Paul Gladston examines critical discourses associated with the concept of contemporaneity.


In recent years, critical discourses associated with the concept of contemporaneity have been increasingly influential on the development of contemporary cultural theory and practice.1 These discourses, which have emerged as part of a continuing internationalized critique of Western modernism, persist in upholding the now well-established postmodernist view that there is no single, globally applicable experience or representation of modernity, but, instead, differing non-synchronous experiences and representations of modernity (some "central" and some "peripheral"), each with its own contemporaneous, socio-culturally and economically inflected vision of the trajectory and significance of historical events.
Unlike established forms of postmodernist critical discourse (such as postcolonialism, with its pervasively deconstructive invocations of third space and cultural hybridity),2 however, those associated with the concept of contemporaneity have not sought to represent the present experience of modernity as an inescapably uncertain one. By rigorously pursuing the notion that modernity has been experienced and represented differently in relation to differing, social, economic, and cultural circumstances, critical discourses associated with the concept of contemporaneity have sought to extend legitimacy to localized experiences and representations of modernity—most notably those of the developing world—that diverge not only from the developmental logic historically associated with Western modernism by conspicuously commingling aspects of postmodernist thought and practice with the reassuring continuity of established cultural traditions, but also the deconstructivist assumptions of postmodernism through the embracing of an insistently “modernist” sense of progressive optimism long since abandoned in the West. As an intellectual framework for the differential interpretation of modernity, discourses related to the concept of contemporaneity can therefore be understood to have supplemented an established postmodernist critique of the totalizing perspectives of Western modernism by framing uncertainty not as a universal condition of present (post)modernity (i.e., the “postmodern sublime”),3 but as one possible reading of the experience of modernity among others.

One of the outcomes of the growing influence of critical discourses related to the concept of contemporaneity on the development of contemporary cultural thought and practice is a renewed interest in the role played by transnational cultural networks in the production, display, and reception of an internationalized contemporary Chinese art. From an established postmodernist perspective, networks of this sort―which include peripatetic individuals and groups as well as others who have been forcibly displaced as a result of political and/or economic pressures―are understood to act as rootless rhizome-like structures persistently traversing and, therefore, deconstructively unsettling (deterritorializing) the assumed boundaries between differing cultural identities and settings. When seen from the point of view of critical discourses related to the concept of contemporaneity, however, this established postmodernist reading of the role of transnational cultural networks in the production, display, and reception of internationalized contemporary Chinese art is no longer wholly tenable. As the curator and critic Wu Hung has indicated, transnational cultural networks involved in the production, display, and reception of contemporary Chinese art (a term now widely used in an Anglophone context to signify Western influenced avant-garde, experimental, and museum-based forms of art made by artists of ethnic Chinese descent who were born and who first established their careers within the People’s Republic of China) can be seen to operate deconstructively across Chinese and non-Chinese settings and, in doing so, to shuttle continually between the now internationally dominant postmodernist vision of cultural identity as something that is both indeterminate and unstable, and a durable Chinese belief in the historical existence of an essentially distinct Chinese national cultural identity (one that has been a persistent aspect of the Chinese experience of modernity since the early twentieth century as part of a localized resistance to the culturally deracinating effects of encroaching modernization). It is therefore possible, argues Wu, to interpret transnational cultural networks involved in the production, display, and reception of contemporary Chinese art somewhat against the grain of established postmodernist thought as mediating—rather than simply deconstructing—the combined effects of a two-dimensional cultural parallax: one that simultaneously frames contemporary Chinese art from an internationalized point of view as a pervasively deconstructive challenge to notions of essential national cultural identity and from a localized Chinese point of view as a site of resistance to the uncertainties of internationalized postmodernism.4

From an established postmodernist perspective, the uncritical acceptance of such thinking is, of course, highly problematic insofar as it can be understood to perpetuate an eminently metaphysical view of cultural identity that plays very much into the hands of those who would wish to uphold an unjustifiably essentialist vision of national cultural identity. What is more, by insisting on the simultaneous legitimacy of mutually resistant points of view, it can also be understood to present an insurmountable double-bind whose circularity effectively negates the possibility of meaningful critique.

At the same time, however, it could be argued from the point of view of discourses related to the concept of contemporaneity that outright dismissal of a localized Chinese conception of cultural identity on these deconstructive "grounds" is itself highly problematic in that it presents what can be seen as a paradoxically totalizing anti-foundational vision of modernity. 

Accepting that we cannot, with justification, simply choose one of these differing points of view over the other, or seek to arrive at an effective synthesis of their mutually repelling positions, one possible way forward is to embark upon the rather more demanding task of developing a discursive polylogue exploring in close analytical detail potential areas of interpretative interaction as well as resistance between differing Western and Chinese cultural outlooks; a strategy that as Jacques Derrida has shown in his radical collage text Glas, constantly opens up one discursive perspective to another while internally dividing and questioning the authority of both.5 The following two-column text is an attempt to arrive at a first draft of such a polylogue with possible points of conceptual similarity marked out in bold underlined text. 

