The Art of Control: Hong Shen, Behavioral
Psychology, and the Technics of Social Effects

By Weihong Bao

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 27, no.2  (Fall 2015), pp. 249-297

What does it mean for us to revisit Hong Shen’s theory of drama today? What do we learn from his obsession with behaviorism, modernist aesthetics, and engineering design in his theories of acting and staging? What is the role of aesthetics within a transmission model of communication? How does Hong Shen’s theorization of affect and social effect make us rethink assumptions about affect and its political deployment?

This essay analyzes Hong Shen’s much neglected drama theory in an effort to resituate modern Chinese drama in a global history and theory of media. Bao traces behavioral psychology as a consistent thread in Hong Shen’s theories of acting and staging from the 1920s to the 1940s to reconnect Hong interest in the “technics” of theater and film with his desire for social effects, thus allowing us to understand Hong Shen’s investment in the specific technics of the artistic forms in relation to affective design and social management.

Placing Hong Shen at the crossroads of the transnational circulation and production of knowledge, Bao traces Hong Shen’s intellectual journey from his early interest in behavioral psychology and acting to his wartime theorization of staging and social effects, taking into account Hong’s education in the United States in both universities and professional schools, in ceramic engineering and drama. Hong’s eclectic education and intellectual orientation provided him a unique angle to negotiate behaviorism in his early theory of acting as technics of affect; it also allows us to situate Hong Shen’s wartime theory of staging at the intersection of three institutions of knowledge—behavioral psychology, modernist aesthetics, and engineering design—that concern the technics of the body in relation to the environment.

Significantly during the wartime, these institutions of knowledge converged as technics of control through abstraction, driving toward a radical evacuation of content and transforming content into an objective rather than an interpretive category. This revamping of content, Bao argues, needs to be understood in terms of the rising dominance of a transmission model of communication in the service of wartime mobilization. Evoking Hong’s drama theory as a rich case of media theory, Bao calls for a dialogue between modern Chinese drama and contemporary theories of media.