The book has been a long time in the making. The origins of the project go back at least as far as a 2010 talk that I gave on Caroline Bergvall’s iterative poetics at the incredible Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival, organized by the amazing Emily Critchley. It was a great privilege to speak about the poetic uses of repetition, versioning, and appropriation at a forum that featured many wonderful contemporary writers, including Caroline herself.
That festival helped set me on the path to writing a book about poetry’s turn to copying, sampling, versioning, remediation, and other forms of repetition. Nine years later, and after countless other instances of encouragement and support from writers, artists, and scholars from around the world, I’m relieved and excited to be able to hold Make It the Same in my hands and so to make good on their faith in my work.
My review of Tong King Lee’s Experimental Chinese Literature is now online at MCLC. It begins:
“In translating a work, I mistake it for my own,” writes Taiwanese poet Chen Li 陳黎. More and more writers today are making their texts from other texts through translation, cultural borrowing, and, increasingly, through the affordances of new media technologies. Around the world, their readers are likewise searching for new ways of understanding and reading this literature of repetition, translation, and remediation.
Tong King Lee 李忠慶 takes up this challenge in his book Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics. Lee cites Chen Li’s statement in making the case for the inextricable relationship between poetic creation and translation in contemporary Chinese experimental literature (80). Lee defines experimental literature as “works that tap into various technologies in foregrounding their materiality.” For Lee, “experimental literature is . . . characterized by the interplay between the corporeality of the sign . . . and the travel of the text across languages and media” (166). Lee’s concern is thus primarily with works of poetry and contemporary art that highlight their own material qualities—the texture of the page, the shape that writing makes on a flickering screen, or in the space of a park in an open-air exhibition—and that explore textual translations not just between languages but also, importantly, between media.
Lee’s book makes a cogent argument for considering interlingual translation alongside trans-mediation, versioning, and appropriation. Lee collectively calls these practices, which I have elsewhere termed “iterative,” “translational.” Lee extends the concept of the “translational” to cover not just translations into other languages but also the intermedia, interlingual, and intercultural transactions that are involved in the composition of many experimental literary texts (130–31). Lee argues that such translational texts require new translational approaches to reading (97).
Read the full review here.
Recently, I was approached with a few questions about Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media. Below is an edited version of my answers, which offer a brief introduction to some of the book’s key arguments and themes. You can read the original article here.
Why did you decide to write Make It the Same?
Our world is full of copies. I wrote Make It the Same because I wanted to explore the consequences for art and culture of this world of proliferating copies.
We can now easily make copies of vast quantities of texts, images, and videos—something utterly unimaginable until very recently in human history. We also live in a world in which those copies travel across vast distances at the click of a button. This copying across languages and cultures goes to the very heart of what we call globalization.
We sometimes, quite rightly, see this incessant copying as a threat, particularly when it seems to impact negatively on local languages, cultures, and traditions, and when it seems to promote a culture of clickbait and likes, in which value is measured only by the number of copies.
In Make It the Same, I wanted to explore how writers and artists respond to copying’s negative effects. But I also wanted to address the creative uses that they make of copying, which is, after all, a fundamental trait of human culture.
What is it about?
At the broadest level, Make It the Same is about how writers and artists (and people in general) respond to a world of proliferating copies.
Now, artists and writers might—and some do—respond by seeking to affirm the originality of their art. But what Make It the Same shows is that much of the most interesting and influential contemporary writing and art in fact works through copying, not against it.
Specifically, Make It the Same shows how poetry—an art form associated with the singular, inimitable utterance—is increasingly made from other texts through sampling, appropriation, translation, remediation, performance, and other forms of repetition.
We might think that such creative uses of copying are a product of the Internet age. But Make It the Same demonstrates that poets made similar use of earlier media technologies, such as the tape recorder, typewriter, and photocopier. So the Internet age is not so much the beginning as the continuation of a trend that stretches back at least to the 1950s, probably earlier. For example, Jamaican DJs invented many of our modern music sampling techniques using analogue acetate discs in the early 1960s. The poet Kamau Brathwaite, working in Jamaica at the same time, did a very similar thing for poetry, though he made use instead of the newly available medium of reel-to-reel tape.
