” specifically the ways in which we today read or fail to read this relationship, contains valuable methodological lessons about the broader relationship between modernist literary form and its historical context.3 By critiquing and correcting the ways in which the overt presence of China in modernism has been reduced to nothing more than a means of talking about something else, I call for a more general reconsideration of the ways in which we understand what texts are about. Despite its ostensible emphasis on “history” (rather than “theory”), the field of modernist studies remains in many ways captive to essentially dehistoricizing reading practices. The reason for this is that history is almost always defined as context. This reduction of history to context is misleading in a number of ways. First, it reifies established historical narratives and cultural paradigms, tending to make history predominately something that answers questions, rather than something about which questions are asked. Second, by locating history primarily if not exclusively outside the literary text, this reduction of history to “context” severely limits the senses in which we can understand the historicity of the literary texts themselves. “History” is not, or is not only, something that might be summoned up to surround and define what can be found inside the magic circle of the text; the text is itself a historical artifact. Third, then, the field’s excessive devotion to a model of contextualization ontologizes the distinction between text and context, as if this distinction were somehow an inherent property of writings rather than a way of describing how we choose to relate them to one another. Not only does this result in a tendency to ignore the textual character of the contextual (“historical”) material (this is a

3. I will try to avoid the tedium of excessive scare quotes, but “China,” “the Orient,” “the ideograph,” “the West,” and so on should generally be understood throughout as discursive formations and imagined (which is not to say imaginary) objects.



debate with which everyone will be familiar) but more subtly it also ignores the contextualizing capacities of the “texts,” which are, ironically, shut out of the conversation of history: since they cannot historicize themselves, they must be historicized. My immediate subject matter is the “ideograph”: Chinese writing as imagined in the West. On the one hand, then, “ideographic modernism” is the subject of this book, which offers an analysis of a specific figure (the ideograph) for the purpose of reconstituting a specific historical relationship (that between the West and China in the age of modernism). On the other hand, however, to the extent that it uses this specific historical relationship to make some broader claims about the ways we read the relationships between text, context, and history, the book also makes “ideographic modernism” its method. That is, it proposes a way of reading modernist texts that sometimes tarries on the level of the letter, not out of a commitment to an ahistorical or meaning-free “formalism,” but rather out of a conviction that there is history and meaning on the level of the letter. To be a bit more precise, what I propose is a multivalent way of reading that, among other things, can reopen the question of what is literal and what is figurative, occasionally asking readers to see what is on the page not instead of, but in addition to, reading for meaning or metaphor. This is why among the various rubrics under which one might try to describe modernism’s China—is it a discourse? an Orientalism? an ideology?—the one that comes closest is perhaps “myth,” as defined by Roland Barthes. In his account, myth “hides nothing” because it requires the less-than-total effacement of its signs (OCI, 692; 121). Describing the structure of two myths (the lion as a figure of courage, and the image of a Black French soldier saluting the tricolor as a figure of the benevolent universality of empire), Barthes writes: “[T]he lion and the negro remain here, the concept needs them […] they are deprived of memory, not of existence” (OCI, 692–93; 122). In its persistent duplicity, in its insistence on saying “China” in order to mean something else, modernism’s China similarly preserves and even displays its mythic signs. In the case of Kafka, for example, conventional wisdom acknowledges the presence of certain Chinese motifs and even influences in his work, but only to conclude that all those texts that talk about China aren’t really about China. At the most they are about “China” (a distinction I will discuss in greater detail below). In the case of Ezra Pound, surely the best-known instance of a Chinese influence in Anglophone modernist literary studies, we have a different formation.



The notion that Pound’s China is not so much about the real China as it is about his own poetic and political projects functions to limit the possible significance of the connection, allowing Pound-and-China to thrive as a subfield that rarely threatens to play a defining role in the broader field of Pound studies.4 In the case of Walter Benjamin, the subject of a later chapter, the numerous references to China throughout his work remain entirely unacknowledged, despite the fact that his work is among the most widely studied and closely read in all of modernist criticism. Such examples could be multiplied. My point here, however, is not to chide any particular field for its lack of interest in China, but rather to argue that the specific forms of recognition and nonrecognition that define China’s place in modernist studies reflect larger historiographic frameworks and assumptions that need to be reevaluated. The goal of this book is, to recall Barthes’s distinction, to restore to modernism the “memory” of China, the existence of which is still legible because it was never effaced. And the reason it was never effaced is because it was needed for a series of concepts about China and the ways in which it is radically different from “us.” Central among these concepts is what I am calling “the ideograph,” about which a few more words are in order. The modernist ideograph I reconstruct here functioned historically as a literary and critical topos with which to explore such defining modernist issues as the borderlands between word and image, the impersonality and materiality of language, and the force of collective memory. The ideograph is, in a word, a figure of mediation (and/or its limits). Historically, then, the ideograph was intimately connected with the question of media, specifically the various writings of the new technological media: photography, phonography, cinematography, and so on. A persuasive case for this connection requires considerable historical, analytic, and textual support—and such is the task of my introduction and much of the chapters to follow. Here I will simply say that each of the four chapters analyzes a different conception of the ideograph and the uses to which it was put, taking as its point of departure primarily texts by Kafka, Benjamin, Pound, Paul Claudel, Victor

4. Compare Hayot, Chinese Dreams, whose opening chapter on the critical discourse around “Pound and China” seeks not to assess the accuracy of the former’s knowledge of the latter, but rather to trace the literary-critical function of their conjunction.



Segalen, and Paul Valéry. Each of the different forms of the “ideograph” I analyze is at once a figure of Chinese writing and a figure of a relationship to China. Throughout I read the ideograph at the intersections of three critical discourses: Orientalism critique, grammatology (the study of writing), and media theory. This threefold approach represents an effort to do justice to the richness of the “ideograph” as simultaneously 1) a prominent example in the imagining of China as a cultural other; 2) a way of imagining the origin, history, and possible futures of writing, broadly construed; and 3) a registration of the cultural effects of modern technological media. The conjunction and interconnectedness of these three areas define ideographic modernism as a historical phenomenon. Although at first glance methodologically rather heterogeneous, my readings are guided by the need to interpret a single historical fact: a lot of writers used China to talk about media and used media to talk about China. Why? What were the historical parameters within which such a loose equation seemed useful and compelling? How did the connection work and what were its limits? Is the material explicitly about China a response to technology disguised as an ethnographic discourse about the other? Is the material explicitly about media really a kind of displaced Orientalism? How can we tell the difference? Do we have to say that one is really a figure for the other or might there be alternative ways of thinking about the relationship? It is as a result of having pursued such questions about the ideograph and its relationship to media that I was ultimately led to posit “ideographic modernism” as at once object and method: not for the sake of whatever recursive-interpretive pleasures such an arrangement might offer, but because such an arrangement defined the historical function of the “ideograph” itself. The ideograph is neither just one more example of yet another thing misrepresented by “the West,” nor is it a purely theoretical figure unrelated to issues of cultural and historical representation. It is always, in varying ways, a bit of both. Consequently, this is not a book about representation as opposed to reality; rather, it is a book about the reality of representation. More precisely, it is a book about the modernists’ coming to terms with that reality at the intersection of their technological and ethnographic imaginaries. Kafka’s parable is presented to us as a dream, specifically a dream dreamed by “you.” In a sense the ultimate goal of the book is to restore the vocative force of this “you” and the immediacy of the



“even now” (or, more literally, “always still” [immer noch]) that defines the time of your dream: to show that the stuff of which such a dream is made is anything but insubstantial. Precisely because the parable is like a dream, no aspect of what some might dismiss as the merely manifest content should be overlooked. As Barthes writes in Mythologies, a dream is “no more its manifest datum than its latent content: it is the functional union of the two terms” (RBI, 686; Mythologies, 114). I would quickly add that this “union” is as often as not dysfunctional, which is precisely why it is legible as “two” (or more) terms. And as the Kafka example suggests, this is not just an issue for interpreters of dreams but also for readers of texts, who must constantly decide when a text means what it says and when it means something else. Far from being a purely subjective or arbitrary act, such readerly decisions are routinely guided and constrained by enormous cultural, historical, and disciplinary pressures. In the case of China’s presence in the text of modernism, the “union” of the literal and figurative has assumed a variety of more or less stable forms, all tending to downplay the value of the literal or manifest. As I have already suggested, this bracketing is as much a product of modernist studies’ mythologies as it is of modernism’s myths. It is to this question of how we today read modernism’s China that I now return.

“Kafka” and “China” With a few exceptions, which I will discuss below, the interpretation of Kafka’s China is in this respect paradigmatic: critics have tended to treat China as, to recall an old distinction, the mere vehicle of the extended metaphor of the text’s allegory, and we are to believe that it is in the tenor, or series of possible tenors, that the parable’s interest ultimately resides. But what of the medium of “An Imperial Message”? The parable is itself clearly less about the possible contents or meaning of that message than about its deferred arrival, a deferral that does not exactly render the world it represents meaning-less, but does focus our attention on the channels and means of communication, more specifically on the recursive shapes of the imagined world through which the message just barely travels. There is considerable conventional evidence to support taking seriously the question of Kafka’s relationship to China. Despite the relatively small number of his texts that explicitly refer to China, Kafka scholarship has produced two monographs, an edited volume,



and numerous articles on the conjunction.5 Rolf Goebel’s work, for example, shows that Kafka was an enthusiastic reader of contemporary travel literature, on whose rhetorical conventions concerning China his own work draws.6 We know that Kafka read Confucian and Taoist works in the Richard Wilhelm translations and that he owned various books on Chinese folklore and art. He writes that for poetry he prefers the translations of Heilmann to those of Bethge or Klabund, suggesting a fairly high level of knowledge and interest. And if one wants a more directly biographical connection, there is the fact that Kafka had family in Shanghai involved in Chinese railroad construction.7 But the most striking suggestion concerning Kafka’s relationship to China comes from Kafka himself, in a 1916 postcard written to his on-again, off-again fiancée Felice Bauer. He praises the wilderness near Marienbad, writing—in a language that arguably reflects his readings in Chinese poetry—that the land’s “beauty is now enhanced by silence and emptiness, and by the readiness to accept all animate and inanimate nature, hardly spoiled by the dull and windy weather.” He resumes: “I think that if I were Chinese and were going home (at bottom, I am Chinese and am going home), I would soon have to find a way to come back here” (Felice, 657). As odd as it might initially sound, the notion that Kafka not only knew something about China but should somehow be identified with it has been echoed by some of his most illustrious critics. Elias Canetti famously described Kafka as “the only essentially Chinese writer the West has produced” (Canetti, 101; 94), while Benjamin’s Kafka essay suggests similarities between Chinese theater and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and at one point cites a fairly lengthy passage from Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption followed by the statement: “All this 5. Kafka texts that have explicit Chinese themes or have been argued to have Chinese sources or subtexts include “The Great Wall of China,” “The News of the Building of the Wall: A Fragment,” “The Next Village,” “An Old Manuscript,” “Description of a Struggle,” and “In the Penal Colony.” The most extensive treatments of the Kafka–China connection are to be found in Rolf Goebel, Constructing China; Adrian Hsia, Kafka and China; and Weiyan Meng, Kafka und China. For a more general discussion of China in German literature during this period, see Schuster. 6. About Kafka’s readings in travel literature, see also Zilcosky. 7. On the connections of Kafka’s uncle, Joseph Löwy, to the construction of the Peking-Hankow (Beijing-Hankou) line, see Northey and Wagenbach.



refers not to Kafka, but to—China” (GSII, 430; SWII, 810), as if what Rosenzweig says about China suits Kafka so well that taken out of context it would naturally be mistaken for a description of the Czech writer.8 This identification of Kafka as Chinese finds parallels in comparisons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he lived to China. In the early nineteenth century Ludwig Börne described Austria-Hungary as “the European China” and Franz Grillparzer used the tropes of Oriental despotism to satirize his own “Eastern Empire” [Österreich].9 The most suggestive formulation I have found is in Jiri Gruša’s Franz Kafka aus Prag, which claims that “with Kafka the Chinese metaphors are nothing exotic” because of Austria-Hungary’s “‘Confucian’ institutions,” the “Mandarinism of [its] civil service,” and its “almost ‘Chinese’ state religion’” (10). What is particularly odd and amusing about these comparisons is that even as they assert the literality of the Sino-AustrianHungarian connection (the Chinese elements are nichts Exotisches), they acknowledge its nonliterality by placing two of the three China-specific words in scare quotes. The Gruša passage is dutifully cited in subsequent discussions of Kafka and China, with the scare quotes—now quotes within quotes, as here—scrupulously maintained and producing a considerable irony: layers of quote marks multiply like gates in the imperial city, putting ever-greater distance between the Mandarin/Confucian world and Kafka’s, precisely to the extent that there develops a tradition of asserting their connection.10 In other words, Gruša’s formulation is true in a sense other than intended. Austria-Hungary is indeed like China, not, however, because the one nation’s political structure resembles the other’s, but in the sense that the ethnographic imaginary of “China” has long been constitutive of the imaginary of bureaucracy, of the absolutist state, of imperial media, and imperial messages. To cite but one example, one contemporaneous with Kafka’s text: Max Weber writes in a 1915 essay that “the increasingly bureaucratic structure of Chinese political structures and of their means [Träger: “carriers” in the standard translation] also marked the character of the whole literary tradition” (Weber, I, 395;

8. Canetti also discusses several other possible China connections; see Canetti, 36–37, 92–94, and 97–98 (42–43, 99–102, and 105–106). 9. For a summary of these Sino-Austrian tropes, see Meng, 17–18. 10. The passage is quoted in Meng, 17–18; Hsia, 77; and in Lemon, 1.



416; emphasis added).11 The point here is not whether Weber—much less Kafka—is right about China, but rather that they are working with a common grammar in which bureaucracy and Chineseness are imagined by means of, if not by, each other: Austria-Hungary is so bureaucratic that it is Mandarin, which means it is very bureaucratic, about which, see also “Austria-Hungary.” Visions of bureaucracy, of empire and communication, are not simply “projected” onto but are themselves already inflected by an ethnographic imaginary. For reasons I will detail in my introduction, China is particularly exemplary of the power of the state when that power is understood as an effect of writing. A long view of these affiliations would go back at least as far as William Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses, and move forward through Montesquieu’s account of Oriental despotism, Hegel’s Oriental world, and Marx’s Asiatic mode of production— then on to Weber, Karl Wittfogel, and Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications, finding along the way consistent connections between the oppressive excesses of Oriental governance and the oppressive excesses of Oriental writing.12 The agencies of the letter overwhelm human agency: a specific version of the tail of the letter wagging the dog of spirit. The central mechanism of this “grammar” is a kind of hysteron proteron or, in the vocabulary of more recent history, a “Russian reversal” joke, a form popularized in the American 1980s by émigré comedian Yakov Smirnoff: “In America you go looking for a party. In Soviet Russia, the party goes looking for you” or “In the U.S., you check out books at the library. In Soviet Russia, library checks out you!”—and so on. The discourse of Oriental despotism follows a sometimes

11. In the same passage Weber specifically links the notion of cultural carriers (Träger) to written tradition: “Already during the Warring States Period, the bureaucratic class, shaped by literature (which meant above all exclusively knowledge of writing [Schriftkenntnis]), was the bearer [Träger] of progress” (I, 395; 416; emphasis in original) These passages are taken from the Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Tübingen, 1922–23), specifically from the “Literatenstand” section of “Konfuzianismus und Taoismus,” originally written in 1913 and first published in 1915. A translation of this section appears in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. 12. The relevant sections of Warburton can be found in Warburton, Essai sur les hiéroglyphes égyptiens. On the function of “Oriental despotism” in Montesquieu, see Althusser. See also Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State.



depressingly similar logic: “In Oriental despotism, language speaks you … speech is a secondary representation of writing … the collective will of the people is an expression of the forms of law … individual experiences embody collective received ideas”—and so on. The formula is not purely formal, then, in that it is thematically drawn to the triumph of artifice or culture over nature and, in a political register, to the totalitarian, to the systematic elimination of individual agency by the forces of machine, party, and state. Not least, it is drawn to the idea that language might not be a mere instrument, but something with its own efficacy and relative autonomy. The Russian reversal hasn’t been retired yet. The virtual agency of language more widely familiar since Heidegger’s pronouncement that “die Sprache spricht” lives on in contemporary media theory, as when Bernhard Siegert argues that “postal power ultimately resides with those who own and maintain the hardware, and not with the institutions in the name of which they operate” (256). While this supplemental logic might seem audacious poststructuralist theory in some contexts, it was long taken as common wisdom when attributed to “the Orient,” which had, so to speak, always already gone postal: in the ancient Persian Empire, writes Siegert, “‘people’ did not communicate through the postal system; on the contrary, the postal system communicated through people” (6). The relative autonomy or potential agency of language was also, of course, a central issue in literary modernism and remains one of the enduring questions about literary modernism’s relationship to “modernity.” The Mallarméan ideas that poems are made with words rather than ideas and that “the pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who cedes the initiative to words” (Mallarmé, Œuvres, 366), somewhat ominously came to seem the condition of language in general. In a poetic context, the signifier’s gaining the upper hand over thought might have signaled the liberation of words from ideas, but when applied to culture and history more generally this reversal seemed to signal the servitude of ideas to words. The Russian reversal logic of Oriental despotism, in which language speaks man, was no longer just an ethnocentric caricature of various Orients, then, but seemingly one of the most profound insights of Western thought’s account of its own modernity. Once a historically and geographically remote problem for others, the primacy of the signifier seemed increasingly to characterize the West’s own relationship to language. As we will see, modernism’s China represents a kind of extended thought experiment in, or allegory of, the efficacy of the signifier, reflecting



the emergence, in an age of postal-globalization, of what Siegert calls “a ‘presemantic’ standard for signifiers” (110). It is therefore hardly surprising that Kafka features so prominently in the influential media theory of Friedrich Kittler, who specifically refers to “imperial messages” as the “vanishing point of Kafka’s writing” (Discourse, 306).13 Kittler finds in Kafka’s work a universe in which “the faculty of all faculties, the Mind or Spirit, does not exist,” as a result of which “there are only the specialized functions of specified carriers of information.” “For this reason,” he specifies, “so many of Kafka’s texts deal with the materiality of channels of information” (338). The choice of “China” as a figure of noncommunication thus brings together a recognizably Kafkaesque project and a broader historical affiliation of China with specific forms of communicative organization. After all, if one is trying to imagine a world in which there is no faculty of faculties but only channels of information, no Spirit but only materiality, what better resource than the known entity of a world to which—as Hegel wrote and so many others long believed—“everything spiritual is alien”? In other words, it is only the message, so to speak, of Kafka’s parable that is general; its medium is made up of historically specific ethnographic codes. Like “Kafkaesque,” the signifier “Chinese” has had a considerable career as shorthand for paralyzing institutional complexity. With its cumbersome bureaucracy, its monuments and decrees, its imperial pomp, and perverse refusal to recognize the world around it, this Imperial China is, for all its ostensible exoticism, strangely familiar. Indeed, in Kafka’s world the question seems less whether such a “China” is a displaced figure of Europe’s own political questions than whether it manages to be much of anything else. In sum, Gruša’s efforts to establish the literality of the Kafka–China equation ended up foregrounding its figural character not because the connection is forced but precisely because it is so well established. The equation takes place not in the mode of reference, however, but in the mode of citation. In the case of Kafka, then, “China” is far from being a free-floating signifier whose meaning or rules of use are the product of literary fancy. Even if Kafka’s text does not exactly represent or even claim to represent China, it nonetheless remains guided and perhaps constrained by the internal topical consistency of “China.” This individual case

13. In addition to Kittler, for important work on Kafka and media see Corngold, and Siegert.



raises broader methodological questions about how to understand the ways in which texts make use of “China” even when not exactly representing it. Far from mistaking all references to “the Orient” for legitimate representations, Western literary modernism has often knowingly deployed the topos of “China” as a relatively free-floating signifier, as part of an ironic and aestheticized staging of its own selfalienation. Indeed, the ostensibly self-effacing gesture of claiming not to represent is itself an essential part of the Orientalist tradition, from Chateaubriand to Wilde to Barthes and beyond.14 To the extent that this is the case, the demystifying gestures of many critiques of Orientalism come too late: yes, “the Orient” functioned as a shifter with an imaginary, ideological, and aesthetic function rather than as a properly proper name, but it was often explicitly understood as such. This was the source of much of its rhetorical power. Even if the meaning of such a “China” is not exclusively or even predominately determined by its correspondence to any real historical or geopolitical entity, then, the signifier “China” has a history that makes certain uses more resonant and even more grammatical than others. Indeed, precisely to the extent that a citation of China distances itself from referential claims, it tends all the more to rely on the conventions of what we talk about when we talk about China.

Reference and/or Citation To return to the problem with which I began, it must be admitted that those who would say that Kafka’s China is not about China are in most respects clearly correct: to read Kafka’s parable as anything like an effort to represent contemporary or historical China would be to miss the text’s allegorical character. At the same time, however, the very choice of China as allegorical or parabolic vehicle has its own significance. It is one thing to say that “An Imperial Message” is not about China in any straightforward sense, quite another to conclude that China is therefore irrelevant to its meaning or to the way “China” functions in the text. The fact that “An Imperial Message” is in some sense not really “about” China doesn’t mean that the Chinese setting, the vehicle of the allegory if you like, means nothing. Given the extent to which the relationship between form and meaning, between

14. See Bush, “The Other of the Other?”



citation and expression, is precisely what is at stake in the world Kafka’s work presents, we should not overlook the medium by which such complex meditations on the relationship between medium and message are conveyed.15 This point would be readily granted with respect to many classic Kafka themes: even if they are also about something else, all those fathers surely have something to do with fathers. Even if a cigar is seldom just a cigar, sometimes it is, among other things, a cigar. I have, so far, suggested that we might distinguish between referential and citational uses of China, that is, between texts whose use of China relies on some at least implicit representation or account of a real place, and those texts that largely re-cite conventional topoi in ways that would render referential accuracy essentially moot. This distinction is, however, for reasons I will elaborate over the course of this study, ultimately untenable. To begin with, given the extent to which citations rely on earlier iterations of themselves, we cannot exactly say that Kafka’s use of China is citational rather than referential. After all, the citational use of China entails at least this minimal degree of reference: to a tradition of citations. Such a tradition is not given in the text itself, nor is it immediately implicit in the standard definitions of the words it uses. At a minimum, one must recall that “China” is the sort of thing one is not supposed to take literally: not a constative statement about China, exactly, but a performative directive whose efficacy is testified to by how widely it is obeyed. Weakening the distinction between citation and reference not only suggests that citation constitutes a mode of reference but also recalls that reference involves an irreducible element of citation. As a generalization, this argument would largely be a reiteration of ideas familiar to literary criticism at least since the early work of Jacques Derrida.16 My point here, however, is more specific, namely that Western uses of China have historically often been about precisely the complexities of

15. In some ways this is merely a restatement of the traditional literary problem of the relationship between realism and allegory, a problem by no means foreign to reflections on Kafka, with whom seemingly infinitely multiplying levels of meaning and an increased focus on the literality of the text are, if not identical, then at least broadly simpatico. It is important to recall the extent to which Kafka was a realist in the most standard sense, one whose literary heroes included Dickens and Flaubert. 16. See especially “Signature, Event, Context” in Marges [Margins of Philosophy].



the relationship between citation and reference. In other words, it is not at all a question of doing a “deconstructive” reading of the ways in which China has been used in the West, but rather of recognizing the extent to which “China” long served as a means of thinking and writing about aspects of language whose explicit critical formulation largely had to await the advent of “theory.” As we have already seen, and as I will argue over the remainder of the book, “China” is very often the stuff of parables about the parasemantic dimensions of language: its gestural volume, its performative effects or inscriptive force, its iconic glamour, mimetic charge, or mute persistence. In the case of citation, we often find citational uses of China that turn out to be about, precisely, the problems of citation.17 “China” frequently assumes an abyssal character in Western stories about it, most especially in those that are not really supposed to be about China. Perhaps this is why “China” so often hides in plain sight: because in Euro-American culture “China” is not just any signifier, but often functions as a kind of signifier of the signifier, aka writing. China tends to be read out of Western modernism not because it is hidden or erased but because it is, like the letter, readily acknowledged but always understood to mean something other than itself and therefore nothing in and of itself. This China is repressed in the West’s understanding of its own modernity only in the precise sense that, as Derrida argues in “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” repression is “not forgetting […] and not exclusion. Repression […] does not push away, does not flee nor exclude an exterior force; it contains an interior representation, sketching within itself a space of repression.” The “symptomatic form” in which the repressed returns for Derrida is, of course, “the metaphor of writing that haunts European discourse” (L’écriture, 293; 197). I am suggesting, then, that China, and Chinese writing in particular, acquire their textual functions not merely by virtue of the recursive figural logics just outlined but also for historical reasons. More precisely: these figural logics are themselves an expression of the West’s difficulty of relating to China as historical. In other words, the complexities attending the referential status of China in literary modernism reflect the referential complexities of a real historical relationship. That

17. A modernist locus classicus here is Brecht: “The Chinese artist […] limits […] himself to merely citing the figures to be presented” (22:204). This will later be echoed in Barthes’s description of Japanese theater: “As Brecht has seen, here reigns citation” (RBII, 786; Empire, 54).



is, the narrowly literary-hermeneutic problem of whether a given text is or is not about China reflects the West’s more fundamental problem of recognizing the contemporaneity and even reality of China. I again want to emphasize that this is at least as much a contemporary problem as a “modernist” one, as attested to by the persistent nonrecognition of China in contemporary readings of the modern period. This nonrecognition often assumes the form of an allegorical or figural reading putatively more sophisticated than a literal reading. Accordingly, the goal of my study must be not simply to reconstruct the internal logic of a self-referential set of citations, but, more important, to reconstitute the various senses in which these citations were themselves referential. One way to do this is to consider the citational material (“China”), the manifest content if you will, as itself a historical trace. Consider the lessons of Susan Buck-Morss’s “Hegel and Haiti.” Buck-Morss demonstrates that the figure of the slave in Hegel’s famous discussion of the master/slave dialectic probably has something to do with, of all things, slavery. From this conclusion she goes on to make broader arguments about the figure of the slave in European political theory more generally. In ways that correspond to my own study, she emphasizes the extent to which her recovery of the historical meaning of the slave figure has less to do with correcting the historical blind spots of, say, the Enlightenment than with demonstrating that past thinkers might actually have known more about and been more interested in the non-West than are contemporary critics. While this book benefits from the insights of what is now collectively described as “theory,” its arguments aim at the reconstitution of a historical context and in many ways are rooted in a relatively straightforward method of reading. In contrast to, for example, Walter Benjamin’s famous claim that the absence of the crowd in Baudelaire’s work is the strongest proof of its omnipresence, or even Colleen Lye’s recent important work on the nonthematic presence of Asiatic labor in such works as Grapes of Wrath, my own work simply asks readers to consider the case for allowing “China” to have something to do with China. Such literalism is counterintuitive only to the extent that one assumes that all uses of “China” must always be either explicitly and conventionally representational or purely formal, a dichotomy that cannot possibly do justice to the rich variety and often singular opacity of modernist literary forms. The signifiers that compose a given text’s topical reserves might be read in a strongly literal way, not, I argue, in order to emphasize a rhetorical autonomy whose relationship



to history would necessarily remain undecidable, but precisely in recognition of their historical character. The deconstructive claim that “meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless” (Culler, 123)— to cite Jonathan Culler’s elegant formulation—is by no means antireferential or antihistorical then, but rather signals a potentially limitless series of opportunities to rediscover and redefine the historicity of any given text. This would especially be the case with a signifier such as “China,” which has historically served as one of the ways in which Westerners have thought about the problem of the literal and the figurative.18 If literature in general might be said to constitute an obliquely historical record of the world in which it is made, the literature of modernism is perhaps especially oblique. Accordingly, if we are to understand the full complexities of Western modernism’s relationship to China it cannot only be in terms of expressly formulated opinions, overt political sympathies, or direct cultural borrowing. We must reckon with a potentially wide range of textual formations and semiotic structures or processes, each calling for its own ways of reading. This is not to be theoretical rather than historical, but simply to recognize that “history” comes to us in many forms and that our ways of recovering that history must therefore be multiple as well. I offer “strong” readings of my texts not in order to wrest them away from historical context per se, but to wrest them from what I consider to be inaccurately or inadequately reassembled historical contexts. As I trace the relations among China, writing, and media in the chapters that follow, I will be concerned less with determining whether a given text really is or is not about China than with defining some of the ways in which “China” functions as a resource for reconceptualizing reference in general. Such a distinction does not give the upper hand to a hermetic over a more reference-oriented, historical approach to modernism’s China because the kinds of “representation” explored here are precisely those in which the example, the vehicle, or the medium are difficult if not impossible to distinguish from the paradigm, the tenor, or the message. To echo Eric Hayot’s conclusion to Chinese Dreams, we can think about modernism’s China as not just

18. For example, see Saussy, The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic; Mungello, ed. on the Chinese rites controversy and, indirectly, Barthes’s Empire of Signs.



something thought about but also something thought with—and in the case of the ideograph, moreover, as a historically specific something with which to think about what it means to think with more generally. This is an issue that I believe is absolutely central to any understanding of literary modernism’s relationship to modernity. What was literary modernism if not an exploration of the belief (hopeful, fearful, or gleefully destructive) that linguistic form is inseparable from individual, social, and historical destiny? “Ideographic modernism” is therefore both the subject matter of this book and its methodology, both an unwritten chapter in the history of modernism and a revision of its historiography. Despite its many failings (chief among which might fairly be called its Orientalism), modernist ideo-graphy makes legible something that conventional theories of modernism’s cultural ideo-logy generally do not, namely the constitutive role of cultural difference in modernism’s efforts to grasp and transform, through the language of the other, the otherness of its own language. By taking seriously the value of the mere medium of “China” as a figural resource, an ideographic reading of modernism opens up the various senses in which these traces might be said to be “about” China and, therefore, proposes a more general reconsideration of the ways in which the text of Euro-American modernity conceals and reveals the specificity of its history and of its place in the wider world. In some ways, then, this book participates in the collective reexamination, since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), of the roles of both real and imagined Orients in Western culture. Modernism’s China indeed often repeats earlier representations of China that can fairly be called “Orientalist” in a straightforwardly pejorative sense. That being said, this book is only in a minimal sense about the falsity of Western views of China: the point is not to say that the modernists got China wrong. Very often they did, of course. But the West’s relationship to and interest in China during the modernist period was far more extensive and real than is generally credited; this relationship needs to be understood in terms more open and more complex than a reduction of the entire subject to an up or down vote on correctness or incorrectness. Moreover, the point of my “ideographic” approach is precisely to enrich the terms in which we talk about cross-cultural or historical representation. Far from being exclusively objects of representation, China and Chinese writing have served as important means of reimagining the West’s most basic traditions and technologies of representation. What I am calling



“ideographic modernism” involves a kind of cultural misrepresentation, certainly, but it also demonstrates how representational practices are themselves reshaped in response to cross-cultural imaginings and encounters. Like its more widely studied cousin primitivism, ideographic modernism figures the other of modernity and modernity as other. But whereas modernist primitivism was largely a repository of hopes and fears related to the body (sexuality, violence, dance, rhythm, and labor), modernism’s China worked with the great themes of civilization: ritual and custom, bureaucracy and archives, criminal punishment and law, historiography and monumentality, secularization and materialism, and of course writing. Ideographic modernism reflected and refracted not the body of modernity, but its language, or rather the body of its language: stereotype, cliché, type, groove, inscription, or the electromagnetic waves of the wireless. In an oft-cited passage, Benjamin writes: “The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.” He adds in a footnote, “Words, too, can have an aura of their own” (GSI, 64 n.; SWIV, 354n77). Neither a straightforward expression of race or racism, nor simply a misrepresentation (hostile and/or adoring), primitivism, in its contradictory, sometimes liberatory, sometimes offensive complex of fact, fiction, and fantasy, has come to be recognized as a kind of fun house mirror of modernity’s body—a mirror that can look back because it was other people all along.19 So too ideographic modernism. This book contributes to the historiography of that modernism, that modernity, one that lives on in our own ambivalent position between Benjamin’s pursuit of the “dialectic at a standstill” and earlier centuries’ rejection of, in the words of J. G. Herder, a hieroglyphic “standstill of the understanding.” Perhaps if we can learn to recognize the extent to which the experience and theory of modernity (commodities, dreams, enigmatic gestures, faces in the metro …) was always an experience and a theory of the other (there, hiding on the surface), then can modernism’s hieroglyphs and ideographs again be read, for the first time, as hieroglyphs and ideographs of “our” modernity.

19. On primitivism in modernism, see Flam and Deutsch (editors), North (Dialect), Taussig, and Torgovnick.

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introduction “no better instrument”: The Chinese Written Character as a Medium Even their kind of written language is a great hindrance for the development of the sciences, or rather the other way around: because true scientific interest is not present, the Chinese have no better instrument for the presentation and conveyance of thoughts. —G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History


he “ideograph” is conventionally understood as a form of writing that is ancient and Chinese. It is neither. The ideograph is a modern Western invention, one contemporaneous with, and related to, such other modern inventions, such other forms of writing, as the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, and the cinematograph. Such an understanding of the ideograph calls not for a history of Western sinology, nor even exactly for a history of the Western reception of Chinese writing, but rather for an analysis of how Western modernism used Chinese writing to figure modernity’s simultaneous demystification and magical estrangement of language: language’s reduction to a reified, almost technical medium, on the one hand, and the revelation of its material being in an explosion of textures, tones, and shapes, on the other. This ideograph was, as Michael Taussig writes of the photograph, “a defetishizing/reenchanting modernist magical technology of embodied knowing” (24). The ideograph was, in a word, a way of thinking about language as writing. Modernism’s newly intense relationship to this dimension of language was not just a matter of narrowly literary concern, but was understood to have important social and even political consequences. Indeed, the question of the material forms of language was, for my writers, often precisely

Hegel, 12:169–70; History 134.


4 ideographic modernism about the possible relationships between linguistic and aesthetic form, on the one hand, and social-historical consciousness, on the other. In the prologue, I detailed this book’s overarching methodological stakes and ambitions, namely an “ideographic” reading of modernism’s China. In this introduction, I will provide the historical background and context for the book’s central topic, the ways in which modernism’s scriptive imaginary interwove speculations about Chinese writing and responses to technological media into the figure of the ideograph.

China Western conceptions of China have of course never been univocal, but it will be useful to begin with a few broadly accepted generalizations.1 Direct Western knowledge of China became significant only toward the end of the sixteenth century. Over the course of the seventeenth century, Jesuit reports generally dominated Western perceptions; by the eighteenth century, many Enlightenment figures, most famously Voltaire, were championing China as a model secular state with a meritocratic bureaucracy.2 While views of China up to and through the Enlightenment were by no means universally positive, neither were they systematically or thoroughly hostile. With the rise of ethnology and progressivist philosophies of history, however, China’s image in the West took a turn for the worse. Conventionally dating from Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), but acquiring the status of common wisdom over the course of the nineteenth century, the now-familiar clichés of the immobile empire, mass psychology, Oriental despotism, and the like solidified.3

1. For general surveys of Western views of China, see Jones, Spence, and Mackerras. 2. For studies of Western views of China through the early modern period and into the Enlightenment, see Etiemble, Jensen, Pinot, Porter, and Saussy (Discourse, chapter 2). 3. The generalizations to follow are based primarily on nineteenth-century Western European discourses, which are most relevant for the modernist context I am trying to establish. While there is considerable overlap with the discourses I am describing, for recent accounts of nineteenth-century figurations of Chineseness in the United States, see Lee and Lye.

introduction 5 La Chine devant l’Europe (1859), by the Marquis d’Hervey-SaintDenys, an important translator of Chinese poetry, is representative of this nineteenth-century view. While specifically intending to defend China against misunderstandings caused by European prejudice (the written language is not as impossible as it seems, the Chinese aren’t as effeminate as Indians, etc.), the text describes a China characterized by absolutism in every aspect of its life. D’Hervey’s defense of China is firmly based on a respect, if you will, for the complete oppositeness of China, which “we” can no more understand than it can understand “us”: “China is a world of its own, having no relation to ours. We march ahead and she rests [. . .] we count by days, she counts by centuries; with us, movement, with her, immobility” (145). China “has not,” he asserts, “changed notably” for more than two thousand years.4 Such assertions of absolute difference—to speak nothing of such absolute constancy—are suspicious on principle, protesting too much. The reasons for this are more apparent in another text from 1859, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is considerably less confident about the distinctness of Europe and China. While not a central subject of Mill’s essay, China plays a notable role in his reflections on liberty, serving as a “warning example” of “the despotism of Custom”, and the dangers of mass culture in modern Europe itself (Mill, 80). The growth of global commerce and the increasingly strong and direct connections among the various parts of the world all favor “the Chinese ideal of making all people alike,” to such an extent that Europe itself will “tend to become another China” (81). Here we see the “China” of Europe’s modernity: a place, a topos, called upon to represent something both radically other and uncomfortably familiar, something banished to Europe’s archaic, primitive past, and an image of, if not its present, then its possible future. Moreover, it is precisely those features that define China as premodern and non-Western (historical stasis, materialism, mass conformity, an absence of liberty) that make the

4. Other accounts speak of three or more millennia of stagnancy; conversely, the “continuity” of Chinese civilization, among Chinese cultural nationalists, is sometimes extended to five millennia.

6 ideographic modernism modern West resemble “China.”5 One of the most recurrent ways in which “China” was written into European modernity as a figure at once archaic and modern was, precisely, in terms of the problem of writing.

Writing Functioning as the synecdoche of a set of cultural forms and social institutions, as well as of an imagined Chinese mentality, the grammatological topic of the ideograph is inseparable from an ethnographic projection of China. As Zhang Longxi notes, “Western views of Chinese culture and the Chinese language are [. . .] closely intertwined from the very start” (Opposites, 99). Chinese has routinely provided Western observers with the ultimate linguistic counterexample. In his famous 1827 Letter to Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, Wilhelm von Humboldt, reflecting on the comparability of Chinese to Indo-European languages, describes their relationship as “not only different, but opposed, as much as the general nature of languages allows” (48).6 Even the most vigilant critics of binary oppositions have had trouble resisting this oppositional logic; Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie notoriously describes Chinese writing as bearing witness to “a civilization developing outside of all logocentrism” (138; 90). To many observers, then, Chinese has presented a language as different from Western languages7 as a language can be, and 5. Consider the following remark from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951): “Conversely, the chances for totalitarian rule are frighteningly good in the land of traditional Oriental despotism, in India and China, where there is almost inexhaustible material to feed to the power-accumulating and man-destroying machinery of total domination, and where, moreover, the mass man’s typical feeling of superfluousness—an entirely new phenomenon in Europe, the concomitant of unemployment and the population growth of the last 150 years—has been prevalent for centuries in the contempt for the value of human life” (311). A fairly astonishing remark, given the recent European history that was precisely Arendt’s subject. 6. In Humboldt, De l’origine des formes grammaticales. 7. The expression “Western languages” echoes the usage of the tradition I am describing and is of course itself very much a tenuous construct. Genealogically speaking, Hindi and Farsi are closer to Romance and Germanic languages than are Hungarian or Basque, for example, but the tradition I cite is making cultural rather than properly linguistic claims.

introduction 7 as the most striking symptom of this linguistic difference, the Chinese writing system in particular has been the point of departure for much speculation and fantasy.8 Just as the ideograph is treated as a synecdoche of China, “China” is in many ways an “ideograph” writ large. “China” becomes, in short, what a culture would look like if, pace Humpty Dumpty, words rather than speakers were the master, if the means of civilization became their own ends, if history were a series of disconnected events and not a meaningful narrative of progress. The reasons for the ideograph’s tautological bond to “China” become more apparent when we consider its history. The term ideograph is a Western invention, alien to East Asian vocabularies.9 In comparison to “hieroglyph,” which entered English in the late sixteenth century and whose cognates date back to ancient Greek, “ideograph” is decidedly modern, having been coined in 1822 by Champollion to distinguish hieroglyphic graphemes with a semantic function from those with a phonetic value. The earliest English example of “ideograph” cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Edward Hincks’s On Hieroglyphics (1835–40), where it is used in this sense. Beyond this lexicographic connection, the Chinese and ancient Egyptian writing systems are frequently associated with each other in the Western imagination, particularly in their uses as topoi—this despite the lack of any

8. Derrida describes the necessity of the relationship between China and writing in the following terms: “The concept of Chinese writing functioned [. . .] as a sort of European hallucination. This does not imply anything random: this function obeyed a rigorous necessity. And the hallucination translated less an ignorance than a mis-recognition [méconnaissance]. It was not disturbed by the limited but real knowledge later available with respect to Chinese writing” (Grammatologie, 119; 80). 9. Linguists and scholars of East Asia today often prefer the more modest term logograph (roughly the sign of a word rather than of an idea), but the word ideograph and its association with Chinese writing remain in common circulation. See Saussy, “The Prestige of Writing” (in Great Walls), which includes a discussion of distinctions in the Chinese tradition between more and less imagistic signs, dating from the Shuowen jiezi (second century a.d.). One might contrast with Western terminology that of Japanese, which distinguishes logographic Chinese characters from the hiragana and katakana syllabaries as kanji (“Chinese letters/ characters”), suggesting a historic and ethnographic origin with its own importance, but having nothing to do with “ideas.”

8 ideographic modernism historical contact between the languages.10 While this association has been consistently reinforced by Egypt’s and China’s mutual categorization as Oriental, it also reflects these writing systems’ overlapping and privileged roles in the general history of grammatology, predating the coining of the word ideograph. Plato’s ambivalent relationship to the new technology of writing provides the obvious starting point for a long-range history of Western ideas about writing.11 For Derrida’s Plato, the very definition of writing is “to repeat without knowing” (Dissémination, 90; 73). The difference between speech and writing is the difference between interiority and exteriority, true memory and empty repetition, the domestic and the foreign, even life and death: “The limit (between the inside and the outside, the living and the nonliving) separates not just speech and writing but memory as an unveiling (re)producing presence and remembrance as repetition of the monument: truth and its sign, the being and the type” (135; 108-9). Plato condemns writing because it substitutes an externalized form of memory that works against true memory, encouraging the forgetting against which aletheia struggles. Derrida finds in Plato a “subtle opposition” between two kinds of knowing, “between two forms and two moments of repetition” (168; 135): the living logos of the dialectic is opposed to, and threatened by, the “dead and rigid knowledge enclosed in biblia, accumulated histories, nomenclatures, recipes and formulas learned by heart” (92; 74).

