Transimperial Colloquium

Sat Oct 24, 2020, 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM Pacific Time

Online via  Zoom. Registration Required. All are welcome!
Contact John James johnjames@berkeley.edu for registration and Zoom information.

 

A roundtable of international scholars considers the work of Sukanya Banerjee on the occasion of her recent addition to the UC Berkeley English Department. Professor Banerjee’s 2018 Victorian Literature and Culture essay “Transimperial” will serve as the touchstone for a discussion ranging across the various topics and fields addressed in her recent work.

Pdf of “Transimperial” will be provided. Attendees are invited to submit questions beforehand or to use the Chat/Q&A function during the colloquium.

Moderator: John James (UC Berkeley)
Speakers: Alicia Mireles Christoff (Amherst College)
Ian Duncan (UC Berkeley)
Elaine Freedgood (New York University)
Isabel Hofmeyr (University of the Witwatersrand)
Ruth Livesey (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (UC Davis)
Nasser Mufti (University of Illinois, Chicago)
James Vernon (UC Berkeley)

Victoria Kahn Talks about The Trouble with Literature

The Trouble with Literature

Victoria Kahn
BERKELEY BOOK CHATS
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Click here to watch the livestream.

In The Trouble with Literature (Oxford, 2020), Victoria Kahn (UC Berkeley Comparative Literature and English) argues that the literature of the English Reformation marks a turning point in Western thinking about literature and literariness. But instead of arguing that the Reformation fostered English literature, as scholars have often done, Kahn claims that literature helped undo the Reformation.

Tracing the roots of the modern understanding of literature as offering aesthetic, non-cognitive pleasure, Kahn probes the implications that such a notion has for our understanding of both poetry and belief. The book is based on the Clarendon Lectures in English Literature, which Kahn delivered at Oxford in 2017.

She is joined by Niklaus Largier (UCB German and Comparative Literature). After a brief discussion, they respond to questions from the audience.

Kahn’s most recent essay for Representations is  Art, Judaism, and the Critique of Fascism in the Work of Ernst Cassirer.

Largier is a long-time member of the Representations editorial board and is the co-editor of the journal’s upcoming special issue “Practices of Devotion” (coming in February).

Click here to watch the livestream.

Election Discussion: Race, Religion, and the Post Office

Race, Religion, and the Post Office in the November Election

Panel Discussion | October 15 | 5-6:30 p.m. PST |  Online

The UC Berkeley History Department presents a panel discussion with three UCB professors:

David Henkin is Professor of History at UC Berkeley and a member of the Representations editorial board. His essay “Hebdomadal FormDiaries, News, and the Shape of the Modern Week” was published in Representations 131.

 

 

Waldo E. Martin is Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

 

 

 

Ronit Stahl is Assistant Professor of History Department at UC Berkeley.

 

 

 history@berkeley.edu

 Maya Sisneros, history@berkeley.edu,  510-642-1092

Zoom link forthcoming, check back here.

Sensuous Knowledge

Marx, Silk Poems, and the Pretext of Qualities

by Kathryn Crim

Karl Marx’s comments on silk manufacture in “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, volume 1, demonstrate how “quality”—usually associated with “use value”—has been mobilized by capital to naturalize industrialized labor. Putting his insight into conversation with a recent multimedia poetic project, Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems (2016–17), Kathryn Crim examines the homology between, on the one hand, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content and, on the other, the ideology of labor that fits specific bodies to certain materials and tasks.