As this example shows, when we start to take the art of copying seriously, we also see the history of art, literature, and music differently. In the past, writers and artists from small countries like Jamaica or New Zealand have often been seen as playing catchup to the cultural centres of London or New York. But seen through the art of copying, the history of recent art and literature looks quite different. In fact, it’s often writers and artists who sit outside these so-called centres who make the most powerful use of copying, in part because they are the ones who are most often accused of merely copying trends from somewhere else.
What can poetry offer us in terms of exploring complex contemporary issues?
While it is an academic book, Make It the Same also addresses some very topical concerns. For instance, one chapter looks at some of the troubling consequences of the attention economy produced by social media. I explore how this attention economy can drive more and more outrageous and extreme acts on- and offline, regardless of their ethics. I hardly need to point out how topical this issue is in the aftermath of the massacre in Christchurch.
Another issue that my book covers that might be of interest to a general or arts audience is the role of copying in our contemporary world.
In all fields of life, we tend to celebrate innovation and deride copying. My book argues, however, that copying is an underrated and important shaper of our social and technological world and is, arguably, more important to culture and society at large than making it new. While I write about the importance of copying primarily in relation to contemporary art and literature, I think this lesson has much broader implications for how we think about culture, science, technology, and society.
Equally importantly, my book addresses the copying involved in cultural globalization. We cannot escape this globalization, which means we find the same brands and the same music and films appearing again and again around the world. But the artists and writers that I discuss in my book turn this threat to local cultures into an opportunity. They find ways to play with and remix the cultural copying that is globalization.
Because it addresses such a broad range of examples, from Taipei to Moscow, Barbados to London, Make It the Same also showcases the cultural diversity of contemporary poetry and so gets us away from narrow, Eurocentric, sometimes stuffy views of what poetry is or might be. Exciting and influential poetic work can emerge from almost anywhere in this global cultural scene.
Finally, my book discusses sometimes strange and often beautiful examples of poetic word art that makes wonderful use of new media technologies—from tape recording and carbon copy in the 1960s and 1970s to today’s digital technologies.
I hope reading this book makes people think about . . .
I hope reading this book makes people think about our everyday acts of copying, whether they are viewing a webpage (and so copying it temporarily at least onto their phone or computer) or sharing a social media post or news article. We live a substantial portion of our lives through acts of copying. Make It the Same explores some of the positive and negative consequences of that copying and so will hopefully make readers more aware of the consequences of their own acts of copying and more alive to the beauty and dangers of the copy.
You should read this book if . . .
You should read this book if you are interested in contemporary writing and art. But even if you don’t think poetry or avant-garde word art is your cup of tea, you’ll still find plenty here to interest you, whether you are concerned about the impact of globalization and social media, or about other contemporary social issues such as rising nationalisms, the refugee crisis, and the politics of race.
A preview of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media is now available through Google Books. You can read a substantial portion of the introduction and a taster from a couple of other chapters. The full version (in hardback or ebook) will not be available until July but you can pre-order it now. Use the code CUP30 for a 30% discount when ordering directly from Columbia University Press. In the meantime, you can read the start of the introduction, “The Copy as Global Master Trope,” below or through Google Books.
Everywhere the same story: our world is full of copies. The Internet is made of billions of pages and files ceaselessly copied between machines, and many of those pages are themselves copies, the products of cut and paste, hard-copy scanning, or remixing. Mash-ups of other texts, images, videos, and sounds in turn generate the millions of memes and remixes that circulate online every day, producing yet more copies. Repetition is equally evident in the discourse and concrete products of the networked global economy. While science has long relied on the principle of repeatability, the terms iterative and even copying are now buzzwords of business, computing, and design. The manufacture of buildings, clothes, cars, computers, and countless other products involves ceaseless acts of copying that will only increase with the growth of 3-D printing and the Internet of things. These diverse copies and copying practices range from Bach concertos to Donald Trump memes, One Direction fan fiction to modular buildings, and game design to experimental physics. They are united by one thing: repetition itself.
