Chow, Rey

Assigned: Chow, Rey. From Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Film: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility, from “Introduction” (2471-87). Also read the editors’ introduction (2468-71).

From Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Film: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (2007)

From Introduction

1. On 2471-72 (“Where is the movie about me…”), Rey Chow begins by suggesting that the question “Where is the movie about me?” (2471) is becoming frequent as of 2007. How is this question connected to what are generally called identity politics or, to use Chow’s phrase, “the politics of identification” (2471) and to “visibility as a problematic” (2472)? In what sense is the demand implied by this question a continuation of international reflection on cinema and cinematic representation going back a full century?

Highlights of a Western Discipline

2. On 2472-74 (“In her groundbreaking essay of…”), how, according to Chow, did the deconstructive approach of Laura Mulvey (Leitch 1952-65) transform the study of cinematic images in Western film? How did this critic expose the “masculinist scopophilia” (2473) involved in a good deal of Hollywood film, thereby bringing to light the centrality of a gendered power structure in filmmaking? While Chow calls this theory essentially “iconophobic” (2473), in what way does it nevertheless produce a substantial amount of discourse about the potential for “a differently narrativized kind of film” (2474)? How, in this regard, does the proliferation of film studies in Western universities evoke Michel Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis” (2474; see also Leitch 1421-32) as a way of explaining the simultaneous critique and proliferation of images?

Image, Time, Identity: Trajectories of Becoming Visible

3. On 2474-75 (“Because it was underwritten with…”), what has been the effect, according to Chow, of Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking work on the cinematic image as constructed by and for the male gaze? What has displaced “the image itself” (2474) in much critical work on film? In connection with this increasing distance from direct concern for the filmic image, according to Chow, how has Mulvey’s theorizing affected the development of film studies in scholarly and institutional contexts? How has the current “culturally pluralized way of theorizing the filmic image” (2475) led away from a narrative calling for what Bill Nichols describes as “democratic ideals of universalism” (2475) and towards demands for equality grounded very differently from such universalist ideals?

4. On 2475-76 (“In this light, the ambivalent logics…”), how, according to Chow, should supposedly “iconophobic” feminist film theory be connected to the logic of the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States? How did identity-politics-based demands get connected with a struggle over representation in the public sphere; i.e., with what Chow refers to as “the demonstrative forces of public display”? (2476) What connection does Chow go on to make between this kind of spectacle (involving the simultaneous repression of “bad” images and proliferation of “good” ones) and Foucault’s repressive hypothesis as well as, more broadly, “the dynamics of late capitalist simulacra…” (2476)?

5. On 2476-77 (“Pursued in close relation to a…”), what complexities does Chow find in feminist film theory’s supposedly straightforward efforts to gain “visibility” ­(2476) for female actors instead of allowing them to be mere objects for the male gaze? Since “becoming visible” is so closely allied with issues of identity in cinema, with what “Janus-faced logic” (2477), according to Chow, does “the fetishization of identity” (2477) proceed in film criticism—what two approaches to cinematic images tend to take hold among critics, and what is the relative value of both approaches?

6. On 2477-78 (“With respect to the recent Western…”), how does Chow advise Western film and literary critics to process “Asianness” in film and literature? Why, according to her, would it be far more productive to abandon the quest for “some authentic, continuous Asianness lying beyond the alluring cinematic images” (2477 bottom)? What kind of search should replace that quest, and why? (2478) Why, in Chow’s view, should Chinese film since the 1980s be seen as “belonging in the history of Western cinema studies…” (2478)?

Defining the Sentimental in Relation to Contemporary Chinese Cinema

7. On 2478-80 (“To the extent that one implicit…”), Chow explores the connection between Chairman Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s-70s in China and the objectives of certain French literary and cultural theorists, particularly those associated with the journal Tel quel. What objective do both seem to have had in common? (2478-79) When Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” began to be critically scrutinized, what happened to Chinese cinema as a consequence? In what sense did this criticism of Mao spur Chinese film towards greater recognition and sophistication? (2479) How, according to Chow, does Chinese cinema often depart, in terms of politics and aesthetics, from Western expectations and abstract notions about the Far East? (2480) In particular, how does the persistence of what Chow calls “the sentimental” in Chinese film challenge such expectations and notions? (2480)