The essay begins:

In “The Working Day” chapter of Capital, volume 1, where the historical detail vigorously textures Karl Marx’s argument, our attention is gradually drawn to a presumptively natural fit between workers and materials. In response to Britain’s Factory Acts, he writes, silk manufacturers complained that, if forced to reduce the working day to less than ten hours, “it would be impossible for them to buy a sufficient number of children over 13.” The exposure of this “deliberate lie,” writes Marx, quoting from the Reports of the Inspectors of Factories (1844–46), does very little to stop the manufacturers

throughout the subsequent decade, from spinning silk for 10 hours a day out of the blood of little children who had to be put on stools to perform their work. The Act of 1844 certainly “robbed” the silk manufacturers of the “liberty” of employing children under 11 for longer than 6 ½ hours each day. But as against this, it secured them the privilege of working children between 11 and 13 for 10 hours a day, and annulling in their case the education which had been made compulsory for all other factory children. This time the pretext was “the delicate texture of the fabric in which they were employed, requiring a lightness of touch, only to be acquired by their early introduction to these factories.” (406)

In his characteristic way of reading for telling turns of phrase, Marx gives us the “voice of Capital,” complaining that its rights of liberty and property have been injured by the regulations. The real physical and intellectual injury done to children, then, is not so much ignored as readily explained by the pretext offered next. A “pretext” (Marx’s German der Vorwand suggests a pretense, excuse, or smokescreen) conceals one’s real purpose; but it can be distinguished from a lie in its power to maintain a literal truth. Here, an observation about similarity slips into an argument for compatibility: the fingers and fabric are fitted together to produce a natural fact about production, that the luxury cloth “requires” a lightness of touch. As readers of Capital have often pointed out, the progressive rationalization of large-scale industry not only repressed qualitative distinctions between different kinds of labor but also eliminated qualitative variations between workers, who were progressively forced to conform their bodies to the machines. Yet Marx’s comments on silk work demonstrate one crucial way in which “quality,” fragmented and abstracted from the body, is mobilized by capital to naturalize industrialized labor.

In line with a tendency to synonymize the alienation of labor and the abstraction of exchange value from use value—in which fungible quantity is substituted for singular quality—we often assign political and aesthetic value to the concrete detail, to those marks that bring the body and the phenomenological experience of work back into view from behind the “screen” of quantitative calculation. Indeed, this revelation and re-visioning of human processes of making would seem to be one of the critical functions of art and literature. From the eighteenth-century picturesque to twenty-first century materialist poetics, an aesthetic emphasis on texture, in particular, has foregrounded the human hand in and across materials. But placing such an emphasis does not in itself constitute a critical gesture. Just as scholars of the pastoral mode have argued that representations of the laboring poor risk naturalizing structural inequality, an aesthetics of material qualities risks cultivating a palliative attitude toward the real exploitation of workers. One of my central aims in this essay is to explore how “quality” can subtend capitalist logics and to show how this history offers a lens on the critical possibilities, and limitations, of aesthetic practice. In what follows, I put Marx’s references to silk and silkworms in volume 1 of Capital in conversation with the recent poetic project Silk Poems by American artist and writer Jen Bervin. Read alongside each other, Marx and Bervin illuminate the homology between, on the one hand, the ideology of labor that naturalizes the relationship between bodies and materials and, on the other, poetry’s avowed task of fitting form to content. While Silk Poems ultimately remains entangled in the pretext of qualities that capitalist production has itself deployed, the challenge the project poses to easy forms of lyric identification, as well as to the pace and situation of literary reading, offers a critical opportunity to pursue Marx’s insight into capital’s capacity to produce and exploit sensuous knowledge.

