machine quotidienne


Rey Chow’s Cultural Translation: culture, theory and Fist of Fury

Literal and Non-Literal Translation


n the concluding chapter of Primitive Passions (1995), in a chapter entitled “Film as Ethnography,” Rey Chow asks the question of the relationships between ethnography and the complex matter of visual media representations. She asks this because by and large any serious consideration of the impact and implications of filmic, TV and other media representations have traditionally been excluded or subordinated in the conceptualization and construction of the classical anthropological ethnographic “scene.” The ethnographic scene is a scenario most commonly formulated as being a situation involving an ethnographer and a native subject (or group). The presence and role of all manner of media are not normally immediately considered in this scenario. Yet the contemporary world is, and has been for well over a century, saturated with media—and moreover with a range of mediated images that often claim to testify to some kind of insight into other cultures, in a quasi-anthropological way. There are also types of media text that seem to constitute, precipitate or otherwise relate to one or another kind of cross-cultural encounter, and so on. (I have written about this in Bowman 2010.) The documentary film is perhaps the exemplary contemporary form of media genre that has closest affinities with anthropology; just as the wide variety of texts that seem to represent “other cultures,” however falsely or fictitiously—such as action films, set in “exotic” locations—can be numbered among the media which may precipitate various forms of cross-cultural encounter. Both have, to a significant extent, superseded earlier media forms, such as the newspaper report and genres of travel writing, which had been popular for hundreds of years, and that had provided “information” and ideas about different cultures and societies.

Of course, the film or TV documentary remains controversial in many ways, even though it is based on a kind of naïve ethnographic claim: the documentary seeks merely to document. But the problem is that what it documents is always a construction, in that what is shown will inevitably be a product of representational biases, based on editorial decisions, involving all sorts of exclusions, subordinations, selections, emphases and exaggerations. However, this observation allows us to turn things around and to perceive with more clarity that, in some ways, the problems of the documentary film as ethnographic text amplify the problems inherent to ethnography per se. For even the “pure” ethnographic situation will be driven by the perceiving eye and writing hand of the ethnographer, whose studies, reports, essays and monographs are themselves ultimately textual constructs. We will return to this matter below, as Chow does in her later paper “China as Democracy” (forthcoming), which in many respects builds on and advances some of the arguments of “Film as Ethnography.” But, we will start from the earlier essay, because in “Film as Ethnography,” the first matter that Chow isolates is what she calls the problematic relation between representation of “self” and of the “foreign,” all efforts in terms of which often arouse harsh responses from many quarters

Chow follows a strand of criticism of anthropology by arguing that some of the problems of inequality and Western bias in “cross-cultural exchange” were in a sense caused by Western anthropology. She evokes the problematic scenario of the Western anthropologist going abroad to study natives (1995: 176). As she puts it, from the outset, the very presence of the anthropologist entering into another culture plays its part in the destruction of what may well formerly have been an “isolated,” “authentic” or “uncontaminated” native culture. Just as William Wordsworth waxed lyrical about the wild beauty of the natural environment in the English Lake District, before he subsequently went on to bewail the emergence of a tourist industry and the crowds of tourists who were going there to see the landscape precisely because his accounts of it drew them there, so anthropology is in some sense implicated in the eradication of native tribes “untouched” by Westerners.

But this is only one aspect of the problem—and one that is in itself already a problematic product (or symptom) of a nostalgia or fantasy based on ideas about, say, the “noble savage” or a “pure and primitive native.” The more significant and palpable problem can be described like this. After the anthropological encounter, after the study has been written up and published, it becomes that case that anyone who seeks to study or learn about the culture in question—including enquirers who may themselves be part of the native group in question—must now turn to the books and essays produced by the Western ethnographers. This has a double implication: first, it moves the source of authority to Western books and institutions; second, it requires the enquirer, from any culture or tradition, to adopt the Western protocols and reading practices involved in the construction of the “original knowledge.” As Chow puts it, following earlier critics, in this sense, anthropology and ethnology remain a “one way street” (177).

Using a related set of terms—terms that are extremely important to her—Chow reformulates this kind of encounter as a version of “cultural translation,” and argues that all of this is irreducibly related to power (177). This is first because, in one sense, anthropology gives unequal access to unequal information. Moreover, “weaker” countries are more likely to have no choice in the representational matter and processes and to have to submit to “forcible transformation in the translation process” (178). On Chow’s reading, this is the first key ingredient of what she terms “the anthropological deadlock:” the domination of representation by the Western ethnographer or anthropologist. The second key ingredient is the noticing of this representational bias and the refusal or rejection of it on the part of the “others,” “themselves,” so to speak—that is, the rejection of Western anthropology and other sorts of Western representations by “nativist” scholars—i.e., academics and other representatives of the “native” culture in question (178).

Chow refers to the rejection of all foreign (Western) representations of native cultures as “nativism.” It is an “-ism” because it is a familiar process with predictable features. According to Chow, the process often becomes one in which “native” critics and opponents of “Western” anthropology go on to make various kinds of claim about the impossibility of non-natives being able to understand or being able to represent the native culture at all. In some versions of nativism, the argument becomes one in which the native culture is held to be entirely ungraspable in Western terms at all. In other versions, the argument is that only native representatives of the native culture can claim to be able to represent that culture at all. Whilst having sympathy for their emergence, Chow suggests that in these and other such responses to the anthropological deadlock, what we see time and again are refusals of translation. The nativist positions are led by a desire to hold onto some kind of tradition unmolested by Western incursions (178). But the problem is that in doing so, nativist scholarship often draws exclusionary lines around a fantasized “pure” object, that little if anything or anyone can ever manage to live up to. For instance, in Chinese studies, Chow regularly perceives the ways in which any modern Chinese cultural productions are disparaged by nativist critics for being “too Westernized,” and suchlike. In short, what is valued is a backward looking cultural elitism, based on a fantasized essentialism, whose consequences include attempts to hierarchize, police and exclude certain subjects. This is so even though fields like Chinese studies are often elaborated in languages other than Chinese—yet, suggests Chow, to remain consistent with their own demands (and to avoid their “performative contradiction”), shouldn’t such orientations be carried out solely in classical Chinese?

Instead of going down these lines, Chow moves somewhat transversally and proposes a link between ethnography and translation. This link that can be clarified and engaged more fully by focusing on the theme of visuality, and thinking about all different kinds of filmic representation, not only documentary. Chow proposes this even though, unlike the laypeople of the general public, who might easily regard a documentary as being more or less “anthropological,” anthropologists themselves define anthropology in terms of method and theory (rather than representation). This means that they will not be inclined to define a text as anthropological just because of its subject matter. However, non-anthropologists are not quite so clear on the matter. And this may not simply be because of any lack of “discipline” or “academic rigor.” Rather, once one starts to look at the borders and boundaries between a supposedly anthropological and a supposedly non-anthropological text otherwise (perhaps using the insights of Derrida and deconstruction, for instance), the ostensibly clear distinctions between the anthropological and the non-anthropological become less and less clear. When one considers any representation as a (textual) representation, it becomes difficult to adjudicate decisively on what might be regarded as ethnographic and what not (179). This is compounded by the fact that ethnography itself is constitutively based in the subjective—the subjective encounter, the relations between subjects (179). This, therefore, is a paradox of ethnographic anthropology, inasmuch as one of the claims of ethnography is its ability to construct a more generalizable knowledge from a subjective (and disciplinary) interpretation of an intersubjective encounter.

Chow reiterates with approval the argument that is sometimes advanced that because ethnographic texts are irreducibly subjective, therefore the question of whose subjectivity should be foregrounded.  She proposes that we should look at the subjective origins of the work of those who were previously ethnologized but who now ethnologize themselves in different ways and using different media. How do they show themselves? This is a variant of the question of “how do they see themselves?” and this is crucially important, argues Chow, because it is related to—indeed, it demonstrates—the huge importance not only of looking but also of being looked at. Which is why Chow connects the problems of ethnography with Laura Mulvey’s feminist arguments about the political and ethical effects of the structures, conventions and structuration of vision and looking. As Chow puts it: “the state of being looked at not only is built into the way non-Western cultures are viewed by Western ones; more significantly it is part of the active manner in which such cultures represent—ethnographize—themselves” (180). In other words, this is a matter of the force that the way you have been looked at exerts on the way you look at, represent, or even “construct” yourself (180). So, following Mulvey and using her famous (and famously awkward) term, Chow asserts that “being-looked-at-ness, rather than the act of looking, constitutes the primary event in cross-cultural representation” (180).

Having added so many different issues into the mix, it may become difficult to follow Chow’s overarching arguments or fundamental contentions. But here, Chow is developing two soon to be intertwined positions. The first is an argument that many different forms of representation (from ethnographic to documentary to filmic and fictional) are different kinds of “translation,” from one register to another, following different kinds of protocols, contingencies and biases. The second is that these all feed into the ways in which groups are “seen” (in every sense of the word: from “shown” to “thought of”); and that—claims of anthropological specificity notwithstanding—all types of representation have effects on perceptions and apperceptions (self-perceptions). All texts are constructs, and all representations are texts (180-1). Thus, she affirms, there is always something anthropological/ethnographic, even in fiction; and equally therefore always something fictive in ethnographic texts:

In studying contemporary Chinese films as ethnography and autoethnography, I am thus advocating nothing less than a radical deprofessionalization of anthropology and ethnography as “intellectual disciplines.” Once these disciplines are deprofessionalized—their boundaries between “us” and “them” destabilized; their claims to documentary objectivity deconstructed—how do we begin to reconceive the massive cultural information that has for so long been collected under their rubric? It is at this juncture that I think our discussion about ethnography must be supplemented by a theory of translation. (181)

Drawing on Thomas Elsaesser’s analyses of the ways in which various European filmmakers of the 1970s appeared to have constructed intimately detailed studies of aspects of everyday life that were otherwise simply doomed to oblivion—collections, clutter, mess, and the bric-a-brac of everyday lives—Chow points out that in many ways film can be regarded as a vast “transcription service” (180-1). Similarly, Chinese film of the 1980s can be regarded as a vast transcription service focused on women, the poor, children, and other related themes common to filmmakers at the time (182).

So, there are three senses of translation in play. First, translation as transcription; second, translation as transformation from one medium to another; and third, the problem of translation across and between cultures (182). Readers may wonder where the more standard sense of translation as linguistic translation has gone in Chow’s thinking here—or why she waits for so long and introduces so many other “non-literal” meanings of “translation” before introducing it. It is introduced half way through “Film as Ethnography,” and primarily in the context and in terms of matters related to culture (in her words, in terms of its links with issues of “tradition” and “betrayal”) (182). This is because Chow clearly wishes to transform (or translate) conventional constructed and biased understandings of what translation is and does.

Translation has always been thought of as linguistic translation, Chow reminds us, even though there are so many other kinds of crossings over and transformations in the world. Moreover, the linguistic understanding of translation itself has always been heavily biased, along lines that Chow ultimately comes to represent as essentialist. This is because, even though in most approaches to linguistics, there are two primary elements at play in the any text—a signifier (in the text) and a signified (what it is meant to mean to a reader)—privilege has always gone to the signified—or to what the signifier is meant to mean. So, what is translated is overwhelmingly the interpretation—not the simple materiality of the signifier—the mark on the page—but rather what is deemed to be the proper or correct meaning of those marks (182-3). This relation to the act or practice of translation sets up a hierarchy or a game of hide and seek in which the translation easily becomes regarded as inferior to “the original,” because the translation is different, or “loses” (proper) meanings, or acquires new (improper) meanings, or does not convey the same, or the original or the correct meanings. So the translation is all too often regarded as a crossing over, a crossing out, and a “betrayal” of the original.

Chow critiques all of these value judgments (the proper, the correct, the original), and proposes that whether the translated text in question be literary or filmic—say, a translation of an ancient Chinese text, or the “translation” that is contemporary Chinese film (as we shall see in a moment)—the translation is frequently belittled by purists, nativists and other sorts of critics, because it is regarded as a “superficial” construction, which misses the “essence” of the “original.” As Chow puts it in relation to her discussion of film:

Given these deeply entrenched assumptions about translation, it is hardly surprising that the rendering of “China” into film, even at a time when the literary bases of Chinese society are increasingly being transformed by the new media culture, is bedeviled by suspicion and replete with accusations of betrayal. While these suspicions and accusations may express themselves in myriad forms, they are always implicitly inscribed within the ideology of fidelity. For instance…is not the distrust of “surfaces”—the criticism of Zhang Yimou’s lack of depth—a way of saying that surfaces are “traitors” to the historical depth that is “traditional China”? And yet the word tradition itself, linked in its roots to translation and betrayal, has to do with handing over. Tradition itself is nothing if it is not a transmission. How is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation? (183)

Again, Chow’s is a double-pronged approach, which intertwines a couple of critiques. The first is that translation is a problem of “tradition,” and a matter of “handing over” (183). The second is that the terms we use to think about translation are already organized by a notion of origin as being primary and superior and translation as being secondary and inferior (183)—even though, both theoretically and practically, this should not be assumed to be the case. She continues:

Precisely because translation is an activity that immediately problematizes the ontological hierarchy of languages—”which is primary and which is secondary?”—it is also the place where the oldest prejudices about origins and derivations come into play most forcefully. For instance, what does it mean to make a translation sound “natural”? Must the translation sound more like the “original,” which is not the language into which it is translated—meaning that it is by resemblance to the “original” that it becomes “natural”? Or, must it sound more like the language into which it is translated, in which case sounding “natural” would mean forgetting the “origin”? When we say, derogatorily, “This reads like a translation,” what we mean is that even though we understand what the “original” meaning might be, we cannot but notice its translatedness—and yet is that not precisely what a translation is supposed to be—translated rather than “original”? As in all bifurcated processes of signification, translation is a process in which the notion of the “original,” the relationship between the “original” and its “derivations,” and the demand for what is “natural” must be thoroughly reexamined. (184)

To illustrate some of these points, Chow turns again to the criticisms of Zhang Yimou’s films. She notes that the criticisms of his films seem to boil down to the idea that his films are unfaithful to an essence, “China,” an essence that is presumed to exist somewhere, but that is equally never fully present. The criticisms always strongly imply that, because the film medium is “superficial,” therefore it will always both fail and distort “China,” and will never be able to get to—communicate or represent—its depth.

Of course, as all of the points made up to now have already anticipated, Chow could neither be satisfied with such a take on “film,” nor on “representation,” nor on “China,” nor indeed on any other presumed or putative entity (or essence). “China” is always and already only ever a discursive and textual construct—an idea, an argument, a set of associations, and so on. Even to the extent that it is a thing, specifically a nation state, this is at once also a textual matter (nations are written into existence by—and as—documents, as Chow has pointed out), and moreover something that is in no way divorced from the attending discursive textual constructs of ideology—the many different kinds of visual, sonic and narrative of celebration of the Chinese nation.

Accordingly, then, all texts are in some sense “translations,” in that they are constructions which incorporate material and interpretations of other materials and interpretations. At the very least, all texts are constructions, which have been put together, in one place or context. So translation ought equally to be approached in terms of processes of putting together, and reworking, in another. This is why Chow recalls Walter Benjamin’s argument in his essay “The Task of the Translator” (Chow 1995: 185), in which Benjamin argues that the task of the translator is to attend to the constructedness of the text and to reassemble it brick by brick, so to speak, or word by word (185). The original is already a construction. Therefore the translation must also be a construction—indeed a construction which demonstrates the constructedness of every text.

Nevertheless, this does not solve the conundrum of how to translate word for word. Even if we don’t worry about what signified meaning our translations are constructing, the question remains one of which signifiers to use to translate which signifiers? For Benjamin, the task of the translator is therefore that of communicating the missing thing, the supplement to literality (186). This is to be located in what Benjamin calls the text’s mode of signification. For Benjamin, what both original and translation should share is an exchange organized by a mode of signification. Translation is therefore regarded by Benjamin as a “liberation,” both of the original and of the translation. This is because texts are now regarded as fragments of a larger “language” or mode of signification (188). What Benjamin takes this to mean is encapsulated in a passage that he quotes from Pannwitz, in which Pannwitz argues that the problem with translation is that translators always translate the original into the destination language without modifying the destination language in reverence for the original language. However, a good translation, Pannwitz suggests, should alter the destination language, too (189). Translation should be the transformation both of the text and of the context.

Chow actually regards this as an anti-ethnocentric theory of translation. For it implies an approach that doesn’t demand that the other be reduced to the same, but rather that the familiar language and culture reach out and be affected by the foreign.

That being said, Chow remains concerned to emphasize that we should not get (re)immersed in “logocentric” or language-centered understandings of translation. As she observes, the traditional academic focus on the written leaves unasked the question of translation from, for instance, literary to visual realms, registers and media, or literary to sonic, or aural to visual, and so on; as well as translation-transformations that may or may not be bound up in the legacy of Westernization. Moreover, she adds, those theorists of poststructuralism, for example, who produce ever-more dense and complicated readings of texts, and who have been inclined in the past to regard such work as “resistance” to cultural domination, and so on, should remember that the production of “dense readings” only makes sense in the context of institutions of close reading within the university (191).

Evoking approaches to cultural translation which advocate “transactional reading,” Chow asks (rhetorically), must the emphasis always fall on “reading” and not simply on the idea of cultural translations as “transactional”? (191) She asks this because all manner of encounter and many different kinds of textual production or dissemination bespeak transactions across languages, mediums, and cultural forms, “transactions” that do not involve any close reading at all (192). Hence her questions: can we think translation that does not “valorize” or fetishize the idea—or investment in the idea—of an original? And can we think translation in terms that do not involve the idea of an “interpretation” towards depth? (192) In order to be able to do this, Chow proposes, we need to move from a focus on interlingual questions to focusing on intersemiotic practices (193).

Chow’s move from a focus on language to a focus on non-linguistic cross-cultural encounter also signals the point at which she takes her distances from deconstruction. Specifically, she argues, deconstruction’s “negative momentum”—its critical relation to language and texts—is incapable of thinking the specificity of the media into which the transformed text (e.g., literature) is translated (e.g., film) (193). Moreover, she notes, all too many people in translation studies and in poststructuralism still favor the original rather than the translation—something which is surely bizarre, especially in a field called translation studies. But, she asks: should we decide to champion the original because it was there first (even if it is a “necessary failure,” in the sense argued by deconstructionists), or should we work with the translated text? Because of ingrained cultural and academic biases, she points out, many academics still choose the former. But the choice in this regard is one that Chow contends will have profound significances and consequences—for our own orientations and values. As she puts it, “the choice of either path constitutes a major political decision” (193).

A similar decision that must be made, and that has similar ethical and political implications, is whether to focus attention on “high” cultural objects, texts and practices, or whether to focus on “mass” and “low” cultural objects, texts and practices (193). Chow gives numerous reasons why attention should be given to mass culture, including the ways in which mass culture registers, reworks and replays issues of the asymmetry of power relations between Eastern and Western cultures (193). Moreover, in a media saturated world, to proceed in any academic or intellectual endeavor in such a way as to try to block or blot out the profound, intense and relentless day-to-day crossovers and transactions between cultures—to ignore them or to try to pretend they aren’t happening—is to remain obdurately blinkered and closed off to the extent to which global media transactions have transformed the world—for instance, in terms of a “weakening” of Western traditions and Western “metaphysics” (195), or, that is, the hold both of Western philosophical and epistemological views and of their “laws.”

In other words, the vast traffic in global popular cultural encounters (for example, the transnationalism of film) means that, even if what the world has seen over the past centuries can be described as “Westernization,” it is still the case that cultures, east and west, north and south, are more and more “coeval”—arising and developing together. So, although we may think of primitive cultures as having been eradicated and as having vanished because of Westernization, it is less hyperbolic to say that they have been “translated” (196). Obviously, some cultures have been more translated than others, and in ways determined by unequal directions of power. But this has not occurred without some reciprocal modifications. Chow adds to this the important point that our contemporary ideas about “lost” ancient and primitive cultures and peoples should be regarded as ideas that have arisen in modernity and postmodernity. In other words, they are modern ideas. The idea of the primitive and ancient that we mourn the loss of is in fact a contemporary idea, or a contemporary “affect.” Chow calls such affects “primitive passions.” She borrows the Nietzschean terms used by Gianni Vattimo to describe what he calls the “fabling” of the contemporary world, in order to assert that those other cultures have not gone; they have just changed and are still “authentic” even if translated. Moreover, she adds, even within the cultures that Westernizers “primitivize” and fetishize—by imagining them as being, for example, closer to nature, or “timeless”—even such cultures themselves often trade in primitivist fantasies about parts of their own demographics (the poor, the rural, etc.) (196).

Rather than falling into primitivism or nativism, Chow seeks to attend to the implications of the fact that different media interact in different ways across national and international contexts (197). This means that not one mode of signification is dominant in the contemporary world, at the same time as—even if “technologization” might be regarded as “Westernization”—these self-same media have weakened Western “foundations” as much as having spread them. This is why Chow turns to Vattimo, who has argued that, accordingly, there has been a widespread weakening of experience as such. This has arisen by way of and thanks to the complexity of media, their multifarious interactions, and the cacophonic media saturation of everyday life. But ultimately, the turn here is to Nietzsche’s prophetic argument that, more and more clearly it can be seen that there are no incontestable facts and only interpretations. According to Vattimo, this means that the world has more and more become a “fable” (198)—a story, a version among versions, something demanding interpretation rather than commanding experience.