10. Writing on China, Herder presents a modest remnant of this claim: “If ancient Egypt were before us we would, without permitting ourselves to dream of an interrelated genealogy, see in many parts [of the languages] a similarity, which the different parts of the world modified differently according to handed down traditions” (Herder, 285). For a brief survey of Enlightenment debates about possible connections between Egyptian and Chinese, see Janine Hartman. For a relatively late instance in which the terms are used interchangeably as topoi, see Antonin Artaud, Le théâtre et son double. 11. On the problem of writing in Plato, see, in addition to Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination, Havelock. On orality and literacy in general, see Olson and Ong. For a series of efforts to correlate developments in writing to cultural psychology, see the collection L’Ecriture et la psychologie des peuples (1963) in which, for example, Marcel Cohen states: “Because traces of the individual reveal the particularities of the mind of the one who writes, national traces should to a certain extent allow for an investigation of the collective mind (esprit) of peoples” (5).

introduction 9 While Plato cannot be said to have had an idea of “the Orient,” we find in his texts many of the main features of later Western discourses on Oriental writing, including the alliance of writing with constraint, petrifaction, and stasis, as well as its natural affinity to tyranny. Just as, in Hegel, writing “is to speech what China is to Europe” (Grammatologie, 41; 25), so too in Plato’s Timaeus, writes Derrida, “the distance between Egypt and Greece” parallels that “between writing and speech” (Dissémination, 124; 100). Christian Froidefond’s study of ancient Greek images of Egypt has shown that, despite the diversity of what we know of Plato’s views on Egypt, the problem of writing is a recurrent association. Regardless of how strong the connection between writing and Egypt actually was for Plato, later writers’ condemnations of Chinese writing draw on this associative network, attributing to Oriental writing in particular many of the qualities Plato attributes to writing in general. Thus while the fact of Chinese writing would change Western grammatology, in many ways the terms of its reception were set in advance: writing was Oriental before the Orient was invented. The early modern history of Western conceptions of Chinese writing is, understandably, contradictory and complex, not simply because of the inherent linguistic difficulties but because of the varying prejudices (be they negative or positive) attendant to anything related to China, domestic concerns about literacy and priestly elites, the changing values of evidence and textuality that accompanied the rise of modern science, and the persistence of the hermetic tradition of interpreting hieroglyphs. Nicolas Hudson’s Writing and European Thought 1600–1830 provides an extremely valuable survey of European debates about the value and significance of writing from the late Renaissance to Romanticism. Historically, my study begins where Hudson’s ends, and while his has a great deal to say about hieroglyphs and little about Chinese, it is worth providing a brief summary of it here to demonstrate the extent to which early modern ideas about Egyptian writing anticipate modern ideas about Chinese. In Hudson’s account, Renaissance writers were divided over the issue of whether hieroglyphs were a priestly code that withheld (for good or for ill) sacred truths from the general populace or whether the script might provide a model of nonliterate communication. Under the simultaneous pressures of the rise of the merchant class, growing literacy rates, the Protestant Reformation, increased awareness of nonalphabetic and nonliterate societies outside Europe, and the growing prominence of mathematics-based sciences, the prestige of the


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hieroglyph diminished and with it both that of the emblematic tradition it had inspired and of the people who had originally produced it.12 This “demystification of writing” over the course of the seventeenth century increasingly led to the conclusion that “writing has evolved towards ever more efficient forms, culminating in the European alphabets. [. . .] The occult symbolism so relished by Kircher or Fludd as the very insignia of deep philosophizing was thus reinterpreted as an instrument of political and religious oppression, typical of backward and superstitious peoples” (Hudson, 35–36). While the flaws of the actually existing alphabet were acknowledged, “the principle of alphabetic writing was widely applauded as among the most brilliant discoveries in history” (36). In the eighteenth century the significance of nonalphabetic writing systems changed as European thinkers “looked to the distant past not for the fires of Adamic wisdom, but for the nascent sparks of primitive insight” (Hudson, 56). Accompanying this historicization of nonalphabetic scripts as primitive was a general trend toward imagining writing systems not as the creation of an individual genius or founder (often a version of Hermes), but as the gradually evolving product of whole peoples.13 This in turn was part of a more general trend—perhaps best identified by the names Herder and Vico—toward understanding languages as the expression of a national or ethnic identity, an expression that in turn shaped that identity. In the context of Romantic, historicist, and nationalist discourse, the idea that nonalphabetic scripts were in a profound sense prealphabetic scripts would present the alternatives of their being either, happily, the ever-fresh traces of primitive perception or, less happily, the telling symptom of a people unable to advance beyond a rudimentary level of cognition and civilization. These conflicting alternatives provide the overdetermined context within which Chinese writing would be interpreted during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In his study of figurations of China in Kafka’s work, for example, Rolf Goebel has traced back to

12. To be clear: Egypt and its hieroglyphs continued to play an important role in Western literature and spiritualism, but they ceased to be possible models for academic and scientific discourse. For a polemical account of shifting European views of Egypt in relation to race, see Bernal. On Egypt and hieroglyphics in the European imagination more generally, see Assmann, Dieckmann, Froidefond, and Iversen; for the nineteenth-century United States, see Irwin. 13. Warburton’s work was central here; see Derrida, “Scribble”; and Cherpack.



Herder’s Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (1787) many of the “themes and metaphors about China’s stagnant history, imperial institutions, and political immaturity” that will appear in later writers (Goebel, 15). For Herder, writes Goebel, “Egypt is an ethnological parallel to China” (20), the Chinese Empire—in Herder’s words—“an embalmed mummy, painted with hieroglyphs and wrapped in silk” (Herder, 284). Goebel explains that there is a direct link between this political stagnation and the hieroglyph: “The fact that the Egyptians used their hieroglyphs, this ‘imperfect script,’ laboriously for centuries, [Herder] thinks, is a reflection of the people’s poverty of ideas and ‘standstill of the intellect.’ Hieroglyphs are the reason the Egyptians never progressed from the excellent mastery of mechanical crafts and the concentration on ‘sensuous things’ to ‘scientific literature’” (20). Like those of Egyptian hieroglyphs, interpretations of Chinese writing were used to authorize cultural and political as well linguistic conclusions, both frequently drawing on this “ethnological parallel.” As the attention of post-Enlightenment linguistic thought shifted from language in general to languages in their multiple national and ethnic particularities,14 then, Chinese writing increasingly became dissociated from hermetic doctrines and universal characteristics, becoming instead a language that, like all other languages, was understood to express or even impose culturally specific modes of thought and perception. This intellectual tradition, running through Herder and Humboldt in the nineteenth century, through Ernst Cassirer, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Whorf in the twentieth, might be broadly called “linguistic relativism.”15 Humboldt describes the bond between languages and peoples in the following terms: “The spiritual particularities and the linguistic structure of a people stand in such an enmeshed proximity to one another that were one of them given, the other could be completely deduced from it. The language is as it were the external appearance of a people’s spirit; its language is its spirit and its spirit is its language; the two cannot be thought identically enough”

14. See Leo Weisgerber: “If the thoughts of the Enlightenment revolved more around the question: what is language?, there was now imperceptibly shoved into its place the more concrete question: what is a language?” (quoted in Miller, 19). 15. For surveys of linguistic relativism, see Miller, and Penn. For a discussion of the American legacy of this tradition in Boasian anthropology, see Huang. For a discussion of linguistic relativism specifically in relation to Chinese, see Kowal, and Wardy.


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(quoted in Penn, 21). While this was thought to be true of languages in general, it seemed to be especially the case for Chinese, leading Herder to ask: “[I]s not the language of each country the vessel [das Gefäß], in which the ideas of a people are formed, held, and imparted, especially when a nation depends on its language as strongly as [China] and its whole culture descends from it?” (Herder, 285). As Herder’s own portrait of Chinese demonstrates, linguistic relativism does not necessarily imply cultural relativism (in the sense that all cultures are, on their own terms, equal), but simply that the language of a given culture reflects and/or imposes that culture’s worldview.16 Indeed, when language is understood to shape cognition and perception, like a vessel shapes the liquid it contains, most comparative approaches tend to treat some languages as—to use Whorf’s phrase— guiding and constraining more than others. Chinese thus became, on the one hand, merely one example among others (all languages express their national mentality) and, on the other, a limit case (the example of guidance and constraint). The notion that Chinese thought was determined by its language was doubly reinforced by the general cultural prejudice of China as an immobile empire characterized by an ossifying group-think, and by the understanding that Chinese was essentially written and therefore especially prone to “repeat without knowing.” To clarify the logic of these connections between Chinese writing and Orientalist China, I will now examine in some detail two historically important examples of how this interconnectedness was imagined. Before turning to the paradigmatic, systematized presentation in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, it will be helpful to consider first an Enlightenment-era text, Johann David Michaelis’s De l’influence des opinions sur le langage et du langage sur les opinions (1762). Michaelis uses Chinese to critique the project of a universal philosophical language, writing that in such a language “each idea would have its own character, one incommunicable to other ideas, which would make disappear all impropriety and all tropes. Such a language could only consist of written characters; or these characters might still be able to be expressed through articulate sound: in the first case, it would resemble the Chinese written language, which is more a characteristic than a language” (155). Such a one idea = one character writing system implies a social structure that confirms what Michaelis already believes about China: “[T]he learned of China spend their

16. On this distinction in Humboldt, see Miller, 31.



lives learning their language [. . .] they die without having entirely learned it: they therefore spend their lives fashioning an instrument, but when will they use it to make discoveries?” (159). Writing should be a means to an end, but in the case of Chinese the means—the instrument—becomes an end in itself. The whole nation is “reduced to conserving its first forms of knowledge, which it acquired early but does not know how to increase.”17 Unlike for Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for Michaelis Chinese could hardly provide a possible model for a philosophical language: “What a torment for the memory! What total ruin for the sciences! [. . .] we would, like the Chinese, spend our lives trying to retain tens of thousands of characters; and we would further resemble them in the sense that we would have learned only what others know; and it would be impossible to bring any science to perfection” (120). Michaelis clearly lays the blame for Chinese cultural stagnancy not on some racial characteristic but on the writing system. There but for the grace of Cadmus: “[I]f we were crushed by such a painful and eternal characteristic, our modern Prometheuses, who seem to grasp, so to speak, the secrets of heaven, would still be learning the alphabet” (160).18 In addition to stultifying scientific progress, this unruly characteristic forms an insurmountable wall between literate scholars and the illiterate masses. A “veil” is thus erected between the people and the sciences, “almost as the Hieroglyphs had done among the Egyptians: henceforth whatever does not belong to the lettered class is part of the masses; there is no middle” (164).19 17. Herder uses a similar conceit, which will also appear in Hegel: “The majority of their scholarly industriousness is directed toward a mere tool [Werkzeug], without this tool being directed toward anything” (Herder, 285). 18. This idea is found frequently in the literature and dates back at least to Leibniz: “the Chinese having an infinity of characters in accordance with the truth of things, they require a man’s life to learn enough of their writing” (Leibniz, 1703 letter to Bouvet, quoted in Derrida, De la grammatologie, 119; 79-80). Although believing other factors to be at work (including climate), Herder also emphasizes the transformative effects of the Chinese writing system on thought: “so the entire educated way of thinking of the Chinese is painted in artificial and stale hieroglyphs. The difference with which just this kind of writing affects the soul that thinks with it must be unbelievable. It enervates thoughts into sketches [Bilderzügen] and makes the entire way of thinking of the nation into arbitrary characters that are painted or written in the air” (Herder, 285). 19. For the topos of Oriental writing as a veil, see also Warburton, and Derrida, “Scribble.”


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Despite such negatives, Michaelis evinces a certain fascination with Chinese, a language understood to be so fundamentally different from European languages that it must be included in any sort of universal or comparative study of language and thought: “It would be necessary to know how to bring together the languages of the most distant nations and which do not share with ours that connection which subsists, as I said, among all those of Europe, and among those that are known under the name of Oriental languages:20 it would be necessary, for example, to be as familiar with the Chinese language as one is with one’s own language” (143–44).21 The radical otherness of Chinese provides a comparative perspective from which to correct the errors induced by the limitations of any one language or language family. If Chinese in isolation is a language that embodies the dangers of excessive guidance and constraint, as part of a comparison it provides an important corrective to the false universality of “one’s own” language.22 Whatever failings it may have inflicted on its people, then, Chinese writing, in Michaelis’s view, implies a form of knowledge not yet included under the West’s big tent, but one that perhaps should be. This would continue to be the upside of linguistic relativism: because each language is said to embody a unique worldview, languages other than one’s own offer “an antidote to the a priori assumption of innate categories of thought” (Penn, 11). In Whorf ’s view, “the forms of a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived systematizations of his own language—shown readily enough by a candid comparison and contrast with other languages, especially those of a different linguistic family” (Whorf, 252). If knowledge of other languages does not allow a reshaping of the vessel that is one’s own language, it might at least make the contours of that vessel more visible. Whorf concludes: “The best approach is through an exotic language, for in its study we are at long last pushed willy-nilly out of our ruts. Then we find that

20. “Oriental languages” here refers primarily to the Semitic languages, from which Michaelis, an important Semitist, draws many of his examples. 21. Similarly: “I would wish that a philosophical mind who had a perfect knowledge of our languages would join that of some foreign language, Chinese for example, or one of the American languages, and undertake the examination of this matter” (Michaelis, 137). 22. An asymmetry to be repeated: the mind-expanding effects of a Chinese speaker learning, for example, French, tend to be underplayed.



the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own” (138). While the motives and the “it” were quite different, Whorf’s ideas are broadly sympathetic, and contemporaneous, with Ezra Pound’s claim that “no single language is CAPABLE of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension” (ABC, 34), later to be more tersely formulated as the dictum “it can’t be all in one language” (Cantos, 583). In sum, Michaelis’s account of Chinese anticipates some of the ways in which, for modernism, the ideograph figured not simply a different writing system, but a point of entry into a radically other worldview. As Pound would later write: “The ideograph is a door into a different modality of thought” (Machine, 88). Although Michaelis’s portrait of Chinese is generally not admiring, it is marked by an ambiguity that would be largely smoothed over by Hegel’s more systematic Idealism. In Hegel’s Philosophy of History, Chinese religion, philosophy, historiography, law, morality, and of course writing are all seen as symptomatic of the Chinese mind/spirit (Geist), or rather the lack thereof. Because it is more explicit and systematic than earlier texts, Hegel’s narrative reveals how essential is the connection I have already remarked between the Orient and writing. Hegel is both paradigmatic and influential in the way he narrates materiality out of language, figuring all the negatives of the Orient, and of writing, as sublated and resolved by the course of universal history. Following convention, Hegel assumes numerous similarities between Egypt and China. Both are “Oriental,” their modes of thought essentially pre- or unhistorical, and their writing systems reflect this. According to Hegel, what remains of Egypt is a “land of ruins” that has left a record of itself only in its art (12:245; Philosophy of History, 198).23 He asserts: “We must acknowledge the preeminence of a people that has put down its spirit in works of language over one that has left behind for posterity only mute works of art” (16:441; Philosophy of Religion, 2:637, n. 341). Although aware of the existence of Egyptian texts (and indeed their recent decipherment: Champollion’s Letter to Dacier was published in 1822, the year Hegel gave the first version of the lectures that would become his Philosophy of History), Hegel nonetheless concludes that Egypt failed to express its spirit in words because in his Egypt “the written language is still hieroglyphs and the basis for these only the sensuous image, not the letter itself” (12:246;

23. Hegel here again echoes Herder, for whom Egypt is “a ruin of primeval times [der Vorzeit]” (Herder, 285).


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Philosophy of History, 199). As the “still” and the “only” indicate, Hegel’s Egypt is situated just outside a normative teleology: the Egyptians are stuck at the level of sensuous representation (Vorstellung), unable to progress to the generality, much less to the concrete universality, of concepts and ideas. The hieroglyph is thus the linguistic and cognitive analog of the pyramids in the Aesthetics: symbols that never evolve into signs.24 As Derrida writes of Hegel’s semiology: “There is more freedom manifest in the production of the sign than in that of the symbol. The spirit is more independent and closer to itself in [the sign]. In the symbol, by contrast, it is a bit more exiled in nature” (Marges, 99; 86). While the sign successfully sublates its materiality, the symbol cannot entirely let go of it. The alphabet is therefore “in and for itself [an und für sich] the more intelligent” form of writing because it “brings Spirit from the sensuous-concrete to an attentiveness to more formal [concerns], the articulated word and its abstract element, and does something essential to found and to purify the basis of interiority in the subject” (Hegel, 10:274–76; Philosophy of Mind, 216-18). The disastrous consequences of nonalphabetic writing on the individual subject are apparent in Chinese culture as a whole: “A free, ideal realm of Spirit has no place here and that which we can call scientific is of an empirical nature. [. . .] Even their kind of written language is a great hindrance for the development of the sciences, or rather the other way around: because true scientific interest is not present, the Chinese have no better instrument for the presentation and conveyance of thoughts” (12:169–70; Philosophy of History, 134–35). In Hegel’s philosophy the distinction between East and West corresponds to the difference between sign and symbol; because their language does not evolve toward the universal, from symbol to sign, the tens of thousands of Chinese characters merely register “intuitions [Vorstellungen] themselves” (12:170; 135), mirroring the multiplicity of the phenomenal world prior to its movement toward the universal in and as spirit. The ideograph makes China’s thought a mere aggregate of particulars, giving it an “unhistorical history” (12:136; 105) that is “very particularly Oriental” (12:145; 113). With a

24. To the extent that Egyptian art and writing refer to something beyond sense impressions they are more than the slavish imitation of nature. Because they are based on the sensuous image, however, they remain bound to sensory experience. Just as Egyptian religion mummifies the body, Egyptian writing preserves the body of thought. Hegel’s Egyptians vaguely sense the immortality of the spirit, but still cling to the letter.



hopeless signal-to-noise ratio, the Chinese message is, like its history, static.25 The extreme but broadly representative example of Hegel makes clear that the very idea of the Orient is informed by a teleological conception of writing, just as grammatology is informed by a series of seemingly inevitable “examples” involving the Orient. Because Chinese is, in the Western imagination, essentially written, cultural and historical claims about China are tied to the larger linguistic and philosophical discourses in which “writing” is enmeshed. China, the Chinese language, and Chinese writing are so metonymically proximate that for a time “Oriental writing” becomes nearly as much a redundancy as “Western logos.” The scholarly knowledge to overturn this paradigm was certainly available by Hegel’s time, if not earlier. Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat’s Elémens de la grammaire chinoise (1822) cites a series of precursors going back to 1705, and criticizes the “exaggerated” sense of difficulty associated with Chinese, whose study, he asserts, “is no more difficult than that of any other language” (xxvii). He specifically dismisses the notion that the writing system is unmanageable. Already in his 1838 Dissertation on the Nature and Character of the Chinese System of Writing, Peter Du Ponceau had provided a detailed history of misconceptions of Chinese writing and a lucid debunking of many of the myths surrounding it. Despite these and other important advances in the developing field of sinology, the existing myths about Chinese would in many ways become stronger with the rise of scientific linguistics and with the more general application of natural-scientific models to culture. Robert Richards has traced the transformation of essentially Hegelian and Humboldtian ideas in step with the rise of biology, historical positivism, and racialized science. According to Richards, August Schleicher and

25. In one sense, ideographic writing is, for Hegel, an improvement on the hieroglyph, “a progress in formalizing abstraction, a detachment as concerns the sensuous and the natural symbol,” as Derrida writes, but even this stage merely corresponds to the moment of abstract understanding that “never recovers what it loses” (Marges, 119-20;102). Hegel writes: “Because there [in China] the contradiction of objective being and the subjective movement toward it is still lacking, so is all changeability excluded, and the constant, which eternally reappears, substitutes for what we would call the historical” (12:147; The Philosophy of History, 116). Herder similarly writes: “Even the Chinese have gone further than the Egyptians and have invented from similar hieroglyphs actual thought-characters” (Herder, 323).


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other mid nineteenth-century linguists believed that by coupling the lessons of Humboldtian linguistics with the notion that language reflects the cognitive evolution of the species, they could interpret the contemporary diversity of linguistic forms as a fossil record of the stages of human development. For Schleicher, who first used descent trees to illustrate the relations among language families, languages “have the advantage over other natural organisms since evidence for earlier forms of language and transitional forms have survived in written records— there are considerably more linguistic fossils than geological fossils” (Richards, 27). As an isomorphic trace of spiritual and intellectual development, language might indeed be a better measure of evolutionary status than mere physical form, writes Schleicher in Über die Bedeutung: “A German can indeed display hair and prognathous jaw to match those of the most distinctive Negro head, but he will never speak a Negro language with native facility. . . . To classify human beings we require, I believe, a higher criterion [than external forms], one which is an exclusive property of man. This we find [. . .] in language” (quoted in Richards, 30).26 While Schleicher’s view was certainly not universally held, it provides a clear formulation of an intellectual climate in which it was difficult not to interpret Chinese writing as a fossil record or symptom of a Chinese mentality. In sum, over the course of the nineteenth century, Chinese came more and more to be understood as a historically and conceptually primitive language, with the key piece of evidence being the cumbersome writing system that was said to bind the Chinese to the sensuous particular and to hinder the development of abstract and individual— let alone modern—thought.27 Correspondingly, evolutionary and progressivist philosophies of history doubly banished the exteriority, formalism, and lifelessness of writing: temporally, to a prehistorical past, and spatially, to the East. While the latter gesture was consistently

26. On a Hegelian scaffolding, Schleicher correlates isolating, agglutinating, and flexional languages to the evolutionary status of crystals, plants, and animals (Richards, 33). Here Chinese represents a kind of limit-case, a language that just barely manages to be a language: “Even the Chinese language, the language of a people that seems to want to resist, with a bizarre obstinancy, the path of historical development, even this [language] shows a great differentiation between the more recent ways of speaking and the linguistic monuments of older times” (Schleicher, 1). 27. For a recent revival of this Orientalist play in contemporary dress, see Hannas.



reinforced by the isomorphism of every aspect of Oriental cultures (all static, fossilized, unhistorical, materialist, spatial, despotic, and ideographic), the former relied on a normative teleology that opposed these qualities to the West (dynamic, historical, spiritual, temporal, free, and alphabetic). These isomorphs (present in writers such as Michaelis, systematic in Hegel) and the temporality of their relations became the raw materials of ideographic modernism. Although many of the central features of this nineteenth-century conception of Chinese would persist through the modernist period, the values that gave them their meaning— historical progress, sensuous immediacy, linguistic materiality, utlility, and the primitive, to name but a few—would undergo dramatic transformations. While in nineteenth-century Orientalism the medium was the message only for those people, in the modernist era the letter would take some measure of revenge on Spirit. Thus, what began as a discourse that could with relative confidence locate the vices of writing elsewhere and in the past increasingly seemed to have something to say about present-day Western language and culture. The topos of Oriental writing (both the ideograph and the hieroglyph) would help formulate many of the central concepts of modernity: the commodity (Marx), the dream (Freud), the cinematic and poetic image (Eisenstein, Pound), the allegorical sign (Benjamin), theatrical gesture (Mallarmé, Artaud), and the enigmatic and ideological character of modern experience (Kracauer, Adorno), to cite some of the most prominent examples. Oriental writing’s recurrent appearance at so many of the pivotal moments of modern critical discourse would seem to suggest an overturning of or disregard for the most basic received ideas about the West’s image of the Orient as the antithesis of the modern. Yet it was precisely the ideograph’s traditional associations that made it so well suited for modernist discourse. For a diverse array of modern writers, there was, in a sense quite different from what Hegel intended, no better instrument with which to try to grasp the dramatically changing experience of language at a time when the cultural consequences of the new writings of technological media were increasingly becoming the subject of celebration and concern. “China” provided a readymade image of a world in which, as Nietzsche would have it, “our writing implements work on our thoughts.”28

28. “Unser Schriebzeug arbeitet mit an unseren Gedanken” (Nietzsche, quoted in Kittler, Gramophone, xxix).


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Media In many ways the writers I have been surveying are media theorists avant la lettre; or, to formulate it less anachronistically, much of media theory represents a kind of grammatology for the age of technological media.29 One of the widely acknowledged lessons of the age of technological media is that media are not simply different varieties of neutral vehicles for conveying the same content. They guide and constrain that content in varying ways and with varying effects, so much so that the very notion of “content” comes into question and it can seem, as in Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, that the medium is the message. As my footnotes indicate, I am certainly not the first to suggest that technological media raise many of the same critical concerns as has writing in the past. However, I am making a more specific point here, namely that to the extent that the new media raise these concerns in acute and even hyperbolic forms they tend to correspond specifically to the discourse on Oriental writing I have been describing, rather than simply to that of writing in general. On the level of the individual sign, these new forms of writing— photograph, phonograph, cinematograph, and telegraph, to name only some of the most successful—seemed to many observers to encourage a fetishistic worship of the instrument, of the medium rather than the message. Correspondingly, on a social level these media seemed to be, as had been the ideograph, signs of an emergent mass culture.30 I have already suggested that for a whole array of Western thinkers the problem of the ideograph, like that of China generally, was tied up with the desire to distinguish Western liberty from Oriental despotism, the free activity of the Western spirit from the mechanistic conventionalism of the Oriental subject. The breakdown of this confident ethnographic

29. For wide-ranging discussions concerning technology and “writing,” see Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer, Lenoir, and Clarke and Henderson; for a thoroughgoing critique of “the reduction of technology to writing,” see Mark Hansen, whose work I will address in more detail in chapter 4. Although not specifically focused on “writing,” Danius offers a valuable discussion of the relationship between technology, perception, and literary modernism. 30. Sigfried Kracauer writes: “In the mass ornament nature is deprived of its substance, and it is just this that points to a condition in which the only elements of nature capable of surviving are those that do not resist illumination through reason. Thus, in old Chinese landscape paintings the trees, ponds, and mountains are rendered only as sparse ornamental signs drawn in ink” (Kracauer, 83).



divide made the ideograph and its accompanying imaginary available for use in modernism’s struggle to write of the simultaneously semiotic and cultural transformations of language in the age of technological media. Accordingly, I will consider these modern technological media not as the factual context within which an imagined ideographic writing and an imagined China are to be situated, but rather as elements of a contemporary and related imaginary. That is, I neither argue that modern media theory merely applied to a new object an existing Orientalist discourse, nor that modernist conceptions of China can be reduced to a kind of media theory in exotic dress, but rather that each influenced, mediated if you will, the other over a considerable period of time and in complex but perhaps surprisingly consistent ways. This is simply to say that ideography and Orientalist China are, like modern and contemporary media theory, theories of the cognitive and cultural consequences of writing, broadly construed. Such a paired reading of the Orientalist and media imaginaries suggests that two major aspects of modernism that are rarely if ever discussed together are in fact intimately related—and that the ideograph is one of the places, one of the topoi, where this commonality can be read. One of the recurring themes of Ideographic Modernism will be this interconnectedness of modernism’s ethnographic, linguistic, and technological imaginaries, their adherence to a common grammar.31 Orientalism, the ideograph, and media theory grew up together. Champollion began his pioneering work in Egyptology between 1808 and 1818, culminating in the famous 1822 Letter to Dacier, in which the word ideograph was coined, followed by the 1824 Précis. It was between 1814 and 1815 that Nicéphore Niépce, an amateur Egyptologist, developed the idea of “heliography” or “photography,” followed by some successful but unpreserved experiments between 1816 and 1824, and leading to the first preserved photograph from nature in 1826. Ideograph enters English in 1835, ideogram in 1838, and photograph in 1839. Eisenstein’s account of cinematic montage is perhaps the best-known instance of the ideographic topos being used to describe a modern technological medium, but from the telegraph (1837), through the daguerreotype (1839), the typewriter (1874), the phonograph (1876),

31. This is less news in American critical race studies (see, for example, Andrew Jones, and Weheliye), but the idea is markedly absent from Continental media theory.


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the cinema (1895), and well into the twentieth century, critics would continue to associate new writing technologies with the writing systems of the ancient Orient. In his 1888 essay “The Perfected Phonograph,” Edison refers to Assyrian and Babylonian baked clay cylinders as akin to his own cylinders (Gitelman, Scripts, 139).32 Abel Gance writes of cinema: “By a remarkable regression, we are transported back to the expressive level of the Egyptians” (Gance, 101), and so on. On the social level, the new media, most especially cinema, activated an entire discourse of mass mesmerism and idol worship, itself deeply connected to and frequently echoing Orientalist discourse. Theodor Adorno writes: “In the rulers’ dream of the mummification of the world, mass culture serves as the priestly hieroglyphic script which addresses its images to those subjugated, not to be relished but to be read” (Adorno, “Schema,”quoted in Miriam Hansen, “Mass Culture,” 48–49).33 Historically, then, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence for an at least rhetorical connection between technological media and “Oriental” writing. There is a substantial conceptual kinship as well, one that works on a number of levels. On the semiotic level, media theory and ideography both take as their object signs that endure and travel, that find themselves in contexts unimaginable to those involved in their initial production, signs that seem sooner to imply “the death of intention,” to cite Benjamin’s famous phrase, than the plenitude of spirit. Accordingly, the ideograph and technological media are often imagined to have similar social consequences. In any number of ways, the ideograph-stricken “Oriental” prefigures the benighted victim of media: materialist, superficial, passive, knowing much trivia but no real History, and putty in the hands of despots. Orientalist discourse and media theory’s common tendency toward a morbid rhetoric of embalming, mummification, entombment, and the like reflects their common concern with, and about, the social and political consequences of the medium being too hard to distinguish from the message. The semiotic issues are inseparable from the broader social perils

32. For other examples, see Gitelman, Scripts, 28, 139, and 147. 33. Adorno’s 1953 “Prologue to Television,” Miriam Hansen summarizes, “speaks of mass culture as a ‘language of images,’ (Bildersprache), ‘pictographic writing’ (Bilderschrift) or ‘hieroglyphic writing’ (Hieroglyphenschrift)”; such images are, writes Adorno, “grasped but not contemplated” . . . “as writing, it displays the archaic images of modernity” (Hansen, “Mass Culture,” 47).



of speaking subjects being reduced to a kind of mechanism and of history being brought to a standstill. The most important recent proponent of what might be called mediatic determinism is Friedrich Kittler, who rather bluntly claims that “if media are anthropological a prioris, then humans cannot have invented language; rather, they must have evolved as its pets, victims, or subjects” (Gramophone, 109). Kittler historicizes the modern dissolution of the subject not as a consequence of the death of God, nor as some broader ideological effect of capitalism, for example, but as the specific and necessary consequence of modern technological media: “Ever since the invention of the phonograph, there has been writing without a subject” (44). And elsewhere: “Nietzsche’s notion of inscription, which has degenerated into a poststructuralist catch-all metaphor, has validity only within the framework of the history of the typewriter. It designates the turning point at which communications technologies can no longer be related back to humans. Instead, the former have formed the latter” (211). Kittler’s work provides a rich and occasionally astonishing catalog of readings and examples to support his claims for the importance of media to modern literary historiography, and his efforts to historicize poststructuralist theory are compelling and almost heroic, but also frequently reductive.34 Reflecting his programmatic de-emphasis of anything like a cultural or historical context that would not be determined a priori by media, Kittler’s work has little to say either about non-European modernity or about the ethnographic dimensions of the technological imagination. As my historical sketch of Orientalism and ideography suggests, however, there is a long history of worrying about the problem of what medium does to message. I accordingly read Kittler’s work less as a metahistory of the conditions of possibility for “thought,” “man,” and so on, and more as a rich archive of cultural and intellectual history in which we can witness the contingency of these pseudo-universals being negotiated at particular historical moments. My approach departs from mediatic determinism by emphasizing the extent to which media effects are less the necessary consequences of media than historically and culturally contingent responses to them, 34. Specifically for the period he designates as the discourse network (Aufschreibesystem) of 1900, which coincides with my own historical focus. I should note here that Kittler’s discourse network 1900 roughly corresponds to European modernism, just as discourse network 1800 corresponds to Romanticism. The Anglo-American periodization of modernism is considerably narrower. I will be using the term modernism in this broader sense.


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responses informed by already-existing scriptive and cultural, including ethnographic, imaginaries. Responses to media are themselves mediated by the cultural contexts in which they emerge: existing meanings of visuality in different cultures will, for example, shape the reception of photography.35 Lisa Gitelman’s Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines provides an exemplary instance of media theory that benefits from Kittler’s insights without sacrificing entirely the value of historicization or cultural mediations. I take from Gitelman’s work three important lessons, to which I add a fourth. First, by tracing the emergence of Edison’s phonograph in the contexts of other forms of “phonography” (e.g., shorthand) and of the cultural values surrounding voice, authenticity, and evidence, Gitelman demonstrates the multiple and historically contingent ways in which the social meanings and consequences of technologies develop. For example, where Kittler portrays the phonograph as rendering traces of the Real, Gitelman shows how “the terms of [the] conversion from experience to evidence were already in play, lurking amid the contemporary social meanings of orality and literacy” (Gitelman, Scripts 25). Her broader methodological point is that “artifacts become knowable in part because they are enmeshed within the back and forth and round about of telling what they are, and because telling devolves upon discernable rhetorical conventions, like genres and specialized vocabularies, that are themselves largely the result of unconscious consensus” (7). The emergence of the ideograph within the rhetorical conventions—and various forms of unconscious consensus—that attend Orientalism, philosophical Idealism, and grammatology is not so different, then, from the cultural birth of such technologies as the phonograph and the photograph. Second, Gitelman emphasizes that new media “inspire conflicted cultural moments of self-consciousness about the making of meaning” (224).36 Part of the social meaning of media is that they redefine meaning

35. For a diverse sampling of work on these issues, see Pinney and Peterson, eds., Photography’s Other Histories. 36. Gitelman writes of phonography: “Among the broader contexts within which the limitations of textuality mattered were the comparison and competition of aural and visual forms, questions about human anatomy and perception, and the ongoing definition of public against private life, of citizens as authors and readers as consumers. Add to all of this the sense of unease at the increase of experience in the modern moment, demonstrated best by the ever-dilating prospect of geographical exploration, the seeming babble of immigrant voices, and the new ‘human’ sciences of linguistics and psychology” (25).



as a social practice. Similarly, the modernist ideograph is not simply a misinterpretation of Chinese writing, but a part of the history of the idea, of writing, and of China during a period when the philosophical, grammatological, and ethnographic backstories of these civilizational keywords were being rewritten. The interest of the ideograph lies in its being neither an accurate account of Chinese writing, nor a straightforward reiteration of traditional grammatology in foreign dress, nor merely an allegory of the new technological media, but rather an overdetermined complex of these multiple discourses. This is to say that the ideograph does not simply reflect but also shapes modernism’s selfconscious reflections on how meaning is made. Third, Gitelman links this increased self-consciousness about meaning-making to an increased awareness of the materiality of not just means of communication but also of ideas.37 The analogies with the ideograph are apparent: “The study of inscriptions shows the realm of writing and reading, of symbolic action and experience, in its proximity to objects and machines. From ancient marks on clay or carvings in stone to the printed labels affixed to commercial goods today, inscriptions insistently belie their own double character, both material and semiotic” (10). The materiality of language was of course not so much new in the modern era as newly apparent or apparent in new ways. In Gitelman’s account, Edison’s phonograph produced a kind of premediative effect that called for new definitions of and new stories about the human voice, memory, and standards of evidence.38 The seemingly new proximity of language to objects and machines stemmed less from the fact of phonographic grooves, she shows, than from the ways in which such new inscriptive technologies and techniques estranged existing ones, including spoken language.

37. Gitelman offers a fascinating account of the various “idea letters” proposing inventions to Edison, reading them in a historical context in which, for example, the ontological status of an invention (is it a thing or an idea?) raised practical social and legal questions (e.g., does it fall under patent or copyright?). The “ideograph” is an invention—and of course a kind of “idea letter”—in many of the same ways. 38. The term premediative is mine, not Gitelman’s, and is intended as a correlate to “remediation.” While the latter describes the ways in which new media model themselves on older ones (the computer “desktop”), “premediation” would describe the estrangement of older and existing cultural forms, their figuration or reconceptualization in terms of new media, as in “the Victorian Internet.”


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As its etymology would suggest, the ideo-graph was a figure of precisely this double character, but the putatively Asian origins of the figure remind us that not all the estrangements of modernity were technological in origin. I would add to Gitelman, then, that, like the reification of language, sound, and vision by the new technological media, cultural encounters, both real and imagined, exposed the contingency of once more or less natural- and universal-seeming practices. Indeed, the thematic raw material and tropes of technological and ethnographic estrangements were often used to figure each other. If, in Victor Shklovsky’s canonical formulation, formalist estrangement recalls the stoniness of the stone, the simultaneously ethnographic and grammatological estrangement of the ideograph figures the literality of the letter, its mediatic character.

Ideographic Modernism The foregoing has outlined the long-term historical and conceptual overlap between ideography and media theory, proposing, on the one hand, that the nineteenth-century Orientalist discourses on Chinese writing represent a kind of prehistory of media theory and, on the other hand, that many modernist-era imaginings of the ideograph will be displaced figurations of the various “writings” of technological media. On the whole, this preliminary sketch has focused on the negative, on the ways in which China and its language were given bad press and on the ways in which writing and later technological media played the villain. If this were the whole story, there would be little left to do except to add examples. But the imaginary of the ideograph in modernism was as complex and contradictory as that of the new media. Both registered the violent and anxious side of modernity, but both also inspired dreams of turning these same instruments to as-yet unimagined ends. Whether understood as the fulfillment of or as the antidote to modernity, the ideograph (and the culture it implied) figured for many modernists the dissolution of the conventions of Western thought, even of the meaning of Western history. From Fenollosa, Pound, and the Imagists to post-structuralist écriture, Tel Quel Maoism, and the Japan of Barthes’s Empire of Signs, the ideograph inspired thoughts of new linguistic pleasures and even cultural revolutions. These two faces of the ideograph might be described as differing responses to linguistic reification, responses that register contrary values and affects even as they rely on essentially the same descriptions



and narratives. I have so far emphasized the bad ideograph and the bad China because these, developed over the course of the nineteenth century, largely provided the rhetorical conventions and forms of unconscious consensus (to echo Gitelman) within which modernism’s “ideograph” would emerge. Derrida describes the Western imaginary of Chinese writing as governed by a “rigorous necessity” (Grammatologie, 119; 80), but the modernist texts I read in the following chapters each negotiates this necessity in its own way, suggesting that this necessity is not quite so rigorous or necessary. While I am deeply indebted to Derrida’s analysis, I also find that it implies a kind of interlinguistic relativism, as if “the West” must always respond to “the East” as its other and always according to the same logic. But long before Derrida’s work “China” suggested something “outside of all logocentrism.” Just as ideas about the new technological media transformed understandings not only of the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility but also understandings of the basic categories of language, perception, cognition, memory, and embodiment, so too reconfigurations of “China” implied new meanings not only for China as an object of Western scholarship and imagination but also for subjectivity, tradition, and history as general concepts. On the social-historical level lurked the fear (or, more rarely, the hope) expressed so clearly by Mill that the West might become “another China”; on the grammatological level there was the question not only of what kind of language the ideograph might represent, but the uncanny possibility that in some sense all language might be ideographic.39 Modernism’s China cannot be reduced to a symptom of media, then, much less the other way around; rather, the ideograph emerges from a dynamic interplay between modernism’s ethnographic and technological imaginaries. Accordingly, rather than follow a strictly chronological order, Ideographic Modernism presents a series of critical problems through groupings of related texts from roughly 1895 to 1930. Each chapter, with the exception of the first, focuses primarily on one major author, as follows: Ezra Pound and Paul Claudel; Victor Segalen; Walter Benjamin; and Paul Valéry.

39. I here echo Eduardo Cadava’s echo of Benjamin: “What is at stake in the question of technological reproducibility—in the question of photography, for example, is not whether photography is art, but in what way all art is photography” (Cadava, 44).


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Each of the four chapters undertakes three related tasks. The first of these is to establish the precise manner in which the question of Chinese writing is relevant to the author in question and to define the model of “the ideograph” at work in their texts. These models can be briefly labeled: image, inscription, mimesis, and history. The second task is to demonstrate and interpret the connections between these ideographic models and the technological mediatic imaginaries to which they are related: photography, phonography, cinematography, and telegraphy, respectively. Lastly, I consider the ways in which each of these ideographic-mediatic models itself figures different possible relationships to China, with the question of this relationship becoming more pressing as the book progresses. The chapters in effect represent a series of differing perspectives on what I have argued is an irreducible connection between citational uses of China and the referential valences of these citations. The study gradually moves away from the relatively accepted idea that modernism’s “China” is merely a source of forms and toward what might be called the negation of that negation, namely: an argument for the persistent historical presence of China in even the most ostensibly nonreferential uses of it. This is why I am only initially concerned with the pictographic and visual dimension of the ideograph: by moving from image to inscription to mimesis to history as models of how China was written into Western modernism, the stakes of the Chinese “examples” are raised. The first chapter opens with the familiar modernist topic of the Chinese written character in the poetics of Ernest Fenollosa, Ezra Pound, and Imagism. Through a comparison of their poetics to the explicitly allegorical and antivisual ideographic imaginings of their French contemporary Paul Claudel, this chapter critiques Imagism’s claims to visual immediacy by arguing for its essentially allegorical underpinnings. It specifically shows that Imagism, despite its apparently contrasting ontology of the image, shares with Claudel’s Mallarméinfluenced poetics a common antipictorial tendency that reflects their shared rejection and imitation of photography as a model of vision without consciousness. This model is itself enmeshed with their similarly conflicted notions of Oriental subjectivity as both insufficiently mediated and happily free from convention. The following chapter turns from writing-as-image to writingas-inscription, focusing on Victor Segalen’s Stèles (1912), a prose poem collection that formally emulates the Chinese stone monuments from which it takes its name. Segalen’s self-conscious and indeed programmatic negation of China into “China” provides both an example and



an allegory of Western modernism’s overdetermined relationship to China as both a worldly, historical object of interest and a somehow nonexistent and effectively timeless source of forms. Segalen’s figurations of Chinese writing as inscriptional and essentially nonreferential suggest important general lessons about modernist uses of China as a source of formal innovation, specifically the ways in which these uses corresponded to a more general redefinition of the modernist relationship between “literature” and the death of intention. The third chapter analyzes a series of unremarked references to China and Chinese writing in the work of Walter Benjamin. By relating these scattered references to Benjamin’s canonical writings on technological media, I demonstrate a decades-long affiliation in his work between China and media as figures of bodily mimesis. Even more so than with Segalen’s inscriptive model, Benjamin’s mimetic model of writing is not simply a different way of representing Chinese writing but is itself symptomatic of a qualitatively different relationship to “China” and indeed China. The fourth and final chapter examines the relationship between “China” and the emergence of global telecommunications. Starting from his response to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, I analyze Paul Valéry’s articulation of a modern “crisis of the spirit” in part defined by the transformation of history into something that can no longer be defined in opposition to an ahistorical Orient. Technological media challenge this imagined Chinese difference from two directions: on the one side, they transform the character of spatio-temporal experience in ways that bring China “closer”; on the other side, they make conventionally Orientalist conceptions of Chinese ahistoricity seem increasingly appropriate figures of the West’s own modernity. From Valéry’s reflections on the collapse of the West’s imagined world-space, I conclude by returning to Kafka’s allegories of impossible Chinese spaces.

