2008 Annual Meeting


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The End of the Individual? Relationships Between Human and Machine in Twentieth-Century China, Japan, and Soviet Russia

Organizer: Aaron William Moore, University of Virginia
Chair: Seth Jacobowitz, San Francisco State University

This panel addresses how automation, robotics, and industrialization challenged the philosophical foundations of liberal humanism’s “individual” over the course of the twentieth century. Approaching the problem of subjectivity in this context from the disciplines of history, literature, film studies, and design (art history), the panel uses a diversity of methods in order to investigate how the imagination and representation of present and future bodies interact and co-exist with machines. Most importantly, the panel also discusses what the consequences of this discourse might be for the “individual” in the modern societies of China, Japan and the Soviet Union. Chen begins the panel with an examination of how Chinese and Soviet socialist discourse excised human bodies from “natural” surroundings and “liberated” them through a close fusion with automation and industrialization, an act that also strongly suggested the creation of a mass subjectivity. Moore continues in this vein, showing examples from Soviet, Chinese, and Japanese transwar discourse that both delight and horrify their audiences when portraying a “robotic future,” where individualism is rarely, if ever, valorized. Jacobowitz shows us some of the earliest literary and visual considerations of the individual man and mechanized mass subjectivity in Meiji-era Japan against the backdrop of Western and Soviet (Czech) literature. Teasley completes the panel with a discussion of Japanese design at the end of the century, showing how design aesthetics have been a space for the ongoing philosophical struggle over the value of technology in human life: does it liberate the humanistic “individual,” or do we become more like machines?

Tempered Steel, Virgin Lands, and Dis/Abled Bodies: Questions of Nature and Machine in Maoist Theory and Visual Culture
Tina Mai Chen, University of Manitoba, Canada
In 1956 the Soviet Film Pavel Korchagin, based on Ostrovsky’s socialist realist novel How the Steel Was Tempered, became a centerpiece of Chinese film projection. Korchagin’s sick, blind body frames the film and novel; yet, significantly, his body is juxtaposed to visual images and a narrative that celebrate bodies fulfilled by the railroad and labour. This association of Korchagin’s failing body with tempered steel and the pounding of pick-axes on frozen ground allows a recuperation of the less-than-perfect body for socialism. In Chinese visual culture, Korchagin embodied the Lei Feng ideal (1962) that socialist subjectivity meant being “a cog that would never rust in the machine of socialism.”
I analyze Pavel Korchagin in the context of the mid-1950s Opening Virgin Lands Campaigns. By looking at Korchagin as exemplary and extra-ordinary in these campaigns, I consider how disabled bodies (dis)appear as militarized mechanization is wedded to Maoist populism. Further, I examine published responses to the persona of Korchagin by Chinese who have lost limbs or suffered other disabilities. Here I focus on how physical disabilities related to socialist citizenship. I conclude by placing this discussion in conversation with Maoist writings on nature, machinery, and historical progress. Because Maoism renders nature and the ‘natural body’ as pre-social(ist), the revolutionary discourse maintains that all bodies become able by “steeling” landscape and enabling the ‘natural’ course of (socialist) history to be achieved. Disabled bodies find spaces in socialist modernity, however, through a notion of embodied inclusion that elides individual dis/abled bodies by machines. This paper is thus about disabled bodies and how they are reconstituted as modern and able through futuristic imaginings of mechanized socialism, and the problems for human liberation of such a vision.