Repetition has always played a role in culture, from the reiterated words that constitute language to the intricate rhythms of dance, music, and poetry. But never before have these repetitions been so overt and pervasive. If copying has become the dominant mode of cultural production, it is equally the condition of its distribution and consumption. Consumption itself becomes production when writers, artists, and social media users alike make their art and their personas through the selection and rearrangement of texts and images copied from elsewhere, whether in a book, a gallery space, an Instagram page, or a Facebook profile. Such repetitions on- and offline also produce the transnational copying of cultural material that we call globalization.
Make It the Same addresses this confluence of the form of the cultural work with the form of the global cultural system. The book traces a common turn to repetition and reproduction among diverse poets working in three global languages: Chinese, English, and Russian. Poetry is the literary genre traditionally most associated with repetition as a conscious stylistic element, through such devices as rhythm, rhyme, parallelism, anaphora, and pun. Poets over the last half century—and especially over the past two decades—have expanded their emphasis on repetition. The principle of repetition, for instance, undergirds the widespread use of sampling, performance, translation, writing constraints, digital networks, reiterations across multiple media, and the cut-and-paste compositions of “citational,” “unoriginal,” or “uncreative writing.”
In the field of contemporary poetry, scholars and poets alike have tended to treat these various kinds of repetition as largely separate phenomena. By contrast, Make It the Same shows how these diverse practices share a common iterative poetics. It explores the breadth of this iterative turn by crossing the fault lines of stylistic, cultural, and political commitments in contemporary poetry. One task of this book is to reveal the common cultural logic underlying the seemingly contrasting practices of such poets as Anne Carson and Christian Bök, Kamau Brathwaite and Kenneth Goldsmith, Hsia Yü 夏宇 and Yang Lian 楊煉, and Tusiata Avia and Dmitri Prigov. While these poets differ radically in their approaches, themes, and affiliations, they and a great many other contemporary writers wrestle with the cultural condition of repetition. By examining the work of such poets, I show how literature has over the past half century turned to iteration to address new media technologies and global cultural change.
To continue reading the introduction, go to the Google Books preview.
I am looking forward to speaking about the poetry of tape as part of the 2019 symposium of the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium. My paper for the symposium, “Poetry in Stereo: Towards a World Literature of Tape,” builds on my work on Kamau Brathwaite’s innovative use of the medium in the 1960s. As I show in Make It the Same, Brathwaite’s influential account of “nation language” in History of the Voice stems from his earlier use of the then new medium of tape. Since writing Make It the Same, I’ve had a chance to visit the wonderful George Padmore Institute in London and to listen to some of the extraordinary tape recordings made by Kamau Brathwaite and others, such as Doris Brathwaite and John La Rose, during their involvement in the Caribbean Artists Movement. I’ll be drawing on some of the fruits of that listening when I speak at the Univeristy of Waikato in Hamilton at the end of next week.
I’m delighted to announce that volume 40 of Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) has just been released and that it includes a cluster of essays that Lorraine Wong and I have co-edited. In our brief preface to the cluster, we not only introduce three ground-breaking essays by exciting young scholars; we also explain how they came to be published in CLEAR. We hope both the essays and our cautionary tale about censorship will generate new conversations in Chinese studies and, more broadly, about the increasing pervasiveness of government censorship around the world. To this end, I reproduce our preface (a PDF of which can be downloaded here) and the abstracts of the three essays below.