One “visible nature” Image, Photography, and the Apparition of China


n 1912 ezra pound finally rewrote to his satisfaction what had been a thirty-one-line draft of a poem from the previous year, producing what has become perhaps the most famous example of an “image” in modern American poetry: In a Station of the Metro The apparition of these faces in the crowd Petals on a wet, black bough.1

The poem presents itself as a spontaneous registration, almost an index of the site and moment of its genesis, yet the poem’s own apparition is located somewhere else and in a time other than the one it records. It presents itself as a kind of snapshot, but it does so through erasure and redaction. On one level, this is simply to point out that the poem is representative of Imagism’s conflicted assault on poetic convention through, on the one hand, a dedication to highly controlled and crafted poetic language and, on the other, an appeal to visibility as the locus of immediacy.2 But this conflict also suggests some rather complex and 1. Pound, Poems and Translations, 287. The poem’s publication history shows slight but potentially significant variations in the format, including the placement of a colon or semicolon after “crowd” and the use of conventional spacing between words. See Ellis. 2. “In a Station of the Metro” was first published in the April 1913 issue of Poetry, which in March had published Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” and Flint’s “Imagisme,” texts that would form the basis of early critical understandings of Imagism. For a classic formulation of Imagist poetics that includes the text of “A Few Don’ts,” see Pound’s “A Retrospect” (1918) in Literary Essays.


“visible nature” 31 important ambiguities in the broader status of appearance in Imagism as a general poetic tendency, ambiguities manifest in the uncertain meaning of the word apparition in Pound’s poem: taken in a more verbal sense (perhaps influenced by French apparition) it would mean something like “the appearing”; in a more nominal sense it suggests not just any appearing, but that of a vision or a ghost. The difference would be that between a poem describing an event and a poem describing a thing, albeit a thing characterized by an unusual kind of visibility. Thinking of this “apparition” as both an event and a thing, a verb and a noun, joined in a pun might explain some of the enduringly enigmatic character of this much-analyzed poem, especially if we consider that this verbal/nominal ambiguity is echoed by the uncertainty of the extent to which the poem describes its own presentation of the image or a moment in the Metro. To perceive the delicate ambiguity maintained by the poem’s deictics (“the apparition,” “these faces”), we need only imagine the interpretive ripples of the slightest changes: “This apparition of the faces in the crowd”; “The apparition of those faces in the crowd”; “That apparition of those faces in the crowd,” and so on. In sum, the “image” presented by the poem is something other than a straightforward registration of a strictly visual image, something that calls for an account of the poem’s self-reflexive relationship to visibility and appearance.3 Despite its occasional rhetoric of transparency and immediacy, Imagism is, I am suggesting, ultimately about the limits of language as a medium of seeing and showing, of registering appearances and of making things appear. What of the petals and the bough? They have long been read as imitating or citing a broadly East Asian aesthetic, a reading encouraged by Pound’s own description of the poem as being “hokku-like.”4 Indeed, ideas about East Asian poetry and languages play a significant role in Imagist and Poundian poetics, not just in “the ideogram” as a 3. In brief, if “apparition” is verbal, the poem might be said to be about an image rather than simply to be an image. If the poem does not describe a process of appearing, if “apparition” is nominal, then either the faces are literally ghosts, a hallucination, or they are metaphorically so. 4. There is an extensive body of scholarship on Pound and China. Wai-lim Yip’s Ezra Pound’s Cathay is an early classic, as is the chapter in Kenner’s The Pound Era. Recent important studies include Hayot (2004), Huang, Kern, Qian (1995; 2003; 2003), Xie, and Yao. On the Image more generally, see Stanley Coffman, Imagism: A Chapter for the History of Modern Poetry (1951), Gage, and Sanford Schwartz.


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figure of concrete thought, but in the general conception of visual immediacy underlying it5—this despite the fact that, as discussed in my introduction, the ideograph was previously associated with precisely the ossified conventionalism Imagism sought to destroy. Pound writes that “the ideograph is a door into a different modality of thought” (Machine, 88). Given the low esteem in which Chinese writing and indeed China in general had long been held, why, in the modernist period, did so many line up at this door and try to enter? How did an emblem of cultural stagnation become a model of literary modernity? The alliance of a speculative ethnography of East Asia with the visual ambitions of modernist poetry seems obvious only in retrospect. While Imagism generally associates the ideographic with the natural and immediate, the Orientalist and Idealist accounts of the ideograph contradict this portrait from two directions: condemning the ideograph as, on the one hand, a figure of mere immediacy, and on the other as a figure of excessive, even total mediation. The following chapter offers an account of these two relationships: first, the functional relationship between the ideograph as a poetic-epistemological and as an ethnographic topos and, second, the historical relationship between the Orientalist condemnation of Chinese writing and the modernist valorization of it. I specifically argue that the ideograph reflects and participates in modernism’s redefinition of the most basic categories of visibility and immediacy in the age of photography. After reviewing some of the central claims and critical problems of Imagism’s poetics of visual immediacy, I turn to a contemporaneous counterexample: the explicitly antivisual and allegorical ideographic imaginings of Paul Claudel. I conclude with an account of how photography provides the common cultural context for these strikingly different ontologies of the image and, lastly, of how the impersonal subjectivity of the camera is tied to the imagination of an Oriental subjectivity.

“poetry only does consciously what the primitive races did unconsciously” Before turning to the counterexample of Claudel, it will be useful to recall some of the basic themes, tenets, and problems of Imagism 5. I use “ideograph” and its cognates to refer to the general imaginary of Chinese writing that is the subject of this book, “ideogram” and its cognates only when referring specifically to Pound’s understandings of Chinese, to be discussed in greater detail below.

“visible nature” 33 broadly construed, specifically its relationship to a putatively Asian visual aesthetic. The single most important critical text in the genealogy of Anglo-American modernist ideography is Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Although first published posthumously in 1919—relatively late in the compressed history of Imagism—Fenollosa’s text, as edited by Pound, has increasingly come to be read as something like an ars poetica for not just Imagism but Anglo-American modernist poetics more generally.6 Through a series of sometimes erroneous but always compelling readings of Chinese characters, Fenollosa takes up in a concentrated and provocative form the problem of the poetic image. As his title implies, he focuses almost exclusively on Chinese writing, effectively equating the entirety of Chinese language, literature, and indeed cognition with its writing system—much, in fact, as Idealist discourse had done.7 While Fenollosa’s essay in many ways relies on this Idealist discourse, it also dramatically revises it by judging Chinese writing not to be stuck in the past, but to have preserved the vital force of primitive sensation. Like good poetry, Chinese characters reveal the “original metaphors” at the root of all languages: they are “visible nature” (Fenollosa, 19). Fenollosa claims that “poetry only does consciously what the primitive races did unconsciously” (23)— and, accordingly, that the Chinese character makes this unconscious activity visible.8

6. First published over four issues of the Little Review in 1919, the essay seems to have been drafted in 1909. See Xie for more on the textual history, and Kern for a discussion of the text in the context of American literary history. See also chapter 3 of Saussy, Great Walls. Since I am interested here primarily in the historical effects of Fenollosa’s text, my references will be to the long-available City Lights edition of the text, which reflects Pound’s heavy editorial hand. However, those interested in Fenollosa’s ideas on their own terms should consult the recent scholarly edition by Saussy et al. 7. The consonance with Idealism is not surprising given Fenollosa’s background in philosophy (he lectured on Hegel and Spencer, among others, at Tokyo Imperial University). In addition to the critical edition of Medium, see Brooks, and Chisolm. 8. As Fenollosa’s diction suggests, the modernist conception of the ideograph shares as much with primitivism as with other forms of Orientalism. For discussions of primitivism in literary modernism, see North, Dialect, and Torgovnick.


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While there are some precedents for such a reading of Chinese,9 Fenollosa’s essay represents a significant break from the received ideas of nineteenth-century Orientalism. At the same time, the essay extends a long-term literary-historical trend in which, as W. J. T. Mitchell writes, “the notion of ‘image’ replaced that of ‘figure,’ which began to be regarded as a feature of old-fashioned ‘ornamented’ language.” “Verbal imagery is ‘plain’ and ‘perspicuous,’” Mitchell continues, “reach[ing] right out to objects, representing them [. . .] even more vividly than the objects can represent themselves” (Mitchell, 24). In a literary-historical context, then, what is novel about Fenollosa’s essay is not its quest for immediacy but its enlisting the aid of, of all things, Chinese—and Chinese writing, no less. Fenollosa shares with many of his literary and philosophical precursors the view that languages begin as signs of the visible world and then evolve, or devolve, toward higher levels of abstraction. As Robert Kern writes of the American nineteenth century, “What seems most to separate the poets from the linguists during this period is not disagreement about the idea of the natural origins of language so much as the question of the value to be placed upon the idea” (26). Fenollosa’s linguistic primitivism is both ontological (things seen with the eyes are more real than concepts whose sensory grounding has been effaced) and cultural-historical (some peoples’ languages and therefore some peoples are closer to reality than others).10 While Romantic poetics 9. Specifically, the work of Abel-Rémusat and the American Transcendentalists’ taking-up of the German Romantic motif of hieroglyphic nature. For an excellent account of Fenollosa’s intellectual background, see Kern, who writes of Abel-Rémusat: “What he has in mind is [primarily] a visual or pictorial quality, and those characters which exhibit it, he asserts, in terms that anticipate the whole post-romantic quest for pure experience and unmediated vision, ‘present to the eye not the sterile and conventional signs of pronunciation but things themselves’” (1). See also Sieburth’s discussion of “Fenollosa’s post-Romantic insistence on energeia over ergon” (Sieburth, 7). For an additional discussion of “energy” in rhetorical and poetic theory during this period, see Bruns, chapter 2. 10. As Robert Kern writes: “Not only does poetry, in this conception, come to be understood as ‘energetic speech,’ which is to say, a speech that is ‘naturally figurative or imaginative,’ but language itself, or at least certain languages (such as Coleridge’s German), come to be regarded as poetic by virtue precisely of their naturalness, their rootedness in the world of their own primitive origins” (19). This might be broadly described as a Romantic idea, but can be traced back at least to Vico. To recall the terms of Derrida’s summary of Plato: in Fenollosa’s world it is Chinese writing that represents the being, alphabetic writing the type.

“visible nature” 35 had similarly correlated poetic sensibility, ontology, and cultural vitality, Fenollosa’s affiliating this vitality with the ancient writing system of a distant culture significantly complicates the cultural meaning of what is, after all, supposed to be a poetics of immediacy. Fenollosa’s ideography rests on what might be described as a natural history of the idea, a radicalized pursuit of etymological radicals that raises philological and philosophical issues familiar to readers of Pound and of Derrida’s “White Mythology” alike. As Derrida’s essay discusses, the basic tone of such a history is iconoclastic, presenting an antimetaphysical critique that would ground abstract ideas in concrete, sensory perception, revealing “the soul” to be breath, a “metaphor” to be something that ferries something across, and so on. In this view, the nonsensuous references of language are understood to be metaphors of sensuous images and experiences, but metaphors whose metaphoricity is all too often forgotten, and with it the solid ground of sense perception.11 While for Hegel, as we have seen, such a movement is the triumphant sublation of the merely sensuous and immediate, for those in the white demythologization tradition the result is that people, especially philosophers, think and talk a lot of nonsense. Fenollosa’s ideograph might be understood, as Sanford Schwartz writes in The Matrix of Modernism, as an “antidote to Nietzsche’s ‘anthropomorphic error,’” both because it binds concepts to concrete particulars and because “by displaying its own etymology, the ideogram prevents us from assuming an absolute distinction between concept and figure” (Sanford Schwartz, 89).12 The ideogram, Schwartz continues, is one of the figures of modernist thought that tries to “situate metaphor between conceptual abstraction and concrete sensation [. . . to] posit relations between distinct particulars without losing sight of the differences between them” (100). There are for Fenollosa, as for William Carlos Williams later, no ideas but in things (“thinking is thinging,” he famously writes), but the things that provide the bedrock of living, no-nonsense ideas are not so much palpable objects as dynamic images indexing the movements of nature—simultaneously solid and luminous figures of knowledge and poetic vision that in many ways anticipate such later Poundian 11. The fact that this critique of metaphor relies on metaphor as its central mechanism provides the point of departure for Derrida’s critique. 12. Schwartz here refers to Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense,” which includes the famous question and answer: “What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms,” and so forth. See Nietzsche, 1:880–81; 46.


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figures as the Image, the vortex, and of course the ideogram. Fenollosa’s essay thus represents an ideography in the strongest sense: it is not simply a set of speculations about Chinese writing, but a consideration of the most basic questions of what ideas are, in what sense they may or may not be said to have a sensuous form, and, not least, how their formation and perceptibility vary culturally and historically. Fenollosa’s essay accordingly anticipates later modernist poetics for which the image is not an ornament but the locus of the loftiest ambitions and strongest ontological claims of poetic language. T. E. Hulme, for example, famously declares, “Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language” (Hulme, 733). Yet the presuppositions of such a conception of language are often at odds with an image-based poetics; as Schwartz writes, referencing Hulme’s early philosophical source: “Bergson maintains that the artist cuts through a network of static abstractions to the transient stream of consciousness in real duration. Hulme, on the other hand, seems less interested in recovering real duration than in rendering the objects of perception as precisely as possible. [. . .] For Hulme, it is the task of the artist to overcome this habit of perceiving ‘stock types’ and reveal the ‘individuality of objects’” (53). While for Bergson the special character of art resides in its ability to access the flux of time, for Hulme, Schwartz continues, “the visual language of poetry ‘endeavours to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process.’ [. . .] Associating abstraction with movement and sensation with fixity, Hulme stands Bergson on his head by granting priority to the spatial over the temporal” (55–56).13 The broader stakes of whether the “apparition” in Pound’s poem is to be understood as nominal, verbal, or both, emerges here. If we understand the world as an essentially dynamic process, a continuum rather than as a series of moments, then the Image’s ambition to be both an instant captured and an accurate index of that world is doomed from the outset. The Imagist solution is to try to have it both ways and the result is an array of paradoxical if productive figures of motionin-stasis. Movement and dynamism are in fact among the most recurrent themes in Fenollosa’s presentation of Chinese, an emphasis that 13. Compare Gage’s In the Arresting Eye, which offers an extensive analysis of the tension between Hulme’s appeal to solidity and Fenollosa’s emphasis on action, concluding of the Imagists: “Theirs was a poetry of nouns, despite Fenollosa’s axiom” (20–21).

“visible nature” 37 must have seemed counterintuitive to many of his contemporaries. Contrary to traditional Western understandings of Chinese characters as pictures of a thing, a noun, Fenollosa sees them as revealing the primacy, for all languages, of the verb. For Fenollosa, Western logic relies on nouns in a way that would be akin to botany “reason[ing] from the leaf-patterns woven into our table cloths” (Fenollosa, 12).14 His condemnation of permanence and artifice thus challenges the very notion of the image as a picture of a thing. Because there are no substances in Nature, signs should not be too substantive either: “Relations are more real and more important than the things which they relate” (22)—and it is these relations that primitive metaphor traces. Subject-verb-object word order, for example, is not merely the convention of a group of languages, but a direct reflection of the “living articulation” of nature (17) as perceived in the human mind.15 Correspondingly, “the untruth of a painting or a photograph is that, in spite of concreteness, it drops the element of natural succession” (9). In sum, Fenollosa’s Chinese is not so much pictographic as ideographic, to which one must quickly add that the idea is here to be understood as emanating from reality like an electrical charge, conveying, rather than merely representing, the dynamism and movement of nature itself —at least if it is any good. This distinction represents the fundamental problem of the ideogram and of the Image as well, namely that precisely that which is essential about it—not only that which is true but also that which is universal—cannot in the final analysis be seen.

14. This passage seems to echo Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lie” essay: Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf ” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf ”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted—but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model. We call a person “honest,” and then we ask “why has he behaved so honestly today?” Our usual answer is, “on account of his honesty.” Honesty! This in turn means that the leaf is the cause of the leaves. (Nietzsche, 880; 46)

15. If, as Foucault writes, “Syntax, in the eighteenth century, was considered to be the locus of the arbitrary in which the customs of each people were on display in their capriciousness” (Foucault, Les mots et les choses, 116; 101), for Fenollosa the noun is an arbitrary convention while syntax is natural and universal.


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This is perhaps surprising given the extent to which the Poundian ideogram would seem to be precisely a call to see. Pound writes of sinologist and translator James Legge: “[T]remendously learned, his book a treasure, had read commentaries, or at least copied some Chinese who had, but he seems never to have LOOKED, really looked at an ideogram” (Machine, 145). Yet Pound’s own critical texts are quite explicit about the complex and mediated character of vision. As Schwartz has argued, the ideogram in many ways involves the mental projection of a “conceptual unity on an array of concrete particulars” (Schwartz, 95). Relying at times on a psychological vocabulary of “complex” and “Gestalt,” Pound writes in the Machine Art texts that “a real thought [. . .] as distinct from a mere cliché or imperfect verbal manifestation consists of a pattern or group of related images; and this relation can be either in nature before the thought, or it can be the arbitrary relation thrust on the images by the man thinking” (103). Yet in his commentary on “In a Station of the Metro” he writes: “The ‘one image poem’ is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another” (Gaudier-Brzeska). A thought is made of a pattern of images, while an image is composed of ideas: turtles and elephants, alternating, all the way down. These various references to patterns and groups make clear that the Image is always composite, even composed, and raise doubts about the extent to which it can be “grasped in an instant of time” (as in Pound’s famous definition of the Image), either in its production or in its reception. From at least as early as “Metro” until at least as late as the Machine Art texts, the Image is for Pound by no means a simple given, that is, the Image cannot exactly be a single image and is at least in part nonvisual and noninstantaneous.16 Despite the rhetoric of seeing, the Image requires reading, if only in the form of recognition. This is even more the case with the ideogram, which is resolutely syntactic and combinatorial, rather than strictly pictorial.17 As Howard Nemerov nicely formulates it: “[A]ll 16. For Hulme, writes Gage, the image “necessitates two images at least: whereas a single image is but a picture of a thing, it is the convergence of images which is thought to stimulate intuitive perception” (Gage, 12). 17. In one much-cited example drawn from Fenollosa, Pound contrasts the abstractness of the Western tendency to define up (“red” is that which has the property of “redness,” etc.) with the concreteness of a Chinese word for red composed of pictographic elements for rust, flamingo, and so forth. Clearly it requires an act of deduction—and no small one at that—to discern the common property of the various elements.

“visible nature” 39 this affirmation of the eye at the mind’s expense is an operation carried out and a decision taken by the mind, not the eye” (quoted in Gage, 90). Such are the problems of the Image and the ideograph: the imperative of uniting the mind and the eye, the idea and the image, accompanied, as I will discuss in greater detail below, by the imperative to keep them distinct. At stake is the possibility of a universal poetic language grounded in the universality of visual experience. The immediacy, naturalness, and universality of visual experience have of course been the object of extensive critique. Whether one thinks of phenomenologies of modern urban experience, Benjaminian historicizations of perception, Foucauldian discourses of institutions, disciplines and practices, or such methodologically heterogeneous works as Mitchell’s Iconology, Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer, or Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes, there is a significant and still-influential body of criticism emphasizing the constructedness, contingency, and historicity of vision. But in general literary critics evaluating the visual claims of poetic modernism have not followed up on the implications of this work. As Michael North has recently written: “Ideas about the visual in literary modernism [. . .] have remained fairly well imprisoned within larger ideas about the central status of the optical in modernism as a whole. Since the clarity and directness of the visual, in this analysis, also depends on its status as ‘an autonomous realm,’ belief in its centrality has also helped produce a version of modernism free of social and historical conflict” (Camera, 208). In what follows I will argue not only that the contradictions of Imagist poetics I have outlined above should be considered in the context of the theoretical complexities of modern vision but that these complexities are themselves symptomatic of Imagism’s relationship to cultural difference, a relationship at once signaled and effaced in its evocations of East Asian aesthetics. The Image represents a linguistic figuration of the problematic of modern vision precisely because it is only partly “visual.” In his study of Pound, Radio Corpse, Daniel Tiffany claims that “the modernist poetic Image is equivocally, but intentionally, nonvisual, insofar as it resists, contests, and mediates the experience of visuality, but also in its preoccupation with the invisible” (Tiffany, 21). Similarly, in my account of the conjunction of the ideograph and the poetic image, it is the non-immanence of vision, and so of the Image, that defines Imagism as a poetic project. As Tiffany writes, “The paradox of a nonvisual image must be attributed to a more general ‘scopic regime’ of modernity, in which the desire to see, to possess, is continually frustrated and confounded by the image itself” (2). Like modern vision


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in general, the ideograph always exceeds itself, always signifies more than it shows. It is in this sense allegorical: not necessarily meaning something other than what it says or shows, but meaning something in addition to what it says or shows, a slight distinction in some ways and yet one that complicates considerably the epistemological claims of an aesthetics of pure showing. In the specific case of the ideograph, questions about the universality and givenness of the visual are ultimately as much about cultural authority as about epistemology. How do figures of cultural difference strengthen claims to universality? How is modern poetry’s turn to the visual supposed to make conscious what “the primitive races did unconsciously”? What role does “China” play in all this? To address these questions I now turn to the seemingly antipodal ideography of one of Pound’s contemporaries—someone who also tried to pass through the door of the ideograph, but from a very different angle of approach. This will provide not only a counterexample to the Poundian tradition but will ultimately suggest a rereading of that tradition itself.

Religion of the Sign Writing at the turn of the century, Paul Claudel (1868–1965) opens his prose poem “Religion of the Sign” with what reads like an anticipatory critique of Fenollosa and Pound: “Let others find in the array of Chinese Characters the head of a sheep, or hands, or the leg of a man, a sun rising behind a tree. I pursue in them, for my part, a more tangled net” (PO, 46).18 Although Claudel could not yet have known Fenollosa’s essay, this proleptic denunciation of some of Fenollosa’s specific examples in favor of “a more tangled net” [un lacs plus inextricable] suggests a conception of Chinese writing diametrically opposed to that of the Imagist tradition. Fenollosa famously employs as an example of the ideograph the Chinese character for “east” ᵅ, analyzing it into the pictographic component parts “tree” ᳼ + “sun” ᮹, interpreting them together as “sun rising behind a tree,” hence “east.”19 I will return to this example 18. The majority of Claudel references to follow are to the Pléiade Œuvres poétiques (abbreviated PO) and Œuvres en prose (abbreviated PR). In addition to the works cited below, my readings of Claudel have benefited from Brunel, ed., Gadoffre (1959 and 1968), and Genette. For a general discussion of East Asia in French literature during this period, see William Schwartz. 19. This is not the correct etymology, although it persists as a folk etymology.

“visible nature” 41 later, simply noting here that both the components and the compound refer to visible phenomena. By contrast, Claudel’s paradigmatic example of Chinese writing is the character yŏng (“eternity”) ∌, composed, he writes, of the character for water ∈, to which is added a small mark: “Thus what is movement par excellence is solidified in a kind of abstract permanence, like the waterfall which distance causes to appear immobile to us” (PR, 72). The example is exemplary, as we will see, in that it presents Chinese writing as the transformation of transitory phenomena into signs of eternity. Hence Claudel’s punning claim that “there is no character where this point is not implicitly understood” (PR, 72; emphasis added). While the complexities of Imagist poetics emerge from its approach to the instant, those of Claudel’s emerge from its relationship to the eternal. Rather than starting from immediacy and the visual, Claudel’s ontology of the image starts from allegory and absence, haltingly working its way toward a recuperation of the value of phenomena. This trajectory—little known beyond the world of Claudel specialists, but reflecting many of the central concerns of the broader Symbolist tradition—thus offers a kind of inverted image of Imagism, one that ultimately suggests a rereading of the latter. Historically parallel to Anglo-American modernist sinophilia, Claudel produced an extensive body of East Asia–inspired essays, plays, poems, poetic theories, prose poems, and lectures over the course of four decades. Like the idealist tradition he despised, Claudel sometimes describes Chinese writing as indicative of a vapidly empirical consciousness that can at best amass a storehouse of brute facts: “China is the conservatory of all the ideas of humanity in its primitive state [. . .] the Chinese is struck with a certain incapacity, to which his bizarre writing bears witness, to represent ideas to himself other than in a concrete and sensible form” (PR, 1080–81). Like Fenollosa, Claudel creatively reinvents this Idealist account. But rather than praising Chinese writing as a vehicle of sensuous immediacy, Claudel starts from a deliberately antipictorialist, indeed allegorical interpretation of the ideograph. As a representative of a broadly Mallarméan tradition, Claudel’s work thus represents a significant counterexample to the Imagist tradition. Gerald Bruns has situated Pound and Mallarmé at the opposite poles of modernist poetic possibilities, while Marjorie Perloff’s famous question “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” might, given Stevens’s close relationship to French Symbolism, be read as a related paradigm. In the tradition of such heuristic generalizations, I would say that, at least conventionally, an Imagist poetics is one of presence, one that struggles in various ways to


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bring the immanent world into poetry, whereas a Mallarméan poetics is essentially one of absence, a poetics that believes language negates the existence of that which it signifies—a poetics that therefore uses the phenomenal world, to the extent that it uses it at all, to signify something else. It is not so surprising, then, that Claudel finds in Chinese writing something more enigmatic than pictures of sheep and trees. That being said, while Claudel does indeed specifically denounce pictographic interpretations of the ideograph and even, because of his rather idiosyncratic blend of Mallarméan poetics and Aquinian ontology, the value of the phenomenal world generally, he nonetheless also develops a series of poetic and poetological strategies for recuperating the value of the visible world and of the ideograph in particular. While acknowledging the significant differences between the poetic universes in which Pound and Claudel worked, I will argue that their works—and the heuristically divided worlds of Imagism and Symbolism—can be read as parallel responses to transformations in the relationship between language and vision during the modernist period. The development of Claudel’s ideography can be broken into three distinct moments: first, an early, aggressively allegorical reading; second, a reinterpretation of the art of painting, of Chinese writing, and of the value of the visible world generally; and, finally, the development of specific literary forms that allow him to apply, in original poetic production, the lessons he has taken from Oriental writing. Understanding this trajectory and its significance requires an outline of his quasi-Aquinian ontology and how it framed his conception of “the Orient.”20 For Claudel, God is Being, the prime mover, himself unmoved. All of existence is, by contrast, movement generated by mere beings’ difference from and lack of Being. Everything that is not God therefore has a sens, both a direction and a meaning. The things of this world are both objects set in motion by their difference from the unmoving prime mover, and signs that point to the Being they lack; what we might call physics and semiotics are simply two modes of describing the same events. 20. The central source for Claudel’s ontology and poetics remains the Art poétique (1907), which collects “Connaissance du temps” (composed in Kouliang in 1903, published in Fuzhou in 1904), “Traité de la connaissance au monde et de soi-même” (composed in Fuzhou in 1904, first published as part of the Art poétique), and “Développement de l’église” (composed in France in 1900, first published in Le Mercure de France in 1903). I have relied on Aubenque for the summary of Aristotle.

“visible nature” 43 Not surprisingly, this ontological framework informs Claudel’s contrastive view of East and West: in the West, Christ on the cross raises his eyes to heaven, providing an emblem of humanity, and indeed all that exists, as bound to this world but striving for the next; in the East, the Buddha sits passively, negates desire, and “participates in his own immobility” (PO, 28). Claudel reproaches him: “[Y]ou do not hesitate, Buddha, to embrace Nothingness [. . .] and there is the ultimate and satanic mystery, the silence of the creature entrenched in its total refusal, the incestuous quietude of the soul seated on its essential difference” (PO, 90). The Buddha is “satanic” because not only does he not strive for the beyond but his immobility is a mocking imitation of God’s, the temporal imitating the eternal: he confounds Nothingness and Being.21 Such a portrait of the East of course corresponds to an array of Orientalist clichés: the immobile empire, Oriental nihilism and materialism, a history that lacks meaning and direction and therefore is no history at all. As with Hegel, the Oriental mistake is to confuse means and ends, which for Claudel specifically means believing that the world is divine rather than that it was created by and points toward the divine. While Hegel correlates an unhistorical Orient to the Symbol (bound to the sensuous) and an evolving West to the Sign (free and spiritual), Claudel more explicitly draws on a long Christological tradition of relating types of signs and modes of reading to states of spiritual progress, taking up Augustine’s vocabulary of pleasure and use to describe the Buddha as a figure of auto-jouissance.22 21. Claudel reports of his experiences reading Indian philosophy as a student: “I too once read Indian poems and Buddhist books. They contain the radical blasphemy that is the love and pursuit of Nothingness. Man differs from God by the degree of being he lacks: the ultimate satanic inversion is to love the absence of all being” (quoted in Hue, 189). 22. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine asserts that the things of this world are not to be enjoyed for their own sake, but to be used as vehicles of grace; this general tenet has particular implications for the interpretation of texts: Nor can anything more appropriately be called the death of the soul than that condition in which the thing which distinguishes us from the beasts, which is the understanding, is subjected to the flesh in the pursuit of the letter. He who follows the letter takes figurative expressions as though they were literal and does not refer the things signified to anything else. [. . .] There is a miserable servitude of the spirit in this habit of taking signs for things, so that one is not able to raise the eye of the mind above things that are corporeal and created to drink in eternal light. (84)


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As one might expect, many of Claudel’s accounts of Oriental writing are relentlessly dichotomous: Chinese is vertical, the alphabet horizontal; Chinese synthetic, the alphabet analytic; Chinese is immobile, Western writing leaves a “persistent wake” (186), and so on. Claudel contrasts the simultaneity, visuality, and “emanation of relations” of the ideograph with the succession, sounds, and sequence of the alphabet (188). Claudel’s Orient is “a mystical prison” in which “everything is devised to hinder humanity’s moving from where it is” (PR, 785). The traditional distinction between a stagnant Orient and a dynamic Occident therefore acquires an ontological and theological meaning, one apparent in the particulars of its cultures. If “Oriental” materialism and immobility more conventionally imply a lack of cultural or historical progress, for Claudel these qualities speak directly of its need for salvation. Despite the fact that such an intellectual context would seem to leave little room for him to embrace any aspect of the Chinese written character, much less Buddhism, Claudel’s later work does just that. Claudel had displayed an interest in Chinese writing already in his first “Chinese” work, the play Le Repos du septième jour.23 Written shortly after his arrival in China in 1895, while writing his Art poétique and carefully reading Aquinas, Repos was, Claudel writes, “simultaneously a means for me to explore what I was beginning to understand of China and, on the other hand, a means for me to sound, to get some idea of, certain theological problems that were equally weighing on my mind” (quoted in Saulnier and Roberto, 10). The sinological failings of the play have been noted since its earliest reception, but it is at least nominally set in the court of a Chinese emperor. His empire is in crisis: the mandate of heaven has been lost or the rites are not being properly performed, for the boundary between life and death has become blurred and the dead walk the earth. The emperor futilely seeks counsel from various advisors before descending into the underworld. Through various confrontations and conversations, the well-intentioned pagan emperor comes to understand, in an approximate form, the truth of the one God. The central moment of this

23. For general accounts of Claudel’s relationship to China, see Gadoffre, Claudel and Hue. For the text of Repos I have relied primarily on the standard Pléiade (Théâtre) and Œuvres complètes editions, but have also referred to the critical editions and commentaries of Houriez, and Saulnier and Roberto.

“visible nature” 45 conversion comes with the transformation of the character + shí (“ten; complete, perfect; imperial”), read by the emperor, after his return from the underworld, as a symbol of Christ.24 Finding the appropriative and Eurocentric impulses here is hardly a day’s work, but the reading of Chinese is unusual, perhaps unique in a modernist context. While the Idealist and Imagist portraits of Chinese writing respectively contrast the merely sensuous and immediate with the happily sensuous and immediate, Claudel’s allegorical reading reframes the issue of sensuous immediacy. The sign + is not a picture of “ten” to the knowing eye of the Poundian poet; even Henri GaudierBrzeska could not have guessed it.25 No longer bound to sensuous appearance, the meaning of an ideograph can change, varying with the cultural and historical perspective of the reader—including, for example, whether or not one has taken a trip through the underworld. In opposition to the ahistorical, given universality of Imagist Chinese, for which a horse is of course a horse (unless you are a pedant or a professor), in Claudel’s world the ideograph signifies differently for different people—and for different peoples—at different times. Understood in terms of the broader possibilities for ideography, Claudel’s aggressively appropriative vision of Chinese unexpectedly provides the basis for a critique of Imagism’s implicit assertion of the universality of the Image, a universality that rests on a unity of knowledge and sensuous perception more broadly identifiable as the aesthetic.26 At the same time, however, Claudel does not wholly negate the pictorial dimension of the character, 24. Claudel’s Christological reading of Chinese characters is in part inspired by Jesuit figuralist traditions, themselves a sequel to the foundational Christian gesture of allegorizing Hebrew, Greek, and Roman texts to reveal their Christian truths. On Jesuit figuralism in China, see Rule. 25. Pound writes in a footnote to his edition of the Fenollosa essay: “GaudierBrzeska sat in my room before he went off to war. He was able to read the Chinese radicals and many compound signs almost at pleasure. He was used to consider all life and nature in the terms of planes and of bounding lines. Nevertheless he has spent only a fortnight in the museum studying the Chinese characters. He was amazed at the stupidity of lexicographers who could not, for all their learning discern the pictorial values which were to him perfectly obvious and apparent” (Fenollosa, Medium, 31). 26. By asserting the discontinuity of knowledge and perception, then, Claudel’s play is antiaesthetic and also seems anachronistic, didactic, and sometimes “baroque.” For a consideration of Claudel’s work as part of a broader modernist medievalism, see Lambert.


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because the movement from the conventional Chinese reading of shí to its allegorical significance requires (given Claudel’s Chinese illiteracy) a passage through resemblance: + looks like a cross. While here used in an overtly appropriative mode, it is precisely this emptying out of conventional meaning that would allow Claudel to reconsider the value of the pictorial elements of the ideograph as well as the value of East Asian culture generally. Given his poetic ontology, this reevaluation of the phenomenal aspect of signs required a reevaluation of the phenomenal world as a whole. Claudel’s ultimate valorization of the ideographic was in fact prepared by the very prose poem collection in which “Religion of the Sign” appeared, Connaissance de l’Est (1900). In his Mémoires improvisés, Claudel recalls these efforts to write about Chinese and Japanese landscapes: “It is not a question of pure and simple description, it is a question of knowledge, it is a question of comprehension. When I speak of the pine, when I speak of the banyan, when I speak of Chinese villages, it always begins with a kind of interior definition [. . .] and with the place the object occupies from the point of view of a composition in an ensemble, in a tableau” (Mémoires, 155). Although he elsewhere complains of the texts being uncomfortably close to the naturalism he detested, this passage suggests the extent to which Claudel sought, with Connaissance de l’Est, to transform description into allegory, to ask the question he says Mallarmé taught him to ask of everything: “What does this mean?” (PR, 1396). A key theme in Claudel’s reevaluation of phenomena would be landscape. In “Conversations in the Loir-et-Cher,” he writes of the experience of looking down from an airplane: “From on high one sees more things simultaneously. [. . .] An entire living and readable map rises up around us and is opened page by page. [. . .] It is more than a question of a point of view. Everything has taken on a meaning, a design, a composition” (PR, 781). The perspective afforded by height does not merely transform one’s sense of spatial relations but makes one aware that the visible world, even when it seems most immobile, has a sens: “One must walk to learn [apprendre] and soar to understand [comprendre]” (PR, 782).27 As his diction makes explicit, a change in

27. Michel Malicet writes of Claudel’s mountain walks in China: “Let us specify that the idea of a high-up position, proper to the nature and the art of the Orient, an idea Claudel will develop often subsequently, finds here, it seems, its first expression and unfolding” (59).

“visible nature” 47 perspective converts the visible world into a text, pictures into characters.28 The ultimate consequences of this rendering of landscape are dramatically presented in this rather astonishing description of a Japanese landscape in “Jules ou l’homme-aux-deux-cravates” (1926), which merits a lengthy citation: I speak of a poem that would be obtained through a sort of decantation, a draining of the site. Nothing but a little word from time to time such that these islands would no longer be resting on the sea but on a kind of radiant matter and intellectual void. Behold! Things have not changed, but through a kind of mysterious operation, without one seeing any of it, the materiality, let us rather say the actuality, has been extracted from beneath them. [. . .] Just a moment ago there were villages, rocks, trees, boats—and over there a smoking volcano— nothing has changed and in the place of all that there is no longer anything but words. Everything is now held together only by this secret word, by this elementary communication, everything is suspended in the heart of the spirit. There is no longer weight; there is now between things only this tacit convention, this secret intelligence. (PR, 852)

The Oriental void now signals not an atheistic auto-jouissance but the “secret intelligence” governing the phenomenal world. The result is an explicitly Christological staging of Mallarmé’s description of the syntactic blanks of “Un coup de dés”: “[T]he whole without anything new except for a spacing of reading” (Mallarmé, Œuvres, 455).29 28. It is this logic that allows the seemingly sensuous art of painting to become important in Claudel’s late thought: “The goal of painting is not the spectacle of time, it is not a certain moment of duration, it is the gathering as in a bouquet of a certain number of decorative elements, contemplated and drawn for themselves. [. . . ] These are figures, characters; treated in themselves by choosing the most significant features, color or design” (Journal, 546; emphasis in original). On Sesshu and Wang Wei as sources for Claudel’s understanding of East Asian painting and of painting in general, see Hue. 29. Note that for Mallarmé it is readings rather than words or letters that are spaced out. If for Mallarmé reading revealed the fictive, the power of the spirit, perhaps the power of invention, for Claudel it is a “mysterious operation” that drains away the actuality of the visible world. As Gilbert Gadoffre concisely explains, in Mallarmé’s poetics “signs correspond to things only by virtue of the fictions of our mind, whereas for the poet who moves in a harmonious and created universe, everything becomes an allusion to the reality of Order” (Gadoffre 1959, 137).


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Claudel’s poetic is thus almost Mallarméan, but with one significant addition—the most significant addition possible for Claudel, one that is indeed the basis of all signification and of being as signification: “We know that the world is in effect a text and that it speaks to us, humbly and joyously, of its own absence, but also of the eternal presence of someone else, that is, its Creator” (PR, 512). If phenomena can be redeemed by being read as written texts, this same logic gives new importance to the phenomenal aspects of language. Claudel’s transformation of landscape into language does not dissolve the former but empties it out; the phenomena remain. As he twice says: “[N]othing has changed.” Indeed, Nothing has changed: Claudel’s reevaluation of the Oriental letter is based on a saving of appearances that is itself tied to a particular reading of the Void. Rather than being a Satanic denial of Being, then, Oriental Nothingness can be interpreted as a kind of placeholder for the Catholic God.30 Claudel concludes that although Oriental culture doesn’t know exactly what it is pointing to, it does at least point. Oriental Nothingness reveals this world to be a veil not of illusion, he writes, but of allusion.31 This allusive Oriental visuality returns us to the question of allegory. More specifically, this double reevaluation of phenomena and Oriental culture prepares Claudel’s embrace of the ideograph, developments inseparable from his sojourn in Japan: “[A] long stay in the 30. While Claudel had previously seen some form of Nothingness as characteristic of all “Oriental” religions and had viewed this Nothingness as essentially nihilistic, in September of 1921 he writes of “[a]n idea for the first time of a possible accord between the Hindu conception and the Christian truth” (Journal, 519), the former “not Hinduism in the strict sense of the word, but Indian thought in general,” which, for Claudel, includes Buddhism (Hue, 180). Claudel specifically considers the possibility that “nothingness for India is not only a negation, it is something positive. Thus scholastic philosophy only allows us to say of God what he is not” (Journal, 519). We could hardly ask for a clearer sign of a shifting evaluation of Oriental culture than a direct comparison between the God of Aquinas and Oriental Nothingness! 31. This world is therefore less a temptation to be avoided than a text to be read, not a distraction from the eternal but its expression: “Every thing that is, in all its parts, designates that without which it could not have been. That, indeed, without which nothing could be” (PO, 150). Rather than being figured as a concrete particular straining toward the universal, as is the case in the West, the world is represented by Oriental art as floating over the Being the Oriental can understand only in the privative form of Nothingness.

“visible nature” 49 Far East made of me a contemplator of the letter and of the intelligible and permanent sign” (PR, 72). In a surprising cultural reversal, Claudel specifies in his essay “The Philosophy of the Book”: “It is not on Western papers that the word, the intelligible majuscule on white space, achieves its full glory, its radiant and stable signification” (PR, 72). As a “graphic constellation” (PO, 692), the Chinese character is defined by “simultaneity” and relationality. By means of “a calculated spacing,” Chinese writing sustains the initial “call” that articulates it, thus becoming “a schematic being” (PO, 46).32 Claudel then states that he wishes to apply these lessons to his own poetic practice, to find a way for language to be in the ways that images are—not by making his poetry more pictorial, but by composing temporal phenomena in such a way that they signal the eternal. Such a poem would proffer not a complex grasped in an instant of time, but an instant of time grasped as a complex, a contingent assemblage of appearances. This is what the poet of “The Poet and the Shamisen” means when he announces: “Weary of producing ideas I wanted to produce beings” (PR, 860).33 How does one make a being out of language? Claudel developed a number of different ways of bringing these ideas to bear on his own poetic practice,34 but arguably the most successful were the vaguely

32. If the ideograph were to represent a being, as with Fenollosa, it would be focused merely on this world, but because the Chinese character is itself a being it implies the lack of Being that characterizes all beings. Understood in this manner, the stasis of the ideograph does not travesty Being but rather points to the divine by arresting the flow of time and so revealing its contingency. 33. In this too he learns from Mallarmé: “Verse for Mallarmé was the means par excellence to make reality pass from the domain of the sensible to that of the intelligible [. . .] to imitate the thing in making it” (PR, 511). Claudel expresses the same desire when he writes, “I too, like the painters, would like to make something simultaneous” (PR, 823). Painting can serve as a model for poetry for Claudel precisely because of the former’s antipictorial qualities: “painting” signifies a form of art that can arrest time through composition. The crucial distinction is not between poetry as an art of language and painting as an art of images, but between representation and composition, regardless of the materials used. 34. There is also the relatively straightforward if outrageous interpretation of the alphabet as mimetic. The word toît (“roof”), for example, is said to represent two supporting outer walls with beams, between which are seen a man (“i”) and a woman (“o”); the circumflex (which is enlarged in the manuscript) covers the structure like a roof (PR, 83–84). For a discussion of the semiotic aspects of this experiment, see Genette. While this was not something Pound dwelled on, to my


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haiku-like fan-poems [éventails] of Cent phrases pour éventails, whose formal experimentation is clearly inspired, at least in part, by Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés”35 (and of course his fan poems). In the preface to Cent phrases Claudel writes: “Let us allow each word [. . .] the space —the time— necessary for its full sonority, its full dilation in white space” (PO, 693). In typographic play, theme, and in the trope of the fan itself, the fan-poem represents an attempt to produce a poetic form that allows for this “full dilation”: I ncen se

L’ encen s

like this verse I write h alf ash and half s mok e

comme ce vers que j’écris m oitié cendre et moitié f umé e (PO, 703)36

Claudel learns from Mallarmé the manipulation of the “mentally copied distance [that] separates groups of words or words from each other, [and] seems sometimes to accelerate and to slow the movement, emphasizing it, imitating it even according to a simultaneous vision of knowledge, he does write in one of the Machine Art texts: “Teacher an ASS not to see that child not stupid asking if the T was the tail of the caT” (Machine, 148). 35. Although originally published in 1897, Mallarmé’s poem only became widely available after a 1914 republication in the Nouvelle Revue Française. In January of 1913, Claudel, who owned a copy of the poem, had written to André Gide to encourage its publication in that journal; Claudel’s “Notes sur Mallarmé” appeared the same year and his other major Mallarmé essay, “La Catastrophe d’Igitur,” appeared in the NRF in 1926, a year after the publication of Igitur (written 1869). “La Philosophie du livre” also dates from 1925. 36. All references to Cent phrases are to the Pléiade Œuvre poétique, but Truffet’s critical edition of this text has been an invaluable resource and offers an excellent introduction. Each poem is accompanied by two calligraphic Chinese characters; the French text itself was originally printed in a facsimile of Claudel’s handwriting, enhancing the potential for “Western ideographs.”

