‘The Future Is Now: Theory and Method of the Newborn Socialist Thing’

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Speaker(s): Laurence Coderre

Whereas the contemporary era in China is often depicted in terms of rampant, ideologically vacuous commodification, the Cultural Revolution (1966‒76) is typically cast as a time of ubiquitous politics and scarce goods. Indeed, the media and material culture of the Cultural Revolution are often characterized as a void, out of which the postsocialist world of commodity consumption somehow sprang fully formed. By contrast, this talk argues that the Cultural Revolution media environment and the ways in which its constituent elements engaged contemporaneous discourses of materiality and political economy anticipated the widespread commodification now so closely associated with the Reform Period (1978‒present).

To that end, this talk offers a brief history of the ‘newborn socialist thing’ (shehuizhuyi xinsheng shiwu), which, as a technical term originating in the 1950s, refers to a harbinger of a progressive future emerging in the present. Not only did newborn things, always at odds with ‘old things,’ help define socialism as a transitional stage of development prior to communism, they also promised to integrate the material and the social under one conceptual roof. This talk develops a historical methodology inspired by the relational nature of the newborn thing, which traces fugitive constellations of objects, bodies, institutions, and social formations pertaining to the Cultural Revolution’s media environment. Of particular interest are the forms of mediation enacted by and through these constellations and the dialectic they were often said to create with the commodity-form.

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Laurence Coderre is an assistant professor of East Asian Studies at New York University. She received her PhD in Chinese from UC Berkeley in 2015. Prior to moving to NYU, she was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan. Coderre’s work focuses on Chinese socialist and postsocialist cultural production. She is the author of Newborn Socialist Things: Materiality in Maoist China (Duke, 2021), which examines the material culture of the Cultural Revolution. Her research has appeared in Comparative Studies of Society and HistoryJournal of Material CultureModern Chinese Literature and Culture, and Journal of Chinese Cinemas, as well as numerous edited volumes. She is currently embarking on a new project on theory and the everyday in the late Mao era.