Newborn Socialist Things: A Conversation with Laurence Coderre
I recently participated in an event on ‘Socialist Stuff’ hosted by Stanford’s materia working group. Fittingly, it featured all the technical difficulties typical of hybrid in-person/remote gatherings, but we nonetheless muddled through in pursuit of a productive alchemy between Jacqueline Loss’s work on Cuba and mine on China (Loss 2013; Loss and Prieto 2012). I do not know that we necessarily succeeded in sparking new modes of thought in the moment, but in the following days, I found myself ruminating on a host of questions, many of them about nostalgia. During the event, I averred, somewhat unthinkingly, that my book Newborn Socialist Things: Materiality in Maoist China (Duke University Press, 2021), which examines the material culture of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), was not itself a product of nostalgia for the era. I said, rather, that it was a quest for inspiration in the difficult task of imagining a world beyond capitalist commodification. Now, I have begun to think this might be a distinction without a difference. Whence my investment in inspiration over nostalgia? What would it mean to recoup nostalgia in this context? Specifically, what might nostalgia-as-method look like?
Those of us who research the Mao era (1949–76) are used to accusations of naive revisionism, if not wilful disregard for the historical suffering seen in the starvation of tens of millions and the dogged persecution of millions more—to name but two of the most conspicuous examples. The current flowering of People’s Republic of China (PRC) history as a field is built on the assertion that, unlike the concerned China scholars of the 1970s, perhaps, whose work was inextricably tied to their leftist politics (Lanza 2017), for us, researching something does not mean implicitly endorsing it. I have made some version of this claim more times than I can count, typically to a member of the public or a student with intimate or familial knowledge of the Cultural Revolution. Faced with an emotional narrative—generally one of tremendous pain—the denial of a nostalgic motivation on my part has become well nigh reflexive.
And yet, as the following conversation with Matthew Galway and Christian Sorace elucidates, such denials—in my case, at least—are not entirely borne out. My politics are relevant to my work and I do see value in a historical project bent on imagining a very different world—that is, a world beyond the capitalist commodity. Thus, Newborn Socialist Things might in fact be deemed nostalgic. More precisely (more charitably?), it could be read as an exercise in ‘reflective nostalgia’, to use the late Svetlana Boym’s influential typology, insofar as it implicates ‘an ethical and creative challenge’ rather than a transhistorical return (Boym 2001: 18). But whereas Boym centred nostalgia as an object of study—as a thing unto itself at work in various circumstances and social forms—to the extent that my scholarship is nostalgic, I hope it is so in method rather than mood or even content. Put differently: I hope the admittedly generous look back enacted in my book challenges us in the present—note the active voice—to expand our current imaginative horizons. This is a repeatable and productive tack, regardless, perhaps, of the immediate subject matter at issue.
Indeed, one might say, if one were inclined to go way out on a limb, that at its best—by which I mean progressive, engaged, and engaging—all history is nostalgic history.
Matthew Galway: What inspired your interest in the history of objects and material history? What drew you precisely to the Cultural Revolution as a period of historical inquiry?
Laurence Coderre: The Cultural Revolution came first in terms of my interest. I was already hooked on modern China and Chinese history. My interest then shifted to the model operas (样板戏 yangbanxi) and I was totally floored by what to me was incredibly weird. I was fascinated by a world that could create that and not think it was weird. The fact that yangbanxi were something that I did not have immediate access to presented a kind of fascinating puzzle to solve, but the pieces were also cultural products representative of the period more broadly. Once I started getting into it, it was all so clear. I was an undergraduate, I graduated college in 2007, so this was before Paul Clark’s The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (2008), Barbara Mittler’s A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture (2013), and all the work that has been done since then. It seemed to me like the entire scholarly landscape was merely elite politics, and as interesting and important as that was and is, there was so much missing, including what people were actually interacting with in the period. That is ultimately what led me to material objects, because we seemed sort of stuck collectively, the scholarship and me, in this place of decoding propaganda, the meaning of which we already thought we knew. So, it did not really grant access to questions of experience, interaction, and life in a way that I felt that materiality could potentially give us access. That was my trajectory.
Christian Sorace: There was a perfect moment for me when reading about your work when a question came to mind: how do we engage and relate to the materiality of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, and not simply regard it as an endless string of signifiers? Your animating question—what are the conditions that can create yangbanxi, similar works of art, and their diegetic worlds—is a brilliant one.