In 2010, Bervin visited the Tufts University Biomedical Engineering Department, where she met with researchers developing a biosensor made of reverse-engineered liquified silk that, once implanted in the body, can help track “medically interesting molecules” such as hemoglobin or tumor markers. It was the potential to turn the sensor into a surface for writing that intrigued Bervin. “Due to its optical nature,” she explains, “[the silk film] can be read as a projection with fiber optic light. . . . I thought, if it is possible to write in that context—inside the body, on silk, at that scale, I wanted to think further about what else might be inscribed there.” This thinking set off a six-year long international collaborative study that took Bervin to “more than thirty international textile archives, medical libraries, nanotechnology and biomedical labs, and sericulture sites in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.” Following this intercontinental journey, Bervin wrote a poem in the voice of a silkworm that draws on the worm’s five-thousand-year history of interacting with human culture, from ancient China to the Tufts Silklab. Back at Tufts, Bervin worked with David Kaplan and Fiorenzo Omenetto, along with Bradley Napier, to fabricate the poem on a silk film: The scientists “used a mask to etch the poem in gold spatter on a wafer and poured liquid silk over it. When the silk dried, the letters were suspended in the film” (173). Each line was limited to the six letters of the gene sequence, too small to be read without the help of the microscope. The pattern of the poem on the film, meanwhile, mimics the path of a silk thread made by the worm producing its cocoon. First exhibited in 2016, the Silk Poems project consists in three parts that extend poetic practice beyond the linguistic realm: the nano-imprinted poem in gold spatter on the silk film, a ten-minute video by Charlotte Lagarde documenting the research journey, and a small book, available to general audiences, published by Nightboat Books. The silk film (under a microscope) and the video were featured in Mass MoCA’s 2017 group exhibition Explode Every Day and have since been on display elsewhere in the United States and Hong Kong, along with further iterations of the project including, most recently, an artist book entitled 7S, or Seven Silks. These multiple multimedia editions testify to the open-endedness of Bervin’s initial premise: to conceive of a poem that traces and reiterates the material manifestations of silk itself. Continue reading …

KATHRYN CRIM is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley. She is completing a dissertation entitled Fit and Counterfeit: The Emergence of a Documentary Aesthetic. 

In the Matter of Nat Turner

In 1831 Virginia, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion that killed fifty-five whites; after more than two months in hiding, he was captured, convicted, and executed. The figure of Turner had an immediate and broad impact on the American South, and his rebellion remains one of the most momentous episodes in American history.

Working against the historical caricature of Turner as befuddled mystic and self-styled Baptist preacher, Christopher Tomlins (UCB Professor of Law) probes the haunting persona of this legendary American slave rebel — exploring Turner’s self-discovery, the dawning of his Christian faith, and the impossible task given to him by God. Tomlins also undertakes a critical examination of William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, which restored Turner to the American consciousness in the era of civil rights, black power, and urban riots.

Christopher Tomlins is the author of many books and articles on legal history. His primary affiliation at Berkeley Law is to the Jurisprudence and Social Policy (PhD) program, in which he teaches courses on legal history and, in particular, the history and law of slavery.

Tomlins is joined by Bryan Wagner (UCB Associate Professor of English). Wagner is the author of “Disarmed and Dangerous: The Strange Career of Bras-Coupéé” (Representations 92) and other works on on African American expression in the context of slavery and its aftermath, legal history, and vernacular culture.

After a brief discussion, they respond to questions from the audience.

Register online here.

Biological Metaphor

Skeletal Classicism: Zoological Osteology and Art-Historical Method in Early Twentieth-Century France

by Todd P. Olson

In this essay Todd Olson follows an art-historical method, from a formalist analysis of French Classicism derived from the natural sciences to the nineteenth-century biological discourse that identified hidden analogies rather than visual similarities among different specimens, whether they were animals or paintings. Olson shows how an ambivalence to the use of biological metaphors in North American art history may be traced back to this theoretical genealogy.

The essay begins:

A constellation of numerals is superimposed on Nicolas Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète. The numbers 35, 20, 26, 12, 23, 34, 22, 36, 59, 60, 62, 33, 9, and 3 are scattered across the surface of the canvas. The numbers may indicate a caption, or, more likely, since the numbers range from 3 to at least 62, they refer to an index. One may also infer that the numbers correspond to motifs in an attempt to provide an iconographic catalog. Yet, the repetition of 20, 23, and 59 reveals a lack of correspondence between number and depicted object. Although 23 refers to the flesh of two putti, 20 marks both rock and tree trunk; 59 indexes two patches of sky.

