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CHCI 2014

I am at the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The programme is here and it focuses on performantive humanities.

Note: these conference notes are being written in real time (as opposed to "fake" time.) They will be full of ommissions, lapses, blacnks, and failings. Please email corrections.

Opening Remarks

The opening speakers welcomed us and noted that this meeting was important as it was the first in Asia. Fanny Chung talked about the importance of the indigenous and vernacular languages while still understanding the power of the global.

Professor Baucom, Director, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University, talked about the distance the Consortium has traveled by gathering here. He talked about thinking about Asia as method, as a mode of engagement. He mentioned that we are performing the humanities in this consortium. He asked what it means to be reflecting on the performative humanities in our roles as directors and deans. We should be reminded about the vital importance of the performing arts and need to avoid dividing the humanities from the arts. Performing arts are a form of knowledge. We should be struck by the importance of the research field of performance studies. He drew on an Austin distinction between constative (which explains) and the performative (that effects). The humanities are both explaining and performing. We are challenged to not only describe, but to enact.

Prof. Hsiung Ping-chen, Director, Research Institute for the Humanities, CUHK, then gave the welcome speech.

Panel 1 – Narcotics and Empires: The Opium War in Literature, History, and Film

Liao Hsien-hao: One Pound of Flesh Lost and Regained: the Opium War, Colonial Modernity and Hong Kong

Hsien-hao talked about "colonial modernity". Modern China has been raging for revolution due to the trauma of a series of defeats including losing Hong Kong. He played with the Lacanian idea that you have to give your pound of flesh - your real self - to become an adult or modern. Did China give up Hong Kong to become modern? Was getting it back a getting back their self (while keeping modernity)? Hong Kong had to be returned, but now China is scared by Hong Kong. It is the capitalist foot in the door.

One needs to understand the Chinese diaspora. The diaspora sees China as old and traditional, but it is really an alternate modernism. China chose soviet modernism. China gave up traditionalism - they are not In the eyes of the Chinese the diaspora states (Singapore) are vanguards of neo-liberalism.

There is no modernity without coloniality.Only modernity can save China from the ruins left by the Western powers (opium wars).

Narco-modernity - China and the chinese world has been hypnotized by their colonial days/ways. Diaspora Chinese are getting nostalgic about their colonial days. Some even remember Japanese control nostalgically.

Local knowledge can serve to serve to break the spell of narco-modernity.

James Chandler: Twenty Thousand Cases

Chandler asked us to consider performances like the refusal of the British Ambassador to do the traditional kowtow or the destruction of opium. The story of the opium war is central to the Chinese people. Likewise Commissioner Lin is a hero to many in Chinese communities. Chandler briefly discussed casuistry and De Quincey - namely the way the British fooled themselves about the opium wars.

Chandler then talked about Broken Blossoms the D. W. Griffith film that Chandler things is based on the Dickens' novel "The Old Curiosity Shop". The novel was published right at the time people were debating the opium war. Dickens at the crucial moment turns away from the Thames and the opportunity to write about the global. Griffith does turn towards the Orient with the "yellow man" and the innocent girl. The Chinese character has come to the West to save it with gentle Buddhism, but is faced by the reality of London.

R. Bin Wong: Visions of Empire: Bringing Opium into Focus

Wong talked about the opium wars as an encounter between two great empires. The British were the empire of modernity. China is one of the few polities that still has its imperial boundaries intact. 150 years ago the Brits ruled the seas and force the Quing to accept unequal treaty. How important is opium to this mixture?

He talked about how the arts (film and literature) help us imagine what happened and persuades us about how we should think of events. But what Wong wants to ask about is whether opium is that important. What would have happened if opium hadn't been part of the equation. Before opium the British were trading silver. Alas the Brits had nothing to sell to China other than silver (which they didn't want to.) It is estimated that the Chinese trade is quarter of world trade and it is vital to funding occupation to India. Without opium, could the Brits have stayed in India. Opium is important to China too - it was grown in China. Consumption goes up across social strata.

Wong asks the counterfactual question about what would have happened if there had been no opium. Some have felt that the clash between empires would have happened anyway. There may have very little difference to how things would have played out. By the 1880s the Brits want a united China to restrain Germany and Japan. China has learned to use diplomacy with the West.

100 years ago Britain is slipping and China is no longer an empire - it had fallen in 1911. It was a massive agrarian society with little industrial activity.

50 years ago Britain has few colonial outposts. China is isolated. One of the few places of contact with China is Hong Kong.

Now China is empire-sized, but now is the global economic power, much like Britain in the nineteenth century.

He doesn't think opium didn't cause nor prevent the fall of the British Empire or rise of China. Memories of Opium War frame contemporary Chinese readings of history. Perhaps there would have been no Hong Kong if no Opium War and then no site of interaction between West and Communist China.


