An Interview with Ban Wang
By Ping Zhu
Stanford Professor Ban Wang has written on a wide range of subjects from early Chinese modernism to contemporary literature and beyond. His work has had a strong influence on the field of modern Chinese literature. Here, in conversation with CLT Deputy Editor Ping Zhu, Wang discusses his latest research projects, his first book, The Sublime Figure of History, and his long-term engagement with the work of Walter Benjamin.
Ping Zhu: Professor Wang, first allow me to thank you on behalf of Chinese Literature Today for your willingness to take this interview with us. I hear that you have just returned from a research trip in Asia. Could you tell us a bit about your new research project?
Ban Wang: Thanks to generous support from National Chung Hsing University, I stayed at that campus for three months last year during my sabbatical in Taichung. I completed a book by writing new chapters and revising old papers. Tentatively entitled China in the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Visions of World Order, the book addresses the ways Chinese thinkers and writers have engaged and interacted with the international system of nation-states since the late nineteenth century. In Joseph R. Levenson’s apt phrase, China goes “against the world by joining it.” The book traces a difficult and productive trajectory of China’s national pursuit and international engagement. While it is imperative for China to attain nationhood and to become a player in the Darwinist competition for survival, writers and thinkers were reluctant to see their country embroiled in the ruthless cycle of domination and subjugation. The national project—the drive for wealth and power in virtue of modern political institutions—is only a means to attaining a higher spiritual and moral end. At work alongside the foray into geopolitics is the ancient dream of tianxia 天下 (“all under heaven”). Tianxia is an attempt to think about the world as a moral community rather than a conflicted realm of interstate power struggle. As a moral discourse it has modern avatars in internationalism and cosmopolitanism, which transcend the narrow vehicle of nation-state and present a counterweight to the Westphalian world order rooted in realpolitik.
The project begins with Kang Youwei’s 康有为 Datong shu 大同书 (Book of the Great Community), which traces China’s attempts to enter the world by learning from the West, and how that national project was constantly infused with an international outlook. The international vision taps into the classical sources of tianxia and humanistic values from the West. I examine the infusion of imported notions of politics and aesthetics in social and moral reform, inspirations of internationalism and socialist humanism in forging an image of world literature in the revolutionary era, and the matrix of individual rights and popular sovereignty in social movements. Taking on cultural formations and visual products in the Cold War and decolonization, I examine how Chinese cinema addressed revolutionary cosmopolitanism, third world development, and internationalism. The last part of the book deals with images of China over three decades of reform and capitalist globalization. The general thrust of the book is to draw a trajectory from China’s initial entry into the world to its ambition to reshape the world. With deepening involvement arose an impulse to articulate worldly visions in order to reset the world order. Learning from the precious knowledge of other nations breeds a desire to contribute to the world of humanity.
PZ: Your scholarship is highly interdisciplinary, often freely shuffling among historical, political, aesthetic, philosophical, literary, and cinematic analyses. How did this interdisciplinary approach come into being?
BW: Years ago a student in my course on modern Chinese literature asked me what I was really teaching in this literature class. Is it politics, philosophy, sociology, critical theory, or psychology? It was a good question and I took it as a compliment. The downside is that a highly interdisciplinary approach may be confusing to some readers. I have never thought about how it came about and evolved, and it is still evolving. In the last ten years or so my approach has wedged into geopolitical context and moral discourse—contexts that I had not seriously examined before. The rise of China and the events of 9/11 were certainly two factors behind this shift. Intellectually, this interdisciplinary approach may come from my interest in critical theory and in the history of ideas as an infrastructure for literary and cultural studies. Rather than taking an individualistic or formalistic or textual approach, I believe the study of cultural texts or images must be placed in the context of history. “History” does not mean a series of real events that took place somewhere out there; the term means the comprehensive social, moral, and aesthetic climate embodied by an interlocking network of texts, sentiment, strands of thought, structures of feeling, and reigning ideologies. For instance, the term “aesthetic” is historically freighted; it means a total package of emotive structures, moral sentiment, and arts related to taste and experience at a historical moment. It could be specific to a political institution and could be as comprehensive as ideas about what constitutes humanity. The “aesthetic” is so interdisciplinary that it does not make sense to deploy it without considering morality, politics, and society. The term’s spin-off into other areas of human life is often forgotten in its contemporary usage.
