Stray thoughts on contemporary anti-“wokeness” rhetoric

When, during one of her concerts, Taylor Swift encouraged her fellow Tennesseeans and fans to vote for democrats in the 2016 elections, she reaped the whirlwind of US conservative wrath and was accused of practicing a kind of “competitive wokeness” that has allowed her to “calculatedly climb the cultural ladder.” “Wokeness” really is a rhetorical battle-axe of the right, something that contemporary conservatives can wield against anyone who is aware of problems of social justice and dares to speak out about them. As a Comp Lit person in Asia, however, I often think of this adjective in just the opposite terms, as a concerned “wakefulness” about social problems, that comes to mind whenever waking up is invoked, i.e., Lu Xun’s famous anecdote of the “iron house”:

“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?…But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.” – Lu Xun, Preface to Outcry, 1922

A hundred years after he wrote this, the modernist ambivalence of Lu Xun’s thought experiment with “waking up” has become one of the paradigmatic dilemmas of our age. There are some important differences between China in the 1920s and the US in the 2020s, however. In Lu Xun’s case we have to keep alive the hope of overthrowing social injustice, and therefore we should feel the need to help others get “woke;” by contrast, with the conservative rhetoric against the sort of “wokeness” we see in Taylor Swift, merely stating you are committed to progressive values is an avowal of demagoguery.

Such an attitude should not be scandalous: when Lu Xun was writing Chinese history was moving rapidly toward a catastrophic civil war and far right nationalists like Adolf Hitler, General Francisco Franco, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were consolidating their power around the world. Indeed, just five years after he published the above lines, many of Lu Xun’s friends and students would be executed or imprisoned by Generalissimo Chiang, in the notorious Shanghai Massacre of 1927. The stories in his next anthology, Wandering, would be much different and have strangely ambiguous endings.

What concerns me most about the contemporary rhetoric of “wokeness” is how it never really seems to become a part of a debate about earlier, even more fundamental, uses of “enlightenment” and “awakened consciousness.” I suspect this is because what conservatives really want is the opposite: for everyone to go back asleep, to drown in the iron house, or at least to remain silent, alienated and suffocating quietly in its cracks. Moreover, their cynical suggestion that celebrities and public figures are trying to cash in on victimhood” issue of “competitive wokeness” is bullshit:

[As a rich elite liberal] “You’d be foolish not to emulate the highest-status people you could find. Thanks to social media, you can access their opinions on all and sundry in an instant. The result is a kind of swarm effect in which high-status moral entrepreneurs declare the right position to take on a given issue, and then, within minutes, hordes of epigones scramble to adopt and enforce the new orthodoxy.

The author outdoes himself here, showing us how progressives and liberals are cynical “moral entrepreneurs” enabled by rabid leftists who use social media to issue-swarm like angry hornets. Smearing the left as a bunch of mindless liberals competing to out-liberal their peers is probably convincing to people who read The Atlantic, but most thoughtful people would probably agree that being open about your politics (even if they center on the doings of entertainment celebrities) is a good thing for society. However, they may not know that “liberals” on social media are nothing like a homogeneous hornets’ nest of “SJWs” (who don’t actually exist but are yet another urban legend weaponized by the right). What one finds instead is a diverse group of people who are fragmented, confused, who may or may not be high on some form of identity politics. I’m willing to grant that much, but, to follow Lu Xun, if a few can be awakened to our unjust social system then the future of the iron house is not as certain as it sometimes seems these days.

The failures of college education in Taiwan

Back when I was teenager considering my academic future in the USA, I would obsessively read through college catalogs and practically drool on the sections that included department descriptions and course offerings. Since I was mainly interested in the humanities I focused on History, Philosophy, English and even toyed with idea of studying Art. Invariably these descriptions began or ended with a phrase like “the main goal the X Department at Y University is to prepare students to pursue graduate level studies in the future.” It didn’t occur to me at the time, but now realize this simple phrase summarized the key difference between the values upheld by liberal arts colleges and vocational or technical schools: the former prepares you to become a scholar, the latter to become a tradesman or technician. The liberal arts college I finally attended was a large, state-sponsored research institute in the south where we were required to study a diverse set of subjects (including history, science, mathematics, English, the arts, etc.) intended to give us the broad understanding of the world necessary for future scholars.

