The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work

The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work

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Martin Heidegger once wrote that the world had, in the age of modern science, become a world picture. For Rey Chow, the world has, in the age of atomic bombs, become a world target, to be attacked once it is identified, or so global geopolitics, dominated by the United States since the end of the Second World War, seems repeatedly to confirm. How to articulate the problematics of knowledge production with this aggressive targeting of the world? Chow attempts such an articulation by probing the significance of the chronological proximity of area studies, poststructuralist theory, and comparative literature—fields of inquiry that have each exerted considerable influence but whose mutual implicatedness as postwar U.S. academic phenomena has seldom been theorized. Central to Chow’s discussions is a critique of the predicament of self-referentiality—the compulsive move to interiorize that, in her view, constitutes the collective frenzy of our age—in different contemporary epistemic registers, including the self-consciously avant-garde as well as the militaristic and culturally supremacist. Urging her readers to think beyond the inward-turning focus on EuroAmerica that tends to characterize even the most radical gestures of Western self-deconstruction, Chow envisions much broader intellectual premises for future transcultural work, with reading practices aimed at restoring words and things to their constitutive exteriority.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822387589
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/05/2006
Series: Next Wave Provocations
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Rey Chow is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She is the author of several books, including The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism; Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading; and Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, which won the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize. She is the editor of Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field, also published by Duke University Press. She is a coeditor of the Duke University Press book series Asia-Pacific.

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Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3732-4

Chapter One

THE AGE OF THE WORLD TARGET Atomic Bombs, Alterity, Area Studies

They did not want to risk wasting the precious weapon, and decided that it must be dropped visually and not by radar ... -Barton J. Bernstein, "The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered," Foreign Affairs (January/February 1995): 140

There has not yet developed a discourse in the American public space that does anything more than identify with power, despite the dangers of that power in a world which has shrunk so small and has become so impressively interconnected. -Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1994), 300

For most people who know something about the United States' intervention in the Second World War, one image seems to predominate and preempt the rest: the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, pictorialized in the now familiar image of the mushroom cloud, with effects of radiation and devastation of human life on a scale never before imaginable. Alternatively, we can also say that our knowledge about what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is inseparable from the imageof the mushroom cloud. As knowledge, "Hiroshima" and "Nagasaki" come to us inevitably as representation and, specifically, as a picture. Moreover, it is not a picture in the older sense of a mimetic replication of reality; rather, it has become in itself a sign of terror, a kind of gigantic demonstration with us, the spectators, as the potential target.

For someone such as myself, who grew up among survivors of Japan's invasion of China in the period 1937-45-banian kangzhan or the "Eight-Year War of Resistance" as it is still called among the Chinese-the image of the atomic bomb has always stood as a signifier of another kind of violence, another type of erasure. As a child, I was far more accustomed to hearing about Japanese atrocities against Chinese men and women during the war than I was to hearing about U.S. atrocities against Japan. Among the stories of the war was how the arrival of the Americans brought relief, peace, and victory for China; however hard the times were, it was said to be a moment of "liberation." As I grow older, this kind of knowledge gathered from oral narratives persists in my mind not as proof of historical accuracy but rather as a kind of emotional dissonance, a sense of something out-of-joint that becomes noticeable because it falls outside the articulations generated by the overpowering image of the mushroom cloud. It is as if the sheer magnitude of destruction unleashed by the bombs demolished not only entire populations but also the memories and histories of tragedies that had led up to that apocalyptic moment, the memories and histories of those who had been brutalized, kidnapped, raped, and slaughtered in the same war by other forces. As John W. Dower writes:

Hiroshima and Nagasaki became icons of Japanese suffering-perverse national treasures, of a sort, capable of fixating Japanese memory of the war on what had happened to Japan and simultaneously blotting out recollection of the Japanese victimization of others. Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is, easily became a way of forgetting Nanjing, Bataan, the Burma-Siam railway, Manila, and the countless Japanese atrocities these and other place names signified to non-Japanese.

Lisa Yoneyama sums up this situation succinctly: "Hiroshima memories have been predicated on the grave obfuscation of the prewar Japanese Empire, its colonial practices, and their consequences." To this day many people in Japan still passionately deny the war crimes committed by the Japanese military in East and Southeast Asia, and the label "Japanese" is hardly ever as culturally stigmatized as, say, the label "German," which for many is still a straightforward synonym for "Nazi" and "fascist."