Now, at such a point, many thinkers would take the turn most famously made by Jean Baudrillard—away from “the world” and into ideas and arguments about the primacy of simulacra and simulation. But Chow does not follow this hyperbolic line. To be a fable is not to be simply false simulation, she acknowledges; arguing that, for instance, contemporary Chinese films in this context ought to be understood as fables (198). This does not mean false or simply disconnected fiction. Rather,

Contemporary Chinese films are cultural “translations” in…multiple senses of the term. By consciously exoticizing China and revealing China’s “dirty secrets” to the outside world, contemporary Chinese directors are translators of the violence with which the Chinese culture is “originally” put together. (202)

That is, rather than regarding films as pure fantasy—or entirely excluded from the realms of ethnography or documentary—Chow suggests that certain Chinese films clearly show some of the ways in which Chinese culture is put together “in its cruelty” (198). Of course, this can be quite antagonistic or alienating for some viewers, and of course no representation will ever be free from the need for interpretation or contestation, but Chow argues that this shows the extent to which Chinese audiences can become not only inheritors of but also foreigners to their own tradition in the act of transmission (199). Indeed, Chow acknowledges, perhaps transmitting something or translating something so that it can me represented/communicated to a wider audience (translated), involves a kind of sacrifice (199). Kafka sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility, she notes; arguing that perhaps it is the case that what is transmissible is what is accessible, and that this exacts a heavy toll. Accessibility is what enables transmission and translation between cultures (200), and this involves a cost. Thus, she writes, of Chinese film:

In the dazzling colors of their screen, the primitive that is woman, who at once unveils the corrupt Chinese tradition and parodies the orientalism of the West, stands as the naïve symbol, the brilliant arcade, through which “China” travels across cultures to unfamiliar audiences. Meanwhile, the “original” that is film, the canonically Western medium, becomes destabilized and permanently infected with the unforgettable “ethnic” (and foreign) images imprinted on it by the Chinese translators. (202)

And this leads to her conclusion:

Like Benjamin’s collector, the Chinese filmmakers’ relation to “China” is that of the heirs to a great collection of treasures, the most distinguished trait of which, writes Benjamin, “will always be its transmissibility.” If translation is a form of betrayal, then the translators pay their debt by bringing fame to the ethnic culture, a fame that is evident in recent years from the major awards won by Chinese films at international film festivals in Manila, Tokyo, Nantes, Locarno, London, Honolulu, Montreal, Berlin, Venice, and Cannes. Another name for fame is afterlife. It is in translation’s faithlessness that “China” survives and thrives. A faithlessness that gives the beloved life—is that not. . . faithfulness itself? (202)

Chow returns obliquely to this complex question some twelve years after the publication of “Film as Ethnography,” in a paper called “China as Democracy: Some Basic Questions (Inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni and Jia Zhangke)” (forthcoming). In this work she considers directly the problems and pitfalls not of the “artistic” or “fictional” representation of the cinematic feature film, but rather of the “realistic” documentary itself. A fictional representation may offend for being incorrect or untrue, but surely not a documentary, right? Wrong. The stakes and problematics of representation are if anything amplified and intensified in the representation that seeks to be “objective” or “factual.” This much we might anticipate. But in “China as Documentary,” Chow as ever seeks to push our thinking further on this matter and related issues.

The first thing Chow notes is an ingrained but often unremarked difference between the ways that different constituencies of academics view images. She breaks it down into the difference between the ways that those she calls “natives” or “native informants” view images of their own culture and the ways that foreign observers view those same images. The first difference, she proposes, is the matter of deference: “foreign” (Western) academics are keen to defer to the opinions and interpretations of “natives.” This is clearly the outcome of a certain historical process—the increasing sensitivity of Western academics to the possibility that they may not have authority or access to the truth, that their readings may be “biased” or “Western,” and that those immersed in the “deep textures” of a cultural context may have more claims to authority on matters pertaining to their own cultures than Western “foreign observers.”

Perhaps the moment of the emergence of this self-reflexivity might be dated to the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism, a book that firmly put on the agenda the idea that Western culture and scholarship had perpetrated and perpetuated a systematic representational distortion of “other” cultures. Anthropological and other cross-cultural scholarship has since been obliged to engage with the gauntlet thrown down by Said’s study. Indeed, Chow’s own remarks in this context are actually expressed in Said’s terms: just as “foreign observers” are now keen to defer to the interpretations of “natives,” so “natives” are keen to avoid being “orientalised.”

To Chow’s mind, the gap between these positions is where she would locate the future of visual research “in an age of hypermediality.” Of course this is not a prediction of the predetermined or predestined future of the field(s) of visual analysis. Rather it is the space she feels to be most in need of further analysis and interrogation. Indeed, Chow’s statement here is reminiscent of the opening of her 1998 essay “The Dream of a Butterfly,” wherein she points out that, since Said’s Orientalism, we have become increasingly adept at noticing the ways in which this or that text is “orientalist” or racist. But surely, therefore, shouldn’t that now become the starting point of our analyses, and the observation from which we begin, rather than the conclusion to which we are still driving? This is because it is easy now to see orientalism. But it is difficult to engage with the fraught and complex matter of viewing positions and cultural relations that the incidence of biases, prejudices, simplifications, conflations, and so on attests to. As Chow puts it, the complexity of the relationship between natives and foreign observers is very old and of great complexity, and that complexity is increased by the complexity of the entanglement of the relationship. As she asserts both in “The Dream of a Butterfly” and “China as Documentary,” East and West are both distinct and entangled, both in relationships and not in relationships. East is not simply East and West is not simply West: the twain do meet, and very often. Yet, in another sense, East is East and West is West and never the twain fully—or simply—meet. Or, as Chow puts it both in “The Dream of a Butterfly” and in “China as Documentary,” perhaps the situation is akin to that described by Lacan of sexual relationships: that there is no sexual relationship. But, of course, there are sexual relationships. Perhaps, therefore, natives and foreign observers are thrown together and collaborate as if there were a relationship, when perhaps the nature of any possible relationship has never been and has yet to be established. In Derridean parlance, one might say that the relationship is permanently deferred. But in the Lacanian terms to which Chow frequently returns, the problem is couched as one of two different sets of fantasies (or phantasies) held by different parties, which never simply “meet.” The phantasy about the other which, for example, sustains a sexual attraction or indeed a sexual relationship is always strictly speaking an onanistic phantasy and a projection. The other is as much “invented” and “projected” by the one as it is “performed” or “embodied” by the other.

Using this Lacanian insight as a point of reference, Chow has more than once constructed the “problem” or the “situation” of the East-West (ir)relation as a fantasy or phantasmatic relationship structuring relationships and encounters between China and the West. To Chow it is typical or exemplary of the long history of the relations between “the West” and “the Rest.”

In this context, Chow argues that the gap between the visions and interpretations of “native informants” and “foreign observers” is amplified in the documentary form, despite its claims to factuality. And this raises the question, how are we to talk cross-culturally about seemingly straightforward images when often even the simplest of images become the most contentious. To illustrate this, Chow looks at a contentious documentary, made about China at a time when China was closed to the West, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 film Chung Guo/Cina/China. However, for the sake of this essay, I would prefer to follow the implications and injunctions of Chow’s orientation in order to explore, examine and assess a different filmic text in terms of Chow’s arguments about cultural translation.

The film I have selected is one of Bruce Lee’s early 1970s kung fu blockbusters. I have selected it deliberately—because Bruce Lee has always been construed as a figure who existed at various crossroads—a kind of chiasmatic figure, into which much was condensed, and displaced. His films, even though in a sense always being relatively juvenile action flicks, have also been regarded as spanning the borders and bridging the gaps between “trivial” popular culture and “politicized” cultural movements (Brown 1997; Morris 2001; Prashad 2001; Kato 2007). That is to say, although on the one hand, they are all little more than fantastic choreographies of aestheticized masculinist violence, on the other, they worked to produce politicized identifications and modes of subjectivization that supplemented many popular-cultural-political movements: his striking(ly) nonwhite face and unquestionable physical supremacy in the face of often white, always colonialist and imperialist bad-guys became a symbol of and for multiple ethnic, diasporic, civil rights, anti-racist and postcolonial cultural movements across the globe (Prashad 2001; Kato 2007). Both within and “around” his films—that is, both in terms of their internal textual features and in terms of the “effects” of his texts on certain viewing constituencies—it is possible to trace a movement from ethnonationalism to a postnational, decolonizing, multicultural imaginary (Hunt 2003). This is why his films have been considered in terms of the interfaces and interplays of popular culture, postcolonial, postmodern and multiculturalist issues that they have been deemed to “reflect,” engage, dramatize, explore or develop (Abbas 1997; Hunt 2003; Teo 2008). Lee has been credited with transforming intra- and inter-ethnic identification, cultural capital and cultural fantasies in global popular culture, and in particular as having been central to revising the discursive constitutions and hierarchies of Eastern and Western models of masculinity (Thomas 1994; Chan 2000; Miller 2000; Hunt 2003; Preston 2007; Bowman 2010).

In the wake of such well-known and well-worn approaches to Lee, I would propose to take these types of arguments as read, and prefer to approach Bruce Lee somewhat differently—maybe peculiarly, perhaps even queerly. Specifically, I would like to propose that Bruce Lee’s celluloid cinematic interventions—no matter how fantastic and fabulous—ought to be approached as texts and contexts of cultural translation (Chow 1995). However, to say this, Chow’s rather twisted or indeed “queer” notion of translation needs to be emphasized. For, as we have seen, to speak of cultural translation is not to simply refer to translation in a linguistic or hermeneutic sense. It is rather to be understood as something less “literal” (or logocentric); as what Rey Chow calls “an activity, a transportation between two ‘media,’ two kinds of already-mediated data” (Chow 1995: 193). Furthermore, cultural translation would also be understood as a range of processes which mean that, for academics, “the ‘translation’ is often what we must work with because, for one reason or another, the “original” as such is unavailable—lost, cryptic, already heavily mediated, already heavily translated” (193).

This is not a particularly unusual situation, as we have mentioned. It is, rather, says Chow, everyday: translated, mediated, commodified, technologized exchanges between cultures happen every day. This is also the situation we are in when encountering film, especially films that are dubbed or subtitled, of course, as in the case of Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong produced films. Such films are translated, dubbed and subtitled. But, this is not the start or end of translation. For the notion of “cultural translation” demands that we extend our attention beyond the scripts and into the matter of the very medium of film itself, the relations between films, between film and other media, and so on. This is important to emphasize because, despite its everydayness, despite its reality, and despite the arguable primacy of the situation of cultural translation between “translations” with no (access to any) original, this situation of cultural translation is not often accorded the status it could be said to deserve. It is rather more likely to be disparaged by scholars, insofar as it occurs predominantly in the so-called “realms” of popular culture and does not conform to a model of translation organized by the binary of “primary/original” and “derived/copy” (Chow 1995: 182).

As Chow emphasizes, “the problems of cross-cultural exchange—especially in regard to the commodified, technologized image—in the postcolonial, postmodern age” (182) demand an approach that moves beyond many traditional approaches. For instance, she points out, as well as the “literal” matters of translation that arise within film, “there are at least two [other] types of translation at work in cinema” (182). The first involves translation understood “as inscription:” any film is a kind of writing into existence of something which was not there as such or in anything like that way before its constitution in film. The second type of translation associated with film, proposes Chow, involves understanding translation “as transformation of tradition and change between media” (182). In this second sense, film is translation insofar as a putative entity (she suggests, “a generation, a nation, [or] a culture”) are “translated or permuted into the medium of film.” So, film as such can be regarded as a kind of epochal translation, in the sense that cultures “oriented around the written text” were and continue to be “in the process of transition and of being translated into one dominated by the image” (182). As such:

the translation between cultures is never West translating East or East translating West in terms of verbal languages alone but rather a process that encompasses an entire range of activities, including the change from tradition to modernity, from literature to visuality, from elite scholastic culture to mass culture, from the native to the foreign and back, and so forth. (192)

It is here that Bruce Lee should be placed. However, given the complexity of this “place”—this relation or these relations—it seems likely that any translation or indeed any knowledge we hope might be attained cannot henceforth be understood as simple unity-to-unity transport. This is not least because the relations and connections between Bruce Lee and—well—anything else, will now come to seem always shifting, immanent, virtual, open-ended, ongoing and uncertain. This is so much so that the very notions of completeness, totality, or completion are what become unclear or incomplete in the wake of “cultural translation.” In other words, this realization of the complexity of cultural relations, articulations and encounters jeopardizes traditional, established notions of translation and knowledge-establishment. Yet, it does not “reject” them or “retreat” from them. Rather, it transforms them.1

To elucidate this transformation, Chow retraces Foucault’s analyses and argument in The Order of Things (1970) in order to argue that both translation and knowledge per se must henceforth be understood as “a matter of tracking the broken lines, shapes, and patterns that may have become occluded, gone underground, or taken flight” (Chow 2006: 81).2 Referring to Foucault’s genealogical work on the history of knowledge epistemes in The Order of Things, Chow notes his contention that “the premodern ways of knowledge production, with their key mechanism of cumulative (and inexhaustible) inclusion, came to an end in modern times.” The consequence of this has been that “the spatial logic of the grid” has given way “to an archaeological network wherein the once assumed clear continuities (and unities) among differentiated knowledge items are displaced onto fissures, mutations, and subterranean genealogies, the totality of which can never again be mapped out in taxonomic certitude and coherence” (81). As such, any “comparison” must henceforth become “an act that, because it is inseparable from history, would have to remain speculative rather than conclusive, and ready to subject itself periodically to revamped semiotic relations.” This is so because “the violent yoking together of disparate things has become inevitable in modern and postmodern times.” As such, even an act of “comparison would also be an unfinalizable event because its meanings have to be repeatedly negotiated.” This situation arises “not merely on the basis of the constantly increasing quantity of materials involved but more importantly on the basis of the partialities, anachronisms, and disappearances that have been inscribed over time on such materials” seemingly positivistic existences” (81).

I have covered this to some degree in previous works, but now is the time to apply it to our own analyses. Now is the time also to relate this to a perhaps unexpected problematic: that of the queer. To call this “queer” may seem to be stretching—or twisting, contorting—things a bit—or indeed, violently yoking unrelated things together. Clearly, such a notion of translation can only be said to be queer when “queer” is understood in an etymological or associative sense, rather than a sexual one. Nevertheless, it strikes me that the most important impulse of queer studies was its initial and initializing ethico-political investment in stretching, twisting and contorting—with the aim of transforming—contingent, biased and partial societal and cultural norms.3 This is an element of queering that deserves to be reiterated, perhaps over and above queer studies’ always-possibly socially “conservative” investment in sexuality as such (Chambers and O’Rourke 2009). This is so if queering has an interest in transforming a terrain or a context rather than just establishing a local, individual enclave for new norms to be laid down. I believe that it does, which is one of the reasons that it seems worthwhile to draw a relation between cultural translation and queering, given their shared investments in “crossing over,” change, twisting, turning and warping. Given the undisputed and ongoing importance of Bruce Lee within or across the circuits of global popular culture, crossing from East to West and back again, as well as from film to fantasy to physicality, and other such shifting circuits, it seems worthwhile to consider the status of “crossing over” in (and around) Bruce Lee films.

To bring such a complicated theoretical apparatus to bear on Bruce Lee films may seem excessive. This will be especially so because, as Kwai Cheung Lo argues, most dubbed and subtitled martial arts films from Hong Kong, China or Japan have traditionally been approached not with cultural theories to hand but rather with buckets of popcorn and crates of beer, as they have overwhelmingly been treated as a source of cheap laughs for Westerners (Lo 2005: 48-54). Indeed, as Leon Hunt has noted, what is “loved” in the “Asiaphilia” of kung fu film fans is mainly “mindlessness”—the mindless violence of martial arts. Like Lo, Hunt suggests that therefore even the Asiaphilia of Westerners interested in Eastern martial arts “subtly” amounts to yet another kind of orientalist “encounter marked by conquest and appropriation” (Hunt 2003: 12).

Lo’s argument has an extra dimension, however, in that as well as focusing on the reception of these filmic texts in different linguistic and cultural contexts, he also draws attention to the realm of production. Yet even this, in Lo’s terms, is far from theoretically complex: in Hong Kong film, he writes, “the process of subtitling often draws attention to itself, if only because of its tendency toward incompetence” (Lo 2005: 48). Nevertheless, he suggests, “as a specific form of making sense of things in cross-cultural and cross-linguistic encounters, subtitling reveals realities of cultural domination and subordination and serves as a site of ideological dissemination and its subversion” (46).4 For Lo, then, despite a base level of material “simplicity” here, complex issues of translation do arise, and not simply with the Western reception of Eastern texts, but actually at the site of production itself, no matter how slapdash. As he sees it: “Unlike film industries that put a great deal of care into subtitles, Hong Kong cinema is famous for its slipshod English subtitling. The subtitlers of Hong Kong films, who are typically not well educated, are paid poorly and must translate an entire film in two or three days” (53).

At the point of reception or consumption, Lo claims, the “English subtitles in Hong Kong film often appear excessive and intrusive to the Western viewer.” Drawing on a broad range of Žižeko-Lacanian cultural theory, Lo suggests that the subtitles are “stains” and that: “Just as stains on the screen affect the visual experience, subtitles undermine the primacy and immediacy of the voice and alienate the aural from the visual” (49). In this way, by using one of Žižek’s favorite double-entendres—the crypto-smutty, connotatively “dirty” word “stain” (a word which, for Žižek, often signals the presence or workings of “the real” itself)—and by combining it with a broadly Derridean observation about the interruption of the self-presence of auto-affection in the frustration of cinematic identification caused by non-synchronized image-and-voice and image-and-written-word, Lo crafts an argument that is all about excess.

The subtitles are excess. Their meaning is excess: an excess of sameness for bilingual viewers, and an excess of alterity for monolingual viewers. For the bilingual, who both hear and read the words, they produce both excessive emphases and certain discordances of meaning, because of their spatial and temporal discordances and syncopations with the soundtrack. But, Lo claims, “To a presumptuous Western audience, the poor English subtitles make Hong Kong films more ‘Chinese’ by underscoring the linguistic difference” (51). Thus, for bilingual viewerships (such as many Hong Kong Chinese, who have historically been able to speak both English and Cantonese), the subtitles introduce an excess that simultaneously introduces alterity through their fracturing and alienating effects. For monolingual “foreign” viewerships, Lo argues, the subtitles also produce an “extra” dimension: a very particular, form of pleasure and enjoyment. This extra is not extra to a primary or proper. It is rather an excess generated from a lack. It is an excess—pleasure, amusement, finding the subtitles “funny.” And Lo’s primary contention is that, in this sense, the subtitles actually preclude the possibility of a proper “weight” or “gravity” for the films; that they are a supplement that preclude the establishment of a proper status, a proper meaning, a properly “non-excessive” non-”lite”/trite status.

Thus, the subtitles are a visual excess, Lo contends.5 For monolingual or eurolingual viewers, the visual excess is the mark (or stain) which signifies a semantic lack. This might be a mark of viewers’ own inability and lack of linguistic and cultural knowledge rather than any necessary semantic deficiency in the text itself; but the point is, argues Lo, “the words onscreen always consciously remind viewers of the other’s existence” (48). In either case, this very lack generates an excess. As Lo puts it, “The fractured subtitles may puzzle the viewers who need them, and yet they also give rise to a peculiar kind of pleasure” (54). That is, “The articulation of the loss of proper meaning offers a pleasure of its own to those who treasure alternative aesthetics and practice a radical connoisseurship that views mass culture’s vulgarity as the equal of avant-garde high art” (54). Lo calls this the pleasure of “being adrift:” “Drifting pleasure occurs when definite meaning can no longer be grasped. Bad English subtitles may kindle a kind of pleasure that was never meant to be there” (54), he proposes; going on to insist that:

A subtitled Hong Kong film received in the West produces a residual irrationality that fascinates its hardcore fans. Apparently, a dubbed Hong Kong film would not offer the same sort of additional fun. The distorted meaning of the English subtitles is not to be overlooked. On the contrary, the distortion is written into the very essence of Hong Kong films and is one of the major appeals for Western fans. It is an unexpected boon that increases the viewer’s already considerable enjoyment. (56)

Thus, he argues against the suggestions of commentators like Ascheid who have proposed that subtitled film fundamentally “contains a number of reflexive elements which hold a much larger potential to break cinematic identification, the suspension of disbelief and a continuous experience of unruptured pleasure” (Ascheid, quoted in Lo 2005: 56).6 Against such arguments, Lo proposes that “In the case of subtitled Hong Kong films, these arguments are no longer valid.” This is because, with these martial arts films, the “disruption of cinematic identification and the perception of difference might generate extra enjoyment but never a loss of pleasure.” For, in martial arts films, suggests Lo, “rupture does not necessarily give rise to ‘intellectual evaluation and analysis’; rather, it lends to a film’s fetishistic appeal” (56).

So, the subtitles are constructed with “incompetence” by the undereducated and underpaid subtitlers. They are destined to be an unnecessary supplement for Chinese speakers and an excessive supplement for those who can also read Chinese. For Westerners, these supplements are destined to work to turn the movies into a joke. Indeed, apart from the thrills to be gained from watching the physical action of the martial choreography, the subtitles are destined to become the fetish which defines the nature of Western viewers’ interest in Hong Kong films.7

Fun, off-center, camp, incompetent, uneducated, excessive, physical, intrusive: the way Lo constructs and represents Hong Kong cinema “in general” is not particularly far removed from the way that the Hollywood camera constructs the bumbling, bothersome Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (See Morris 2001). Of course, Lo is putatively dealing with the “reception” and “interpretation” of Hong Kong films by Western viewers. Thus, according to Lo, it is the Western viewers, in their ignorance, who construct the dubbed Hong Kong films as low-brow, “down-market amusements.” But the likelihood or generality of such a reception is overdetermined by the conspiring factors of under-educated subtitlers who are, moreover, overworked and underpaid by an industry in a hurry to shift its product. Thus, even if the Hong Kong films are sophisticated, complex texts, this dimension is going to be forever foreclosed to the monolingual or eurolingual Western viewer. What is lost in the double translation from living speech to incompetent writing is logos. What remains is the nonsense of the body and gibberish, unintelligible baby-talk. As such, the only people could possibly be interested in such a spectacle, are, of course, stupid people.

Lo does not say this explicitly. But everything in his argument suggests the operation of a very familiar logic: the denigration of popular culture; the conviction that it is stupid. In his own words, the badly subtitled film entails “the loss of proper meaning [which] offers a pleasure of its own to those who treasure alternative aesthetics and practice a radical connoisseurship that views mass culture’s vulgarity as the equal of avant-garde high art” (Lo 2005: 54). Thus, to Lo, “mass culture” is characterized by “vulgarity” and is not the equal of “avant-garde high art.” Popular culture is stupid.

Lo’s attendant argument, that the clunky subtitles are not really an “obstacle” to the smooth global circulation of commodities, but rather the condition of possibility for the success of the martial arts films, is similar. As he claims: “globalization is facilitated by the “hindrance” or the “symbolic resistance” inherent in the clumsy English subtitles—which represent a certain cultural specificity or designate certain ethnic characteristics of the port city” (54). Thus, Lo imagines the appeal of such films to be entirely fetishistic and ultimately racist. For, in Lo’s conceptualization, what Western audiences want is a foreignness to laugh at. As such, it is the films’ very palpable foreignness which helps them to succeed. Indeed, he concludes, “the subtitles as good and pleasing otherness are actually founded on the exclusion of the political dimension usually immanent in the encounter of the cultural other” (58). This is a core dimension of Lo’s argument: “Hong Kong cinema is basically perceived as a ‘good other’ to the American viewer insofar as it is analogous to the old Hollywood” (57). Thus, for Lo, the matter of subtitles in Hong Kong film ultimately amounts to a process of depoliticization. Yet is this in fact the case?

