能 (Capacity/Energy) and China’s Long 1980s: A Re-evaluation

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Co-sponsored by Weatherhead East Asian Institute; Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures; Program in Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies

Room 918 International Affairs Building

Convening amidst a spate of state-led celebrations commemorating four decades since thestart of the Reform and Opening and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, this workshop critically explores the experiences and legacies of the “long 1980s”(1978-1992). This “long decade” is perhaps most often remembered for its state-led turn from central planning to a market approach to economic and social governance and the increasing integration of China into the world economy. These years also witnessed the emergence of a “cultural fever” characterized by artistic experimentations with media old and new at all levels of society. Existing scholarship on the 1980s has fruitfully examined economic, political, material and cultural arenas of development. What has been lacking, however, are studies exploring interconnectedness of these arenas at both conceptual and practical levels.

We propose a re-evaluation of these years through attention to the Chinese character neng (能). Connoting both the “capacity” associated with individual and collective subjects as well as the natural and material “energy” required to fuel ambitious Reform era ideals of economic and social development, the overlapping meanings of this character encourage a focus on the interconnectedness of psychical and material economies during the country’s search for a collective orientation after Mao. Our workshop connects individual and collective projects of becoming to the broadly-defined ecological environments where notions of resource and capacity have been reconceptualised through experimentation and contestation at various levels of production – intellectual, social, industrial, artistic, and personal.

Connecting approaches informed by neng to the long 1980s might take a variety of forms. Papers can revisit specific debates, cultural products, and areas of experiences from Deng era China or consider the legacies of this long decade through explorations of more recent events. We might ask questions about how extraction, availability, redistribution or “release” of human and natural resources associated with the early years of reform have come to enable or shut down possibilities of living and imagining personal and shared pasts and futures. How have fluctuations of emotions such as excitement, anxiety and despair been mobilized alongside shifting circulations of materials and resources? Meanwhile, how have spheres of media, art and culture intertwined with the material economies of the society, and how did they interact with social, economic and technological changes? What have been the ways in which these media have reconfigured realms of experience? Finally, how have memories and representations of key happenings in the 1980s shifted in subsequent decades as China has further integrated into the global capitalist order?

The workshop welcomes attention to vectors of energy, capacity and intensity—or their opposites: entropy, incapacity, and lethargy—as they travel from one form to another across social, economic, political and psychic realms and refigure individual capabilities andresponsibilities. We intend to experiment with an interdisciplinary, and ecological, approach to exploring the lived experiences, cultural articulations, and historical legacies of these “turbulent” and “surging” times.

THURSDAY 10/31

5:00pm-6:30pm
Room 918 International Affairs Building

17:00-18:30 KEYNOTE
Tuo Li (Columbia University) 

FRIDAY 11/1

9:00am-5:40pm
Room 918 International Affairs Building

9:00 WELCOME
Opening remarks by Myron Cohen (Columbia University) 
9:10-10:40 PANEL ONE
Ralph Litzinger (Duke University)
Nick Bartlett (Barnard College)
Mayfair Yang (UC Santa Barbara)
Discussant: Eugenia Lean (Columbia University)
10:40-10:55 COFFEE BREAK
10:55-12:25 PANEL TWO
Paola Iovene(University of Chicago)
Angela Zito (New York University) 
Lily Chumley (New York University)
Discussant: Yukiko Koga (CUNY Hunter College)
12:25-13:15 LUNCH
13:15-14:45 PANEL THREE
Tani Barlow (Rice University) 
Ying Qian (Columbia University)
Julie Chu (University of Chicago)
Discussant: Lydia Liu (Columbia University)
14:45-15:00 COFEE BREAK
15:00-16:30 PANEL FOUR
Corey Byrnes (Northwestern University)
Joshua Freeman (Princeton University)
Erin Huang (Princeton University)
Discussant: Louisa Schein (Rutgers University)
16:40-17:40 ROUND TABLE