A questioner asked about the connection between China and India. The Brits moved Indians around - indentured labour replaces slavery. There is also the question about why opium growing never left India. It didn't get moved the way the sugar trade did.

Perhaps the digital is now the opiate of the people.

Workshop 1 – Digital Archive, Digital Humanities, and Performance

After lunch we had three speakers talking about the Mogao Caves. These extraordinary caves hold Buddhist art and are located at an oasis that was on the silk road in Dunhuang. Fan Jinshi talked about "Guarding the Treasure Trove of Dunhuang Art and Inheriting the Cultural Heritage of Mankind: for the Seventieth Anniversary of Dunhuang Academy". She gave us a history of protecting the caves from the first archaeologists who went out to the remote location and tried to protect the caves by building fences. She ended with the new challenges of tourists and how to preserve the art while giving people access. They are building a visitors' centre that will have animations, 3D theatres and augmented reality for people to explore the caves and imaginary restorations.

Shih Shou-chien and Hung Yi-ping then talked about "i-Cave: An Interactive Multimedia System for Virtually Touring Mogao Caves." These are the digitization and augmented reality projects that will go into the visitors' centre.

Plenary Speech: Chai Min Leong: Its got to be slow

Chai Min Leong is a Taiwanese film director who talked about his art films. He creates slow cinema works and we saw one, No Form, at the end. He talked about how he wanted to create cinema that encourage us to actually watch. Most film moves to fast for us to watch or think.

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

Shannon Jackson: The Way We Perform Now

She started by talking about "performative humanities". The conference web site connects our performances in lectures, classrooms and so on with the performing arts and then with the performances of politics. Performance can be a hermeneutic. Much of performance studies lies in what endangers it - the interdisciplinary mix from which it comes.

Jackson likes to foreground the disciplinary biases. She likes to draw out the expectations. She talked about performance studies under three rubrics.

  • Social science and performance
  • Speech act theory and performance
  • Artistic practice and performance

How is performative humanities different now?

  1. Visual Arts and Performing Arts - the visual arts have an increasing interest in performance.
  2. Performance and The Experience Economy
  3. Performance and Social Change

You understand performance differently depending on what you measure it from. If you measure it from a painting you will understand it differently than if you measure it from reading. Works that look skilled to one look amateurish to another. Works that seem conceptually complex to one seem naive to another.

"Do not disturb: Curating in Progress"

Jackson talked about the experience economy as service industries are asked to perform. Performance has become important to the post-fordist economy which is not as much about manufacturing and more about service. Likewise the humanities may be moving to a experiential idiom where we think of what we do as performances as service. A new spirit of capitalism embeds itself in the organizations that might criticize it. Domination with a friendly face.

She talked about Wu Tsang "Green Room" (Whitney Biennial 2012) and the compromises and decisions that went into performing in an art gallery where performers need water and quiet spaces. Tsang imagined a space that would serve the community providing legal advice, internet access, and health services. The performance artist imagines a work/space that is also a social service for the community it is about.

How could we imagine the doing of the humanities as similar interventions. Could the types of humanities experiences be imagined as social performances.

She worries about the humanists always being those that rain on people's parade. Humanist critique gets tedious. There is great opportunity in the bridging of the humanities and arts, but there is also a danger of instrumentality if people see the arts as teaching just creativity (without critique.)

I asked her about performance practices and administration and she pointed me to a tradition of Institutional Critique.

Panel 2: The Concept of Performance in New Media Art

Timothy Murray from Cornell University chaired a panel about new media art in Asia.

Jeffrey Shaw: The Mediated Re-embodiment of Cultural Heritage

Shaw talked about projects that he has worked on at ALiVE with Sarah Kenderdine including a project with the Dunhuang Academy to allow people to experience the Mogao caves.

Another project is Hong Kong Kung Fu Masters where they are doing motion caputure of masters. The datasets let them explore the space of movements and to track body parts.

A lot of his projects use a large cylindrical screen where you stand in the middle and navigate datasets. Another apparatus is an eight sided box with screens. Thus eight people can look in from eight sides. You can see the apparatuses here.

Maurice Benayoun: A(c)tention: Active Presence in Media Art

Benayoun started by defining terms. He argued that "virtuality is the required condition of reality" and that this has implications for performance. What has changed is that with computers we can add virtuality as a component of the technics of representation.

He talked about a project called "Le Tunnel sous l'Atlantique" in which people in Montreal and in Paris "dug" through memory (images from art history.) Eventually they connected with other people. "The technology doesn't have to be democratic."

He showed "Cosmopolis" - an interactive exhibit in which people build cities by watching. NeORIZON is another project with ID Worms. When people look inside they are turned into QR Codes. He ended on a large emotion project. He is interested in how we can collectively build works.