Here, the work of the critical interpreter of contemporary Chinese art as well as the transnational cultural networks which support its production, display, and reception (whether Chinese or non-Chinese) is revealed as a profoundly challenging one that points toward the critical necessity of new (and almost certainly unrealizable) theoretical paradigms beyond those currently envisaged both within China and in a Western/internationalized context. Moreover it is something that continually places those contexts as entirely discrete spatio-temporal entities—not unlike the “Japan” evoked by Roland Barthes’ in Empire of Signs—persistently sous-rature (under erasure). Hence, the use of the amended signs “China” and “The West” as part of the text that follows below.6

China 1
• Non-systematic - non historically linear - appropriation and translation of Western(ized) modernism and internationalized post-modernism in relation to the pressures and demands of an autochthonous Chinese art world
• Post-modernist styling appears in advance of modernist styling

The West 1
• Post-modernism strongly informed by the theory and practice of deconstruction (performative critique of the authority of legitimizing discourses and associated truth claims - not least those associated with Western modernism)
• In recent years signs of a return to more “constructivist” neo/hyper-modernist discourses (e.g. Zizek)

China 2
• The persistence of traditional Chinese non–rationalist dialectics (as exemplified by the Daoist conception of a dynamic complimentarity between the opposing forces of yin and yang; also see Fan - doctrine of reversion)
• Contestable conflation of traditional Chinese non-rationalist dialectics with deconstructivist thought and practice/Third Space (e.g. Hou Hanru)

The West 2
 Non-rationalist dialectics associated with the theory and practice of deconstruction (différance - makes linguistic signification possible while continually rendering its signified meaning uncertain)
• Contestable conflation of deconstructivist thought and practice with traditional Chinese non-rationalist dialectics (e.g. Rey Chow)

China 3
Tendency to question the existence of absolute difference (traditional Chinese non-rationalist dialectics)
• Questions the existence of absolute truths while asserting the validity of individual and collective ‘experience’ (Yi)
• Tendency towards traditional metaphysical notions of harmonization and reciprocal interaction (i.e. between nature/human society)

The West 3
• Deconstructive post-modernism questions the existence of absolute totality and difference
• Questions the existence of absolute truths and the universal validity of experience (pervasive scepticism/criticality)
• In recent years, signs of a reversion to more “constructivist”, neo/hyper-modernist, discourses (e.g. Zizek’s rehabilitation of dialectical materialism) after deconstruction

China 4
Increasingly strong resistance to deconstructive thought and practice as well as associated notions of cultural hybridity/Third Space

The West 4
• Recent criticism of the assumed ‘universality‘ of deconstructive post-modernism (Contemporaneity)

China 5
• Mainstream tendency to reject the differential experience of social inequality – for example that relating to gendered subjectivity – in favour of notions of social harmonization
• Persistence of totalizing narratives based on class asymmetry
• The persistence of institutionalized prejudice - homophobia, patriarchalism, racism etc.

The West 5
• Upholds the differential experience of social inequality – the “politics of identity”
• The persistence of institutionalized prejudice (paradoxically reproduced by political correctness)

China 6
• Tendency to reject deconstructive uncertainty in favour of notions of non-rationalist synthesis, continuity and harmonization (supports the notion of an essential cultural “Chineseness”)
• Often overlooks the deconstructive critical relationship between post-modernism and modernism – sees the former simply as an historical overcoming of the latter
• Looks towards the non-rationalist ‘synthesis’ of Western and Chinese thought and practice as part of the renewal of (a specifically) Chinese culture

The West 6
• Continuing internationalized post-modernist critique of the totalizing precepts of Western(ized) modernism
• Deconstructs essentialist notions of cultural/national identity – cultural hybridity/Third Space
• Non-synthetic cultural hybridity seen as a site of the construction of new counter-authoritarian cultural identities

China 7
• Assertions of (internal) cultural diversity sit alongside nationalistic cultural essentialism as well as anti-imperialist assertions of China’s essential cultural difference from “the West”
• Discursive limitations on criticism associated with the established ideological position of the CCP 

The West 7
• The politics of identity and trans-nationalism: actively criticizes colonialist/patriarchal relations of dominance by deconstructing essentialist notions of cultural/national identity
• Political correctness and persistent discursive limitations on freedom of expression within capitalist societies

China 8
• Progressive optimism /humanism commingling with scepticism/cynicism (notably post-1989)
• Increasing mainstream conservatism /governmental managerialism

The West 8
• Post-modernist doubt commingling more recently with neo/ hyper-modernist optimism (the Obama effect)
• Increasing mainstream conservatism /governmental managerialism