“visible nature” 51 the Page” (Mallarmé, Œuvres, 455). Changes in the spacing of writing entail changes in the temporality of reading. Here language mimes the visual not so much through pictorial description as through a calculated counterpoint of movement and arrest. Language becomes a kind of image by emulating a kind of image that is already like language: writing. To recall Mallarmé: what is essential is not the spacing of the words, as striking as that is, but the spacing—even the momentary spatialization— of reading: Fan


space itself folding back on itself that absorbs this bird immobile with fluttering wing s c’est l’espace lui-même en se repliant qui absorbe cet oiseau immobile à tire d’aile s (PO, 733)

As with the transformation of “water” into “eternity,” this bird is not so much captured in a moment as it is lifted out of time altogether by the “folding” of space itself, effected through a play of graphic, but not pictorial, elements. Typography and spacing take on not only a poetic but an ontological and theological significance as the white spaces of the page, the parts of the poem that are not parts of the poem, become its final and only meaning: “the secret intelligence” that governs creation. I would add, however, that such a poetic image, if I might call it that, is not simply a reduction of the visual to the linguistic. Rather, the poem’s own graphicity becomes a figure for a utopian site where word and image, movement and arrest (understood here in the full range of their ontological meanings for Claudel) are not so much synthesized or mediated as collocated in an impossible figure at the moment of their greatest tension. Despite the particularity, even peculiarity, of Claudel’s ontology, certain aspects of his poetics are consonant with Anglo-American poetic modernism. As Robert Kern writes: “If the purpose of prose, as


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Hulme puts it, is ‘to hurry you along to a conclusion,’ then poetry, quite deliberately, is meant to slow us down, forcing us to experience things in terms of their immediate presence rather than abstractly or conceptually” (119). Although the goals are of course quite different, the Mallarméan and the Poundian traditions share the belief that the poetic is defined by an interruption or retardation of normal processes of meaning-making. While Claudel and the Imagists come at these problems from different directions and with different destinations in mind, they meet in their shared desire to join stasis and motion, word and image, intelligence and optics, their own modernist poetics and the language of China.37 It is, however, striking that while in general modernist poets talk a great deal about the Chinese written language, the overall aesthetic of much of “Asian”-influenced modernist poetry is modeled at least as much on the Japanese haiku as on any Chinese poetic form.38 In part it was possible for a Japanese poetic form to be understood as enacting the poetic ambitions awakened by a contemplation of Chinese writing because of the long-term historical willingness by Western critics to conflate the Chinese and Japanese cultures, but this possibility became a literary reality because the haiku and the ideograph both represented models of figuring fleeting visible phenomena in language. Neither the formal-linguistic particulars of the haiku nor the discursive forms of Chinese poetry would have served this end nearly as well. When modern Western poets became, in Claudel’s expression, contemplators 37. In his discussion of “imitative harmony” in French verse Claudel writes: “Thus this visual and auditory contemplation of the letter allows us to see in each word not only an inert concept, not only an image congealed once and for all, but a movement, a kind of spiritual engine” (PR, 103). This final phrase is echoed in his description of the éventail poems as “a kind of semantic engine” (PO, 692). Like Pound, then, who declared the Vorticist “at his maximum point of energy when stillest” (“Our Vortex,” 148), Claudel uses the ideograph to figure a kind of virtual object (language, image, and energy at once) defined by a complex of motion and arrest. But unlike Pound and Fenollosa, for whom the issue seems to be finding linguistic forms that preserve or extend the movement and energy of the physical world, Claudel’s images would derive their energy precisely from their abrupt detachment from the world of appearances. While for Fenollosa poetic energy travels only intraworldly channels, for Claudel all energy comes from the potential energy of ontological difference. 38. Correspondingly, there is relatively little discussion of the particulars of the Japanese language.

“visible nature” 53 of the letter and of the intelligible and permanent sign, the poems that followed were haiku-like because “the ideograph” is less an imprecise understanding of the written form of Chinese words than it is a conflicted figure of language approaching the condition of photography. To understand the ideograph as a retort to the photograph is not to distance the former from its relationship to an imagined China. On the contrary, as I will now discuss, this affinity with photography is the imagistic ideograph’s Orientalism—legible not only in the white spaces of Claudel’s work but in those of Imagism as well.

Allegories of Not Reading While Claudel’s earlier work presents in a more explicit form the subordination of Oriental writing’s cultural particularity to a “universal” meaning, the more aesthetically modernist fan-poems are no less Catholic allegories than is The Rest on the Seventh Day. They say or show one thing (something Asian) and mean another (the absolute truth of the Christian God), paralleling Christian readings of Hebrew Scripture and Greco-Roman literature not only in their allegorical structure but in their cultural asymmetry. Just as Moses might be a figure of Jesus, but never the other way around, so too East Asian writing and painting are redeemed from Satanic self-satisfaction only by being emptied of their original cultural and historical content in order to signify a truth that is universal and eternal—for Claudel.39 The allegoresis of the emperor in 39. Accordingly, the late Claudel’s seemingly sympathetic approach to the Orient entails its own ominous implications. In his “Conversations in the Loir-et-Cher” we are presented with an image of the cross as a symbol of the world uniting into one temple. “East” and “West” are here less important than the universal text that underlies them both: “What will be necessary therefore will be not so much the completion of nature, as you were saying, than, through an ingenious and patient cleaning or restoration to recover the primitive text on the fundamental parchment” common to all people (PR, 798). Although Claudel’s own work is a kind of palimpsest of Christian, Mallarméan, and Orientalist discourses, their peaceful coexistence is always provisional. His richest palimpsests dream of the white page they once were and will again become. While I doubt that Claudel would have supported its historical implications, a turn of this parchment trope suggests that his allegorizing sympathy, with its roots in Christian allegorization of Jewish Scripture, is at least as ethically problematic as his outright condemnation of the Orient. The metaphor that makes of the earth and its peoples a


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Repos continues to provide the template for Claudel’s own allegoresis: the emperor must first see his own language from a Christological perspective in order to understand it. The emperor’s conversion thus allegorizes the reading practice by which the modernist ideograph is constituted: a Western writer invents an Oriental reader who reads Oriental writing from the perspective of the writer’s own illiteracy; that is, doesn’t read but sees. This nonreading is, however, then converted into another kind of reading: the passage is from one kind of conventional reading (the Chinese one) to another (reflecting the interests of the Western poet), passing through the sensory image in order to transform the provincial Chinese reading into something more universal—again, very much like Christian scriptural interpretation. The basic mechanism of Imagism is not so different, even if its religion is. The rhetoric of Imagism tends to emphasize the liberation of the eye from artifice and preconception, but this gesture is necessarily, even programmatically, followed by another: the rescue of the visible from mere immediacy. The liberating moment of the Imagist project might be traced back into the nineteenth century and seems well described by John Ruskin’s account of “the whole technical power of painting depend[ing] on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify,—as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight” (Ruskin, quoted in Crary, 95). Yet as Mitchell writes: “The ‘innocent eye’ is a metaphor for a highly experienced and cultivated sort of vision. When this metaphor becomes literalized, when we try to postulate a foundational experience of ‘pure’ vision, a merely mechanical process uncontaminated by imagination, purpose, or desire, we invariably rediscover [. . . that] ‘the innocent eye is blind’” (Mitchell, 118). In sum, the innocent eye is not so much recovered as cultivated, and this cultivation must ultimately put limits on its own innocence, restoring signification and history. “China” emerges at the edges of this asymptotically approached ideal. Consider the case of Fenollosa, whose arguments for the natural sign can fairly be said to protest too much: if a Chinese character representing universal text prompts him to speculate of the potentially confusing palimpsest: “And certainly on the day when the whole earth is organized as a single temple, the first task will be a general cleansing [un nettoyage général]” (PR, 797). Such diction adds new meaning to Yunte Huang’s comment that the significance of Fenollosa’s essay “lies less in the essay’s immediate ideological content than in its mediating, palimpsestical form” (Huang, 22).

“visible nature” 55 the sun rising behind a tree were indeed immediate and universally understandable as such, then there would be no need for Fenollosa to tell us so—we would just have to look at it to see “East.” Even setting aside the issue of the dubious pictorial similarity of the ideographic components to their referents, one might ask how, for example, we know that ᵅ does not represent a sun setting behind a tree. Fenollosa’s reading yields something that cannot be derived from the sign itself, something that can in no way be said to be pictured in the image: a sense of orientation. Emblematically, allegorically even, Fenollosa assumes a ready ability to distinguish between east and west—and he does so by claiming to see something he must read and finally, to convey it to other readers, must write in the form of a gloss or caption. A closer look at the naturalness and universality of Fenollosa’s ideography therefore suggests that what is so scandalous about Claudel’s is not that it misrepresents the meanings of Chinese characters, but that it does so blatantly. Whereas Claudel overtly provides captions—giving glosses a lot of readers won’t like—Imagism would hold that captions are not necessary because the signs are self-explanatory. But in its structure of reappropriated projection, the alleged immediacy of Imagism enacts the same interpretive violence found in the more explicit allegoresis of Claudel’s emperor. Describing Fenollosa’s Chinese in terms of allegory seems bizarre only because the Imagist ideograph embodies in miniature the most ambitious claims of aesthetic ideology: the isomorphism of words, ideas, and cultures, an isomorphism that would reflect an immediacy and universality apparent to an unmediated and universal reader. This Reader, like the emperor, is a place-holder that allows the transformation of one kind of reading (the conventions of Chinese) to be replaced by another (the ideas of the poet) through the medium of the image, a mental moment that would be simultaneously pure presence and the revelation of something pseudo-universal: “our forgotten mental processes” (Fenollosa, 21, emphasis added). It is here that the psychological, cultural, and ultimately political dimensions of Imagism’s Orientalist inheritance emerge. As Mitchell writes, “When we say [. . .] that the mind is like a mirror or drawing surface, we inevitably postulate another mind to draw or decipher the pictures in it” (Mitchell, 17).40 “China” provides modernist poetics 40. Critiquing Joseph Frank’s reading of “Metro” as “simultaneity of perception,” Gage writes that in the Imagist poem there is always “a thing compared and a thing compared to [. . .] the first being the experience which the reader and the poet do not share, and the second being the comparable experience which they


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with a model of an impersonal, self-less subjectivity that approximates the mind as a mirror or drawing surface. In the case of Imagism, the eyes of others see, merely: innocent to the point of being “blind” without their captions and glosses. It is through this structure, this division of labor, that the ideograph tropes both the “Oriental” and modern consciousnesses, which are effectively distinguished as pure consciousness and self-consciousness. Hence the twofold evaluation of “China”: on the one hand, there is elaborate praise for the aesthetic lessons gleaned from the contemplation of its writing; on the other, silence and even contempt for actual Chinese people, who cannot be allowed to understand the ideograph because the very virtue of an ideographic consciousness is the liberating purity of incomprehension. It should be less surprising, then, that, like Claudel, Fenollosa valorizes particular cultural positions as those best suited for a true reading of Chinese—and that being a native speaker of Chinese is not one of them. Fenollosa is quite explicit about the claim that the Chinese themselves have forgotten how to read, really read, that is to say not read but see, their own writing: “Several centuries ago China lost much of her creative self, and of her insight into the causes of her own life; but her original spirit lives, grows, interprets, transferred to Japan in all its original freshness” (6).41 China and its ideographs must ultimately be rejected as models for poetry: while a sensuous immediacy can jar conventionalized perception, in and of itself that immediacy represents a mechanical or bestial stupidity devoid of consciousness and intelligence. The ideograph cannot speak for itself. It will never have been, for poetry or for “us,” if it does not speak, unless it is not only recorded but also recalled. However many suns rise behind however many trees, there is only darkness unless someone is there to read them. do share and which permits them to share something of the first” (85). Imagism reversed thing-compared-to and thing-compared, “to render figure and ground ambiguous” (86). 41. Original freshness and spirit are of course precisely what are at stake in Fenollosa’s essay. The message of his method of reading Chinese is that our own dead English can be brought back to life through rectified reading and writing practices. It is not the words that are dead, then, but the way they are read, and this is not only something that can change over time (today’s shocking catachresis is tomorrow’s tired cliché) but also something that can be affected and effected by cultural position—hence precisely the regenerative value of the example of Chinese.

“visible nature” 57 The implicit contradiction in Fenollosa between self-evident visibility and captioning is more self-consciously expressed in various works by Pound. The self-evidence of meaning is something Pound is generally emphatic but also somewhat inconsistent about. “The Chinese ‘word’ or ideogram for red is based on something everyone KNOWS,” he asserts in ABC of Reading, but just a few pages later writes that “if Marconi says something about ultra-short waves it MEANS something [and i]ts meaning can only be properly estimated by someone who KNOWS” (ABC, 22, 25; emphasis in original). At the one extreme, the visible self-evidence and universality of the ideograph; at the other, the invisible workings of a technological medium understandable only to experts. There are obviously good reasons for making such distinctions between ideograms and wireless transmissions, but I want to emphasize here the extent to which such distinctions correspond to the difference between the knowledge of “everyone” and the knowledge of “someone.” Pound’s poetics are in many ways defined by this tension between his valorization of the supposedly sensuous and universal and his equally strong emphasis on acquired knowledge and expertise. His trajectory from Imagist to fascist represents in part an increasing emphasis of the latter over the former, but just as this later work continues to appeal to experience, the early work appeals, in its own way, to authority.42 After all, the relationship between illustration and captioning is one of unequal partners: the ideograph might express discourse in a concise or vivid way, but it cannot gloss it. As a figure of perception, the ideograph implies a very peculiar kind of intersubjectivity in that the other consciousness, the Chinese consciousness, is incapable of self-consciousness and therefore is barely a consciousness at all, corresponding to the knowing subject’s nonknowledge, which is immediately transformed, already in its being recognized as nonknowledge, into the sublated raw material of the knowing subject’s knowledge. If this all sounds terribly Hegelian, that’s because it is, even if it is an unwitting or unwilling Hegelianism. In other terms, the semiotic issue of poetic immediacy is bound up with issues of cultural mediation—and the “ideograph” serves as a topos for thinking this relationship. Mitchell dubs such pictures, images, or figures that “depict the act of picturing, imagine the activity 42. For a discussion of some of these issues in relation to the problem of naming and Pound’s conception of Chinese, see Peter Makin in Qian Zhaoming, editor, Ezra Pound and China.


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of imagination, figure the practice of figuration” hypericons; their function, he writes, is to provide “strategies for both giving in to and resisting the temptation to see ideas as images” (Mitchell, 6)—not a bad definition of the imagistic ideograph, even if this is not necessarily what Mitchell had in mind. But unlike, for example, the camera obscura or Aristotle’s waxen soul, the ideograph, beyond whatever else it may say or show, always also signifies Chineseness. Indeed, the rhetorical power of the ideographic topos comes from its being both a generalizable figure (a hypericon) and an ethnographically specific one (an example of something Chinese). The modernist ideograph thus represents not so much an inversion or negation of the Idealist account as an overdetermined complex of a rehearsal of that account and its reversed valorization. The ideograph is accordingly able to represent simultaneously the negative values of mere immediacy (as in the Idealist and Orientalist traditions) and the positive connotations of immediacy and visuality (recognizably part of Anglo-American modernism’s sinophilia). This is its cultural work. The need for this cultural work arises from the historical transformations of the basic categories of mediation, consciousness, and vision in modernist culture. The ideograph figures new, seemingly impossible combinations of stasis and arrest, autonomy and contingency, writing and image; it figures a form of writing whose production escapes intention and yet whose meaning is entirely selfevident; it figures, in short, language approaching the condition of photography.

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium Claudel opens his preface to a 1946 collection of Hélène Hoppenot photographs (titled simply Chine) with a description of what is indeed “an extraordinary photograph published by an American journal” (PR, 393), but one that seems to have little to do with China: in an image from atop a New York skyscraper we see to one side a blur. It is a man falling from the Empire State Building, accidentally captured by the camera. “From on high, from a neighboring terrace, there was,” writes Claudel, “in order to stop it forever, a sudden gaze. In the time of a click the eye of this apparatus of eternity that is the camera has registered him. He is there for forever in full flight grasped by an indisputable, permanent, ineffaceable, immobile retina.” The interpretation is familiarly Claudelian: an image is read as a text that speaks of

“visible nature” 59 eternity. However, unlike the artist, who must struggle to produce such image-texts, the photographic eye unthinkingly produces an “immobile movement” that explicitly echoes the emergence of the ideograph from a moment of arrest: the falling man “has become a sign. Click!” Like the ideograph, the photograph represents to Claudel a form of vision-becoming-language that is almost sacrilegious in its power: “[S]omething immobile, visible, readable, I was almost going to say sacred. A TEXT. Something permanent that has lost none of its activity” (PR, 394).43 Claudel then makes explicit the relationship between these late reflections on photography and his earlier motivation for studying East Asian painting: “Texts. Texts to decipher, that’s what for many centuries the pictorial art of the West was not allowed to show us” (PR, 394). Michael North writes that the body of scholarship that has traced the influence of photography on modernist writing “may have missed the more fundamental fact that photography is itself a kind of modern writing” (North, Camera, 3). “Photography, in this extended sense,” he continues, “was much more than a medium. It was the context, simultaneously technical, social, and aesthetic, within which both writers and artists in the avant-garde worked out their ideas about representation” (16). To understand the ideograph in the broader context of the problematics of modern vision is therefore also to understand it in relation to photography in this broader sense. What is essential to this broader sense of literary photography is not whether language becomes more visually descriptive, but whether the normal workings of language, and with them habits of perception and thought, are arrested. While other arts are, as André Bazin writes, “based on the presence of man; only in photography do we take pleasure in his absence” (Bazin, 13; 13). The photograph and ideograph are equally unconcerned with the continued reality of either what they show or what looks at them. Like the photograph, the ideograph renders not an instant of consciousness but an instant rather than consciousness. It is in this sense, I have been arguing, that the ideograph figures language approaching the condition of photography. This is not to suggest that the ideograph is merely an effect of photography, the imaginative epiphenomenon of a technological fact. Rather, it is simply to assert a nonnecessary but historically important relationship between the imaginings of the photograph and of the 43. “Text” all caps in original. For further, similar comments by Claudel on photography, see “Les Psaumes et la photographie” (PR, 388–93).


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ideograph in the context of modernist poetics. The Image, the ideograph, and the photograph all figure forms of writing that respond to the problem of modern vision being at once more automatic and more subjective—and in doing so they often figure one another as well. In this sense, the photograph is as much an imagined object as the ideograph: each is a topos—truly a kind of placeholder—for a moment of temporal arrest corresponding to a particular kind of subjectivity. As Ann Banfield writes, it is by “bearing witness to the existence of sensedata which are not ‘given’ to any observer” that the photograph “achieves a kind of objectivity in the form of a neutral and impersonal subjectivity” (Banfield, 72; emphasis added). The photographic gaze embodies neither objectivity in any conventional sense nor an absence of subjectivity, but rather a specific and very peculiar kind of subjectivity, one tied to and indeed synonymous with a specific location and moment. It is not merely a pun, then, to emphasize that Fenollosa is concerned with the value of the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry, that is, as a means for the registration of an impersonal subjectivity. Corresponding to such a form of subjectivity, the “ideographic” emerges at the intersection of the photographic and ethnographic dimensions of this writing. It is the pursuit of such a medium, a kind of writing that would be subject neither to the whims of individual psychology nor to the constraints of cultural convention, that constitutes the common ground of such otherwise divergent modernist poetics as those of the Imagist tradition and of such post-Mallarméan poets as Claudel. In the case of Claudel, a fascination with the interruptive force of photography and its association with Asian culture have antecedents in Mallarmé.44 The poem typically taken as signaling the shift to Mallarmé’s mature style (“Las de l’amer repos,” 1866), the poem in which he is said to turn away from mimesis, paradoxically takes the form of a vow to imitate, specifically “to imitate the Chinese with his limpid and delicate heart / Whose pure ecstasy is to paint the end / —on his cups of moonravished snow— / Of a strange flower that perfumes his transparent life.”45 The personal crisis with which the poem is associated has often been connected with Mallarmé’s interest in Buddhism, specifically the works of his friend Henri Cazalis, to whom he writes of his successful 44. For discussions of possible Asian influences in Mallarmé, see Cellier, Hokenson, and Mauron. 45. For the sake of clarity I have taken some liberties with the punctuation and line breaks in this translation; for the French, see the epigraph to chapter 3.

“visible nature” 61 overcoming of this crisis: “I am now impersonal [. . .] but an aptitude of the Universe to be seen and be developed” (Correspondance, 1: 242). While it might be forcing things to read this last word in a photographic sense, the poem’s valorization of limpidity, ecstasy, transparency, and self-less sensitivity—all in the auratic perfume of a flower that is no more—are anticipatory of the modernist discourse on photography. Indeed, Yves Bonnefoy has offered a persuasive reading of late Mallarméan poetics as an effort to apply the lessons of photography to, and in, language. He specifically argues that Mallarmé seeks “to accomplish consciously [. . .] as the ultimate act of consciousness, at the threshold of a new age—what the photographic machine does outside any consciousness” (Bonnefoy, 335). In Bonnefoy’s reading, the problem that emerges for Mallarmé is how “to let oneself be permeated by the nonbeing of representations” in pursuit of a “pure perception, perception of nothing but what is given to the senses, perception of that appearing which in its purity knows nothing of the calculations of language” (335). Bonnefoy finds in Mallarmé’s “Igitur” “the project of seeing without knowing” (335, emphasis in original), the pursuit of a “pure looking” that would be the perceptual correlate of “the pure work” that, as Mallarmé writes, “implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who cedes the initiative to words” (Mallarmé, Œuvres, 366). Understanding the logic of such a conception of “photography” allows us to detect it where photography in a conventional sense is not thematically present. Perhaps the most famous of Mallarmé’s sonnets, “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui,” climaxes in the image of a swan [cygne] captured in the instant of a frozen wing-beat, and so becoming, in many readings, a sign [signe]. Claudel similarly writes of a bird that becomes a sign: The cuckoo

Le coucou

localizes the place where we are no t localise l’endroit où nous ne sommes p as (PO, 713)


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As is so often the case in the Symbolist tradition, the poem can be read as a description of itself. Specifically, Claudel makes the most traditional Japanese poetic bird [hototogisu] perform the same function as the camera: the localization of where we are not—spatially, temporally, and (note the plural) ethnographically. This is not to say that the cuckoo is in any sense a symbol of the camera,46 but rather that for Claudel cuckoo and camera alike are apparatuses of eternity, media— one technological, one not—that, by localizing where we are not, allude to the Creator. Recall the passage in which Claudel describes the transformation of landscape into text: “Behold! Things have not changed, but through a kind of mysterious operation, without one seeing any of it, the materiality, let us rather say the actuality, has been extracted from beneath them,” and so on. This is not a metaphor for or a description of photography in any conventional sense; rather it is figuration of the very production of textuality as “photographic.” Now, such a use of photography would seem directly opposed to the values of the Imagist tradition, and in many ways it is; but I would like to suggest that Bonnefoy’s description of “Igitur” as a “project of seeing without knowing” is more than superficially similar to Fenollosa’s claim that “poetry must render what is said, not what is merely meant”— especially given that in his examples this “saying” is usually visual. Both Fenollosa and Mallarmé turn to the Orient for a model of vision that is free from the constraints of personality and offers instead a form of subjectivity able to present the visual independent of the semantic.47 While a Mallarméan poetics seeks, to recall Bonnefoy, “to accomplish consciously [. . .] as the ultimate act of consciousness, at the threshold of a new 46. It is, however, worth noting that the expression “look at the little birdie” [regardez le petit oiseau] was formerly used in French, as in English, by photographers trying to get their subjects to look toward the camera. Thanks to Eric Hayot for reminding me of this. 47. If the Mallarméan tradition—here including Claudel—leads toward a poetics in which the poem, by arresting the phenomenal world, signifies the Absolute, the Fenollosan tradition is clearly dedicated to conveying the vitality and dynamism of that world. Correspondingly, these traditions reveal and conceal the cultural, even ethnographic dimension of their poetics in different manners: while Mallarmé famously sought “to give to the words of the tribe a purer meaning,” clearly in the case of Fenollosa this meaning must not be too pure. Fenollosa emphasizes the said over the meant not to close off the referential function of the poetic word, but because he believes that it is in this saying that its referential function is most strongly present.

“visible nature” 63 age—what the photographic machine does outside any consciousness” (Bonnefoy, 335), Fenollosa calls for a poetry that will do “consciously what the primitive races did unconsciously.” For both, then, “to imitate the Chinese” means to transcend the limits of ordinary consciousness by transforming language into a simulacrum of indexicality. Such an indexical language does not eliminate subjectivity entirely, but reduces it to a space of unknowing that is as impersonal, inhuman, and unknowing as a camera—or a Chinaman. The cultural politics of such a photography, such a photopoetics, must be located not in the overt thematic distinction between the camera and the “primitive” mind, but rather in the nuances of how the technological and ethnographic are used together to define and mobilize this place of unknowing. As Rey Chow writes: “[I]f ethnicity is [. . .] an ontologically liminal phenomenon, something whose status is between subject and object, then its representations, too, must involve a way of reading that is much more complex than the thematic approach” (Chow, 51). In the ideograph the peculiar ontology of the photographic image and the ontological liminality of Chineseness are not merely analogous, they are mutually constitutive. Pound did not write a great deal about photography, but he provides some clues about his estimation of it in an article on yet another modernist form of writing, the vortograph—a prismatically modified kind of photography with which Alvin Langdon Coburn was experimenting in the mid-1910s. In a section titled “The Camera Freed from Reality,” Pound claims, in a formulation that recalls Claudel’s description of photography, that “Vorticism has reawakened our sense of form, a sense long dead in occidental artists” (“Vortographs,” 202). Coburn’s vortography is a cut above ordinary photography for Pound because “the vortographer combines his forms at will. He selects just what he actually wishes and excludes the rest” (203). By contrast, vortography is inferior to other Vorticist arts because “it is an art of the eye, not of the eye and hand together” (203). The vortograph is a legitimate aesthetic experiment to the extent that it surpasses the optical and automatic production of photography through the intelligence and will of the artist. As a character in Claudel’s “Jules and the Poet” says, “A Kodak wouldn’t have done the same thing for you. I do not only see, I understand. It takes a certain practice to understand what the eyes see” (PR, 848).48 Pound expresses the same idea in a 48. Claudel here plays on the double sense of “entendre” as to hear and to understand. I use the less synesthetic translation here, but with the author of L’Œil écoute “hear what the eyes see” is just as likely.


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more Poundian manner: “[A]ny imbecile can shoot off a Kodak” (“Vortographs,” 203).49 Yet as Michael North writes: “[T]o disdain the conventionally photographic is not at all the same as disdaining photography. In fact, writers like Pound, who hoped to change the language of poetry, had far more to gain from the photographic model than the more conventional writers around them” (Camera, 24). Thus while Pound is in some respects dismissive of photography, it is clear that important aspects of the Imagist project appeal to the ideal of an impersonal registration of the visible instant. The Imagist project, in other words, is characterized by a tension between the liberation of the eye from convention and an overcoming of the merely, mechanistically, optical and immediate. Pound writes in a later text: “[T]he ideograph as it were absorbs our phanopoeia or our good imagism and then makes place for another quality. It takes the static image. You might almost say that it is the static image before one attempts to write. But if you try to put the static image into ideograph you at once feel the void. The ideograph wants the moving image, the concrete thing plus its action” (Machine, 88). What distinguishes the Imagist poem and the ideograph from the static images that presumably any imbecile or even a machine can produce is described as a kind of movement, but this movement is difficult to define in that it does not seem to be a matter of bodies moving in space.50 On the contrary, it almost seems to be a quality only of certain images. In such a context, the stakes of my opening questions about the tension between the verbal and nominal aspects of the “apparition” in— even the apparition of—“In a Station of the Metro” become clearer. 49. Michael North notes: “When Ezra Pound wanted a quick shorthand term to disparage some lines in the drafts of The Wasteland, he scribbled down ‘photography’” (North, Camera, 24). 50. Notice the hesitation “It takes the static image”—full stop—and then the uncharacteristic qualification “You might almost say that. . . .” It seems to be essential to Pound that this movement is an attribute of the thing (“its action”), but at the same time this movement is defined in relation to the interiority of the subject: “a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” Pound is careful to attribute this transformation to the thing rather than to the perceiving subject, but even as his poetics makes strong appeals to an unquestionable sensory immediacy, it is their relationship to the subjective that is supposed to redeem his poetic techniques from being merely photographic; indeed, it is precisely the strenuousness of these appeals to the sensory that makes the distinction from photography necessary.

“visible nature” 65 The ambivalence of this one word signals, and allows, the poem to be at once photographic and antiphotographic, to embody in a figure of optical arrest a suspension of verbal convention and also to transcend this immediacy by becoming language. Such, at least, is the goal: Pound’s poetic project would retain the liberating moment of photography while overcoming the more radical implications of photography’s decontextualizing, depersonalizing force. A poem that would somehow both be and be about a moment is simply a poetic rendition of a long tradition of wanting to have one’s phenomenological cake and be it too. I recall here in cursory form the famous passage in The Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel argues for the mediating character of deictics. If one night I write down “Now is night,” the statement is no longer true when I reread it the next afternoon. To speak nothing of proper names, philosophical ideas, and the like, even the most purely referential components of language, words that would simply point, manifest the iterable character of the linguistic sign—preceding, outlasting, and so never fully coinciding with that to which they would point. There is a similar problem at work in Imagism. A writer uses a poem to say “[T]his is how a nonmediated consciousness appears.” But it is always already too late, the “this” signaling that language is already at work, that the “instant” has already become a sign that will endure and will travel and whose meaning will be transformed by new contexts.51 The immediacy of “these faces in the crowd” is belied by the fact that “In a Station of the Metro” is one of the most cited, recited, anthologized, and generally well-traveled poems in modern English. Walter Benjamin writes that as photography developed during the modernist era it increasingly came to require captions because the images themselves could no longer provide their own contexts: “The camera gets smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret images whose shock effect paralyzes the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where inscription must come into play” (GSII, 385; SWII, 527). The poets I have been discussing faced a similar problem. 51. Whether or not deictics appear in the poem, the poem itself, as a whole, may assume the form of a deictic. Because the attribution of meaning to, the representation of, or even any pointing to the instant makes it no longer an instant, in a sense the only “correct” formulation of the instant would be “now is now”—or in the case of objects “this is this.” The tendency of modernist poetics toward self-referentiality—we might take Mallarmé as paradigmatic here—can thus be read as a kind of simulacrum of the impossible self-identity of the instant or the object for consciousness.


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As they approached a poetics that captured images freed from linguistic convention they encountered the threat of meaninglessness—a threat that was also a source of revolutionary possibilities for Dadaists and Surrealists, perhaps, but not for Pound, much less Claudel. This is why, despite the fact that the Image presents itself as something “given,” it in fact requires, or must become, some form of caption or inscription. Understood in this sense—as language approaching but ultimately refusing the condition of photography—the ideograph is about the problematic immanence of vision, about the ways in which the image, and ultimately language in general, does or does not provide its own context. As Pound himself specifically writes of “In a Station of the Metro”: “I dare say meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought” (Gaudier-Brzeska).52 Determining this “vein of thought” is, I want to suggest as my conclusion, less a narrowly hermeneutic than a kind of political act.53

52. Pound’s translation of Li Po’s “Jade Stair Grievance” in Cathay presents a different working out of the same problem: it is exemplary of the Imagist poem that, read carefully, economically tells you all you need to know, and yet the poem is accompanied by a critical note that belies this self-evidence. For a detailed discussion of this poem in the context of translation practices and the need for commentary, see Hayot, Chinese Dreams, and Huang. 53. Michael North’s study of the relationship between modernist literature and photography argues that because the new technological media often produced forms of writing that did not iconically represent their sources (this despite the fact that these technologies were supposed to ensure observational objectivity) the result was “the unintended effect of making observation seem dependent on mediation” (Camera, 6). The ultimate implication was that sense perceptions themselves were, as James Lastra writes, “‘inhabited’ by writing in the sense that, even if understood as ontologically identical to ‘normal’ perceptions, they could be cited and repeated, linked to new contexts, and forced to signify in ways contradictory to their original meanings. In short, they confronted the world with a form of experience as written—as enabled and endangered by the possibilities of writing as described in philosophy” (quoted in North, Camera, 8–9). As a consequence, “the effect of new technologies on modern writing [was] not to efface the intervening layer the linguistic seems to apply to the real world but rather to make clear how deeply linguistic any possible version of that world must be” (North, 210). In a passage I cited earlier, North notes with some irony that the historiography of modernist literature has often implicitly relied on the notion of the autonomy of vision as a way to keep modernism outside of social and historical conflict—this despite the fact that precisely the faltering of this autonomy was perhaps the predominant experience of modern vision.

“visible nature” 67 In one of the most famous passages in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin writes that the decay of aura in modern life is driven by the dual impulse of the masses for “things to be ‘brought closer’ spatially and humanly,” on the one hand, and, on the other, to “overcome[e] the uniqueness of every given by accepting its reproduction” (GSI, 479; SWIV, 255). It is precisely in this sense that the ideograph participates in the same broader set of problems associated with photography and technological media, not only on the level of semiotics but ultimately on the level of politics as well. Eduardo Cadava writes that this dialectic of approach and retreat redefines the relationship between past and present in a way that “shatters our general understanding of the political. It tells us that politics can no longer be thought in terms of a model of vision. It can no longer be measured by the eye” (71). This is why, in Benjamin’s famous account of Aura, politics replaces ritual as the guarantor of aura. “Aura” functions in his work as a contradictory figure of perfect contextuality: the auratic art object is both singular (it is this object and no other) and utterly defined by its social context (for example, a ritual). As works of art become technologically reproducible—and technological reproduction itself becomes a form of artistic production—this shattering of the singularity of the object liberates it, on the one hand, from the confines of its previous social and ritual determinants, but also creates a need for new contexts and rituals. I would add two important qualifications to this account. First, while Benjamin writes that “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself,” I would say, along with Hegel, that this was always true of language and most obviously of writing, even prior to what Benjamin defines as the historical age of technological reproducibility. Second, by understanding Aura as a matter of context rather than as the property of an object, as a practical matter Aura has less to do with what has it than with who can produce or experience it.54 It is here that the topos of the Chinese mentality—representing both the attraction and the failure of visual immediacy—becomes so important. While Imagism was indeed about rescuing the senses from the constraints of language—here Chinese plays a heroic role—it was also about rescuing language, poetry, and thought from the stupidity

54. Both of these points might be supported with Benjamin’s own work; I present them not as corrections but as emphases.


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of a merely technical registration of that sensible world—and here “the Chinese” don’t come off as well. While the modernist revision of Idealist Orientalism largely appears as sinophilic and even iconophilic, it nonetheless retains, if in a more complex and nuanced form, the structure of iconoclasm outlined by Mitchell: “[I]conoclasm typically proceeds by assuming that the power of the image is felt by somebody else; what the iconoclast sees is the emptiness, vanity, and impropriety of the idol. The idol, then, tends to be simply an image overvalued (in our opinion) by an other: by pagans and primitives; by children or foolish women; by Papists and ideologues (they have an ideology; we have a political philosophy)” (113). Modernist ideography layers over this structure an inverting rhetoric in which we are the idolators, worshiping the type rather than the being—but ultimately, the being of which the “transparent life” of the Chinese provide a glimpse is too transparent, to the point of lacking any consciousness whatsoever. In terms of the structure of Aura: the Chinese consciousness gets high marks for preserving singularity, but for precisely that reason it would be unable to provide any kind of model for the reestablishment of a meaningful social context—not without a little help. To put it in stark terms: the semiotic issue of mediation is here inseparable from racialization. North is led to a similar conclusion in his study about a different set of connections between race and vision, observing: “It can hardly be an accident that the optical unconscious of so many of these writers seems to have been occupied by a figure with dark skin” (Camera, 210). Blackness, he argues, functions in the authors he examines like ink: it is both that which is not seen as such and that which makes vision possible. But if in the cases that North considers it seems that “without prejudice there would almost literally be nothing to see” (81), in the case of “the Chinese” the problem is that there would be nothing but sight. In contrast to overt forms of racialization in which the racialized other is presented directly, for the writers I have been considering here Chineseness is less something visible than the visual as such. It is not that the Imagist poetic is not racialized, then, but that it registers race as a way of seeing rather than as something seen. The racializing character of such a discourse is thus hidden as plain seeing: the other appears not primarily as an estranged and aestheticized object, but only indirectly as the model of an estranging and aestheticizing, in short a modernist, subject. At least since Baudelaire described the modern artist as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness,” modernism has imagined “a perceptiveness acute and magical by reason of its innocence’” (Baudelaire,

“visible nature” 69 1161–62). If this notion is in many ways Romantic in origin, after Baudelaire it increasingly becomes identified with urban experience. Echoing Ruskin’s description of “flat stains of colour” as what appear to the innocent eye, Benjamin claims that “the method of Impressionist painting, to pull together a picture from a chaos of bits of color, would be a reflection of experiences that have become common to the eye of a big-city dweller” (Benjamin GSI, 628, n. 2; SWIV, 350, n. 41). While Pound no doubt would have resisted the comparison with Impressionism, the faces of “In a Station of the Metro” participate in this tradition of figuring the “innocent” eye of modern, urban experience as perceiving patches of color stripped of their normal meaning and context. By transforming the modern masses into an image of nature, a transformation that involves both an Orientalizing trope and the literal effacement of those same masses, “Metro” indeed seems guilty of Crary’s charge that “the sheer optical attentiveness of modernism increasingly had to submerge that which would obstruct its functioning: language, historical memory, and sexuality” (Crary, 96)—and, one might add, ethnicity. The writers I have been considering here necessarily evoke “China” in a way that requires the disappearance of China.55 Claudel’s appropriative use of the ideograph is simply a more overt form of the same cultural logic at work in Imagism: the ideograph is not only not really the written language of China—in the end it must not be Chinese at all. The texts I have been reading do indeed take Chinese as an aesthetic model in a way that effaces the cultural particularity of that model. This effacement is not, however, simply a by-product of appropriative arrogance, but rather a logical consequence of China’s functioning precisely as a model of the effacement of cultural particularity: the “transparent life” whose imitation Mallarmé invoked. On the one hand, the cultural and ethnic particularity of Chineseness and of the Chinese language is effaced by its allegorization into an ostensibly universal visuality. On the other hand, however, by providing the model for attaining that visuality, Chineseness is also necessarily related to the failure of the same universalizing project. Hence the traditional Orientalist condemnation of Chinese particularism persists alongside 55. North similarly argues that his modernist writers sought to “transform particulars into pure form [. . .] make specificities such as race disappear into the abstractions of a universal sign system”; in such a context, he argues, “race exemplifies the inevitable noise, the static, the pure particularity that is the necessary complement of modernism’s transparently pure forms” (Camera, 81).


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and indeed within modernist sinophilia, even when the latter assumes the form of a “universal” visuality. It is clear that evaluating such works exclusively in terms of accuracy leads to easy and predictable conclusions, for which the term Orientalist might serve as useful shorthand. While that is not my central point here, it is nonetheless a point that is still worth making. Given not just the general inaccuracy of their representations but the fact that these poets generally have little good to say about contemporary China, their defenders have often tried to rescue the aesthetic validity of the work by suggesting that the poets’ “China” should be taken less as an object of reference and more as a figure, a productive conceit. Setting aside the irony of invoking the figural in defense of a poetics of immediacy, I would point out that such a reduction of reference is not only historically inaccurate but also fails to do justice to the complexity of modernist ideography’s cross-cultural maneuvers, however flawed they might be. The referential claims are implicitly there, and the continuing poetic productiveness and appeal of China and the ideograph as figures should not blind us to a cultural politics whose less agreeable qualities are not fully separable from those poetic values.56 This is why I would like to argue, by way of conclusion, that while we should resist a reductively cultural-political reading of such texts, we also should not reenact, in critical discourse, the reduction of China to self-effacing figure. The secret economy of metaphoricity and literality in these texts—played out on the semiotic level in the Image and ideograph and on the historical level in modernism’s cultural politics— persists in critical discourse not only on “the Pound Era” but on modernism and modernity generally. As much as Pound, Fenollosa, or Claudel, we choose what to read as metaphor, what as image, ideograph, or national allegory. In the case of the ideograph, then, rather

56. When Claudel, Fenollosa, and Pound do turn to China as a real place and to the Chinese as people living there and speaking the language, the results are generally fairly ugly: Claudel’s racist caricatures and endorsement of Japanese colonialism in East Asia; Fenollosa’s dismissal of contemporary China (again to the benefit of Japan). As for Pound, I will simply cite here an August 1, 1946 letter to James Laughlin, his San Francisco publisher, whom he was hoping would be able to include ideograms in the Cantos as Pound desired: “With all China Town in S. Fr[anc]isco, MUST be some chink who can WRITE with brush–am puttin’ all ids. I can remember in proof” (Quoted in Qian, editor, Ezra Pound and China, 166).

“visible nature” 71 than choosing to read it either in terms of literal accuracy or metaphoricity—of Orientalism critique or aesthetic recuperation—we need to account for the specific ways in which cultural particularity emerges or is effaced in given contexts, not simply as an object of representation but in the rhetorical practices of texts and their readers. Turning our attention from formal concerns to social contexts cannot “return” modernist studies to politics if “politics” is precisely the problem of determining what constitutes context. If, as Benjamin argues, Aura becomes, in the age of technological reproducibility, a matter of politics, then much of what we call politics is about whatever has taken, or has tried to take, the place of Aura. The issues raised by the modernist ideograph remain current, then, because today the struggle between the desire for “things to be ‘brought closer’ spatially and humanly” and the desire to “overcome[e] the uniqueness of every given by accepting its reproduction” so often assumes the form of claims about cultural difference; it is in terms of cultural difference that fantasies of singularity and of perfect contextuality are most often expressed. Hence, perhaps, the strangely persistent modernity of Pound’s little poem, which, through its Imagist erasure of the “like” or “as” of simile, of even the copula of metaphor, assumes the form of a hinge between appearing and appearance—an apparition, already, of our “post”-colonial modernity, in which those petals on the bough have become faces in the crowd.