8. On 2480-82 (“What do I mean, then, by the…”), Chow discusses what she calls “the recurrent sentimental in contemporary Chinese films” (2480 bottom). First of all, what is the traditional understanding of the sentimental? What formulation of this concept did the German philosopher Friedrich von Schiller (Leitch 492-503) offer by way of contrast with what he labeled “naïve” poetry? (2481) What connection does Chow make between the Romantic Schiller’s ideas and somewhat earlier eighteenth-century debates about self-reflectiveness as well as “sensibility, pity, sympathy,” (2481 bottom) and so forth along with the “darker underside” (2482) of the passions? In what sense, according to Chow (citing James A. Steintrager of UC Irvine), does the Enlightenment’s disturbing “definition of humanity” (2482) call its devotion to rationality into question?

9. On 2482-84 (“In Anglo-American literary and…”), Chow deals with the transformation of Enlightenment debates about the sentimental into literary and film theory’s emphasis on “the dynamics of social power struggles” (2482). How does she further explain the political dimension of this emphasis? In her view, what would be a more productive way to consider the sentimental than equating it with “the occurrence of affective excess per se…” (2483)? How does one of the most prominent Chinese terms for sentimentalism, wenqing zhuyi, add something new to Western understanding of the concept? (2483) How does it redefine the sentimental as “a mood of endurance” instead of simply an overflowing of feeling? (2484)

10. On 2484-85 (“Still, why does so much of the…”), Chow asks why “so much of the drama of the sentimental” is connected with “domesticity, the household, and the home” (2484). What insight does she borrow from Harry Hartoonian’s study of the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro? How is Hartoonian’s explanation of the significance of “the house” (2484) enlightening with regard to the question of the sentimental? According to Chow, what light does the English term “accommodation,” in connection with the Chinese term wenqing or moderation (2484), shed upon the quality of the sentimental often called “affective excess…” (2484)?

The Sentimental in the Age of Global Visibility

11. On 2485-86 (“In a cinema in which even…”), Chow considers the prevalence of “physical or material deprivation and psychological destitution” (2485) in sentimental film. This consideration leads her to posit that “at the heart of Chinese sentimentalism lies the idealization of filiality…” (2485). In what sense, according to Chow, do sentimental films partly reinforce the notion that people must identify with “whatever preexists them,” whether that be a country, an ethnic group, or some other entity? Nonetheless, since Chow’s main interest is not merely to demystify sentimental ideology, how does she characterize her agenda with regard to “the maudlin extravagances and containment strategies that are considered a hallmark of the sentimental…” (2486 top)?

12. On 2486-87 (“Let me also formulate my…”), Chow returns to consideration of her earlier remarks about “global visibility” (2486) as she defines that term; i.e., as in part “the endeavor to seek social recognition” through “an incessant production and consumption of oneself and one’s group as images on display…” (2486). How does her interest in the sentimental relate to her emphasis upon this pursuit of visibility? In this regard, what kind of challenge does the persistence in the sentimental of qualities such as “self-restraint, frugality, filial piety, compliance with collective obligations” (2046) and the like pose when we find them in a cinematic art seemingly devoted to the agenda of “global visibility”?

13. General question: In our selection from Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Film: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility, Rey Chow in part explores the power and limitations of what are often called “identity politics” in aesthetic, social and political theory. What is your own view of the strong emphasis in current academic research and debate on identity-based (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) aspects of various literary, cinematic, and other cultural productions? How would you characterize your own interest in literature and/or film—does it include a significant emphasis on identity-related matters, or would you describe your goals or interests in some other way? Explain.

14. General question: In our selection from Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Film: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility, Rey Chow explores the development of Chinese cinema partly in the context of Western film and literary history. If you are familiar with international film industries such as China’s, India’s prestigious “Bollywood” (Bombay/Mumbai’s version of America’s “Hollywood”), or Japanese film, etc., how do you assess their  connections with American cinematic culture in the twenty-first century? Are these connections generally positive and productive, in your view, or would you describe them in some other way? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake