AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 213

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Session 213: State and Spectacle in Neoliberal Asia

Organizer: Kajri Jain, University of Toronto, Canada

Chair: Tong Lam, University of Toronto, Canada

Discussants: Tong Lam, University of Toronto, Canada; Kajri Jain, University of Toronto, Canada

This panel examines how emerging forms of state-sponsored spectacle in Asia might illuminate and challenge our understanding of the visual cultures of states in the context of contemporary neoliberalism. How has the ideological deployment of public images changed in recent decades? What does this tell us about the formation of political subjectivity in rapidly transforming Asian contexts? What specific technologies or media are privileged by different state and/or political projects at different moments? Bringing together scholars from history, anthropology, art history and visual studies, the panel will examine topics including the genealogies of state-sponsored urban hoardings in China and South India, the adoption of the global genre of the holocaust museum to represent Sikh heritage by the Punjab government in India, and the aesthetics of the representational politics of commensurability in initiatives for reconciliation and peacemaking between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. These examples from specific Asian contexts will provide the opportunity to comparatively “provincialize” our ideas about spectacle, with its revealingly paradoxical genealogy in Continental thought (given that Michel Foucault associates spectacle with pre-modern forms of power while Guy Debord reads it in terms of a late capitalist, and implicitly post-sacred, takeover of social relations).

Spectacle and suffering – the holocaust museum paradigm in Punjab
Kavita Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

In early 2011, the government of Punjab will inaugurate the Khalsa Heritage Complex. This multimillion dollar project which belongs to the genre of late-20th century immersive, experiential museums encased in a spectacular building by a 'starchitect' was initiated as a grand projet in 1999 by Prakash Singh Badal, then Chief Minister of the state, to celebrate the 300th year of the founding of Sikhism. Badal declared he would build an 'Ajooba' – a spectacle – modeled on the Children's Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Why would a holocaust museum be the model for a site marking the founding of a community? Behind the rhetoric of celebration lies another intention rooted in the history of the Khalistan movement, a violent 1980's campaign to found a separate Sikh state. Although this movement was crushed, the Khalsa Heritage Complex, I believe, was intended as a ghostly afterimage: a site for remembering recent and historic wounds suffered by the Sikhs. However, the museum's proposed intentions have continually been under scrutiny resulting in a softened narrative. Instead of martyrdom and suffering, this museum will now celebrate the syncretism of Sikhism, and hold out messages of brotherhood and peace. This ‘softening’ of the museum leads us to consider the politics of memory and the meaning of the ‘holocaust’ in a polyphonic democracy like India: here no one constituency can claim to have uniquely suffered, and to uniquely deserve, a holocaust museum, or a holocaust (or the historical compensations thereof) for itself.

Spectacles of Reconciliation: Reciprocity, Representation, and Radical Equivalence in Postwar Ambon
Patricia Spyer, Leiden University, Netherlands

While processes of reconciliation and peacemaking increasingly take the form of spectacles for national and international consumption, this paper considers a range of spectacular forms that have developed in postwar Ambon against, among others, this larger backdrop. One recurrent aspect of Ambon’s reconciliation projects is the impulse to visualize a radical equivalence in pattern and number that would scale former enemies of “religious” conflict--Muslims and Christians—down to equal size. In ubiquitous pro-peace childrens’ drawings smiling mosques flank smiling churches or a monumentalized imam and Protestant minister float above Ambon’s cityscape conjoined by a handshake that recalls the multiple mediatized handshakes of 2002’s Peace Agreement. Organizers of inter-religious encounters pay acute attention to the balanced numbers of participants from each side; Public Service Announcements evidence analogous concern in allocating airtime or screen space to both religions. If this effort to spectacularize radical equivalence is part of democracy’s (mis)recognition, it operates alongside other practices that undermine and complicate these peacemaking projects. These include the huge Jesus billboards painted by Christians in city streets and the revival of romanticized bloodbrother alliances based on codified inter-religious reciprocity. In this fledgling postauthoritarian democracy and postwar setting, an aesthetics favoring spectacle and scale and a representational politics of commensurability increasingly inflect these, too, if differently. Remarkably, staged radical equivalence and these others unfold within a national demographic where Christians constitute a tiny minority in overwhelmingly Muslim Indonesia.

Cute Propaganda, Spectacular Hoardings in Neoliberal Beijing
Elizabeth Parke, University of Toronto, Canada

In 2006, when leaders arrived in Beijing to attend the African summit, they were greeted with glossy safari scenes cloaking construction sites. By 2010 these hoardings were replaced by a bobble-headed cartoon, Luo BaoBei, gleefully skipping towards us urging us to work together to build a civilized city (wenming chengshi). To contextualize Beijing’s recent (2000-2010) history of hoardings, this paper traces a genealogy of public, large-scale, spectacular images. In this genealogy, I examine changes in content, wording, placement, and economies of scale to demonstrate the formal and rhetorical connections between Cultural Revolution (1968-1978) posters and wall-slogans and contemporary hoardings that now function as productive sites of neoliberalism and propaganda. I consider similarities in location and scale, as well as changes in print technologies and the resulting effect on the forms of state publicity. I argue that this historical contextualization allows a more nuanced understanding of the current hoardings whose vision of the ‘socialist market economy’ creates a slick and inviting picture of Beijing’s future. Endeavoring to penetrate hoardings’ ‘screen of slickness,’ I illustrate how they have shifted from molding model comrades to shaping neoliberal consumer subjects. While the government no longer has a monopoly on spectacular displays of hoardings, the two co-existing hoarding strategies—government funded and those funded by the developers—form a continuum that seeks subjects who are responsive to the slickness and the aura of the commodity necessary to maintain the neoliberal ideal: a frictionless, globalized, economic system.

Chennai Beautiful: Shifting urban landscapes and the politics of neoliberal spectacle
Roos Gerritsen, Leiden University, Netherlands

In this paper I explore spectacular appropriations of public space in the South Indian city of Chennai through the confrontation between informal uses of the city and a large-scale beautification project. Chennai is well known for the barrage of billboards, posters, and murals exhibited by political supporters and movie fan clubs displaying their leaders and heroes. This culture of display stems from a longstanding relationship between politics and cinema in the state, initiated by the anti-Brahmin DMK movement. Now, Chennai’s city administration is intervening in this spectacle of display by initiating campaigns to regulate visual encroachments within the city through a large-scale beautification project. The city seeks to replace these familiar murals and hoardings with new images that represent Tamil culture and natural beauty of the state. Paradoxical in this case is that the very politicians who are trying to curb the widespread display of political murals at the moment, actually initiated this visual regime in the first place. I will demonstrate how the replacement of these spectacle forms can be understood in a changing political and neoliberal economic climate in which Chennai attempts to present itself as an attractive, “world-class” city. The new images of neoliberal Chennai display a change in the audience that the city seeks to attract. This is not a matter of merely beautifying city space for future aspirations but also of retelling a particular - ideologically bourgeois - view of tradition and history in which nostalgic imaginations of the past form a strong trope.