The transparent paper overlay with the numeric system on the photographic reproduction is one of several in Otto Grautoff’s Nicolas Poussin (1914), a major catalog of the French seventeenth-century painter’s oeuvre. Paintings were numerically compared to one another. Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète was linked to Les Bergers d’Arcadie: the shoulder of the woman among shepherds and the garland-bearing putto’s skin, the tomb and the patch of rock. The cloth falling over the knee of Apollo and a bacchante’s drapery in the London Triumph of Pan share the number 36; aside from “36,” L’Inspiration du poète and a bacchanal have nothing in common.

The clue to the pattern of numbers cross-referencing the fields in individual paintings with other pictures by Poussin is offered by a chart (Farbentafel) in the back of the book, where sixty-two brushstrokes of oil paint were applied to sixty-two printed rectangles. Grautoff made it possible to analyze Poussin’s palette through systematic chromatic separation, numerical hue assignment, and graphic indexing.

Grautoff and his publishers were caught between the age of engraving and the era of color photography. In the first years of photographic reproduction, black-and-white prints may have sufficed for the analysis of iconography. Ten years after the publication of Grautoff’s book, Aby Warburg famously began creating a photographic archive to display the iconographic specimens in his Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg traced motifs through time and across geographies, such as the Mithraic mystery cult’s “world-spanning range and force” from the Roman Empire to the Hopi kiva. By contrast, Grautoff’s numbers attend to the formal characteristics of a single painter. Nevertheless, the color analysis of Poussin’s paintings registered the patterns of a complex system. Things, regardless of their shape or function, were sorted out and made commensurate under another differential visual order. The painter’s palette entered a chromatic archive.

Grautoff provided the basis for scientific analysis without regard for iconography. The numerical register of colors reminds us of the diagrams used by the anthropologist John Layard in the 1930s to analyze the impersonal cultural patterns shared by Malakulan dance and graphic art. It would appear that by 1914 a similar rigorous formalism was already in place, which Grautoff was able use to organize the dispersed easel paintings of the seventeenth-century artist into a coherent oeuvre in the absence of documented provenance.

The study of the systematic distribution of color lent itself to the kinds of formal analysis found in the German art-historical tradition of Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin. In Walter Friedländer’s contemporary folio edition Nicolas Poussin (1914) we find the most explicit association of Poussin with Classicism. Following his teacher Wölfflin, Friendländer established an opposition between the Classical and the Baroque in his analysis of Poussin’s painting. For Grautoff and Friedländer, culture is an impersonal operation.

The author was dead, yet, “Poussin” was hard to kill. Much of the appreciation of the artist in France followed from Honoré de Balzac’s short story Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu, in which the character of the young Poussin sacrifices his lover, Gillette, in the service of art as Frenhofer’s model. The artist would continue throughout the nineteenth century to be the central organizing principle of the discipline of art history in France. Émile Magne’s Nicolas Poussin, for example, was published in the same year as Grautoff’s and Friedländer’s books. Magne drew on the recent publication of La Correspondance de Nicolas Poussin, edited by Ch. Jouanny, to construct a work of biographical criticism, which complemented his other major work on seventeenth-century French literature, Scarron et son milieu (1905). In this work, Magne sets the classical Poussin as a foil to Paul Scarron, the author of the burlesque Virgile travesti. Many have rushed to Poussin’s correspondence to underscore this opposition: “My nature compels me to seek and love things that are well ordered, fleeing confusion, which is as contrary and inimical to me as is day to the deepest night.”

Based on a reading of the major German publications of 1914, it would appear that Poussin was securely associated with the discourse of Classicism and a formalist account in art history. While Grautoff’s numerical system may now seem anachronistic, his formalist project premised on the dissociation of color from iconography would have a lasting effect. Similarly, Friedländer’s formalist approach to the problem of Classicism was influential in twentieth-century art-historical scholarship in the English language. Wölfflin’s binary of the Classical and the Baroque would hold sway over the association of Poussin with Klassizismus.. By contrast, Magne’s approach to archival research resonated with the study of l’art classique in France, but it did not offer a rigorous theoretical foundation for that scientific project. It would seem that the identification of Classical art with Poussin’s painting was deeply rooted in a formalist approach that based its model of transformation on German rather than French philosophical traditions.