I feel like that’s what I got, and today, as a professor with more than a decade of teaching in Taiwanese universities behind me, one of the saddest things about working in the educational system here is that it does not assume that our students will go on to become scholars. On the contrary, it largely understands Education (教育) as vocational or remedial training. I’m on the faculty of a fairly large (23 member) Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at a national university and the biggest news lately is that we will soon undergo major down-sizing because the official trend is to have English become an elective course at all national universities like ours. This trend is baffling to many us, particularly since President Tsai has said she plans to make Taiwan a bilingual (Mandarin & English) nation by 2030, but also because it means dramatic cutbacks will be made to our branch of the humanities across Taiwan. Demoting English from a 3 credit required course for all freshmen means less faculty are needed so, according to the Dean of Liberal Arts at my university, we will likely shrink from a faculty of 30 to one of 16. English, which Taiwanese students mainly learn as a skill and universities like mine treat as a vocational subject, will thereby be marginalized even further.

Although we are treated as a vocational department, most of our faculty were trained in the study of literature at good US liberal arts colleges and share a deep respect for scholarship in the humanities. Unfortunately, no one else in the university or government does. I’m not being at all facetious when I say this because our College of Liberal Arts (文學院) currently consists of just three departments: History, Chinese, and Foreign Languages and these are just barely holding on. Just for the sake of contrast, at my home university in the US, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences was on an equal footing with the College of Science and housed the Departments of English, Drama, History, Philosophy, Art, Anthropology, etc.—in five or six large buildings. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, which underwent state-driven modernization in the 50s-60s by promoting engineering and techno-science in its educational system, it’s simply impossible to imagine the liberal arts on par with the sciences. For example, if a scholar in the liberal arts wants to apply for a grant, s/he must do so through the Ministry of Science and Technology—not to the Ministry of Culture or a National Endowment for the Arts (which doesn’t exist).

A big part of the problem with the scenario I’m describing is that the college entrance exam system remains firmly in place so every university in Taiwan is packed with students who don’t want to be in their respective departments. That is, the students in my department didn’t sort through college catalogs and drool over course offerings in Detective Fiction or Native American Literature, but instead were able to pick a college/department based on their exam scores (the goal being to get into the ‘best’ college, regardless of the department). If they want to get out of a department they hate or find a real interest in something else and want to change departments, they must then take an exam which is even more difficult than the first one! If nothing else, this system teaches students that “getting ahead” is more important than scholarship or pursuing your interests, and besides, no one wants to let their parents down by studying Art at some no-name college in Pingtung.
Another important outgrowth of the exam system is that it also teaches students that they’re not expected to learn anything in university in the first place, or as the Taiwanese play on the word for university goes, “it’s up to you to play for four years” (由你玩四年). Your reward for getting into that ‘good university’ is that you can cruise through 4 years of courses that probably do not matter to you in the least since it’s nearly impossible to “flunk out” of this system. Most laughably is, if, for some reason, you do feel the urge to go to graduate school and have the financial ability to do so, you probably will need to go to a cram-school (補習班) to prepare for the entrance exams! Yes, alongside the entire state system of education in Taiwan there is a private education industry whose entire existence proves the official system has utterly failed–otherwise, why would people need to go to cram-schools after 4 years of college?!

It’s all very exasperating, but if you consider all of the above I think it’s pretty obvious what needs to be done: a) universities in Taiwan should all be fairly funded throughout the country (Taipei’s ‘good’ universities get the lion’s share of government funding), b) public universities should shift to an open admissions policy, and c) academic standards should be upheld so that students who underperform do get “flunked out.” In addition, it would be great if the nation would adequately fund the liberal arts, but I dare not dream that big. Probably nothing would ever convince Auntie Chen that her daughter really should major in Dance or Art History if she wants to.

Tang Fei in English w/links

Tang Fei (糖匪) is one of the more interesting of the Chinese New Wave SF authors in that her work frequently crosses genres and seems, to this reader at least, to be closer to slipstream fiction than SF.

