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Tim Shao-Hung Teng reviews Information Fantasies

Xiao Liu, Information Fantasies: Precarious Mediation in Postsocialist China. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 318 pp.

Review by Tim Shao-Hung Teng

15 July 2020

For a long time, the defining scholarly work on 1980s Chinese cinema in the English-speaking world has been Rey Chow’s 1995 book Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. That book not only helped canonize a group of films by the so-called fifth-generation directors; its deconstructive style also set the tone for subsequent studies that developed topics such as national allegory, cultural translation, and orientalism. This work has now been updated by Xiao Liu’s Information Fantasies. Beyond the framework of postcolonial theories and outside the immediate purview of fifth-generation cinema, Liu draws on the many insights of media studies and includes a plethora of original materials: literary and filmic works, image and advertisement theories, scientific speculations and folk practices, through which readers are brought to witness the formation of China’s information society and its attendant imaginaries well before the debut of the internet.

The Chinese 1980s are approached by Liu as an era of precarious mediation. Indeed, the decade can be described as a historical “middle” in many respects. Sociopolitically, it marks the transition from the socialist to postsocialist society on the cusp of the global market, with memories of the Mao era continuing to haunt many people. Technologically, the advents of electronic and digital media, led by TV, brought about novel means of (mis)communication as well as fantasies of the informatized body and its (mis)uses. As screens and interfaces began to abound, the conditions of work and labor also underwent restructuring. Intellectually, the decade saw the systematic introduction of the “three theories” (sanlun)—systems theory, cybernetics, information theory—as Chinese thinkers sought to indigenize a modern society on par with its Western counterparts. Scientific rationality reigned supreme. Postwar modernization theory, information sciences, and the aesthetics of modernism combined in a web of social discourses substituting a depoliticized cultural analysis for Marxist class analysis. For this reason, many historical agents discussed in the book are viewed less as filmmakers and writers than as social theorists and cyberneticists. And aesthetically, discussions of modernist and post-realist styles coexisted with untamed sci-fi fantasies and experimental literature taking after fragmented advertisement slogans. Freed from the clutches of revolutionary doctrines but soon to be incorporated into the global regime of information capitalism, the Chinese 1980s were marked by transitional pain, lingering memories, developmental impulses, and geopolitical struggles, together with the new situation of contract and at-will labor contributing to the theme of precarious life.

A rich account of postsocialist intellectual history as well as a nuanced study of film and literary works that have thus far received scant attention, Information Fantasies also gestures at new directions for future Chinese film and media studies. Among its several achievements is the identification of TV, rather than cinema, as the medium central to the popular imagination of information platforms and digital convergence. This observation joins recent scholarship such as Thomas Lamarre’s study of Japanese anime and its televisual distribution in enlarging a field previously focused on cinematic representations.

In one section Liu discusses how the Chinese intellectuals Jin Guantao and Liu Qingfeng adopted feedback loops, a key concept from cybernetics, to diagnose an “ultrastable” social system locked in the looped reproduction of feudal structures. Used to offer an ingenious reading of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, this concept concerns the relations between the observer and the system, or how the observer cannot but present views of the world that are formed and informed by her own embeddedness in such a world. This notion of self-reference should be brought to bear as well upon the production system of which the book is a part. For the book’s arguments largely build on concepts—the interface effect, labor of mediation, affect, automation, precarity, and liminality—that have been put forth by media-studies predecessors such as Alexander Galloway, Mark Hansen, N. Katherine Hayles, Steven Shaviro, and Lydia Liu, all referenced in the book.

Information Fantasies situates media studies at the forefront of contemporary social critique, as do the scholars just mentioned. Among its concerns are modernization theory’s disavowal of the history of colonial expansion; the interface and its deceptive transparency; and the recalcitrant body in the face of a convergence culture threatening to dissolve all into frictionless information flows. These media theories are borne out through nuanced engagements with literary and filmic texts. In a field where “the medium is the message” has become a mantra, where the search for meaning has become secondary to the contingencies of mediating process, Information Fantasies shows that the close reading of signs, symptoms and systems need not be at odds with descriptions of materiality and technicity. It demonstrates that hermeneutics can still be a site where politics occurs at its most minute yet prolific.