LC: Yes, what originally interested me about this subject was signification: metaphor, the go-to concern of literary scholars, is precisely that which is so overdetermined in all these official works because that is what revision after revision after revision paid attention to, that mode of signifying. All this labour went into trying to push a singular idea over and over again that way. It is no wonder, then, that when we, as scholars and critics, try to find something interesting to say at that level, it seems totally banal and simplistic. So, it sort of sucks the marrow out of what are otherwise really interesting works if one approaches them in their full materiality. The world that people heard, felt, smelled, sat in, worked within—the fullness of living and doing—re-instilling that means that we then have a way of potentially using that fullness to read against the grain in a historical way. It is really easy to read against the grain if you do not care about such things. But if we are serious about historical methodology then we need to figure out a way to say something interesting in a way that is still historically grounded. That, for me, is the sweet spot.
MG: I have always been fascinated by the history of objects and why people collect. The questions I have for you relate to why people take an interest in these objects, why people purchase them, and why they develop emotional attachments to them. In your introduction, you raised two fascinating questions that you sought to answer in the book: what makes a socialist thing socialist and what makes it a thing? So, how does your book answer these questions? As a follow-up to that, what makes a socialist thing newborn?
LC: I am not entirely sure I managed to answer these completely, mostly because I am not sure they are answerable. But I took a stab at it. The short and glib answer to the first one—what makes a socialist thing socialist—is that it is not capitalist, therefore it is socialist. A tremendous amount of work—thinking, internal debate, writing, and rewriting—goes into trying to maintain, establish, and police the line between things that are socialist and things that are capitalist. Although these objects look the same, they cannot be the same because … they just cannot be, because if China is socialist then they cannot be capitalist. Much of this declaration is ideological and even arbitrary. But what interests me is all that labour and ideological work that goes into trying to establish a radical difference. That happens in some cases aesthetically, and in others through historiographical means as with the rehabilitation of particular materials and forms of labour, for example. In some cases, it means trying to foreground the labour that goes into the making of a thing, the packaging of it, the way that it is sold, or the way that people use it. All these characteristics can supposedly make a thing socialist, but what makes it a thing?
This is where this bleeds into the second question, which is basically, what is a thing? Is it an object? Or is it an object in addition to the social factors around it that make the object possible and meaningful? This is where the results are mixed. At its most ambitious, the kind of sources and discourse that I outline do imagine a world where materiality and the social are fused in complex, insuperable ways. But on a day-to-day basis, those distinctions reemerge and we wind up with the conclusion that ‘a thing is an object’. So, this is how I would answer your two questions. These are somewhat unsatisfying answers, I would say, but my failure is my historical actors’ failure, and their failure is my failure.
The newborn question is a little easier to answer in some ways. This is because it relates to a quite clearly defined idea of historical progress. The idea of forward movement as signposted by social and material developments that bring the future into the present is what makes something newborn. Its status and importance are pretty clear. That does not mean, though, that what qualifies as newborn, and therefore progress, is altogether clear. The result is more of a terrain of contestation because, ultimately, it is about the future and who defines that future, and who defines what utopia will be.
CS: I truly appreciate how you frame that, at that time, it was impossible to escape the commodity form. The commodity form haunted the debates: could it be used or repurposed for socialist ends, and would it ever be possible to extricate socialist newborn things from the commodity form? That became this constant problem: the haunting of the necessity of the commodity form and then the inherent danger of swallowing back up all these newborn things under it. Does anybody still think about how to build and create things that do not immediately take the commodity form?
LC: That is strangely one of the parts of the book of which I am most proud—that is, the beginning of the acknowledgements, if I may toot my own horn briefly. A part that I am sure no-one will read. I wrote it well after the manuscript was essentially done, but right after the murder of George Floyd during the pandemic. In the early days, New York was just emerging from the worst of it, and the United States had a protofascist in the White House [Donald Trump], and it was very hard to figure out why I cared about this book that I had spent a decade working on in one way or another. Part of the reason I am proud of that portion of the book—namely, the first two paragraphs of the acknowledgements—is because I managed to put that feeling in writing to a certain degree and answer to myself the questions I had in mind. Which is to say that we, collectively, need to do better than this. For many of us, that means trying to think our way out of capitalism as it stands today in one way or another. That means grappling with the commodity form, so the least that we could do is to look at other people who have tried to do that before, even if they failed, and to learn from those experiences. Perhaps it was delusional, but that was the way I tried to give meaning to something that, otherwise, was feeling mighty pedantic in that moment. I hope that it ultimately speaks to precisely the questions: ‘What do we do? What can we do now?’
MG: How do we escape our dependence on or fetishism of the commodity form? How do we move past it? How did the Chinese Communist Party and its ideological champions, mouthpieces, and architects confront that challenge when thinking about making these objects for consumption?