Flipping the script: An introduction to three essays and to the problem of censorship in Chinese studies
The essays by Guangchen Chen, Nicholas Wong, and Jin Liu gathered together in this issue of CLEAR are linked by a shared set of scholarly concerns and, less happily, by a history of thwarted publication and censorship. These three essays illustrate the powerful and contested role played by the Chinese script in imagining and questioning notions of Chineseness and of the Chinese state from the early twentieth century to the present day: from Lu Xun’s transcriptions of ancient steles through Ng Kim Chew’s repurposing of oracle bone script to Li Xiaoguai’s online publication of his playful and satirical invented characters. As the three essays demonstrate, these writers deploy the qualities of the Chinese script to question the norms of language, simplistic notions of Chineseness, and monolithic conceptions of China. Their publication in this issue of CLEAR brings up important areas of concern for those writing about Chinese literature and culture today.
The three essays were originally part of a planned special issue of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China (FLSC). Invited by FLSC to edit a special issue, Lorraine Wong responded by proposing to explore how diverse understandings and uses of the Chinese script have shaped not only Chinese literature and culture but also representations of China in the wider world. After this topic was accepted in 2015, we circulated a call for papers under the title “The Chinese Script and Its Global Imaginary.” Building on her own extensive work on the cultural politics of script reform in modern China, Lorraine also organized two related panels at the 2016 Association for Asian Studies and the 2017 American Comparative Literature Association annual meetings, and both these discussions fed into the development of the issue. As special issue editors, we oversaw a rigorous peer-review process and accepted four essays, including the three that that appear here. These essays were accepted by FLSC and slated for publication in the first half of 2018. Shortly before the publication date, we received proofs for that issue. One essay was missing entirely: Liu’s “Subversive Writing.” Our substantial introductory essay had also been crudely edited to remove all mention of Liu’s article, though one mention of her subject, Li Xiaoguai, had somehow evaded the censor’s eye.
When we wrote to the FLSC editor, Xudong Zhang, to question this censorship, we were told that the removal of Liu’s essay should come as no surprise, since FLSC has its editorial office in Beijing and so must abide by normal Chinese censorship. However, Zhang went further. He went on to say that Liu’s essay should never have been accepted and that he was now using his editorial prerogative to reject it.
Such censorship will hardly raise the eyebrows of those who work on the literature, culture, and history of modern and contemporary China. When we approached one member of the FLSC editorial board (a prominent professor at a prestigious US university), he merely shrugged: what did we expect? We all know that the price of publication in Mainland China is the censorship of anything currently deemed politically sensitive, and Liu’s discussion of invented characters that satirize the Chinese Communist Party falls easily into that category.
We are used to applying one set of rules for publishing in China and another for publishing outside it. But several aspects of the FLSC case should make us consider whether those rules are now changing for the worse and whether the distinction between publishing inside and outside the PRC is breaking down. When we first became aware of the journal FLSC and considered it as a publication outlet, we thought of it as a journal operating under the rules of the large Dutch academic publishing house Brill, which has a strong reputation in the field of modern and contemporary Chinese literary studies. Indeed, if one does a Google search for the journal in New Zealand, the top hits are for the journal’s Brill-hosted webpages. This association with Brill, along with its editorial board, which comprises many leading scholars in the field, led us to believe that the journal operated according to editorial practices similar to those of journals like CLEAR or MCLC. As it turns out, however, the journal is a joint publication of Brill and Higher Education Press, owned by the Ministry of Education of the PRC. As a result of this joint publication arrangement and the editorial office’s location in Beijing, the journal is subject to the full range of Chinese-government censorship.
We were perhaps naive to assume that the association with Brill and the international editorial board indicated that the journal operated according to the normal standards for non-Mainland publications and would not be subject to censorship—a mistaken belief shared by us as editors and our contributor, Liu. In subsequent correspondence, we have discovered from senior colleagues that others, particularly colleagues in junior and vulnerable positions, have also been caught in the unexpected application of censorship to a journal that, at a casual glance, might appear to sit outside the boundaries of Chinese government control. The journal Frontiers of History in China, which is likewise jointly published by Brill and the Higher Education Press, may have misled others in a similar way.