Two “simply the form” Inscription, Phonography, and the Chinese Scene of Writing


collection of french prose poems published privately in Beijing in 1912 opens with what reads like a faux-imperial Chinese manifesto. Many texts tell of wise men, of virtue and nobility, it reports. The speaker of this poem, however, vows to be “attentive to what has not been said; obedient to what has not been promulgated; bowed down before what has not yet been [qui ne fut pas encore].” The poems to follow, we are led to believe, will “declare reigns without year, dynasties without accession, names without people, people without names” (OCII, 40; Stèles, 75–77).1 In one sense the poet Victor Segalen and his work, Stèles, are engaging in a now-familiar rhetorical strategy: announcing in a selfconsciously faux-Chinese manner that they will talk about China, but not really. We are all but explicitly told: this is an ironic, a modernist text; no China here, or at least not much. Yet something peculiar emerges in the final stanza, in which, in order to define the dynasty his own text now founds, the speaker enumerates the dynasties he will not describe: Let this, therefore, be marked with no reign; —neither that of the founders Xia, nor the legislators Zhou, nor the Han, nor the Tang, nor the Song, nor the Yuan, nor the Great Ming, nor the Qing, the Pure, whom I serve with passion, Nor the last of the Qing whose glory named the Guangxu period— O But that of this unique era, with no date & no end, of unutterable characters, which every man founds in himself and salutes,

1. A Chinese epigraph atop the poem might be translated “Promulgation of the heart of the dynasty without dynastic accession.” For a detailed discussion of the epigraph to this and the other poems, see the Billings and Bush translation and critical edition of Stèles (2007) and


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That dawn he becomes the Sage & Regent of his heart’s throne. (OCII, 40; 77)

What is quietly extraordinary about this opening poem is the way in which Segalen expresses, through a manifest knowledge of Chinese history, a profound and even programmatic narcissism. “The transfer between the Empire of China and the Empire of the Self,” he famously writes in a letter to his friend Henry Manceron, “is constant” (Correspondance I, 1246). Through the persona of a Chinese emperor, Segalen here declares, in a cross-cultural recusatio, that he will not speak of China, but of the private Empire of the Self, which indeed he will do throughout the collection but always by citing, calquing, or somehow translating elements of the vast textual and topical archive of China. Although Segalen formulates his poetic project through a negation of China, then, he does so in ways that continue to testify to that empire’s historical particularity, up to and including the then-recent death of the Guangxu emperor (d. 1908). Segalen’s China might, in sum, be described as a myth, not primarily in the sense that it is false, but rather in a variant of the sense defined by Barthes (as discussed in my prologue): Segalen’s China is deprived of existence, but not of history. What is perhaps surprising for a work written in 1912 is that Stèles’s mythic use of China results from anything but a lack of cross-cultural imagination or from a lazy ethnocentrism. On the contrary, Segalen’s “China” is an extremely self-conscious literary strategy that directly results from a critique of exoticism. Precisely because of Segalen’s programmatic commitment to preserving rather than appropriating Chinese cultural difference, his work ultimately comes to identify China with the literary as such. What makes Segalen’s work both quintessentially modernist and strangely contemporary is that he attempts to work through these problems of cross-cultural representation on the level of form. It is this appeal to China as a topos for demonstrating a commitment to form that will be this chapter’s central concern. Segalen’s engagement with Chinese culture is strikingly and deliberately contradictory. Of the various figures explored in this study he is the only one who learned Chinese in any meaningful sense and, with the exception of Paul Claudel, the only one who spent any time in China. There he traveled widely, studied Chinese (with an emphasis on classical texts), was part of an audience with the emperor, led amateur but historically significant archaeological expeditions, and even became personal physician to the son of Yuan Shikai, among other accomplishments.


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From his sojourns between 1909 and 1918 he produced a wide range of works related to China: scholarly studies of ancient monuments and sculpture, a play, several books of poetry and prose poetry, novels, and extensive travel journals and correspondence.2 And yet in other ways Segalen is the writer most systematically disinterested in China, the most subtly manipulative about the ways in which the extensive and even expert sinological knowledge he displays is or is not about China. As he explains in a letter about Stèles to Jules de Gaultier: “It is [. . .] neither the spirit nor the letter, but simply the form ‘Steles’ that I have borrowed.—I deliberately seek in China not ideas, not subjects; but forms which are uncommon, varied and in high style” (Correspondance II, 69). Similarly, in his notebooks from China: “It is not at all a matter of saying what I think of the Chinese (to be honest I don’t think anything of them at all), but of what I imagine about them [. . .] in a living and real form beyond all reality, that of the work of art” (OCI, 942). Segalen explicitly sets out to use China as a set of dehistoricized formal possibilities, deploying elements of traditional Chinese culture as “forms” with which to compose his own poetic language. From the earliest notes for Stèles he discussed the project in terms of a desire to write not just about an empire that has not yet been but also as an emperor “qui ne fut pas.” As we have already seen, this negation is not a general disavowal of Chinese reality, but a precisely contoured negation of its particulars. Accordingly, the form of the negation is itself crucial: the subject of this text is not not China, but is rather a China that never was.3 That is, the text is less about something other than China than it is about China as other—not in the banal sense of being other “for us” (as an exotic object), but in the more difficult sense of being somehow essentially other in its very being, or rather nonbeing. The speaker comes, then, neither to praise China nor to bury it, but to call it into nonbeing and to commemorate that nonbeing in and as “a living and real form beyond all reality,” a series of little monuments covered with “unutterable” or “unspeakable characters.” Segalen’s poetics proposes “the direct Presentation of the exotic material through a transfer effected by the form” (OCI, 752; Essay, 23).

2. Segalen was in China three times: 1909–13, 1913–14, and 1917–18. The standard biography is Bouillier’s. 3. Here and occasionally elsewhere I translate “qui ne fut pas” as “who/which never was” to capture something of the aspectual force of the passé simple.

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The following chapter will focus on the particulars of this formal transfer, including the dialectic of its both being and not being about China.4 It will not be a question of determining the extent to which the forms borrowed retain a relationship to some original Chineseness, but rather of tracing in Segalen’s text a conception of Chineseness as form. In this conception, an intense fidelity to the mere forms of China does in one sense signal a disregard for any authentic relation to China and Chineseness, but it also signals the fulfillment of a vision of Chineseness as always already mere form. The formalist tendencies of Segalen’s work must be understood in the context of his pursuit of an “aesthetic of the diverse.” This aesthetic is most fully worked out in his “Essay on Exoticism,” begun in 1904 and unfinished at the time of his death fifteen years later.5 There Segalen rejects what he considers to be the romantic, colonial, and superficial exoticisms of the recent past, and attempts to rehabilitate the term: “Clear the field first of all. Throw overboard everything misused or rancid contained in the word exoticism. Strip it of all its cheap finery: palm tree and camel; pith helmet; black skins and yellow sun” (OCI, 749; Essay, 18). This paring down produces an exoticism of unprecedented breadth, a generalized aesthetic of all forms of exteriority; Segalen will “call ‘Diverse’ everything that until now has been called foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, mysterious, amorous, superhuman, heroic and even divine, everything that is Other” (OCI, 778; 67). This passion for “the exotic” turns out to be a surprisingly contemporary-sounding call for an anticolonial, even antiglobalization aesthetic that would preserve the alterity of the Other. Segalen’s essay explicitly opposes the logics of assimilation and appropriation now so often seen as homologous and perhaps complicit with colonialism. His ideal subject of exoticism, the Exote, is committed to preserving the exteriority of the other: “Exoticism is therefore not an adaptation; is therefore not the perfect comprehension of something outside oneself which one would contain in oneself, but the acute and immediate perception of an eternal incomprehensibility. Let us therefore depart from the admission of impenetrability. Let us not flatter ourselves that we assimilate mores, races, nations, others; but on the contrary, let us 4. For accounts of Segalen’s sinological expertise and its limits in a more conventional sense, see, for example, Hsieh, Postel, and Qin. 5. Harry Harootunian’s introduction to the English translation of the Essay on Exoticism offers a valuable discussion of the text’s critical stakes; see also Forsdick.


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take pleasure in never being able to do so” (OCI, 751; 21).6 As Charles Forsdick writes, “Segalen’s anti-tourism becomes a wider critique of modernity” (197) in which “[t]he true dream [. . .] of the ‘exote’ [is] for the earth to be inexhaustibly flat” (Forsdick, 211). Segalen’s work searches for a world of infinite difference, a world dreamed as an infinitely extended space that recalls the one in which, even now, the Imperial Messenger makes his way toward “you.” At the center of that dream: a Chinese emperor who is no more; at the center of this “living and real form beyond all reality” crafted by Segalen: a Chinese emperor who never was. But if Segalen thinks so little of China, why is it that while on his quest for a “living and real form beyond all reality” he tarries so long with the negative of that specific cultural-historical reality? He pursued his ideal with a variety of cultures (including Tahiti, Tibet, and his native Brittany), but it was China that provided him with the greatest wealth of forms with which to figure an essentially exotic object. By exploring in some detail why and how this was so, the following chapter develops my analysis of the relationship between China as object and “China” as mode of reference. Because Segalen’s work cites China in ways that push to its limits the figure of China-as-citation, it thereby makes legible in new ways the formal and cultural-historical grammar of this citational logic. Segalen’s work also takes me beyond the visual focus of the previous chapter to consider an inscriptional model of ideography that represents not just a different figure of Chinese writing but a qualitatively different relationship to China as figural resource. Although formulating it in a distinct and explicit form, Segalen’s work offers another iteration of the citation/index relationship and therefore touches on broader issues about the use of Chinese and/or “Chinese” forms in the formation of modernist literary aesthetics more generally. I begin by analyzing the particulars of how Stèles mimics the mediality of Chinese stone monuments, including the impersonal and inscriptional form of writing they model. Through a reading of a poem that both is a translation and is about translation, the second section considers Segalen’s practice of “equivocal” translation as a figure of his text’s relationship to its Chinese sources. While the first section explores figurations of a Chinese medium and the second the

6. If such a formulation seems relatively pedestrian today, recall that the “Essay” was begun in 1908 and that Stèles would be dedicated to Paul Claudel!

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mediation of China, the chapter’s third and final section considers the meaning of “China” as medium, that is, the broader historical meaning of China as a vehicle for Euro-American literary modernism. Each of these sections unfolds the implications of the simultaneous figuration of and use of “Chinese” as an impersonal, subjectless writing, a writing somehow both by and for no one.

“thoughts of the stone” To begin: what exactly is a stele? The term comes from the Greek word for upright inscribed stone monuments and is the standard translation in both French and English of the roughly similar Chinese stone monuments called beƯ ⹥.7 In the allegorically charged account of the Chinese stele in his preface, Segalen describes a series of different historical functions and meanings associated with the word beƯ. These were originally wooden boards placed on either end of a grave and through which a windlass was drilled to support ropes used to lower a coffin. The boards were eventually also made of stone and their memorial function generalized such that “steles” could be found along roadsides, making decrees and commemorating events of various kinds. They also functioned as sundials. Finally, beƯ also named a kind of stone pot that, according to the Book of Rites, was the first station in a sacrificial ceremony. While the most common sense of inscribed upright stone monument is the dominant one in Segalen’s text, this complex of functions and meanings should be kept in mind because, according to Segalen, even in the modern stele “none of the ancestral functions is lost” (OCII, 36; Stèles, 59). The overarching conceit of Segalen’s text, and indeed of the original edition of the book as a physical object, is that the collection is composed of “Steles Ancient and Modern,” as the Chinese title স੹⹥䣘 reads. The physical dimensions and fetishistic production of the book’s initial publication reflect this thematic and formal bond with the stele: the typography, calligraphy, and layout are all custom designed for the book, which was printed in a vertically elongated format proportionate to the famous Nestorian Stele

7. Throughout I will use the spelling stele, without the accent, to indicate the stone monuments and stèle, with the grave accent, to indicate Segalen’s poetic genre and/or examples of his poems.


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of Xianfu.8 The internal organization of the text reinforces the sense that the individual poems somehow mimic monuments located in space. Following the symbolic codes of the imaginary emperor who presides over it, the text is divided into six thematic sections, each defined by the direction in which the “steles” are said to face: southward (decrees), northward (friendship), eastward (love), and westward (violence), followed by “steles by the wayside” (mostly relating to landscape and travel), and steles of the middle (perhaps best described as poems about the self).9 Each individual poem is surrounded with a kind of cartouche, further evoking the inscribed surface of a stele. The title appears centered atop the French text, while a Chinese “epigraph” appears in the upper right-hand corner (to be read in the traditional Chinese way, from top to bottom and from right to left). The circles between the stanzas recall the windlass of the funereal stele and often indicate a kind of turn (as in a sonnet) or shift of allegorical levels. In sum, prior to any “content” the book, the text, and the genre stèle emulate the medium from which they take their name. Such a medium naturally encourages certain kinds of messages; such a genre tends toward certain kinds of themes. To begin with, the stele is characterized by a hieratic immobility: “Amid the crumbling vacillations of the Empire, they alone imply stability” (OCII, 35; 53). This quality might in part be etymologically derived,10 but it also reflects the ancient function of marking the interruption of a ritual procession: “Still today all steps stop before the Stele, alone immobile among the ceaseless procession led by the palaces with their nomadic roofs” (OCII, 36; 59).11 Segalen evokes but refunctionalizes the traditional Orientalist conception of Chinese as the effectively dead

8. A historically important eighth-century monument from Western China that includes the earliest Chinese Christian text. For a recent account of the stele’s early Western reception, see Billings, “Jesuit Fish,” and “Untranslation Theory” in Hayot, Saussy, and Yao, eds. 9. South is the imperial direction in traditional China, but the other directional associations are Segalen’s invention. 10. “As a disyllable, repr. Gr. στȒλη standing block or slab, f. Indo-Germanic root ∗stƗ- to stand. As a monosyllable, anglicized form of the Gr. word; cf. F. stèle” (OED). 11. Segalen routinely associates Chinese architecture with dynamic mobility; see, most dramatically, “Ordre de marche” (OCII, 54; 103–05).

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language of an immobile empire and makes of the supremely cool, even subzero, medium of the stone monument the model of a genre/ medium at once ancient and modern. The extreme coolness of the steles is reflected in the extratemporal character of the words inscribed on them.12 These are said by Segalen to be written in wen ᢥ, the classical Chinese literary language whose basic forms have been famously constant.13 He cites and/or composes the Chinese portions of his text in what is for him a hieratic language, a language that is not, he specifies, for everyday use, but that is written in characters that “disdain being read.” In Segalen’s poetic universe, wen resist interpretation not because of the contingent fact that they constitute a language that is very old and (from the perspective of most Western readers) foreign and difficult, but because that is their essential quality. This is so much the case that the inscribed characters cannot be read even by those who have written them: “As soon as they are embedded in the writing surface,” these characters abandon “the forms of moving, human intelligence” and “become thoughts of the stone whose grain they follow.” The resultant text is “refractory even to the one who wove it” (OCII, 36–37; 61). It as if these characters, once inscribed, were written by no one; their message becomes a thought of the stone, that is, of the medium, which is perhaps to say no thought at all. Thus while “China” and the poem’s speaker are both deprived of being (they never were), Segalen writes of these characters: “They do not express; they signify; they are” (OCII, 37; 61; emphasis added).

12. Chinese writing is not a sustained object of attention in the work of Marshall McLuhan (whose hot/cool medium distinction I evoke here), but we can get a reasonable sense of what his take on the Chinese stele might have been from passages such as this “A cool medium like hieroglyphic or ideogrammatic written characters has very different effects from the hot and explosive medium of the phonetic alphabet. [. . .] The heavy and unwieldy media, such as stone, are time binders. Used for writing, they are very cool indeed, and serve to unify the ages; whereas paper is a hot medium that serves to unify spaces horizontally, both in political and entertainment empires” (Understanding Media, 23). These distinctions are heavily indebted to Harold Innis. For a more extensive discussion of McLuhan in relation to “the Orient,” see chapter 5. For a discussion of Chinese writing in Stèles as immovable type, see Haun Saussy in Billings and Bush. 13. “Wen” has a broad range of meanings in Chinese, including writing, composition, pattern, and culture; here I am describing the sense in which Segalen seems to be using the word.


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The rhetoric of this impersonal and subjectless writing in many ways recalls that surrounding photography and the Image. Here too Chinese writing is described as an arrest and spatialization of language. Recalling the ancient use of steles as sundials, Segalen remarks that the stele measures and marks a moment, but precisely not a moment in time: “[N]o longer a moment of the day’s sun projecting its finger of shadow. The light that marks it does not fall from the Cruel Satellite and does not revolve with it. It is a day of knowledge at the bottom of the self: the star is intimate and the instant perpetual” (OCII, 36; 59). Like “the Medusan glance” of the camera in Eduardo Cadava’s account, the thoughts of Segalen’s stones are a “force of arrest [. . . that] translates an aspect of time into something like a certain space” (Cadava, 61). And again like the photograph (or the allegorical sign for Benjamin), the stele “signifies precisely the nonbeing of what it presents” (Benjamin, GSI, 406; Origin, 233).14 In sum, even as it distances itself from the visual aspects of photography, the writing of the steles mimics and evokes three essential features of the photographic: it produces a moment of arrest, it produces an impersonally registered trace of that moment, and that trace becomes a thing in the world with its own being and temporality. In other ways, however, the writings on the steles are, because of their illegibility, much more akin to phonography than to photography. As Thomas Levin writes, glossing Theodor Adorno, “What distinguishes mechanically reproduced music from mechanically reproduced images is the combination of indexical ‘necessity’ [. . .] and unintelligibility” (Levin, “Record,” 35).15 Like wen, phonographic writing disdains being read. One might say of the phonographic groove: it does not express, it signifies, it is. “These hieroglyphs are what they mean,” Levin writes of the phonograph. “Their unintelligibility today

14. Cadava cites this phrase from Benjamin in his own account of photography (Cadava, 23). 15. Although I have made some small modifications in his translation, I am indebted to Levin’s translations of Adorno’s essays “Nadelkurven” (“The Curves of the Needle”) and “Die Form der Schallplatte” (“The Form of the Phonograph Record”), as well as his important discussions of them in “For the Record.” Levin also notes numerous early associations between the photograph and the phonograph, the latter sometimes initially conceived of as an “acoustic photograph.” The term phonographie was coined by Nadar, who also wrote of a “daguerréotype acoustique” (Levin, “Record,” 32n22).

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is simply an index of the extent to which the present era has lost touch with that nature” (38).16 In the case of wen, this loss of contact with nature is radicalized, figuring the trace not of something that is no more but of something that never was. Similarly, from a historical perspective we can say that the imaginative prehistory of phonography does not consist exclusively of fantasies of vocal resurrection, but of a broader imaginary of techniques for producing indexical yet illegible traces. Addressing Friedrich Kittler’s exaggerated historical claims about the technological-phonographic origin of a subjectless writing, Levin suggests that “if there is anything like a ‘beginning’ to writing without a subject, it must be backdated at least to Chladni’s eighteenth-century discovery of the tone figures” (Levin, 41n38). It is very much this kind of procedure, as Segalen well knew, that one finds at the mythological origins of Chinese writing in the filaments and traces of natural phenomena, sometimes coaxed into making visible their signs. The base of the stele is, he writes in his preface, a giant tortoise, an animal he reads as “truly emblematic”: “its gesture firm, its bearing elegiac. Its longevity is admired: going without haste, it leads its existence for more than a thousand years. Let us not omit the predictive power of its shell, whose vault, an image of the firmament’s carapace, reproduces all its mutations: rubbed with ink & dried in fire, one discerns there, as clearly as by daylight, the serene or stormy landscapes of future skies” (OCII, 35; 53–55). In sum, Segalen’s imagined Chinese media overlap more with phonography than with photography because they are more radically impersonal than even the impersonal subjectivity of the camera eye. The stèle is unlike the photographic not only because it presents a nonpictorial writing, but because what it claims to record, for lack of a better word, is not the trace of a phenomenon. Its inscriptions are,

16. It is worth noting here that Segalen was a trained musician who undertook operatic collaborations with Debussy (one on the life of the Buddha, one on Orpheus), and that he was concerned throughout his literary career with the voice and its traces. While Pound desired from China “to hear the music of a lost dynasty” and Segalen’s pre-Chinese experiments in exoticism had sought to preserve the traces of something that was disappearing—the voix mortes of Maori orality (“Dead Voices: Maori Music,” OCI, 531–49)—with China his pursuit of the exotic turns to objects that are citations, repetitions, funerals for what never was. For valuable discussions of the Polynesian material, see Agamben, Bongie, and Forsdick.


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rather, precisely the mark of the negation of phenomenality. Segalen’s Chinese writing breaks more thoroughly with models of intention or consciousness: what it “records” never was. Moreover, while the interactions of the photograph, the pictographic ideograph, and the poetic Image could at least entertain questions of universality and immediacy, Segalen’s inscriptive Chinese insists on its site-specific materiality and stubbornly resists being read at all. The point here is not that Segalen’s Chinese writing is a figure of phonography or of photography or of any other specific technological medium. There is no reason to expect his ideographs (or anyone else’s) to correspond precisely to any one technological medium, especially given that any “one” medium is itself heterogeneous, both in a strictly technological sense (we speak of “the phone” whether it is a handsfree cell phone or requires a crank) and in terms of its differing social protocols, cultural imaginaries, and so on.17 Adorno’s phonograph or Bazin’s photograph, for example, are just as much imagined (which is not to say imaginary) objects as are Segalen’s Chinese writing and monuments. For that very reason what has been written about technological media can help us understand the figured mediatic qualities of Segalen’s stèles and their writing. So far I have laid out some of the ways in which Segalen’s Chinese presents itself as a kind of inscriptive medium. The text-as-stele figures an impersonal writing severed from any intention: a writing by no one. This is precisely why Segalen is interested in Chinese as form, in the stele as medium: because, so figured, they are not the product of any intention, they can never be understood, instead provoking the pleasures of an “eternal incomprehensibility.” In another sense, however, we do find here an implicit mediating figure of a Chinese consciousness, as with the Image in the previous chapter. In contrast to the Imagist aesthetic in which the Chinese intermediary is effaced because it figures the putative universality of consciousness, here the Chinese intermediary is both more explicit and more explicitly negated: not

17. On the former point, Lisa Gitelman writes: “It is as much a mistake to write broadly of ‘the telephone,’ ‘the camera,’ or ‘the computer’ as it is of ‘the media,’ and of—now, somehow, ‘the Internet’ and ‘the Web’—naturalizing or essentializing technologies as if they were unchanging, ‘immutable objects with given, self-defining properties’ around which changes swirl, or to or from which history proceeds” (Gitelman, Always, 8). The internal citation is from James Lastra.

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absent, but present in a negated form; not nonexistent, but existing only as the form of a negated existence. The Imagist and inscriptive figurations of the ideograph therefore represent not just different ideas about Chinese writing, but different uses of “China,” different ways of simultaneously evoking and disavowing the importance of China as a formal resource. I referred above to the “figured mediatic qualities” of Segalen’s Chinese because his Chinese is obviously not truly by no one any more than is, if you will, real Chinese. (Or, better: Chinese is not necessarily any more or less so than any other form of language.) The real issue, then, is not what Segalen’s stèles are but rather how their ostensible mere being is produced as a figure and what this mute persistence is supposed to signify. To return to the terms with which I opened this chapter: how does Segalen propose a “living and real form beyond all reality” by means of forms whose specifically Chinese character he both details and negates? For the remainder of the chapter I will consider the broader literary and historical context of Segalen’s use of Chinese, first by considering the ways in which Segalen himself figures his relationship to his Chinese sources as one of “equivocal” translation and then, in the chapter’s concluding section, by relating this back to the more long-term history of Orientalist and mediatic discourses. To this point I have concentrated on the ways in which the text-as-stele figures a writing by no one; I now approach its correlate, the figure of a writing for no one.

The Undeath of Intention it was not for nothing that in many places Thoth, the inventor of writing, was also the ferryman of the dead —Bernhard Siegert, Relays, p. 36

In “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin famously, somewhat scandalously writes that no symphony is intended for its listener, no poem for its reader (GSIV, 9; SWI, 253). What remains provocative about Benjamin’s essay is less his statements about translation in the conventional sense, than his projection of the problems and possibilities of translation onto the broader realm of language as such, his location of the fundamental loss involved in translation at the very


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heart and origin of language. In ways that today cannot help recalling the supplemental logic associated with deconstruction, Benjamin’s essay reconfigures the ontological relationship between translation and original much as Derrida does that between writing and speech. Derrida’s early work is not about writing in roughly the same way that Benjamin’s essay is not about translation: both might be said to be about the essentially secondary character of the original. But whereas the figure of inscription allegorizes the production, as it were, of a pseudo-originary moment, the figure of translation refers to some site or moment of origin in relation to which it derives its always-already secondary character. It is in these terms that I now turn from Chinese figured as inscription to Chinese as something to which Segalen’s text relates in the form of “translation”: not as a movement from China as pure form to China as a source (historical, textual, etc.), but as a modulation from one form of composite formal-historical relationship to another. In both cases Chinese figures a form of belated writing, but in the case of “translation” the trace-like presence of an origin must be reckoned with differently. Here Segalen’s text must be understood in its orientation toward or debt to something other than itself. Segalen produces texts that in some sense simulate translation, that is, texts that are defined by and openly display a quality of secondarity, despite his programmatic claims that the original never was. To be clear in advance: my goal here will not be to re-make the general deconstructive argument to the effect that there is no original, that the original is an effect of the translation, and so on, but rather to trace the specific ways in which such a conception of translation is present in Segalen’s text and the ways in which it is bound up with his project of (not) representing China. “Chinese” provides a way to say that writing is always a “translation” from a nonexistent original, that writing confuses existence and nonexistence and even, as we will see, life and death. The point, then, is not that some of the insights of “deconstruction” might be applied to Segalen’s text, but that Segalen’s text is an excellent example of the extent to which the former has a prehistory in literary modernism’s “China,” and this in a double sense: on the one hand, as a figure of that culture (those guided and constrained Chinese, whose minds are never present to themselves and can only re-cite the words of others) and, on the other hand, as a limit figure of “our” relationship to cultural and linguistic otherness (“Chinese” as an emblem of untranslatability).

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Segalen’s use of the figure of translation is well summed-up by the narrator of his novel René Leys, who reports of a poem he writes to his friend (the title character): “I should very much like to have written this poem, which I venture to dub ‘second hand,’ with a single stroke of the brush in the style of the ancient ‘Zhou’ bronzes. I had to content myself with translating it into French—from a Chinese that never was” [qui ne fut pas] (OCII, 535; René Leys, 151). As we have already seen, this qui ne fut pas does not so much erase as preserve in a negated form: here too the “originals” to which Segalen’s texts relate are less nonexistent than presented in variously negated forms: “translations” of a sort. In what sense, then, are the poems of Stèles themselves “translations”? To recall the letter to Jules de Gaultier partially cited above, Segalen writes that none of the prose poems in the collection “is either a translation, [and only] a few rare ones barely an adaptation. The Chinese stone Steles contain the most tiresome of literature: the praise of official virtues; a Buddhist ex-voto; the pronouncement of a decree; a call to good mores. It is therefore neither the spirit nor the letter, but merely the form ‘Steles’ that I have borrowed. —I deliberately seek in China not ideas, not subjects; but forms which are uncommon, varied and in high style” (Correspondance I, 69).18 Accordingly, Segalen intentionally leaves the relationship between his own texts and the “originals” on which they draw indeterminate or, rather, “equivocal.” As he explains in a 1911 letter to Manceron, he had originally considered presenting the texts of Stèles as if they were translations: “I was thinking about presenting these pieces of prose as translations, like you suggested. [. . .] But what’s the good of starting over? And I prefer the equivocal: the reader will put the question to himself” (Correspondance I, 1245). Segalen’s “translations” take a deliberately equivocal stance on the question of fidelity, proposing, to cite the title of one of the poems, a kind of “trahison fidèle,” a faithful betrayal.19 If Pound turned to translation as part of a broader project to “make it new”—a phrase presented, I recall here, as a translation of the Chinese ᮄ᮹᮹ᮄ— Segalen appeals not merely to the very old but to the nonexistent, marking

18. Like Wilde before him, who wrote that Japan was merely a mode of style, and Barthes after him, who would write that his Japan was merely a reserve of features, Segalen here writes that he takes merely the form of the stele. See Bush, “The Other of the Other?” 19. No doubt echoing the most cited quip on translation: to translate is to betray (traduttore, traditore).


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with a fundamental ontological uncertainty the it that would make his project transitive. What exactly could be brought over, carried across, moved from one place to another, of a language as self-contained and as intimately bound to its location and its medium as that of the stele? It is hard to imagine how such a language could be “translated” and yet Segalen is indeed a translator of Chinese in both a more conventional and far more extraordinary sense than Pound. We find a rather dramatic staging of these issues in one of the earliest of Segalen’s stèles, “Vampire” (composed in 1911), a poem that offers a particularly complex and revealing conjunction of inscription, translation, and the equivocity of life and death. Here the funereal origins and functions of the Chinese stele rhyme with the ontological ambiguities of a text that memorializes that which never was. At the same time, “Vampire” presents the issue of translation in a more direct sense than do many of the other poems in Stèles because the body of the poem directly translates, or rather mistranslates, the poem’s epigraph, an epigraph that is itself about questions of fidelity. The poem begins: ਯ⅏㗠㟈⅏ਯϡҕ, ਯ⅏㗠㟈⫳ਯϡⶹ Friend, friend, I have laid your body in a coffin of lovely red lacquer which cost me much silver; I have conducted your soul, by its familiar name, onto this very tablet here on which I lavish care; But more than this I must not do for you: “To treat the living as dead, what a lack of humanity! To treat the dead as living, what a want of discretion! What a risk of forming an equivocal being!” After opening with an apostrophe to a dead friend, the first two lines of the poem describe funeral preparations, the next two lines the limits of dedication and a prohibition that seems to cite the epigraph. After the turn/windlass, the poem continues: Friend, friend, despite these maxims, I cannot forsake you. I will therefore fashion an equivocal being: neither genie, nor dead, nor living. Hear me: If it pleases you yet to suck on life, with its sweet taste and pungent spices;

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If it pleases you to bat your eyelids, draw breath into your chest and shiver beneath your skin, hear me: Become my Vampire, friend, and night after night, without disturbance or haste, gorge yourself on the hot liquor of my heart.20 Segalen here reanimates the Romantic and Symbolist cliché of the vampire through the language of the Confucian classics. The citation that appears in the French text echoes, but is far from a simple translation of, the poem’s epigraph, taken from the Book of Rites (one of the Five Books of the Confucian canon). Working from Séraphin Couvreur’s text and translation—the one used by Segalen—the original passage can be translated as: “To treat the deceased as if they were (entirely) dead, this would be to lack affection toward them; this cannot be done. To treat them as if they were still alive is to lack wisdom; this is not appropriate either” (Couvreur I, 163). Segalen’s manuscript notes for this stèle contain a fairly literal translation (not identical to Couvreur’s) of the passage from which the epigraph is drawn, so we can be sure both that he had a correct understanding of it and that he was not relying entirely on Couvreur’s translation.21 And yet this relatively straightforward passage undergoes a number of transformations in the text of Segalen’s poem. In the epigraph, the phrase “that is not permissible” (er bu ke wei ye) is dropped from the end of each sentence—a fairly small change for the sake of concision and symmetry, both of which Segalen prized. But when the passage is quoted in the body of the poem, two significant alterations are made. First, Segalen adds—within the quotation marks, as if it were part of the original Confucian text—the phrase “what a risk of forming an 20. The French text reads: Ami, ami, j’ai couché ton corps dans un cercueil au beau vernis rouge qui m’a coûté beaucoup d’argent; / J’ai conduit ton âme, par son nom familier, sur la tablette que voici que j’entoure de mes soins; / Mais plus ne dois m’occuper de ta personne: ‘Traiter ce qui vit comme mort, quelle faute d’humanité! / Traiter ce qui est mort comme vivant, quelle absence de discrétion! Quel risque de former un être équivoque!’ Ami, ami, malgré les principes, je ne puis te délaisser. Je formerai donc un être équivoque: ni génie, ni mort ni vivant. Entends moi:/ S’il te plaît de sucer encore la vie au goût sucré, aux âcres épices; / s’il te plaît de battre des paupières, d’aspirer dans ta poitrine et de frissonner sous ta peau, entends-moi: / Deviens mon Vampire, ami, et chaque nuit, sans trouble et sans hâte, gonfletoi de la chaude boisson de mon cœur. (OCII, 71 ; 143–45)

21. Segalen, Bibliothèque Nationale Microform 3789.


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equivocal being!” Second, he considerably ups the stakes of the maxim: while the original Chinese contrasts two possible relations to the dead—treating them as too much dead or too much alive—Segalen’s deliberate mistranslation in the body of the poem raises the question of how the living are to be treated. Such a chiasmus is entirely appropriate for a poem about a vampire, of course, which is not just any monster in that it does not so much kill as transform others into equivocal beings defined, like itself, by the confused state of undeath. “Equivocal” is, recall, precisely the term Segalen uses in his letter to Manceron to describe how he wants readers to understand the relationship between his poems and their sources. Here the speaker gives “life” to an ancient and exotic text that lives on because of him, but only through an offer of submission on his part. Despite the implicit maxims of the discourses of Orientalism and translation theory—both so permeated by the distinction between the living spirit and the dead letter, a distinction that accounts for much of their common rhetoric—Segalen’s text creates an equivocal being by not only translating lines from the Li ji into French but by also translating a French topos into the language of Confucian ritual, leaving both transformed.22 While the “equivocal being” the speaker risks creating is a future version of his friend (and/or a future version of himself, as vampire), the equivocal being the poet does create is the poem itself. A literary form that claims not to express but simply to be produces textual bodies that may or may not have souls. The theme of undeath in the poem would correspond to the poem’s own ontological status as a kind of untranslation, then, a transposition of the text’s central problematic of existence and nonexistence into the language of life and death.23 I earlier alluded to the vitalist vocabulary that colors much of the critical discourse on translation, and indeed counterintuitive figures of life and

22. Daniel Tiffany has argued that despite Pound’s polemical call to “make it new,” one frequently finds in the Image a “confusion over what is living and what is dead. In Pound’s mind, the dead always display an alarming vitality, and the living, or the works they produce, often resemble the dead” (114). With Segalen this confusion is deliberate, even programmatic, corresponding to his foregrounding of the poetic medium, about which Pound is more conflicted. On the Mallarméan versus the Poundian traditions in modernist poetry, see the previous chapter. 23. For a different sense of “untranslation” that touches on many of the same issues, see Billings, “Untranslation Theory.”

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death are not uncommon in discussions of translation in which the distinction between original and copy is put into question. Such is the case, famously, in Benjamin’s essay on translation, which also seems to call for something like a “faithful betrayal” in terms of counterintuitive conceptions of life and death: “[N]o translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife—which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change” (GSIV, 12; SWI, 256). If a translation is to be considered a kind of afterlife, in what sense is an original living? Benjamin explains, “The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life. In the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul” (GSIV, 11–12; SWI, 255). As he makes clear with this final clause, Benjamin proposes not an extension of conventional conceptions of life to, for example, the nonorganic, but rather an expanded conception of life of which the organic would be but a subset. In other words, rather than understanding the relationship between text and translation on the model of organic life, Benjamin understands textuality and organic life in relation to a more general process of living on, the general afterliving that is history. It is here that we see the profound connection in Benjamin’s work between history and translation: history must be understood less as something that leaves traces than as something that exists only as traces. It is also here that we find the deep affinity between the problems of translation and those of writing: both always already afteralive, “dead” only from a perspective that considers repetitions dead or belated in relation to an original presence, meaning, or life. It is in this sense that Segalen’s text does not simply thematize writing (as “stele” or as “inscription”), but more broadly simulates the ontological status of writing. The “vampire” is another autofiguration of a text about a place that never was, related by a speaker who never was, precisely because it and he continue to be. What is important about all this is not the fact that certain parallels might be drawn between the vampire theme and the literary-formal issues Segalen’s text raises, but rather what these parallels say about the role of Segalen’s deliberately unnatural conception of life in his deployment of “China.”24 In the stèle “Funereal Edict,” for example,

24. I will return to Benjamin in the next chapter.


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Segalen’s emperor prescribes the construction of his own tomb, imagines lying in it, and ultimately concludes “death is quite livable” (la mort est fort habitable) (OCII 60; 117). Indeed, we find throughout Segalen’s text equivocal figures of life and death that are far from anguished, instead signaling a sustained state of exteriority devoid of yearning either for a life untainted by death or for a nature prior to culture. This demonstrates how far removed Segalen’s “exoticism” is from any effort to rediscover a lost paradise, to reunite with nature, and so on. To the contrary, his exoticism is a sustained affirmation of exteriority in all its forms, up to and including death. This is not a morbid affirmation of death rather than life, but precisely an effort to break out of the logics of nostalgia and fetishism, an effort to desire nothing prior, nothing lost, nothing that was. Against organicist conceptions of culture, and of the aesthetic in particular, Segalen affirms the value of the alienated and exterior as alienated and exterior; he affirms the value of culture as culture. This is what is at stake in “death,” the perpetual undeath, of his exoticism: to live in otherness, to live (quite comfortably) in death, understood not as the end of life but as a living-on, as inscription, perhaps, or as a translation from an original that never was.25 This antivitalist conception of culture might be contrasted with, for example, a far better-known work nearly contemporary with Stèles, Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (published 1920, but composed 1914–15). The latter’s discussion of second nature is a story of death by reification. While nature is said to be “sensuous yet senseless,” second nature is “a complex of senses—meanings—which has become rigid and strange, and which no longer awakens interiority; it is a charnelhouse of long-dead interiorities” (Lukács, 64). This second nature, Lukács continues, “could only be brought to life—if this were possible—by the metaphysical act of reawakening the souls which, in an early or ideal existence, created or preserved it; it can never be animated by another interiority” (64). The second nature Lukács describes is neither here nor there, “too akin to the soul’s aspirations to be treated by the soul as mere raw material for moods, yet too alien to those aspirations ever to become their appropriate and adequate expression” (64), a state of affairs that is for him clearly not one of

25. As Derrida will later write of Freud’s scenes of writing, such a writing comes “before the distinction between man and animal and even before living and non-living” (L’écriture, 294; 197).

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pleasurable equivocation. To the extent that culture can be described in terms of the inorganic, the rigid, or the material, it becomes a kind of collective corpse, awaiting—without much hope—reanimation. Such, of course, is precisely what China has long been imagined to be: a world of forms without substance, a world in which artifice has overcome nature, a rigid and empty world waiting to be reawakened by the breath of world-historical Spirit. Such a culture is a subjectless writing, a dead letter. By trans-valuing “death” in a “Chinese” context, then, Segalen refunctionalizes perhaps the core conceptual distinction of Orientalism’s China. And indeed what most distinguishes modernist uses of “China” from the Orientalist discourses on which they continue to rely is their increasingly ambiguous, perhaps equivocal relationship to artifice, belatedness, secondarity, and death. This China is in a sense what it had long been, but with a new meaning and a new value: nature as culture as language as writing; less artifice as opposed to nature than a figure of a second nature; less death as opposed to life than a figure of the death that always already inhabits life. The certain je ne fus pas that structures Segalen’s text is another way of saying, to recall the epigraph to Derrida’s La voix et la phenomène, translated from Poe: “Maintenant, je suis mort.” “Chinese” is another name for the possibility of an extraordinary impossibility, memorably formulated by Derrida: “The statement ‘I am alive’ is accompanied by my being dead, and its possibility requires the possibility that I be dead; and conversely. This is not an extraordinary tale by Poe, but the ordinary story of language” (Voix, 108; 97). In sum, while the Anglo-American Imagist tradition reworked the Idealist figuration of Chinese as a linguistic fossil through a kind of vitalism—arguing that Chinese was happily close to the vital springs of nature and perception—Segalen largely retains the rhetoric of the lapidary and even the funereal, but revalorizes it. Rather than dismissing China as “dead” in some simple sense, he uses the forms of this China to rethink the very terms of what it means for a language to be dead or alive—and, correspondingly, what it means to have a relationship to or even belong to a “dead” culture, a culture defined by an essential nonexistence. On the one hand, this is an extraordinary flight of fancy: imagine a language that could only signify things that never were, that correspondingly insisted on the being of its own signs! On the other hand, this reads quite a bit like the general condition of language in modernity, or at least a fairly common way of talking about it. Consider, for example, what is no doubt the most extravagant and widely recited figure of inscription as violent and corporeal acculturation: Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” The story is so well known that


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it need not even be named to be evoked, as in this passage in Kittler, which weaves together two well-known fin-de-siècle texts: “Harker finds in Dracula his Lord Signifier. This is how it goes when someone reaches the heart of darkness. Conrad’s novella, Copolla’s film, Stoker’s novel—they all lead to that point where the power of the Other or Stranger would become decipherable as their own colonialism, if it were not so unbearable to read the writing on the flesh” (“Dracula’s,” 153).26 Similarly, Kafka’s tale is itself based on a cultural imaginary so well known it also does not need to be named to be evoked. If he had named the location of his bloody scene of writing, he might have named it after a place whose sense of justice Max Weber described as determined by a “spirit, [. . .] of a life-long pennalism by office authority” (Weber, 434); he might have re-cited not just topoi from but also the name of the scene of one of his tale’s main sources, Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden (1899): of course, “China.”27 Kittler laments that “Nietzsche’s notion of inscription [. . .] has degenerated into a poststructuralist catch-all metaphor,” whereas it should, according to him, have “validity only within the framework of the history of the typewriter,” the medium that “designates the turning point at which communications technologies can no longer be related back to humans. Instead, the former have formed the latter” (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 211). I have already argued for why I find Kittler’s sense of the historical parameters of “inscription” reductive, as well as why I think his claims suggest a cultural-historical context within which the figure of “inscription” might acquire new value. That is, I reject both the unidirectional causality and the uniqueness Kittler attributes to technological media, but I hold that his description of the age of technological media constitutes a valuable contribution to cultural history.28 Accordingly, I have been suggesting that if “China” was so useful in articulating forms of modernist literariness and conceptions of culture more generally, it was in part because there was a

26. Kittler specifically relates Kafka to Dracula, a comparison that can be found in Deleuze and Guattari as well. “There is a vampirism of letters, a properly epistolary vampirism. [. . .] There is something of Dracula in Kafka, a Dracula through letters; the letters are so many bats. He wakes at night and days he is closed up in his office-coffin” (54–55). 27. On the complexities of the long-standing relationship between Chineseness and pain in the Western imagination, see Hayot, The Hypothetical Mandarin. 28. The last thing he would want to be accused of!