But my aim in this chapter is not exactly that of reinstating historical, literary, or personal accounts of the innumerable instances of victimization during and after the war. Rather, I'd like to explore the significance of the atomic bomb as an epistemic event in a global culture in which everything has become (or is mediated by) visual representation and virtual reality. What are some of the consequences in knowledge production that were unleashed with the blasts in the summer of 1945? To respond to this question, I turn briefly to the civil, pedagogical apparatus known as area studies: whereas it is common knowledge that area studies programs in the United States are a postwar, cold war, government-funded phenomenon, I want to ask how rethinking the most notorious U.S. action in the Second World War-the dropping of two atomic bombs-can complicate and change our conventional understanding of such programs.

Seeing Is Destroying

As an anonymous journalist commented in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the catastrophes, the bombs that fell on the two Japanese cities in August 1945 ended any pretense of equality between the United States and Japan. It was, he writes, "as if a steel battleship had appeared at Trafalgar, effortlessly and ruthlessly destroying the wooden enemy fleet. There was absolutely no contest." Passages such as this rightly point to the fundamental shift of the technological scale and definition of the war, but what remains to be articulated is the political and ideological significance of this shift.

From a purely scientific perspective, the atomic bomb was, of course, the most advanced invention of the time. Like all scientific inventions, it had to be tested in order to have its effectiveness verified. It was probably no accident that the United States chose as its laboratory, its site of experimentation, a civilian rather than military space, since the former, with a much higher population density, was far more susceptible to demonstrating the upper ranges of the bomb's spectacular potential. The mundane civilian space in the early hours of the morning, with ordinary people beginning their daily routines, offered the promise of numerical satisfaction, of a destruction whose portent defied the imagination. Such civilian spaces had to have been previously untouched by U.S. weaponry so as to offer the highest possible accuracy for the postwar evaluations of the bombing experiments. And, destroying one city was not enough: since the United States had two bombs, one uranium (which was simple and gunlike, and nicknamed Little Boy) and the other plutonium (which worked with the complex and uncertain means of assembly known as the implosion design, and was nicknamed Fat Man), both had to be tested to see which one should continue to be produced in the future. After the more "primitive" uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the more elaborate plutonium one was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later. The fact that there were Christians and U.S. prisoners-of-war in such spaces, which were therefore not purely Japanese or "enemy" territories, did not seem to matter. As Evan Thomas writes:

If there was little debate over the moral rights and wrongs of atomizing Hiroshima, there was even less over Nagasaki; indeed, no debate at all. The operation was left to [General Leslie R.] Groves, who was eager to show that an implosion bomb, which cost $400 million to develop, could work as well as the trigger-type bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima. Exploding over the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the Far East, the Nagasaki bomb killed an additional 70,000 people. The victims included as many Allied prisoners of war as Japanese soldiers-about 250.

There are many ways in which the development of modern science, with its ever-more refined criteria for conceptualization, calculation, objectification, and experimentation, led up to these moments of explosion in what Michael S. Sherry calls "technological fanaticism." Yet what was remarkable in the incident of the nuclear blast was not merely the complexity of scientific understanding but the manner in which science-in this case, the sophisticated speculations about the relationships among energy, mass, speed, and light-was itself put at the service of a kind of representation whose power resides not in its difficulty but in its brevity and ready visibility. In a flash, the formula E=[mc.sup.2], which summarizes Einstein's theory of relativity and from which the bomb was derived, captured the magnitude of the bomb's destructive potential: one plane plus one bomb = minus one Japanese city. Was the formula a metaphor for the blinding flash of the atomic explosion itself, or vice versa?

Precisely because the various units of measurement must be carefully selected for such a formula to be even approximately correct, and precisely because, at the same time, such exactitude is incomprehensible and irrelevant to the lay person, E=[mc.sup.2] exists far more as an image and a slogan than as substance, and far more as a political than as a scientific act. If the scientific accuracy and verifiability of this formula remain uncertain to this day, it was nonetheless a supremely effective weapon of persuasion and propaganda. The speed of light is supposed to be a maximum, the fastest anything could possibly travel. The speed of light squared is thus clearly and easily perceived as a very large multiplier. Because of its simplicity and visual representability, the formula successfully conveyed the important messages that one bomb could create great terror and that one airplane was enough to destroy an entire nation's willingness to resist. It seized the imagination, most crucially, of the non-scientist, such as the U.S. president who consented to dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the gigantic impact of the explosion thus elegantly encapsulated-as if without effort-in a neat little formula that anyone could recall and invoke, an epochal destruction became, for the ordinary person, an instantly perceivable and graspable thing, like a control button at his or her command. In this manner, the most rarefied knowledge of science became conceptually democratized-that is, readily accessible, reproducible, and transmissible-as a weapon of attack.