Ellen Pau: What is it after mixing everything together?

Pau asked herself who is performing and how much humanity appears. She organizes the Microwave International Media Art Festival in Hong Kong. She talked about projects by othes like One Day Social Sculpture by Keith Lam, a work that carves a styrofoam block over a day with data from facebook.


There was an interesting discussion about the political and new media art. A questioner pointed out that so many of the works shown are/were based on datasets. We are not making art from narrative, but from databases.

Workshop: Engaging Asian Institutions

David Schaberg: Terms of Engagement in Academia East and West

Schaberg started by talking about the performance of administration. He talked about how the Chinese were overwhelmingly interested in the development and maintenance of complex human systems. We administrators should appreciate how what we study often includes thinking about administration. Culture as a tool of maintenance and critique.

He talked about methodology in comparative work. He encouraged us to think about the workshop as a place of "point-to-point ad hoc settlements." We can't think of countries like China or the USA as a subject - we can't say "China things X." He asked about accepting money for Confucius institutes.

Oki Yasushi: A New Attempt on Asian Studies

Yasushi talked about his research institute. "Toyo" is a Japanese word for the whole world except for Japan and Occident. In Japan they have departments of Toyo Studies - these study everything except Japan and Occident. The English title for the institute is now Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia which is a bit different from the Japanese title.

In Japanese the word for Asia doesn't include Japan. Perhaps Japan doesn't think of itself as part of Asia. With their institute they are trying

Simon S.M. Ho: What the World Needs More in Humanities: The Role of University Education

Ho comes from business. He is now a president of a college and he forced through a common humanities core. He made some points about decline of the humanities:

  • Few undergrads receive sufficient education in their own national culture and world civilization.
  • Few learn a foreign language.

He talked about how the humanities are competitive or perceived to be competitive. He made some suggestions:

  • More cross-disciplinary courses/programs
  • Removing undergrad education from departmentalism
  • Treasure more quality teaching than research
  • Emphasize freshman discovery experience

At Macau he wove the humanities into the Common Core. He asked all students to study a foreign language or culture. He created extensive opportunities for students to create original works.

For him teachers need to be passionate about ideas. He talked about the problems of current PhD training in the humanities. Training is narrow and research focused.

How can Western institutions engage with Asian institutions? He felt we need more multi-cultural, team taught courses that contrast Eastern and Western views. Western institutions have access to more knowledge. Eastern institutions do more comparative work.

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

On the last day of the conference we have two panels sharing work from CHCI' global networking pilot project, supported by the A.W. Mellon Foundation.

Networking the Global Humanities: Research from CHCI Project Groups Part I: Humanities for the Environment Group

Sarah Buie talked about "The Uncertain Human Future: A Council in Progress." They have created a council to talk about climate change. Buie talked about how the council is working and where they are going. She believes we can be those who frame conversations. Humanities centres can be nimble and can initiate conversations. Many climate scientists are looking for help to move the conversation forward. We should consider organizing a customized version of a council.

I wonder if we need to rethink the way we do research; especially flying to conferences like this to talk briefly about the humanities and the environment.

Joni Adamson talked about "Toward the Cosmolopocene: Articulating “Storied Matter” in the Multiverse." She plays with the idea of moving beyond the anthropocene to an imagined cosmolopocene. She talked about how humanists are confronting the environment and the role of culture. She argued that humans have long been raising questions about quality of life and nature. Almanacs are an example such discussions. Social commentary is woven into discussion of nature. Adamson then talked about the workshops they ran. They are moving away from the focus on the human and Ray Kurzweil's ideas about creating a better human. Instead they are trying to imagine how we can life. She talked about "cosmovision" - a vision where there are interdependencies between people, animals, soil, stars, season and so on. Suppose these all had rights. She also talked about biosemiotics - where we look at how species communicate. In her work she looks at movies and the idea of "forest mothers." Anthropomorphism isn't bad - it is a way of understanding complex natural systems. They now turn to food systems. What do we want to see on the table in 2040? What is the future menu?

Sophia Dawn Christman-Lavin gave a talk titled "Responding to the Anthropocene: Lessons Learned from ‘Habitat Humanities’ Studies." They are running speakers series. They are doing a lot of curriculum development and on the way to securing degrees. She talked about how she weaves eco-criticism into her teaching of literature and poetry. Students are asked to give eco-critical presentations. She showed the Humanities for the Environment web site.

Charles Travis from the Long Room Hub gave a talk about "The Role of the Environmental Humanities: Perception and Agency in the Face of Global Climate Change". They are running the European Observatory. Travis did a PhD on literary geography. He talked about how flying here isn't sustainable. He talked about the first discussion of the European Observatory of the New Human Condition. He wants to be more than a "talking shop".