The Queerness of Cultural Translation

The 1972 international blockbuster Fist of Fury (also known as J?ng W? Mén [???] in Chinese and The Chinese Connection in America) begins with a burial. The founder of the J?ng W? martial arts school in the Shanghai International Settlement (1854-1943)—the much-mythologized historical figure, Huo Yuanjia—has died (1910). Before the very first scene, a narrator tells us that the events surrounding Master Huo’s death have always been shrouded in mystery, and that the film we are about to watch offers “one possible version” (“the most popular version”) of what may have happened. What happens—or what could have happened, according to this fable—is that Huo’s favorite pupil, Chen Zhen, played by Bruce Lee, returns to the J?ng W? School and refuses to accept that his master died of natural causes.

At the official funeral the next day, an entourage from a Japanese Bushido School arrives, late. They bear a gift, as was traditional. But the gift turns out to be an insult and a provocation: a framed inscription of the words “Sick Man of Asia” (????/d?ng yà bìng f?). Upon delivering this, the Japanese throw down a challenge, via their intermediary, the creepy, effeminate and decidedly queer translator called Wu (or, sometimes, Hu): if any Chinese martial artist can beat them, the Japanese martial artists will “eat these words.”

So begins what has become regarded as a martial arts classic. The film is organised by Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen’s ultimately suicidal quest for revenge against what turns out to have been not merely a Japanese martial arts challenge (Lee of course picks up the gauntlet thrown down by the Japanese—besting the entire Japanese school single-handedly the next day, in a fight scene that made martial arts choreographic history and is still clearly referenced in myriad fight scenes of all action genres to this day) but also a murderous piece of treachery: Lee subsequently discovers that his master was poisoned by two imposters who had been posing as Chinese cooks, but who were really Japanese spies. Again, their intermediary, their contact, the communicator of the orders, was the translator, Mr. Wu. Thus, what begins with a crass and irreverent ethnonationalist slur at a Chinese master’s funeral turns out to be part of a concerted plot to destroy the entire Chinese institution. As Fist of Fury makes clear, the assassination and the plot to destroy J?ng W? arose precisely because the Japanese were deeply concerned that the Chinese were far from being “sick men,” were actually too healthy, and could become too strong and pose too much of a potential challenge to Japanese power, if left to their own devices. However, as the film also makes clear, in this colonial situation, the odds have been stacked against the Chinese from the outset—no matter what they decide to do, they will not be left alone or allowed to prosper.

The translator is the first point of contact between the two cultures. The first face-to-face conscious contact follows the earlier behind-the-back, underhand and unequal contact of spying and assassination. To the Chinese, Wu is consistently belligerent, disrespectful and abusive. To the Japanese he is an obsequious crawler. On first face-to-face contact, at the funeral, Wu taunts the mourners, telling them that they are weak, pathetic and no better than cowardly dogs—simply because they are Chinese. A senior Chinese student (played by James Tien Chun) is evidently confused: he approaches Wu and demands an answer to one question. In the dubbed English version the question is: “Look here! Now, just what is the point of this?” And the answer is given: “Just that the Chinese are a race of weaklings, no comparison to us Japanese.” So, here, Wu is Japanese. However, in the English subtitled version, the question and answer are somewhat different. Here, the Chinese student says: “One question, are you Chinese?” To this, the answer is: “Yes, but even though we are of the same kind, our paths in life are vastly different.” So here, Wu is Chinese.

This disjunction between the subtitled version and the dubbed version may seem only to raise some fairly mundane questions of translation: namely, which version is correct, which version is faithful to the original? If by “original,” we mean the Cantonese audio track, then, in this instance at least, it is the subtitles which follow it most closely.8 But, as my act of distinguishing the audio tracks from the visual material implies, it seems valid to suggest, precisely because it is possible to separate out these various elements, that it is the very notion of the original here that should be engaged. For, the film was “shot postsynch,” with the soundtrack added to the film only after the entire film was shot (Lo 2005: 50). As such, the visual and the aural are already technically divergent, distinct textual combinations, even in the putative “original.” So, if we wish to refer to it, the question must be: which original?

It is of more than anecdotal interest to note at this point that the actor who plays the translator here—Paul Wei Ping-Ao—provided the voice over not only for the Cantonese audio but also for the English audio. This means that the actor who plays the translator is also actually an active part of the translation of the text. It also means that the translated version of this film is also another/different “original” version; a secondary, supplementary original, playing the part of a translation. It equally means that, given the overlapping production and translation processes involved in the technical construction of notthis film” but rather “these films,” the quest to establish and separate the original from the copy or the original from the translation becomes vertiginous.

Certain binaries are blurred because of this fractured bilinguality. These are the very binaries which fundamentally structure and hierarchize many approaches to translation: fidelity/infidelity, primary/secondary, original/copy, authentic/construction, etc.9 Here, the fractured bilinguality is itself symptomatic of what we might call (following Benjamin) a Chinese “intention” in a text produced in British Hong Kong about Japanese coloniality. This is a multiply-colonized text about a colonial situation produced in a different colonial context. In it, the supposedly stable binaries of text and translation are substantially unsettled. Indeed, this is so much so, I think, that what we are able to see here is what Rey Chow calls a “materialist though elusive fact about translation;” namely, to use Walter Benjamin’s proposition, that “translation is primarily a process of putting together.” As Chow explains, for Benjamin, translation is a process which “demonstrates that the “original,” too, is something that has been put together”—and she, following Benjamin, adds: “in its violence” (Chow 1995: 185). What part does “violence” play, here?

There are several obvious forms of violence in the putting together of both the English and the Cantonese versions. Obviously there is the well-worn theme of the ethnonationalist violence of the film’s primary drama: Bruce Lee’s fantastic, phantasmatic, suicidal, symbolic victory (even in death) over the Japanese oppressors. But there is also the more subtle “violence” or “forcing” involved in constraining the English dubbing to synching with the lip movements of a different-language dialogue. This is “violent” in its semiotic consequences. For instance, as we have already seen, it violently simplifies the complexity of the translator, Mr. Wu. In the dubbed version, he becomes simply Japanese and therefore simply other. And this signals or exemplifies a further dimension. The dubbed version seems consistently to drastically simplify the situation of the film. That is, it dislodges the visibility of the themes of the politics of coloniality that are central to the subtitled (and presumably also to the Cantonese) versions, and empties out the socio-political complexity of the film, transforming it into a rather childish tale of bullies and bullying: in the dubbed version, the Japanese simply bully the innocent and consistently confused Chinese, simply because they are bullies. More complex issues are often elided. This is nowhere more clear than in the difference between the question “n? shì Zh?ng guó rén ma?” (“are you Chinese?”) and the alternative question, “just what is the point of this?”

However, although “are you Chinese?” is literally faithful to the Cantonese, and although “what is the point of this?” is not, and is more simplistic, I do not want to discount, discard or disparage this literally inadequate translation. This is not least because the question “just what is the point of this?” is surely one of the most challenging and important questions to which academics really ought to respond. It is also because the unfaithful translation is the one which perhaps most enables the film to be transmissible—that is, to make sense elsewhere, in the non-Chinese contexts of the film’s own transnational diasporic dissemination. This is to recall Benjamin’s proposal that a work’s “transmissibility” actually arises “in opposition to its ‘truth’” (Chow 1995: 199). This contention arises in Benjamin’s discussion of Kafka, in which he asserts that: “Kafka’s work presents a sickness of tradition” in which the “consistency of truth…has been lost.” Thus, suggests Benjamin, Kafka “sacrificed truth for the sake of clinging to its transmissibility” (Benjamin quoted in Chow 1995: 199). Picking up on this, Chow adds Vattimo’s Nietzschean proposal that this “sickness” is constitutive of transmissibility and is what enables and drives the “turning and twisting of tradition away from its metaphysical foundations, a movement that makes way for the hybrid cultures of contemporary society” (195).10

This issue of transmissibility might be taken to suggest one of two things: either, “just what is the point of this?” is the more primary or more “universal” question, because it is more transmissible; or this translation/transformation loses the essential stakes of the local specificity of the ethnonationalist question “Are you Chinese?”

Rather than adjudicating on the question of transmissibility and (or versus) truth in “direct” terms, it strikes me as more responsible to expose each of these questions to each other. Thus, in the face of the question “Are you Chinese?” we might ask: “Just what is the point of this?” and vice versa. In doing so, we ought to be able to perceive a certain ethnonationalist “violence” lurking in the construction of the former question. For instance, “Are you Chinese?” is regularly leveled—accusingly—at translated or globally successful “Chinese” films (as Chow often discusses). It is often asked aggressively, pejoratively, dismissively—as if simultaneously demanding fidelity and essence, and suggesting treachery.

The accusative question leveled at Hu the translator strongly implies that if Hu/Wu is Chinese, then he, in being a translator, is a traitor. Translator, traitor: “Traduttore, traditore,” runs the Italian expression, as Rey Chow reminds us. But in Fist of Fury there is more. The translator is a pervertor: a pervertor of tradition, first of all. And also: a very queer character. The film draws a relation between the translator and queerness. It makes the translator queer. Because he crosses over.

In Fist of Fury the translator adopts Western sartorial norms and works for the powerful Japanese presence that exerts such a considerable force in the international settlement in Shanghai. He enables communication between the Chinese and the Japanese institutions, and also sabotages one institution’s development at a particularly fraught moment—the funeral, the moment of transition/translation/passing over from one generation to the next, from the stability of the founding master’s presence and protection to the uncertain leadership of his multiple senior students. The translator in fact precipitated this unnatural crisis in the first place—installing spies and transmitting assassination orders. The translator is a pervertor. So, it is unsurprising that he has been constructed as certainly “queer” and probably gay.

In this largely erotically-neutered film, Mr. Hu’s sexuality is unclear. All that is clear is that he is creepy and effeminate. But if we are in any doubt about his sexuality, this same character, played by the same actor, was to return in Lee’s next film, Way of the Dragon (1972). Way of the Dragon is a film that Lee himself directed and in which he plays Tang Lung, a mainland/New Territories Hong Kong martial artist who flies to Rome to help his friend’s niece when her restaurant business is threatened by a veritably multicultural, interracial “mafia” gang. The Chinese title of Way of the Dragon (M?ng Lóng Guò Ji?ng / ????) is rendered literally as something like “the fierce dragon crosses the river,” which refers to travel and migration, and hence to the diasporic Chinese crossing over to Europe.

In both Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, the same actor plays virtually the same character. However, in the European location of Way of the Dragon, we have crossed over from “traditional” China to “modern” Europe. So the translator becomes blatantly gay: wearing flamboyant clothing and behaving flirtatiously with Lee’s character, Tang Lung (Chan 2000). In the later film, the translator is “queerness unleashed.” But the point to be emphasized here is that the same reiterated rendering of the translator as creepy and queer is central to both films—in much the same way that Judas is central to the story of Jesus. If it weren’t for him, none of this would be possible, but as a contact zone or agency of communication and movement, he is responsible for warping and perverting things. In both films, the translator enters at a moment or situation of crossing over, and signals the break, the end of stability, the severance from paternal protection, from tradition. “And yet,” notes Chow, “the word tradition itself, linked in its roots to translation and betrayal, has to do with handing over. Tradition itself is nothing if it is not a transmission. How is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation?” (1995: 183)

Chow’s championing of such translation notwithstanding, the answer to her rhetorical question (“how is tradition to be transmitted, to be passed on, if not through translation?”) as (if) it is given by both films is not that “tradition ought to be transmitted through translation,” but rather that “tradition ought to be transmitted through monolingualism and monoculturalism.” The problem—and it is presented as a problem in the films—is that culture does not stay “mono.” Its authorities want it to be; its institutions try to make it stay so; but it cannot. Even the most pure repetition is never pure, but is rather impure—a reiteration which differs and alters, introducing alterity, however slightly: re-itera, as Derrida alerted us. Basically, that is, one does not “need” an insidious translator to pervert things. The unstoppable flow of transnational popular cultural products, commodities and practices, mass media sounds and images, and filmic texts does the job of the pervertor quite well enough. And surely far more cross-cultural encounters, exchanges and transactions are enacted by way of mass commodities than by way of dry hermeneutic or linguistic translation.

Given this plague of contact zones, Chow argues: “cultural translation can no longer be thought of simply in linguistic terms, as the translation between Western and Eastern verbal languages alone” (196-7). Rather, she proposes, “cultural translation needs to be rethought as the co-temporal exchange and contention between different social groups deploying different sign systems that may not be synthesizable to one particular model of language or representation” (197). As such:

Considerations of the translation of or between cultures…have to move beyond verbal and literary languages to include events of the media such as radio, film, television, video, pop music, and so forth, without writing such events off as mere examples of mass indoctrination. Conversely, the media, as the loci of cultural translation, can now be seen as what helps to weaken the (literary, philosophical, and epistemological) foundations of Western domination and what makes the encounter between cultures a fluid and open-ended experience. (197)

Once again, it strikes me as important to reiterate at this point that although the encounters of cultural translation may be fluid and open-ended, the treatment of such encounters by academics and cultural commentators is far from fluid and open-ended. On the contrary, such treatment seems rigid; overdetermined, even. Translatory encounters of or between cultures are, in fact, regularly treated by academics and cultural commentators in a manner akin to the way the translator is treated in these films: ridiculed, reviled, rejected and killed—but too late. Such films, whether putatively lowbrow like these or supposedly highbrow like those of Zhang Yimou or Ang Lee are often regarded with disdain: as not “real,” not “true” or not “faithful” translations of that fantastic phantasmatic essentialized entity known as “China.”11 Such texts are regularly written off as trivial and trivializing, commodified, orientalist, unfaithful, secondary, derived, warped, warping, and so on. But as the works of thinkers like Chow have proposed, such responses to migrant texts like these might be (essentialized as) essentialist. Nevertheless, asks Chow: “can we theorize translation between cultures without somehow valorizing some ‘original’?” Moreover, “can we theorize translation between cultures in a manner that does not implicitly turn translation into an interpretation toward depth, toward ‘profound meaning’?” (192)12 Her answer urges us to rethink translation by way of mass commodities, whose “transmissibility” arguably arises “in opposition to … ‘truth’” (Chow 1995: 199) in the context of a “sickness of tradition.” Recall that this “sickness” is actually constitutive of transmissibility, suggests Chow (Chow 1995: 195).

To this I would add: this sickness is queer. In constructing the translator as a traitor and “therefore” as queer, both of these films cling to tradition—a tradition that seems universal and seems to need no translating. If we ask of this tradition, “Are you Chinese?” the answer must be: yes, but no; yes and no.13 And if we ask “Just what is the point of this?” one answer must be that it points to a queer relation—but a clear relation—between translation and queering. About which much could be said. The point I want to emphasize here is that the primary field of “translation between cultures,” through their twisting, turning, concatenation, warping and “queering” is, of course, that supposed “realm” (which could perhaps be rather better understood as the condition) called mass or popular culture.

As we have seen, Chow’s contention is that “There are multiple reasons why a consideration of mass culture is crucial to cultural translation.” To her mind, “the predominant one” is to examine “that asymmetry of power relations between the ‘first’ and the ‘third’ worlds.” However, she continues immediately, “Critiquing the great disparity between Europe and the rest of the world means not simply a deconstruction of Europe as origin or simply a restitution of the origin that is Europe’s others but a thorough dismantling of both the notion of origin and the notion of alterity as we know them today” (193-4). In Bruce Lee films, of course—in a manner akin to the arguments of the critics who regard popular filmic representations as betrayals of “China”—the “origin” is avowedly not Europe, but “China”—the spectral, haunting, “absent presence,” the evocation (or illusion-allusion) of “China.”

From this perspective, there are two alterities: the “simple” alterity of the enemy, and the “double” alterity of the translator. In Fist of Fury, alterity seems unequivocal: an enemy (the colonizers—Japan in particular). When the Hong Kong films cross over to Europe, for Way of the Dragon, however, origin and alterity become more complicated.

In Lee’s first martial arts film, The Big Boss (1971), he plays a migrant Chinese worker in Thailand—a country boy cum migrant proletarian whose enemy is a foreign capitalist/criminal. In Fist of Fury, when hiding from the authorities, Chen Zhen’s peers emphasize that even though they can’t find him he surely cannot be far away because he is a country boy who does not know Shanghai. In Way of the Dragon, in Italy, Lee’s character rejoices in the fact that he comes not from urban Hong Kong Island but from the rural mainland New Territories. Dragged grudgingly on a tour of the sites of Rome, he is evidently rather under-whelmed. In the sole scene of Fist of Fury that was filmed outdoors, at the entrance to a segregated public park, Lee’s character evidently only wants to go into the park because, being Chinese, he is not allowed—because China has been provincialized: a turban-wearing, English-speaking Indian official at the gate directs Lee’s attention to a sign which says “No Chinese and Dogs Allowed.”

In other words, all of the injustices in Lee’s Hong Kong films are organized along ethnonationalist and class lines, and the notion of the origin in these films is the idea of mainland China. This idea in itself provincializes the various locations of each of the films. All of the places that are “not China” are just vaguely “somewhere else,” and that elsewhere is “bad” (or at least not very good) because, wherever it is, it is “not China”—not the free, proud, strong, independent “imagined community” China “to come.”

Of course, in sharing this tendency, these films construct a Chinese identity that is also based on actively celebrating or enjoying being what Chow calls “the West’s ‘primitive others’” (1995: 194).14 To this extent these films may easily seem, in Chow’s words, to be “equally caught up in the generalized atmosphere of unequal power distribution and [to be] actively (re)producing within themselves the structures of domination and hierarchy that are as typical of non-European cultural histories as they are of European imperialism” (194). Yet, at the same time, they are also and nevertheless (to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s term) actively involved in “provincializing Europe,” albeit without any reciprocal (self-reflexive) problematization of “China” (see Chow 1995: 195).

However, it strikes me that such a problematization was palpably embryonic and growing in many of Lee’s other works: in his TV roles, personal writings and interviews, Lee increasingly gestured to a postnationalist, liberal multiculturalist ideology; and it was perhaps “in the post” at the time of his death in the form of his declared intentions for his unfinished film Game of Death. But even in his “early” film, Way of the Dragon, even though it is certainly caught up in a degree of masochistic enjoyment of Chinese victimhood, the film arguably enacts what Chow’s proposed approach to film (“as ethnography”) could construe as a significant discursive move. So it is with a brief—summary—consideration of this embryonic impulse that I would like to conclude this essay.

The very first scenes of Way of the Dragon place Lee in the arrivals area of an airport in Rome. Lee is surrounded by white westerners and is being stared at, implacably, unremittingly, and inscrutably by a middle-aged white woman. This lengthy, awkward and tense scene goes nowhere. The woman is eventually dragged away by a man who comes to meet her. It is followed immediately by an excruciatingly long scene in which Lee’s character goes in search of food, around the airport. First he approaches a child and asks (in Chinese) “food?,” “eat?” and then, pointing to his mouth, “eggs?” whereupon the camera changes to the child’s point of view, showing a huge towering man looming over the child, pointing at his own mouth and making horrendous gurgling sounds. The child screams, and Lee’s Tang Lung hurries away. He soon stumbles across a restaurant, which he enters. Unable to make sense of the (supposedly) Italian menu, he points confidently to more than half a dozen dishes—all of which turn out to be different kinds of Campbell’s soup. So Lee is presented with a ludicrous dinner of multiple bowls of soup, which he brazenly pretends he knew he had ordered.

These slow, clumsy and somewhat bizarre scenes could easily strike viewers, especially white Western viewers, as a peculiar way to begin a martial arts film—a film, it should be noted, that very soon opens out into extreme violence, murder, mortal treachery, and even a gladiatorial fight to the death in the Roman Coliseum. Beginning such a film with these rather tortuous efforts at comedy seems to be a peculiar directorial decision.

However, there is something significant in the way that these opening scenes dramatize ethnic experience. The film shows us an ethnic “viewed object,” of course. But it does so from a crucial point of view; one in which “‘viewed object’ is now looking at ‘viewing subject’ looking” (Chow 1995: 180-1). Thus, over 20 years before Chow proposed precisely such a twisting (or queering) of specular relations away from a simple subject-object dieresis as the way to escape the deadlock of Western anthropology, “simple” popular cultural artifacts like this film were already actively engaged in this deconstruction, in which Europe is not the viewing subject and Europe is not “the gaze,” and in which—as Way of the Dragon seems to be at pains to make plain—Europe is just some place in an increasingly fluid globality.

Europe never becomes origin or destination in the film. In fact Italy itself never really becomes much more than an airport lounge—a zone of indeterminacy, a contact zone; just some place or other, between origin-A and destination-B, C, D, or X, Y, Z. Lee leaves Hong Kong to help a diasporic working community. He flies to Europe. The Europeans cannot defeat him. Frustrated, they arrange to fly in “America’s best.” America’s best takes the form of “Colt,” a martial artist played by Chuck Norris. Colt flies in. His arrival is filmed from a low angle. He walks down from a jet plane, and towards the camera. A drum beat marks his every powerful step. As he approaches, what is more and more foregrounded is his crotch. When he reaches the camera, it is his crotch that comes to fill the entire screen and close the scene. And so it continues: as has been much remarked, Colt is all crotch; Lee is all lithe, striated torso. Their pre-fight warm-ups are more like foreplay; their fighting is more like love-making (Chan 2000; Hunt 2003). But the film plays the standard semiotics of powerful masculinity; in other words, treading a fine line between emphasizing heteronormativity and crossing over into outright homoeroticism. Hating the queer element is important in order to assert that this text itself is not of or for the queer; whilst all the time exemplifying the polymorphously perverse recombination, intermingling and reconstitution of cultures, provincializing and queering Europe.



Bruce Lee Beyond Pedagogy



The Spirit of 1968: Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto

 I have been thinking a lot about pedagogy recently, in the run up to Michael ORourke and Eamonn Dunnes conference The Pedagogics of Unlearning in Dublin in September; and so I have decided to blog this essay, which I wrote a year or two ago. I think that my tendency to write this kind of essay is precisely the reason they have invited me to speak at the conference. However, as I have already written and rewritten and published and republished different versions of this argument – which ranges from a reading of Bruce Lee to Jacques Ranciere to Rey Chow to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to Avital Ronell to Badiou and back again – I have decided to share this in advance of the conference but to deliver a different essay for the conference itself – one written very much with the conferences call/manifesto/irrationale‘ in mind.

Bruce Lee Beyond Pedagogy 

No consideration of Bruce Lee – or indeed of the beyond of Bruce Lee – can overlook his importance as a muse, an inspiration, and an educator. I have followed the likes of Meaghan Morris and Davis Miller before in foregrounding this dimension of Lee’s legacies, and want to do so again in this paper, because of the fundamental and perennial significance of this topic for studies of Lee, of martial arts, and indeed of culture tout court. So, in this paper, I return to key examples and instances of Bruce Lee (and) pedagogy, in order to set out and then to move beyond the established ground, and into some vexed debates about philosophy, ideology and cultural translation. So, the paper begins with a discussion of Bruce Lee’s philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, before moving into reconsiderations of the relations between film and philosophy, culture and ideology, as well as politics and ethics. It draws Lee’s oeuvre and intervention into relations with (other) Western popularisers of Zen, Taoism and Buddhism, as well as with thinkers such as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.