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need for this “China,” a need spurred by the rise of technological media. It is far from coincidental, then, that writings about media share with the Orientalist tradition a rhetoric of life-in-death, of an unnatural second nature and an uncanny living-on. These links are not merely contingent associations, but an expression of what is centrally troubling about technological media, namely the existence of forms without intention, of bodies without souls. Media produce a certain equivocity in some of the basic categories by which the basic distinction of life and death is made: animate and inanimate, present and absent, spiritual and material, free and necessary, and so on. It is this equivocity that creates the profound link between death and all forms of writing, including “China” and “media.” Unsurprisingly, the thanatic theme is explicitly taken up by Kittler, who frankly asserts that “in the case of bodies once possessed of language, it no longer matters whether they are dead or alive” (“Dracula’s,” 161). He more specifically claims, “Under the conditions of technology, literature disappears (like metaphysics for Heidegger) into the un-death of its endless ending” (172). Beyond Kittler and his vampires, we might also recall André Bazin’s account of photography’s “mummy complex,” Maurice Blanchot’s discussions of the image as a corpse, Siegfried Kracauer’s claim that the “photographable present [. . .] seemingly ripped from the clutch of death, in reality it has succumbed to it” (Kracauer, 59), or indeed the haunted responses to nearly all technological media in their early days.29 The thematic association of death with specific forms of mediatic writing can be found not only on the levels of semiotics or individual psychology but also in a far more large-scale sense of environmental transformation, of the emergence of a world and a way of living characterized by ontological ambiguity, a world of ghosts, a world of media whose messages announced a new relationship to “death.” Even Adorno—not someone with much patience for spiritualism—is sufficiently moved by his meditations on phonographic grooves to write: “Ultimately phonograph records are not artworks but the black seals on the missives that are rushing towards us from all sides in the traffic with technology; missives whose formulations capture the sounds of creation, the first and the last sounds, a judgment upon life and a message about that which may come thereafter” (Adorno, “Form,” 534; 61). As Levin

29. For a survey of the affiliation between ghosts and media, see Sconce.


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summarizes, for Adorno the gramophone record is “not only a figure of a ‘true’ language,” but “as form [. . .] also reads as a hieroglyphic prognosis of our relationship with technology itself” (Levin, “Record,” 41).30 It is not simply that a given mediatic inscription inflects the ontological status of, for example, the person or thing represented in a photograph or the voice recorded on a phonograph. Technological media produces a world of impersonal inscriptions, a world of bodies without souls, and these media are themselves things to which we have a relationship. Media in many ways are our relationship to death—not the whole of it, to be sure, but they are far more essential than their function as “representations” or “mediators” might suggest. In the same way, I have been suggesting, Segalen’s China presents not just a different figuration of China, but a different relationship to it: “China” remains both something that might be figured and something that is itself a figure, but even as figure it is something that constitutes and shapes “our” world. Although it often expresses this relationship in the negative, Stèles nonetheless presents itself as having—and in fact does have—some kind of relationship to a body of texts, a culture, a place, and so on. Certainly neither the China of Segalen nor that of modernism more broadly is about China in any straightforward sense, but this is not to say that the relationship is merely formal or figurative. However much the ideograph might strive to figure a subjectless and impersonal writing, it cannot be that, at least no more so than any other kind of sign. Just as Chinese is not, in fact, by or for no one, so too the “Chinese” writing Segalen himself produces is not truly by or for no one. The indecipherable grooves of steles— both those of the original Chinese and those of Segalen’s text—are not, after all, so indecipherable. In whatever ways it simulates, mimes, signifies, or in any other ways attempts to embody the mediatic character of steles and wen as imagined by Segalen, his text remains in fact that: a text. Not only are the texts of Stèles not devoid of symbolic mediation, they are symbolic mediation, even if what they attempt to symbolize is something like a kind of asymbolic medium. In sum, if Stèles imagines a kind of writing that is by no one and for no one—a pure or mere form—the text that we have, the text that is Stèles, cannot

30. Although Levin has in mind German Romanticism’s “hieroglyphics” as taken up by Adorno and others associated with the Frankfurt school, it is telling that his figuration of “our” relationship to technology, specifically the technological medium as a message of the afterlife, should rely on the trope of Oriental writing.

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possibly be that writing, but must instead be a translation, a necessarily failed experiment to signal or simulate pure form. In sum, we have moved from the use of Chinese forms to the use of Chinese as form. It remains for the rest of this chapter to offer some account of the historical significance of the connection between Segalen’s reinvention of “China” and the broader field of a subjectless writing ostensibly by and for no one. Ideography is not only a scene of origin but also a history of dissemination; it is not only the isolated act of a consciousness (even in the form of an impersonal or negated placeholder), but is also the trajectory of those signs in the world, signs whose fate includes their programmatic nonreading in and as Western modernism.

“they were not written for us” In the previous chapter I argued for an understanding of the “ideograph” that moved beyond the pictorialist prejudice that dominates modernist studies’ understanding of the reception of Chinese writing. I showed that the familiar tropes of the Poundian Image and “ideogram” are far from being the whole of the modernist imagination of Chinese writing and should be thought in relation to a broader, and broadly allegorical, ideography. This ideography, in turn, overlaps and interacts with modernism’s imaginary of technological mediatic writing. I specifically argued that even in the context of the poetic image the ideograph could be a programmatically antipictorial figure, or, more precisely, a figure that registers in contradictory but coherent ways the extent to which photography seemed to at once demonstrate and disprove the possibility of visual immediacy. Beyond the specifics of the modern poetic image, the conclusions of that chapter call for an opening-up of the referential dimension of modernism’s “China” in three senses. First, there is the heterogeneity of ideographic tropes as figures of figuration (“hypericons,” to use W. J. T. Mitchell’s term): not all formally innovative uses of “Chinese writing” are imagistic. Second, there is an array of possible relationships to the historical fact of China: modernism’s formally inventive “China” can be about China in any number of different senses. Lastly, one must consider the connections between these two different registers, that is, the ways in which differing figurations of Chinese writing represent differing relationships to China as a source or object of reference. In this chapter I presented a model of ideography as inscription, a model that in many ways builds on the allegorical ideography presented


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in the previous chapter but that also suggests a far more involved relationship to Chinese signifiers, one that might, as in the case of the vampire, even be called a mimetic relationship; I will resume that thread in the next chapter. For the remainder of this chapter, I want to propose an intellectual-historical horizon within which it would have been possible and even compelling for inscription and China to figure each other. In slightly different terms: how did Segalen’s China signal at once a general negativity by and for no one and a specific culture with written records that did indeed have original intentions and contexts? While the first section laid out Segalen’s figurations of his poems as Chinese media (steles, wen, and inscriptions by no one) and the second section laid out the ways in which his text figures itself as a kind of mediation of China (a translation from an original that never was), this last section develops the implicit third term of all this, namely that the “ideograph” is a writing for no one, a writing whose meaning and value is to be found not at the site of its production but precisely in its travels and translations, even when these undergo various forms of negation. Although Kittler writes that “before [Rilke], nobody ever suggested to decode a trace that nobody had encoded and that encoded nothing” (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 44), at least the first part of what he describes predates the advent of technological media (think of Chladni’s sound-figures) and even became something of a commonplace during the modernist era. As we have seen, Benjamin’s account of translation offers a conception of artworks and indeed of language generally as for no one. For Segalen’s contemporary Paul Valéry, too, the modern condition of language is, according to Werner Hamacher, to be tomb-like, to be “exposed to the possibility of addressing itself to no empirical other, of being for no one and nothing” (Hamacher, 70), like a message sent by a dead man, one might say, and whose arrival can only be dreamed.31 And of dreams in general, writes Freud: “[T]he mise-en-scene of the dream work, which is certainly not done with a view to being understood, does not pose the translator more difficulties than, in a certain way, were offered to the readers of those writers who, in antiquity, made use of hieroglyphs” (quoted in L’écriture, 325; 276). In imagining, as modernist form, a subjectless writing for no one, Segalen was, in short, far from alone. The question then becomes how it is that “China” fits so well into this conjunction

31. I will discuss Valéry’s conception of a modern crisis of language in my final chapter.

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of impersonal writing, mediality, and modernist form. That is, I must try to reconstruct something of the literary and cultural grammar of this “China,” the shape that allowed it to effect, seemingly naturally, a certain kind of literariness. Barthes’s classic account of literariness in Writing Degree Zero uses terms so appropriate to Segalen’s poetics it can almost seem to have taken the latter’s work as his explicit subject. Barthes writes that during the modernist era Literature becomes a “ritual language” that relies on the “hieratic quality of written Signs,” which, he asserts, tend to “abstract [literature] from history” (RBI, 139; 2). As part of this process, writing [écriture] undergoes a “dramatic phenomenon of concretion” (RBI, 178; 4). He specifically writes that “Mallarmé’s typographical agraphia seeks to create around rarefied words an empty zone in which speech, liberated from its guilty social overtones, might, happily, no longer resonate” (RBI, 140; 75), just as Segalen writes of his stèles: “Their style has to be that of what one cannot call a language for it has no echoes among other languages and could not be used for everyday exchanges” (OCII, 36; Stèles, 59). Indeed, Barthes’s account of modern poetry often reads like an uncannily precise account of the formal agenda of Stèles. Emphasizing the solidity and relative autonomy of the Word in modernism, Barthes writes: “Fixed relations being abolished, the word is left only with a vertical project, it is like a monolith [un bloc], or a pillar which plunges into a totality of meanings, reflexes and recollections: it is an upright sign [un signe debout]” (RBI, 164; 47). It is not surprising that a description of Literature that draws heavily on Mallarmé should suit Segalen’s text so well. This is in part attributable to Barthes’s conception of the Mallarméan poetic tradition as one that strove for “the destruction of language, of which Literature would in a sense be merely the corpse” (RBI, 140; 5). Segalen’s adaptation of China, specifically the most imperial, ritualistic, and lapidary aspects of its literary culture, benefits from a kind of preestablished harmony. In becoming Literature, all language becomes Chinese. Here it is only minimally a question of any influence from Chinese literature or the Chinese language, but rather of the kinds of things the West had long imagined about Chinese seeming to become increasingly true of literature and language in general: graphic, hieratic, funereal, composed of atoms surrounded by silence, the corpse of language. All this, however, addresses the issue of modernist form being like Chinese, but not the question of its relationship to Chinese. Again, to be clear: my immediate concern is not with the influence or reception of Chinese literature in Western modernism, but rather with that


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dimension of modernism’s formal China that is structured in terms of a relationship-to, as is the case, for example, with Segalen’s translations. For this I turn to a different element of Barthes’s account of literariness, a defining formal feature of the novel, namely, the passé simple or preterit. The preterit is, writes Barthes, “the ideal instrument for every construction of a world; it is the unreal time of cosmogenies, myths, History and Novels” (RBI, 155–56; 30). It “signifies a creation: that is, it proclaims and imposes it” (RBI, 156; 32), a bit like an imperial decree. The preterit is “the ultimate term of a formal dialectics which would clothe an unreal fact in the garb first of truth then of a lie denounced [. . .] giving to the imaginary the formal guarantee of the real, while [still] preserving in the sign the ambiguity of a double object, at once believable and false” (RBI, 157; 33). We have already seen the founding role of the “qui ne fut/furent pas” formulations in Segalen’s text. If we recall the broadly performative context of the opening poem, we can see that the “ne . . . pas” does not only negate particular existences but also performs in a negated mode the broader function of the preterit as described by Barthes, namely to proclaim and to found. But the negation here inverts the relationship between unreality and fact, between lie and truth: Segalen’s China would be a real fact clothed first in the garb of a lie and then of a truth. His text would give to the real the formal guarantee of the imaginary. Recall the letter cited earlier: “It is not at all a matter of saying what I think of the Chinese (to be honest I don’t think anything of them at all), but of what I imagine about them [. . .] in a living and real form beyond all reality, that of the work of art” (OCI, 942; emphasis added). By deploying this sign of literariness in the negative, Segalen’s text both points to and denies the significance of China as a source. That is, Segalen interweaves the negative force of Mallarméan poetics with the referential valence of something like novelistic or historical discourse. Beyond entailing a different dialectic of truth and lie, this interweaving re-raises the question of why this negation is (or is of) a particular cultural grammar, namely “China.” Given the conception of Literature described above, the hard question is not why China should appear in a negated or inverted form, but rather why should a literature of negation choose China as the thing not to be about? In part because, as I have been suggesting, the “form” of China is already a content. Conceptions of a subjectless writing predate technological media in notions not only about the sign but also about the cognitive and cultural consequences of signs. I recall here the discussion,

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in my prologue, of the hysteron proteron structure of the “Russian reversal” and more specifically the ways in which this correlated to the modernist poetics of ceding agency to language. The Russian reversal logic of Oriental despotism in which language speaks man became, during the modernist era, no longer just an ethnocentric caricature of various Orients, but seemingly one of the most profound insights of modern Western thought, at once a desideratum of literary modernism and a sometimes chilling portrait of how language in general might work. “Chinese” would not, of course, be the only possible form such a language might assume. As a kind of counterexample, we might return to the relationship between allegory and photography in the work of Walter Benjamin. As Cadava has memorably discussed, “photography” in Benjamin is not exclusively or even primarily about photography as a technological development, but is rather about lessons that might in principle have been learned elsewhere—from, say, the German mourning play (Trauerspiel), whose “emphasis on the inevitability of repetition, on the citational and scriptural character of history, suggests the notion of an ‘original’ or ‘unique’ work of art is already as difficult to sustain in the German baroque mourning play as it will be with the emergence of photography and film” (Cadava, 19). The fact that the age of media and the age of the Baroque have this in common need not suggest that an allegorical condition is some general, transhistorical truth of the sign. On the contrary, it suggests that certain historical horizons (including but not necessarily limited to the Counter-Reformation and the age of technological reproducibility) make such a conception of the sign more visible, more compelling, and more meaningful—even when much of the talk is about a loss of meaning. Benjamin turns to a moment in the European past, Segalen to China: as if toward a point of historical origin and toward an alternative cultural paradigm, respectively, and yet clearly for both of these writers historicity and culture are themselves constituted through the peculiar ontological status of privileged signifiers. On the one hand, then, we must recognize that “China,” “the Mourning Play,” “wen,” and “photography,” for example, are so many figures of a general problematic of the sign. On the other hand, however, it seems that not just any period of history, not just any culture, not just any medium can serve to figure such a problematic. China does not provide the only reserve of figures with which Euro-American modernity figures the strangeness of its new relationship to signs in the age of technological media, but it is a privileged example and therefore not merely an example. Each of the cases I explore in this study


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encounters the same problem: what is so tricky about the question of whether or not a given citation of China is or is not about China is that “China” so often assumes the form of extravagant and counterintuitive claims about the extent to which signs are or are not about something other than themselves. The recurrence of such concerns discourages us from understanding “writing,” for example, as a transhistorical theoretical problem and “China” as its costume. Rather than reifying the virtual ideality of Writing such that “Chinese writing” becomes a local instance, we should remain open about the extent to which “Chinese writing” is historically constitutive (although by no means exclusively so) of any conception we might have of writing in general, including conceptions of language-in-general as writing. Precisely to the extent that it functions as a signifier of the signifier, a Chinese example is difficult to distinguish from the exemplarity of Chinese. In a footnote to his Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant writes that an exemplary literary text would have to be composed in “a dead and learned language.”32 Segalen’s work stages a fairly dramatic and literal enactment of such a formalist aesthetic.33 Such a modernist use of “Chinese” as precisely a kind of “dead and learned” language is, however, as much the undoing as the perpetuation of this formalist tradition. In the ideograph the “dead” language assumes the form not of a purely extratemporal paradigm, but of a foreign example whose history and particularity are registered in the text of modernism, even if in a negated form. The ostensibly purely formal citation of China does not efface entirely the indexical value of the cited signifier. In other terms: while it is true that putting China in quotes loosens its relationship to its standard referent, this does not mean that we are left with nothing but the quotation marks, some content-less mark substituting for any signifier whatsoever and pointing to any signified whatsoever. The historical meaning of this effort to figure Chinese as a kind of pure form, as a writing in some sense by and for no one, takes on a very different look if we think ahead to one of the founding texts of

32. In a note to the section on the “Ideal of Beauty” Kant remarks: “Muster des Geschmacks in Ansehung der redenden Künste müssen in einer toten und gelehrten Sprache abgefaßt sein” (150; 116). 33. I refer here primarily to a lengthy tradition of Kant interpretation, but the extent to which Kant’s aesthetic can in fact be considered “formalist” is a disputed question. See Zuckert.

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French postcolonial critical discourse, “Black Orpheus,” in which Sartre makes a simple but powerful declaration about the works of the Negritude poets: “[T]hey were not written for us” (“Orpheus,” xi; 293). Sartre writes that with the emergence of this Black poetry the gaze that for so long defined the structure of cultural knowledge is reversed; when the Negritude poet writes, it is “we”—that is, Sartre and his White readers—“who are accidental and distant” (xi; 293). Segalen’s text hints at this already, albeit in the form of negations. Along the long arc from Kant to Sartre we find Segalen’s formulation of his quest for an essential exoticism in the question “Where are the distances?” This question must be understood both as part of a quest for some kind of inherent, irreducible distance to be found at the level of form and as a historically specific registration of the loss of a cultural distance of which exoticism was but one symptom, a loss that was itself both essential (“figurative”) and geographic (“literal”). The modernist ideograph I am describing would emerge as a kind of Chladnian figure produced by the rumblings of this tectonic shift. It is precisely such a shift in the function of literary form, even formalism, that is the subject of much of Sartre’s essay. The issue for Sartre is the historical meaning of a poetic language developed from Baudelaire to Surrealism being transplanted and refunctionalized by a group of poets working in a different cultural context. Sartre’s essay already suggests that it is more than a question of a different context, but rather of a qualitative transformation of context as such, a reconsideration of what historical context had been. The stresses ideographic modernism places on the edifice of Euro-American ethnocentrism are in many respects slight compared to those brought about by Negritude and the literature we now call “postcolonial.” Segalen in particular can hardly be called postcolonial avant la lettre: how many living Chinese writers does he cite? To be truthful, he admits quite explicitly, he doesn’t think much of the Chinese at all. Yet for that very reason his work registers precisely the possibility not so much of the returned gaze of the other, but of something more radical if of less certain significance: a gaze that doesn’t look at “us” at all. Segalen imagines a writing that is neither of us nor of those who might be claimed as our ancestors (Gauls or others), nor is it written by God or nature, nor even by those who, having learned to curse, write back in a language that is by and large still “ours.” For all its other problems, the hyperbolic figure of a text written for no one and indeed by no one—a figure that governs much of what we think of as literary modernism—is here a registration of the fact, at once devastating and banal, that the


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world is and always has been full of texts that were not written by or for “us.” For Segalen it was not worthwhile and was indeed undesirable to distinguish between a language that never was and a language that was never “ours,” but his ultimately disappointing cultural politics should not overshadow entirely the utopian dimension of his project. By confronting the power of Mallarméan poetic negation with the dialectics of the preterit’s referential-historical dimension, Segalen’s text confronts the formal linguistic issues of modernism and the lived historical problem of “our” modernity. Indeed, in its very effort to deny the existence of what it signifies and to affirm the reality of its own form, Segalen’s text becomes if not an indexical trace of something real and historical then at least a trace that is itself real and historical. If it does so in the form of a negation, that very gesture of negation makes legible, in something we can recognize as modernism, the not-soimpossible possibility of a modernity that is not ours—and never was.

Three “to imitate the chinese” Mimesis, Cinema, and the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Imiter le Chinois au cœur limpide et fin De qui l’extase pure est de peindre la fin Sur ses tasses de neige à la lune ravie D’une bizarre fleur qui parfume sa vie Transparente —Stéphane Mallarmé, “Las de l’amer repos”

In China there is no need of China because in China china is china. —Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America

“virtual resemblances”


n 1938 walter benjamin published, in French, a review of an exhibition of “Chinese Paintings at the Bibliothèque Nationale.”1 Unusually, writes Benjamin, the Paris exhibition focused not on Song through Yuan (960–1368) but on Ming and Qing (1369–1911) works, the latter generally held “in contempt” by Western connoisseurs, despite the fact that, as he notes with obvious relish, many of the

Mallarmé, Œuvres, 35–36. Stein, 64. 1. “Peintures chinoises à la Bibliothèque nationale.” The October 1937 exhibition had been drawn from the collection of Jean-Pierre Dubosc, an interpreter at the French embassy in Beijing for eight years; its catalog was written by Georges Salles, a conservator of Asian arts at the Louvre about whom Benjamin wrote a brief essay around the same time. See “Lettre au sujet de Le Regard de Georges Salles” in GSIII, 589–92 as well as GSIII, 704-06.



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admired works supposedly from the earlier periods were in fact copies made during the later ones. In the course of his brief review, Benjamin refers to Arthur Waley, to Osvald Síren, and cites Lin Yutang along with two other Chinese writers.2 If we consider that the BN exhibition aimed to create a new appreciation for a period of art maligned as decadent and derivative, that this recuperation involved a reevaluation of which works were copies and which originals, that the exhibition catalog opens with a meditation on how collections can manifest the Idea, and that this in turn leads into the philosophical borderlands between writing and image, then it seems less odd that Benjamin paid attention to the exhibit, even in the difficult days of autumn 1938. And if we recall that one of Benjamin’s good friends at the time he wrote the review was the eminent sinologist René Etiemble, then the sudden display, or at least simulation, of sinological knowledge is slightly less surprising. And yet beyond the editor’s brief introduction to this review itself (as it appears in the Ecrits français), I have been unable to find any references, in the vast corpus of Benjamin crticism, to the possibility that Benjamin had any particular interest in or knew much about China. The evidence to the contrary is considerable: the short story “Chinoiserie” published under the pseudonym Detlef Holz in Four Stories, a few references to China in the Trauerspiel book, an analogy comparing Marx to Confucius in a review of Brecht’s Dreigroschenroman, citations—in the review of Kafka’s The Great Wall of China—of Rosenzweig’s remarks about China in The Star of Redemption . . . to which one might add Benjamin’s knowledge of Brecht’s writings on Chinese theater, the Bibliothèque Nationale review just mentioned, an essay on the Chinese American film actress Anna Mae Wong brimming with citations from Chinese poetry, a rather moving 1912 letter to Ludwig Strauss that discusses Benjamin’s strong personal reaction to Ku Hung-Ming’s The Defense of China against European Ideas in the context of his own personal feelings about Zionism, and, most important, a number of other references I will detail below. This sustained and chronologically extensive if quantitatively slight presence of China in Benjamin’s work might be less remarkable if it were not for the fact it is so infrequently, if ever, remarked.3 2. Ts’ien Kiang [Qian Jiang] and Lieou Wang-Ngan [Liu Wang-an]. 3. Needless to say, the scholarship on Benjamin is vast and it would be impossible for anyone to say with certainty that any topic is entirely lacking in it. However, I have not only found nothing myself but have presented this issue in talks at several major universities and national conferences and to date no one has been able to identify any work on Benjamin and China.

“to imitate the chinese” 105 A skeptic might wonder if this smattering of references and tropes adds up to anything like a substantial relationship to China or even to “China.” Over the course of this chapter I will argue that they do and, more specifically, that they form a consistent and meaningful pattern in relation to many of Benjamin’s long-term critical concerns. Which ones? At first blush the central issue might seem to be the relationship between writing and image, to which Benjamin is drawn in his review of the BN exhibit. While the early sections of the review draw heavily on the catalog texts by George Salles and Jean-Pierre Dubosc, Benjamin’s own interests emerge clearly by the end, namely the ways in which these paintings negotiate the “antinomy” between painting and literature, an antinomy that “finds its ‘resolution’ in an intermediate element that, far from constituting a happy medium between literature and painting, intimately embraces what seems in them most irreducibly opposed, namely thought and image. We wish to speak of Chinese calligraphy” (GSIV, 603). It should be noted at once that Benjamin at no point expresses interest in any possibly pictographic qualities of the ideograph, focusing instead on Chinese writing’s ability to form what he calls an “ensemble.” Moreover, Chinese writing is, according to Benjamin, “eminently in motion.”4 Although the forms of the characters are fixed, they are set in motion by a network of “virtual resemblances,” resemblances that are “interwoven and constitute an ensemble upon which thought acts like a breeze upon a gauze sail” (GSIV, 604-05). He concurs with Salles’s claims that “in China [. . .] the art of painting is above all the art of thinking,” that Chinese men of letters think in images, and that these images are based on resemblance. This resemblance of the image to the world is fleeting (“like a flash of lightning”) and its fleeting character is confounded with a “penetration of the real”: “What [the paintings] fix never has but the fixity of clouds. And there is their true and enigmatic substance, made of change, like life” (GSIV, 604-05). It is not that Chinese writing represents life but that its characters are themselves in some sense alive, an assertion that seems less fantastic if we recall Benjamin’s claim, in “The Task of the Translator,” that life should be defined as that which has a history. While Benjamin emphasizes the vivacity and something like the ontological autonomy of Chinese characters, he also emphasizes the special character of their resemblance, even their bond, to nature.

4. For a discussion of motion and stasis in other figurations of Chinese writing, see chapter 2.


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Such nonsensuous similarities are most explicitly discussed by Benjamin in his essay “On the Mimetic Faculty,” in which he writes that “the written word . . . perhaps more vividly than the spoken word [. . .] signifies the nature of nonsensuous similarity” (GSII, 212; SWII, 721–22). “Script has thus become,” he continues, “an archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsensuous correspondences” (GSII, 212; SWII, 722). Modern language, for Benjamin, is “a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic” (GSII, 213; SWII, 722). The most ancient forms of written language (“runes and hieroglyphs”) still retain some flicker of the mimetic source of language. Benjamin’s encounter with Chinese would have recalled, therefore, what he describes as a “reading before all languages, from the entrails, the stars, or dances” (GSII, 213; SWII, 722).5 It is hardly surprising that Benjamin would have been drawn to the calligraphic aspects of Chinese painting or that he would find in them echoes of his own critical concerns. The scriptive and its relationship both to resemblance and to transience are of course prominent themes in Benjamin’s thought, at least as far back as his early work on the German mourning play, a book in which the hieroglyphic topos plays an important role (he partially attributes early modern allegorical reading practices to efforts to read Egyptian hieroglyphics). It is also in the Trauerspiel book that Benjamin refers to China as a place where the word-image [Schriftbild] is “not only a sign of what is to be known but is itself an object worthy of knowledge” (GSI, 360; Origin, 184). Writing in general is central to Benjamin’s articulation of a Baroque philosophy and aesthetic: “The phonetic is and remains for the Baroque something purely sensuous; meaning is at home in Writing” (GSI, 383; Origin, 209). The stakes of this “writing” are high: “When, with the Trauerspiel, History wanders onto the stage, it does so as Writing” (GSI, 353; Origin, 177). Yet the importance of these image-script topoi should not be taken as indicating either the supremacy of pictures or even of language in

5. It is in this passage that he famously cites Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s phrase “To read what was never written” (GSII, 213; SWII, 722). It is worth noting, in this context, that Benjamin briefly undertook the serious study of Nahuatl, under Walter Lehmann, in Munich in 1916. Gershom Scholem reports seeing “Molina’s big Aztec-Spanish dictionary” on Benjamin’s desk shortly thereafter (Scholem 33). Thanks to Peter Fenves for this reference.

“to imitate the chinese” 107 any of their conventional senses. Just as Benjamin remarks—perhaps alluding to silent film—that although “Trauerspiel is thinkable as pantomime, tragedy is not” (GSI, 297; Origin, 118), so too I would argue that Benjamin’s interest in the ideograph has less to do with its conventionally linguistic or even visual characteristics than its corporeal ones—more precisely, the ways in which it might, like gesture, suggest a form of embodied cognition for which spoken language is inessential. For Benjamin, I argue, China and Chinese writing are consistently associated with this embodied cognition and with the forms of corporeal mimesis through which it circulates—concepts most famously articulated in his late work on cinema. Michael Taussig writes of Benjamin’s conception of the mimetic: “The unremitting emphasis here is not only on shock-like rhythms, but on the unstoppable merging of the object of perception with the body of the perceiver and not just with the mind’s eye. ‘I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images,’ complains one of Benjamin’s sources” (25). The source to which Taussig refers is Abel Gance’s essay “Le temps de l’image est venu!” in which, it is worth noting, Gance also writes: “[C] inema leads us back to the ideography of primitive writings, to the hieroglyph, through the sign representative of each thing, and there, probably, lies its greatest future influence. The cinema will make us think much more directly, with greater exactitude. Here we are, through a prodigious backwards retreat, returned to the level of expression of the Egyptians” (Gance, 100–101). Benjamin’s conception of mimesis has less to do with more or less exact forms of representation than with transformative processes of imitative signification that are both corporeal and collective, the dual criteria that unite mass culture, cinema, and traditional conceptions of the Orient. Benjamin’s ArtWork essay is, after all, less about art than about the transformation of second nature, of habit and habitus as the culturally and historically specific grounds of perception and representation. It is, as Taussig writes, toward such practices that the thrust of Benjamin’s later thought is directed, toward “the depth of habit [. . .] where unconscious strata of culture are built into social routines as bodily disposition” (25). In sum, Benjamin’s “China” is tied up with his efforts to think the ways in which mimesis constitutes a second nature, specifically through the medium of human embodiment. Before turning to the most explicit and compelling examples of this affiliation of “China” and modern mimesis, I would like to consider an instance from Benjamin’s early work in which he figures this relationship


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in inscriptive terms. “Chinese Wares,” in One-Way Street, includes a short text contrasting the knowledge of a country road obtained by someone looking down on it from an airplane to that obtained by someone who has walked the road on foot.6 The reader of a text, Benjamin says, is like the former, for whom the route and the land seem to obey the same law; the copyist is like the latter, understanding the power of the road’s “commands.” “The mere reader,” he writes, “never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it” (GSIV, 89–90; SWI, 447–48). One can at this point easily imagine some of the ways in which this image might be related to a general metaphorics of inscription (along the lines of, for example, “the street named Asja Lacis” whose Bahnung stands as a dedication at the entrance to One-Way Street), but also to what Derrida, in “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” calls the general “path [cheminement] of metaphors of the path, of the trace, of breaching, of the opening of a way by means of effraction through the neuron, light or wax, wood or resin in order to be violently inscribed in a nature, a material, a matrix; following the indefatigable reference to a dry point and to a writing without ink,” and so on (L’écriture 338; 229). Derrida gestures toward the historical scope of the relationship between paths and writing when he writes that it would “be necessary to study together, genetically and structurally, the history of the path and the history of writing” (317), but what interests me here is the ethnographically inflected form in which such a conception of “writing” appears. This emerges abruptly and only at the end of Benjamin’s short text: “The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas” (GSIV, 90; SWI, 448). In the setup for this unprepared conclusion (“thus”), we learn that while the reader necessarily bends the text to his or her will, the copyist follows the command of the text. Given the importance of tradition in Benjamin’s work, and specifically its basis in the accumulation of experience, it seems clear that Benjamin here valorizes the embodied perspective of the copyist-pedestrian over the visual mastery of the mere readerpassenger. It is only with the former that one finds not only “an incomparable guarantee of literary culture” but also “a key to China’s enigmas.” In

6. “Chinesische Waren,” translated as “Chinese Curios” in the English Selected Writings, but notably using the word translated as “commodity” from Marx.

“to imitate the chinese” 109 ways now familiar, the figure of Chinese writing here functions as a synecdoche of the whole of Chinese culture, but it does so in a way that is qualitatively different than the traditional alignment of language and national character such as we saw in Humboldt and others. By being treated as synonymous with writing, with language in its extensive, iterative, material, and collective form, the Chinese language here figures not the representational or even exactly the expressive capacities of language, but its pre- or parasemantic dimensions, dimensions whose reality (or at least real effects) become increasingly undeniable because of the new inscriptive technological media that—or at least so some have imagined— “no longer rely on symbolic mediation but instead record, in the shape of light and sound waves, visual and acoustic effects of the real” (WinthropYoung and Wutz, xxviii). And indeed, for Benjamin, as we have seen, Chinese writing suggests a “penetration of the real.” In what follows, I will argue that the trope of copying presented in “Chinese Wares” does not simply figure the inscriptive and mimetic force of language, but also suggests that the recurrent deployment of an “example” (say, China) would itself bear an inscriptive and mimetic force. As Taussig asks: “Can’t we say that to give an example, to instantiate, to be concrete, are all examples of the magic of mimesis wherein the replication, the copy acquires the power of the represented?” (16). To recall the terms of my discussion of Kafka’s “An Imperial Message”: Benjamin’s “China” constitutes not just an internally coherent system of citations (which I will first need to demonstrate) but also an index of a historical event, of an encounter. It is to Benjamin’s encounter with “China” that I will now turn.

The Blue Onion Pattern A lunch scene from Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900: I was suddenly touched to the quick by the small sign of peace that beckoned to me from all the plates. It was the pattern of little cornflowers that adorned the set of flawless white porcelain—a sign of peace whose sweetness could be appreciated only by a gaze accustomed to the sign of war I had before me on all other days. I’m thinking of the blue onion pattern. How often I had appealed to it for aid in the course of battles that raged round this table which now looked so radiant to me! Countless times I gave myself up to its branches and filaments, its blossoms and volutes—more devotedly than to the most beautiful picture.


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Never had anyone sought the friendship of another person as unreservedly as I sought the friendship of the blue onion pattern. (GSIV, 265–66; SWIII, 394–95)

Rather than getting lost in books or even in images of faraway places, Benjamin is absorbed in an only quasi-representational pattern, “more devotedly,” he specifies, “than to the most beautiful picture.” Young Walter’s association of this china with China becomes explicit farther along in the passage: I would gladly have had it as an ally in the unequal struggle which so often embittered the midday meal. But that was not to be. For this pattern was as venal as a Chinese general brought up at the expense of the state. The honors my mother showered on it, the parades to which she summoned the soldiery, the lamentation that resounded from the kitchen for every fallen member of the regiment, rendered my courtship altogether useless. Cold and servile, the onion pattern withstood the onslaught of my gazes, and would not have offered the least of its layers to cover me. (GSIV 265–66; SWIII, 394–95)

Described by Benjamin as “käuflich” (an odd charge to bring against a piece of porcelain!), the china displays all the impassivity of a decadent Chinaman.7 Venality, fickleness, coldness and servility, connecting china and China: something as banal as a porcelain lunch setting and as intimate as the memory of a childhood daydream linked to the wider world and the politics of Orientalism.8

7. “Denn dieses Muster war käuflich wie ein General aus China, welches denn auch an seiner Wiege gestanden hatte” (GSIV, 266; SWIII, 395). Benjamin puns throughout on the senses of “Muster” relating both to patterns and to military review and inspection (as in the English expression “to pass muster”). 8. I remarked in a note above that “Chinesische Waren” should retain some sense of the commodity and not be reduced to a “curio,” as in the current English translation. However, the OED gives as the definition of curio: “An object of art, piece of bric-à-brac, etc., valued as a curiosity or rarity; a curiosity; more particularly applied to articles of this kind from China, Japan, and the far East.” The word seems to emerge only in the middle of the nineteenth century and to be frequently tied to Pacific trade; the earliest cited instance is from Moby Dick. In support of this reading of “Waren” as “commodity” rather than “curio”—or, rather, to suggest that both senses should be kept in mind—a bit from the locus

“to imitate the chinese” 111 The extent and intensity of Benjamin’s childhood relationship to Chinese porcelain—hinted at here—are most explicitly formulated in the long version of the “Mummerehlen” story included in the original 1934 edition of Berlin Childhood. There Benjamin describes how as a child he developed a special mimetic relationship to words, often in an effort to negotiate misunderstandings that “disarranged” [verstellte] his world. Once he hears adults speaking of Kupferstichen (copperplate engravings) and “the next day I stuck my head out from under a chair; that was a Kopf-verstich [a head stick-out]”; “if,” he continues, “in this way, I distorted [entstellte] both myself and the word, I did only what I had to do to gain a foothold in life. Early on, I learned to disguise myself in words, which really were clouds” (GSIV, 261; SWIII, 390).9 This “old compulsion to become similar and to behave mimetically” has left behind a “weak remnant,” namely “the gift of perceiving similarities” (GSIV, 261; SWIII, 390–91). That is, the most essential act of critical consciousness is a remainder of this childhood talent or defense.10 Benjamin was perhaps different from other children, he comments, in that for him this mimetic behavior was generally precipitated by words, words that lead him to resemble “dwelling places, furniture, clothes.” As a rule, then, his mimetic behavior was provoked by the thingliness of estranged words and led to the bodily imitation of things. But in at least one case, that of his favorite thing to imitate, the instigator was a thing:

classicus of commodity phantasmagoria, in which again we find China and tables. In his famous account—in “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret” section of the first volume of Capital—of the table that stands on its head and generates grotesque ideas, Marx adds in a footnote: “One may recall that China and the tables began to dance when the rest of the world appeared to be standing still—pour encourager les autres” (Marx, 163–64n27). Ben Fowkes glosses this as follows: “‘To encourage the others’. A reference to the simultaneous emergence in 1850 of the Taiping revolt in China and the craze for spiritualism which swept over upper-class German society. The rest of the world was ‘standing still’ in the period of reaction immediately after the defeat of the 1848 Revolutions.” 9. For a detailed analysis of this story in relation to Benjamin’s childhood experiences at the photographer’s studio and the problem of self-resemblance, see Cadava. 10. This whole passage echoes the language of section 5 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


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Of all the things I used to mimic [wiedergab], my favorite was Chinese porcelain. A colorful veneer covered those vases, bowls, plates, and boxes, which were certainly just cheap export products. I was nonetheless captivated by them, as if I already knew the story which, after so many years, leads me back again to the work of the mummerehlen. The story comes from China, and tells of an old painter who invited friends to see his newest picture. It showed a park, a narrow path that ran along a stream through a grove of trees, led to a little door that, in the distance, entered a small house. When the painter’s friends looked around for the painter, however, he had gone away and into the picture. There he followed the little path that led to the door, paused before it quite still, turned, smiled, and disappeared into the opening. In the same way, I too, when occupied with my paintpots and brushes, would be suddenly displaced into the picture [ins Bild entstellt]. I would resemble [ähnelte] the porcelain which I had entered in a cloud of colors. (GSIV, 262–63; SWIII, 393)

We have here a rather hyperbolic example of what Mark Hansen calls “a process of embodied reception—of reception as embodiment” (Hansen, 261). In “Experience and Poverty” (1933) Benjamin writes of “a generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars [and] now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body” (GSII, 214; SWII, 732), a sentence that will appear again in “The Storyteller” (1936). In young Walter’s strange mimetic bond with the Chinese porcelain we find already—or “already,” because the recollection is contemporary with the later formulations—clouds as the only constant confronting a “tiny, fragile human body,” here tinier and more fragile than usual not because it is at war (except for the wars fought by the regiments of china) or exposed to the vastness of the open sky, but because it is the body of a child turning into porcelain so that he can enter into the “little door” of the “small house” at the end of a “little path.” While the Chinese stone medium explored in the previous chapter, the stele, figured a supremely, haughtily immobile form, this metonymy of China is made to move (“cheap export products”). Porcelain is, indeed, a medium of telecommunication in the direct sense that it was a principle means by which images and—in some form or other, however falsified—cultural knowledge circulated around the globe. Before children were absorbed into mimetic bonds with flickering black-and-white images, they were absorbed into the surfaces of blue

“to imitate the chinese” 113 and white.11 As David Porter remarks: “While the early-nineteenthcentury poet laureate Robert Southey’s remark that ‘plates and tea wares have made us better acquainted with the Chinese than we are with any other distant people’ may not reflect favorably on the depth of this acquaintance, it does suggest the degree to which such objects were perceived as being ‘about’ the place to which, however reductively, they referred” (Porter, 137). Benjamin’s is obviously a different historical moment and different national context, but it is in its own way a reminder and a remainder of this long-term and large-scale East-West mediatic relationship. Benjamin’s childhood anecdotes would seem perfect examples of mere details, of contingent, purely subjective misapprehensions. How much could china have to do with China, one might ask?—as if the very omnipresence of china (imagine how much of China, quite literally how many tons of Chinese soil, were brought to the Western world over the centuries) were proof of its insignificance. And yet bourgeois interiors and so, at least to some extent, bourgeois interiority, is almost literally unimaginable without china—and so, without China. Benjamin’s deployment of china as a theoretical figure draws on the commercial and material importance of a China that is, as Lydia Liu writes of Robinson Crusoe’s earthenware pot’s relationship to porcelain, simultaneously evoked and disavowed.12 Although we might not ordinarily think of porcelain as a medium, we need only recall the extent to which it, perhaps only after paper, functioned as an image-bearing surface that literally circulated around the globe. But I am also suggesting that porcelain functioned as a medium in the sense that it shaped and indeed partially constituted the West’s “own” second nature. This is simply to 11. On porcelain as a medium, see Hayot, The Hypothetical Mandarin. An entertaining anecdote from Marshall McLuhan’s correspondence: “Our Mike, aged 15, burns incense in front of his Buddha and reads Herman Hesse. He has nothing in common with his older brothers and sisters. He just barely made the TV generation. The younger ones will be much more extreme. I had opportunities to check this out in the hospital with doctors and patients who had ten-year-old children. TV is the end of the western world. We have gone Oriental while the Orient tries to go West” (Letters, 349). I will discuss McLuhan further in the next chapter. 12. For general accounts of blue and white in the Western world and beyond, see Carswell’s works; for a broader cultural reading focused primarily on the eighteenth century, see David Porter; on porcelain in the Early Modern imagination see Liu, “Robinson Crusoe’s Earthenware Pot.”


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say that like any other medium, porcelain is both itself something and a means of representing or signaling something other than itself; that it both conveys a “content” and shapes that content (like a vessel, if you will) in its own medium-specific way. Recall Mallarmé’s call “to imitate the Chinese”—as seen in blue and white. As we have seen, for Mallarmé and many after him to imitate the Chinese meant not to represent but to mimic them, to imitate the way they imitate, to imitate those whose primary characteristic it is to imitate so well. Benjamin not only describes his childhood mimetic bond to the Chinaporzellan as an imitation of that thing and as an entering into its world, but emphasizes that in doing he is like the Chinese man in the story—as if, he writes, he had already known the story. And indeed, who doesn’t know that story, the one about the Chinese as imitators? It is the story of the Chinese painter that provokes the recollection of the Mummerehlen story, a story whose resemblance to his childhood mimetic bond with porcelain explains the origin of his later ability to see resemblances. In this way China is at the “origin”—in an appropriately complex, perhaps Benjaminian sense—of Benjamin’s late corporeal-mimetic account of cinema. The china of Benjamin’s childhood participated in and precipitated forms of mimetic behavior of which cinema and the rise of mass culture would unfold more dramatic consequences. To be clear: such a claim does not imply a retroactive conversion of everything into a “technology,” although one could imagine discussing porcelain as a technology in a fairly conventional sense. Rather, it suggests that what are often regarded as the affective and social consequences of technological media have a prehistory that in both straightforwardly historical and virtual ways predate what we would ordinarily define as the age of technical reproducibility. All this provides a context for reading what might initially seem an offhand reference to a Chinese painter in another, considerably more well-known text on which Benjamin was also working in the mid- to late 1930s: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”13 There Benjamin opposes concentration [Sammlung] to the

13. The first version was completed in the fall of 1935, the French version in May 1936; Benjamin continued work on a third version from 1936 until his death. The story of the Chinese painter appears in section 15 of the third version, in section 18 of the earlier ones. Here and throughout I generally use the widely recognized translation of the essay’s title, rather than something more accurate such as “The Artwork in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.”

