Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: The Golden Age of Dead Media: Nostalgia in Modern Chinese Visual Culture
Tuesday, Thursday: 9:30-11:00am
Contemporary media culture has been described as “retromania,” “the aesthetics of obsolescence,” and “the golden age of dead media.” Our quotidian experiences with popular culture and new media, it seems, are haunted with memories of old, dead media. Contemporary China too is in the grip of media nostalgias, which take the form of the state-sponsored period piece blockbusters of the silver screen or the digitized “traditional” and socialist aesthetics of online propaganda and ironic memes. Nostalgia has played a key role in the Chinese cultural imagination at moments of dram
atic historical and technological change, when futures were imagined on new media, but inflected strongly by the look and feel of the old. For example, the birth of “modern China” in the early 20th century saw the development of a vibrant popular culture that embraced the formal aesthetics of the “traditional” visual culture as much as it revelled in the magic of new technologies. After victory in 1949, Chinese communists fervently reminisced about the romance of early revolution, filming the revolutionary canon in living, breathing color. These technicolor memories were transformed into aesthetic extremes in the total propaganda of the Cultural Revolution. With the rise of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the utopian possibilities of the 1980s became an object of fascination for the digital cameras of independent directors in the 1990s and 2000s. More recently, the totalitarian state mobilized “Red Nostalgia” on the cinematic screen, in digital mobile culture, and on the propaganda playing back on big urban screens to mobilize a spiritually dejected populace facing an uncertain future. Rather than reading nostalgia as merely a conservative pathology or a simple palliative, we will ask how media nostalgia re-conceptualizes history, either in the service of the state or the people, allowing us to feel the past together through our memories of mediation.The course pairs close reading of scholarly texts — including historical research on Chinese visual culture, and theoretical texts on nostalgia and media (new and old) — with analysis of primary sources, including painting, posters, film, photography, and digital culture. We will seek to understand the complex interactions between nostalgia, futurity, and the media that activate our desires for and experiences of both temporal affects. Through frequent in-class writing and visual analysis, we will develop the skills needed to produce close readings of such objects. We will read historical and theoretical texts to understand the context in which these images were made, and to learn how scholars and theorists build arguments based on evidence. Taken together, the skills we accrue throughout the semester will allow students to produce a sophisticated 10-12 page final research paper that probes the many meanings of nostalgic forms.