Margins of Pedagogy


In September 1971, Black Belt Magazine published an article called ‘Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate’. It was written by Bruce Lee. This article is arguably epochal, in many ways. Certainly, ‘Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate’ is significant because it is one of the few definitive written statements given by Bruce Lee on the subject of what he wanted to teach – namely a revolutionary approach to martial arts that he called ‘Jeet Kune Do’. It is important to note this because, since his death, Lee’s name has been attached to the wholesale and indiscriminate posthumous publication of selections from his notebooks, college essays, journals and jotters, and these include many unattributed but readily traceable quotations from other thinkers – all of which ultimately make Bruce Lee seem to be a barefaced plagiarist – as if he himself made the decision to publish ‘his’ words in that form, after he died. We will return to this, below.[1] But ‘Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate’ was signed by Bruce Lee. It is his manifesto for ‘Jeet Kune Do’.


In Bruce Lee’s words: ‘Literally, “jeet” means to intercept or to stop; “kune” is the fist; and “do” is the way, the ultimate reality’; so, Jeet Kune Do means ‘the way of the intercepting fist’ (1971: 24). Yet, Lee insists: ‘Do remember, however, that “Jeet Kune Do” is merely a convenient name. I am not interested with the term itself; I am interested in its effect of liberation when JKD is used as a mirror for self-examination’ (24). Thus, rather than a style, a method or a syllabus, Bruce Lee’s ‘Jeet Kune Do’ was originally an experimental ethos organised in terms of liberation. This is not (yet) the ‘self-actualisation’ of the existentialisation of martial arts discussed by Brown (1997), which I have looked at elsewhere. It is rather the liberation from the strictures of hidebound martial arts training practices.


Given this, it seems pertinent to reflect on the fact that many academics who have sought to study Bruce Lee, to ‘read’ Bruce Lee, and to learn ‘from’ Bruce Lee – in film studies, gender studies, postcolonialism, and so on – have overwhelmingly overlooked the fact that Bruce Lee – himself – actually sought to teach at all. Many have overlooked that he sought to teach and what he sought to teach. Yet, when we enquire into the nature of the ‘lesson’ that Bruce Lee sought to teach – the final signified that he intended to impress upon the world – we encounter a lesson that is uncannily similar to the radical lesson about teaching and learning and its connection to inegalitarian power hierarchies within all sorts of pedagogical institutions as developed by Jacques Rancière in his reading of the work of Joseph Jacotot: you can learn without being taught and you can teach what you do not know.


The term ‘Jeet Kune Do’ had been coined by Lee to evoke the guiding principles (‘Do’) or ultimate aim in fighting – quick and decisive victory. Lee believed these to be encapsulated in anything that could simultaneously intercept/interrupt an attack (‘Jeet’) and deliver a simultaneous hit of one’s own (‘Kune’). According to his senior student, Dan Inosanto, Lee was particularly enamoured of Western fencing’s ‘stop-hit’ technique – the act of blocking and striking simultaneously in one movement – hence, the name (and indeed, the look and feel of) Jeet Kune Do. But Lee was at pains to emphasise that in itself JKD was not a ‘style’: ‘Unlike a “classical” martial art, there is no series of rules or classification of technique that constitutes a distinct “Jeet Kune Do” method of fighting’ (1971: 24), he insisted. He continues: ‘JKD is not a form of special conditioning with its own rigid philosophy. It looks at combat not from a single angle, but from all possible angles’. Thus, ‘There are no prearranged sets or “kata” in the teaching of JKD, nor are they necessary’ (ibid.). The point, instead, writes Lee, is that ‘through instinctive body feeling, each of us “knows” our own most efficient and dynamic manner of achieving effective leverage, balance in motion, economical use of energy, etc.’ (ibid.). Thus, we all already know how to move, how to fight. At the same time, learning formal ‘patterns, techniques or forms touch[es] only the fringe of genuine understanding’. Formal training in martial arts actually stultifies the learner. According to Lee, the ‘core of understanding lies in the individual mind, and until that is touched, everything is uncertain and superficial’. He claims: ‘Truth cannot be perceived until we come to fully understand ourselves and our potentials. After all, knowledge in the martial arts ultimately means self-knowledge’. It is worth quoting a passage from Lee’s article at length:


At this point you may ask, ‘How do I gain this knowledge?’ That you will have to find out all by yourself. You must accept the fact that there is no help but self-help. For the same reason I cannot tell you how to ‘gain’ freedom, since freedom exists within you. I cannot tell you what ‘not’ to do, I cannot tell you what you ‘should’ do, since that would be confining you to a particular approach. Formulas can only inhibit freedom, externally dictated prescriptions only squelch creativity and assure mediocrity. Bear in mind that the freedom that accrues from self-knowledge cannot be acquired through strict adherence to a formula; we do not suddenly ‘become’ free, we simply ‘are’ free.
Learning is definitely not mere imitation, nor is it the ability to accumulate and regurgitate fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery, a process without end. In JKD we begin not by accumulation but by discovering the cause of our ignorance, a discovery that involves a shedding process.
Unfortunately, most students in the martial arts are conformists. Instead of learning to depend on themselves for expression, they blindly follow their instructors, no longer feeling alone, and finding security in mass imitation. The product of this imitation is a dependent mind. Independent inquiry, which is essential to genuine understanding, is sacrificed. Look around the martial arts and witness the assortment of routine performers, trick artists, desensitized robots, glorifiers of the past and so on – all followers or exponents of organized despair. (Lee 1971: 24)


In place of formal pedagogical structures, Bruce Lee – who had no formal qualification in any martial art but who could demonstrate ‘mastery’ in many – advocated autodidacticism, self-help, constant innovation, testing, exploration, experiment and dynamic verification. In other words, Bruce Lee was quite radical or revolutionary. Indeed, suggests Daniele Bolelli: ‘At a time when no forms of established authority went unchallenged, it seems only natural that even the field of martial arts was destined to experience some drastic change’ (2003: 182-3). After characterising Bruce Lee’s ‘time’ – the late 1960s – as an era of all things anti-authoritarian, Bolelli concludes that:


The philosophy of JKD can therefore be seen as the gift (or the curse, depending on your point of view) of the alchemical mixing of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, the antiauthoritarian culture of the 1960s, and Bruce Lee’s own personality. Regardless of whether we agree with Lee’s approach or not, his example remains as an open invitation to do one of the healthiest things that anyone, martial artist or not, can do; questioning one’s own beliefs. (2003: 183)


The only help is self-help. Push yourself. Know thyself. You already know yourself, in yourself. Subject all institutions to a deconstructive questioning. Don’t follow leaders. Question all beliefs. Experiment with interdisciplinarity in the name of antidisciplinarity. This is the lesson of Bruce Lee. At least, this can be plotted in his writings. Indeed, it is often said that a vague (but violent) ethnic Chinese ‘cultural nationalism’ comes out in Lee’s films, whilst this radical egalitarian/universalist individualism comes out in his martial arts ‘philosophy’ and written texts. However, even in Lee’s early films (largely written and directed by others and following stock formulas) Lee’s nationalism always comes in response to nationalistically-inflected aggression against ‘innocent’ Chinese underdogs. Moreover, Lee’s later and increasingly self-controlled works (such as the incomplete Game of Death) all seek to emphasise themes of universalistic equality and individualistic emancipation. So it is clear that what subtends all of Lee’s texts is the egalitarian impulse that can be seen in ‘Liberate Yourself’. This article ends:


There is no standard in total combat, and expression must be free. This liberating truth is a reality only in so far as it is ‘experienced and lived’ by the individual himself; it is a truth that transcends styles or disciplines. Remember, too, that Jeet Kune Do is merely a term, a label to be used as a boat to get one across; once across, it is to be discarded and not carried on one’s back.
These few paragraphs are, at best, a ‘finger pointing to the moon’. Please do not take the finger to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light which illumines finger and all. (1971: 24)


Lee was to use this ‘finger pointing’ analogy again. It reoccurs at the start of Enter the Dragon (1973), during one of the initial establishing scenes. The opening scenes of the film are of course all about establishing an interpretive context, and what these opening scenes chiefly provide will undoubtedly have been many viewers’ first ‘experience’ or inkling of the discipline and mysticism of the legendary Shaolin Temple and its mythical warrior monks. This ‘mysticism’ is condensed in one of the very first scenes, in which Lee tutors a young monk, Lau. This scene runs like this:


Lee: It’s Lau’s time.
Braithwaite [surprised and somewhat puzzled]: Yes, of course…
Lee: Kick me. [Lau seems puzzled] Kick me. [Lau throws a side-kick] What was that? An exhibition? We need [pointing to his head] emotional content. Try again! [Lau kicks again] I said emotional content. Not anger! Now try again! With me! [Lau throws two more kicks, causing Lee to respond] That’s it! How did it feel to you?
Lau: Let me think.
Lee: [Slaps Lau's head] Don’t think! Feel! It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. [Slaps Lau's head] Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory. Do you understand?
Lau: [smiles, nods, bows]
Lee: [Slaps the back of Lau's head] Never take your eyes off your opponent, even when you bow…. That’s it.


The behaviour of Lee’s character in this ‘teacherly’ mode is not without precedent. According to Avital Ronell, Zen teachers often liberally strike students who give the wrong answers to Zen koans (koans are riddles, essentially); an act which arguably has various pedagogical functions. The main function of the strike is to jolt the student into ‘realization’, ‘awakening’, or ‘satori’ (Ronell 2004: 62). In Ronell’s words:


The hit seals a sort of ‘compliment’ conferred by the attentive master, who prods the physical body for the purpose of uninhibiting a scene of contemplation, new and unanticipated. The shock is crucial to the experience of the koan: it stages the opening of thought exceeding itself in the jolt. (Ronell 2004: 62)


But, in ‘Liberate Yourself’ and in Enter the Dragon, what is the thought? In an essay on the pedagogy of Buddhism, an essay which involves an analysis of some of the occurrences of the finger pointing to the moon riddle in Zen Buddhist writings, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick observes that whilst on the one hand Western education largely proceeds by ‘assuming that every lesson can be divided into ever more bite-sized, ever more assimilable bits’, on the other hand, the ‘wisdom traditions’ of Buddhism principally ‘assume that students have already surmounted a fairly high threshold of recognition’ (2003: 171-2). This is coupled with what she calls a ‘radical doubt that a basic realization can be communicated at all’ (2003: 172). It is in this, she suggests, that the difference between Western and Buddhist pedagogy consists: Buddhist pedagogy does not ‘teach’; rather it attempts to establish – to verify – to test – ‘recognition’, or ‘realisation’. As Ronell formulates this, ‘the koan, offered by the teacher – the ‘master’ – is meant to ‘open’ the pupil to the possibility of Saying. The master is responsible for initiating the call of such an opening’. This ‘call of such an opening’, she continues, is often ‘attained by the administration of a shock’. This is why the master ‘is frequently figured as beating, hitting, or slugging the pupil’ (Ronell 2004: 62).


Ronell jolts her consideration of Buddhist pedagogy back to questions of Western philosophy. Sedgwick, too, quickly returns the discussion back to ‘Philosophy proper’, so to speak.[2] However, Sedgwick is guided by a fascination with the Buddha’s claim: ‘I have not taught a single word during the forty-nine years of my Dharma preaching’; and that, rather than teaching as such, ‘the Buddha spoke many sutras, which should only be taken as “the finger that points to the moon”, not the moon itself’ (Sedgwick 2003: 170).


If such pedagogies can be taken seriously by both queer and other radical emancipatory theorists in the realms of philosophy, ‘wisdom traditions’ and pedagogy ‘proper’, one question is that of the pedagogical status of Bruce Lee’s cinematic and journalistic non-teaching of exactly the same things (if it still makes sense to put it like this). Moreover, it deserves to be noted that the moment of Lee’s emergence was also the moment of high-hippy countercultural utopianism (the late 1960s and early 1970s). What is to be made of the fact that this period is also the period that spurred so many critiques of institutions – and particularly pedagogical institutions – including those coming from deconstruction, cultural studies, feminism, postcolonialism, gender and sexuality studies, Bourdieu and Rancière and beyond? In other words, it seems it would be fair to say that Bruce Lee’s finger is pointing not just to the moon, but to problems of referentiality, indexicality and ontology, all of which at a certain time coalesced into one hell of a discursive convergence. As already noted, the dialectical synthesis of the apparently diametrically opposing ‘lessons’ of Bruce Lee (the Chinese nationalism of the ‘lesson of the early celluloid Lee’ versus the pragmatic, egalitarian inter- and antidisciplinary ‘lesson of JKD’) can be found in what might be called a certain ‘spirit’. This can be seen to be subtending, infusing and suffusing (if not simply sublating) ‘both’ lessons of Bruce Lee. This spirit is often too quickly represented as the spirit of Zen – a putatively timeless, ‘transcultural’ spirit. However, such a spirit surely can and should be historicised. According to Sedgwick:


In the United States it seems to have fallen to the twentieth-century popularizers of Zen, after World War II, to begin to articulate the centrality in many forms of Buddhism of [a] radical doubt that a basic realization can be communicated at all. After all, if Zen practice cannot promise to bring one methodically over the high learning threshold of satori ['awakening', 'realization'], it at least offers distinct practices, such as wrestling with koans, for dramatizing and perhaps exhausting the impossibility of methodical learning. Furthermore, the anti-scholasticism of Zen and the often anti-intellectualism of the counterculture merged in a durable consciousness of the limits of verbal articulation. The 1960s heyday of these explorations […] was one when a critique of school institutions became the vehicle of almost every form of utopian investment; if Buddhist explorations were peripheral to the student movement, they nonetheless both enabled and were enabled by it. (2003: 172)


Quite how one ultimately judges the value and lasting effects of such a movement remains to be decided. What is clear is the central place of Bruce Lee within this movement, as expression and agency, bringing many elements of the cultural and political margins right to the centre of global popular culture. Indeed, Bruce Lee can be regarded as providing what Rancière calls ‘the aesthetic dimension of the reconfiguration of the relationships between doing, seeing and saying that circumscribe the being-in-common [which] is inherent to every political or social movement’ (2000: 17). Of course, Rancière adds quickly, ‘this aesthetic component of politics does not lead me to seek the political everywhere that there is a reconfiguration of perceptible attributes in general. I am far from believing that “everything is political”‘. Yet, he quickly adds: ‘On the other hand, I believe it’s important to note that the political dimension of the arts can be seen first of all in the way that their forms materially propose the paradigms of the community’ (2000: 17). This is not to suggest that Bruce Lee was a herald and trailblazer of a PC utopia, although his relation to the ensuing movement that became known as ‘political correctness’ certainly has been remarked upon (Morris 2001). Similarly, it is, at least, to locate Bruce Lee firmly at the shifting centre of enduring anti-institutional, intercultural and cross-ethnic representation. As Rey Chow sees it, this is:


a process in which the acceleration and intensification of contacts brought by technology and commerce entail[s] an acceleration and intensification of stereotypes, stereotypes that, rather than simply being false or incorrect (and thus dismissable), have the potential of effecting changes in entire intellectual climates… (Chow 2002: 63)


These contacts are also therefore arguably irreducibly pedagogical. Many lessons have been learned about Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is hard. Bruce Lee is sexy. Bruce Lee is cool. Bruce Lee is not white. Bruce Lee is Asian. Bruce Lee kicks white, American, Russian, Japanese, Italian, imperialist, colonialist, capitalist, gangster and indeed anyone and everyone’s ass. There is something patriarchal here, in this phallic hero. There is also something homoerotic. There is something heteronormative. There is also something postcolonial. This much has been learned. But is that it? Is that all there is? Within film studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies and various ethnic identity studies, this appears to be about the long and short of it. These are the main sorts of lessons that are regularly learned from and about Bruce Lee: lessons about identification, lack and desire, about cultural identity, the role of fantasy, about the body as bearer of ideology, the ambivalence and polysemy of Bruce Lee’s texts, the homo at the heart of the hetero. And so on (Abbas 1997; Brown 1997; Chan 2000; Marchetti 2001; Morris 2001; Hunt 2003; Eperjesi 2004; Teo 2008).


These are of course important lessons. But there is more. There are other lessons to be learned from Bruce Lee. The ones I would like to draw attention to at this point relate to learning, to lessons that have been learned, and to the significance of the ways in which the lessons that are to be learned from Bruce Lee intersect unexpectedly with lessons in and about the ‘project’ of cultural studies and its critics. In saying this, I am using the term ‘cultural studies’ as short-hand, as an umbrella term to evoke the genealogically and ethico-politically entangled discursive formation of work in postcolonialism, history from below, gender studies, post-structuralism, queer theory and – as is so easy to say – so on. My decision to elevate ‘cultural studies’ as the umbrella-term to cover such a wide, complex and contradictory field will, I hope, neither be received as particularly controversial nor as especially unusual, as each of these overlapping fields always also folds into the others and has them folded into ‘itself’ in more than one way.


However, what is less straightforward is the fact that, when I evoke this formation’s ‘critics’, I will not be referring to those whose work is clearly and decidedly (or decidably) ‘outside’ the fields of queer-, postcolonial- and so on. cultural studies. Rather, I will be lining up the rather unlikely (non)couple of Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Rancière. This is not because I see their work as being even remotely similar, in its own right. It is rather in order to show that, despite the immense differences between Rancière and a character like Žižek, they both occupy (equivalently but differently) a fraught border on the shores of this (or these) cultural studies that they both so clearly take their distances from. To experience both the beaches and the ports of these shores – the points of convergence and play as well as of articulation, communication and control – my primary contention is that we might do no better than taking seriously the question of the lessons to be learned from Bruce Lee. Reciprocally, to learn something more from Bruce Lee, and to pose a rather more tantalising challenge to cultural studies in all its forms than the ones we are familiar with, we might do no better than taking seriously the question of the lessons to be learned from Jacques Rancière.


In the face of studying Bruce Lee, and despite the apparently trivial status of this long-departed Hong Kong American celebrity martial artist, it is of more than ‘academic’ interest to reiterate here, once again, the extent to which ‘China’ or ‘Chineseness’ is inscribed (indeed, hegemonic) within the current theoretical and political discourses of cultural studies, post-structuralism, ethnicity and feminism. As Rey Chow has made plain, as already mentioned, this is so in at least three ways. First, the Chinese ‘other’ played a constitutive (haunting) role in the deconstructive critique of logocentrism and phonocentrism, in ways that far exceed the general ‘turn East’ (in the search for alternatives) characteristic of ‘French’ theory and much more besides of the 1960s and 1970s. Second, the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s actively admired and championed the Chinese encouragement of women to ‘speak bitterness’ against patriarchy. And third, the enduring interest in the ‘subaltern’ among politicised projects in the West has always found an exemplary example in the case of the Chinese peasantry. Indeed, says Chow, in these ways and more, ‘”modern China” is, whether we know it or not, the foundation of contemporary cultural studies’ (Chow 1993: 18).


This sort of (unhomely) historicisation of the interplay of forces constitutive of the contours, investments and impulses of contemporary cultural studies (and its critics) can ‘hurt’. This is especially so when we want to believe that our own position is unique, superior, untainted or uncompromised by the messy and often ugly intertwined forces that have produced the present conjuncture. But acknowledging the fraught genealogy of the present is surely an essential stage of any work – a harrowing ordeal that may nevertheless provide an enlivening jolt.


There are many ways to do this. If Chow recasts the investments and orientations of cultural studies, post-structuralism, and the politicised ‘studies-suffix’ subjects in terms of what she calls an unacknowledged but constitutive ‘Chinese prejudice’, theorists such as Žižek, Bourdieu and others have often cast cultural studies as being at the forefront of the ideology of ‘political correctness’ which itself is recast as the cutting edge ideology of neoliberalism. There are many versions of such challenges to cultural studies’ putative ethical and political values and virtues, of course, just as there are many different forms of response to and engagement with such questions within the various fields and forms of cultural studies. In fact, no footnote could suffice to indicate the breadth and depth of these debates. But we could look quickly at one provocative and pertinent contribution to it.


Meaghan Morris’ essay, ‘Learning from Bruce Lee: Pedagogy and Political Correctness in Martial Arts Cinema’ (2001), remains particularly apposite here because in it Morris examines the relationship between film and cultural criticism and the forces, discourses and impulses of ‘PC’ or ‘political correctness’. Crucially, Morris concedes the disappointing links between contemporary film and cultural criticism and the much vilified and stereotyped PC (a link which boils down to their shared moralism), but she seeks nevertheless to find a way to redeem both. She tries to do this by focusing on the theme of pedagogy. Before we get to pedagogy, it is helpful to note that Morris’ primary argument is that:


PC is not primarily a code regulating expression but a spectators’ revolt. Aesthetically focused but social in resonance, PC is an act or a movement of criticism initiated by groups of people who develop shared responses to particular cultural conventions, and begin to form ‘an’ audience in the marketing sense: by articulating a collective ‘commentary on cinema’, they announce themselves as an audience. And they vocally object to the quality of something which cinema provides. Understood this way, PC as a critical formation has less in common with the grim radicals of media bad dreams (real as dreams may be) than with those highly respectable ‘consumer movements’ which have, through the very same media, powerfully influenced business and advertising practices in recent decades. (Morris 2001: 181)


Of course, in affiliating ‘aesthetic dissensus’ with ‘consumer movements’ that are ‘highly respectable’, Morris opens the door for the Žižekian retort that such ‘movements’ are therefore not political, precisely because they are both respectable and consumerist. The Žižekian insistence on the internal dynamics of capitalism as the Real (and) backdrop or horizon against which any claim of ‘the political’ is to be judged (Žižek 2000) is a challenge that – no matter how hyperbolical, (performatively) self-contradictory, and no matter how ‘logically’ refutable it may be (Laclau 2000: 2005) – nevertheless haunts my own thinking here and elsewhere. For, whatever else may be said about Žižek, he nevertheless has a point. And it will not just go away. So, without attempting to exorcise the Žižekian spectre, but whilst refusing to be dominated by it, I will attempt to use it, along with the coordinates provided by Chow and Morris, to triangulate a point from which to craft a manoeuvre informed by, equivalent to but different from, those executed by the likes of Chow, Morris, Žižek and, ultimately, Rancière. This manoeuvre relates to rethinking pedagogy.



