Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Shaowen Zhang reviews Negative Exposures

Margaret HillenbrandNegative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020. 292 pp.

Review by Shaowen Zhang

25 November 2020

While sharply grounded in Chinese cultural history, Margaret Hillenbrand’s Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China is a valuable addition to current studies on visuality. It focuses on the interrelation between the visual image and politics: “all the photographs I discuss here have pasts, not in public culture but in secrecy . . . it is their ‘appropriations’––photo-forms––that carry out the core labor of political making” (p. 30) Political making takes place in collective practices of visual morphogenesis, which stand in a dialectical relationship to state-mandated collective forgetting (enabled by censorship). The practice of “public secrecy” forecloses the possibility of traditional photographic forms participating in traditional notions of public culture.

In modern China, visibility––taken both literally and as a sociopolitical metaphor––describes the dangers of exposure, historical knowledge gradually tempers into historical amnesia, and techniques of visual expression are replaced by careful installation of hidden cues within a variety of photo-forms. Hillebrand’s titular metaphor of negativity suggests a site where suppressed, inarticulable stories can be recovered or constructed anew. Hillenbrand thereby challenges the historical overemphasis on indexicality in photography, arguing instead that the photograph’s "afterlives"––that is, its derivative, pluralistic forms articulated through diverse material substrates––are just as significant. With devotion to landmark political photographs as well as to artistic compositions, Hillenbrand also draws from the visual stock on offer in flea markets, private volumes, old periodicals, internet forums, circulating memes, and so forth, collapsing the line between universally vaunted images such as the Tank Man and the more fleeting components of Chinese material culture. Negative Exposures attempts to construct a long-wished-for image theory of modern China. A predecessor theory, articulated by Susan Sontag in The Image World (1977), described Chinese photography as solely enacting a politicizing, moralizing agenda. Things are not so simple today. Hillenbrand proposes turning our sights to the inevitable eclecticism of photo-forms, contending that these are visual and textual openings to a rich world of creativity and resistance.

One of the book’s most powerful sections is an analysis of Mao-era family portraits. A studio photograph of a mother, daughter and son at first glance seems frictionless enough, but closer looking illuminates the ‘spectral scars’ inflicted upon this family. Hillenbrand draws our attention to the abnormally low positioning of the mother’s head “floating several inches below her children . . . almost as if it were superimposed” (p. 112). The father’s absence necessitated a rearrangement of bodies into a bizarre group formation. For Hillenbrand, these kinds of gestures against what Foucault terms normalization should alert the spectator to probe for additional layers of historical depth or detail beneath photography’s thick representational veil. Her nuanced interweaving of close-reading, primary source analysis, theoretical engagement, and historical scholarship combs out the signs of national histories collapsing onto personal ones, enduring as spectral media forms. 

Although organized in mainly chronological fashion, Negative Exposures gradually establishes clear links between iconic historical photographs and what are considered post-medial modes of image-making. In chapter 1, images of the Nanjing Massacre offer a trenchant analysis of visuality’s incessant mobilization. Chapter 2 focuses on Cultural Revolution family photos as a site where inarticulable testimonials are written into photo text. Chapter 3 traces the digital multiplication of the portrait of Bian Zhongyun, beaten to death by her students during the Cultural Revolution. Concepts of spectrality, death and media afterlives emerge most clearly here: Bian’s digital memorialization propelled a demand for public reflection and reckoning. From this point, Hillenbrand’s focus shifts from watershed periods in Chinese history to contemporary practices of remediation, opening exciting new avenues for subsequent scholarship. Chapter 4, exploring the aesthetic afterlives of the Tank Man image, dexterously broaches a wide conceptual range: platformization, systems theory, reception studies, and humor. Lastly, chapter 5 expands on Wu Hung’s earlier study of Zhang Dali and reflects on the power of the photographic image, in all its appropriated manifestations, to challenge hegemonic visuality. Some theories of visuality attempt to show the image as a langue. Hillenbrand’s reconfiguration of visuality studies in the Chinese context articulates a different project: to theorize the unsayable.

This book emerges at an important time in Sinophone Studies, approximately coinciding with Hong Kong protests against a national-security law and with the thirtieth anniversary of Tian’anmen. Like these political markers, Hillenbrand’s eclectic study of photography’s intergenerational afterlives operates as difference and repetition: real historical figures are suddenly voiced over; intimate portraits flow as digital signage; an injection of humor eats away at the insularity of national trauma. Looking beyond its immediate cultural context, too, Negative Exposures is an insightful account of media objects’ centrality within anthropological, art-historical, literary, historical and sociological modes of analysis, binding often disparate methodologies together. Revisiting W. J. T. Mitchell’s foundational question “what do pictures want,” Hillenbrand’s text responds that within the penumbra of public secrecy, the will towards speech persists.