“…a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought”?

Module systems do not occur in China alone; comparable phenomena exist in other cultures. However, the Chinese started working with module systems early in their history and developed them to a remarkably advanced level. They used modules in their language, literature, philosophy, and social organizations, as well as in their arts. Indeed, the devising of module systems seems to conform to a distinctly Chinese pattern of thought.1

While I was in the UK I took the opportunity to pick up some new books, one of which is
Ten Thousand Things, by Lothar Ledderose
. I hope to gain some insight into the art from this part of the world from this book, but the statement above troubles me. This setting up of “the Chinese” immediately enforces the relation of “otherness” between the author and the subject. Any utterance is liable to create this relationship, between author and subject, between knowledge and practice, between “now” and “then,” but it seems to me that in this case this relation is not a helpful one.

This book covers a spans thousands of years, a span which is itself intimately linked to Western history:

In roughly chronological sequence, the chapters cover a wide time span. The first case study deals with ritual bronze vessels of antiquity, particularly of the twelfth century B.C. Chapters 6 and 8, respectively, concern and encycolopedia of over one hundred million characters printed with movable type, and a series of bamboo paintings, both dating to the eighteenth century A.D.2

So who are these “Chinese” that the author sets up (or co-opts), that have maintained unique characteristics, deserving of a single name, over thousands of years? That’s many dynasties’ worth of people, with many groups coming and going in the history of the country, a country which has itself been geographically fluid.

Much of this relationship perhaps can be put down to the writer’s understanding of what is pragmatic in the face of his position: he reveals with these positioning statements that he writes for a Western audience.

I don’t deny that this categorisation can be useful and helpful, but what can we do when it becomes problematic? Is it a matter of explicitly positioning all our statements within their context (a potentially infinite task)? There can no absolute form to follow for this, no answer.

I’m perhaps making a small, pedantic point here, about a feature of the text that I have unnecessarily latched onto right at the start of reading this book. I know I will learn much about the objects it describes, I am just wary of how it will present the “whos” and the “whats” involved.

  1. Ledderose, Lothar (2000). Introduction. In: Ten Thousand Things: module and mass production in Chinese art (The A.W. Mellon lectures in the fine arts, 1998). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.2.
  2. ibid., p.1.

Adorno on Commitment in Art

In esthetic theory, ‘commitment’ should be distinguished from ‘tendency’. Committed art in the proper sense is not intended to generate ameliorative measures, legislative acts or practical institutions – like earlier propagandist plays against syphilis, duels, abortion laws or borstals – but to work at the level of fundamental attitudes. For Sartre its task is to awaken the free choice of the agent which makes authentic existence possible at all, as opposed to the neutrality of the spectator. But what gives commitment its aesthetic advantage over tendentiousness also renders the content to which the artist commits himself inherently ambiguous. In Sartre the notion of choice – originally a Kierkegaardian category – is heir to the Christian doctrine ‘He who is not with me is against me’, but now voided of any concrete theological content. What remains is merely the abstract authority of a choice enjoined, with no regard for the fact that the very possibility of choosing depends on what can be chosen. The archetypal situation always cited by Sartre to demonstrate the irreducibility of freedom merely underlines this. Within a predetermined reality, freedom becomes an empty claim: Herbert Marcuse has exposed the absurdity of the philosophical theorem that it is always possible inwardly either to accept or to reject martyrdom. Yet this is precisely what Sartre’s dramatic situations are designed to demonstrate. But his plays are nevertheless bad models of his own existentialism, because they display in their respect for truth the whole administered universe which his philosophy ignores: the lesson we learn from them is one of unfreedom. Sartre’s theatre of ideas sabotages the aims of his categories. This is not a specific shortcoming of his plays. It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads. In fact, as soon as committed works of art do instigate decisions at their own level, the decisions themselves become interchangeable. Because of this ambiguity, Sartre has with great candour confessed that he expects no real changes in the world from literature – a scepticism which reflects the historical mutations both of society and of the practical function of literature since the days of Voltaire. The principle of commitment thus slides towards the proclivities of the author, in keeping with the extreme subjectivism of Sartre’s philosophy, which for all its materialist undertones, still echoes German speculative idealism. In his literary theory the work of art becomes an appeal to subjects, because it is itself nothing other than a declaration by a subject of his own choice or failure to choose.

Adorno, Theodor (1965). Commitment. In Noten zur Literature III. Frankfurt: Suhrkhamp Verlag 1965. Translation reprinted in Adorno et al. Aesthetics and Politics, translated by Francis McDonagh. London: Verso 2007. pp.180–181.