The Lesson of Bruce Lee


Meaghan Morris tries to look at Bruce Lee ‘otherwise’ by focusing on the peculiar importance of pedagogy when it comes to grasping his significance. She points out the enduring centrality of pedagogy in martial arts films and the often overlooked importance of Bruce Lee as a teacher. It is crucial to approach Bruce Lee in terms of pedagogy, argues Morris, because ‘the overwhelming concern with “the body” in recent cultural criticism can obscure this aspect of (Western) Bruce Lee worship and narrow unduly our approach to action cinema in general’. So, Morris draws attention to the significant ‘persistence of the training film in Hollywood cinema’, and to the ways that ‘training films give us lessons in using aesthetics understood as a practical discipline – “the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty” – to overcome personal and social adversity’ (Morris 2001: 175-176).[3]


Of course, we should note, straight away, that the kind of looking otherwise (or reading differently) that Morris undertakes is not deliberately provocative or controversial. Morris does not seek to offer the kind of reading which would boil the blood of conservatives or anti-PC militants of ‘common sense’. In fact, although Morris does suggest that ‘the technique of “queering” is [the] liveliest recent manifestation’ of a key interpretative drive in film studies, one that ‘can be creative’, she actually suggests that queering can also be ‘blinkered and narrow in its relentlessness’ (2001: 184). So, although Morris wants to read Bruce Lee ‘otherwise’, she does not want to rush headlong into acts of ‘queering’ or ‘othering’. At least not directly. Rather, Morris operates in terms of the insight that there can only be so many times that looking at Bruce Lee ‘otherwise’, by for instance revealing the homo at the disavowed heart of the hetero, can be regarded as news.[4] Which is why what Morris seeks to ‘learn’ from Bruce Lee does not relate to the erotic and does not simply relate to issues of patriarchy, phallocentricity, heteronormativity, masculinity, or suchlike. Instead, she chooses to learn something else from Bruce Lee. This is a lesson about learning from cinematic images – or rather about realising, becoming aware, being transformed by experiencing through cinematic images, and the overall complexity of the experience of films.


Amid a discussion of the aesthetics (including, of course, the camp and kitsch dimensions) of many American martial arts films, Morris turns her attention to a scene within the film, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993). This film is, in Morris’s words, ‘a sanitized as well as hagiographic interpretation of Bruce Lee’s life as authorized by his widow’, Linda Lee-Cadwell (Morris 2001: 180). In it, Bruce (played by Jason Scott Lee) and Linda (Lauren Holly), on one of their first dates, end up in a cinema watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is significant – indeed foregrounded and emphasised by the film – that they have ended up in the cinema because they have been refused entry to a restaurant for obviously racist reasons. So, they find themselves in a ‘laff fest revival’. In the cinema, we watch them watching the spectacle of Mickey Rooney bumbling around as the slapstick Japanese character, Mr Yunioshi. Morris deftly points out the way that the camera shows us Bruce and Linda watching the same scene differently: Linda initially laughs along with the rest of the audience, until she notices Bruce’s distinct lack of enjoyment. Then the camera shows us a very significant moment of realisation. According to Morris, this scene actually shows a viewing subject ‘enter into another subjectivity’ (181) through the act of viewing – and, specifically, through viewing an other(s) way of viewing and being viewed. As she sees it:


when Linda suddenly connects the Chinese man beside her, the ‘Oriental’ on screen, and her pleasure in both, she makes an imaginative leap outside the logic of her own familiar dreams which allows her to experience something new. Putting ‘herself’ in another’s position, she finds that her companion lives a connection between his body and the grotesque parody on screen – one fictionally modeled on a fleeting moment of cinema but relayed and sustained in its everyday life by the gazes (and the voices) of other people. (Morris 2001: 181)


In the terms of Jacques Rancière, we could conceptualise this scene as a moment of ‘aesthetic dissensus’, in which the experience by Linda and (perhaps) Bruce amounts to a moment of ‘subjectivization’, or, in Rancière’s words, ‘the formation of a one that is not a self but is the relation of a self to an other’ through ‘a process of disidentification or declassification’ (Rancière 1992: 60, 61). Thus, at this point, Linda could be regarded as becoming ‘an outsider or, more, an in-between(1992: 61) by way of what Rancière calls an ‘impossible identification’ (ibid.). It is ‘impossible’ because Linda is not that which she has just realised; or, in Rancière’s terms, Linda’s is an identification that cannot be embodied by her, herself. As Rancière theorises it, political subjectivisation ‘always involves an impossible identification, an identification that cannot be embodied by he or she who utters it’. It is rather, according to Rancière, ‘a heterology, a logic of the other’; ‘it is never the simple assertion of an identity; it is always, at the same time, the denial of an identity given by an other, given by the ruling order of policy’ (1992: 62).



Learning from Pedagogy


However, there is more to a Rancièrean reading than providing lessons in identity formation or the production of new subjectivities that occupy new subject-positions. That is, there is a difference between Rancière and Morris here. This devolves on different notions of pedagogy, but it has a far wider significance. This can be seen if we use Rancière to focus on the way pedagogy itself organises Morris’ vision when she is ‘learning from Bruce Lee’. For, although what Morris would rightly have us learn is a lesson about the dubious ethics and orientations of much film criticism itself, it is nevertheless the case that Morris still ultimately identifies with and prioritises a certain ‘classical’ pedagogical position. For, Morris will go on to propose that ‘Linda returns to Breakfast at Tiffany’s with the eyes and ears of a critic, or so I like to think; as a student, she is certainly able to “enter into” another subjectivity…’ (2001: 181).


But let us hesitate before making such a step ourselves; for, as Rancière (1991) has urged us to notice, an interpretive decision such as this also carries the connotation that becoming ‘a critic’ amounts to maturing into a critic, or, in the case of Linda’s moment of revelation, being re-born (satori-like) as an ‘enlightened one’. Identifying such a moment of transformation, realisation or ‘subjectivization’ (Rancière 1992) with an already-instituted institutional category (The Critic) is, in Rancière (as in Barthes [1977]), to rob it of its emancipatory potential. Indeed, as Rancière sees it, this would be to participate in ‘a logic whereby the social critic gains by showing democracy losing’ (Ross 1987: xi) – by claiming that the insight, the knowledge, or the wisdom is always and already the property of ‘the critic’. As Kristin Ross puts this:


if science belongs to the intellectuals – the masters – and the critique of bourgeois content is reserved for those who already know, then there is only one way for students to criticize their masters’ knowledge … and that is to become their peers. (Ross 1987: xvii)


Thus, even though Morris figures spec(tac)ular cultural relations as potentially politicising, her own fundamental identification remains with the position of the pedagogue. In this, Morris exemplifies the post-Gramscian tendency in cultural studies to regard ‘culture as pedagogy’ (Giroux 2002) and, accordingly, to seek to find and to teach (about) the best that has been thought, said and broadcast. This is the ‘improving’, ‘educating’ rationale that Jacques Rancière identifies in so many philosophers, critics, theorists and pedagogues, including, most famously, Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu. To Rancière’s list of ‘philosophers and their poor’, we might add perhaps all of the key figures of cultural studies and cultural theory.


It is not their motives but their orientations that Rancière critiques. This is because, as is well known, the lesson of Rancière is the lesson of equality. Here, the lesson to be learned from Rancière is that pedagogy premised on imparting knowledge to the ignorant stultifies. In The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991), Rancière devotes himself to a consideration of the fact that everyone – demonstrably, verifiably – can and very often does learn without being taught in the mode of what he calls ‘explication’ (the intellectual intervention of an explicator). Classical pedagogy Rancière calls ‘the explicative order’, and his deconstructive contention is that it is ‘the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such’ (Rancière 1991: 6; Rancière’s thinking shares a lot with Roland Barthes [1977] on this point); and hence his contention is that:


Explication is not necessary to remedy an incapacity to understand. On the contrary, that very incapacity provides the structuring fiction of the explicative conception of the world…. To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself. Before being the act of the pedagogue, explication is the myth of pedagogy, the parable of a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid. (1991: 6)


This, Rancière calls the ‘double inaugural gesture’ (ibid.) of the ‘explicative order’ – the thinking which ‘divides the world into two’, or ‘divides intelligence into two’, by proceeding as if ‘there is an inferior intelligence and a superior one’:


The former registers perceptions by chance, retains them, interprets and repeats them empirically, within the closed circle of habit and need. This is the intelligence of the young child and the common man. The superior intelligence knows things by reason, proceeds by method, from the simple to the complex, from the part to the whole. It is this intelligence that allows the master to transmit his knowledge by adapting it to the intellectual capacities of the student and allows him to verify that the student has satisfactorily understood what he learned. Such is the principle of explication. (1991: 7)


Following Joseph Jacotot, the Eighteenth Century educator that Rancière reads in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, he concludes that this – the dominant – conception of education is to be regarded as ‘the principle of enforced stultification‘ (ibid.). The logic of self-legitimation of the explicator runs: ‘Until [the teacher] came along, the child has been groping blindly, figuring out riddles. Now he will learn’ (ibid.). Proceeding by ‘figuring out riddles’, says Rancière, is overwhelmingly regarded by explicators as proceeding incorrectly, outrageously: moving ‘along in a manner one shouldn’t move along – the way children move, blindly, figuring out riddles’ (1991: 10) is disparaged.


Rather than enforcing, as a matter of routine or principle, this disciplined hierarchy as if it were the necessary character of all learning, Rancière advocates Jacotot’s postulate that the universal process of learning is something shared alike by ‘the child, the learned man, and the revolutionary’ (1991: 12). Its key coordinates are called chance, experiment, equality and will. ‘The method of equality was above all a method of the will’, writes Rancière: ‘One could learn by oneself and without a master explicator when one wanted to, propelled by one’s own desire or by the constraint of the situation’ (ibid.). Without a master explicator, concludes Jacotot; but not without a master per se (1991: 12-13). In other words, the role of the master is not that of a subject supposed to know, to be followed, listened to, obeyed, as ignorant to learned. Rather, the master is the one who issues a command. Solve this. Work out that. The master’s intelligence is by the by. The notion of the ‘master’, and specifically the ‘will’ of the master, is separated from that of ‘intelligence’. Realising this, says Rancière, allows ‘the jumbled categories of the pedagogical act to be sorted out, and explicative stultification to be precisely defined’. Thus, concludes Rancière/Jacotot: ‘there is stultification whenever one intelligence is subordinated to another’. For although ‘a person – and a child in particular – may need a master when his own will is not strong enough to set him on track and keep him there … that subjection is purely one of will over will’. And this – it deserves to be said – is no bad thing. However:


It becomes stultification when it links an intelligence to another intelligence. In the act of teaching and learning there are two wills and two intelligences. We will call their coincidence stultification.… We will call the known and maintained difference of the two relations – the act of an intelligence obeying only itself even while the will obeys another will – emancipation. (1991: 13)


Rancière is unequivocal about the significance of this: ‘This pedagogical experiment created a rupture with the logic of all pedagogies’. For, Jacotot’s experiment – simply telling students to learn both the French and the Flemish pages of the bilingual book Télémaque, an experiment which led the students to learn excellent French very quickly – did not involve ‘the transmission of the master’s knowledge to the students’. In fact, ‘Jacotot had transmitted nothing’:


He had not used any method. The method was purely the student’s. And whether one learns French more quickly or less quickly is in itself a matter of little consequence. The comparison was no longer between methods but rather between two uses of intelligence and two conceptions of the intellectual order. The rapid route was not that of a better pedagogy. It was another route, that of liberty. (1991: 14)


The rest of The Ignorant Schoolmaster charts the ensuing misappropriations and misadventures of Jacotot’s ‘realisation’ once it was picked up, turned over, assessed, implemented or instituted by others, all over the world. However, it seems noteworthy that Rancière’s book stops before the moment of the post-1968 institutional reformation which in some sense inspired Rancière’s critique in the first place. So, the question is: what became of Jacotot’s universal learning?


One of the places it reappeared was undoubtedly in Bruce Lee’s anti-pedagogical liberation philosophy. Another place is the Hollywood and Hong Kong institution of the training film. From 36 Chambers of Shaolin through to The Karate Kid (2010) and way beyond, the lesson is always – as Mr Han (Jackie Chan) tells ‘Siao’ Dre (Jaden Smith) – the Rancièrean one that everything is in everything – that kung fu is in everything: every movement is both natural and contains a lesson; nothing can be ‘taught’ as such (lessons are not passed ‘down’ from one intelligence to another), but everything can be learned from everything – whether that be karate from waxing on, waxing off or kung fu from picking up, dropping, hanging up, taking off and putting on a coat. Moreover, nor is this constrained to the action film. The subtitle of Rancière’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster is Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In the children’s film Nanny McPhee (2005) – a film which has more than a passing resemblance to Mary Poppins (1964) – there are similarly five lessons. These are mundane, everyday, often domestic; but contained within them are holistic connections to profound insights about daily living or, to echo Lyotard, cultural ‘savoirs’ (Lyotard 1984). And so on. Popular film loves this lesson. Is it a philosophical lesson? In what ways might it relate to traditional book-bound philosophy?


It is certainly worth being aware that Bruce Lee had lots of books. Those who have had access to his library assure us that these books were all well read by Lee, and were often annotated and underlined, with frequent marginal comments and cross-references. Bruce Lee evidently studied his books. He also took copious notes. His many notebooks and personal writings were posthumously plundered, filtered, edited, reassembled, packaged and marketed as Bruce Lee ‘words of wisdom’, in a publishing initiative that currently stretches to over a dozen books nominally authored or co-authored by the late Bruce Lee. Although such publications are surely of interest to fans and disciples, one problem with this whole drive is that many of the notes and quotations from which these books are constructed amount to ideas that Lee had simply collected himself. In other words, these edited collections are not simply edited collections of Bruce Lee’s words. Rather, they are also edited collections of Bruce Lee’s edited collections. For, many of Bruce Lee’s putative writings had simply been taken verbatim and unattributed from the books in his library. They were merely quotes that he liked. However, when they were included in books supposedly ‘by’ Bruce Lee, these borrowings remained unattributed.


Consequently, two things have happened. First, Lee has been posthumously represented – reinvented or reconstructed – as a rent-a-quote ‘sage’. Second, Lee has subsequently been ‘outed’ as a plagiarist. In many discussions, either or both of these procedures have been regarded as unfortunate and damaging in terms of Bruce Lee’s ‘reputation’ or ‘credentials’ – whether as an originator or mouthpiece of wisdom or philosophy, or whether as a serious martial artist who has been commodified and Orientalised in his own absence. Thus, this process chiefly stokes the coals of a debate that is organised in terms of the question of Lee’s philosophical ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ (was he, wasn’t he ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ in his own right? And so on). But what it tends to overlook are the cultural issues of the very appeal or currency of these ideas, first to Bruce Lee (who ‘originally’ copied them) and then to the audience that consumes them as ‘original’ – and yet somehow ‘timeless’ – ‘wisdom’.



The Eternally Returning Turn East


The fact that Bruce Lee ‘wisdom’ is often regarded as simultaneously ‘original’ and ‘timeless’ is a curious feature of his construction or reception. But it reflects a wider tendency to approach all putatively ‘Chinese thought’ in ways that are allochronistic and Orientalist. Of course, there is a sense in which this approach to Bruce Lee has been licensed to be Orientalist by Bruce Lee’s own countersignature. For, as we have seen, Bruce Lee’s ‘approach’ can be regarded as a disjointed hybrid of ‘Western rationality’ and ‘Eastern rhetoric’. In itself, this may be taken as a version of the Chinese saying, ‘Chinese studies as the cultural essence; Western guides for practical application’. And indeed, it would seem that the ‘turn’ Eastwards, whether in the form of 19th Century colonialist/imperialist Orientalism, or in terms of the post-World War II Area Studies which is its modern variant, or indeed in terms of countercultural Asiaphilia, is not an exclusively ‘Western’ phenomenon. A turn East, a turn to China, has also been a key aspect of any Chinese nationalism.


Indeed, Douglas Wile has proposed that in the light of (Western) modernity, even Chinese intellectual and physical culture itself deliberately ‘turned East’ (1996). Moreover, the Chinese turn East, or turn inwards, has often predominantly come as a response to the turn eastwards of the West. Wile’s own case study is the historical development of that most ‘mystical’ and ‘Oriental’ of martial arts, tai chi ch’üan (taijiquan). And what could be a better example of something that is widely regarded in both East and West as an exemplary repository of ancient Chinese universal wisdom? However, as Wile puts it, even though any Chinese time or event that is ‘earlier than the Republican period (1911-49) tends to slip into the mist of “ancient China”‘ (1996: 3), it is nevertheless the case that all of the ‘momentous events for the evolution of t’ai-chi ch’üan did not take place on mist-wrapped mountains’ (4). Rather, the theorists and institutors of t’ai chi ch’üan (Yang Lu-ch’an and the Wu brothers):


were of the same generation as Darwin and Marx, and that the Li brothers were contemporaries of Einstein, Freud, and Gandhi. Railroads, telegraph, and missionary schools were already part of the Chinese landscape, and Chinese armies (and rebels) sometimes carried modern Western rifles. How often have we stopped to reflect that Yang Lu-ch’an was probably in Beijing in 1860 when British and French troops stormed the capital and the Manchu Emperor took flight. It is our proposition, then, that this watershed period in the evolution of the art and theory of t’ai-chi ch’üan did not take place in spite of larger social and historical events but somehow in response to them. (Wile 1996: 3)


The key writers, interlocutors and disseminators of t’ai-chi ch’üan were the Wu brothers. They ‘came of age at the turn of the nineteenth century, a time when Manchu overthrow, defeat at the hands of the West, and large-scale peasant rebellion were all unthinkable’ (4), notes Wile. However, ‘As the Wu brothers entered middle age, the Opium Wars and Taiping Rebellion shook the foundations of the dynasty and caused the near collapse of the world as they knew it’ (ibid.). Thus, Wile proposes that just as ‘historians are able to place the ancient Greek Olympics in the context of classical ideals of physical beauty and health and admiration for feats of strength and endurance’ and just as ‘Nineteenth-century romantics’ rage for swimming can likewise be seen in light of their reaction against crass industrialism and bourgeois conformity’ (as illustrated by the Romantics’ collective ‘desire to commune with the gods and goddesses of woods and water, and their flirting with the mystery and danger of the sea’), then surely the origination and development of t’ai-chi ch’üan should be similarly historicised. Unfortunately, he continues, the tendency has been ‘to treat the story of t’ai-chi ch’üan in an historical vacuum’ (ibid.). T’ai-chi ch’üan, then, like all ‘Chinese wisdom’, up to and including Bruce Lee’s, has been Orientalised and allochronised: constructed as ancient, timeless, unique, and decidedly other.


Quite contrary to such mythologising, Wile proposes that the salient factors in the ideological self-Orientalising that led to such philosophies and practices as t’ai-chi ch’üan devolve on complex macropolitical phenomena and cultural anxieties. Thus, Wile points out that ‘by the early 1800s, fired by industrialism, science, democracy, evangelical Christianity, and, above all, a belief in the divine right of trade, the West, led by Great Britain, would not be barred from China’ (ibid.). In this context, he proposes, for a China whose ‘cultural self-image was still one of centrality and superiority, to confront a swarm of new barbarians “from across the sea” while old barbarians from the north still sat on the dragon throne was a complex political and psychological ordeal’ (ibid.). This took the form of a series of events in which ‘China suffered a humiliating defeat and substantial loss of sovereignty’: the Opium War of 1839, the Treaty of Nanking of 1842 ‘and subsequent “unequal treaties” [which] wrested from China Hong Kong, five Treaty Ports, the International Settlement, extraterritoriality, a war indemnity, a 5 percent tariff limit, most-favored-nation protection, and missionary access’, continued British and French aggressions and seizures of territories in 1856, 1858 (Canton) and 1860 (Beijing), the Russian winning of access to the coast of Manchuria in 1860, the Japanese seizure of the Ryukyu Islands in 1872, the Sino-French War in 1883, and so on.


Accordingly, Wile proposes that we need to be aware that ‘the shapers of modern t’ai-chi ch’üan thus witnessed repeated military defeat and reduction of the empire to semicolonial status. T’ai-chi ch’üan as we ‘know it today rose from the ashes of a collapsing empire’ (5). Of course, it has ‘roots that clearly reach back farther than the nineteenth century’, and its ‘association with national revival did not become explicit until the twentieth century’; but ‘China’s anti-imperialist struggles began in the nineteenth century’ and t’ai-chi ch’üan may well be regarded as a ‘cultural response to China’s political predicament’ (ibid.).


The specific ‘predicament’ of the nineteenth century European onslaught against China boils down to the fact that before then, ‘peoples who challenged China militarily (northern warriors) did not also do so intellectually, and those who challenged China intellectually (Indian Buddhism) did not also do so militarily’. However, the nineteenth century ‘saw a total assault on Chinese culture’ (20). It was in this context that the Wu and Li families became involved in the development of t’ai-chi ch’üan – which is perhaps the most ‘philosophical’, ‘esoteric’ and ‘Eastern’ of all the martial arts. The reason for the ‘involvement of the Wu and Li families in t’ai-chi ch’üan’ (ibid.) – and, similarly, their highly uncharacteristic interest in Taoism (1996: 9) – cannot be adequately explained other than by regarding it as being symptomatic of ‘China’s response to the West’, ‘semicolonialism’, ‘millenarian rebellion’, and ‘the fall of the last dynasty’ (1996: 20). For, says Wile, if the ‘stereotype of the effete Confucian literati has long made it difficult to explain the intense involvement in martial arts of the Wu and Li families of Yung-nien’, the ‘extraordinarily violent nineteenth century and the martial tradition of the North China plain go a long way to clarifying the picture’ (1996: 9).


This is because this period ‘forced intellectuals into a period of intense soul-searching as the alien dynasty closed its grip on China’ (1996: 12). ‘As all hope of restoration faded, attention turned to analyzing the reasons for the failure of the previous dynasty’ (ibid.), and part of that analysis entailed a philosophical dimension. Thus, says Wile, although at the time ‘an interest in Taoism was rare indeed’ (1996: 15), what the creators of t’ai-chi ch’üan


have in common is that in approaching the native tradition they attempted to uncover the true Confucian essence buried beneath Buddhist and Taoist influence, and in approaching the West they tried to assert the priority and superiority of Chinese science and mathematics. The movement to exhume evidence of China’s superiority to the West may be related to the Wu and Li brothers’ creation of a superior fighting art based on the quintessential Chinese principle of softness overcoming hardness. In this way, when the ‘Treatise’ says, ‘There are many other styles of martial arts, but they are nothing more than the strong bullying the weak’, we cannot rule out the possibility that Wu was thinking of the West as much as other schools of Chinese martial arts. The appeal to Chang Sang-feng and Tsung-y?eh may also be an attempt to give the art deeper routes and to make it seem less like a contemporary creation. (1996: 15-16)


Thus, argues Wile: T’ai-chi ch’üan in the nineteenth century may be seen as ‘a psychological defense against Western cultural imperialism, a clinging to chivalry in the face of modernity’ (1996: 26). He cites Joseph Alter’s argument about the role of wrestling in postcolonial Indian culture that:


The notion of a fit and healthy body being an ideological construct is a fairly common theme in discourse of nationalism and power. . . . If one considers Gandhi’s adherence to yogic principles it is indeed difficult to draw any line between the physical, mental, and the political. . . . The wrestler’s way of life is seen as a form of protest against self-indulgence and public immorality. By disciplining his body the wrestler is seeking to implement ethical national reform. . . . Shastri and others believe fundamentally that the body is the site of national reform, that nationalism must be embodied to have any real effect. (Alter, qtd by Wile 1996: 27)


Accordingly, Wile argues that in a context in which ‘there were few advocates of wholesale Westernization’ (even ‘moderate reform went under the slogan “Chinese studies as the cultural essence; Western guides for practical application”‘), then the development of the theory and practice of t’ai-chi ch’üan should be distinguished from the practice of ‘escapism’ and regarded as ‘the attempt to create a space where purely Chinese values and worldview could survive’:


Thus, as China’s political body was losing control (sovereignty), t’ai-chi ch’üan became a way to maintain a measure of autonomy in the practitioner’s body. It must have been clear to China’s elites in the second half of the nineteenth century that the West could not be beaten at their own game. They were thus thrown back on their own bodies, the microcosm where traditional Taoist self-cultivation sought to discover and become attuned to the tao. This was to pursue a Chinese brand of strength. (ibid.)