《黄色故事》”Call Girl” Trans by Ken Liu 2013 @ Apex, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014(Rich Horton ed.)
《蒲蒲》”Pepe” Trans by John Chu 2014 @ Clarkesworld, Apex best of the year reprint Vol 4
《宇宙哀歌》”A Universal Elegy” Trans by John Chu 2015 @ Clarkesworld
《碎星星》”Broken Stars” Trans by Ken Liu 2016 @ SQ
《自由之路》”The Path to Freedom“, Trans by Christine Ni 2016 @ paper-republic
《看见鲸鱼座的人》”The Person Who Saw Cetus” 2017 @ Clarkesworld, and the Chinese version

Missing the MTV experience

As far as I can recall Takeshi Miike’s Rainy Dog (極道黒社会 1997) wasn’t released in the theaters in Taipei, instead I watched it in an MTV with a few friends, ca. 1999. An MTV is basically a living room you can rent, with room service. You pay a fee (US2$ in those days), pick a few movies off the rack, and the guy escorts you to your own private AV space with sofas. There’s a bigass television, a DVD player and sound system that isn’t too terrible. Young folks who have no where else to make out go to MTVs, but my friends and I just went there to watch movies, smoke, and eat cheap food. Although I sometimes went alone, usually it was with the Crew: my Korean friend Y-C and the young Japanese kid, H.–and sometimes the girls (also Korean and Japanese), though none of us had a romantic interest in them. Once though, while I was searching through the DVDs (these places had huge movie collections), a truly hot young lady came up to me and asked what I was thinking of watching. I averred I hadn’t a clue because my friends were nearby, and she said she wanted to watch this –> (some Harrison Ford movie) while leaning in close to me. That was one of the few times women have ever hit on me, so whenever I think of MTVs…But I digress.

Anyway, the movie takes place during Taiwan’s Plum Rains, in May, and is about an exiled yakuza living in Taipei. He works as a freelance assassin but his day job is in a slaughter house, and one night, after work, he silently watches a young man stabbed to death in a back alley. One day, out of the blue, a woman shows up with a kid she claims is his, and leaves yelling “The kid’s a mute” from the window of the taxi. Of course the yakuza, aka Rainy Dog, is a misanthropist and hitman so he wants to have nothing to do with the kid. But the kid refuses to go away, and how can he really? He’s got no fucking place to go and can’t speak. Miike made the film on a tiny budget and it’s full of gangster cliches, but the thing pulls at you in strange ways, especially if you’ve ever lived in East Asia for any length time. It’s hard to explain but seeing Taipei, my city, filmed in this stylish way as the seasonal rains pour down, really made an impression on me–as did the other films in the Black Society Trilogy (黒社会三部作: Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, and Ley Lines) when I saw them.

All this makes me want to go see what MTVs are like nowadays, but unfortunately only that one chain is still in business.

Serious Soviet Stuff

Currently working on a conference paper on ‘Weird fiction’ that I’ll present in March andran across a lot of interesting stuff related to Soviet Union (unrelated to my topic). First was an interesting AV club sketch about the Zone trope in science fiction, from whence I wound up reading an old (2014) Slate article on the real Stalker subculture that has grown up around Chernobyl since the disaster. There’s a lot of hype around the recent HBO series “Chernobyl,” and of course The New Yorker weighs in. Somehow ended up reading a post about an artist who imagines Barbie and Ken as a Soviet couple living in the past…Good old nostalgia is everywhere.

In other national literatures, excited that in a couple of weeks I’ll get to teach this Toh Enjoe story, “Harlequin’s Butterfly.” Currently reading The Woman in the Dunes (1961) by Kobo Abe and it has a similar vibe. Not very familiar with Abe’s work but I ran across the novel on this very good list of 100 Weird and Strange books and it seemed really interesting.

Chen Chieh-Jen (陳界仁)

“History has been lingchi-ed, that is, chopped and severed as human bodies. Violence is also gradually internalized, institutionalized and hidden. We do not see where we are and what was before us. We do not see the violence of history or that of the State either. That is the reason why we need to gaze at the images of horror and penetrate through them. Is the dark abyss of wounds not the very crack that we need to pass through so as to arrive at the state of full-realization and self-abandonment?” –Chen Chieh-Jen, “About the Forms of My Works” ~ from Joyce Liu essay

Japanese Strange and Ero Guro

Ero Guro and Macabre Eroticism – by C. Bertherat
Beauty without Poison is Boring (about Toshio Saeki)
Momo is dead (self harm meme based on Keisuke Aiso sculpture)
Tabaimo (aka Ayako Tabata)
Suehiro Maruo, and also here.
The erotic Japanese art movement born out of decadence
– Review of Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: the Mass Culture Japanese Modern Times, 2006.

