Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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June 15, 2005
China my China*

Am working my way through the latest Granta. Theme: "The Factory."

Among pieces of note is one by Luc Sante (by whom I've never read much of anything, in some part because I know I "should"), in which he discloses how he discovered the proper use for the writings of Celine, while working on what was essentially an assembly line:

I wanted to read, but reading was circumscribed by the rhythm of the cycle. . . .
Having pared my movements down to the strict minimum I had enough time between one cycle and the next to read about half a sentence. I tried crime novels, for example, but kept losing my place.

Finally I had a stroke of inspiration.

Only one author would do: CĂ©line.

His works beginning with "Death on the Instalment Plan" were all spat out in brief, angry bursts separated by ellipses. The solution was perfect.

Not only did I have exactly the time required to read one such particule between every two cycles of the machine, but their emotional content might have been designed for the circumstances.

However, the most affecting essay I've found so far is Isabel Hinton's "Made in China." Her account ranges from memories of her employment in factories in early 70s Shanghai, to present-day discussions with jewelry workers doomed to early deaths from silicosis, to coffee with sweatshop inspectors, to political demonstrations and strikes (one slogan commands, "WE DEMAND THE MINIMUM" -- not exactly the kind of thing that would have been scrawled by the soixante-huitards, though on second (and third) thought, why not?).

One reason I say that the essay is "affecting" is that it motivated me at long last to go back and read all the high-profile think or analysis pieces on China that I (and I'm probably not alone in this) have been amassing unread for the past year.

These include Charlie Hore's "China's Century?" from last summer.   The article got me to read a lot of statistics taken from the business press.   Also, it left me with one indelible line to describe the increasingly symbiotic and imbalanced economies of the USA and China, as "two drunks propping each other up."

Hinton's essay then got me to excavate and make it through Monthly Review's special issue on China, also from last summer.   This one also felt like wading through a few years's worth of business news clippings, and cites Stanley Roach more often than it cites Mao or Marx.   The issue generated some interesting on-line discussion, find-able here and here (on the "A-list"), here (GreenLeft), here (on the website of one Jose Maria Sison), and here (Proyect's blog).

Finally, the Granta piece got me to do a clean sweep and finish up the Atlantic Monthly's June 2005 cover story, "How We Would Kick China's Ass Fight China."   The article is just as "rah-rah"/"ooh, ahh" about our military as I remembered it being when I got bored with it and quit a month ago.   However, I did like Kaplan's revealing observation, as follows:

Businesspeople love the idea of China. . . . China's mixture of traditional authoritarianism and market economics has broad cultural appeal throughout Asia and other parts of the world.

I wonder if this sentence doesn't say a lot about the emerging mindset of elites in the world of business, and probably media, with regard to the Chinese government and perhaps the USA's.

Reviewing all of the above taught me two things.   One is how pathetically much my sorry ass does not know, and will probably never know, about China.   The second is how I felt that I'd absorbed more information, more deeply, about life right now in China from Hinton's piece -- narrative, personalized, anecdotal, shorn of statistics, peripatetic -- than I did from the economic numbers, theoretical analyses and hundreds of footnotes in the other pieces, put together.

Finally, at the end of the above process I remembered one other body of work that shook the heck out of me last summer, and conveyed an enormous amount of information about contemporary China yet used no words at all: an exhibition of photographs by Sze Tsung Leong.  His work can be found here. His pictures remind me a lot of Bernice Abbott's, insofar as both capture the moment of the familiar and "traditional" being overtaken by the futuristic and foreign.

*Yes, I am aware that China cannot be said to be "mine" in any accurate sense implying either possession, invention, ownership or authorship.  However, the above title gave me an opportunity to gratuitously namecheck an old Brian Eno song that's really cool in many ways, not least of which because it uses typewriters as percussion instruments, in the spirit of   Satie and possibly   Antheil.

[edit 8/23/07: Regarding examples of use of the typewriter as a percussion instrument, how on earth could I forget its use during the verses of Dolly Parton's record "9 to 5"? Disgraceful of me.

Who had the idea to include typewriters on that record?

I don't know. But the record was produced by Gregg Perry, who also did some rhythm arrangments for Dolly, and seems to have been rather central to her late-70s, post-Porter Wagoner, crossover career. If this is the same Gregg Perry, his website bears no mention whatsoever of Dolly.]

[update 1/22/08:

comprehensive survey of typewriter inclusive music here (via here) and of course here.]