Upon entering or leaving the library at Goldsmiths, (as wondrous a library as I have had the good fortune to frequent) one is immediately confronted by carts upon which returned books are placed for reshelving. I’ve found some really interesting stuff there which it would never have occurred to me to look for on my own initiative, such as the intriguing specimen above. I rarely finish the books I snatch off the cart, as I am generally up to my neck in other things to read, but the flip through these found objects sometimes yields interesting insights, as well as teaching me more about the kind of folks studying at this curious institution.
Now, onto this book in particular. I have to admit to a kind of knee-jerk hostility to Mao and Maoism which has generally led to me avoiding anything with the Chairman’s image on it. One reason is the checkered (to put it in farcically diplomatic terms) history of the CCP itself. Only the most delusional apologists will seriously dispute the fact that the substitutionalist and authoritarian CCP has done much to retard working class and peasant autonomy in China. Another is the Maoist legacy in Norway, a dank and distressing chapter in the history of Norwegian radicalism whose cloying tendrils unfortunately still exercise some hold on communist initiative. Third, I’m a little irritated by the academic Leninism of Badiou and Zizek; they seem totally uninterested in the ways in which Bolshevik parties have functioned as clamps on revolutionary initiative, preferring instead to focus on the (occasionally) emancipatory tone of certain texts.
At the same time, I have to admit that I don’t fully understand their academic Leninism, and my grasp on 20th century Chinese history is tenuous at best. In addition, Maoism, or Mao-inspired ideas, rear their heads in a variety of political contexts that I otherwise find pretty interesting, such as American radicals like the Black Panther Party and I Wor Kuen, and a variety of decolonization projects. Following Gramsci’s assertion that one should engage other’s ideas at their strongest, not their weakest, I figure I should do some reading.
So when this book jumped out at me, I was delighted to find the following in the preface:
“It is fair to say that we are both as cynical about Mao as anone in the China field- perhaps more than most, since we now know enough about him to have the best reasons for such a point of view. But we believe that debunking Mao is too easy. It begs questions rather than tries to answer them”
Essentially, the project in the book is to look at how discourse in Yan’an shaped the lived experience of those there. The idea is that Mao functions as a “cosmocratic figure”, who is able to formulate ideas in such a way as to construct a cosmology and social system through study and exigetical bonding. One of the things I find kinda fascinating about Maoism is the quasi-religious millenialism. The perspective proposed by the authors focuses on understanding the Yan’an republic as
“political yearning transformed into both a discourse and a discourse community bounded together by what can be called symbolic capital. It also tells us something about the nature of personalized power cast in the form of depersonalized principle. The framework we use to examine Yan’an can apply to religious, ethnic, and other movements where people pore over texts in search of truths that take the form of binding obligations”
“How then to consider Yan’an? For us, it appears as a revolutionary simulacrum, a symbolically orchestrated tutelary regime (…) Embedded in the discourse were such themes as loss and recuperation, reenactment, retrieval, and projection, narratives and texts, myths and logic, leading to the formulation of symbolic capital. We see Yan’an evolving into a moral centre of the revolution from its origin as a military base with the Yan’anites coming to regard themselves as a chosen people.
IFurthermore, the preface contains a few more intriguing ideas. It is a study which uses ideas from discourse analysis and cultural studies applied to empirical data, in the form of historical research and interviews with survivors from Yan’an. That is really interesting in itself, since I’m feeling a little methodologically adrift these days. I’m generally finding that studying cultural theory is really rewarding. Taking a step back from the immediacy of organizing and engaging in abstract thinking really does give me a better grasp of what I’m do practically. At the same time, it sometimes feels like Hassidic torah study; we tend to study texts as though the meanings are immanent, rather than seeing them as cultural products in history. I’m really curious to see how the two fellers writing this book apply insights from cultural studies and discourse analysis to their fieldwork.