We believe that it is precisely the blurring of boundaries between publication inside and outside Mainland China that makes the precedent of FLSC particularly worrying and insidious. We have trained ourselves to read between the lines of work published on the Mainland, noting and compensating for the telling absences. But what happens when it is no longer obvious where something was published and according to which rules? Moreover, in these straitened times, dependence on editorial and financial support may well lead other editors, academics, and publishing houses outside China to add their stamp of legitimacy to such censorship. The affirmation of academic independence is all the more important in the face of such pressures and at a moment in history when, in many other countries around the world, governments are silencing criticism and suppressing journalistic, judicial, and academic freedom.
In the context of this disturbing trend, we would like to thank all the contributors to the planned FLSC special issue for supporting our decision to withdraw the entire issue in solidarity with Liu. We greatly appreciate their support of academic freedom, particularly when there was initially no guarantee that we would be able to secure an alternative publication outlet for their work. We are equally grateful to the editors of CLEAR for publishing these essays and, by so doing, affirming their commitment to the publication—free from censorship—of strong new scholarly work.
We too hope that the publication of these essays here in CLEAR will prompt the journal’s readers to question the unspoken rules that have grown up around censorship in the field of Chinese studies, to wake up to the changes that these rules are currently undergoing, and to open up a conversation about how we negotiate academic freedom alongside the increasing projection of PRC censorship beyond its borders. We need to maintain dialogue and engagement, yes; but not at the price of allowing institutions outside Mainland China, including publishing houses and universities, to affirm and extend the suppression of controversial ideas.
Lorraine Wong and Jacob Edmond
The Hand, the Gaze, and the Voice: Lu Xun’s Transcription of Ancient Inscriptions
Guangchen CHEN, Princeton University
This paper analyzes chao gubei 抄古碑 (transcribing ancient steles) as a significant obsession of Lu Xun’s prior to his becoming a famous writer in the May Fourth period. Striking moments in his literary works stemmed from this personal obsession. Even though Lu Xun’s transcribing of ancient steles can be considered a means to anesthetize himself, this paper argues that this act of transcription also serves to circumvent thinking and speech against the grain of the May Fourth period, when revolutionaries sought to facilitate the flow of thinking and speech in Chinese society by replacing the Chinese script with phonetic ones. After looking at Lu Xun’s transcribing of ancient steles, this paper examines how the purposelessness and materiality of this practice appears in Lu Xun’s fictional works, such as “A Madman’s Diary,” “Epitaph,” and “Kong Yiji.”
The Imaginative Materialism of Wen in Ng Kim Chew’s Malayan Communist Writing
Nicholas Y. H. WONG, University of Chicago
Taiwan-based Mahua (Chinese-Malaysian) writer Ng Kim Chew (Huang Jinshu, 1967– ) has questioned Mahua literature’s filiation to mainland Chinese literature through parodic depictions of look-alikes and resemblances involving the canonical May Fourth writer Yu Dafu and his sojourn in colonial Malaya. What critics view as Ng’s self-invention through negativity can be used to explore his strategic alliance with another mainland Chinese genealogy, that of the late-Qing philologist-rebel Zhang Taiyan and the “father” of modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun. Ng provocatively claims that the late-Qing and postwar (or Cold War) Mahua intellectual and literary contexts are structurally resonant. His filiation with these two historically unrelated contexts in his essays, as well as his short fiction, over two decades is what I call his imaginative materialism of Chinese writing (wen). Using Ng’s recently published master’s thesis on Zhang Taiyan (2012), I focus on how Zhang’s role in the longer history of Chinese reflection on writing and semiotics shapes Ng’s fictional works on Malayan communism and his critique of Mahua literary history. Besides Zhang’s proposal for literary reform, I examine Ng’s allegorical reading of Zhang’s skepticism about oracle bone inscription, and what the “unearthing” of this ancient form of writing around the fall of empire means for Mahua people’s history and experience of the Asian Cold War. Ng refashions cultural essentialist Zhang’s Old Text Confucianism and “National Studies” toward new ends. Paradoxically, it is Ng’s deep engagement with the legibility of the classical Chinese past and the recurring theme of revolution and writing that defines his aesthetic modernity.