Of course, he continues,


Could t’ai-chi ch’üan represent, in part, an attempt by colonized males to regain a ‘sense of power and charisma, to hold their heads up in a world where they could not compete on the terms dictated by the West and the West’s precocious disciple, Japan? Men made to feel inferior in relation to other groups of men will inevitably engage in some form of compensatory behavior in order to preserve face and hence control over their own women. Perhaps the t’ai-chi training hall, like the pub or playing field in the West, was a space where male psyches, wounded in the real world, could indulge in collective fantasies of power. (ibid.)


We have encountered this kind of argument before, most recently in Žižek’s arguments about the ways that those who have nothing have only their bodies and their discipline. But there are many versions of it, all deriving from the broadly post-structuralist insight that identity is always an effect or reaction formation vis-à-vis something perceived as external. As Jian Xu has also put it, all of the recent key studies of martial arts ‘place the body-in-cultivation in a specific historical context; they maintain that the individual, physical body both registers and reveals the national sociopolitical landscape [and that] the body can [also/even] express the emotional self repressed by the state’ (1999: 961). And this is one of the senses in which both Bruce Lee’s body and Bruce Lee’s body of writing and filmic production can be regarded as intertextual – as feeding from and feeding back into ongoing historical discourses.



From Bruce Lee Work to Bruce Lee Text


To the extent that Bruce Lee’s words are quotations, allusions, paraphrases and reiterations of a very wide range of material, what they are, then, is text. Moreover, they are text in the very particular theoretical sense given to this word by Roland Barthes: ‘his’ writings are obviously not simply ‘his’, in the conventional understanding of originating somehow within the author’s mind, but are clearly ‘woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages (what language is not?), antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony’ (Barthes 1977: 60). As the parenthetical question – ‘what language is not?’ – makes clear, though: what Barthes is proposing with this theoretical elaboration of the notion of the Text is something much more general: many if not all texts are ultimately constructed from pre-existing cultural material. As Barthes’ contemporary and intellectual colleague Jacques Derrida put it: all speech, writing and meaning-production, circulation or dissemination in general must to some extent be ‘identifiable as conforming to an iterable model, and therefore … identifiable in a way as “citation”‘ (Derrida 1982: 326). Derrida in fact proposes that this process – what he elevates to the status of an existential, phenomenological or even ontological ‘law’ – is actually ‘to be found in all language, for example in spoken language, and ultimately in the totality of “experience”‘ (1982: 317).


The implications of the various deconstructions of language, literature and other aspects of culture are far reaching.  Here, what is most salient is the emergence of the idea that texts as such ought profitably to be regarded as cultural tapestries, palimpsests, and repositories of more or less reworked cultural material. As such, if we ‘read into’ these texts, what we ought to look for is ‘something about culture’ – for what we can only really discover is never simply going to be ‘something about Bruce Lee’ the psychological individual, but rather ‘something about culture’ – the culture which ‘influenced’ or to some extent constituted his writing.


Despite being persuasively elaborated in the early 1970s, such a mode of reading as that proposed by Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva and other writers associated with ‘deconstruction’ generally and the journal Tel Quel specifically still receives a lot of resistance and hostility. It certainly still requires some explanation and justification. This is because, says Barthes in ‘From Work to Text’ (1977), cultural works such as literature are ‘caught up in a process of filiation’. That is, forces of traditional (institutional) habit insist on trying to explain or account for works according to certain criteria. Specifically, Barthes argues, works tend to be explained ‘by race, then by History’ (1977: 61). Thus, Bruce Lee can be – and regularly is – ‘explained’ according to his ethnicity. Moreover, in fact, as the existence of a ‘Bruce Lee Industry’ illustrates: Bruce Lee is ‘explained’ in advance – being packaged and sold as a modern font of ancient/timeless Oriental wisdom. But to ‘understand’ Lee according to this manner of reading is certainly not to read his texts. It is rather to assume an understanding of them according to some conventional (ethnocentric) prejudices.


A competing force seeking to determine the way we receive Lee’s writings is what Barthes calls ‘a conformity of the work to the author’. In other words, we assume we know what the author must have intended, and we read the words accordingly, and refuse to allow any other meaning to the words – other than what we assume the author must have intended (determined, of course, by our presumptions about their ‘race’ and their ‘place’ (in terms of country, culture and class as well as historical moment, of course). In Barthes’ expression: ‘The author is reputed [to be] the father and the owner of his work’. Yet, Barthes proposes:


As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father…. [T]he metaphor of the Text is that of the network; if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic (…). Hence no vital ‘respect’ is due to the Text: it can be broken (which is just what the Middle Ages did with two nevertheless authoritative texts – Holy Scripture and Aristotle); it can be read without the guarantee of its father, the restitution of the inter-text paradoxically abolishing any legacy. It is not that the Author may not ‘come back’ in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a ‘guest’. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, figured in the carpet; no longer privileged, paternal, aletheological, his inscription is ludic. He becomes, as it were, a paper-author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work; there is a reversion of the work on to the life (and no longer the contrary); it is the work of Proust, of Genet which allows their lives to be read as a text. The word ‘bio-graphy’ re-acquires a strong, etymological sense, at the same time as the sincerity of the enunciation – veritable ‘cross’ borne by literary morality – becomes a false problem: the I which writes the text, it too, is never more than a paper-I. (Barthes 1977: 61-2)


Within what ‘network’ could Lee’s writings be said to participate? What is the nature of the ‘paper-I’ or persona that Lee’s (re)writings have produced? Given Barthes’ signalling of the crucial status of ‘race’ and ‘History’ in any readings, it is according to an awareness of these coordinates that this (re)reading (rewriting) of Bruce Lee shall continue to organise itself.


Walk On and Keep Going

According to the regularly recurring and often reiterated themes and sentiments within Bruce Lee’s multimedia oeuvre, it seems that he was evidently a great believer in universal truths. His most repeated aphorisms insist upon Taoist-sounding universal laws and principles and a shared universal humanity. Bruce Lee’s note taking and writing was clearly led by an investment in expressions and formulations that could be said to relate to some truth of the human condition in general – a ‘truth’ about humanity regarded in terms both psychological and cultural; truths believed to be available to any, any time, any place, anywhere – as long as they are able and inclined to free their minds from the blinkers of strictures and conventions. Lee had a lot to say in this regard about conventions, traditions and institutions, as we have seen. But Lee also held a particular predilection for what might be called ethical truths couched in the form of injunctions: injunctions and imperatives to do with how to live, how to act, how to think, how to proceed, how to be. This is undoubtedly exemplified in one of his favourite maxims or axioms: ‘Walk on!’


This injunction is often attributed to Lee. In Bruce Lee: Words of the Dragon: Interviews, 1958 – 1973 (1997), the editor observes:


The phrase ‘walk on’ was an important one in Bruce Lee’s philosophy. He even had it written on the back of one of his business cards, which he displayed on his desk to remind himself to walk on, or flow on, in the current of life. (Lee and Little 1997: 75)


In an interview for TV and Movie Screen in 1966, Lee is quoted as responding to a question about his method of parenting his son Brandon:


I will teach him to walk on. Walk on and he will see a new view. Walk on and he will see the birds fly. Walk on and leave behind all things that would dam up the inlet, or clog the outlet, of experience. (Lee and Little 1997: 46)


There are many other instances of this phrase being used to organise Bruce Lee’s words. However, it is surely significant that one of the books contained in Lee’s personal collection was itself called Walk On! It was written by the British populariser of Buddhism, Christmas Humphreys (1901-1983), and the first words of chapter one are these: ‘Asked “What is truth?”, a master of Zen Buddhism replied, “Walk on!”, and though there will be many words between these at the beginning and the same two at the end of this small book they will say no more’ (Humphreys 1947: 7). Two paragraphs later, the book reads:


Walk on. For life is movement, ceaseless movement, and uses forms as it has need of them. These endless warriors, spirit and matter, life and form are the warp and weft whereon the Namelessness creates the pattern of our days. Form, of the two, is easier to understand, for things and ‘facts’, and the houses and places and jobs which make up circumstance are here to be handled and seen, while life is in itself invisible. Yet whether we see it or not, it will not wait for us, nor pause while we argue that we do not understand. Life moves on, and we, flames in the light of a prison of our own devising, must move on likewise, or be left behind. (1947: 8)


If this claim that we ‘must move on … or be left behind’ sounds a bit too much like it harbours a very non-Buddhist melancholy or implicit advocation of moving in terms of trying to keep up and hence ‘clinging’, Humphreys soon clarifies things with a rather more complex argument – one which is noteworthy for more than one reason, especially as it pre-empts the familiar claim that Buddhism equals passive acceptance of circumstances, docility and inactivity:


All experience, therefore, whether labelled as pleasant or unpleasant, is valuable so long as we handle it on the move, as it were, and still walk on. Methods of self-development vary enormously, but anything in the way of experience is worth the while providing that it teaches a lesson which is thereby learnt. At a later stage on the way the pilgrim begins to create his circumstances as he will, and to this extent to control his experience. He will resort to a vast array of what in the East are referred to as ‘devices’, and what in the West we should call the technique of our self-becoming. But whatever the method or path adopted, whether by learning, love or noble action, whether pursuing the good, the beautiful or the true, the device when its purpose is fulfilled should be abandoned. Too many of us still walk on with the raft by which we crossed that river strapped to our backs in perpetuity, and all these partial methods must be expanded sooner or later to include all other points of view. (1947: 11-12)


Readers of Bruce Lee will be familiar with such sentiments, which resonate through all of his written notes and quotes. As this case seems to suggest though, Lee’s words (and doubtless those of Humphreys too) evidently derive from at least one and presumably an extremely eclectic range of sources, rather than originating ‘in’ the author. Supporters and critics alike have expended huge amounts of time and energy tracking down these sources; and such excavations are not an uncommon response to any successful or popular author. But establishing ‘influence’ or ‘inspiration’ is not in any sense a complete project in and of itself. For the question remains of its significance and effects. Before judging Lee – indeed, instead of judging Lee as such – there is a pertinent question about the cultural significance, status and effects of his ‘interventions’, however ‘secondary’ or ‘derived’ they may putatively be.


There are at least two ways to approach the significance of the diversity of Lee’s sources. The first is to conclude that because the truths championed by Taoism, Zen and Buddhism are apparently universal and timeless, we should not be surprised to find them everywhere: everyone is human, so every thinker will experience the existential issues of a ‘human condition’; just as you do not need to be a doctor to know that you are unwell, so you do not have to be Lau Tzu to hit upon a universal truth; and the ‘genius’ of Lee boils down to his ability to recognise the profundity of myriad observations in the works of writers from many cultures, East and West. This sort of interpretation is shared by many interlocutors. However, there is another form of interpretation. This is to approach Lee’s synthesis of diverse sources in terms of the theme of discourse, hegemony or ideology. This is to propose that there may be something significant in the fact that all of these heterogeneous sources seem so easily to have been brought into a kind of overarching coherence and consistency by Lee, a consistency that has a distinctly ‘Taoist’ flavour.


The possibility that this smooth transformation of diverse material into a sleek ‘Taoist’ form may be ‘ideological’ finds its warrant in that argument about ideology developed by Slavoj Žižek, which we have already encountered. To recap, Žižek has posited the existence of a ‘hegemonic ideology’ of contemporary capitalism; and he has suggested that this ideology is characterised by the dominance of putatively ‘Oriental’ belief systems (Žižek 2001: 12). Žižek’s is, of course, a strident critique of this ‘ideology’. It is a critique he shares with many other self-declared contemporary ‘radicals’, such as Alain Badiou, Régis Debray, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. The respective positions of these writers differ in some respects, but they nevertheless share a lot. We have already encountered the Žižekian critique, so we need not rehearse the main features of the argument about the ‘hegemonic ideology’ of ‘contemporary capitalism’ in general once again here. But there is another version of this ‘radical-ideology-critique’ which does seem to call out for some specific attention in this context. This is Alain Badiou’s widely known and influential book, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (2001). (Indeed, it at least seems to be the case that Žižek’s own argument has been ‘influenced’ to some extent by Badiou’s Ethics, if only in tenor: Žižek’s own argument seems to reiterate and echo many of the points Badiou makes – although one of Žižek’s specific contributions is to alert us to the possibility of a complex ideological interrelation of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ in this discursive formation.)


What is particularly pertinent about Badiou’s book for us, is that despite it being organised as a ‘politicised’ philosophical critique of what he perceives to be the growing belief in the possibility or existence of a global ‘ethical consensus’, made up of a shared revulsion towards atrocity combined with a respect for (multi)cultural difference, the ‘ethics’ that Badiou proposes as a supposedly genuine alternative to the duplicitously wishy-washy/crypto-fascist neoliberal belief in ethical consensus (let’s all just be nice to each other) boils down to this formulation: ‘Keep going!’ (Badiou 2001: 51). . . . Keep going? How far from ‘walk on’ is ‘keep going’?


If we foreground the similarity of Badiou’s and Žižek’s critiques, then the proximity of the ethical maxim ‘keep going’ to the supposedly ‘ideologically’ problematic ‘Western’ Buddhist aphorism ‘walk on’ becomes provocative. For, insofar as ‘Western’ Buddhism might be read as an index of the ideology of a dubious ‘multiculturalist consensus’, then what is the status of the close semantic relation between Badiou’s (‘good’) ethical maxim of ‘keep going’ and the (presumably ‘bad’) Westernised-Buddhist injunction ‘walk on’? The Badiouian answer hinges on the necessity of ‘keeping going’ in terms of maintaining ‘a fidelity’ to the truth of an event (‘a truth event’), and not being faithful to a simulacrum. To clarify what this entails, and to examine its relation to the object of Badiou’s critique – a certain liberal multicultural humanist ethical consensus, of which Bruce Lee will of course be taken as our exemplary example – we will need to set out some of the key terms of Badiou’s argument. Rather than laying this out from the ground up, let us rather get straight to the heart of the matter. Badiou writes:


Communication is suited only to opinions (and again, we are unable to manage without them). In all that concerns truths, there must be an encounter. The Immortal that I am capable of being cannot be spurred in me by the effects of communicative sociality, it must be directly seized by fidelity. That is to say: broken, in its multiple-being, by the course of an immanent break, and convoked [requis], finally, with or without knowing it, by the evental supplement. To enter into the composition of a subject of truth can only be something that happens to you.
Confirmation of the point is provided by the concrete circumstances in which someone is seized by a fidelity: an amorous encounter, the sudden feeling that this poem was addressed to you, a scientific theory whose initially obscure beauty overwhelms you, or the active intelligence of a political place. . . . Philosophy is no exception here, since everyone knows that to endure the requirement of a philosophically disinterested-interest, you have to have encountered, at least once in your life, the voice of a Master.
   As a result, the ethic of a truth is the complete opposite of an ‘ethics of communication’. It is an ethic of the Real, if it is true that – as Lacan suggests – all access to the Real is of the order of an encounter. And consistency, which is the content of the ethical maxim ‘Keep going!’ [Continuer!], keeps going only by following the thread of this Real. (Badiou 2001: 51)


I have already sought to represent the experience of the cinematic emergence of Bruce Lee as an event which has definitively transformed certain subjects. The logic or workings of this ‘evental’ or transformative process was approached using the arguments of Rancière and Meaghan Morris, earlier. Badiou’s own thinking here can also be used to supplement this line of reasoning. And this would make the moment of experiencing Bruce Lee on screen into an event. If this seems ontologically problematic (given that the cinema is all too often and all too quickly written off as the exemplary example of the simulacrum), one need merely pause to consider, for instance, Rey Chow’s reading of the well documented accounts of the ways in which the emergence of cinematically disseminated news broadcasts radically changed the orientations of the lives of key cultural and political actors and agents in China and elsewhere (Chow 1995). The emergence of cinema was itself an epochal event. Cinematic experience can always also amount to an event.


As Badiou puts it, ‘To enter into the composition of a subject of truth can only be something that happens to you‘. And here we have the kernel of his ethical formula or system. As Badiou construes it, truth cannot be communicated as such. The accounts of the cinematically mediated encounters with Bruce Lee that we have already considered seem to concur with this statement. Being seized by what Badiou calls ‘affects of truth’ is not something that can be ‘communicated’. Rather, says Badiou, ‘this seizure manifests itself by unequalled intensities of existence’ (2001: 52). I tend to think that his ensuing list of affects of truth seems rather simplistic and naive (‘in love, there is happiness; in science, there is joy (in Spinoza’s sense: intellectual beatitude); in politics, there is enthusiasm; and in art, there is pleasure’), but Badiou’s essential point is that:


These ‘affects of truth’, at the same moment that they signal the entry of some-one into a subjective composition, render empty all considerations of renunciation. Experience amply demonstrates the point, more than amply.
But ethics is not of the order of pure seizure. It regulates subjective consistency, inasmuch as its maxim is: ‘Keep going!’ And we have seen that this continuation presumes a genuine subversion [detournement] of the ‘perseverance in being’. The materials of our multiple-being are now organized by the subjective composition, by fidelity to a fidelity, and no longer by the simple pursuit of our interest. (2001: 52)


Such an encounter or experience, then, is not a matter of ‘opinion’. According to Badiou, opinion is just the oil of life and sociality, with no necessary relation to truth. Truth, however, is an experience, an event, to which (and this is Badiou’s ethical injunction) one must be faithful. There are different ways of maintaining ‘a fidelity’, Badiou regularly reiterates – potentially as many ways as there are subjects. As Christmas Humphreys might put it, you could call these ‘devices’ or ‘techniques of self-becoming’. But Badiou’s caveat about the unpredictability and multiplicity of ways of maintaining fidelity to the event ultimately problematises the possibility that his ‘philosophy’ could be regarded as ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ – or, at least, more useful or practical in a way that is essentially different from any self-help handbook (like, for example, Dr Spencer Johnson’s book, Who Moved My Cheese? (1998), or indeed Bruce Lee’s Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom For Daily Living (2002)).


Nevertheless, for Badiou, truth consists in the subjective experience of an event (an event which cannot be communicated). For Badiou, there can be one of four types of truth. These are those of mathematics, love, art and politics, as indicated above in Badiou’s list of situations in which one may be ‘seized by a fidelity: an amorous encounter, the sudden feeling that this poem was addressed to you, a scientific theory whose initially obscure beauty overwhelms you, or the active intelligence of a political place’. ‘But’, he continues, ‘ethics is not of the order of pure seizure’. Rather, it ‘regulates subjective consistency, inasmuch as its maxim is: “Keep going!” And we have seen that this continuation presumes a genuine subversion [detournement] of the “perseverance in being”‘. In other words, that is, it is by responding to the injunction to keep ‘fidelity’ to a truth that someone becomes ‘some-one’ – ‘Immortal’, rather than merely ‘animal’. It is in being faithful to the experience of a truth that, says Badiou, ‘the materials of our multiple-being are now organized by the subjective composition, by fidelity to a fidelity, and no longer by the simple pursuit of our interest’ (2001: 52).



Ethics as Kung Fu


Ultimately, Badiou regards ethics as hard work; or, you might say – evoking the literal translation of the term – ethics as kung fu. Anyone can experience an event. The task is to be faithful to its truth, and not to return to the easy life of our animal nature. The real trick – the really tricky bit – is not to be taken in by simulacra – which are, according to Badiou, ‘evil’. In his schema, people are, as a rule, below good and evil. Life is just life. Good and evil arise in terms of a response to an event. Evil arises through the misfortune or mistake of being faithful to a simulacrum – such as Nazism or nationalism, for instance. As Badiou puts it, ‘Every invocation of blood and soil, of race, of custom, of community, works directly against truths; and it is this very collection [ensemble] that is named as the enemy in the ethic of truths’ (2001: 76). In other words: ‘Fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set [ensemble] (the “Germans” or the “Aryans”)’ (2001: 74). Hence: ‘fidelity to the simulacrum … promotes the community, blood, race, and so on, [and] names as its enemy – for example, under the name of “Jew” – precisely the abstract universality and eternity of truths, the address to all’ (2001: 76). In other words, Badiou challenges the ‘post/modern’ belief that ethics can be based on a liberal humanist consensus about the necessity of the avoidance of acts of evil and the ‘pre/modern’ belief in ethics being based on the lines set up by racial, cultural, ethnic, communitarian and national borders, boundaries and differences. What he proposes in its place is an ethics of truth: an ethics of being faithful to the truth (of an) event. The opportunity to be faithful to the truth (of an) event is available to all, but it will always divide a community and will never produce consensus: there are as many different ways of responding and of responding to an event, or being faithful or not to other events as there are people. So, we might ask, where does this leave us, other than in the realms of either self-help platitudes or those of an unverifiable abstract system whose ultimate contribution is to offer (and obfuscate) an account of why the world is unsystematisable?