LC: With much consternation, is the answer. Much of the onus was placed on lynchpin figures at the ground level to try to guarantee appropriate behaviour. I discuss this at length in Chapter 2 with regard to salespeople and retailers. There was this really bizarre paradoxical position where they were meant to sell consumer commodities to customers, but that was not all they were doing. Indeed, they were selling in the name of revolution at the same time as they were serving a pedagogical function that was often at cross-purposes with the goal of selling things. It was a lot of desire management that, in theory, was left to the salespeople who had to figure out customer engagement in conspicuous consumption. Did they want it because they needed it [the commodity]? Or did they act for the benefit of the common good, the good of the family, or the work unit? Or was this consumption of a capitalist type? The danger in selling or buying the commodity form risked leading people into commodity fetishism, thereby pulling China off the socialist road and backwards through history. All fell on the shoulders of individuals who were meant to police themselves as well as those around them. It was a tough row to hoe. It is no wonder that it failed, if only because of how easily market forces took over when unleashed.
MG: To segue to China’s economic liberalisation, a whole market arose around purchasing and collecting these items from the Cultural Revolution in genuine, original form or as reproduced, high-quality fakes. The symbolic capital that a collector attaches to an authentic version—as if to say, ‘I am a good communist’, or a good Chinese communist, more specifically—is quite fascinating. Many Chinese and non-Chinese are drawn to collecting these objects to confront past trauma or just because they like the look of them and find the iconography and the radical ideological frenzy of the Cultural Revolution fascinating. Scholars like Jennifer Hubbert and Emily Williams have written extensively on collection. I am particularly drawn to a phenomenon in China among so-called Red Collectors, to borrow from Williams, and the pursuit and encouragement in recent times of people to find, collect, and display objects from their family histories. Can you tell us about this?
LC: Yes, to use objects as a focal point of oral history and/or historical ethnography, not unlike Jie Li does with Shanghai Homes (2014), is a tremendously powerful approach to work around some of our tendencies … to foreclose discussions of meaning when we think about ‘propaganda’. This is the fallback position, which is why I banned the word from my undergrad classroom: the word ‘propaganda’ does not lead us anywhere. These are all positive developments. My original thought when I was writing my dissertation was to do something on kitsch in the contemporary moment. I thought this was a great project for someone other than myself and that it would be difficult to do without more historical work on how these objects circulated in the 1960s and 1970s. I wrote the book that I wished had already existed when I was trying to think of projects that relate to these questions. There has been really great work in the Eastern European space and, indeed, China ought to be part of that larger conversation, yet it has not been to this point. That is really a shame. So, I hope that more happens in this space, for sure.
CS: I absolutely agree with how you just put that: what is the book that you need or you want to read? Then, to go and write that book. Just to go back to your previous comment, does the question of communism require a changing of one’s own desire? You are right that so much of the Mao era was about reaching into one’s thoughts and reforming how one desired and engaged in confessional practices. I keep thinking, even though I often do not admit this: is there a way to think of communism or socialism infrastructurally wherein we can bypass the question of desire? Or does communism always entail an ethical project of creating new humans? Just hearing you talk raised a lot of these questions for me, alongside yet another: was the impasse of Maoism also a deadlock of communist desire?
LC: That is awesomely put and sort of a pickle. I am flying by the seat of my pants a bit here in response to your questions. Because the commodity is the cornerstone of Marxist analysis of capitalism and because commodity fetishism and its necromancy are so fundamental to a Marxist approach to political economy and to mapping out a trajectory towards communism, it necessarily implicates desire. Maybe. Maybe not.
CS: I am riffing here as well, and I cannot articulate it that well. But that belief that, somehow, we can move beyond alienation and achieve the enlightenment project of being transparent to ourselves and sovereign over our relations, seems not to be so desirable, let alone possible. I am okay with being non-sovereign. I am okay with being trapped in desire. I do not see getting out of that as a goal.
LC: I see. I would ask you then, is there a way to move past capitalism without getting rid of commodity fetishism? Because that’s ultimately where desire is implicated, is it not?
LC: If we wish to remain opaque to ourselves, does that necessarily mean that we are always susceptible to commodity fetishism at some level? If so, are we ultimately, for lack of a better term, screwed? This is what I argue, though I am not sure. To get back to the book, the approach to the political economy and socialism that I talk about is tied to this. How are we going to dismantle commodity fetishism? We are going to sort of demystify it and the problem by making everybody super aware of how the commodity works, what it is, and what is going on. Thus, there is no mystery and there is no danger. I did not use this in the book, but it is a kind of talking cure for the commodity fetish, is it not? If we talk about it and exorcise it then we can still deal with commodities and be fine. But it does not truly work that way either because we wind up bringing the fetish in by the back door, and then it becomes another mode of fetishising language itself. I do think that the attempt is to say we will talk our way out of it through knowledge, but it does not work. Perhaps it is best not to try? Is that the other option? I cannot say for sure.
CS: We must try something. Yes.
