The Rhetorics of Modernity and the Logics of the Fetish

  • Alexander Des Forges

Abstract

It is striking that the fetish, which appears as a significant concept in the works of theorists as varied as Kant, Voltaire, Marx, and Freud, first took shape as a discursive element at a time when European merchants were attempting to join a vibrant broader network of Atlantic trade relations in the sixteenth century. In this sense, the story of the fetish and its origin has interesting parallels with the conventional narrative of Chinese intellectuals identifying “modernity” as a concept through which they could begin to participate in a broader world order in the twentieth century. While these parallels are thought-provoking and deserve a detailed treatment, this chapter aims at a more circumscribed goal: an inquiry into the functions of modernity as a fetish in the field of modern Chinese literature as it has been constituted in the American academy. Starting from an analysis of three distinct strategies that inform attempts to oudine the parameters of the field, this chapter will put “literary modernity” itself into question, trace the ways in which interest in modernity relates to the recent accelerated development of the field in its institutional context, and end with a reflexive consideration of how and why we may want to rethink such a fetishization.

Keywords

Europe Coherence Assure Straw Refraction 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    “Fetishism” Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, 24 vols., vol. 21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1966–1974), pp. 152–157.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See Rey Chow, “The politics and pedagogy of Asian languages and literatures”, in Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 120–143, for a detailed discussion of this dilemma.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    The primary exception in modern Chinese literature in the May Fourth era is Milena Dolezalova-Velingerova’s essay titled “The origins of modern Chinese literature”, in Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, ed. Merle Goldman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 17–35; the care with which even her partial differences from the overall paradigm are marked off and contained in the introduction reveals the extent to which more radical challenges would be inconceivable. Similarly, Dolezelova’s The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), which focuses on the two decades preceding the May Fourth Movement, has had relatively little influence on the development of the field of modern literature.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 97. See also pp. 55, 234–235.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading between East and West, ed. Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse (Theory of History and Literature 75) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 39, 52, 59–60.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    See, e.g., David Wang’s discussion of late-Qing fiction, in which he challenges the May Fourth narrative of literary modernity; this challenge depends, however, on the definition of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction against an existing “tradition.” David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849–1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 6, 14, 20.Google Scholar
  7. 20.
    A Goldman, “Introduction”, in Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era; Fredric Jameson, “Foreword” to Liu Kang and Xiaobing Tang, eds., Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 5.Google Scholar
  8. 21.
    A list of some titles that have appeared in recent years suggests the range of possibilities: David Wang, Fin-De-Siècle Splendor, Zhang, Chinese Modernism-, Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity, Chang, Modernism and the Nativist Resistance; Shu-mei Shih, “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism: Liu Na’ou’s Urban Shanghai Landscape”, Journal of Asian Studies 55:4 (November 1996), pp. 934–956; Liu, Translingual Practice;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999),Google Scholar
  10. Xiaobing Tang, Chinese Modern: The Heroic and the Quotidian (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). In a slightly different context, Rey Chow has noted the problematic dimensions of the insistent insertion of “Chinese” as a qualifier in front of a wide variety of different terms in contemporary scholarly practice. Chow, Writing Diaspora, p. 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 29.
    Jacques Derrida, “Différance”, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 1–27. Walter Benjamin, “The task of the translator”, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 69–82; Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).Google Scholar

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© Charles A. Laughlin 2005

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  • Alexander Des Forges

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