Sunday, 15 January 2012


"Resistance is on its way to becoming a word of power, emerging alongside the terms 'revolution' and 'reform' that Hegel saw defining the range of modern politics."
Howard Caygill, "Also Sprach Zapata," Radical Philosophy 171 (Jan/Feb 2011):19.
In this sense, resistance is a third term that seems to problematise some of the binary oppositions characterised in earlier posts here (1 May 2011, 29 May 2011). What does 'resistance' do as a term in a project like mine? Does it serve as a term which opens us a productive thinking both of contemporary political practices, and the kinds of popular cultural resources that might include the kung fu film, and which might be considered, in this context, as resources for resistance? Does 'resistance' serve to elucidate a value for these? Or does it serve to mark their limit?

Most of Caygill's article explores Clausewitz (a rather occidental alternative to Sun Tzu et al!). He explores the way that a certain reading of Clausewitz allows us to think him as a philosopher of "the people's war of resistance" (22). Caygill notes that Clausewitz was setting out in his military theory to understand Napoleon's success, and also to understand how Napoleon could be fought – including the emergence of the guerrilla.
"To account for this change in the character of warfare, Clausewitz proposed a redefinition of war. In section 2 of book 1 of, 'Definition,' he defines the end or Zweck of war as to 'render the enemy incapable of further resistance.' So resistance is absolutely central to war – war addresses the enemy's capacity to resist." (22)
Such a foregrounding of "resistance" seems to speak to the kinds of narratives offered in kung fu films. Though the heroes – members of secret societies, loyalists of defeated dynasties, anti-tyrannical monks – are sometimes referred to in the subtitles or dubs as "revolutionaries," that term is perhaps a little misleading. They usually don't have a clear revolutionary agenda, certainly at least in the terms in which Thomas Taylor Meadows set up the term (i.e. in opposition to mere rebellion).

The plots, furthermore, rarely celebrate victorious uprising, the expulsion of the oppressor. What the heroes of the films succeed in, rather than dealing a final blow to their enemies, is precisely becoming heroes; they often die to do so; but their victory can be understood in the way that their inspirational example, even in personal defeat, keeps alive a larger possibility of resistance. The films are set in the darkest hours of defeat and occupation: either in the deepest depths of Qing rule, or, perhaps (as in the case of a film such as Lau Kar-Leung's Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter), at the moment of the slow defeat of the Song state by the Mongolians back in the thirteenth century. Chinese history is seen, in these tales, as a long struggle, and the films express a hope that if the spirit of resistance and the corporeal capacity to fight (as preserved in the martial arts) remain alive, then the war will not be over and the enemy will not be victorious. It is a vision, of course, that is sustained in a vision of the vast sweep of Chinese history, which has been marked not only between recurrent and lengthy "barbarian" occupation, but also each time by the final reversion to Han rule.

Such narratives, and such an account of the essential nature of resistance, might also offer an alternative template through which to valorise or to speculate on the longue durée (Braudel again!) of popular struggle, and the forms of "resistance" of peasants and the like – whether conceived in terms of medieval European uprisings and practices of cussed daily non-cooperation, Hobsbawm's "social banditry," or the sort of Qing-era protest described in Hung Ho-Fung's Protest with Chinese Characteristics (see image of salt riot recently posted!). Such, once again, are hardly "revolutionary" – and are often dismissed for their failure to be such – but nonetheless they perhaps remain essential in terms of keeping alive an "other" culture in the face of the official discourses of power.

In this regard, another of Caygill's remarks, drawing on the implications of applying a Clausewitzian notion of "resistance" to peoples' struggles against the State, is also very descriptive of the kung-fu scenario, and the "longue durée" of poular stuggle alike:
This ... involves the temporality of resistance. The strategy of the weaker – whether [Maoist] guerrilla or [Ghandian] satyagraha – is a strategy of time; the preservation of the capacity to resist involves a refusal to enter the augmenting cycle of violence that is escalation. This refusal means declining the invitation of the state to escalate violence in its pursuit of what Clausewitz called the 'decisive blow' and instead to threaten the State's capacity to resist by temporal distension, by what Mao in 1937 theorized as the 'prolonged war of resistance'. The war of resistance is above all a war for time – with one enemy proposing escalation and the concentration of struggle in a moment, the other responding by prolonging resistance indefinitely" (23-4).
Caygill's essay ends with a rather upbeat account of such resistance, looking in particular at the reminiscences of members of the early stages of the French Resistance movement against the second world war, who found a special aliveness in acts of resistance, and at the sayings of Subcommmandante Marcos of the more recent Zapatista movement, where resistance – as the preservation of resistance – again becomes a kind of an end and a joy in itself. (As in many ways a martial art is – certainly as depicted in martial arts cinema – in the creation and reproduction of the body's autonomy and power.)

However, is this the point where we have to ask questions about Caygill's argument – and perhaps about the politics of the narratives of martial arts films? Is it enough to be able to continue to resist, in the face of a more powerful enemy? Is this an end in itself? Is it enough to think that whilst we still resist an order we despise this keeps alive the possibility that one day, ground down by the slow pressures of non-conformity, or overcome by some external threat, current arrays of power will die away? Does such a conception of resistance in some ways end up complicit with the power one resists, allowing its continuation? In the end is "resistance" necessary (and important to nurture in a way that some revolutionary or reformist movements run the danger of forgetting) but nonetheless not sufficient?

A last question might rotate around the relationship of Caygill's article to its (and our own) historical context. Such an argument for the importance of "resistance" (rather than revolution) seems profoundly conditioned by a certain pessimism with regard to the kinds of possibility for change alive in the present. What does it say of our times to find "resistance" as the most we can hope for?

There are two ways in which this seeming pessimism might be valenced. The first is to judge it negatively: to find in it a failure of the "optimism of the will" and of the utopian imagination necessary to produce a better world. The second would be to recognise that at moments in history where the progressive or radical left is an "afflicted power" somewhat on the fringe of a field of politics (of "war continued by other means") dominated by the capitalist right, then a tactics of resistance – building its networks and its cultures – is highly appropriate, with more directly "revolutionary" strategies basically non-viable. Today's situation may be such a moment; and so, too, might be the context of the growth of the kung-fu genre in the early 70s in Hong Kong, in the wake of the clampdown on labour, radical and democratic groups at the end of the 1960s. Perhaps in some ways, this commonality is why I believe that the political imaginary of the kung-fu genre resonates so strongly with the present.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Qing-era Salt Riot

"Illegal private salt makers, mostly women, in Yangzhou demolished the official salt-selling station in reaction to the government's intensifying effort to eradicate private salt sales. Source: Dianshizai Hubao, 1897."
From Ho-Fung Hung's Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty (New York: Columbia UP, 2011).

Interesting to compare with the European image I took from Braudel in my introduction to this blog...