On the last page of the conclusion of Ethics, Badiou summarises: ‘This ethics combines, then, under the imperative to ‘Keep going!’, resources of discernment (do not fall for simulacra), of courage (do not give up), and of moderation [réserve] (do not get carried away to the extremes of Totality)’ (2001: 91). This all sounds very well and good. But it raises more questions than it answers. If we quickly consider merely one paragraph with an eye to the questions of coherence and pragmatics; Badiou writes about the (phallic) heroes of his four ontological truth situations:


‘Some-one’ can thus be this spectator whose thinking has been set in motion, who has been seized and bewildered by a burst of theatrical fire, and who thus enters into the complex configuration of a moment of art. Or this assiduous student of a mathematical problem, after the thankless and exhausting confusion of working in the dark, at the precise moment enlightened by its solution. Or that lover whose vision of reality is befuddled and displaced since, supported by the other, he remembers the instant of the declaration of their love. Or this militant who manages, at the end of a complicated meeting, to find simple words to express the hitherto elusive statement which, everyone agrees, declares what must be pursued in the situation. (2001: 45)


Given Badiou’s debts to Lacan, we might perhaps want to problematise the phantasy character of the evidently phallic hero as agent and agency here. But first, given his contention of the radical heterogeneity of ‘communication’ to ‘truth’, we might enquire into the status of the fantasy scenario about the ‘militant who manages, at the end of a complicated meeting, to find simple words to express the hitherto elusive statement which, everyone agrees, declares what must be pursued in the situation’. For, the question is: Have those who are now listening to the interlocutor themselves just experienced an event? Or is something being communicated to them – perhaps even a simulacrum? The answer is far from clear.


Nevertheless, Badiou enjoins us to maintain the finest ‘resources of discernment’, otherwise our ethics risk being led astray by a simulacrum, or we might simply stop:


I have explained where such experiences come from: under pressure from the demands of interest – or, on the contrary, because of difficult new demands within the subjective continuation of fidelity – there is a breakdown of the fiction I use to maintain, as an image of myself, the confusion between my ordinary interests and disinterested-interest, between human animal and subject, between mortal and immortal. And at this point, I am confronted with a pure choice between the ‘Keep going!’ proposed by the ethic of this truth, and the logic of the ‘perseverance in being’ of the mere mortal that I am… (2001: 78)


Do not fall for simulacra says Badiou, do not give up, keep going. This is much the same as Bruce Lee’s Westernised Buddhist injunction ‘walk on’. In Badiou’s words: ‘This ethics combines, then, under the imperative to “Keep going!”, resources of discernment (do not fall for simulacra), of courage (do not give up), and of moderation [réserve] (do not get carried away to the extremes of Totality)’ (2001: 91). As Bruce Lee observed, of falling for simulacra:


Instead of facing combat in its suchness, then, most systems of martial art accumulate a ‘fancy mess’ that distorts and cramps their practitioners and distracts them from the actual reality of combat, which is simple and direct. Instead of going immediately to the heart of things, flowery forms (organized despair) and artificial techniques are ritualistically practised to simulate actual combat. Thus, instead of ‘being’ in combat these practitioners are ‘doing’ something ‘about’ combat. (Lee 1975: 14)


The alternative error to falling for simulacra is falling by the wayside because of the ‘collapse’ of an image leading to ‘a crisis of fidelity’ (Badiou 2001: 78):


A crisis of fidelity is always what puts to the test, following the collapse of an image, the sole maxim of consistency (and thus of ethics): ‘Keep going!’ Keep going even when you have lost the thread, when you no longer feel ‘caught up’ in the process, when the event itself has become obscure, when its name is lost, or when it seems that it may have named a mistake, if not a simulacrum. (2001: 78-79)


So much is uncertain here. Maintain fidelity to the event. But which event? And how? Do not lose the way. But, what is the way? Do not lose faith. But, what if your faith is faith in a simulacrum? Continue! Keep going! Walk on! The distance between profundity and platitude, politico-academic philosophy and self-help ideology seems to collapse here. The boundaries and borders between philosophy and popular culture seem obscure, uncertain, perhaps even untenable. The same goes for philosophy and psychology, philosophy and ideology. ‘Keep going’ commands Bruce Lee; ‘keep going’ command Hollywood training films; ‘keep going’ commands ‘radical’ philosopher Alain Badiou: ‘Continue to be this “some-one”, a human animal among others, which nevertheless finds itself seized and displaced by the evental process of a truth’ (2001: 90-91). Quite what these proximities, connections and contiguities signify is also uncertain: is film philosophical? Is contemporary continental philosophy cinematographic? Can the one be translated into the other, and with or without loss, transformation or remainder? In any case what seems called for is a consideration of cultural translation.




[1] James Bishop (2004) provides an expansive and fascinating list of Bruce Lee’s sources, tracing Lee’s ‘own words’ back to the places he most likely found them (mainly books in Lee’s own library).


[2] Sedgwick chases the interpretation of the finger-moon riddle through the archives of Zen Buddhist writings; for the ‘implication of the finger/moon image is that pointing may invite less misunderstanding than speech, but that even its non-linguistic concreteness cannot shield it from the slippery problems that surround reference’ (2003: 170). As she concludes: ‘Perhaps the most distinctive way Mahayana Buddhism has tried to negotiate the “finger pointing at the moon” issue is through the ostentive language of thusness or suchness’ (ibid.). However, ostention, indexicality, acts of reference, and suchlike, produce a ‘resonant double movement’ (2003: 171), which Sedgwick prefers to approach through the terms and poetics of Buddhism itself. This preference allows her to propose that ‘finally, in the view of thusness, even the distinction between finger and moon dissolves, and with it perhaps the immemorial injunction against confusing them’: ‘As a contemporary Zen abbot notes, ‘The finger pointing to the moon is the moon, and the moon is the finger. . . they realize each other’ (…). A koan commentary elaborates: ‘When the monk asked about the meaning of “the moon”, the master [Fa Yen] answered “to point at”; when someone else asked about the meaning of “to point at” the master replied ‘the moon’: Why was it so? The deepest reasoning, probably, was in the Enlightened mind of the Ch’an master, where there was no distinction between what the ordinary mind called “to point at” and “the moon”: To him, the relation between the two was similar to the relation of an ocean to its waves” (Kosofsky Sedgwick 2003: 171).


[3] Bruce Lee has long been recognised as a muse for postmodern self-construction: Morris clarifies this by discussing his role in the camp US martial arts film, No Retreat, No Surrender, in which the ghost of Lee comes back to enable the teen hero to reconstruct himself to vanquish his foes.

[4] In fact, the crux of Morris’s entire article in this regard is that although she sees the grain of truth in Robert Hughes’ caricatural comment that ‘the world changes more widely, deeply, thrillingly than at any moment since 1917, and the American academic left keeps fretting about how phallocentricity is inscribed in Dickens’s portrayal of Little Nell’ (184); on the other hand, Morris believes that there has in fact been ‘a wide, deep, thrilling change in the world which Robert Hughes has missed’ – namely, that ‘fretting over phallocentricity is now a popular occupation’ (2001: 184). We may or may not accept Morris’ contention that ‘fretting over phallocentricity is now a popular occupation’. (Personally, I do not, although I think that in the mid to late 1990s perhaps it looked like it was about to become more of ‘a popular occupation’; and maybe it did briefly become slightly more common than it had been, at least journalistically.)


Post-Colonial, Post-Modern, Post-Protestant Post-Human: Bruce Lee and the Karate Kid


‘the most famous abs of all time’: Muscle and Fitness cover, April 2009


It has recently been pointed out to me that this year marks 30 years since the release of ’The Karate Kid’. To mark this anniversary, I have decided to post this essay which, whilst ’about’ Bruce Lee, also discusses ’The Karate Kid’ in some detail.
Bruce Lee in the Post: Post-Colonial, Post-Modern, Post-Protestant Post-Human

Many studies and narratives about Bruce Lee end in disappointment. This disappointment, I intend to show, is a specific consequence of the approach which is characterised by nostalgia. This nostalgia takes many forms. Here are some of the most common narratives: Bruce Lee once politicised ethnic, subaltern and postcolonial consciousness, but this energy dissipated; Bruce Lee smashed certain Orientalist stereotypes about Asian males, but this ultimately intensified other stereotypes; Bruce Lee diversified and ethnicised the previously white realm of international film and the associated global popular cultural imaginary, but the effects of this achievement were limited by the subsequent easy pigeonholing of ethnic Asian characters as martial arts ‘types’; Bruce Lee introduced a uniquely Asian cultural phenomenon into global discourse, but this was quickly ‘lactified’ or appropriated and hence ‘whitened’ by Euro-American martial arts actors; Bruce Lee’s models of masculinity proposed new paradigms of maleness, yet these never caught on or at least were quickly supplanted; Bruce Lee ‘bridged cultures’, yet these encounters have now come to seem less like new multicultural conduits or establishments, new hybridised cross-cultural enclaves or settlements, and more like brief forays, smash and grab raids, appropriations and expropriations of and from different cultural repositories; Bruce Lee spearheaded the possibility of inter-ethnic identifications and cross-cultural mobility, but this soon became thoroughly depoliticised; Bruce Lee was the exemplary ‘protestant ethnic’, but nowadays that kind of protest and that kind of ethnic struggle has settled down.


This essay will look more closely at some of these narratives and consider the reasons for their trajectory towards disappointment. In the ensuing awareness of the ways that certain narrative structures or conceptual paradigms tend to lead analyses to disappointment, the essay will propose alternative approaches – not alternatives that refuse to acknowledge disappointment or failure, but rather alternatives that may enable us to regard the times and places beyond Bruce Lee without either running into nostalgia for lost promise or delusions about the radical propensities of current or future conjunctures. Taking our lead from the directions given in some of my earlier work – specifically, the queer conjunction of cultural translation and sexuality – the journey of this essay will be from subject-centred approaches to Bruce Lee to what might be classified as more materialist or post-humanist perspectives on his interventions.



Bruce Lee, From Masculinity to Biopower


Many have theorised the significance of Bruce Lee’s intervention in terms of masculinity and identity. Scholars of popular culture and of Bruce Lee have overwhelmingly wanted to read him as ‘progressive’ in several main senses vis-à-vis white Euro-American hegemonic heteronormative patriarchal masculinities. In 2000, Jachinson Chan made the important point that ‘the way in which Bruce Lee constructs a Chinese masculinity is potentially insightful in that his form of masculinity does not buy into a compulsory heterosexuality and his characters seem to encourage a homoerotic desire for his body’ (Chan 2000: 385). But how far does or did the Bruce Lee rearticulation of masculinity vis-à-vis established (and) Euro-American models, tropes, types and norms, via his reconstitution of Asian masculinity, actually go? Chan undertakes a systematic reading of Lee’s films in order to show the extent to which ‘Lee’s characters refuse to conflate masculinity with heterosexuality’ (ibid.). He asks the organising rhetorical question: ‘physical superiority can also be a sign of manhood, but does it necessarily signify a heterosexual identity?’ Chan’s answer is of course no. But the argument he wants to see realised is the possibility that ‘by de-linking this connection, Lee’s characters question other markers of manhood such as physical violence’ (ibid.). Thus, he argues, ‘By questioning the heterosexual assumption in the construction of manhood, … an ambisexual model of masculinity provides a discursive space that opens up the possibilities of alternative and contradictory models of masculinity that are not easily categorizable’ (ibid.). To Chan’s mind:


the characters that Lee portrays complicate what Connell […] calls a ‘hegemonic’ masculinity. Although Lee’s films create a male-centered cinematic world that exhibits a masculinity based on men who dominate other men through violence, the characters he portrays are not typically patriarchal or misogynistic. Lee’s characters do not oppress the female characters, nor do they exhibit an exaggerated James Bond-like heterosexism. In other words, Lee’s characters seem to de-link the compulsory heterosexual component of a hegemonic masculinity with normative masculinity, thereby providing a more complex masculinity that upholds violence and power over other men as markers of manhood while denying an exaggerated heterosexist assumption. (Chan 2000: 379-380)


This is regarded as essentially progressive, then. One question which arises, however, is whether such a ‘model’ of masculinity ever ‘caught on’. Such a proposition could be empirically tested or explored in any number of ways; but the role of Bruce Lee or anything else here would always remain debatable. So, before rushing into any such empirical route of trying to count the number of men who followed Lee into some kind of ambisexual version of masculinity, one first needs to note that Chan’s own reading itself actually suggests that things might not be so simple. Indeed, his reflection on Lee’s masculinity could be said to supplement approaches such as those of Brown, Žižek or Lo that we have already considered insofar as it proposes that ‘the genre itself subverts its own ability to present social and cultural critiques’ (Chan 2000: 385). This self-subversion would necessarily constitute something of a problem. We see this for instance in the following passage in Chan’s consideration of masculinity, when he proposes that:


Due to its excessiveness, Lee’s signature scream undercuts the legitimacy of Lee’s warrior status. The excessive display of martial arts, violence, war cry, and the sensuousness of his body all contribute to an effective visual strategy to seduce viewers into their own perceptions of physical beauty, sexuality, and masculinity. By displaying his body and martial arts skills, Lee acquires the admiration of those who want to emulate him while simultaneously evoking comical disdain for kung fu films themselves. (Even Tang Lung, in Return of the Dragon, does not take himself seriously. In one scene, he exercises in front of the camera, showing off his finely tuned muscles but is distracted by Miss Chan’s cooking and a silhouette of a couple making love.) If the genre itself subverts its own ability to present social and cultural critiques, then, Lee’s work loses some of its social impact to redeem a heroic Chinese manhood. (2000: 384-5)


Whether or not one agrees with Chan’s various assertions in his reading at this point (which I have to say I do not – you can take yourself seriously, seriously enough to work out every day, and still be distracted by smells, sights, scenes and sounds, the way that Tang Lung in Return of the Dragon, in a strange apartment in a capital city in a different country is distracted), the point is that Chan himself points to the problem of his own argument. Lee may offer a ‘different’ kind of masculinity – an ‘ambisexuality’, or at least an assumed heterosexuality that is not predatory or apparently not homophobic (although as we saw in a previous essay, this is not an entirely sustainable position vis-à-vis Bruce Lee’s films overall), or whose realisation is permanently deferred for whatever reason (whether that be because of the decorum of Confucian ethics, warrior-like chivalry, a businesslike relation to his quest in the film, schoolboy immaturity or monastic vows of celibacy and so on). But at the same time, this is not at all certain. (So much so that perhaps where the critic would like to see ambisexuality we might instead propose that we are looking at a kind of ambihermeneutics on the part of the critic.) Of course, as suggested in previous essays, rather than reading Lee’s films as if what they do is primarily offer viewers repositories of ‘types’ – types of, so to speak, ‘role models’ – what remains most suggestive about Chan’s analysis is his focus on the significant appearance of gay characters within Lee’s films. Specifically, once more, what strikes me as perhaps most significant about these characters is the fact that not only are they gay, but they are also translators.


As Chan points out, ‘In contradistinction to Lee’s blatant display of his masculinity, homosexuality, as constructed in the text, suggests effeminacy and betrayal of one’s country’ (375). However, he takes great pains to emphasise: ‘The narrative logic [of Fist of Fury] seems to imply that Mr. Woo [the effeminate translator] is a villain who happens to be gay rather than Mr. Woo is a villain because he is gay’ (2000: 376). In Chan’s reading, something similar also pertains to the gay translator in Way of the Dragon:


The gay Chinese is, once again, a traitor who has neither political nor physical powers, much like Mr. Woo in The Chinese Connection [aka Way of the Dragon]. He is unable to protect himself and is physically inept. However, Mr. Ho has an important function as he sexualizes Lee’s character, a function he shares with the female owner of the restaurant, Miss Chen. (2000: 379)

In both films, argues Chan, the translator’s ‘effeminate behavior is condemned because it parallels his own political “deviance”, rejecting his country, nation, and masculinity’ (2000: 375). In Fist of Fury, argues Chan, Bruce Lee’s character’s ‘heroic act of resistance toward the oppressive Japanese presence in China counters Mr. Woo’s subservience and cowardice; and yet, on closer analysis, Chen’s character shows more disdain toward Mr. Woo’s traitorous behavior than his homosexuality’ (2000: 376).


Insightful as Chan’s reading is, these latter comments demonstrate the manner in which it is ultimately limited by what we might call its subject-centricity. That is, the readings focus overwhelmingly on characters and psychologistic interpretations of their actions, rather than on the biases and lines of force which structure the values of the film. Thus, Chan emphasises that Bruce Lee’s character is not actively homophobic but does not pause to consider the significance of the reiterated coincidence of gay-translator-traitor in more than one of Bruce Lee’s films. The symbolic order of these films is clearly homo-averse if not unequivocally homophobic.


Moreover, in Chan’s reading, the translator ‘has neither political nor physical powers’. Yet, it is crucial to note that it is through the entrance of the translator that institutional instability is introduced. As we saw in a previous essay, the translator and two Japanese martial artists enter the Jing Wu School in the midst of the official funeral of the Chinese master, Huo Yuanjia. They enter whilst a senior Chinese is giving an impassioned oration about what the Jing Wu School ‘stands for’. The eulogy is clearly also a ‘pep talk’ or rallying call which is insisting that even though their institution has been struck hard by the death of their founder and master, his demise does not signal the demise of the institution; for Huo Yuanjia has taught them all well enough to ensure that the institution might continue, by following the principles he sought to inculcate. In other words, the threnody is also very much an appeal for continuity during a tense and difficult moment of crossing-over: the transition/translation from one cultural moment and institutional order to another. That is, at this point, upon the death of the master, what comes to the fore are urgent matters of transmission and tradition. What need to be transmitted now, more than ever, are the means to maintain stability, continuity. The tradition needs to be reiterated, reasserted, taking the form of emphatic words, in order to clarify what is to survive. The point being that agency exceeds (and arguably precedes) the individual subject, character, or agent. Agency is institutional. Chan is, certainly, aware of this. As he states about his own intentions for his study of Bruce Lee:


My purpose here is to explore the different ways in which Chinese masculinities are constructed to frame the discourse on Chinese American masculinities around a set of anxieties. Specifically, what are the risks involved in articulating alternative models of masculinities that are not categorized as normative and heteromasculine while disparate sociopolitical power structures still exist? The masculine model I am pursuing is based on a rejection of a compulsory heteromasculine norm while acknowledging that Chinese American men are still disempowered structurally due to institutionalized racism. (2000: 385-86)


As indicated by Chan’s awareness of ‘institutionalized’ biases as forces of agency in this passage, the ‘institutional’ dimension should not be sacrificed for a focus on characters. It should certainly not be downplayed or overlooked in any study concerned with cultural agency. But nor can the focus simply be on the power of this or that ‘institution’, however conceived. Any study must also consider the forces which constitute, form, deform and transform agencies and institutions, such as the productive and destructive forces of capitalism.



The Protestant Ethnic and Post(al)-Identity


Keiko Nitta has also recently reassessed Chan’s pioneering study of Bruce Lee, proposing that ‘ten years after Chan’s classical identitarian approach to Lee, we are now able to analyze more broadly the functioning of the worldwide popularity of martial arts’ (Nitta 2010: 379). Nitta reiterates the fact that within various forms of scholarship, ‘the substantial impact of Bruce Lee is often attributed to his legitimatizing a different possibility of gender self-expression for Asian men vis-à-vis their Caucasian counterparts’ (2010: 378). She notes that despite so many examples of cultural texts in which the Asian male ‘could never be completely a man’ (to use the words of Song Liling in David Cronenberg’s film M. Butterfly (1993)), when it comes to Bruce Lee, things are very different: ‘one never has any difficulty in finding plenty of testimonies about ethnic empowerment brought about by the popular cultural figure of Bruce Lee’, she writes; noting that ‘In one interview, Lee’s younger brother Robert remarks on the enthusiasm of black and Hispanic members of the American audience of Enter the Dragon, upon seeing the spectacle of the Asian hero defeating those who were far larger than himself’ (ibid.). However, she continues, ‘whilst acknowledging the significance of this sort of visual pleasure is to be respected, it strikes me that one strand of academic approach to Lee seems to have been too determined to read the actor/martial artist as a male ethnic role model’ (ibid.). At this point, Jachinson Chan’s study is held up as an exemplary case by Nitta. What she homes in on specifically is what she calls Chan’s ‘ethical conviction about an ideal model of Chinese masculinity’ (ibid.). That is to say, Chan’s conviction that the model of masculinity proffered by Lee’s films (rather than in his personal life [ibid.]) – ‘should be, unlike the dominant heteromasculinity, weak enough to be incompetent for hegemony’ (ibid.). Nitta writes:


The version of non-hegemonic masculinity that Chan envisions presumably does not come from Lee’s personality, but rather from his filmic practice. In other words, a unique characteristic of martial arts, or at least such a signification attached to the practice in an American – and thus Western – context, projects Lee as a source of the legend of non-authoritarian resistance to hegemonic masculinity. (ibid.)


Furthermore, the singular appeal of Bruce Lee for many Asian American scholars in particular relates overwhelmingly to the fact that ‘he prevailed in an industry that was initially reluctant to represent him because of his ethnicity’. To many commentators, such success makes him a ‘master of identity politics’ (2010: 379). Moreover, as Chan’s analysis testifies, in addition to the significance of this for ethnic cultural politics, Bruce Lee can be regarded as ‘an exemplary case of “ambiguity” in terms of masculine gender and sexuality played out on one particular man’ (ibid.), as we have seen.


Approaching Chan’s study ten years on, Nitta considers Chan’s own orientations and investments. She asks: ‘why does Chan himself have to recognize the ethnic value of Lee’s cultural expression, despite its complicity in stereotyping? Why is he, even with a hesitation, fascinated with Lee’s martial arts as an ethnic-masculine practice?’ (ibid.) In a deft and incisive refocusing of attention, Nitta proposes that ‘rather than the ambiguity of Lee’s masculine model, [it is] the Chinese American scholar’s hesitation [that] symptomatically signifies the status of martial arts as an object of consumption today’ (2010: 379). For, Chan’s own approach to or relationship with Bruce Lee has, in Nitta’s words, ‘uniquely satisfied two opposing directions of interest’: first, ‘Asian self-expressions accented by a sense of resistance to Western cultural preoccupations’, and second, ‘the U.S. reproduction of an Oriental other simultaneously exotic enough and accommodating to its principles of cultural circulation’ (2010: 379). With this, the problematic is rendered as double: the forces of attraction and repulsion arise simultaneously: we find ourselves once more in the eternally returning relation (or reciprocally arising interimplication) between political agency (protest, resistance, alteration, change) and political passivity (becoming smoothly ideological objects), or, again, commodification. Bruce Lee is at once a sign of apparent potential resistance (protest), but also a harbinger or fomite of the globalisation of a post-nationalist ideology, and at the same time a multi-modal commodity, indeed a commodity that displaces political resistance, or rather commodifies and hence depoliticises resistance.


Viewed from this perspective, Nitta connects this double status with Rey Chow’s notion of ‘the protestant ethnic’. She reads the condition of both Bruce Lee and the ethnic studies academics as illustrative of the logics, mechanisms and double binds that Chow explores in The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2002). In Nitta’s account of the essential features of this work: ‘Chow demonstrates how the present-day ethnos materialize themselves through protests, as illuminated by the phrase “I protest, therefore I am”‘ (Nitta 2010: 379; Chow 2002: viii, 47). Hence, suggests Nitta, the congruency (and shared ambivalence) of so many critical appraisals and treatments of Bruce Lee and other such popularised mediated ethnic identities. For, through them, ‘Martial arts … have functioned as a noticeable apparatus for both this protest and capitalist interpellation’ (2010: 379). This ambivalent or double-edged status arises from the fact that (as many cultural theorists have suggested) ‘late capitalism requires a cultural logic fundamentally based on tolerance, or more specifically a regime that attempts to earn the greatest profits by marketing a diversity of objects’; therefore ‘a multicultural request for diversity is easily subsumed into the desires of capital’ (ibid.). Hence the arising of what Nitta calls a frequent ‘categorical confusion between political recognition of minorities and discovery of them as recipients of an ethnically defined marketing phenomenon’ (ibid.).