Japanese kaidan (links)

“The Emergence of Kaidan shu: the Collection of Tales of the Strange and Mysterious During the Edo Period”
– “The Appeal of ‘Kaidan’, Tales of the Strange” (jstor login)
– “What are Kaidan?
– “Hyakomonogatari Kaidankai ~” (Japan Times article about the above author)
– “Why so Sad Sadako?” (Female vengeance ghosts in Japanese lit/film)

Daijiro Morohoshi – Weird Manga Hero

Daijiro Morohoshi諸星大二郎)is definitely a weird precursor of Junji Ito but, unfortunately, very difficult to find in English (and even in Chinese). His most famous work is the Yokai Hunter (妖怪ハンター) series of the 1970s-80s.

A good overview of his stuff can be found here (Big5), along with a selection of “four favorites” (Big 5). Not altogether unrelated, some good horror manga recommendations from Silberstein here. Ito isn’t the only one who owes a debt to Morohoshi, legendary anime dude Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke borrows heavily from the sylvan tribes of Mud Men.

Mentor mythologies

Recently had dinner with a few American expat colleagues and the conversation turned to former professors and the mythology (or just gossip) that attends them. I didn’t comment on my own teachers because it was too much fun listening to their stories, but it reminded me of a few of my own– Dr Donougho, my dear old dissertation adviser, and never playing Go with him; Dr Cowart, my difficult Pynchon and contemporary American fiction professor who hated grad students; the poet James Dickey who drank heavily and tried to seduce my Taiwanese girlfriend…and many others.

As expat professors who’ve been in Taiwan 15 plus years you can imagine there was a heavy admixture of nostalgia in our talk, which got me to wondering if mythology could just be the result of fictionalized memories like these: “the great Prof L. made a potion that turned people into mushrooms and had a wife who hid in the cupboards,” the Gen X professor said, and this eventually became “Prof. L was a wizard whose wife was a smallish elf”? Or is this what is meant by the dharma, or religion…”His magic mushroom should be studied so that all will be able to cultivate it”? So it’s just a matter of the degree of generational misunderstanding…

To conclude, I just wrote an email to my old advisor in lieu of expanding on this any further.

Capsule review: “The Tenants Downstairs” (2016)

But we can, you know we can
Let’s lynch the landlord
Let’s lynch the landlord
Let’s lynch the landlord man

Although it’s a pretty big generalization, Giddens Ko (九把刀) is something like a Taiwanese Stephen King–which is to say a highly prolific author who works in different genres and has comparable name-recognition for Taiwan (and a lot of people dislike his celebrity). I read his novel The Tenants Downstairs 《樓下的房客》 in Chinese a few years ago and remember being really impressed with it (maybe it’s a problem of my tastes being too whimsical but I rarely run across page-turners in the Chinese language). I was delighted to hear that it was made into a film (in 2016), even though it starred Simon Yam (任達華) as the psycho landlord and not a local actor. >image –>

The book, written in 2006 while Ko was still a student at Tunghai University, is about a creepy landlord who, living on the top flour of a 5 story gongyu (公寓) begins to spy on his tenants–some of whom turn out to be far creepier than him. One thing I loved about the book was that it was an unpretentious misanthropic dig at some of the seedier aspects of Taiwanese society while also lampooning its college students in some pretty hilarious scenes. In contrast, the film, though it wasn’t awful wasn’t nearly as suspenseful or interesting as the book (surprise!). Simon Yam does a good job of bringing the uncle weirdo landlord to life, but for some reason HK actors often seem to be parodying the characters they play.

Acting aside, the first big let down is that they radically spruced up the setting of the story by making the old apartment building into a posh old 1930s hotel with hardwood floors and paneling along with warm, subdued lighting in every room. Needless to say, that’s not what your average Taiwanese gongyu looks like and if you’ve ever lived in one you will know how absurd it is to alter the setting that much. Another distraction was the fact that the first 10-15 minutes of the film is devoted to showing us how the landlord “discovered” the surveillance equipment his dead uncle set up in all the apartments. In the book it’s a non-issue, but you can see the director/producers were going out of their way to not show a protagonist setting up spycams in his tenants’ rooms.

And that, in capsule, is my review. I give the film 3 1/2 aliens.