Yet, if we look to the French publications surrounding the acquisition of L’Inspiration du poète by the Musée du Louvre in 1911, a different theoretical lineage of Poussin’s Classicism emerges. While Magne’s archival and biographical approach continued to have a lasting impact on scholarship in France, an important latent French formalist discourse independent of the German tradition was in an early stage of development. In the prewar period, French literary modernism and the natural sciences were aligned, offering a formalist discourse for the criticism of painting that was paradoxically ambivalent toward vision. Form was hidden. Continue reading …

TODD P. OLSON is Professor of Early Modern Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations.. He is author of Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style (2002) and Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics (2014). His current book project is Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652): Skin, Repetition, and Painting in Viceregal Naples.

Natural Histories of Form

Natural Histories of Form: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetic Science

by Ian Duncan

Arguing that aesthetic preference generates the historical forms of human racial and gender difference inThe Descent of Man, Charles Darwin offers an alternative account of aesthetic autonomy to the Kantian or idealist account. Darwin understands the aesthetic sense to be constitutive of scientific knowledge insofar as scientific knowledge entails the natural historian’s fine discrimination of formal differences and their dynamic interrelations within a unified system. Natural selection itself works this way, Darwin argues inThe Origin of Species; in The Descent of Man he makes the case for the natural basis of the aesthetic while relativizing particular aesthetic judgments. Libidinally charged—in Kantian phrase, “interested”—the aesthetic sense nevertheless comes historically adrift from its functional origin in rites of courtship.

The essay begins:

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin sought to write the definitive version of an experimental genre of philosophical anthropology, the “natural history of man,” pioneered—and disputed—in the late Enlightenment by the Comte de Buffon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, and other major thinkers as the realization of a universal science of man. With the delivery of human species being to secular history and geography, the old question of human exceptionalism had come to bear with a new urgency on the point at which, and means by which, the human emerges from animal life and comes into its own. Friedrich Schiller’s treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, 1795) forged a crucial link between this philosophical anthropology and divergent traditions, scientific and humanist, of nineteenth-century aesthetic inquiry. Where the history of man splintered among competing disciplinary claims on scientific authority, Schiller’s reframing of its main question, human becoming, as a project of individual development—an education—established a program for the modern humanities or liberal arts. The humanist legacy of the Aesthetic Education is well studied. Less so is its anticipation of Darwin’s key idea, that the aesthetic sense is the medium of a specifically human evolution, in The Descent of Man. More is at stake in the comparison between Schiller’s and Darwin’s conjectural histories of human emergence than an accounting of possible influence. Scrutiny of their common concerns and differences illuminates the originality of Darwin’s own contribution—still insufficiently appreciated—to nineteenth-century aesthetic theory.

On the Aesthetic Education of Man posits an instinct or faculty Schiller calls the “play-drive” (Spieltrieb), which affords the full realization of human nature through the aesthetic apprehension of form. The last letters of the Aesthetic Education sketch a conjectural natural history of this coming-into-humanity. The play-drive originates in animal life, in the body, in the “sheer plenitude of vitality, when superabundance of life is its own incentive to action.” Overflowing physiological function, the life force manifests itself as play. In the case of humans, it springs beyond the determinations of biology (need) and anthropology (custom):

Not content with introducing aesthetic superfluity into objects of necessity, the play-drive as it becomes ever freer finally tears itself away from the fetters of utility altogether, and beauty in and for itself alone begins to be an object of his striving. Man adorns himself. Disinterested and undirected pleasure is now numbered among the necessities of existence, and what is in fact unnecessary soon becomes the best part of his delight. (211) 

Torn from the fetters of utility, beauty in and for itself alone: Schiller’s conjectural history yields the dominant conception of the aesthetic in nineteenth-century writing—a crux, as we shall see, in recent accounts of sexual selection, the agency Darwin identified as shaping human evolution, by historians and philosophers of science.

