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The Rey Chow Reader by Paul Bowman (ed.)

Joonok Huh | Journal: General Issue [7] | Issues | Reviews | Nov 2010

Paul Bowman (ed) (2010) The Rey Chow Reader, Columbia University Press. ISBN: 978-0231149952.

The Rey Chow Reader edited by Paul Bowman truly represents Chow’s brilliant scholarship in cultural studies and film criticism. The essays collected in this book demonstrate the range and profundity of Chow’s oeuvre.  Her scholarship covers global and transcultural issues on both sides of the Pacific Ocean and is relevant to the areas of East Asian studies, feminist studies, and literary studies.  More significantly, her essays are remarkable for the deep personal insight they bring to each analysis.  These are courageous essays, startling in their honesty and intellectual vigor, and ultimately a living testimony to Rey Chow’s uniqueness.  As Donna Harraway says on the book jacket, Chow gives us a “pleasurable discomfort”: In my view, “pleasurable” because of her penetrating analysis of where we are, who we are in both the academic and the real world; and “discomfort” because she challenges us to locate where we are, who we are.  Chow is a worldly thinker and impels us to recognize how both global and local, public and personal are our academic responsibility.

Paul Bowman’s introduction, an excellent complement to the essays but so fine it could stand alone, maps out the complexity and uncertainties of cultural studies: divergent and convergent, connected yet independent.  Bowman sees Chow’s scholarship as a practice of Stuart Hall’s iconic statement of cultural studies: a “yes and no” task for responsible intellectual work. Her work starts with methodological and empirical givens in contentious disciplinary innovations associated with cultural studies, feminism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism (p. x).  Chow takes poststructuralism or deconstruction beyond its givens, however.  Her cross-disciplinary intellectual history and cross-cultural global insight interrogate regional familiarity in the global space and the global in the regional space.  Rather than being a poststructuralist or deconstructionist, she does poststructuralism or deconstruction.  Her “double-pronged methodological decision,” therefore, accomplishes Hall’s seemingly contradictory mission of cultural studies—i.e., to simultaneously manage the worldly and the theoretical—and, doing so, she generates “pleasurable discomfort.”  In this sense, her scholarship is not a means to an end; rather, the means—or the persistent need for further inquiry—is an end in itself, always dynamic in its questioning.  As Bowman says, the “complexity and double movements” in her work takes significance and implications into “unexpected fields” and refuses “simple categorization or compartmentalization” (p. xxiii).

The Reader is divided into two parts, Part I: “Modernity and Postcolonial Ethnicity” and Part II: “Filmic Visuality and Transcultural Politics.”  The essays in both parts are arranged not by publication dates, but by “certain tendencies and impulses” in Chow’s work: Part I by technologized modernity and the politics of identity; Part II by filmic exemplification on the same topics.  In this way, Bowman orchestrates the thirteen chapters selected from Chow’s writings between 1990 and 2007.

Chow is, at bottom, a very practical theorist.  Her critical practice enables us to go from the personal to the global, from atomic bombs to area studies, from postcolonial theory to China studies—lucid and penetrating migrations evident in her writings.  Fittingly, the opening chapter “The Age of the World Target: Atomic Bombs, Alterity, Area Studies” (2006), addresses key issues that appear in the rest of the book.  Modern technology has produced a global culture “in which everything has become (or is mediated by) visual representation and virtual reality” (p. 4).  Supplementing Heidegger’s view of the world, “a world picture,” Chow’s view is that “in the age of bombing, the world has also been transformed into…a target” (p. 8).  Afterwards, she examines how “the moralistic divide between ‘self’ and ‘other’” undergirds knowledge production in “the age of the world target’” (p. 14) and is applicable to post WW II diplomacy and aggression against a defeated Japan.  She sees a parallel in area studies in academia; area studies, a product of the post WW II in the U.S., is an example of “target fields” designed for the “United States’ political and ideological hegemony” (p. 15).  The rest of the chapters in Part I revolve around these issues and examine them from various angles. Chow uses her academic training and personal experiences in postcolonial studies as a platform to interrogate bias in intellectual and cultural work.  In Chow’s essays, China represents the subjugated “other” of Western imperialism and colonialism often manifested in Western fascination.  She condemns not only the Western Orientalist but also its sibling, the subaltern Maoist.  Both the Orientalist (sentimental) and the Maoist (guilt-ridden) see China as a social construction for their own needs, not for China as she is.  As an extension of political hegemonic discourse, the final chapters in Part I present the complexity and uncertainty about the ethnic woman in contemporary cultural criticism, from poststructuralism to Anglo feminism. In Franz Fanon’s community formation, female sexuality is problematic; in Anglo American feminist criticism, race and ethnicity are ignored.

In Part II, we see Chow at her practical best.  Between the binaries of essentialism and relativism, fantasy and reality, secrecy and transparency, totalitarianism and democracy, ideology and skepticism, one seeks a foundation for worldly scholarship.  In Chow, this foundation is in film.  For it is in film that she can traverse the spaces between image and desire, expectation and result, object and subject.  The essays in Part II reiterate the issues (hegemonic epistemologies, Orientalism, feminism) introduced in Part I.  The essays in Part II are exceptional explorations of the moralistic divide between “self” and “other” by the practice of seeing and interpreting filmic action.  Her migration from the personal to the global is most obvious in “The Dream of a Butterfly” (Chapter 9) where she demystifies Gallimard’s secrecy in the film M. Butterfly, and “Film as Ethnography” (Chapter 10) where she clarifies the convolutions of translation and the exoticism of Asian culture in contemporary theory.  Particularly instructive are Chapters 11 and 12—discussions of Akira Kurosawa, Zhang Yimou—where we can almost be emboldened to take her approach and apply it to any film director, anywhere in the world.  She lays bare the accoutrements for such a feat: an understanding of current politics as shaped by recent history, the ability to discern deconstructive play in the existing media culture, and the perspicacity to read, appreciate, and translate filmic art.  In her analysis of Kurosawa and Zhang, she moves us toward common ground: film as social and cultural critique.

The Rey Chow Reader highlights Chow’s scholarship in cultural and film studies and combines these with her philosophical and theoretical practice—so seamlessly that we are rapt in its power.  Chow elevates theoretical discourse to the level of performance.  As such, it is a delight to witness.


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