Ideographic Modernism:
China, Writing, Media

By Christopher Bush

Reviewed by Andrea Bachner
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2011)

Book cover of Ideographic Modernism

Christopher Bush.
Ideographic Modernism:
China, Writing, Media.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 204 pp. 208.
ISBN: 978-0-1953-9382-8 (cloth)

Christopher Bush’s Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media is not a book about Chinese culture. It is a book about the stakes of writing about China. As such, it makes an argument of the utmost importance to anyone who writes and thinks about China, irrespective of whether this thought happens within, at the margins of, or outside of the field of Chinese studies.

In order to explore what it means to write about “China,” this book takes the ideograph, the obsession with the Chinese script in Western modernism, as its basis for an exploration of the relations between the West and China, as well as between writing and technological media. In the guise of a number of insightful case studies of modernist writers and thinkers such as Paul Claudel, Ezra Pound, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Victor Segalen, and Paul Valéry, Bush’s book seeks to redefine some of the bases of European modernity and lays out possible implications for a responsible construction of interculturality today.

In its analysis of how Western modernist texts frame Chinese writing, this book contributes another exciting chapter to a growing group of texts that have begun to reshape the field of East-West comparative literary and cultural studies in recent years. Many of the authors whose texts are featured in the volumeSinographies (edited by Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven Yao), Bush among them, have endeavored to find new ways of thinking the link between “China” and the “West” beyond influence studies and beyond a mere critique of Orientalist misreadings. Bush’s Ideographic Modernism, the crystallization of a thought process that started with an award-winning doctoral thesis, takes the treatment of China, and especially of Chinese writing in modernist texts, seriously. Instead of following in the footsteps of much of modernist literary studies that treated and continue to treat literary and theoretical fascinations with China as a replaceable metaphor, Bush seeks out the reference to China and Chinese culture beyond and behind citations of the China trope.

Bush’s study, which is comprised of an introduction, and four chapters of case studies, is preceded by a prologue that establishes the framework for his entire study by way of his reflections on Franz Kafka’s short story “An Imperial Message.” The eternally deferred message from the emperor to a “you” by way of a messenger who traverses an endless space and never reaches his goal in Kafka’s text becomes an allegory for the fundamental question of Ideographic Modernism: what is the status of China in modernist texts? From the outset, Bush sets the thrust of his book apart from much of extant literature on European modernism. He critiques its dismissal of China as a merely formal or ornamental, and thus potentially arbitrary or replaceable, trope and aims to recuperate China as a real reference, not as a mere stand-in for something else. This implies the forging of a new link between history and text that would free history from its merely contextual status by rereading the literary text itself as a historical artifact. Consequently, the term “ideographic modernism” not only describes the subject matter of Bush’s book, but also its method, a “conviction that there is history and meaning on the level of the letter” (xvi).

These theoretical and methodological premises raise the stakes for literary analysis, beginning with Ideographic Modernism itself. They necessitate a close attention to textual and conceptual detail, as well as to the real historical references represented in and crafted by the texts under consideration. In order to allow for a thought that seeks to reframe the boundary between the literal and the figurative, the textual and the historical, as well as between China and the West in a wider global framework, Bush focuses on the ideograph. The Western imaginary of Chinese writing signifies not only as a shorthand for cultural difference, but as a site for the redefinition of mediation and its limits in general and of the “writing” done by new technological media, such as photography, phonography, or cinematography, in particular. This adds another complex level to Bush’s conceptual gambit, namely the need to juggle questions of how the Chinese script becomes a metaphor for these modern media. This focus complicates and enriches what it means to write about (Chinese) writing, or what it means to write about writing about writing (China).

After laying out the conceptual bases of the whole book, the prologue continues to explore the reference of China in Kafka’s work. As a paradigmatic example, Kafka’s work shows how criticism has tended to flatten referentiality into metaphoricity. This example allows Bush to refine his distinction between reference and citation: even though “An Imperial Message” is not about China in any direct way, this is quite different from “[concluding] that China is therefore irrelevant to its meaning or to the way ‘China’ functions in the text” (xxv). In other words, China is not merely a citation in the modernist texts under analysis. It is also always reference, at least in the sense that its trope functions as a renegotiation of the meaning of reference itself.

The introduction spells out the main terms of the book: China, writing, media. Looking back at the history of Western philosophy, it provides a valuable, thoroughly documented account of the ways in which China, and especially the Chinese script have been imagined and put to use in Western thought. Positing nineteenth-century Orientalist discourses as a kind of “prehistory of media theory” (26), each of the subsequent chapters pairs one (or two) writers with a particular medium, as well as with a specific ideographic mode:

1. Ezra Pound and Paul Claudel / photography / image
2. Victor Segalen / phonography / inscription
3. Walter Benjamin / cinematography / mimesis
4. Paul Valéry / telegraphy / history

This structure creates suggestive intersections and new connections that allow for insightful, at times even brilliant, readings of a group of more or less canonical writers and their China-themed work. The chapter on Walter Benjamin stands out for its innovative link between mimesis (a well-discussed term in the context of Benjamin studies) and China (a topic hardly ever touched upon in research on Benjamin). Chapter 2 on Victor Segalen’s Steles with its fine analysis of inscription as subjectless writing takes the scholarship on Segalen’s work to a new level by rethinking the links between inscription and translation, production and reception. In this chapter, Bush uses Segalen’s poetic text as an especially forceful example of how the Chinese script fuels reflections on signification in general. According to Bush’s analysis,Steles, with its imitation of and reference to specifically Chinese material practices of representation, such as stone inscriptions, rethinks all writing potentially as translation. It both rehearses and challenges prejudices about “Chinese” as translation: as riveted to unoriginal reiterations of a cultural canon and as the untranslatable Other. “Translation” also happens between different media, or, at least, between different signifying logics. Bush compares Segalen’s literary recreation of inscription to the inscriptive functioning of the phonograph: a process of impersonal writing that produces and “reads” traces written by nobody. Though this comparison remains on the level of analogy rather than tracing a concrete link between the phonograph and Segalen’s Steles, it provides a suggestive reflection on how different media or structures of representation shape interculturality.

Each chapter brims with thorough analyses, carefully selected and researched references, and theoretically sophisticated reflections–to the point of challenging the reader. Given the complexity of the book’s premises, its different parts cannot always live up to its own high standards, as the individual chapters treat different authors and their uses of the ideograph. The oscillation between figuration and reference, as well as the link between the ideograph and a particular media technology, are more successfully executed in some parts than in others. A full-fledged conclusion would have helped reiterate some of the book’s central arguments for readerly closure. For instance, it could have strengthened the claim of an “ideographic” grammar common to the texts under analysis. On the whole, however, all parts of Ideographic Modernism provide insightful, conceptually sophisticated analyses and reflections.

Ideographic Modernism is a difficult book in the best possible sense. Its thoroughly argued, self-reflexive, and multi-layered account of how modernist writers wrote and thought about, by way of, and with China constitutes at the same time a compelling invitation to rethink what reference as such, what writing about something means. As a model for thought about the challenges of interculturality, Bush’sIdeographic Modernism will engage an audience beyond those interested in modernism or in East-West comparative literary and cultural studies. From the perspective of Western literature and thought, this book spells out a challenge to think differently about what it means to write about China, a challenge worthy of being taken up by future work in Comparative Literature and Chinese studies.

Andrea Bachner
Pennsylvania State University