Lisa Rofel’s Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China After Socialism

Lisa Rofel’s Other Moderities has been mentioned a few times in comments on recent posts, so, as it is one of my favorite recent ethnographies, I thought I would post the text of a classroom presentation I gave on the book some years ago. Since this was originally written for a seminar in which my colleagues were assumed to have also read the same material, there may be some gaps where I could count on the rest of the class to understand — for example, there’s some heavy borrowing from Appadurai, which we had read immediately prior to Rofel, but I do not mention him by name here. However, I do not trust myself to make edits all these years later, when the book is not fresh in my mind anymore.

In Lisa Rofel’s words, Other Modernities “addresses the cultural politics of modernity in the late twentieth century. It suggests how modernity is imagined, pursued, and experienced… in those places marked by a deferred relationship to modernity” (3). She offers us an at least introductory definition of modernity the following: “…an imaginary and continuously shifting site of global/local claims, commitments, and knowledge, forged within uneven dialogues about the place of those who move in and out of categories of otherness” (3). As the central project of the book, Rofel presents us with a conception of modernity which is local and particularistic while placing those local forms of meaning in increasingly larger spheres of class, ideology, nation, and global capital, in ways which are, frequently, frustrating in their complexity. In addressing this complexity, I’ve found it useful to adopt a distinction suggested by [a colleague] between Rofel’s presentation of modernity as an academic or theoretical construct, mainly calling on Foucault and Althusser and addressing the modern human condition in the context of global and transnational forces, and modernity as the object of desire for the people whose lives make the subject of Rofel’s ethnographic work. Although this division is wholly artificial — which is part of Rofel’s point — it does have a precedent in the structure of her own (challenging) introduction, in which she moves back and forth from 1st-person descriptions of Hangzhou and its inhabitants to 3rd-person academic inquiry. Artificial as it is, I think that this approach helps to compensate for Rofel’s introduction which, for me at least, was highly confusing in its multiple use of multiple concepts of modernity invoked to account for each other. This is not all Rofel’s fault — the lack of specificity in academic concepts of modernity, which Rofel challenges, has produced a somewhat limited vocabulary.

So for the moment we sidestep the question of modernity as a theoretical position and look at the lives described by Rofel. On this level, modernity becomes the desires of the state and of its subjects, a local imaginary grounded in local conditions even as it looks elsewhere for its inspiration. But Rofel shows that this desire and its inspirations have neither remained constant nor been mobilized in constant fashions over time. Furthermore, the vision of modernity strived for by both Zhenfu workers and the Chinese party/state is necessarily and irrevocably intertwined with constructions of labour, gender, age, social networks, and geographical location. Rather than forming separate and separable parts of local identities, these factors are each constituted in and through the others. For example, Rofel is challenged by the oldest cohort of women workers’ unflinching adherence to the doctrine of their own liberation. How can they remain so convinced of their liberation, she asks, while they recognize the bitterness of their lives, both with regard to their work in the factories as silk workers and their work in their homes as mothers and wives (aside: which is, unfortunately, largely ignored, even rejected as important, by Rofel, who is almost ecstatic about women’s reports of their lack of affection for their children….)? However, as Rofel discovers, for the elder women of the Revolutionary era, the criteria by which Rofel and her fellow Western feminists judge “liberation” were not applicable — unsuited to the particular history of pre-Revolution Chinese industrialization and capitalization, they fail to adequately account for the specific projects of modernization and subject-formation undertaken in the establishment of the Chinese socialist state from the late ’40’s. Although Rofel does not give a lot of background information about pre-socialist China, she does hint at the collapse of traditional sources of income (e.g. the difficulties faced by Yu Shifu following her father’s death and her early entry into the silk factory [64-70]) and the pressure this put on women, especially young and unmarried women, to enter the workforce where, as sexualized (feminized) bodies inhabiting an “outside” space (not contained within the social network of ostensibly responsible parents and relatives) they were subject to disrespect and humiliation. By stressing labour as a foundational element, rather than gender, the Revolution liberated women from the imposed boundaries of “inside” and “outside” work. (Incidentally, note that this concept, used either ethnographically or theoretically, never ignores the presence of “work” in the home, the way Western concepts of “private” and “public” spheres do — partially explaining the lack of affection and the importance of raising children out of “maternal” desire which Rofel so blatantly admires later on, as the invention of “maternality” mystifies the “work” aspect of Western women’s household activities.)