Jodi Frawley from the Australia Pacific Observatory talked about "The Mullet Shot: Sustainable Fishing in the Multispecies Estuaries of Eastern Australia". She works on fisheries from a cultural perspective. They take a "care" approach. She talked about how we talk about country. Can we listen to country? In this country, who must do the caring? She told a wonderful, almost poetic, story of the Mullet Shot when the mullet are caught right before they rush to open waters. She talked about community involvement which has now been legislated out. Once it was a tactile involvement of the community. Now it is through cameras and clean fish bought elsewhere. She argued for understanding practices of care and how they ripple out. The goal of her observatory is,

Our aim is to honour and explore the concept of ‘caring for country’, a unique tradition of philosophical ecology that has been espoused and practiced by Indigenous Australians for centuries.

Networking the Global Humanities: Research from CHCI Project Groups Part II: Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging Group

Ernst van den Hemel talked about "Conservative Appeals to Religion and Nationalism in Contemporary Debates Concerning Citizenship and the European Union". He started from a situation that concerns him - the recent European Union elections. A number of EU skeptical parties from the far right gained a significant percentage of the vote. UKIP 27%, Front National 25%, Danish People Party 27%, PVV 13%. He proposes that we can understand what is happening through the lens of religion, secularism, and political belonging.

He started with the German NPD and Greek Golden Dawn. Both are far right parties that are "classical" neo-nazi parties that are anti-immigrant. He proposes that these are different from the postsecular nationalist parties. The new parties argue that they want to protect liberal, secular, tolerant culture. The Front National talked about outlawing the veil in the name of "laicite". He talked about how (post) secularism is argued to be based in Judeo-Christian heritage. The paradox is that the arguments for secularism come hand-in-hand with calls for returns to Christian heritage (like democracy, work-ethic, efficiency ...) Secularism is not religiously neutral, yet many study religion as if it were apart from the secular.

Hemel feels we need to redefine what religion is in light of these changes. Likewise we need to rethink the secular and how the idea is used. We should de-transcendentalize the secular. We need to imagine forms of political belonging that go beyond the national.

 The next speaker talked about Economic theology in post-financial age. I probably got the name wrong. She started by talking about a book that teaches about micro-loans, "A Basket of Bangles: How a Business Begins." This book is not for people whose mothers might need a loan, but for our children. This is a reinvented colonial story. Instead of the modernizing help of a missionary God now we have the religion of capitalism. Benjamin portrays capitalism as a cult that doesn't redeem, but endebts. Debt is universalized. She thinks about how capitalism is a religion and how the credit market creates something from nothing (like a God). Fears of credit drying up has created all sorts of problems. Religious and financial moralities have been interwoven for thousands of years. She talked about Weber and how capitalism evolved out of religion. She mentioned the concept of a Jubilee and the forgiving of debts. 

She talked about profanation - or the returning of sacred things to the serious play of the world. Rolling Jubilee is a project raising money to pay off people's debts. It may not pay off everyones debts, but it calls attention through ritual to debt and religion. We can't demystify the world of capital rationally - we need a politics that understands the religious nature of capital - a logic of profanation.

Ori Goldberg talked about "“That Old-Time (Post-Secular) Religion”: Khomeini’s Political Theology as a Case Study of Post-Secular Faith". He talked about how religions adapt to secularism and use its themes. In postsecular world religions also change. He talked about Khomeini as one of the first Spring leaders and as a leader of the religious renaissance in Iran. Goldberg shared a translation of a letter from Khomeini explaining why he wanted Iran to accept the cease-fire with Iraq. Religion is resilient. Khomeini takes on the discourse of individualism. He describes the facts of the war and makes a rational decision. Goldberg gave a brilliant reading of Khomeini's letter and how it used both secular and religious arguments.

Prof. Poo Mu-chou gave the last talk on "Civil Religion in the Context of Chinese History."

Mu-chou started with Rousseau's concept of "civil religion". He gave an fascinating history of how religion and civil religion have played out in China. China has seen many of the worlds important religions from Daoism to Buddhism. Daoims (2nd century BCE) had a bureaucratic aspect. It was happily in accord with regime. By contrast Buddhism tried to build an autonomous regime that was detached from government. None the less Buddhism was subjected to control.

From 2nd century BCE Confucianism began to take over government. Religion was acceptable to Confucianism as long as it didn't cause trouble. Now there is a state of nationalism that has inherited many characteristics of religion. Nationalism can function as a religion in ways that satisfy religious needs.

China clearly calls into question the distinction between secularism and religions and the evolution of these concepts. Do they really apply to China.

And that was the end of the conference.



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