The comprehensive ambiance specific to historical context is not external, but internal to the object of our inquiry. This climate affects the object’s meaning, form, and significance at specific moments. The conventional or disciplinary notion of history is very narrow. The key to the interdisciplinary approach is a notion of history embodied by human imaginations, consciousness, and action—history that straddles the arbitrary divisions of intellectual labor that we call disciplines.
Another reason for this interdisciplinary approach may be my upbringing and undergraduate education in China. My perspectives were inspired by the assumption of culture as integral to socio-political formation and historical processes conceived in terms of Marxist historical materialism. This theory of culture assumes that human consciousness is conditioned by historical practice. This does not mean that culture is a mechanical reflection or reaction to the historical given. On the contrary, thought and imaginary processes are what make us human and what make history. Humans make history by acting on their impulses and visions.
PZ: Your first book, The Sublime Figure of History, aimed to deconstruct the figure of the sublime in the discourse of modern Chinese politics by analyzing politics as an aesthetic object. But you confessed on several occasions that instead of deconstructing the sublime, you ended up rendering it ambiguous in the process of writing. Eighteen years have passed since the publication of this influential book. Have your thoughts about the sublime figure of history developed or changed?
BW: The elevated image in sublime aesthetics may mystify individuals and keep them enthralled to the icon of power and authority. It lures people to give themselves up to an external structure of power, which does not originate in their consent or does not emanate from their initiatives. Lording it over the people, this sublime does not work to promote the common good and general interests. Here lies the inauthenticity of the sublime that calls for critique. This mode of the sublime seems to be rhetoric, a false consciousness, a mystification or a spectacle imposed on receivers.
On the other hand, if the sublime works to inspire and mobilize people through the efforts of artists who are rooted in the common people, or even through the people’s own initiatives, it is a positive sublime. Inspirational mobilization transforms people into political subjects and spurs them to forge solidarity and connections. It encourages them to achieve a community, and indeed a public. I would say that any democratic society or nation needs socially effective myths and heroes of sublime proportions. This is a form of the sublime we may relate to and celebrate. The challenge is that the positive sublime and the cynical, or negative, sublime may coincide and intertwine in a historical moment. Herein lies the ambiguity.
In retrospect, my book on the sublime spends much time discussing the negative sublime as an ideological rhetoric and a spectacle, even though I attend to the elevation of heroic feelings and dignity in the work of Lu Xun 鲁迅, and the empowerment of revolutionary actions in the film Song of Youth (Qingchun Zhi ge 青春之歌). But in general, the negative view of the sublime outweighs its positive assessment. The ambiguity of two interrelated modes of the sublime is not adequately articulated in reflecting the complexity of social change and revolutionary history. My analysis of the sublime’s negativity is also testimony to Chinese history in the contemporary era. Owing to the intellectual climate of the early 1990s, most Chinese preferred to stay clear of the sublime and to view epic structures with suspicion. I was caught up in the climate of the era. But from today’s vantage point, when the rise of China offers more opportunities for sublime spectacles, Chinese moral ethos and cultural taste have slipped into the abyss of moral degeneration, a condition devoid of beliefs and meanings and marked by the individualistic, consumerist pursuits of the “tiny times.” So a little more of the sublime as a boost to public ethos and citizen commitment would be welcome.
PZ: Sigmund Freud’s notion of “libido” is frequently used in your analysis of politics, aesthetics, and literature. While libido, like capital, can be viewed as a basic organizing principle of modern bourgeois society, traditional Chinese society was organized around Confucian ethical relations. Is there a traceable moment in Chinese history at which this Western notion of libido became applicable for the first time?