“to imitate the chinese” 115 distraction [Zerstreuung] associated with mass culture and film. As an extreme example he recalls the story of a Chinese painter who enters into his own landscape painting: “Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work into themselves” (GSI, 504; SWIV, 268). Whereas Pound writes that “the ideograph is a door into a different modality of thought” (Machine, 88), for Benjamin Chinese writing seems to represent a different kind of door, one consubstantial with that to which it provides entrance; his childhood play with paint and brush leads not to a visual spectacle but to a corporeal mimetic displacement. This structure is not simply a childish confusion, but one of the highest ambitions of his most mature work. The fact that in the “Work of Art” essay Chinese concentration is contrasted to cinematic distraction is, for my purposes, a relatively minor point, because the larger issue is not whether China and cinema are equated, but rather the extent to which China recurs as a compelling and useful figure in Benjamin’s efforts to grasp both the individual-subjective and the mass-cultural effects of technological media. Again, it is not a question of decoding “China” as a figure to reveal a technological reality, but of understanding China and media as coordinate figural elements of a modernist reconceptualization of the materiality of signification. My understanding of this aspect of Benjamin’s late work has benefited greatly from Mark Hansen’s scholarship on Benjamin and technesis.14 Hansen argues that Benjamin “embrac[es] Lukács’s notion of ‘second nature’ well beyond its historical, praxis-directed, Hegelian focus” in order to argue that “technology embodies the very contact between humankind and the world on which societal forms are themselves constructed” (234–35). For Benjamin, according to Hansen, “technology names the modern form of physis itself, not simply its ontic degradation” because, as Benjamin himself writes, “in technology, a

14. It should be noted that Hansen’s work is in turn indebted to Bernard Stiegler’s, specifically the multivolume Technics and Time, whose translation into English is ongoing. Stiegler’s concept of “tertiary retentions” in particular seems to support the kinds of claims I am making here, but any serious engagement with Stiegler’s thought would take me beyond the intellectual-historical parameters of this study into more properly philosophical questions.


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physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families” (235; citing SWI, 487). Thus Hansen emphasizes that “a break from Benjamin’s own conjunction of mimesis with the scriptural aspect of language” (248) is necessary in order to grasp the radical character of Benjamin’s registration of “a (partial) return to primitive mimesis” in modernity. For Hansen, this “return” to mimesis entails an eclipse of interiority and a corresponding rise of “technological exteriorization” (240) as the locus of memory and identity, both personal and collective. In Hansen’s bold reading of Benjamin’s late work, the latter’s distinction between Erfahrung and Erlebnis as modes of experience does not imply a nostalgia for the integrity of the former and a condemnation of the latter as alienated and brutalized. Rather, Benjamin’s conception of Erlebnis represents an effort to recuperate, from the shock-like experiences of cinema and modern urban life generally, a “nonconceptual account of experience” (238), one that would, moreover, function “as a hinge articulating embodiment with technologies that facilitate collective experience” (231). For Hansen, “the eclipse of language as the reigning vehicle of mimesis effectively serves as a prerequisite for the displacement of semiotics heralding the advent of what Gumbrecht (following Bergson) calls the ‘materialization of the spirit’” (236).15 As we have seen throughout, “China” has consistently served to name precisely this intimate proximity if not equation of matter and spirit: a world in which the mind, for lack of a better term, is material, exterior, and collective, in sum: neither spirit nor nature, but technics. In opposition to Lukács’s rather grim account of second nature, to speak nothing of Kafka’s bloody allegory “In the Penal Colony”—to return to some of the examples raised in the previous chapter—we can say that here, in the concept of the mimetic, emerges a more affirmative conception of spirit as matter, or of language as a thing or force that does not merely signify but also constitutes the world. This returns us again to Taussig’s important work on the rebirth of mimesis in the modernist era under the dual influence of technology and crosscultural contacts. In his commentary on Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Kafka’s “Wish to Be a Red Indian,” Taussig writes that “history would seem to now allow for an appreciation of

15. See Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, 590.

“to imitate the chinese” 117 mimesis as an end in itself that takes one into the magical power of the signifier to act as if it were indeed the real, to live in a different way with the understanding that artifice is natural, no less than that nature is historicized” (255). Far from viewing the virtual autonomy and efficacy of the man-made as producing a death-like state of alienation, for Taussig “mimesis sutures the real to the really made up—and no society exists otherwise” (86; emphasis added).16 In part, this is a point I have already made several times and that constitutes one of the central claims of this book: that the discourse of Orientalism in many ways describes the same set of philosophical and cultural problems as modernist-era discourses on technological media and that this fit is visible in the widespread collocation of Orientalist and mediatic tropes I have been exploring. But here I wish to advance this argument a step further and claim that the mimetic model does not simply offer Chinese writing as an example or a figure of the mimetic force of language, but also suggests that Chinese writing as example, as figure, has such a mimetic force. In other words, the mimetic model gives evidence of a link between “China” as a set of forms played with in the formal experiments of Euro-American modernism and China as a very real part of modernism’s world. And according to this same mimetic model, to say that China is part of our world is to say that it is part of us. To acknowledge the presence of China in Western modernity is therefore not to introduce a belated, appreciative, or politically correct supplement, but to recognize an “other” that was already there—not “always already,” perhaps, but for longer and in more profound ways than is generally admitted. This historical claim corresponds to my interpretive claim about the “indexical” character of citations of China. It is in this sense that the ideograph is, in fact, “about” China. Because the ideograph and the discourses that surround and determine it do not generally do a very good job of representing China in any way that might fairly be described as accurate, it is tempting to say that ideographic modernism is about us, about our world (“the West”), rather than theirs (“the Chinese world”). But as already hinted at in the inscriptional model

16. “Mimetic excess is a somersaulting back to sacred actions implicated in the puzzle that empowered mimesis any time, any place—namely the power to both double yet double endlessly, to become any Other and engage the image with the reality thus imagized” (Taussig, 255).


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and now made clearer in the mimetic model, the world registered by modernist ideography is precisely one that cannot be “ours” as opposed to “theirs,” but is rather a world in which one is constituted by the other, a real other whose indexical traces partially constitute “our” second nature of the really made up. The central thesis of Hansen’s study is that philosophies of technology have consistently “reduced” manifestations of the technological world to a form of “writing,” rather than reconceptualizing them in ways that reckon with their robust materiality and alterity. In accord with Hansen’s insights, I want to avoid “reducing” technology to writing, but I also want to emphasize that in terms of cultural history the speculatively ethnographic dimension of the ideograph need not be thought of as secondary to technology. Hansen’s concerns are more properly philosophical, while mine are, here, intellectual-historical and rhetorical. Accordingly, while “writing” might be an overreaching metaphor for the transformation of the world in the age of technological media, it is also—perhaps precisely because of its failure as an account of the real—a rich cultural artifact in which can be read the history of efforts to figure this changing relationship to technology. That is: even if we understand “writing” not as equivalent to but as a symbolically mediated figuration of the technological real, that figuration must be recognized as having its own efficacy and historicity. In sum, if, as Hansen writes of Benjamin, “the physiological basis of innervation might actually resist all efforts to bind it to the content of a dialectical image” (256), this does not preclude this technological innervation from having historically assumed, consistently and even with an air of inevitability, certain culturally specific forms. One form, for example, would be that of the “veritable doppelganger boom” in the cinema of the 1910s, of which Kittler writes: “Film doppelgangers film filming itself” (Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 149). In ways that recall the problem of the Russian reversal, if doubling is in some sense a “form” that does not necessarily imply a specific “content,” it is obvious that this form will be more hospitable to some contents than others if “merely” for historically and culturally specific reasons. In the case of film, we can say that its long-standing associations with absorption, with the externalization of subjectivity, and with mass culture are at once form and content and that they are, indeed, efforts to negotiate the historical weakening of that very distinction. Adorno, for example, imagines film to have a necessary relationship to the masses, arguing that the medium’s originarily technological

“to imitate the chinese” 119 form17 implies an “a priori collectivity” that necessarily “provides models for collective behavior” for reasons inherent to the medium: “The movements which the film presents are mimetic impulses which, prior to all content and meaning, incite the viewers and listeners to fall into step as if in a parade. [. . .] It would not be incorrect to describe the constitutive subject of film as a ‘we’ in which the aesthetic and sociological aspects of the medium converge” (Adorno, “Transparencies,” 203; emphasis added). It is no coincidence, as Adorno himself might have written, that this “a priori collectivity” is produced by a kind of sign Adorno finds troublesome for reasons identical to those for which Hegel dismisses the cognitive value of Oriental writing, namely that it remains bound to the sensuous and so ultimately must hinder the free exercise of Spirit: “Even where film dissolves and modifies its objects as much as it can, the disintegration is never complete. Consequently, it does not permit absolute construction; its elements, however abstract, always retain something representational; they are never purely aesthetic values. [. . .] That which is irreducible about the objects in film is itself a mark of society” (202). It is precisely in this constellation of mimetic force, exteriority, and collectivity that Benjamin’s account of modern experience connects with the traditional Orientalist account of the Chinese mind as lacking interiority and overwhelmed by a collective memory whose artificial, technical, and exterior character was, it seemed, immediately apparent in the excesses of its writing system.18 Hence the recurrence of Chinese tropes in efforts to grasp what Hansen calls “our culture’s incipient return to a curious posthistorical form of preliteracy” (Mark Hansen, 233). And indeed, figures of the Orient abound in the world of early cinema: from the hieroglyphic and ideographic metaphors of efforts to figure a language of film—from Eisenstein, Lindsay, and Gance, through Adorno and Deleuze, to more recent work by Tom Conley and Miriam Hansen—to the décor and style of early movie houses.19 It seems worth noting here that while his Imperial Messenger

17. That is, cinema cannot be thought of as the technified version of something else, as is the case with recorded music, for example. See Miriam Hansen on “cinema’s techniques of mass reproduction and distribution [. . . as] the very basis of its artistic processes” (Miriam Hansen, “Adorno,” 187). 18. These connections will be explored in greater detail in the following chapter. 19. See, for example, Bernstein and Studlar, eds.


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might never reach “you,” Kafka went to “The Orient” on a regular basis—not figuratively, but literally, all too literally: it was the name of the Prague movie house he frequented.20 We might think here of another Benjamin text, his “Conversation with Ann May Wong,” in which he relates that Wong learned to become an actress by playing before a mirror parts she had seen played in movies, a text in which Benjamin’s own language seems compelled to signify its own mimetic Chineseness by opening with an extended metaphor about tea, closing with a couplet of Chinese verse, and citing three other Chinese sources in the space of just over three pages. Beyond its possible meanings for Benjamin’s own work, the broader implication of such a mimetic reading of “China” is that seemingly slight or contingent appearances of China in other places might in fact be symptomatic of the same broader cultural logic, might form part of the same pattern. Consider, for example, André Breton’s description, in his antinovel Nadja, of an association that draws him repeatedly toward a certain Paris neighborhood: The memory, of the eighth and last episode of a film I saw in the neighborhood, in which a Chinese who had found some way to multiply himself invaded New York by means of several million self-reproductions. He entered President Wilson’s office followed by himself, and by himself, and by himself, and by himself; the President removed his pince-nez. This film, which has affected me far more than any other, was called The Grip of the Octopus. (Breton, 661–63; 32–37)

Here “the curious and striking recharging of the mimetic faculty caused by the invention of mimetically capacious machines such as the camera, in the second half of the nineteenth century” described by Taussig (xiv) becomes explosive; here the “collective innervation” of mankind’s body through technology—of which Benjamin writes in his essay on Surrealism—assumes a markedly ethnic form, suggesting a formal complicity between Yellow Peril and the cinematic apparatus. While this all gives evidence of how broadly the signifiers of the “the Orient” traveled from their geographic referents, acquiring new meanings in differing cultural-historical contexts, it also suggests the extent to which these signifiers tended to travel the same routes, as if those routes had become second nature, cutting paths through some 20. See Zischler.

“to imitate the chinese” 121 collective “interior jungle” in which the cultural traffic of modernity is revealed to have traveled on streets that were anything but one-way. Whatever culture they were supposed to be guarantors of then, today these routes provide us within something like a key to “China’s” enigmas.

Four “shocks in china” History, Telegraphy, and the Crisis of Spirit


arly in Virginia Woolf’s MRS. DALLOWAY the pedestrians on Bond Street are briefly brought together by the possibility that an approaching automobile might contain royalty. The “slight ripple,” the “surface agitation” provoked by its passing “grazed something very profound,” stirring “something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fullness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire” (25–26). “Strangers” discover that something in the depths of their common being resonates to the same shocks, ripples, and agitations, that they are bound to each other because they are bound to the dead, many of whose deaths no doubt have something to do with flags and with empire, consciousness of which is experienced as a primitive effervescence flaring up at the heart of the metropolis. “China” here seems to signify little more than “as far away as possible,” a distance that defines the achievements and limits of technological instruments: wide-ranging and highly sensitive to the most minute phenomena, yet blind to “something very profound,” namely the irrational bonds of collectivity and the warp of memories, both real and imagined, that constitute those bonds. The scene seems an almost textbook example of what Benedict Anderson famously describes as “that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations” (36), the “deep, horizontal comradeship” (7) that makes people willing to die and kill for nations. Aside, perhaps, from its symptomatic appearance in an account of mass mimetic behavior, of a constellation of faces in the crowd, all this would seem to have little if anything to 122

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do with China.1 And yet in the short text “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” from which Mrs. Dalloway would emerge, we find a number of other references to China. From the most oblique to the most obvious: there is the Proustian invocation of blue and white china (“A leaf of mint brings it back: or a cup with a blue ring”); farther down the page Hugh Whitbread raises his hat “rather extravagantly by the china shop” (146); then a few pages later Clarissa remembers “how on their honeymoon Dick had shown her the folly of giving impulsively. It was much more important, he said, to get trade with China” (151). Not least, in the eventual novel Clarissa and Dick’s daughter Elisabeth will, like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse, be described as having “Chinese eyes.”2 While the appearance of the signifier “China” in the final text of the novel seems to have hardly any significance, then, a look at the earlier version of the text reveals a fuller context of which the later appearance is a trace. It would be hard to argue that the blue ring on the teacup, taken on its own, has much to do with China, but as part of a metonymic series moving from the intimate stirrings of memory to visions of global commerce, by way of the china shop, the connection becomes considerably stronger. While the “China” in the novel seems to signal a distance so fantastic as to be almost parabolic, then, the short story subtly but repeatedly reminds us that China is in the world, a place with which one might engage in trade (men like Dick Dalloway dream of it, even on their honeymoons) and whose goods 1. In “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street” this sentiment of nationalism itself receives a conventionally Orientalist formulation not included in the eventual text of the novel; Clarissa thinks to herself: “It matters so much to the poor [. . .] and to the soldiers. [. . .] It matters. [. . .] But it was character, she thought; something inborn in the race; what Indians respected” (147). This last clause is ambiguous. Clarissa is perhaps imagining that flags and national pomp are the sort of things that Indians respect or—the more likely reading, I think—that such respect is something inborn in the British race and that it is this English national sentiment that Indians respect. 2. Although Woolf certainly knew more about China than has traditionally been acknowledged, I am not interested here in detailing her actual knowledge of or historical connections with China. For that, see Laurence’s Eyes and “The China Letters.” For a very different recent discussion of Bloomsbury Orientalism, see de Gruchy, who focuses primarily on Arthur Waley’s relationship to Japan, but offers much general insight about the group’s relationship to East Asian cultures.


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are indeed already props in the national theater of everyday life. In these formulations of the national, we consistently find the foreign; in these formulations of the intimate (honeymoons, daughters, and the triggers of involuntary memory), the global-economic. In sum, this brief passage hints at the broader complexities of the ways in which modern senses of location and identity (what could be more English than feeling English on Bond Street?) rely on dislocation and difference (what could be more remote and other than China?). In a world whose different parts are interconnected by “mathematical instruments”—much as the pedestrians of Bond Street are connected by ripples, agitations, and vibrations—shocks in China are not necessarily any more remote than the comparatively localized shocks of urban modernity of which Benjamin famously writes. Indeed, “shock” and the electrical model it implies all but moot spatial distance. Accordingly, both the language and the substance of the Woolf passage recall the sorts of things people wrote about telegraphy even prior to its becoming wireless. Already in the mid1850s, American tabloid publisher J. G. Bennett, for example, writes that thanks to telegraphy, “the whole nation is impressed with the same idea at the same moment. One feeling and one impulse are thus created and maintained from the centre of the land to its uttermost extremities” (quoted in Frank, 642). And in a slightly more lyrical vein, he writes of “the Magnetic Telegraph [. . .] radiat[ing] intellectual light like the sun itself, or, as a network, spread from city to city, transmit[ing] its subtle fires, vitalized by thought, from one end of the country to the other, as it were uniting into the same day’s life and sympathies, and virtually narrowing more than a million square miles into a cognizable span” (quoted in Frank, 642). As Adam Frank writes of Poe and his contemporaries, “Electromagnetic telegraphy literalized social networks of feeling, elaborating a physiologized social body comprised of wires and electricity, keys and armatures” (Frank, 639); we can see this literalization return, inverted, in the Woolf passage. Further developments of such technologies would serve not only to unify nations but also to connect them to one another, often opening them up in ways that strained the more local forms of unity. Bernhard Siegert’s account of the spatial ontology of everyday life claims that the global-postalization—the transnational coordination of telegraphy with various national and regional postal systems—“made distances irrelevant on a global scale,” bringing about a transcendence of the geographic:

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Once the mailbox had created a ubiquitous neighborhood of contact, the World Postal Union made “all nations neighbors,” or, in Virilio’s words, effected “the juxtaposition of every locality, all matter.” Since the inception of the World Postal Union, the end of the world is everywhere. Not merely in the sense that distances separating one place from another had become anachronistic, but also in that the world’s margins had moved into the immediate vicinity of a neighborhood everywhere. [. . .] The limes that drew the line between the ecumenical and its barbaric exterior ran through the hearts of both empires and people. (142–43)

As Wolfgang Schivelbusch and many others have shown, the notion that modern technologies of travel and communication “annihilated time and space” was a cliché for more than a half-century before the Futurist Manifesto (1909) declared that “time and space died yesterday.”3 One might reasonably be skeptical about the extent to which nations were indeed “unified” by telegraphy, much less the extent to which time and space were “annihilated” or “transcended” by media. But regardless of what might be said to be true about nations, space, or media in any absolute sense, what is certain is that there was a good deal of heated rhetoric about, and imaginative engagement with, the idea that technology in general and technological media in particular were transforming spatiotemporal experience in such profound ways that the character of everyday life itself was also being reshaped. The consequences of this general transformation for the ways in which people understood and experienced their relationship to places once deemed categorically remote is, I think, something we are just beginning to understand, in part because we are very much still living those consequences. If, on the one hand, the increasing interconnectedness of the world threatened to make the traditionally exotic extinct, on the other hand this same interconnectedness made distance and estrangement increasingly a part of the immediate and everyday. The presence of this structure in everyday urban modernity has been memorably registered by Georg Simmel in the philosophical figure of the Stranger, a “synthesis of proximity and distance” who is “close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature,” but is distant “insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and

3. See, in addition to Schivelbusch, Solnit.


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connect us only because they connect a great many people” (Simmel, 510; 402).4 Similarly, in an oft-cited passage in the “Work of Art” essay Benjamin attributes “the decay of Aura” to two distinct but closely related tendencies, first “the desire of the contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” and second the tendency of these same masses to “overcome the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (GSI, 479; SWIV, 255). Although perhaps most canonically formulated in Benjamin’s essay, the dialectics of the extension of the senses are a commonplace in the study of modern media: media bring some part of the world “closer,” but in doing so create a different kind of distance, one that less readily reveals itself as distance. We find a different articulation of this dynamic in Marshall McLuhan’s classic, if somewhat rough-and-ready account of globalization in Understanding Media, according to which the “stepping-up of speed from the mechanical to the instant electric form reverses explosion into implosion” (35), so much so that “the West” can no longer understand itself as holding a central position in the world. Although generally held to be something of a booster for the mediatic new world order, McLuhan seems fairly ambivalent about the ways in which the transformation of time and space “alters the position of the Negro, the teen-ager, and some other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media” (5). Not only do electronic media impose more intimate relations with others, the West itself begins to go “backward,” according to McLuhan; indeed, “the Western world is going Eastern, even as the East goes Western” (35). McLuhan’s unfortunate sociological categories aside, one can identify here and in other accounts of the world-space in the age of technological media two related but distinct movements that had direct consequences for the Western relationship to China. On the one hand, technological media made distant places, even places definitive of distance (see: China) closer in any number of different senses. On the other hand, as I have been arguing throughout, those same technological media transformed the experience of the everyday and the local in ways that made existing figures of cultural others (including, but not limited to China) seem less and less like figures of radical difference and more and more like reasonably accurate descriptions of modern life in the West.

4. Recall that it is precisely “strangers” who encounter one another in Mrs. Dalloway.

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The ways in which the increasing interconnectedness of geographically distant places was itself connected to the instability of the modern self is rendered in precise and dramatic detail in another response to shocks in China, this one formulated just a few years after Woolf’s novel was published. In the “Avant-propos” to his Regards sur le monde actuel (1931), Paul Valéry looks back on how two events from the turn of the century had shaken his sense of identity: A shock that reaches us from an unexpected direction suddenly gives us a new sensation of the existence of our body as something unknown; we did not know at all what we were, and it happens that this brutal sensation itself makes us sensitive, through a secondary effect, to a scale and to an unexpected figure from our living world. This indirect blow in the Far East, and this direct blow in the Antilles thus made me perceive confusedly the existence of something that could be reached and disturbed by such events. I found myself “sensitized” to the conjunctures that effected a kind of virtual idea of Europe that I had been unaware until then of bearing within me. (PVII, 914)

The “indirect blow in the Far East” to which Valéry refers was the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95).5 Like a photographic plate, Valéry is “sensitized” [sensibilisé] by this “shock” from China and is made aware of “a sort of virtual idea” of his own culture, something that, like one’s body, is ordinarily largely excluded from, even if it is constitutive of, ordinary consciousness. Europe, he suggests, is an idea of this sort, one that, far from being the pinnacle achievement of self-conscious spirit is something whose true character is recognized only after a shocking encounter with the other: “[W]e did not know what we were.” In Valéry’s intellectual universe, the “something profound” at stake in this new awareness of the Far East is something far grander than personal or even national identity; what is at stake for him is nothing less than the West and all that it thought it was. Although he did not write a great deal about China, Valéry’s thoughts on the subject—which will be my primary focus for the remainder of this final chapter—constitute an important commentary on the issues explored throughout this book. One reason for this is that Valéry’s poetic and linguistic concerns are part of the same broadly 5. On Valéry’s response to the Spanish-American War, concluded by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, see Villani, 77–80.


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post-Mallarméan tradition as those of Claudel and Segalen. Second, his essays and journals contain many prescient reflections on the philosophical and cultural consequences of technological, especially telecommunicative, media. (Although he is not always thought of as an important media theorist, Valéry is frequently cited by, for example, both Benjamin and McLuhan.) Third, because he was in many respects a conservative political thinker, he was more than willing to speak of “Western civilization” and its fate. His poetic and mediatic reflections are, therefore, often explicitly related to civilizational paradigms, even occasionally echoing the Idealist geography that has been a point of reference throughout this study. In conclusion I will return to McLuhan’s theory of a global mediatic implosion and, ultimately, to the space of Kafka’s China, with which I began. In the previous two chapters I explored some of the ways in which “China” served to figure the production of a kind of Second Nature “within” (or on or as) the Self: inscriptive with a hint of the mimetic in Segalen, more openly mimetic in Benjamin. I further argued that while “China” was a figure for the ways in which the Self is written, China—to the extent that we can remove the scare quotes—was also an example of a force that shaped the modern West. The analyses in this chapter will further narrow the gap between “China” as a topos used to figure Western modernity and China as a source of indexical traces that partially constitute that modernity. The shift from the previous chapters’ focus on individual, even intimate relations with mediatic forces to this chapter’s focus on the large-scale imagined communities of nation and civilization raises the stakes for how we understand this relationship between the figural and referential dimensions of modernism’s China. Here the self-reflexive character of the figural deployment of “China”—the ways in which it both is and is not about China—bears more directly on the place of China in “the world,” that is, its place, in both geopolitical and historical senses, in Western self-definition. The texts I analyze here concern China in a more strongly referential sense (contemporary, not timeless; a referent, and not just the raw material of allegory), but for that very reason they cut deepest into the quasicorporeal sort-of idea that Europe had of itself.

“Here, everything is historic” In order to explain Valéry’s strong, perhaps seemingly over-strong reaction to the news of the Sino-Japanese War, I propose two complementary analyses of its context: first, and most extensive, a discussion

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of a short literary text he wrote specifically in response to that war, a text that focuses primarily on problems of memory, perception, and interiority; second, another short text that has nothing directly to do with China, but that demonstrates Valéry’s sense of the implications of the world’s telegraphic interconnectedness. In an 1899 letter to André Gide, Valéry mentions a dialogue he has been toiling with: “Teste and the Chinese [. . .] I wanted to be have been done with these two monsters in order to undertake something else; but we’re dragging this out” (PVII, 1551).6 The dialogue to which Valéry refers with such impatience—and which would not see print until more than forty years later—was to be a rewrite of “The Yalu,” begun in 1895 during the treaty renegotiations following the first SinoJapanese War, and set in September of that year.7 Generally not included in the canon of texts Valéry wrote about his fictional genius M. Teste, this dialogue between Teste and a Chinese man of letters is set along the banks of the Yalu River, which marks the border between China and northern Korea.8 The Japanese army crossed the river in 1894 as it drove Chinese forces off the Korean Peninsula, pushing westward in 1895. In the treaty concluding the war Japan gained indemnities and land, including the Liaotung Peninsula (the region of China immediately to the west of the Yalu). The Triple Intervention of Russia, Germany, and France that same year returned some of the land to China 6. In his 1932 “Politics of the Spirit” Valéry writes, “It is not since yesterday nor since today that this question preoccupies me. I will not tell you about what I wrote about this in 1895, but here is what I wrote in 1919” (PVI, 1019), and then cites a passage (which I will discuss below) from his 1919 “Crisis of the Spirit.” While Valéry’s Pléiade editor suggests that the 1895 reference is to the essay “A Methodical Conquest,” this was not Valéry’s only text from that era on politics and spirit. In addition to working on “Le Yalou,” “in the same spirit, he wrote a surprising letter to the owner of the New Panama Canal Company” (Bertholet, 114). Valéry began working at the Ministère de la Guerre in 1897 and some of the material now printed as the early Cahiers was written on Ministry letterhead. For Valéry’s notes on the Sino-Japanese War and related materials, see the first volume of the Judith Robinson-Valéry edition of the Cahiers. 7. “Le Yalou,” originally called “Le Ya-li,” was finally published as part of Valéry’s Œuvres in 1938, where it was included with the essays of Regards sur le monde actuel, although the text did not appear in the original 1931 collection with that title. For a more detailed textual history, see Yeschua. 8. For a selection of Teste stories and related materials in English, see Monsieur Teste, translated by Jackson Matthews.


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(Hane, 157–62). While the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 tends to be more often noted in Western historiography, the events surrounding the Battle of the Yalu—described by historian Richard Storry as “the most important naval action since Trafalgar” (26)—in fact mark not only the beginnings of the Japanese imperialist aggression that would dominate the course of East Asian history for the coming half-century but also the first time a non-Western nation took direct steps toward becoming a global power. While today this brief war is often overlooked, then, it was at the time a powerful spur to Japanese nationalism and to anti-Western sentiments around the world generally.9 As his later description of the “shock” of this “indirect blow” makes clear, Valéry intuited something of the world historical significance of these events,10 yet he chose to write of the war in the form not of a direct political commentary, but rather in the form of a dialogue between two antipodal personae representing complementary extreme principles: one, Teste; the other, known simply as le Chinois or le lettré. “The Yalu” is largely a dialogue between these contrasting thought experiments: the former an absolutely analytic intelligence living from instant to instant; the latter a mind wholly submissive to language and tradition. Teste can know nothing but the absolute immediacy of the present; the Chinese nothing but repetitions of his ancestors’ ideas. The narrative of this brief text is simple: Teste and the Chinese man of letters walk in silence along the strand of the Yalu before climbing a lighthouse.11 Teste, who narrates, becomes lost in reflection upon the sights and sounds of the river’s waters when he is interrupted by his companion’s talk of the recent Japanese attacks: “Japan [. . .] is making war on us. Their great white ships steam through our nightmares. They will disturb our estuaries. They will set fires in the peaceful 9. For an acute contemporary sense of the world-historical significance of the war, see W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings on Asia. 10. Valéry’s journals from this period make several references to the battle, specifically to an article by a Lieutenant Lafay published in the January 1895 Revue Maritime et Coloniale, titled “Bataille navale du Yalou d’après les renseignements français et étrangers les plus récents.” From this article he copied into his notebook a diagram of the battle that shows a row of Chinese ships being flanked by a single-file line of Japanese ships. In the margins of this sketch, Valéry contrasts the “souplesse et cohésion de la ligne de file par opposition avec la ligne de front” (Cahiers 1894–1914: I, 228). 11. Valéry identifies the narrator as Monsieur Teste in his letter to Gide and I will refer to the narrator as Teste, but he is not identified as such in the text.

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night.”12 Teste responds: “They are very strong [. . .] they imitate us,” to which the Chinese guide retorts: “You are children [. . .] I know your Europe” (PVII, 1017). The Chinese guide then proceeds to lecture the narrator on the failings of Western culture in terms of a contrast between his worldview and that of our narrator.13 While “le Chinois” appears nowhere else in Valéry’s work—and indeed his references to China are relatively few—the precise complementarity of the two figures in “The Yalu” reflects the extent to which this Chinese figure fits into some of Valéry’s most enduring concerns. To understand the nature of their relationship, we must begin with the character of M. Teste, a problem to which the Chinese presents himself as a kind of solution. Teste represents a mind that seeks to “ceaselessly prepare the moment of chance, [to] distance any premature definition of oneself,” above all to “make use of one’s idea and not be used by them” (CI, 236; emphasis added). What he ultimately achieves, however, is a level of intelligence and perceptual sensitivity so extreme that, as with Borges’s later character Funes the Memorious, these virtues can be difficult to distinguish from an exclusion from the sensible world and, indeed, from stupidity. Teste is so intelligent that he is incapable of generalization, so attuned to the fluctuations of the phenomenal world 12. A similarly minimal bit of narrative concludes the brief story. Yeschua notes that the story takes 232 lines in the Pléiade edition: 34 lines of narrative followed by 11 of dialogue, 125 of soliloquy, and finally 62 of narrative. 13. Both the retort of the Chinese scholar and his subsequent critique of the West echo one of the earliest gestures of “East-West” dialogue in the West, an Egyptian priest’s reproach of Solon in Plato’s Timaeus: O Solon, Solon, you are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you [. . .] in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. [. . .] Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and with the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream [of fire] from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education, and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves (Plato, 1157–58).

In support of an intertextual reading of this passage, there is evidence that Valéry was reading Plato at the time he wrote “Le Yalou”: “Les Notes Anciennes offrent plusieurs références aux dialogues de Platon, en particulier au Timée” (Larnaudie, 225–26). For a fuller discussion of the Platonic subtext in “Le Yalu,” see Bush, “‘L’Orient de l’esprit’: Writing and the Orient in ‘Le Yalou.’”


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that, as Jed Deppman writes, he “often, perhaps always, experiences his own consciousness as discontinuous and unknowable” (202).14 If in many ways Teste is a kind of ideal for Valéry, then, he is also more than a bit of a headache. As Deppman writes, “This ego, who sprang fully grown from [Valéry’s] head, soon became his unmasterable, lifelong problem, and it is no accident that so many of his preferred tropes and terms for it—monsters, aberrations, and excesses—derive from the tradition of the sublime” (210–11). It is therefore also Valéry who speaks through the Chinese scholar when he accuses Europeans of allowing reason to consume everything: “[E]very day it devours what exists. [. . .] You empty yourselves out in order ceaselessly to begin again the work of the first day” (PVII, 1017). Like Teste, the European (according to the Chinese) exists in a perpetually new world because “he confounds the rapid changes of his heart with the imperceptible variation of real forms and enduring Beings” (PVII, 1018). Yet no sooner has the Chinese man of letters condemned the excesses of Teste and the West than he offers a critical self-presentation almost wholly consonant with the classic Orientalist portrait of the Chinese mind as one burdened by an excess of memory, specifically a clutter of written signs: “Here, in order to be able to think, one must know many signs” (PVII, 1020). Chinese writing is “too difficult,” he reports; it “closes off ideas” (PVII, 1020). Chinese writing makes pass for perceptions what are in fact just the remembered perceptions of ancestors. While for Teste experience disrupts intellectual continuity, for the Chinese experience is always guided and constrained by tradition: “Here, everything is historical: a certain flower, the sweetness of a passing hour [. . .] in these things the spirits of our fathers encounter ours. They are reproduced and, when we repeat the sounds that they have given them for names, memory joins us to them and eternalizes us” (PVII, 1019).15 Unlike 14. For a sustained discussion of the theme of memory in Valery’s notebooks, see Jauss. 15. The Chinese speaker’s invocation of the flower seems a reference to Mallarmé’s poetics: “Je dis: une fleur! Et, hors de l’oubli où ma voix relègue aucun contour, en tant que quelque chose d’autre que les calices sus, musicalement se lève, idée même et suave, l’absente de tous bouquets” (Mallarmé, Œuvres, 368 ). Jan Hokenson helpfully glosses this famous passage as follows: “The essence of the flower then rises musically from the rhythms of the poem to be experienced like the very idea of the flower (“idée même et suave”) and that causes surprise (“vous cause cette surprise”) plus simultaneously a memory of the flower, or flowers of any sort, but

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Teste, then, the Chinese is not alienated from nature because he always experiences it as culture. This nonalienation is an inability to be alienated, to have new experiences, or to develop new concepts. Like Humpty Dumpty, who always gets what he likes because he always likes what he gets, the Chinese always finds le mot juste because, by definition, every mot is juste to him. The Chinese would suffer from the same vice as “writing [l’écriture] and philologists,” of whom Valéry elsewhere complains that they “remember everything, a propos of nothing” (CI, 398). Small wonder that the Chinese don’t fare very well at modern naval warfare! In many ways, then, Valéry’s presentation of China draws on the long Western tradition of contrasting East and West in linguistic terms that replay some of the most basic motifs of Orientalism: the West is idealist, spiritual, and dynamic, while China is materialist, scriptive, and static, its culture a storehouse of conceptual fossils that will not or cannot participate in the modern world. Yet as we have already seen, “The Yalu” no more offers a straightforward indictment of China than the Chinese man of letters represents an ideal alternative to Teste. The relationship between Teste and the Chinese is not that of problem and solution but rather that of a protracted draw between “two monsters,” as Valéry described them in his letter to Gide, two undesirable and in any case impossible extremes of experience and memory. While Hegel had, as we have seen, condemned China as a place with “an unhistorical history,” a place in which Spirit was unable to do its mediating work, Valéry’s China is a place where everything is historical, where there is a crippling excess of mediation, so much so that in fact “mediation,” which implies a process, is hardly the right word. The history that overwhelms experience in Valéry’s China is not a narrative of things past but an achronic epistemic grid that precludes anything like what we might think of as history or even an experience of time. Because everything is (always) already historical, there can be no sense of new or old, before or after, cause or effect. It cannot be a question, then, of choosing between these two “monsters,” but it also is not entirely clear which one is an avatar for “us.” Valéry elsewhere writes of the “European” as a general type: “He’s a kind of monster. He has an overburdened, over-preserved memory” (PVI, 1007). Valéry’s essay “Orient and Occident” concludes: “Here, as there, each instant suffers from the past and from the future. It is clear now surprise and memory converge swiftly in the newly pure affective atmosphere of ‘une fleur!’” (Hokenson, 149).


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that tradition and progress are two great enemies of the human race” (PVII, 1035). Two monsters, then: a pure experience that cannot know tradition and an overly robust tradition that closes off experience. Valéry proposes not a dialectical synthesis of these oppositions, but seems instead resigned to an oscillation between them. As he writes in his Notebooks: “One encodes and deciphers incessantly. Perpetual passage from words to ideas and from ideas to words. [. . . ] At each instant, everything is new; at each instant, everything ancient. [. . .] At each instant, the new is changed into the old” (CI, 396; 1237).16 Of course, Western modernism more generally has often lamented the burdens of memory and railed against the cognitive clutter of past ideas. As David Frisby writes in his account of Nietzsche: “If modernity is characterized by an emphasis upon a transitory fleeting present, then it also takes on another seemingly contrary feature, namely, ‘the oversaturation . . . with history,’ ‘the malady of history’ which ‘has attacked life’s plastic powers, [since] it no longer knows how to employ the past as a nourishing food” (Frisby, 32). By entertaining, in the figure of the Chinese, the possibility that the uses of History are considerably outweighed by its disadvantages, Valéry engages a set of questions familiar from such contemporaries as Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, and William James: to what extent do habit, convention, and memory enable and/or inhibit cognition and perception? To what extent is perception, as Bergson writes, “only an occasion for remembering’” (Bergson, 213; 71)? More specifically, to what extent is, as Benjamin writes in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (an essay in which Valéry is cited four times), “experience [. . .] indeed a matter of tradition, in collective existence as well as private life” (GSI, 608; SWIV, 314)? The agon staged between Teste and the Chinese is this central problem of “modernity”: on the one hand, a sense of crisis precipitated by the liquidation of the past; on the other hand, a frustrated drive to be freed from that past. In Valéry’s thought this problem of tradition and experience assumes a form very much like linguistic relativism. Valéry is broadly concerned about whether it is possible to think outside of language, whether perception is guided by language, and

16. In addition to specific published texts by Valéry, I will also be drawing frequently on the writings from his Cahiers or Notebooks, which are essential to any understanding of Valéry’s thought, despite the sometimes telegraphic, even fragmentary style.

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whether the Western mind remains trapped by what he believes to be essentially ancient Greek conventions. For Valéry, the perpetual modernity of “the West” is closely connected to, but also in conflict with, its debt to Greece: “We literally live (in the order of matters of the spirit) from the teachings, experiences, talents, of this immense little people. Almost everything that composes or disentangles our thought, almost everything that is a pure notion, a symbol of abstractions, form and mental order authentically belongs to it” (quoted in Larnaudie, 159).17 Europeans are not children, it turns out, precisely because they are spiritually descended from the Greeks. So much so that at times Valéry’s account of “our” Greek legacy reads more than a bit like a more self-critical version of the Chinese scholar’s description of China: “We have been so profoundly penetrated by these teachings that for us they are confounded with the very act of thought; and we naively believe ourselves to have come from nature, to produce ourselves as a necessary and spontaneous creation of the spirit what is positively the result of the effort and of the particular characters of a certain race of men having lived during a certain time, under a certain sky” (quoted in Larnaudie, 175). The result of “characters” specific to them, the language of the Greeks “is confounded” with thought and perception.18 In other words, while “The Yalu” initially seems to 17. From the Bibliothèque Nationale mss. dossier “Valéry et la Grèce,” “Discours pour le Centenaire de l’Indépendance de la Grèce.” March 26, 1930. I am indebted to Larnaudie’s citations from this and “Hellas et Nous,” both unpublished lectures valuable to an understanding of Valéry’s image of Greece. “Hellas et Nous” was given as a lecture to the Congrès de l’Association Guillaume Budé, April 1, 1932. 18. In the tradition of linguistic relativism, Valéry believes that the guidance and constraint of one language are reinforced by the ignorance of others: “Language and Logic. Not to be confounded—confusion due to our ignorance of languages that are very different from ours—Indo-European?—Role of the damn Greeks!” (CI, 770–71). Anticipating Whorf, Valéry specifically uses this idea to critique any pretenses to universalism on the part of philosophy: “Everything that Kant reveals and posits with such dialectical acumen—his categories, his judgments [. . .] his conditions for ‘knowledge,’ is nothing but the result of an analysis of a given language—of the Indo-European type” (CI, 744). This sort of critique would become famous through Benveniste’s work on Aristotle’s categories, later picked up by sinologist A. C. Graham; for a critique of linguistic relativism, specifically in terms of the Greek/Chinese contrast, see Wardy.


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replicate in a modernist mode the now-familiar Orientalist dichotomy between the living spirit of the dynamic West and the dead letter of the stagnant East, the fuller context of Valéry’s other writings reveals that what is in “The Yalu” staged as an ethnographic contrast is in fact immanent, for Valéry, to the Western tradition and indeed constitutive of “spirit” itself.19 As the extreme figure of Teste suggests, an attack on such linguistic determinism is the repeated goal of Valéry’s intellectual method: “The systematic elimination of all that is speech [parole] is the principal point of philosophy” (CI, 395); “to the extent that one approaches the real, one loses speech” (CI, 387); “the secret of solid thought is in the defiance of languages” (CI, 384).20 In this last formulation we can note a subtle but important variation: the defiance of languages, plural. Valéry is concerned not simply with the ways in which the mind relates to the world via language in general, but with the ways in which specific languages (or language families) might guide and constrain: he refers to “the very nature of European language” (CI, 770) and “the demands of (Western) language” (CI, 746). He wonders “if it is possible to think without language,” adding that “language is such and such a language—one that has been learned” (CI, 448) and concedes: “I think in French” (CI, 393). It would seem that the very substance of thought—indeed, the possibility of there being a substance of thought—conspires against Teste’s desire to use ideas and not be used by them. Again, the broader context of Valéry’s other writings shows that what in “The Yalu” seemed a specifically Chinese problem is also very much a problem for us. Indeed, it is the problem of “us”: “The most intimate substance, the most profound of our thoughts, our true feeling of death, of personality, of love, etc. are made from the (relative) stupidity of our ancestors, of 19. As with “the Chinese,” this is a problem of language, specifically the conflation of language and thought embodied in the word logos. This conflation, Valéry writes, was to be a tremendous obstacle to the development of scientific thought in the West, which had to overcome the excessive prestige of the word in order to develop a modern scientific outlook: “The Greeks founded what one could call verbalism in the grand style. It suffices, to assure oneself of this, to reflect upon the efforts that were necessary, two centuries ago, in order to put oneself in a position to observe ‘things’ instead of speculating on their names” (“Hellas et Nous,” fragment 6, quoted in Larnaudie, 174). 20. Valéry demonstrates an almost obsessive concern with this problem throughout his Cahiers; see also, for example, CI, 394, 404, 465, 1154, and 1227.

