Q&A with Shaoling Ma, author of The Stone and the Wireless

Shaoling Ma is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. In The Stone and the Wireless, she examines late Qing China’s political upheavals and modernizing energies through the problem of the dynamics between new media technologies such as the telegraph the discursive representations of them.

Is The Stone and the Wireless a history of the late Qing period, a work of media theory, or a media history? How are the concepts of media and history interrelated here?

It is all three, though interestingly, The Stone and the Wireless started out as none of them. The first version of the book, which was my Ph.D. dissertation, actually focused on utopia. I began with some seminal texts of early Chinese science fiction, and realized only quite late in my research process that what communicated the fantasies of national and individual rejuvenation in these writings were fantasies of communication themselves. So, then, communicative technologies came into the picture, but only by moving beyond fiction and finding a similar trajectory in the political and social histories of the period—that is, after diving into late Qing history proper—was I convinced that the interrelation between media, history, and theory is so integral to necessitate a thorough investigation.  

The history of media, perhaps even more so than other histories, directly concern who reported what, when, and through which specific medium. Scholars like Lisa Gitelman, Thomas Mullaney, and Andrew Jones, to name just a few, have admirably wrested global media history from the dominant perspective of inventors and established users. In learning from their work, I also became convinced that a retelling of media history is the incipient theorizing of what media do. The last piece of the puzzle came when I realized that precisely because the late Qing men and women were “recording,” “transmitting,” and attempting their versions of “connectivity” – to use the three key terms that structure my book—without a clear conception of what media are, they were media theorists before their time. 

Is translation a literal process or a metaphor in this book?

I see linguistic and cultural translations as one kind of mediation, which if used too generally to refer to the negotiation of differently opposing categories of thought, does risk becoming a metaphor. Of course there is nothing wrong with metaphors, unless we forget that concrete, historical processes also undergird the very distinction between the literal and the figurative. Keeping an eye on technological media serves as a way to remind someone like myself trained in comparative literary studies on this important distinction, which is really another way of saying that subtle difference between literal and metaphorical translations depends on the priority that an analysis gives to including actual communicative processes. 

In your conclusion you point to a dystopian turn in contemporary Chinese science-fiction, in contrast to the utopian period you describe in the late Qing Dynasty. Has the role of media changed alongside the tone of more contemporary Chinese fiction?

One period’s utopia easily becomes another century’s dystopia, but even within a single utopian work, the perfection of an all-powerful nation-state, for instance, can spell the end of a utopia for free, individual inquiry. Hence in Wu Jianren’s recognizably utopian New Story of the Stone (1905), which I discuss in Chapter 2, Jia Baoyu realizes there is nothing left for him to discover, let alone accomplish, in the perfected, Confucian technocracy, and departs. This gives the novel a slight, nuanced dystopian edge. The contemporary Chinese science-fiction writers who lambast social-economic inequality and disastrous environmental consequences of China’s post-socialist reforms can be seen as rejecting the utopia of national wealth and power bequeathed by their late Qing predecessors. But it may well be around the question of media where the contemporary dystopian turn converges with the earlier historical utopianism. By this, I mean that there is a risk when the dream of perfect communicability—as variously embraced by followers of design-thinking, innovation, disruption, and entrepreneurship—and its promise to do away with mediation altogether, become the substitute for collective action and the actual redress of injustice. This is my point in the conclusion: once the heroine of The Waste Tide, is construed as the disembodied, virtual consciousness—the literal, perfect medium—between the downtrodden e-waste workers and the privileged classes, the novel also reaches a too-easy resolution of the conflict that it otherwise carefully depicts. The tricky balance, as I see it, is always between the means-and-end relation. Can we have a satisfyingly dystopian critique without risking an utopian instrumentalizing, which in the case of The Waste Tide and its continuation of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century scientific and cultural imagination, manifest in the form of the female medium, who gets killed off in the end?   

There are many figures in this book. Why are the stone and the wireless the ones that made it into your title?

The stone refers to the mythological surface bearing the inscribed records of history, but also the lithographic process; the wireless figures in the late Qing period’s obsessions with interconnectivity through electricity and neuroanatomy. The stone and the wireless, more so than the other figures in the book, most vividly contest the supposed teleology of technological progress, and other related conceptual oppositions between the primitive and the modern, the visible and the invisible, and materiality and immateriality. The challenge of keeping all these terms in dynamic tension arose when I had to choose an image for my book cover: one finds plenty of appropriate stone figures, but the same can’t be said for the more abstract figure of the wireless. In the end, Wang Sishun’s “Apocalypse, 2015-19” came closest to capturing the abstractions of the concrete and the materiality of the abstract, which the book seeks to embody. I owe much to the artist and Duke’s art department for this, of course!

What can “Western” media theory learn from the Chinese media history you outline here?

I am glad that the question, too, puts “Western” in quotes without jettisoning the term altogether. We have tried to exorcise the “West” versus the “Rest” for so long, but the catch-all term remains useful when the historical materials one examines rely on them. A central argument of my book is that late Qing thinkers also attempted to negotiate the distinctions between China and the “West” through unhinging the same troubling associations these terms have with history and theory, respectively. And what effected such an unhinging but the communicative devices and processes of the time? To return to my answer for the first question above, I don’t believe it is possible to do a rigorous job of non-“Western” media history without also retheorizing media: this is both the challenge and bonus of working with cultural difference and within the still codified “area” studies. So, the first thing that “Western” media theory can learn from Chinese media history is that the active mediations of national, cultural, and epistemic distinctions, far from being some unintended consequences, are part and parcel of what media do. In other words, the history of early Chinese communicative processes consolidated the late Qing’s views of the “West,” as well as its theory of media. 

I am constantly aware that “China” and “Chinese” are equally problematic terms. It falls beyond the scope of my study to contribute to the rich field of scholarship that examines the complexities of ethnicity, race, and language policies of the period. I try to allude to some of these issues when I can, and I hope to do them better justice in my new project on contemporary China.

Read the introduction to The Stone and the Wireless and save 30% on the paperback edition using the code E21MASLG.

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