BW: When Freud used the word “libido,” he was not merely looking into a cultural group enmeshed in Vienna, or at European customs deeply entrenched in a specific tradition. With this term, he began to think about the human being as such as though it were unmarked, natural, a universal entity that could be freed from entrapment in a particularistic mode of civilization. He claimed that the human psyche could be freed from the shaping power of tradition and moral relations. Freud is a creature of the Enlightenment and a humanist. The universalistic assumption of humanism asserts that human beings are not only products conditioned by their own particular culture and forever tied to it. Driven by their restless libidinal impulses and periodic discontent, they can pull themselves up and go on to reform and invent their inherited cultural forms and products, which include themselves—their psyche and libidinal economy. Human beings, be they Chinese or American, have libidinal potential, which could be violent and regressive. But tempered and sublimated by education, culture, and morality, libidinal expressions may do great service to community and society.
I have not done research on how and when “libido” found its way into Chinese contexts. But in light of the universalistic assumption about the humanity of libido, we can agree that libido has the capacity to work on and transcend the burden and imprints of a particular culture. Therefore it does not seem urgent at this level to locate a time when the concept of libido becomes applicable in Chinese history (unless one is tracing the etymology of the word and Freud’s provocation to Chinese thinking, which is different from using libido as a method). Take a more accessible example in the word “history.” You may suppose that the Chinese word lishi 历史, “history,” has a different meaning from the conventional modern Western understanding of the concept, which sees history as a linear, goal-oriented human activity in time. But this difference matters only in degree and not in kind. The difference does not bar us from discerning an equally goal-oriented human activity through time, say the process of state-building, during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period. It is evidently wrong to think that engaging concepts like “libido” or “history” is using a radically different “Western” lens to look at ancient China. It is true that the specificity of a given culture is a factor in cross-cultural exchange, but that should not block dialogue and mutual reading between two cultures. Just as at the level of health benefits of various fruits, one can very well compare apples and oranges. At the level of human civilization on earth, one can compare cultures that seem far apart in time and space. If you think of libido and its expressions as ceaseless human activity derived from discontent with the heavy hand of civilization, it would, like the concept of history, make sense in Chinese context, and needs not be pinned down to a specific period or social formation.
PZ: You are a “nostalgic” scholar. Nostalgia, as Susan Stewart puts it, is “the desire for desire in which objects are the means of generation and not the ends.” You also said in one of your interviews that nostalgia means dissatisfaction with reality. Do you think nostalgia is a necessary quality for public intellectuals?
BW: Nostalgia could be a quality of the public intellectual if it serves a critical function. Nostalgia in romantic discourse tends to have a therapeutic ring to it. In fast-paced industrialization and urbanization, romantic nostalgics indulge in the imagined or real images of elegant old castles, idyllic landscapes, the virtues of honest farmers, and refined cultural taste. Modern and postmodern nostalgics tend to prefer romantic nostalgia. They look for images and scenes that assuage their anxiety and discontent. This form of nostalgia is private and therapeutic: the imagination carries one back to the good old days in order to escape the bad new ones. This is what Steward means when she speaks of the nostalgic object as a “means of generation”: it is a method of generating comfortable, cozy scenes from the past. But the public intellectual engages rather than indulges in nostalgia. To engage past images is not for the sake of old memories and soothing scenes. As Brecht said, in thinking of the past, a public intellectual does not start with good old things but the bad new ones. In my work on memories of socialism and revolution, I try to put nostalgia discourse to critical use by shedding light on what is missing in the bad new days of the contemporary era.
PZ: Trauma, according to the conventional view, blocks representation and debilitates memory, but your persistent quest allows you to engage with trauma critically to re-make an otherwise fragmented history. Did this tenacious attitude come from the historical figures of your research, such as Lu Xun, or was it derived from your personal experience?