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their first childish expressions, of their misunderstandings, of the confusion of their spirits in matters of physiology—of the poverty of their languages etc. The soul” (CI, 406). While “The Yalu” mobilizes recognizable elements of the Orientalist discourse on China and Chinese writing, then, it does so not from a position of confident Eurocentrism, but as part of a broader articulation of a modern crisis of experience, a crisis that does not allow for the basic oppositions upon which any confident East/West distinction might in turn be made. Couldn’t one just as well say of the West (be it with pride or with remorse): here everything is historic? Accordingly, Valéry’s thought troubles the geography of Idealist historicism and of conventional Orientalism to the extent that the kinds of problems that are problems for those people are for Valéry problems for “us” as well.21 As presented in the text of “The Yalu,” the Orient is outside of History, but the text’s historical prompt was precisely an event that shocked Valéry into a new awareness of the West’s own historicity, of the foundations of its putative universality, and of any Self that might think such things. The West’s understanding of its relationship to China was changing, then, but in part because its more general experience of relationship and of self were changing as well. One effect of the shock produced by the Battle of the Yalu was the revelation of the extent to which the once seemingly localized inscriptional site of the self was “now” hooked up to a global network. As McLuhan—a reader of Valéry—would write: “In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner” (McLuhan, Understanding, 4). Like the “Avant-Propos” discussed above, Valéry’s “Hypothesis” (1929) follows the reverberations of a distant war—this time no war in particular—into a location formerly identified as the depths of the Self. “Henceforth,” this text begins, “when a battle breaks out somewhere in the world, nothing will be easier than to make the cannon heard throughout the whole earth” (PVII, 942). The present, 21. Despite his overtly different cultural politics, then, Valéry in many ways anticipates the poststructuralist and even postcolonial critiques of Western logocentrism and universalism. For a sense of Valéry as anticipating the critique of logocentrism, see Derrida, Marges. On the proto-postcolonial elements of his thought, see below.


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he writes, is characterized by a faltering of the imagination, a collective inability to “formulate for ourselves a homogenous representation of the world that would comprehend all the old and new givens of experience” (PVII, 942), a state of affairs that leads him to ponder nothing less than “what was the soul and was the spirit of man” (PVII, 943). As the repeated past tense indicates, Valéry’s reflections suggest that the soul or spirit of man is no more, that, far from guiding and giving meaning to world history like Hegelian Spirit, this spirit is itself historical, not simply in the sense that it assumes different forms at different times, but in the far more alarming sense that such a spirit is itself transient and mortal. Not only might the spirit of man change, it might cease to be, undone by the most lethal weapon of modernity: not cannons or even the sound of cannons, but the fact that their sound can be heard around the world. Valéry continues: “[O]ne day it will be thought that the expression ‘inner life’ was but relative to the . . . classic, if you will natural means of production and reception” (PVII, 943). The inner Self turns out to have been not a cause but an effect, the conditions for which are becoming less and less propitious; only now that the Self is being effaced does its contingency become legible. Decades before the famous image that closes Foucault’s The Order of Things—a text that opens with a different kind of reshuffling of Man by an imaginary Chinese encyclopedia—Valéry imagines the dissolution of Man as such.22 Through a remarkable association of ideas, “Hypothesis” moves from reflections on the interconnectedness of the modern world to a questioning of the autonomy of the Self and ultimately to a kind of transcendental reflection on the very means by which we imagine the world, and ourselves, to be put together: Society, languages, laws, customs, the arts, politics, everything that is fiduciary in the world, every effect unequal to its cause demands conventions, that is to say relays, —through the detour of which a second 22. The oft-cited Foucault passage reads: “If these conditions were to disappear as they appeared [. . .] one could bet that man would be effaced, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea” (Les mots et les choses, 398; 386-87). In “The Yalu” we find the following passage: “In September eighteen ninety-five, and in China, a day blue and white, the man of letters led me, across the sand of the strand, to a lighthouse of black wood. We left the last groves. We walked, sleepily, lulled by the gentle yielding of the crumbling, powdered ground, drinking up our efforts, sinking beneath our steps. We left the sand, at last. Looking back I watched vague trace of our path twist and dissolve into the beach” (PVII, 1016).

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reality is established, is composed along with sensory and instantaneous reality, [one that] covers it up, dominates it—is torn sometimes to reveal the frightening simplicity of elementary life. In our desires, in our regrets, in our investigations, in our emotions and passions, and even into the effort we make to know ourselves, we are the toy of absent things—which have not even the need to exist in order to act. (PVII, 945)

Languages, laws, customs, arts, politics, society—all are characterized, for Valéry, by an uncertain ontological status: even if they do not exactly exist, they constitute a kind of “second reality” whose very real effects extend not only into the Self that tries to understand them but into the very structure of understanding. This second reality, this second nature, requires, indeed perhaps is, relays, a term that, by the time Valéry wrote this text, was used primarily with reference to electric telegraphy.23 Even if figured in less Gothic terms than in Lukács—here Second Nature is not a tomb but a kind of prosthesis—the vastness of the realm in which “every effect is unequal to its cause” makes Teste’s ambition to make use of ideas and not be used by them seem pretty hopeless. And yet this very awareness is an unexpected effect of the Self’s being hooked up to a large-scale, even global network that dramatically recontextualizes “the relative stupidity of our ancestors” through which we come to know something like the world. It is on the basis of such ideas that Valéry’s critique of universalism emerges. He writes, in “Mélange,” that no two things are identical, 23. Originally a hunting term denoting dogs or horses kept in reserve, “relay” acquired its more technological sense, according to the OED, beginning in 1875: “An instrument used in long distance telegraphy to enable an electric current which is too weak to influence recording instruments, or to transmit a message to the required distance, to do so indirectly by means of a local battery brought into connexion with it. In mod. use, any electrical device, usu. incorporating an electromagnet, whereby a current or signal in one circuit can open or close another circuit.” After 1921 the word also referred to “an installation or satellite which receives, amplifies, and retransmits a radio transmission so that it may be received over a wider area.” A supplement to the Littré adds this definition: “Terme de télégraphie électrique. Appareil à électro-aimant, employé dans la télégraphie électrique, lorsque le courant transmis par le fil de ligne est trop faible pour faire marcher le récepteur; le relais, fonctionnant par l’action de ce courant, ferme le circuit d’une pile additionnelle en faisant passer dans l’appareil destiné à recevoir les signaux le courant de cette pile, qu’on nomme pile locale.”


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that there are no repetitions, that there are no equivalences or similarities between things “except for what the crudeness of perception forces us suppose—our small number of means and our need to simplify. But without this poverty and this necessity and this falsification, there would be no intelligence, no analogies, no universality” (PVI, 333). The virtual universality of reason and indeed the very possibility of thought require falsification; they require, he writes in his “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo de Vinci” (1894), forgetting: “Thought is possible only because one no longer recognizes the origin of its elements—their ‘history.’ They are cut off. It is the forgetting of their history which renders these elements manageable for us—makes of them our property. It is the forgetting of what is ours that makes us us rather than a sequence, and gives us the vague but essential idea that we are not reducible to this sequence [. . .] that our historical life is not all there is to us. That is, perhaps, an illusion, but a fundamental one” (CI, 1254). “Here” too, then, everything is historic, but we had forgotten. Although he does so in the mode of responding to a crisis, Valéry formulates a conception of spirit in which nature, the body, and the letter are not sublated and interiorized—left behind by the march of history or confidently situated on the other side of the globe—but simply overlooked, half-forgotten, neglected because, as a practical matter, that’s what we need to do for us to be us. Valéry’s most famous formulation of “The Crisis of the Spirit” (1919) opens with the dramatic proclamation: “We others, civilizations, we know now that we are mortal” (PVI, 988). Although the essay was written in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, we have already seen that the crisis had begun earlier, in part produced by the shock of that indirect blow in the Far East. Just as the shock of the distant war made Valéry aware of something “essentially corporeal,” “a sort of virtual idea of Europe” that already possessed him, here Europe’s knowledge of its mortality is figured as a reminder that the head (recall that M. Teste is, roughly, “Mr. Head”) has a body: “Will Europe become what it is in reality, that is: a small cap of the Asian continent?” (PVI, 995).24 Several decades before Sartre would write, in “Black Orpheus,” that “already Europe was no longer anything but a geographic accident, the peninsula Asia pushed out to the Atlantic” (x; 292), Valéry gestures toward a reimagining of the world from a nonEurocentric perspective. Although he addresses it only obliquely (as 24. For a series of reflections of the semantic range of this little “cap” in this context and beyond, see Derrida, L’autre cap.

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shock, a crisis), his work registers not only the idea that non-European places will have a new importance in the world but also the idea that “the world,” as it has so far been imagined, was largely a great forgetting. The shock is not that China, for example, is part of “our” world, but that we have never been anything but part of theirs. The crisis of the spirit is precipitated, then, not so much by the arrival of an external threat but by a changed awareness of spirit’s own conditions of possibility, by the shocking realization that, as other, “we” are mortal.25 What is ominous about the Sino-Japanese War is not the prospect that Japan might become another Europe (frightening enough), but that Europe might become—or rather, in some sense always has been—another China, that is, simply part of the “vast body” of the planet and not its mind. While the planetary cultural “implosion” described by McLuhan—to which I will return in a moment—claims that “we” are becoming “Eastern,” Valéry’s analysis suggests that we have never been Western. This, prior to any content, is the telegraphic medium’s message about “the West” and its place in the world.

“neighboring yet quite distant” The narrator of Kafka’s “Building the Great Wall of China” recalls from his childhood an incident in which a beggar arrives in the village with a flyer (ein Flugblatt) telling of a violent upheaval in a “neighboring, but still quite distant” province.26 When the local priest begins to read from it, the beggar is driven away: because the text of the flyer is written in a neighboring dialect, its message seems ancient, and so seems to brings news only of “old things, heard long ago, suffered long ago” (Kafka, 298; 121). Although “the gruesomeness of the living present was conveyed by the beggar’s words,” the narrator explains, “we laughed and shook our heads and refused to listen any longer. So eager are our people to obliterate the present” (298; 122). Similarly, the extent of the empire is so vast, we are told, that when an official or an imperial decree does reach the village, the villagers are fully 25. I do not mean to suggest that Valéry celebrates either the mortality of Western civilization or the ways in which the geopolitical events of the early twentieth-century provincialized Europe; I am simply suggesting that as a sensitive and insightful observer he was aware of these implications, even if this awareness assumed the form of a crisis. 26. This passage was cut by Kafka, but has been included in most editions of the text.


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confident that the message is no longer valid and they belittle the official and disregard the decree: “Thus, then, do our people deal with departed emperors, but the living ruler they confuse among the dead” (297; 121). Much like the Chinese character in Valéry’s dialogue, Kafka’s narrator writes from a world in which there could never be news that stays news, because nothing can be registered as new in the first place. The peculiar structure of the people’s bond to the past reflects and informs every facet of life in the empire: it is their very devotion to the emperor, for example, that makes them unable to receive his commands. Such a figuration of China as a nation that “obliterates the present” because of its devotion to the past, as a place in which the dead seem more real than the living, is by now familiar enough. Western writers have often used China as a figure of a crippling conventionalism and excessive tradition, but here the classic Orientalist topos of Chinese stasis is attributed neither to some cognitive deficiency nor even, exactly, to the weight of historical memory, but to the effects of spatial organization. More precisely: it is attributed to the ways in which messages, because they must assume the form of some material medium, must also submit to the dictates and limits of space. Yet if this is a figure of China, of the way things are over there for those people, it is also a figure of the West’s relationship to China, a relationship in which traversable space is imagined to be an unbridgeable gap in time, a relationship in which contemporary political upheavals seem somehow less real than long-dead emperors. To recall an earlier distinction: such a figuration of the spatial character of China is at once citational (it does not represent China directly, but simply recalls, if in a rather intense form, the kinds of things that are routinely said about China) and indexical (it records, if nothing else, the fact that Kafka thought with if not about China). Kafka’s text is thus an only slightly hyperbolic account of European empire in an age of technological media, a time characterized both by increasingly global telecommunications and by a persistent belief in historical heterogeneity, that is, in the imagined nonsimultaneity of things that were in fact simultaneous. The very fact that this relationship is figured in Kafka’s text already represents a critical awareness of a certain kind of historicist thinking. After all, we as readers are not to believe that the neighboring province is in fact somehow in the remote past, but rather, as the narrator explains about the flyer brought by the beggar: “[T]he dialect of the neighboring province is essentially different from ours and is also expressed in certain forms of written language [Schriftsprache] that for

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us have an antiquated character” (297; 121; emphasis added). Precisely because Kafka’s text presents us with a figure of “China” rather than of China, what initially seems an irony at the expense of the Chinese villagers—imagine a people so provincial that because of different forms of expression it understands the current political upheavals of its neighbors as being a part of ancient history!—turns out to be at ours. It is precisely because the figure is so purely citational that it becomes legible as index. Just as the “modernism” attributed to Kafka’s style is a misrecognition of his commitment to realism, so too his China texts are not parabolic rather than historical, but assume a parabolic form precisely because of their commitment to history. The broader point of all this, then, is not simply that over time China became closer to the West in the quasi-empirical sense that more images, more information, and more people traveled more easily to and from there. It was also the case that “China” played a privileged role in the more general qualitative reimagining of space during the modernist era, a time when, as Guy Debord would have it, “[t]he capitalist production system has unified space, breaking down the boundaries between one society and the next,” a time when (echoing The Communist Manifesto) “[t]he power to homogenize is the artillery that has battered down all Chinese walls” (837; 120). Having traditionally served as a quintessential figure of distance—both that-whichis-furthest-from-us in space and that-which-is-outside-of-history (Space as such)—“China” is symptomatically refunctionalized during the modernist period into a figure of the collapse of spatial distance and of the end of extrahistorical space (the idea that some places are in history while others are outside it). To be more precise: this “end” entails not so much the disappearance of extrahistorical space as its delocalization from the geopolitical margins and its becoming the general condition of the world. Michel Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” opens with the claim that while the nineteenth century was an age obsessed with history, with the narrative themes of progress, arrest, and the burdens of the past,27 the twentieth century, by contrast, was an “epoch of space.” “We are in the epoch of simultaneity,” he continues, “we are in the epoch of 27. Franco Moretti’s efforts to think Euro-American modernism from a more global perspective conclude that “European modernity is characterized by a narrativizing drive” that “privileges [the] non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous: the ‘Alongside’ becomes a ‘Before-and-After,’ and geography is rewritten as history” (Moretti, 52).


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juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (22). I want to make two claims about the role of China in the articulation of this epoch of space. First, I simply want to suggest that China provided a useful, even paradigmatic imagined precedent for such a world. “China” had long been the place with no time, a mere distribution of elements in space, ein blosses Nebeneindander, as Hegel might say. To the extent that the modern Western world itself was transformed, by the rise of technological media, into an era of general simultaneity, the topical resource of an Empire of Space seemed a natural language with which to describe this paradoxical new spatial universe. My second claim here relates to the constitutive role this ahistorical China had traditionally played in the articulation of universal (aka Western) history. I have referred a number of times to what is perhaps the most thorough and canonical affiliation of China and space, Hegel’s Philosophy of History, in which China fails to enter into or participate in history because it is the “Empire of Space.”28 The constitutive place of 28. For Hegel, China is space in an ontological sense: space that has failed to become time; China is before and outside of history proper. This strong conception of China as space naturally lends a great deal of interest to the particulars of Chinese spatial organization: an ethnographic detail but also a kind of architecture of the ahistorical. Again, I evoke the Hegelian precedent and paradigm here because it is of more than merely historical interest. One might for example cite Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications (1950) as a modern-day reworking of the Hegelian narrative, one whose antiphilosophy of history narrates the rise and fall of empires in terms of the efficiency of their media. Innis’s work greatly influenced Marshall McLuhan and the entire Toronto School—and through them much of contemporary media theory. While ostensibly materialist—grounding its conception of history not in the Idea or even ideas, but in the nuts and bolts, the quills and carving tools, of communicative technologies—it offers a tellingly similar narrative of world history. In Innis’s schema, light media enable spatially expansive and centralized empires, while heavy media tend to produce long-lasting but decentralized and hierarchical civilizations. As in Idealist philosophies of history, Greece emerges as something of an ideal, while the ancient empires of Egypt and China represent two different ways of getting it wrong: Egypt is successful in relation to time but not space (“Monopoly over writing supported an emphasis on religion and the time concept, which defeated efforts to solve the problem of space” [Innis, 22]), while in China, by contrast, “the bias of paper as a medium [. . .] with its bureaucratic administration developed in relation to the demands of space” (136). For a more recent use of similar motifs following a slightly different logic, see Benedict Anderson: “[T]he more ideographic the sign, the vaster the potential assembling

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the Orient and the Oriental sign in Hegel’s influential historical and semiotic paradigms has been analyzed briefly in my introduction.29 One of the common lessons of these readings is that “China,” according to a logic familiar to readers of deconstructive criticism, named that which is outside of History and for that very reason allows History to define itself as a system that includes everything (but). My point here is slightly different, more intellectual-historical than structural: the notion that China is an untemporalizable Empire of Space is a direct correlate of the notion that it remains strictly pre- or ahistorical in some cultural or developmental sense, never quite being contemporaneous with our world, never quite reaching us, but always on its way toward us, like Kafka’s Imperial Messenger (always still, even now). It is this sense of China’s being permanently “in the past” that became increasingly difficult to maintain as modern telecommunications made its contemporaneity impossible to ignore. Just as “China” had once been the prebeginning of history, so too “China” increasingly became a figure of seemingly paradoxical forms of contemporaneity, including, appropriately, the uncertain and shifting relationship between “China” as a somewhat unreal system of ahistorical topoi and China as a very real source of shocks. The Western conception of China changed, in other words, not just because the one got to know the other better, but because the fundamental spatiotemporal, or more precisely geo-historical, logics that made “China” possible and even necessary underwent dramatic transformations. This is how the province described in the beggar’s flyer is “neighboring yet quite distant.” To clarify, let me consider in greater detail McLuhan’s famous account of the modern global mediatic “implosion.” For McLuhan the electronic world is one of simultaneity: “[W]e have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned” (McLuhan, Understanding, 3). Much like the Oriental in Hegel, McLuhan’s modern man lives in an “eternal now,” a world in which, as Lewis Lapham remarks, “[s]equence becomes merely additive instead of causative” (McLuhan, Understanding, zone. One can detect a sort of descending hierarchy here from algebra through Chinese and English, to the regular syllabaries of French or Indonesian” (43–44). 29. And more thoroughly by Derrida, de Man, and Saussy, among others. See Derrida, “The Pit and the Pyramid: Introduction to Hegel’s Semiology” and “White Mythology” in Marges; De Man, “Sign and Symbol in Hegel’s Aesthetics” in Aesthetic Ideology; and Saussy, “Hegel’s Chinese Imagination” in The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic.


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xxiii). Indeed, McLuhan consistently describes the effects of electronic media through a logic of what might be called civilizational lumping: “[T]he Western world is going Eastern, even as the East goes Western” (35).30 And elsewhere: “The implosive (compressional) character of the electric technology plays the disk or film of Western man backward, into the heart of tribal darkness, or into what Joseph Conrad called ‘the Africa within’” (111). For McLuhan, in sum, the effects of the cultural contact produced by globalizing media are bidirectional: “Western man is himself being de-Westernized by his own new speed-up, as much as the Africans are being detribalized by our old print and industrial technology” (92). Although I suspect a latent logic of racial contamination to be at work here, McLuhan explicitly describes the “retribalization” of the West not as an effect of cultural contact but of media: “Not only does the visual, specialist, and fragmented Westerner have now to live in closest daily association with all the ancient oral cultures of the earth, but his own electric technology now begins to translate the visual or eye man back into the tribal and oral pattern with its seamless web of kinship and interdependence” (50). Up to a point, my understanding of the relationship between modernity, media, and China accords with the double movement described by McLuhan: on the one hand, China becomes closer in the sense that the West increasingly interacts and becomes involved with the non-West; on the other hand, “we” are increasingly like the non-West not only because of this interaction, but, more essentially, because of the very form of interconnectedness: McLuhan’s famous “retribalization” or “global village.” My difference from McLuhan—and it is by no means small—resides in the scare quotes I would put around the three central terms of modernity, media, and China. Whereas for McLuhan, media are a prioris that induce 30. McLuhan’s work does offer a few, largely unsurprising remarks about “Oriental writing.” For example: “Many centuries of ideogrammic use have not threatened the seamless web of family and tribal subtleties of Chinese society” (McLuhan, Understanding, 83); “the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing [. . .] Chinese writing, in contrast, invests each ideogram with a total intuition of being and reason that allows only a small role to visual sequence as a mark of mental effort and organization” (84–85). As will become clear below, I find that McLuhan’s comments on nonalphabetic writing are constrained largely within the framework of a retooled Idealism.

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cultural changes he registers in terms of a loosely ethnographic vocabulary that leaves undisturbed the basic terms and sequence of Idealist historiography, for me both the technological media and most especially the ethnographic vocabulary need to be understood as culturally mediated and historically contingent. To change the claim that, because of the effects of technological media, we become more like the East to a claim that “we” become more like “the East” because of “media” is not simply to add a degree of caution, but to suggest that during the modern period, and even now, the ways we talk and think about media, modernity, and cultural difference are profoundly interconnected. No one is the factual ground of the others’ figural flights because each helps define and redefine the other. An example of one of McLuhan’s literary readings will suggest both the power and the limitations of his media theory in relation to literary history.31 He describes E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India as “a dramatic study of the inability of oral and intuitive culture to meet with the rational, visual European patterns of experience,” quickly adding that this Western rationality is itself not transcendent in any way but is simply an expression of a particular technology (print) and that, accordingly, this rationality is itself challenged by the confrontation: “In Forster’s novel the moment of truth and dislocation from the typographic trance of the West comes in the Marabar Caves” (15). For McLuhan, the novel is “a parable of Western man in the electric age, and is only incidentally related to Europe or the Orient” (16). While there is something compelling about McLuhan’s willingness to look beyond the explicitly cultural themes to produce a kind of allegorical reading of media, his very formulation of the mediatic-rather-than-cultural reveals the extent to which his conception of an “electric age” relies on cultural geography: this is not a novel about Europeans, for example, but about “Western man”! 31. McLuhan is not generally remembered as a literary scholar, but indeed he was, specifically a scholar of literary modernism as a development of the Symbolist tradition. In a 1971 letter to Etienne Gilson, McLuhan writes: “My interest in Symbolist poetry from Poe to Valéry inspired my interest in the study of media. Symbolism starts with effects and goes sleuthing after causes. With the media we have massive effects and little study of causes since the uses of the media, whether a language or the electric light, is the ‘content’ of the media. As content we have almost no awareness of our surround. As somebody said: ‘We do not know who discovered water, but we are fairly sure that it was not a fish’” (Letters, 420–21).


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This interpenetration of mediatic and civilizational imaginaries is particularly important in the case of “China,” whose meaning, in the West’s conception of its own modernity, is overdetermined in specific ways, divided between the kinds of things McLuhan identifies as belonging to the age of print and those belonging to the electronic age. On the one hand, “China” might be read as an electronic age projection, onto a devalorized Other, of the lingering constraints of print culture, of mechanical, optical, spatial, centralizing Typographic man.32 On the other hand, however, the “China” I have been describing throughout this book possesses many of the features McLuhan attributes to electronic media: simultaneity, reactivity, contraction, incompletion, discontinuity, a tendency toward the mosaic and “group therapy.” In this reading, “China” is not an atavism but a figure of the mass culture of our future, a future described as a “return” to the Orient.33 I began this chapter with a scene of global interconnectedness in Mrs. Dalloway, and have subsequently tried to show that the seemingly incidental appearance of “China” in this scene belongs to the same historical reality and the same discursive field as more extended and explicit meditations such as those of Valéry. I have tried to show throughout the book more generally that the presence of such seemingly insignificant moments often demonstrates the extent to which China was not only something of which Euro-American modernism was aware but also something that helped constitute its ways of thinking about the world. In brief: modernism’s imaginings of China and its writing helped constitute the very language with which it was able to imagine and write about China and its writing. The presence of this China in the text of Western modernism has largely remained unread, not because it has been censored or erased, but because it has been read as merely figurative. To say that much of the modernist use of China is figurative rather than referential is true as far as it goes, but to deprive these figures of all referential value is to go too far. To say that this China is nothing but a fantasia of modernist forms, that it is really about “us” rather than “them,” is to fail to account for 32. As McLuhan himself writes: “Panic about automation as a threat of uniformity on a world scale is a projection into the future of mechanical standardization and specialization, which are now past” (Understanding, 359). 33. For an important discussion of the relationship between China and futurity, see Hayot, “Chineseness: A Prehistory of its Future,” in Hayot, Saussy, and Yao, eds.

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the historical and material bases of the forms in question. I have emphasized the indexical value of the ideograph not to prioritize history over form, but to assert the historical character of form even as I maintain the formal character of anything we can talk about as history. While not every reference to China is about China in a direct or obvious sense, then, neither are figures of China freely substitutable for any and all figures of otherness. These figures have a shape, constituting and largely obeying what I have occasionally called a grammar. The peculiar historicity of this “China”—always banished to the realm of the ahistorical and yet always characterized by a kind of incipient futurity— corresponds to the status of Chinese writing as a signifier of the signifier: writing. Here, at least, the contradictions of “China” are by no means incoherent because they correspond to the peculiar temporal form of our consciousness of the signifier: always prior and always belated. It is certainly debatable whether the Battle of the Yalu was indeed, as one historian writes, the most important naval battle since Trafalgar. But we might think ahead to a year after Trafalgar (almost to the day), to another major battle in the Napoleonic Wars, another booming announcement of Spirit’s march across a certain peninsula on the Western edge of the Asian continent: the Battle of Jena, whose cannons, so the story goes (but perhaps it is a parable), were heard by Hegel as he sat in his study writing The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel heard the approach of History: as if it had been somewhere else and were getting closer to him. But in the age of Valéry—an age in which we also live—the sound of gunfire can be heard instantly anywhere else in the world, as if Spirit were nowhere in particular or everywhere all at once, as if either we were at the “end of history” (so say some) or everything had become historical. The grandiose term Western discourse has no doubt been abused, but it does describe something, even if that something existed only fleetingly in moments of reflection and imagination. The dream “you” dream in Kafka’s parable is that the Imperial Messenger is still—“even now” or “always still” [immer noch]—fighting his way through the inner chamber of the imperial palace. In reality the news is not that China is “now” in the world. The news is that it always has been and that “we” have known this for a very long time and that the forms of knowing and unknowing in which we have simultaneously acknowledged and denied this fact (along with so many others) are increasingly unequal to the task of defining “us.” The wish that this dream fulfills is that China has not yet arrived. That is the message that is always still on its way to “you,” even now.

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Abel-Rémusat, Jean-Pierre 6, 17, 34 n. 9, 150 Adorno, Theodore, W 19, 22, 80, 82, 93–4, 116, 118, 119 aletheia 8 alienation xxi, 117, 133 allegory xi, xix, xv, xix, xxi, xxii n. 15, xxiv, 19, 25, 28, 29, 32, 40, 41, 42, 45, 46, 48, 53, 54, 55, 69, 70, 77, 78, 80, 95, 99, 106, 116, 128, 147 alterity/otherness x, xiv, xxvi, 14, 75, 84, 90, 149, 118 Althusser, Louis xviii n. 12 Anderson, Benedict 122, 144 n. 28 antinomy 105 Aquinas, Saint Thomas 42, 44, 48 n. 30 Arendt, Hannah 6 n. 5 Aristotle 42, 58, 111 n. 10, 135 n. 18 Artaud, Antonin 8 n. 10, 19 Aubenque, Pierre 42 n. 20 Augustine, Saint 43 aura xxvii, 61, 67, 68, 71, 126 Austria-Hungary xvii, xviii Banfield, Ann 60 Baroque 45 n. 26, 99, 106 Barthes, Roland ix, xii, xiii, xv, xxi, xxiii n. 17, xxv n. 18, 26, 73, 85 n. 19, 97–98

Baudelaire, Charles xxiv, 68–69, 101, 134 Bazin, André 59, 82, 93 Benjamin, Walter ix, x, xiii, xvi, xxiv, xvi, xxvii, 19, 22, 27, 29, 39, 65, 67, 69, 71, 80, 83–84, 89, 96, 99, 103–16, 118, 120, 124, 126, 128, 134 Bennett, J. G. 124 Benveniste, Émile 135 n. 18 Bergson, Henri 36, 116, 134 Bertholet, Denis 129 n. 6 Bethge, Hans xvi Billings, Timothy 72 n. 1, 78 n. 8, 79 n. 12, 88 n. 24 Blanchot, Maurince 93 Bonnefoy, Yves 61–63 Borges, Jorge Luis 131 Börne, Ludwig xvii Brecht, Bertolt xxiii n. 17, 104 Breton, André 120 Bruns, Gerald 34 n. 9, 41 Buck-Morss, Susan xxiv Buddha/Buddhism 43, 44, 48 n. 30, 60, 81 n. 16, 85, 113 n. 11 Cadava, Eduardo 27 n. 39, 67, 80, 99, 111 n. 9 calligraphy 50 n. 36, 77, 105, 106 Canetti, Elias xvi, xvii n. 8 Cassirer, Ernst 11 Catholicism 48, 53 Cazalis, Henri 60




Champollion, Jean-François 7, 15, 21 Chladni, Ernst Florens Friedrich 81, 96, 101 Chow, Rey 63 Christ, Jesus 43, 45, 53 Christianity 43, 45, 48, 53–54, 78 n. 8 citation/citational xx–xxiv, 28, 76, 99–100, 109, 117, 142–43 Claudel, Paul xiii, 27–28, 32, 40–46, 47n, 48–56, 58–63, 66, 69–70, 73, 76 n. 6, 128 Coburn, Alvin Langdon 63 Cohen, Marcel 8, n. 11 Confucius/Confucianism xvi, xvii, 87–88, 104 Conley, Tom 119 Conrad, Joseph 92, 146 Couvreur, Séraphin 87 Crary, Jonathan 39, 54, 69 Crusoe, Robinson 113 Culler, Jonathan xxv Dada 66 daguerreotype 21, 80 n. 15 de Man, Paul 145 n. 28 Debord, Guy 143 Debussy, Claude 81 n. 16 Deconstruction xxiii, xxv, 84, 145 deictics 31, 65 Deleuze, Gilles x, 92 n. 27, 119 Deppman, Jed 132 Derrida, Jacques xxii, xxiii, 6–9, 10 n. 13, 13 n. 18, 16, 17 n. 25, 27, 34 n. 10, 35, 84, 90 n. 26, 91, 108, 137 n. 21, 140 n. 24, 145 n. 28 despotism xvii–xix, 6 n. 5, 20, 99 determinism 23 (mediatic), 136 (linguistic) Dracula 92–93 Du Bois, W. E. B. 130 n.p Dubosc, Jean-Pierre 103 n. 1, 105

Edison, Thomas 22, 24, 25 Eisenstein, Sergei 19, 21, 119 Enlightenment 4, 8 n. 10, 11–12 Erfahrung and Erlebnis 116 ethnographic imaginaries xiv, xvii–xviii, 20–21, 23–27, 58, 62–63, 118, 136, 144, 147 Etiemble, René 4 n. 2, 104 Eurocentrism 45, 137, 140 evolution 18 exoticism xx, 73, 75, 81 n. 16, 90, 101 Fenollosa, Ernst 26, 28, 33–37, 38 n. 17, 40–41, 45 n. 25, 49 n. 32, 52 n. 37, 54–57, 60, 62–63, 70 formalism ix, xii, 18, 26, 75, 100 Forsdick, Charles 75 n. 5, 76, 81 n. 16 Forster, E.M. 147 Foucault, Michel 37 n. 15, 39, 138, 143 Frank, Adam 124 Frankfurt School 94 n. 31 Freud, Sigmund xxiii, 19, 90 n. 26, 96, 108, 134 Frisby, David 134 Froidefond, Christian 9, 10 n. 12 Gadoffre, Gilbert 47 n. 29 Gage, John 36 n. 13, 38 n. 16, 55 n. 40 Gance, Abel 22, 107, 119 Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri 38, 45, 66 Gaultier, Jules de 74, 85 Gide, André 50, 129, 130 n. 11, 133 Gitelman, Lisa 22, 24–27, 82 n. 17 globalization x, xx, 75, 126 Goebel, Rolf xvi, 10–11 grammatology xiv, 6–9, 17, 20, 24–27 Grillparzer, Franz xvii Gruša, Jiri xvii, xx Guattari, Félix x n. 2, 92 n. 27

index 167 Hamacher, Werner 96 Hansen, Mark 20 n. 29, 112, 115–16, 118–19 Hansen, Miriam 22 n. 33, 119 Hayot, Eric xiii n. 4, xxv, 31 n. 4, 62 n. 46, 66 n. 52, 92 n. 28, 113 n. 11, 148 n. 33 Hegel, G. W. F. xviii, xx, xxiv, 3, 9, 12, 13 n. 17, 15–17, 18 n. 26, 19, 33 n. 7, 35, 43, 57, 65, 67, 115, 119, 133, 138, 144–145, 149 Heidegger, Martin xix, 93 Heilman, Hans xvi Herder, J. G. xxvii, 8 n. 10, 11, 12, 13 n. 17, 15 n. 23, 17 n. 25 Hermes 10 Hervey-Saint-Denys, Marquis de 5 hieroglyphs xxvii, 7, 9–11, 13, 15–16, 17 n. 25, 19, 22, 34 n. 9, 79 n. 12, 80, 94, 96, 106–107, 119 Hinck, Edward 7 historicism 137, 142 Hofmannsthal, Hugo von 106 n. 5 Hokenson, Jan 132 n. 15 Hoppenot, Hélène 58 Horkheimer, Max 116 Huang, Yunte 11 n. 15, 54 n. 39, 66 n. 52 Hudson, Nicolas 9–10 Hulme, T. E. 36, 38 n. 16, 52 Humboldt, Wilhelm von 6, 11, 12 n. 16, 17, 18, 109 Humpty Dumpty 7, 133 hypericon 58, 95 iconoclasm 35, 68 Idealism 15, 24, 32–33, 41, 45, 58, 68, 91, 128, 133, 137, 144, 146 n. 30, 147 ideology xii, xxi, xxvi, 19, 23, 55, 68

Imagism 26, 28, 30–33, 36, 39–42, 45, 52–58, 60, 62, 64–69, 71, 82–83, 91, 95 index 30, 35–36, 63, 76, 80–81, 100, 102, 109, 117–18, 128, 142–43, 149 Innis, Harold xviii, 79 n. 12, 144 n. 28 inscription xxiii, 25, 28–29, 65–66, 76, 81–84, 86, 89, 92, 94–96, 108–109, 117, 128, 137 James, William 134 Japan xxiii n. 17, 7 n. 9, 26, 46–48, 52, 56, 62, 70 n. 56, 85 n. 19, 110 n. 8, 123 n. 2, 129, 130, 141 Jay, Martin 39 Jena, Battle of 149 Jesuits 4, 45 n. 24 Kafka, Franz ix–x, xii, xiii–xviii, xx–xxii, 10, 29, 91–92, 104, 109, 116, 120, 128, 141–43, 145, 149 Kant, Immanuel 100, 101, 135 n. 18 Kern, Robert 33 n. 6, 34, 51 Kircher, Athanasius 10 Kittler, Friedrich xx, 19 n. 28, 23, 24, 81, 92, 93, 96, 118 Klabund xvi Kracauer, Sigfried 19, 20 n. 30, 93 Ku Hung-Ming 104 Lapham, Lewis 145 Larnaudie, Suzanne 131 n. 13, 135, 136 n. 19 Lastra, James 66 n. 53, 82 n. 17 latent vs. manifest content xv, xxiv Laughlin, James 70 n. 56 Legge, James 38 Lehman, Walter 106 n. 5 Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm 13 Levin, Thomas 80–81, 93–94 Li Po 66 n. 52



liberty 5, 20 Lindsay, Vachel 119 Lin Yutang 104 Liu, Lydia 113 logocentrism 6, 27, 137 n. 21 logos 8, 17, 136 n. 19 Lukács, Georg 90, 115–16, 139 Lye, Colleen xxiv Malicet, Michel 46 n. 27 Mallarmé, Stéphane xix, 19, 28, 41–42, 46–48, 49 n. 33, 50–52, 53 n. 39, 60, 62, 65 n. 51, 69, 88 n. 23, 97–98, 102–103, 114, 128, 132 n. 15 Manceron, Henry 73, 85, 88 Marx, Karl xviii, 19, 104, 108 n. 6, 111 n. 8 McLuhan, Marshall 20, 79 n. 12, 113 n. 11, 126, 128, 137, 141, 144 n. 28, 145–148 media theory xiv, xix, xx, 20–24, 26, 128, 144 n. 28, 147 mediation xiii, 24, 32, 37, 57–58, 66 n. 53, 68, 77, 94, 96, 109, 133 memory xii, xiii, 8, 13, 25, 27, 69, 110, 116, 119, 123–24, 129, 132–34, Michaelis, Johann David 12–15, 19 Mill, John Stuart 5, 27 mimesis 28–29, 60, 107, 109, 116–17 Mirbeau, Octave 92 Mitchell, W. J. T. 34, 39, 54–55, 57–58, 68, 95 Montesquieu, Baron xviii, 4 Moretti, Franco 143 n. 27 Moses xviii, 53 myth (Barthesian) xii, xv, 73 Nadar 80 n. 15 Negritude 101 Nemerov, Howard 38 Niépce, Nicéphore 21

Nietzsche, Friedrich 19, 23, 35, 37 n. 14, 92, 134 North, Michael 39, 59, 64, 66 n. 53, 68, 69 n. 55 nothingness 43, 47–48 Orientalism xii, xiv, xxi, xxvi, 12, 18 n. 27, 19, 21–24, 26, 29, 32, 33 n. 8, 34, 43, 53, 55, 58, 68–71, 78, 83, 88, 91, 93, 110, 117, 119, 123 n. 1, 132–33, 136–37, 142 Orpheus 81 n. 16 Penn, Julia 11 n. 15, 12, 14 perception 24 n. 36, 27, 35, 36, 38 n. 16, 39, 45, 54, 56, 57, 59, 61, 66 n. 53, 75, 91, 107, 129, 132, 134, 135, 140 Perloff, Marjorie 41 Plato 8, 9, 34 n. 10, 131 Poe, Edgar Allan 91, 147 n. 31 Ponceau, Peter Du 17 Porter, David 113 postcolonialism 101, 137 n. 21 poststructuralism xix, 23, 26, 92, 137 n. 21 Pound, Ezra xii–xiii, 15, 19, 26–28, 30–33, 35–36, 38–42, 45, 49 n. 34, 52, 56–57, 63–66, 69, 70–71, 81n, 85–86, 88 n. 23, 95, 115 primitivism xxvii, 33 n. 8, 34 Prometheus 13 Protestant Reformation 9 Proust, Marcel 123 racialization 17, 68 reference xx–xxv, 28–29, 62 n. 47, 65, 70, 76, 95, 98, 102, 120, 128, 148–49 reification xi, 3, 26, 90 relativism, linguistic and cultural 11, 12, 14, 27, 134, 135 n. 18

index 169 remediation and premediation 25 Renaissance 9 repression xxiii Richards, Robert 17–18 Rilke, Rainer Maria 96 Roberto, Eugène 44 Romanticism 9, 10, 23, 34, 69, 87, 94 n. 31 Rosenzweig, Franz xvi–xvii, 104 Ruskin, John 54, 69 Russian reversal xviii, xix, 99, 118 Russo-Japanese War 130 Said, Edward xxvi Salles, Georges 103 n. 1, 105 Sapir, Edward 11 Sartre, Jean Paul 101, 140 Saulnier, Zoèl 44 Saussy, Haun 7 n. 9, 33 n. 6, 78 n. 8, 79 n. 12, 145 n. 29 Schivelbusch, Wolfgang 125 Schleicher, August 17–18 Scholem, Gershom 106 n. 5 Schwartz, Sanford 35, 36, 38 Segalen, Victor xiv, 27–29, 38, 72–91, 94–102, 128 shifter xxi Shklovsky, Victor 26 Siegert, Bernhard xix, xx, 83, 124 Simmel, Georg 125, 126 Sino-Japanese War 29, 127, 128, 129 n. 6, 141 Sinology 3, 17, 38, 44, 74, 75 n. 4, 104, 135 n. 18 Síren, Osvald 104 Smirnoff, Yakov xviii Southey, Robert 113 spacing 30 n. 1, 47, 49, 51 Spanish-American War 127 n. 5 Spencer, Herbert 33, n. 7 Stein, Gertrude 103 steles 72, 74, 77–83, 85–87, 89, 94, 96–97, 112 Stiegler, Bernard 115 n. 115

Stoker, Bram 92 Storry, Richard 130 Strauss, Ludwig 104 subjectivity 27–28, 32, 56–57, 60, 63, 81, 118 Surrealism 66, 101, 120 Symbolism 41, 42, 62, 87, 147 n. 31 synecdoche 6, 7, 109 Taoism xvi, xviii n. 11 Taussig, Michael 3, 107, 109, 116–17, 120 technesis 115 Tel Quel 26 Tiffany, Daniel 39, 88 n. 23 Toronto School 144 n. 28 traces x, xxiv, xxvi, 8 n. 11, 18, 24, 80, 81, 84, 89, 96, 102, 108, 118, 123, 128 Transcendentalism, American 34 n. 9 translatability 66 n. 52, 73, 76, 78 n. 8, 83–86, 88–90, 95, 96, 105 Trauerspiel 99, 104, 106, 107 Truffet, Michel 50 n. 36 universality xii, 11, 12, 14–16, 23, 26, 37, 39–40, 45, 48 n. 31, 53–55, 57, 69–70, 82, 135 n. 18, 137, 139–40, 144 utopian 51, 102 Valéry, Paul xiv, 27, 29, 96, 127–42, 147–49 vehicle/tenor xv, xxi, xxv Vico, Giovanni Battista 10, 34 n. 10 vitalism 88, 90, 91 Voltaire 4 vortograph 63–64 Waley, Arthur 104, 123 n. 2 Warburton, William xviii, 10 n. 13, 13 n. 19



Weber, Max xvii–xviii, 92 Weisgerber, Leo 11 n. 14 Whorf, Benjamin 11–12, 14–15, 135 n. 18 Wilde, Oscar xxi, 85 n. 19 Wilhelm, Richard xvi Williams, William Carlos 35 Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey 109 Wittfogel, Karl xviii Wong, Anna Mae 104, 120 Wood, Michael vi, x

Woolf, Virginia 122, 123 n. 2, 124, 127 Wutz, Michael 109 Yalu, Battle of 137 Yao, Steven 31 n. 4 Yeschua, Silvio 129 n. 7, 131 n. 12 Yuan Shikai 73 Zhang Longxi 6 Zionism 104