Commentary on the Aesthetic Education of Man has downplayed Schiller’s late turn to natural history, in which the aesthetic apprehension of form marks the transition from the animal to the human state. Discussions of the work’s Victorian legacy tend to prioritize one of the terms of Schiller’s title over the other, the aesthetic or education. The aesthetic education provides a disciplinary program for what Herder called a Bildung der Humanität, a “formation of humanity” or evolutionary perfection of human species being, in his most ambitious of late-Enlightenment philosophical anthropologies, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas for a philosophy of the history of mankind). Pedagogical projects to foster and direct “the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature” in the individual person—constituting “our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality”—supply the precondition for projects of social and political reform in the best-known Victorian version of the aesthetic education, Matthew Arnold’s. In Culture and Anarchy Arnold pays tribute to Schiller’s legacy in the educational system bequeathed to the Prussian state by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Later Victorian affirmations of the aesthetic reacted against its conscription into didactic programs and regulative systems. Schiller’s Twenty-Second Letter became a “locus classicus for Victorian aesthetes,” according to Angela Leighton, as they sought to repatriate aesthetic experience to individual sensuous life. “In a truly successful work of art, the content should effect nothing, the form everything,” Schiller wrote, defining “the real secret of the master in any art: that he can make his form consume his material” (155–57). The Oxford editors of the Aesthetic Education note that the biological metaphor implicit in Schiller’s word vertilgen, “consume,” that is, digest, metabolize, disappears in Victorian reformulations, which “make it sound as though Schiller wants to empty art of subject-matter if not of content” (267; clxxvi). “To make form obliterate, or annihilate, the matter will be the difficult, sometimes guilty, sometimes provocative, aim of Schiller’s aestheticist followers,” Leighton comments, citing Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

The triumph of form over content or material in order to constitute it as the proper object of aesthetic attention points behind Schiller to Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, which prescribes form’s purification from contingent sensuous interest. More decisively than Schiller, Kant wrested the aesthetic away from its earlier modern meaning of “sensitive cognition” or “sensuous knowledge” (Alexander Baumgarten’s term), by positing sensuous intuition (the imagination) and cognition (the understanding) as distinct faculties, to prescribe the alignment of subjective perception with universal norms of judgment. German idealism broke with a largely British empiricist tradition of scientific aesthetics, developed in eighteenth-century medico-physiological treatises, which grounded aesthetic effects in sensation and the body—in William Hogarth and in Edmund Burke, the sexed and gendered body. The empiricist tradition, with its conception of aesthetic form as “a concordance between the human mind or body and the order of nature,” continued however to flourish in nineteenth-century Britain. Scholarship “has continued to under-estimate the importance of physiological and evolutionary aesthetics in shaping discussions of art and beauty in the 1870s and 1880s,” writes Jonathan Smith, citing John Ruskin’s late work Proserpina. Benjamin Morgan recovers the links between canonical writers on aesthetics, including Ruskin and Pater, and Victorian scientific materialists, whose “aspiration to uncover a formal patterning in nature eventually extended to an interest in a physiological patterning of the body and the nervous system, whose attunement or non-attunement to nature’s forms provided one explanation for the experience of beauty or ugliness.” Continue reading …

IAN DUNCAN is Florence Green Bixby Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations. His books include Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge, 1992); Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, 2007); and, most recently, Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution (Princeton, 2019).

Radio Communism

“A Good Communist Style”:

Sounding Like a Communist in Twentieth-Century China

by M. Paulina Hartono

In this essay Paulina Hartono focuses on the history and politicization of radio announcers’ vocal delivery in China during the mid-twentieth century. She explores how Chinese Communist Party leaders used internal party debates, national policies, and broadcasting training to construct an ideal Communist voice whose qualities would ostensibly communicate party loyalty and serve as a sonic representation of political authority.