Modernity in the desires of these women, then, is immediately tangible, even as it turns to imagined futures in its attempted realization — that is, it deals with the particular hardships or “bitterness”-es experienced by particular people at particular times and places. Although State policies may slavishly admire and imitate Western or Soviet models of modernity, Rofel shows that in the implementation of these policies by individual subjects there exists a space of interpretation and misrecognition (on which, more momentarily) which alters and can even challenge the conceptions of the State. For the cohort of women closely identified with the Cultural Revolution, the elaboration of this space became a primary concern, even as they became disillusioned with the promises and practices of that time — consider, for example, Xiao Bao, the shift leader who protested her lack of promotion to an office job by setting up her own office on the shop floor. Given authority over the women of her shop, Xiao Bao exercises that authority by not exercising it, subverting the very power which she exercises. Although it is unclear for how long she can continue to non-exercise her authority, in the meantime, she has constructed around herself (or rather, around her desk) a space of non-participation in the imagined modernity of the state, instead enacting her own contradictory desires in that space.

Rofel’s analysis of this act of subversion owes a lot to her understanding of an undertheorized (in fact, virtually ignored) aspect of Althusser’s concept of “interpellation”. Rofel mentions Althusser earlier in her discussion of the construction of Liberation-era female subjectivities and, for those unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll rehearse the main points of Althusser’s theory. In his article “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, Althusser is concerned with the way a State (in his conception, Western States, despite the fact that he describes Stalinist Communism almost to the letter…) creates appropriate subjects. On the one hand, he notes, there are Repressive State Apparatuses, such as the military, the police, mental institutions, and so on, which serve to impose certain behaviours and exclude others. The use of such apparatuses is costly, however, both in resources and in the potential threat of resistance. Ideally, then, domination is achieved through the creation of self-regulated subjects, accomplished though the Ideological Apparatuses of education, vocation, religion, and so on. The goal is the production of subjects who “recognize” themselves in terms of the state ideology. Althusser uses the metaphorical illustration of a police officer hailing a man in the street—yelling out “You, there!” into the crowd of pedestrians. The man who turns — who recognizes the hail as meant for him — immediately admits his guilt and takes on himself the identity of the criminal (note that it is not necessary for the police officer to know anything about the hailed man’s guilt — it is the act of recognition which makes him guilty, rather than any previous knowledge on the part of the officer). In this sense he becomes subject to the domination of the legal apparatus. But, as well, in his recognition, he acts — he turns. In becoming subjected (relative to domination), he also becomes a subject (relative to agency). Rofel discusses the agency of the Liberation-era cohort in terms of their recognition of and identification with the ideology of the early Socialist State, from which their agency as women and as labour is derived. But Althusser hints at something else: in a one-phrase, parenthetical aside, he mentions “misrecognition”, a mention which is never followed up, leaving it entirely open to interpretation (ironic, that). Misrecognition would imply the construction of subjectivity at odds with the structure within which it resides. In their various challenges and subversions of State policy, the workers Rofel describe enact such a subjectivity — not necessarily consciously resisting State domination (although there is an element of that at times, too) but in subjecting the official significations to personal and positional interpretations which produce other modernities than originally intended.

The history related by Rofel is one of unfinished State projects of modernity. Each of the cohorts described corresponds to an incomplete modernization project: the original optimism of Socialist progress, cut short apparently by the disasters of the Great Leap Forward (which Rofel leaves perturbingly unclear) and the breaking off of relations with the Soviet Union, the hoped-for but unrealized perpetual revolution of the Cultural Revolution, cut short by the death of Mao Zedong and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the present (re-)introduction of Free Market Capitalism, as unfinished in China as elsewhere. In the wake of each of these projects was left a body of subjects formed and informed by the future modernity imagined and imaged by the State in each period, and by the local interpretations of those modernities. Rather than an undifferentiated Modern toward which the Chinese people as a whole are converging, Rofel shows the multiplication of modernities at every turn, with their concomitant genderizations, class-ifications, and localizations.