Citizen, Soldier, Robot: Figments of Disciplinary Desire in Japan, China, and the Soviet Union
Aaron William Moore, University of Virginia
Observing Japanese soldiers marching in China, 1937, Medical Officer Kimura Genzaemon wrote in his diary, “In the endless plains we formed a long line like a snake, a military formation of one million solemnly advancing. One man in this million, I gaze on them tirelessly. Surely this is a new form of three-dimensional art for the twentieth century.” In fact, the boundary between a robot and a highly-disciplined human being was one that was easily confused in the modern discourse, particularly with the suffusion of technology into daily life and aggressive programs of social regimentation. This paper examines how strategies for social discipline and efficiency in military and popular discourse shared much in common with depictions of robots and other science fiction fantasies. Analyzing texts such as Miyoshi Takeji’s Gojunengo no taiheiyo (The Pacific 50-Years from Now), Alexander Beliaev’s Golova professura Douelya (Professor Dowell’s Head), speeches given by military men such as Hu Zongnan and instruction manuals such as “War and Your Body,” the paper will draw links between the understandings of human subjectivity in seemingly disconnected sources. These texts were tied to a discourse that was not only opposed to the individual described by liberal humanism, but sometimes even acted to generate desire for a mass subjectivity. The attractiveness of making man and machine one, while perhaps repugnant to the postwar present, inspired literary, military, and state visionaries in communist, fascist, and capitalist societies throughout the transwar era. This paper will examine how and why the subjugation of the individual to realize a robotic future held considerable allure for Russian, Chinese, and Japanese people.

Robotic Lacunae: Automata and Mechanical Man in Meiji Literature and Art
Seth Jacobowitz, San Francisco State University
Despite the seeming ubiquity of robots in contemporary Japan, we are sorely beset by a lack of understanding of the origins of this discourse in Japan. Aside from Inoue Haruki’s pioneering work Nippon robot no soseiki, 1920-1938 (The genesis of Japanese robots, 1993) and few other critical studies, the conventional narrative on Japanese robots all too often breezily skips from eighteenth century karakuri (handmade automata) to Tezuka Osamu's Astroboy and beyond with little mention of the historical developments in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is not only a question about the robot and its antecedents as a manufactured product for labor and entertainment, but their place in the philosophical and humanistic concerns attendant to industrialization and modernity. This paper explores concepts of automata and mechanical man in Meiji-era (1868-1912) literature and art against a backdrop of similar developments in Western literature. My inquiry is bracketed on one hand by the “android” popularized by Villiers’ novel L’Ève future (1886) and on the other by the first use of the term “robot” in Capek’s expressionist play Rossov’s Universal Robots or R.U.R. (1920) not to refer to a sentient machine, but an artificial, mass-produced human being. I seek to provide a brief overview of the dehumanization of man by machinery, and the attendant issues of labor and gender it implies, in Kobayashi Kiyochika’s cartoon “The Eye-Rotating Machine” (1885) in the Maru Maru Chinbun and Tayama Katai’s novella Futon (1907). I then offer a close reading of these topoi in Natsume Soseki’s novel And Then (1909), a text whose deliberations on the defamiliarized, machinelike body of the “leisure class” protagonist suggest a striking reformulation of the liberal humanistic notions of individualism typically attributed to Soseki.

Modeling the Post-human: Messages from the Catwalk and the Car Dealership
Sarah Teasley, Northwestern University
This paper analyzes attitudes towards the goodness of technology expressed in the design, manufacturing, marketing and reception of Japanese automobiles and high fashion in the years around 1980 as a way to understand contemporary conceptualizations of the individual in society and the role of design in determining the importance of technology in them. In the years around 1980, Japan’s association overseas with efficiency and a kind of cyborg subjectivity brought on in part by the export of Japanese manufacturing culture after the mid-1970s co-existed with fashion designers Kawakubo Rei (Comme des Garçons) and Yamamoto Yohji’s vision of the post-human as an apocalyptic image of shapeless monochrome rags, in which human desires to overcome the biological resulted not in positivist advancement but an end of faith in humanity itself. Either way, Japanese economic development after the late 1950s and the continuing spectre of nuclear annihilation had largely subsumed the previous overseas image of Japanese products as artisanal and humanist in opposition to the mass-produced products of interchangeable workers in a modern production system. Furthermore, while cultural critics in Japan read the appearance of the Sony Walkman in 1979 as the atomization of social life into a culture of the individual, both automobile manufacturing and high fashion presented an image that denied individual agency in a society driven by technological advancement. This paper reads this situation against current theories of the “post-human,” and suggests we might use design to clarifying current debates over the post-human today.