Subversive Writing: Li Xiaoguai’s Newly Coined Chinese Characters and His Comic Blogging
Jin LIU, Georgia Institute of Technology
This paper examines the emerging phenomenon of creating new Chinese characters on the internet with a case study of the artist Li Xiaoguai’s work. First, it analyzes the aesthetics and sociopolitical significance of Li’s new characters and neologisms. It explores how the new characters, as an alternative translation, achieve their Austinian performative force through an iteration of the original official language, which is thus displaced and subverted; how the puns become double-voiced and double-signified utterances in the Bakhtinian sense of folk humor; and how the vulgarities are pervasively used as interjections and intensifiers to vent strong emotions in the struggle against the state’s anti-vulgarity and internet censorship campaigns. Second, it studies how Li’s characters are integrated into his artistic creations via comic blogging. It explores how his comic strips evoke carnivalesque laughter by satirizing social ills, officialdom, and the increasing gap between the Communist Party (CCP) and the people, the state and the family, and the privileged and the underprivileged.
With its revisionist echoes of Pound’s “make it new,” Make It the Same is theoretically generative for thinking about modernist, contemporary, and world literature. Edmond powerfully demonstrates how the new media of repetition have generated a poetics of the same, a “copy poetry” that remixes prior poetries in global trajectories outside Eurocentric, center/periphery literary studies. A path-breaking book for post-1950s literature!udies.
—Susan Stanford Friedman, author of Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time
This Friday in Wellington I am speaking on rethinking the pasts and futures of conceptual writing and art as part of a symposium on conceptual writing organized by Anna Jackson and Emma Fenton. I’m looking forward to learning from an exciting group of speakers, including Ruth Buchanan, Malcolm Doidge, and Antonia Barnett McIntosh.
The symposium will be held between 1 and 4pm this Friday 8 March 2019 in room AM103, Alan McDiarmid Building, Kelburn Campus, Victoria University of Wellington. The symposium is open to the public but if you plan to attend, please RSVP to either Anna (email@example.com) or Emma (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The abstract for my talk appears below.
I learn new things from my students all the time. I learn through reading their essays on topics such as One Direction fan fiction, or online trans poetry networks. But I also learn by developing new approaches to teaching. Chapter 1 of Make It the Same, for instance, would never have been written if I hadn’t, about a decade ago, decided to teach a unit on Kamau Brathwaite and Linton Kwesi Johnson for a new course on Poetry and Music. I knew a little about the work of both already, but it was the effort to gather recordings of Brathwaite’s work and of the music that had inspired it that led me to become obsessed with the importance of sound recording to Brathwaite’s practice: his use of the tape recorder in particular as a mode of composition, publication, and, as it turned out, a way of reimagining black diasporic cultural persistence and change.
I document a similar process of learning through teaching in my contribution to a new Modernism/modernity Print+ forum, organized by Rebecca Walkowitz, which asks: “What is the scale of the literary object?” In my contribution to the forum, “Too Big to Teach: Sizing Up Global Modernism,” I write about my experience teaching an honours course on global modernism in which I challenged the students to write a research blog about the personal library of the prominent New Zealand modernist writer, editor, and philanthropist Charles Brasch. As I explain, the project was prompted by the recent preoccupation with scale in modernist studies but working with the students and seeing the results of the project also taught me new things about both modernism and teaching.
When we teach, we learn. It’s a cliché, but it seems worth repeating at a time when students at colleges and universities are increasingly taught by adjunct lecturers and professors who are paid to teach, but not to research, write, or think. I am aware that I write from a privileged position of tenure and that, sadly, such symbiotic relationships between teaching, research, and writing are a rare luxury in universities around the world. But they shouldn’t be. University managers and funders, in their narrow view of the bottom line, increasingly forget that university education is meant to be about learning from those who are not just teaching knowledge but producing it and that they need to pay their teachers accordingly. Perhaps they too need to be reminded that one is never too big to learn.