China 9
• Continues to uphold the traces of traditional non-rationalist Chinese thought and practice (resistance to cultural deracination a persistent aspect of the Chinese experience of modernity)

The West 9
• Deconstructive thought and practice developed in relation to an historical Western appropriation and translation of non-Western thought and practice, including that associated historically with Chinese culture 

China 10
• The waning of ‘hardline’ Maoist dialectical thought (too Western) in favour of political pragmatism associated with opening-up and reform (Deng Xiaoping’s black cat-white cat) and more recently neo-Confucianism
• At the same time, the persistence of progressive scientific-Marxist ideology in support of centralized governmental managerialism

The West 10
• The institutionalization of post-Marxist critical discourse – Foucault, discourse analysis, micro histories, etc.
• Neo-Marxism /anti-capitalism (after deconstruction)

China 11
• Tendency toward sharp historical periodization and linear/evolutionary conceptions of historical development 

The West 11
• Questions the representational authority of all historical narratives – especially the progressive-evolutionary meta-narratives associated with Western modernism 

China 12
• Traditional acceptance that art has the potential to act as a form of constructive social commentary [Xie He’s classic The Record of the Classification of Old Painters (Gŭhuà Pĭnlù) early C6th ce]
• Recent return to such thinking in the form “Total Modernity” (Gao Minglu) – non-rationalist reciprocity between art, society and politics

The West 12
• Assumption that art (at its best) has a distinctly antagonistic critical function in relation to established social and political values (first emerged during the early C19th as part of post-Enlightenment Romanticism and the emergence of the notion of the avant-garde)
* modernist aesthetic autonomy
* avant-garde sublation of art within the life-world
* post-modernist deconstruction of a categorical aesthetic
* deconstructive engagement with the politics of identity

China 13
• Possible to distinguish between a conservative mainstream and a more radical fringe in relation to the production of contemporary Chinese art – some artists directly involved in political activism (Ai Weiwei)
• Deconstructive critical interventionism limited by prevailing legal and discursive restrictions on freedom of expression within the PRC
• Politicized contemporary Chinese art often generaliziing in its critical content both within and outside the PRC – often tends towards subjective realism

The West 13
• In recent years a waning of deconstructive criticality within the internationalized contemporary art world
• A self reflexive attempt on the part of some artists to go beyond institutionalized forms of deconstructive critique – post-colonialism and the politics of identity
• In some cases a rejection of interventionist deconstructive critique in favour of a return to poeticism and liminality 

China 14
• Asserts that contemporary Chinese art is more politically engaged than that of the West but tends to avoid focused discussion of the relationship between art, society, and politics (in the face of prevailing discursive/cultural limitations on freedom of expression within the PRC)
• Clandestine/allegorical/coded/indirect criticism rather than fundamental critique

The West 14
• Asserts that art (at its best) has a specifically interventionist deconstructive function in relation to established political/institutional authority
• The deconstructive criticality of art continually subject to institutional abstraction and recuperation by the international art market – the need for a persistent strategic reworking of deconstructive criticality (Foster)

China 15
• Wan Shang (play appreciation) – poetic critique associated with the literati tradition
 Yi-Ching (Idea-Realm -subjective realism) 

The West 15
• Close deconstructive analysis - the play of language
• (post-Nietzschean) Perspectivism 

China 16
• A traditional and continuing tendency towards aestheticism
• The Chinese “avant-garde” of the 1980s paradoxically defined by its involvement in the reconstruction of a relatively autonomous aesthetic sphere following on from the traumatically de(con)structive events of the Cultural Revolution

The West 16
• Western historical and neo avant–gardes have consistently sought to deconstruct the boundary between art and life as a means of critically reworking the latter along the more playful lines of the former (collage-montage and the anti-aesthetic)
• Strategic return to the “aesthetic” during the 1990s
• Recent signs of a waning of deconstructive criticality in favour of a return to poeticism and liminal aestheticism

China 17
• Close supportive relations between artists and critics (a persistent feature of Chinese literati culture) – compromises objectivity and critical edge
• Artists and critics strongly conflate cultural and economic capital

The West 17
• Asserts the independence of cultural production and criticism – in practice cultural production and criticism strongly enmeshed with the international art market
• A(n invariably compromised) desire to maintain a critical separation between cultural and economic capital (cultural production as a locus of social critique)

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010, he was seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the inaugural head of the Department of International Communications and director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies.

1. For an introduction to critical discourses associated with the concept of contemporaneity, see Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee (eds.), Antimonies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008).

2. For a discussion of the theoretical concepts of Third space and Hybridity, see Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1993).

3. See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), 71-82.

4. See Wu Hung, ‘A Case of Being “Contemporary”: Conditions Spheres and Narratives of Contemporary Chinese Art’ in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee (eds.), Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008).

5. Jacques Derrida, Glas (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1974).

6. Roland Barthes, Richard Howard trans., Empire of Signs (New York: Anchor Books, 2005).







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