MG: I have one more question specifically about the book. The one chapter that stood out for me, in keeping specifically with items that could be collected, was your third chapter, ‘Productivist Display’. In it, you examine the making of decorative porcelain in Jingdezhen, which is China’s porcelain capital, with particular attention to tensions between different regimes of value as they played out in the organisation of labour and the realm of sculptural aesthetics. Porcelain, of course, held its own symbolic and cultural capital. How did porcelain statuettes of revolutionary heroes, including these characters from yangbanxi, facilitate porcelain’s emergence not as an elitist consumer product, but as a politically viable medium?
LC: This is a little bit of a chicken and egg problem. The fact that the yangbanxi is in porcelain form is itself a sign of porcelain’s acceptability, but also a way of giving porcelain revolutionary capital. They mutually reinforce each other, if that makes sense. That said, this was the underlying impetus for the chapter as a whole; that there is something, to go back to my acknowledgements section, about why I was interested initially in yangbanxi and how their performance works. There is something off about these porcelain figurines in that they are unexpected. Why are they unexpected? Precisely because of what seems to be a disconnect between the ideological inclinations of the iconography and the class and elitist associations of the material. So, when you put them together, it is like there is something incongruous going on. That was what I wanted to figure out. Why not just chuck it and avoid porcelain altogether? Why not just say, ‘Okay, Four Olds, moving on’? Part of the answer has to do with nationalism, as porcelain is significant to China’s identity on a global stage, and part of it has to do with the economic importance of exports for hard currency. But also, and this is the part that I explore in the chapter, the uniqueness of Jingdezhen in relation to early party history and forms of labour organisation. A particular set of arguments could be made wherein although porcelain, the material, may have been consumed by the elites, it was made by the proletariat. If that origin could be elevated then the material itself could be reclaimed and rechannelled to more appropriate ends. Part of the rehabilitation is historiographical—that is, telling the story of the rise of the proletariat. The other part is a real-world shift to factories as a form of production because it is important for us to remember that not all labour counts as ‘production’. Not every form of labour acquires that kind of exalted mantle. How does one achieve it? What forms are particularly powerful within that frame of reference? Here, it is very clear that the factory emerges as a quasi-sacred space of the worker. In discussing workers, we are talking about factory workers on assembly lines and/or mechanised assembly lines. That is the ultimate vector of rehabilitation for the material whereby the proto-proletariat becomes a full-blown proletariat in the context of these massive factories and assembly lines. All of this is important, especially when one is trying to figure out a way to encourage people to look at something differently. Instead of seeing a thing that they want, they see what they feel they are supposed to see. This results in something like, ‘Oh, look at all the labour that went into producing this thing.’ It is an impressive but exceedingly difficult trick to pull off. One needs to place tremendous emphasis on production itself. So, turning to porcelain was a way for me to highlight that part of the equation.
CS: Your answer calls to mind different relations of labour and production—notably, how Ai Weiwei’s porcelain art installation Sunflower Seeds at The Tate in 2010–11 was produced in Jingdezhen. People’s experiences of the installation, the kind of art installation it was, the later commodification of Sunflower Seeds, and Ai Weiwei’s star power, all come to mind here. Is the painstaking labour that went into the porcelain seeds of Sunflower Seeds something that someone sees or considers? Or is that labour merely absorbed into the commodity that is Ai Weiwei?
LC: These are good questions. Unfortunately, I was there [in Jingdezhen] in 2014, and all those factories are no longer intact. Some of the compounds have been taken over by small studio potters, so they have become artisanal spaces. If someone out there wants to write a paper on socialist ruins, there is definitely room for one to be written about the modes of production being undertaken within these architectural spaces, some of which have been reworked or bulldozed in certain segments. The smokestack of the main kiln is still there, and I do not know why that is the case. But it seems like an interesting totemic gesture to a gigantic past that has now become super atomised. Nevertheless, there is something to be written in that area.
MG: In thinking about the themes we have discussed and all we have covered, I cannot help but think of the Mao Mausoleum and his corpse lying in permanent wake. Can we classify, in the prevailing political climate under Xi Jinping, Mao the corpse on display as a newborn socialist thing?
LC: Embalmed, maybe. Petrified. A petrified newborn thing. Erstwhile, to what end, is my answer. In the intro to the book, I discuss a thought experiment about taking the idea of socialism with Chinese characteristics at face value, if only for a second. Everybody knows that it is capitalism with Chinese characteristics, in which case we have to reevaluate how capacious socialism can be and whether such a stretching is even possible. In that sense, if one wanted, one might think of Mao’s corpse-on-display and the act of seeing him and all the folks selling the Little Red Book to people in line, and its many, many translations, etcetera, etcetera, as a post-socialist thing. A post-socialist newborn thing. Perhaps … but socialism is not what it used to be.