The essay begins:

Shortly after the Communists took power in China, three of the most famous radio broadcasters in their respective countries met together to discuss their experiences: Yuri Levitan and Olga Vysotska of the Soviet Union and Qi Yue of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Vysotska stated that the duty of their profession was “to find the shortest route to the people’s hearts.”[i] The idea that one ought to use one’s voice to move people was not lost on Qi. Radio broadcasters played a major role in the nation-state, both as the literal mouthpieces of the party and as transmitters of a carefully crafted sound. In an environment where political campaigns were pushed into a visual landscape of posters, banners, illustrated leaflets, and the like, an auditory world of early-PRC socialist political culture was taking shape. Radio broadcasters’ pronouncements were significant not only for their discourse—what they said—but also for their representation—how they sounded.

This essay examines the construction of a particular way of speaking in the People’s Republic of China by studying its most notable mouthpieces—its broadcasters. Directed to make their announcements “accurate, fresh, and lively,” these radio broadcasters were encouraged to be engaging to listen to, and, given the very audible platform they occupied, they also became national models of how to speak. Compared to the number of visual studies of Cold War China, sound studies are relatively few and focus mainly on the 1960s and 1970s. By contrast, this essay looks at China during the 1940s and 1950s during the early Mao period. Unlike the radio voice of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the voice of the PRC was less an index of class or education than a symbol of political belief. These particular and constructed vocal qualities were formalized and reinforced by radio announcers and propaganda officials following major national events, including war, national linguistic reform, and targeted political campaigns.

One of the difficulties of studying aural cultural production is synesthetic, as it is a slippery task to describe sonic qualities in discursive forms. Mladen Dolar once called voice the “remainder which cannot be made a signifier or disappear in meaning; the remainder that doesn’t make sense, a leftover, a cast-off . . . of the signifier.” Recent developments in the emerging field of voice studies reveal a rich and diverse range of research methodologies, including voice as a physical phenomenon (for example, laryngeal dynamics), as a sensory perception (cognitive processing of sound), and as a mediation through technology (such as the Auto-Tune processor). Moreover, as a political act, voice can map and reproduce an intricate system of coded power relations between speaker and listener, including those evident in class conflict, race relations, and gendered politics. As Miyako Inoue has argued in her deconstruction of Japanese women’s language, when culturally accepted notions of vocal qualities are ascribed to groups and not denaturalized, they can project static traditions and archetypes where dynamic cultural and political forces are actually present.

From the earliest years of the People’s Republic of China, officials saw radio as a tool for political and ideological education. The sounds of broadcasters’ voices were themselves exercises in a political education. They projected an imagined voice of the nation by using the national standardized accent and a sonic affect to project affinity with ordinary citizens, or “the People,” vaunted in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) culture and propaganda. Warmth, strength, and confidence were qualia that were closely associated with the voice and what it signified. Ultimately, and especially during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, radio announcers’ vocal qualities became synecdochal with their political personhood, purporting to reveal their own internal thoughts and feelings. Announcers needed to deploy the right pronunciation, energy, and emotion in order to express the full embodiment of the true believer in delivering radio content. In the eyes of propaganda department officials, failure to communicate properly could reveal a lack of commitment to the party.

Beyond China, the vocal styles in Soviet bloc radio seem to have shared a “socialist soundscape”: in the USSR, radio broadcasting grew out of a tradition that held the accent of the Moscow proletariat as its standard; even recently, in North Korea, the famed newscaster Ri Chun-hee has become well known for her emotionally charged broadcasts. Whether in China or elsewhere in the bloc, radio announcers were supposed to represent the voices of socialist-realist heroes, demonstrating that language ideology could convey more than discourse, grammar, and content. Continue reading …

M. PAULINA HARTONO is a scholar of Chinese science and technology, history, and media cultures and a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research examines the history of radio broadcasting and reception in twentieth-century China.