BW: The fashionable study of trauma tends to dwell on how trauma shuts down representation and explodes consciousness. Scholars take pains to show the paralyzed victimhood of individuals and groups and their entrapment in the dark realm of never-ending nightmares. This is a pessimistic and fatalistic understanding of history and human capacity. It says individuals and society have no way of taking control of their own lives and destiny, and that all traumatized people can do is to linger for another day in the ruins of traumas, licking the open wound with no healing in sight. Injuries were inflicted on them by a history without name and without moral intention—a history that portends an endless series of earthquakes or tsunamis. The Taoist saying that when heaven and earth are unkind, all things are treated like dirt is quite fitting for this concept of trauma. But if we think of history as human action, and of society as composed by citizens, this view turns out to be depoliticizing, debilitating, and ultimately dehumanizing: it shuts down the political potential and rational capacity of human actors in building solidarity and emotional connections. I take issue with this fatalistic notion of trauma. I believe in humans’ ability to work through, overcome, and to transcend trauma, so that individuals and society may walk out of the shadows of the past, turn a new page, and make headway in a new direction. This may come from the image of Lu Xun in his description of heroic Mara 摩罗 poets. It may be based on my understanding of history. Human beings are the makers and writers of their own history. History is not always a disaster waiting in the wing to inflict pain and trauma. Instead of being shaped by the providential being or some unknown entity, human beings have the capacity to free themselves from the traumatic mess caused by social events in the past and take initiatives.
PZ: One of the goals of Chinese Literature Today is to introduce works of contemporary Chinese literature to the English-speaking world. But the division of “contemporary literature” (dangdai wenxue当代文学) and “modern literature” (xiandai wenxue 现代文学) has been controversial. What is your opinion on this debate?
BW: “Contemporary Chinese literature” refers to literature written during the time period from 1949 up to the present, whereas “modern literature” conventionally refers to literary works outside the revolutionary, socialist tradition. I think the difference hinges not simply on periodization but also on how to define “modern.” If “modern” means the modern West and its aesthetic tenets about the autonomy of literature, contemporary Chinese literature is not sufficiently “modern” because it has been viewed as too politicized and ideological, a handmaiden to political authority. I very much disagree with this separation of modern and contemporary, which entails a separation of politics and literature. Literature written in Yan’an and during Mao’s era has numerous modern elements and patterns and its connection with politics should not be held against its modernity; rather, it should be analyzed as a form of anti-modern modernity, as Wang Hui 汪晖 puts it. Anti-modern modernity looks at the contradictions in Western modernity and forges its own versions of modernity. Indeed, revolutionary and socialist modernity could be aligned with the alternative traditions in the West that insist on how literature builds up the character of the citizen and how reading fiction shores up public virtue and democratic politics.
PZ: Your next book is tentatively titled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Visions of World Order. In some chapters you use “internationalism.” How do you intend this term to be an antidote to the capital-driven “transnationalism”?
BW: An imagination beyond the nation and a global vision of the Chinese Revolution, internationalism asserts that peripheral nations must transcend nationalist and cultural parochialism, and that the toiling masses of oppressed nations could connect to form a worldwide proletarian class. Marked by emotional affinity and ideological solidarity, this world-wide class consciousness motivated a concerted effort to resist the hegemony of imperialism and colonialism. Recent discussions of the third world retain this ideological feature as a rallying point in creating alliances and interconnections in the global south. In recent years, this internationalism has been viewed as a cynical attempt on behalf of national interest. Some argue that China’s connection with the third world in the 1960s and 1970s was primarily a means to achieve its national interest. Isolated from the Soviet Union and the United States, and pursuing a policy of self-reliance, China sought allies in the third world to enhance its strategic position in the world and to build a good international image. Generous aid to third world countries is explained in terms of rallying regional support in the service of China’s security interests in East Asia. Nonetheless, for all its pursuit of national self-interest, China’s promulgation of internationalist images cannot be underestimated. It is through the aesthetic medium rather than an instrumental analysis of interest that the notion of third world alliance proffers a focus of emotional identification, and that an imagined community of the world’s working class of the global south can be kept alive.
