Performance, power and cultural production – University of Copenhagen

ADI Conference 2018 > Panels > Performance, power and...

Performance, power and cultural production

Chaired by Marie Roesgaard, Dept. of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

20 June 2018

Panel session: Performance, power and cultural production
Room: 35.3.12


Dominik M. Müller, Max Planck Institute
Hybrid Pathways to Orthodoxy: Normative Aesthetics and the Staging of State Power During the Sultan of Brunei’s Public Birthday Celebrations

Igor Prusa, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic
Scandal Made in Japan: Concluding Remarks

Jiyu Zhang, Leiden University
Children’s Republic: Chinese Bildungsroman as National Allegory


Dominik M. Müller, Head of Research Group, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Halle, Germany)

Hybrid Pathways to Orthodoxy: Normative Aesthetics and the Staging of State Power During the Sultan of Brunei’s Public Birthday Celebrations
In Brunei, the Sultan’s colorful three week-long birthday celebrations are the most spectacular public event of the year. They provide an institutionalized “anti-structure”, in which the public sphere is temporarily transformed and exceptional activities take place, some of which would normally contradict Brunei's restrictive normativities of public entertainment. These celebrations, and numerous events “held on the occasion”, serve as an aesthetically productive site where asymmetrical power relations, symbolic exchanges, and reciprocal dependencies are staged between the absolute monarch and “his subjects”. These “subjects” comprise various groups who play their role in accordance with state-defined categories. They also include commercial actors staging “good citizenship” vis-à-vis the ruling order’s normative requirements through visual and performative means, resulting in a situation where a political personality cult and commercial advertising fuse, distinctions between individual and corporate “subjects” crumble, and the much-cited notion of “blurring boundaries” (Gupta 1995) between state and society acquires Brunei-specific meanings. Aesthetics, here, are inextricably linked with state power, but this symbiosis generates unique cultural forms. Participants also include graffiti sprayers honoring the Sultan, and singers/dancers who otherwise rarely participate in public culture.

The event’s anti-structure integrates them on the condition of playing their assigned role: coproducing state power. They also appropriate this power, however, and affect its contents.

I will ethnographically illustrate how this Brunei-specific cultural realization of the state is annually performed. Brunei's "national ideology” (Melayu Islam Beraja, MIB) and “Islamization” policies increasingly inform this spectacle, although its multidimensional ingredients-a symbolic firework of all sorts-are much more hybrid than official narratives of orthodoxy suggest.

Igor Prusa,
Ph.D. et Ph.D., Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Oriental Institute, East Asia Department

Scandal Made in Japan: Concluding Remarks
The talk I am proposing for the 2018 ADI Conference is the result of my decade-long doctoral research at The University of Tokyo. In August of 2017, I defended my thesis titled Scandal, Ritual and Media in Postwar Japan (supervised and chaired by Professor Yoshimi Shunya). My proposed talk wishes to be a concise conclusion of this research.

Japanese news production today is unthinkable without scandal, and its enormous proliferation on the one hand, and ritualized nature of performance on the other, constitute the crux of this talk. My initial impression was that more than pursuing social consensus based on conflict resolution, as much of the orthodoxy goes, Japanese scandals rather portend outrage, disgrace, and humiliation, with the seemingly insignificant moral disturbances of Japanese celebrities cast as a spectacular degradation of the “sacred signified”. At the same time, exposed elites are treated relatively benevolently, scheming their professional comebacks from a place of "purified" rebirth.

My core research questions are: what is the particular logic of constructing Japanese scandals and how did regressive, ritualized performance come to constitute "scandal culture" in postwar Japan? My research takes aim specifically at approaching Japanese scandals as a pragmatic social performance between ritual (expressive behaviour stemming from cultural rites) and strategy (conscious action determined by journalistic routines and political power-games). I construct a theoretically compelling framework buttressed by a series of analytical case studies, the results of which not only shed light on the particulars of Japanese scandal but also on the more general nature of scandal itself.

While drawing on theoretical arguments from Japanese philology, media studies, and cultural sociology, I analyse Japanese scandal as social drama (term by Victor Turner) structured by the dialectic of pollution via transgression, purification through exclusion, and reintegration of the transgressor. This is important, because in Japan, deep ritualism and “adherence to algorithm” in everyday life bears rich cultural connotations that also inform the understanding of Japanese scandals as dramatic secular rituals with sacred ambitions.

The basic hypothesis of my talk is that scandal is a multifaceted social phenomenon: while simultaneously serving the interests of capitalistic media institutions, scandal-rituals define social norms, reflect the values of society, and manage social transgression. In order to support my argumentation, I briefly elaborate on four large-scale contemporary media scandals: the Sakai Noriko celebrity scandal (2009), the Ozawa Ichirō political scandal (2009), the Olympus Corporation industry scandal (2011), and the Sano Kenjirō Olympic plagiarism scandal (2015). I decode the general modus operandi of the mainstream media, weekly tabloids, and the non-media actors (e.g. prosecutors, whistleblowers, or the police). One of my critical findings is that Japanese scandals represent popular media commodities if and only if they are exposed, but in terms of their sociopolitical impact they are simply regressive media rituals that have little power to prevent future elite deviances.

Jiyu Zhang, PhD candidate, Department of Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University

Children’s Republic
Chinese Bildungsroman as National Allegory
This paper advances the long-standing inquiry into cinema as both a front of cultural exchange and an interface of identity formation among Chinese-speaking communities. Situating cinema at the intersection of nation, culture, and politics, I turn to portrayal of youth in Chinese cinema by locating representation of youth in the narrative genre Bildungsroman. This paper attempts to interrogate the ways in which ideologies such as nationalism, statism, and communism are imprinted on, projected through, and resisted by cinematic embodiments of personal growth. With a brief survey of the concept of the Bildungsroman, along with a concise assessment of its variants in modern China, I aim to tease out how coming-of-age stories in Chinese cinema may align with or differ from narrative traditions of the Bildungsroman. In particular, I call attention to how the tension between realism and idealism in this genre can be found in its variegated manifestations in Chinese films.

Taking on the notion of national allegory, I propose that the deployment of the Bildungsroman in Chinese cinema constitutes a contentious site where youth serves as a trope that alludes to China’s ideological challenges. On both levels, I argue the Chinese Bildungsroman illustrates external challenges from Western thoughts and values, and internal struggles between the state and the individual. In this context, youth depicted in these coming-of-age films operates as a prism of culture, history and politics, through which asymmetries of knowledge production, dynamics of power relation, and strategies of cultural representation across the Sinophone world will be uncovered.