This month brings the publication of A New Literary History of Modern China, a volume that amasses 161 essays by 143 authors under the editorship of David Der-wei Wang. Intended for readers interested in understanding modern China through its literary and cultural dynamics, the book follows the similarly conceived New History of French Literature, New History of German Literature, and New Literary History of America. Below, HUP Executive Editor for the Humanities Lindsay Waters considers the organizational principle linking all four.
It might be worthwhile to talk about the Chinese literary history in terms of the series of literary histories that began with Denis Hollier’s New History of French Literature in 1989, because, although the volume devoted to the literatures of those who speak and write Chinese is the first book in the series to be devoted to a non-European tongue, the set-up and the goals of all the books in the series have some things in common. First, they are literary histories organized chronologically.
When we decided to organize the French literary history chronologically, I confess we were risking appearing to be too cute, looking like we were playing around. As the originator of the form we used for that book and for this one and the German and American volumes, Denis Hollier, wrote in the manifesto document to launch the French book, dates had “become the symbol of useless knowledge.” The time we began that book was the heyday of Deconstruction, literary theory, French and American feminisms, the birthing-time for Cultural Studies, ideologiekritik, so the recourse to dates offered us an organizing device that constituted “the least ideological way to reintroduce an historical dimension into the study of French literature. Dates [would be used] with some irony, a mostly rhetorical device which could encourage each contributor to focus on detail and give sharpness and specificity to each article. The devise [was] intended to work against pedestrian historicism.”
But, really, why dates? At this moment, so distant from the time of the original decision, I am tempted to say that our winking and smirking about dates concealed from us, all of us roughly from the class of 1968, that the date 1968 meant a great deal to this generation of researchers, just as September 11, 2011, means much to a later cohort. Dates, originally bits of useless knowledge, come to mean something. They can become what Walter Benjamin had called “focal points,” in his early essay “The Life of Students,” where he calls them “burning points” (Brennpunkt), something that concentrates events in a “kairos” or “monad,” thus shattering the historical continuum and the bare inventory of atomic facts, interpreting the past from out of the highest energy of the present, as Nietzsche puts it. In French literary history, just as in Chinese literary history, “assigning dates is far more problematic” the further back you go, as John Benton explains in “Entering the Date,” his contribution to A New History of French Literature. And as contributor Sandy Petry writes of the year 1789 in the same volume, “As the fall of the Bastille is a reality that became a representation,” so the falling of the Twin Towers has become a representation. The long-term impact of the name of the year “1968” was more decisive in our choice of dates as our organizing device than we could fathom. No one in China doubts the significance of dates, especially those of “May 4th,” or “1949,” or “June 4th.”
We use the dates not to assert continuity of French, German, American, or Chinese literary history, but to scramble it up. It is clear now, nearly thirty years after the appearance of the NHFL, that France is so unified a country that our deconstruction of it could not break it into pieces. It is the case that, on the contrary, the Chinese people, although they have lived for millennia held together and apart by the tribute system, have never had the sort of unity the French have had. Few peoples in the world have except primitive tribes. The effort to unify sinophone culture is a new thing, the very thing that is the subject of this book, that you can witness in the actions of the people who inhabit this book and engage in every sort of struggle to modernize China.
So, the dates that this book makes you aware of are important because, as Cognitive Science professor Edwin Hutchins writes in his book Cognition in the Wild, “the identification of a landmark is a highly interactive process.” That sounds abstract, but it is the opposite of abstract. Think of the effect of bases on ballplayers. And identifying landmarks is a process that the readers of the book are invited to participate in. Readers of previous books in this series have found that, because of the way the books are constructed, they become involved in them. Aiming to read one or two essays, they have gotten caught up in an ongoing flow from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves.
As Arthur J. Rosenthal, then the Director of HUP, said at the outset of this adventure, these books are not reference books. They’re not to be used like Google and Wikipedia, extracting free-floating facts, like stopping for a burger at the McDonald’s drive-by window. To put it differently, the readers of this book are not invited to be gravediggers exhuming a bit of knowledge, a bone here, a skull there, as in Hamlet. Rather they are invited to consume food to live in the present. Communion is the goal, not communication. This is the difference between the atomism Bertrand Russell celebrated and the holism that Henri Bergson promoted.
In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin sought to immerse his readers in the felt life of nineteenth-century Paris just at the time the Eiffel Tower was being raised, stunning many and horrifying many others. This way of writing cultural history is what Benjamin called “historical materialism.” How does that history work? It sidesteps the mere communication of information. He explained: “To put to work an experience with history—a history that is originary for every present—is the task of historical materialism. The latter is directed toward a consciousness of the present—which explodes the continuum of history.” This is the operation of “kairos,” as opposed to chronos, history a la Nietzsche, Bataille, and Hollier. Such history writing is directed to people who live in the present, provoking in the readers an experience in the fullest sense, what he called “Erfahrung.” When this history works, the past explodes into the present. The alternative form of history writing delivers up a continuum in a neat inventory, history reified. What the new history hopes to precipitate is an experience in which the pulse of the past is felt in the present.