Some may say third world internationalism is obsolete, but I say it still has a critical function. It critiques so-called cosmopolitanism by projecting an unfulfilled possibility. We must draw a line between internationalism and the transnational trends in the era of global capital. Internationalism based on third world affinity refers to cooperation, mutual help, cultural exchange, and solidarity between developing nations in their struggle to achieve national sovereignty, foster domestic economies, and undertake social reforms. Global in scope yet national in character, internationalism is defined as the relations and affinities of the disadvantaged classes across nations of the global south. Chinese socialists recognized themselves as a part of this internationalist anti-systematic movement. In the rhetoric of neoliberal globalization, however, international relations among working people are obscured by a stylistic, individualistic, market-driven cosmopolitanism—the hallmark of transnational cultural industry. This cosmopolitanism celebrates the prerogatives of the globetrotting, jet-setting rich and famous, eliding the asymmetrical relations of the hierarchy among nations, social groups, and populations. Glamorous, imperial, and profit-driven, corporate or stylistic cosmopolitanism distrusts any attempt of a nation to exercise its sovereign power over its economy, society, and culture. Rooted in consumerism and hybrid lifestyle, and incompatible with internationalist alliances, the new-fangled cosmopolitanism hijacks the essence of internationalism as a shared democratic aspiration for equality, mutual respect, and community among disadvantaged peoples around the world.
PZ: You are one of the earliest Chinese translators of Walter Benjamin; Benjamin’s thoughts have been an inexhaustible fountain for your scholarly works. We all know that Benjamin was a master of allegory. What is your favorite Benjaminian allegory?
BW: I am fond of two allegorical images in Benjamin. One is connected with writing history. Benjamin says in his book on German Trauerspiel that the observer of history is confronted with a death head, which also signifies a petrified, primordial landscape. The death head is contrasted with the ideal human body that is celebrated in the romantic and humanist tradition. This tradition supposes that the human body represents a symbolic unity of spirit and flesh. By extension, history is a growing process in spirit and body, a trajectory informed and led by vital human reason. Culture forms are also a symbolic unity of form and content, expressive of a deeply entrenched essence; language is organic with and transparent to the intention and meaning of the speaker. I mean what I say and I say what I mean—no gaps and glitches. These concepts culminate in the image of the spirit-filled, ideal human body, an apotheosis, as in the worship of the Greek statue in G. W. F. Hegel’s theory. In the Chinese context, this kind of ideal body is ubiquitous in the sublime images of heroes, cultural leaders, and sages throughout history.
Related to the death head, the second allegory looks more like a surgical procedure. Benjamin uses the procedure in his discussion of how the film camera breaks up the theatrical body in his well-known essay on artworks in the age of mechanical production. But the origin of this allegorical metaphor stems from Benjamin’s reading of the German aesthetic thinker Johann Joachim Wincklemann, who used this procedure to “dismember” the ideal Greek statue. Benjamin invoked Winclemann to illustrate allegory. Instead of respecting the spirit-filled image of the human body, Wincklemann focused on the torso—disrespectfully and “deconstructively.” He went over the torso limb by limb, fragment by fragment, as if examining a mutilated corpse. Note this corpse is quite similar to the death head. This procedure involves an allegorical intrusion and the disturbance of the seamless unity and symbolic integrity animating the human body, and, by extension, the meaning of history and culture. Calling this procedure “allegorical dismemberment,” Benjamin comments that the romantic notion of the perfect body becomes a fragment, a rune, or unintelligible ancient sign. The beauty of the body evaporates and its untapped essence dries up, and the cosmos we attribute to the body “shrivels up.” The symbolic unity is extinguished. In short, Benjamin is saying that this symbolic body, and by extension, culture and history, are simply artificial, man-made constructs, assembled by allegorical agents from ruins and fragments.
To draw attention to Benjamin’s utopian, messianic side, I hasten to add that the deconstructive procedure does not remain content with being the killer of the radiant, living body. Benjamin is hopeful that an allegorical writer, free from the mystified charisma of the iconic body and cultural aura, has the freedom to deploy fragmented signs to say whatever he or she wants to say and thus to reconstruct and invent any number of Frankenstein’s constructs, refilling the shell of the torso or death head with new meaning and vitality.
PZ: Thank you for answering these questions! CLT looks forward to future collaborations with you.
-  Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, The Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection(Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993), 23.
-  Between 1935 and 1948, Yan’an, a city in northern Shanxi province, was the center of Chinese Communist movements.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 5 No. 1