The Birth of Italian TV

From Radio to Radio-visione: Italian Radio’s Television Experiments, 1939–1940

by Danielle Simon

In this study, Danielle Simon investigates a series of experimental television broadcasts undertaken by Italian Fascism’s national broadcasting entity, the Ente Italiano per le Audizioni Radiofoniche, in the years leading up to the Second World War. She explores both the official autarchical policies and the technological limitations that shaped the radio network’s early experiments with television to show that producers’ attitudes regarding medium specificity shaped decisions about programming and musical content. She goes on to suggest that these early sorties into televisual broadcasting left traces that can be seen in the style and political clout of Italian television even today.

The essay begins:

On 22 July 1939, viewers crowded into the television viewing room of the Villaggio Balneare (“bathing village”) set up in Rome’s Circus Maximus, sponsored by the television companies SAFAR and Fernseh. Six television sets, described by one Roman newspaper as somewhere between a mirror and a large radio, lined one wall. Spectators stood shoulder to shoulder in the packed hall, craning their necks to glimpse the images on these screens, each of which measured less than half the size of today’s 42-inch televisions. From the inset speakers rang the lilting tones and rollicking antics of Italian radio’s most popular musical performers and comedians. The crowd gasped, laughed, and applauded as the stars whose voices had graced their homes for more than a decade appeared to them for the first time on the small screen.

The images that so entranced the audience, and the devices that captured them, were the result of more than a decade of effort on the part of the Ente Italiano per le Audizioni Radiofoniche (EIAR), the radio broadcasting arm of the Fascist regime. EIAR had maintained exclusive control over Italian airwaves since its creation in 1927. Initially, EIAR’s subscriber list numbered around forty thousand, but that number jumped to more than one million by the end of the 1930s as the network worked to reach new listeners, particularly those located in rural areas, who were deemed especially valuable by the Fascist government. But even as Italian radio extended its reach and expanded its audiences, pressure came from the regime and from listeners to unite sound and image in the form of broadcast television. As early as 1929—only five years after the first Italian radio broadcast—engineers Alessandro Banfi and Sergio Bertolotti conducted experiments in transmitting images over radio waves from EIAR studios. A decade later, these experiments in “radio-vision” would lead to the events just described—the first transmission of images over radio waves, visible to the public from a viewing room.

More than simply another way to entertain EIAR’s growing population of subscribers, these experimental broadcasts served as evidence of Italian Fascism’s standing on the world stage. The Magneti Marelli equipment used for the transmissions, developed in consultation with engineers from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), was regularly cited as proof of Italy’s rapid technological development, and thus of the nation’s hard-won progress. EIAR lauded the political value of the television experiments in the pages of its weekly magazine, Radiocorriere, boasting that the television broadcasts were “the greatest, most curious attraction” within the exhibition, and a manifestation of “Fascist spirit.” By10 August, the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero reported that the Villaggio Balneare had seen at least twelve thousand visitors, nearly all of whom had visited the viewing room to marvel at the new technology. The spectacle demonstrated television’s ability to showcase “the most beautiful and vigorous images of the Italian race and art” and catapulted Italian technologies into the global marketplace.

What follows is a history of disappointment. Despite the network’s lofty ambitions, EIAR’s television experiments were short lived, discontinued less than two years after they began. Italian networks would not attempt television transmission again until a decade later. Yet the broadcasts revealed a politics of spectacle that placed images, seeing, and being seen at the center of modern political life. Events like EIAR’s television experiments reveal a much tighter linkage among culture, technology, commerce, and politics than is typically attributed to Fascist cultural policy or practice. In this article, I will explore the official policies, technological limitations, aesthetic premises, and programming decisions that shaped the radio network’s early experiments with television, ultimately suggesting that these early sorties into televisual broadcasting left traces that continue to shape the style and political clout of Italian television. Continue reading …

DANIELLE SIMON is a postdoctoral fellow at the Dartmouth Society of Fellows. She is a former fellow of the American Academy in Rome (2016–2017) and received her doctorate in musicology from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2020. Her research interests include emerging media technologies and musical performance, particularly opera, and radio broadcasting during the years of Fascism in Italy. Her current book project examines transnational radio broadcasts from Italy to the United States and Latin America during and after the Fascist period.