This divergence is already suggested by Rofel’s simultaneous use of and criticism of Foucault’s analysis of modernity and it’s investment in “biopower”. Rofel pretty consistently uses a Foucauldian definition of modernity which has at it’s core the penetration of State power into the lives of its subjects or, to be more precise, the entanglement of subjects at every level with the apparatuses of the State. For Foucault, one of the primary manifestations of this involvement is in State surveillance of its subjects — the panopticon of state control, constructed through normative discourses of medicine, psychiatry, criminology, sexuality, biology, and so on. Rofel shows in detail the refinements of these methods and their implementations in post-Revolution China, adding to the mix an understanding of the role of labour ideology and the ways that the work of the individual (for lack of a better term) has been used to integrate them into the workings of State power. With each shift in State conceptions of modernity, the forms and uses of bio-power have shifted, culminating in the radical individuation and re-gendering of bodies illustrated by Rofel’s description of the contemporary “family planning” office at Zhenfu. But in her particularistic analysis of the deployment of such power, Rofel challenges Foucault for both his Eurocentrism and his failure to understand the shifting meanings such power could hold at the local level. In effect, she says, Foucault assumes the homogenizing nature of modernity — an assumption which is not upheld by the reality of local situations, but is rather informed by ethnocentric assumptions about the efficacy of European civilization and the converse weakness of non-Western others. As Rofel points out, the heightened awareness of sexuality and the personal pleasure promised in its name — as well as the technology of statistics and display through which sexuality is monitored by the State — have not in fact produced a more efficient work force. Instead, the re-feminized female workers at Zhenfu are well-known as the worst labourers — increased absences, off-hours partying, “uncontrolled” or “inappropriate” pregnancies, and a refusal to construct their subjectivities through labour make the newest cohort of silk workers highly unlikely candidates for carrying China to an approximation of Western wealth. Rofel’s analysis thus widens and supplements Foucault’s, calling for a consideration of the modernities constructed in local subjectivities, rather than one which encompasses and supplants those local configurations.

The one thing that nags at me is Rofel’s’ discussion of hyper-masculinity. Although it all sounds OK to me, she never really gets into a discussion of masculinity per se — although she does note the presence of male workers in the silk factory, and not always in exclusively male spaces. Why this bothers me is this: the hyper-masculinity she refers to seems explicitly oriented towards local conceptions of Western business practices, as well as local conceptions of femininity since the introduction of economic reform. As such, fine. But it fails to account for the more everyday forms of masculinity, as illustrated by local interpretations of weft-threading as women’s work, while warp-threading is exclusively men’s work—or why men in the weaving shop hang their scissors from their ear while women tuck them into the pocket of their apron. These little considerations — the ways in which virtually identical tasks are differentiated — form an underexplored territory of gender in Rofel’s book. While the hyper-masculinity of market trade may represent a desired modernity of the men in the shop, it is not a realized desire, and the opposition of feminine and hyper-masculine leaves out the everyday gendered lives of the real men involved.

2 thoughts on “Lisa Rofel’s Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China After Socialism

  1. Pingback: Nomadic Thoughts
  2. Re: “Rofel pretty consistently uses a Foucauldian definition of modernity which has at its core the penetration of State power into the lives of its subjects” — can you give me some page refs? She definitely has the MF lit in mind (at least as a foil) in the initial section (pp 10-13) where the problematic is set up, but what emerged most strongly for me in the book is that modernity becomes a way of talking about desire, individual and social, and that it is often used in this context in opposition to the cultural revolution. There’s an interesting way that personal histories and personal might-have-beens figure here, in fact there are questions of time and thinking about time that emerge in this book that might merit a whole further discussion. But on the specific question what is going on in the conversation of the people she interviews is rather different from the Foucauldian process, I think. Maybe I should finish the book first, but it might be helpful to pick out one or two specific passages to examine. Thanks much for posting on this!

  3. can you give me some page refs?

    I’m afraid not — it’s been 5 years since I read the book! To be honest, some of the things I’d written back then kind of surprised me re-reading them today.

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