Book Manuscript Excerpt

Chinese Whispers?

Relocating Media, Relocating Archives

This book tells of relocations, as in moving home from China to the United States. The move relocates my classroom practices. The day before giving any class on media and culture, I rehearse my lessons with my mother, who lives in China. She has been a telephone engineer since the 1980s, a skilled working-class member of a society still largely unknown to Anglophone academia today. How does she make sense of what I teach? Her focus differs from that of Heidegger, Benjamin, and other thinkers who guide my work nowadays. Long before, it was my mother’s teaching at a China Railway technical college that guided my understanding of communication. Teaching with my mother relocates archives from North American libraries to Chinese working-class households, from government databases to messages that go off the record.

Relocations help me make intuitive sense of the links between two remote discourses: the theory we practice in classrooms about media cultures and the whispers, throwaways, and memory in working-class colleges and households. The latter has propelled technological changes in China but remains largely invisible to knowledge institutions. Off-the-record thinking breaks methodological ground: our knowledge about communication is often skewed towards elite-governed records. Diving into the depth of the vast neglected working-class experiences, this book discusses the fantasies and the relations that ensue when events remain off the record.

Throughout the book, I particularize disappearances through my mother’s memories, such as this one. In 1984, my mother began her career as a communication engineer. One night, she started alert inside a building that had been quiet all evening but was now shaking in alarm. An error had occurred somewhere within the telephone carrier room relaying long-distance phone calls between China’s railroad offices. In her city’s main carrier building, she was the only one on call, three nights a week. Every shift felt critical. If anything went wrong, it would be her sole responsibility to fix the error.

The signal loss was not the only communication accident. She heard late-night whispers. Couples in the bureau used the inter-city lines to send their yearnings. Like all calls, their calls went through the carrier. Whispers smuggled love and longing into darkly-knit nights. The lovers’ voices had no names attached. Anonymous, they existed within circuits but escaped documentation. Few traces remain.

Whispers tell stories. In literature, whispers are writers’ tools to cast the shadow of murders and spells.[1] That whispers have disappeared is not the most important thing here. Whisperers are also historians’ heroes because they question official narratives and reveal the terror of tyranny.[2] Archivists and archaeologists are fond of the bread-and-butter problem of routine erasure. Archives represent a minority of wealthy and influential groups.[3] Anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler shows that we can read hierarchical archives symptomatically. Archival assessments take place in the palimpsest of the repetitive refrain, prose style, and affective strains, revealing the anxious underpinning of imperialism.[4]

Stored materials cannot provide proof of what my mother had intuited. Classicist Mary Beard shows that ancient Greeks have left us the legacy of a masculine authority that matures by excluding mothers’ voices.[5] Women only whisper (with some exceptions). The scattered evidence from my mother can never outweigh the records of bureaucrats. She took pleasure in remembering intimate messages but never writing them down. She had internalized the hierarchy of knowledge institutions and believed that private lives were too trivial to stay on information highways.

Whispers present a communication problem: most messages disappear, and our intellectualism favors retrieval materials over disappeared ones.[6] Media critic Xinghua Li cautions that we think too often of whispers as shadowy politics contaminating the public good, “anathema to Habermasian democracy.”[7] Ubiquitous yet invisible in documents, extensive yet unexposed to elites, elusive to knowledge yet persistent in effects, low-humming voices may cloud public debates. The cloudiness evokes the fear of the unknown.[8] In politics, for example, when artificial intelligence technologies in China go unpatented, we tend to suspect a techno-empire secretly rising behind the cloud. At their most harmless, the unknowns fade, unlike the official documents that stand on the tip of the scale. The scale is a hierarchy that my mother had learned in the carrier room but now no longer interests her.

Stories like this reveal the disappearing aesthetics disqualified by protocols of record-keeping. Playful disappearances offer an angle to study media and technology in contemporary China. Throwaways, memories, and murmurs adhere to a topology of networks outside archives and databases. This technological landscape dates back to the earlier periods of blue-collar experiences. Lively yet disappearing messages have left evidence in book-publishing industries (the 1950s, Chapter 1), fantasies about airborne data (the 1980s, Chapter 2), and AI-infused services and gadgets in high-tech villages (the 2010s, Chapter 3). In the first case, books routinely disappear in working-class households without anyone’s conscious effort to keep things hidden. In other instances, the focus is on the throwaway gadgets for capturing data. Ephemeral books, sounds, and gadgets transmit the everyday lives of the working-class.[9] Showing their importance is a taxing process of excavation because the privilege we prescribe to records also depends on the disappearance of the everyday.

Not everything vanishes. The (Freudian)[10] question is where it’s kept. I collect visual and textual materials from three often discredited spaces: working-class households, vocational and technical colleges, and high-tech villages. Things disappear due to the deafness and blindness of our storage-based methods. Meanwhile, ephemera create attachments and relations of a different kind, raising aesthetic and epistemological issues regarding time, memory, gender, and class. Because facts and numbers do not capture such ephemera, an alternative archive will be constructed out of literary texts and oral histories. Together, these objects engender an emotional making of knowledge, a poiesis of auditory and ocular pluralism.

[1] In fantastic fiction, examples of whispers are probably too many to list. Whispering has been used to signal a whole range of negatives, such as death, evil, betrayal, and the existence of other inexplicable forces.

[2] I am influenced by the work of historian Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007).  

[3] Reading like a historian has alerted me o the imperial worldviews and colonial interests in records. I will detail these influential works in the body chapters.

[4] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxiety and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[5] Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2017).

[6] John Durham Peters, “History as a Communication Problem,” in Barbie Zelizer edited Explorations in Communication and History (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 21.

[7] Xinghua Li, “Whispering,” Media, Culture & Society 31, no.1 (2011): 20.

[8] Here, I am invoking the concept of the “cloud” in John Durham Peters’ conceptualization. “Cloudiness” is a multifaceted concept that ran through the history of information industries. See John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Cloud: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[9] I am invoking Yuriko Saito’s term “everyday aesthetics,” which refers to the “messy,” “disorganized” artefacts often neglected by art historians. Though I am not making any claims in art history in this book, my concern here is very similar. Mass communication research should look at the largely undocumented experiences that is messy and disorganized because they are not easily captured by the surveys and statistics needed for quantitative media research. Yuriko Saito, Everyday Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[10] I am thinking of the question as a Freudian one. Psychoanalysis reconciles these two bizarre facts: what we know is only the tip of the scale; under the water is what we do not know, whether we know it or not, and these unknowns create the undocumented communication networks.