I should make clear that what I am suggesting is not simply that hard science was replaced by a visual gimmick, that the "real thing" was replaced by a mere representation. Instead, it is that the dropping of the bombs marked the pivot of the progress of science, a pivot which was to continue its impact on all aspects of human life long after the Second World War was over. Science has, in modernity, reached the paradoxical point whereby it is simultaneously advanced and reduced. Having progressed far beyond the comprehension of nonspecialists and with complexities that challenge even the imagination of specialists, science is meanwhile experienced daily as the practically useful, in the form of miniscule, convenient, matter-of-fact operations that the lay person can manipulate at his or her fingertips. This is the situation to which Martin Heidegger refers in a passage such as this one from his well-known essay "The Age of the World Picture":

Everywhere and in the most varied forms and disguises the gigantic is making its appearance. In so doing, it evidences itself simultaneously in the tendency toward the increasingly small. We have only to think of numbers in atomic physics. The gigantic presses forward in a form that actually seems to make it disappear-in the annihilation of great distances by the airplane, in the setting before us of foreign and remote worlds in their everydayness, which is produced at random through radio by a flick of the hand.

Our daily uses of the light switch, the television, the computer, the cell phone, and other types of devices are all examples of this paradoxical situation of scientific advancement, in which the portentous-what Heidegger calls "the gigantic"-disappears into the mundane, the effortless, and the intangible. We perform these daily operations with ease, in forgetfulness of the theories and experiments that made them possible. Seldom do we need to think of the affinity between these daily operations and a disaster such as the atomic holocaust. To confront that affinity is to confront the terror that is the basis of our everyday life. For Heidegger, hence, the explosion of the atomic bomb is "the mere final emission of what has long since taken place, has already happened"-a process of annihilation that began with the very arrival of modern science itself.

From a military perspective, the mushroom cloud of smoke and dust signals the summation of a history of military invention that has gone hand in hand with the development of representational technologies, in particular the technologies of seeing. As Paul Virilio asserts, "For men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye." Virilio argues time and again in his work that close affinities exist between war and vision. Because military fields were increasingly reconfigured as fields of visual perception, preparations for war were increasingly indistinguishable from preparations for making a film: "The Americans prepared future operations in the Pacific," Virilio writes, "by sending in film-makers who were supposed to look as though they were on a location-finding mission, taking aerial views for future film production."

In the essay cited above, Heidegger argues that in the age of modern technology, the world has become a "world picture." By this, he means that the process of (visual) objectification has become so indispensable in the age of modern scientific research that understanding-"conceiving" and "grasping" the world-is now an act inseparable from the act of seeing-from a certain form of "picturing." However, he adds, "picture" in this case does not mean an imitation. As he explains:

World picture, when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth. Wherever we have the world picture, an essential decision takes place regarding what is, in its entirety. The Being of whatever is, is sought and found in the representedness of the latter.

For Heidegger, the world becoming a picture is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age, and he emphasizes the point "that the world becomes picture is one and the same event with the event of man's becoming subiectum in the midst of that which is." By the word subiectum, he is referring to "that-which-lies-before, which, as ground, gathers everything onto itself." As such "ground," men struggle to conquer the world as their own particular pictures, bringing into play an "unlimited power for the calculating, planning, and molding of all things." As is clearly demonstrated by the case of the United States, science and research have thus become "an absolutely necessary form of this establishing of self in the world."

Supplementing Heidegger, we may say that in the age of bombing, the world has also been transformed into-is essentially conceived and grasped as-a target. To conceive of the world as a target is to conceive of it as an object to be destroyed. As W. J. Perry, a former United States Under Secretary of State for Defense, said: "If I had to sum up current thinking on precision missiles and saturation weaponry in a single sentence, I'd put it like this: once you can see the target, you can expect to destroy it." Increasingly, war would mean the production of maximal visibility and illumination for the purpose of maximal destruction. It follows that the superior method of guaranteeing efficient destruction by visibility during the Second World War was aerial bombing, which the United States continued even after Japan had made a conditional surrender.


Excerpted from THE AGE OF THE WORLD TARGET by REY CHOW Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction. European Theory in America 1

I. The Age of the World Target: Atomic Bombs, Alterity, Area Studies 25

II. The Interruption of Referentiality: or, Poststructuralism's Outside 45

III. The Old/New Question of Comparison in Literary Studies: A Post-European Perspective 71

Notes 93

Index 117

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