To Be Ethnic Is To Protest


This Gordian knot of a situation has entangled many thinkers. Thinking ethnicity in terms of what Chow has dubbed ‘the protestant ethnic’ – which Nitta reminds us entails ‘rereading “protestants” as those who protest against intolerance at large, rather than literally religious protestors’ (ibid.) – Chow herself recasts this situation in a way that both bypasses and also utterly transforms the status of most narratives of cultural politics, resistance and agency – many of which propose a temporal narrative of ‘early authenticity’ followed by ‘subsequent cooptation’. This narrative arises, as we have seen, not only in Stuart Hall’s thinking, but also in Slavoj Žižek’s and Gilles Deleuze’s and others in a list which could be massively extended. Rather than becoming ensnared in this, Chow proposes:


In this context, to be ethnic is to protest – but perhaps less for actual emancipation of any kind than for the benefits of worldwide visibility, currency, and circulation. Ethnic struggles have become, in this manner, an indisputable symptom of the thoroughly and irrevocably mediatized relations of capitalism and its biopolitics. In the age of globalization, ethnics are first and foremost protesting ethnics, but this is not because they are possessed of some ‘soul’ and ‘humanity’ that cannot be changed into commodities. Rather, it is because protesting constitutes the economically logical and socially viable vocation for them to assume. (Chow 2002: 48)


Nitta focuses on this section of Chow’s work and adds: ‘As if demonstrating the accuracy of the underscored statement, “to be ethnic is to protest“, the Bruce Lee films’ popularity can exactly be located in the formula that equates, or diverts, the ethnic to protest’ (Nitta 2000: 380). And not only the ethnic: As Nitta immediately points out, citing the intertextual presence of Bruce Lee in such films as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Boogie Nights (1997), ‘contemporary cinema has repeatedly reproduced Lee as the idol of not merely Asian men, supposedly confined in an emasculated stereotype, but also men socially vulnerable for disparate reasons’ (ibid.). She suggests that this is a ‘translation of ethnicity to social alienation or a marginalized experience of struggle in general’, one that is enabled by the ‘equivocality’ of Lee’s ‘ethnic representations’ (ibid.).


Such equivocality plays itself out in numerous directions and with numerous possible consequences. It will be worthwhile to elaborate some key dimensions of Chow’s arguments about ethnicity at this point. For, although Chow’s term ‘protestant ethnic’ alludes to and intertwines itself with Max Weber’s work on the protestant ethic, in constructing it she mines the implications of the argument of Michel Foucault in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1978). This work sets out the ways in which much of our thinking about sexuality is based on material thrown up by and circulating in and as a discursive constellation about sexuality – a very old discursive constellation, says Foucault, which came together in the 18th Century. Chow follows Foucault’s thinking, arguing for the presence and force of a similar discursive formation in a closely related field – that of ethnicity. That is, Chow proposes that today, such terms as ethnicity, identity, authenticity and even autobiography, confession, and protest, encounter each other in an overdetermined chiasmus. Thus, whenever issues of identity and ethnicity arise as a (self-reflexive, or ‘personal’) problem, this discursive constellation proposes that the route out is via the self-reflexive side-door of protesting, vocally, and often in the manner of autobiographical (self) confession – telling, showing, confessing the true state or true experience of one’s victimhood or marginality and so on.


Chow’s Foucauldian point is that a proliferation of ‘discourses of the self’ emerged in modernity. What is highly pertinent here is that these discourses of the self emerged with an attending argument about self-referentiality’s subversive (protestant) relation to power and its emancipatory relation to truth. That is to say, the sheer proliferation of talking, confessing, protesting subjects – all believing that their personal narratives are ‘emancipatory’ insofar as they try to ‘speak truth to power’ – ought to set alarm bells ringing in the heads of anyone who has learned the lessons of Foucault’s History of Sexuality. For, this proliferation of discourses and their shared conviction that protesting in autobiographical/confessional mode is subversive of power ought to refer us directly to Foucault’s argument about what he called ‘the repressive hypothesis’ – namely, that almost irresistible belief that power tries to silence us and actually demands our silence (Foucault 1978: 18; Chow 2002: 114). As Foucault argued, however, almost the exact opposite is the case. Or rather, even if there are places where power demands silence or discipline, these are more than matched by an exponential explosion and proliferation of discourses – in this case, about the self.


These discourses include arguments about self-referentiality’s subversive relation to power and its emancipatory relation to truth, which relates to the Enlightenment idea that an introspective turn to the self is emancipatory: the ingrained idea (whose prehistory is the Catholic confessional, and whose contemporary ministers Foucault finds in the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst) that seeking to speak the truth of oneself is the best method of getting at our essential truth and the best way to resist power. Similarly, modern literary self-referentiality emerged with an attending discourse of resistance – a discourse which regarded things like literature (as such) as resistance to the instrumentalisation of technical and bureaucratic language, first and foremost. And, by the same token, self-referentiality emerged as an apparently ideal solution to the knotty problem of representing others.


For, how do you represent others truthfully, adequately, ethically? The answer entailed within this sort of position is: you do not. They should be allowed to represent themselves. Here, the self-reflexivity of self-referentiality is regarded not as apartheid but as the way to bypass the problems of representing others – by throwing the option open for everyone to speak the truth of themselves. However, in Foucault’s phrase: ‘the “Enlightenment”, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines’ (Foucault 1995: 222; see also Chow 1998: 113). In other words, the desire to refer to the self, to discuss the self, to produce the self discursively, the impulse to autobiography and confession, can be regarded as a consequence of disciplinarity. Psychiatry demands that we reveal our ‘selves’. As does psychoanalysis, as do ethnographic focus groups, as do corporate marketing focus groups, not to mention the confessional, the criminologist, and the chat show. Autobiography and confession are only resistance if power truly tries to repress the production of discourse. Which it does not – at least, not everywhere. The point is, autobiography and confession are genealogically wedded – if not welded – to recognisable disciplinary protocols and – perhaps most significantly – proceed according to the terms of recognisable metanarratives. Thus, says Chow:


When minority individuals think that, by referring to themselves, they are liberating themselves from the powers that subordinate them, they may actually be allowing such powers to work in the most intimate fashion – from within their hearts and souls, in a kind of voluntary surrender that is, in the end, fully complicit with the guilty verdict that has been declared on them socially long before they speak. (Chow 2002: 115)


Of course, in any engagement with or relationship to (cultural) politics of any kind, it is always going to be very difficult not to think about oneself. Indeed, even in full knowledge of Foucault, there remains something of a complex imperative to do so. For, surely one must factor oneself into whatever picture one is painting, in terms of the ‘institutional investments that shape [our own] enunciation’ (Chow 1993: 2). Indeed, suggests Chow:


the most difficult questions surrounding the demarcation of boundaries implied by ‘seeing’ have to do not with positivistic taxonomic juxtapositions of self-contained identities and traditions in the manner of ‘this is you’ and ‘that is us’, but rather, who is ‘seeing’ whom, and how? What are the power relationships between the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of the culturally overdetermined ‘eye’? (Chow 1991: 3)



To Protest and to Serve


Now, although what is about to follow may seem to be the wrong way around, insofar as it takes the form of a brief reflection on white subject-positions, the following considerations will turn out to bear directly on our ensuing engagement with Bruce Lee’s ‘protestant’ legacies, as exemplified by his son Brandon Lee’s film, Rapid Fire (1992). Chow points out that:


the white subject who nowadays endeavors to compensate for the historical ‘wrong’ of being white by taking on politically correct agendas (such as desegregation) and thus distancing himself from his own ethnic history, is seldom if ever accused of being disloyal to his culture; more often than not, he tends to be applauded for being politically progressive and morally superior. (Chow 2002: 116-117)


Chow proposes that we compare and contrast this with nonwhite ethnic subjects (or rather, in her discussion, with nonwhite ethnic critics, scholars and academics). These subjects, she argues, are pressured directly and indirectly to behave ‘properly’ – to act and think and ‘be’ the way ‘they’ are supposed to act and think and be, as nonwhite ethnic academic subjects. If they forget their ethnicity, or their nationalistically or geographically – and hence essentialistically and positivistically – defined ‘cultures’ and ‘heritages’, such subjects are deemed to be sell-outs, traitors – inauthentic. But, says Chow, if such an ethnic scholar ‘should [...] choose, instead, to mimic and perform her own ethnicity’ – that is, to respond or perform in terms of the implicit and explicit hailing or interpellation of her as an ethnic subject as such, by playing along with the ‘mimetic enactment of the automatized stereotypes that are dangled out there in public, hailing the ethnic’ (2002: 110) – ‘she would still be considered a turncoat, this time because she is too eagerly pandering to the Orientalist tastes of Westerners’ (2002: 117), and this time most likely by other nonwhite ethnic subjects.


Thus, the ethnic subject seems damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t ‘be’ an ethnic subject. Of course, this damnation comes from different parties, and with different implications. But, in all cases, Chow’s point is that, in sharp contradistinction, ‘however far he chooses to go, a white person sympathetic to or identifying with a nonwhite culture does not in any way become less white’ (ibid.). Indeed, she claims:


When it comes to nonwhite peoples doing exactly the same thing [...] – that is, becoming sympathetic to or identified with cultures other than their own – we get a drastically different kind of evaluation. If an ethnic critic should simply ignore her own ethnic history and become immersed in white culture, she would, needless to say, be deemed a turncoat (one that forgets her origins). (ibid.)


It is important to be aware that it is not just whites who pressure the nonwhite ethnic to conform. Chow gives many examples of the ways that scholars of Chinese culture and literature, for instance, relentlessly produce an essentialist notion of China which is used to berate modern diasporic Chinese (and their cultural productions). This essentialism is an essence that none can live up to, precisely because they are alive and as such contaminated, diluted, tainted or corrupted by non-Chinese influences.


Postcolonial critics (not to mention such popular cultural texts as, for example, the Paul Haggis film Crash (2004)) often recount cases in which nonwhite ethnic subjects are pressured directly and indirectly to start to behave ‘properly’ – to act and think and be the way ‘they’ are supposed to act and think and be as nonwhite ethnic subjects – in other words, to be both interpellated, in Althusser’s sense, and disciplined, in Foucault’s sense. Chow calls this ‘coercive mimeticism’ (2002: 107). Coercive mimeticism designates the way in which the interpellating, disciplining forces of many different kinds of discourses and institutions call us into place, tell us our place, and work to keep us in our place. As Chow writes of the ethnic academic subject: ‘Her only viable option seems to be that of reproducing a specific version of herself – and her ethnicity – that has, somehow, already been endorsed and approved by the specialists of her culture’ (2002: 117). Accordingly, coercive mimeticism ultimately works as ‘an institutionalized mechanism of knowledge production and dissemination, the point of which is to manage a non-Western ethnicity through the disciplinary promulgation of the supposed difference’ (ibid.). Moreover, this disciplinary mechanism extends far beyond the disciplines proper, far beyond the university. In Chow’s words:


unlike the white man, who does not have to worry about impairing his identity even when he is touched by a foreign culture, the ethnic must work hard to keep hers; yet the harder she works at being bona fide, the more of an inferior representation she will appear to be. (2002: 124)


If we follow the train of dominoes that falls down from this, what soon becomes apparent is that the notion of ‘authenticity’ must ultimately be construed as a hypothetical state of non-self-conscious and non-constructed essential ‘being’. The fact that this is an essentialism that is essentially impossible does not mean that it does not ‘happen’ or is not ‘assumed’; rather it means that ‘ethnicity’ becomes an infinitely supple rhetorical tool. It is available (to anyone and everyone) as a way to disparage both anyone who is not being the way they are supposed to be and anyone who is being the way they are supposed to be. As Chow explains, ‘ethnicity can be used as a means of attacking others, of shaming, belittling, and reducing them to the condition of inauthenticity, disloyalty, and deceit’ (ibid.). Ironically, such attacks are ‘frequently issued by ethnics themselves against fellow ethnics, that is, the people who are closest to, who are most like them ethnically in this fraught trajectory of coercive mimeticism” (ibid.). What this means is that the most contempt, from all quarters, will always be reserved for he or she who does not stay in their place, play their proper ethnicity. All too often, criticism is levelled individually, as if it is a personal issue, ‘despite the fact that this historically charged, alienating situation is a collectively experienced one’ (ibid.). Such is the disciplining, streaming, classifying force of coercive mimeticism. Such are the ‘uses of ethnicity’. In the words of Etienne Balibar: ‘the problem is to keep “in their place”, from generation to generation, those who have no fixed place; and for this, it is necessary that they have a genealogy’ (Balibar qtd. in Chow 2002:95). As such, even the work of sensitive, caring, deeply invested specialists, and expert ethnic scholars – even ethnic experts in ethnicity – themselves can function to reinforce ethnicised hierarchies, structured in dominance, simply by insisting on producing their field or object in its difference.


Ultimately, then, Chow’s work on ethnicity asks us to pay attention to the micropolitics of everyday life. Ethnic subjects are always an object of discourse, constructed and construed as ‘meant to be’ this way or that, with accusations regularly levelled at those who choose this or that way of being. The ethnic, then, stands accused. Are you true to your history (your proper place, your proper identity)? Are you, in other words, a protestant ethnic? Or are you a sell out, turncoat, traitor?


Bruce Lee amounts to the protestant ethnic par excellence. Because he died at the height of his protestant moment, he has the dubious status of existing at the high-point, or the first stage of that two-part narrative structure, which, in the narratives of many, runs from initial energetic emergence or eruption (hope) to subsequent inexorable cultural recuperation or commodification (disappointment). Those who lived on beyond Bruce Lee do not have the same immortality, the same manner of dwelling solely in the first moment of hope, anger and energy.



The (Post) Protestant Ethos and the Spirit of Consolidation


In becoming a film actor, Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, perhaps unsurprisingly followed in his father’s footsteps. Maybe this would not have been inevitable or so visually obvious had Brandon avoided the martial arts action genre. But Brandon Lee became a martial arts action actor. In an important study of transnational China and the Chinese diaspora on global screens, Gina Marchetti observes that ‘Brandon Lee created a star image that both adheres to and diverges significantly from the path taken by his father two decades before’ (Marchetti 2006: 208). For, whilst ‘Bruce Lee stood as an emblem of justified revolt and vengeance for audiences of the dispossessed globally, Brandon Lee’s image promised the possibility of assimilation as he began to make inroads into a racist film industry’ (ibid.). Indeed, Marchetti proposes, one of Brandon Lee’s starring vehicles, Rapid Fire (1992), can actually be used ‘as a point of departure for understanding how Hollywood has rethought its depiction of Asian/Asian American identity as a consequence of changing patterns of immigration and in light of America’s evolving relationship with the People’s Republic of China’ (ibid.).


Before being this, the film is certainly what Marchetti calls a ‘pastiche of post-1989 Tian’anmen politics, Oedipal ambivalence, ethnic gang wars, and urban paranoia’, one which ‘self-consciously alludes to the connection between Brandon and his famous father within a drama that only thinly disguises its attempts to reconfigure Bruce Lee in his son’s image’ (ibid.). Brandon, who plays Jake Lo, is certainly constructed as a rebel figure: As Marchetti points out, Jake arrives in the film quite late, after several other key figures and intrigues have already been introduced; but when he arrives he is on a motorbike, in white t-shirt and jeans, strongly reminiscent of other such movie rebels as Marlon Brando or James Dean (2006: 210). But Jake is essentially a rebel without a cause. Flashbacks quickly allow us to see that his father was killed in the 1989 massacre at Tian’anmen Square, and Jake’s refusal to join those who are still protesting in the US for democracy in China signals that all he wants to be is ‘left alone’ – declaring at the outset that politics is ‘bullshit’. Jake wants to be free from his father’s ‘political’ legacy (unfortunately, his father, who is apparently revered by the student activists, turns out to have been no mere protester-martyr, but in fact an American agent working undercover in Beijing, for no more compelling a reason than the apparent ‘right’ of the US government to monitor and spy anywhere and everywhere – a fact which perturbs neither any character in the film, nor the narrative structure of the film itself: an American spy in China is presented as something that is perfectly fine and natural); he wants to be free from the activists who hound him to represent his dead father; he wants to escape from the fact that he witnesses a Mafia/Tong murder; and he wants to be left alone by the American agents and police who want him to work for them by acting as bait to catch the criminals. Jake is ultimately a rebel against political rebellion. His rebellion is, as Marchetti points out, merely a rebellion at the level of style. He just wants to be the edgy, moody, free-spirited teenager. In short, Jake wants to be normal.


Indeed, Jake could be normal, were it not for his family history and for what he witnesses. In this specific Hollywood illustration of the workings of coercive mimeticism, almost everyone in this context puts pressure on him to (want to) play his expected role as a protestant ethnic. Even his attraction to the very epitome of the normative Euro-American heterosexual ideal – the blonde model in his life-drawing class – also works against him: the model invites him to a party, as if on a date; but it is a trap, a lure designed to get him to a Chinese pro-democracy fundraising event. As if to rub salt into the wound, she even appears to be in a relationship with the leader of the pro-democracy Chinese student activists – suggesting that the beautiful white woman would be attracted to Jake were he to fulfil his stereotypical cultural obligations – in other words, if he were to be a properly protestant ethnic.


Indeed, let us pause for a moment to ask: what of these attractive protestant ethnics – or rather, what of the protest that apparently makes them more attractive (at least to our one exemplary ‘token’ white girl), more attractive than the ethnic who seeks to resist the coercive mimeticism which demands that he protest? One particular irony within the film is illuminating. This centres on the status the film gives to the object of the protests of the protestant ethnics: namely, the pro-Chinese-democracy movement. This status is voiced by one of those present at the fundraiser – a character, Chang, who turns out to be heavily involved in international crime: when asked why he – a (sleazy, seamy) businessman – is present at a political fundraiser, he replies, saccharine-suave: ‘Democracy, capitalism – it’s all a good cause!’ Marchetti notes, ‘although it makes narrative sense’ to have Jake and gangsters at the fundraising event, ‘because there needs to be some explanation for Jake’s involvement with gangsters to get the plot moving’, nevertheless ‘the ideology behind the narrative choice is startling’ (2006: 211). For, ‘the fact that the film seems to be saying that gangsters and pro democracy Chinese protesters share a common set of values and interests slides by in the film without comment’ (ibid.). Indeed:


No one broaches the potentially disturbing news that American and Chinese interests may not coincide and that Jake’s father is a spy working for his adopted home, rather than exclusively in the interest of the Chinese demonstrators. No one in the film supports Jake’s desire not to be involved with any of this. (2006: 211-12)


As Marchetti also notes, Rapid Fire ‘voices concerns surrounding gender roles, ethnic identity, race, international politics, crime, and governmental corruption’. Moreover, the film ‘places these controversial issues on Brandon’s shoulders in an attempt to reinvent an acceptable but nonthreatening multiethnic presence within Hollywood’ (2006: 208). This is why, ‘rather than defying a racist society that attempts to destroy him, Brandon’s character learns to accept his role as symbol of a new America, cleansed of its racism, by putting his martial arts talents and romantic energies in the service of the police’ (ibid.). Yet, Marchetti observes, ‘Haunted by the ghost of Bruce Lee, this reconfigured masculinity, however, seems drained of affect, a postmodern simulation of an Asian American hero who has lost his original, justified anger’ (2006: 208-9).


This draining of affect arises because the way that Rapid Fire negotiates the ideologically threatening problems that are clustered around ethnicity (Chinese, Thai, Sicilian) is by constructing Jake as a character who does not want to be involved in these ‘controversial issues’ as a protestant ethnic, but who merely wants to be a normal (protestant) male subject by playing out an apolitical Oedipal narrative rather than a political one. His ‘problem’ is with his father – his father’s very involvement in what is coded by the film as ‘cultural politics’ (but what is actually, at best, covert US reconnaissance). This ‘problem’ is transferred onto his relationship with the substitute father figure, the police officer, Ryan.


In fact, the resolutions of Rapid Fire are Oedipal through and through. Jake’s relationship with his father is not ‘resolved’, it is simply abandoned. Jake merely has to come to terms with the fact that his father died. When Jake finds nothing new in the file about his father that Karla has acquired, Karla emphatically reaffirms: ‘Your father was doing what he thought was right. He died. It happens every day. Deal with it’. Thus, the enigma that has fuelled Jake’s rebellious non-accepting attitude (‘I never even knew why he was over there’) does not culminate in some great revelation; it simply fizzles out, fades away, has to be forgotten, moved on from.



When the battle’s lost and won


Marchetti notes that by structuring Jake’s ‘problem’ in terms of the complaint ‘I never even knew why he was over there’, the film executes an associative sleight of hand which means that ‘China and Vietnam have changed places historically’ (2006: 214). America had no presence in China; there was no American conflict ‘over there’. But, of course, this complaint and this sentiment is more than familiar vis-à-vis Vietnam. As such, any ‘critique’ or revelation is foreclosed at the outset by the filmic choice of the Oedipal rather than the political. One might say, the film is confused and confusing, yet it engages with its own potential complexities with a shrug of the shoulders rather than any other kind of interrogation. Or, as Marchetti puts it, even though a ‘conservative reading and a critical irony inhabit the same narrative’, there is ‘no dialectical tension between the two; both are drained of significance’. This is chiefly because ‘the film makes it appear as if the battle has been waged and lost by both sides long ago’ (2006: 213-214).


Thus, she points out, ‘When he critiques the government and rants against his father’s politics, Jake really protests too much’ (2006: 216). As symbolised by many different textual and dramatic devices, from the very first moment we see Jake in all of his rebel without a cause style, to his relationship with Karla and the father figure Ryan, plus many other such features, we increasingly see his ‘full commitment’ to the American establishment and ultimately to the fact that ‘America accepts him’ (ibid.). As Marchetti observes, after the dénouement of the action, Jake is asked the contextually loaded question ‘are you in or out?’ This question is literally about whether Jake wants to ride in the ambulance with the injured Ryan. But, symbolically, it is about whether Jake is in or out of the establishment. Marchetti’s summing up of the status of Jake in Rapid Fire deserves to be quoted in full:


In Rapid Fire, Brandon stays squarely within his father’s oeuvre, a self-conscious imitator, helped to achieve this duplication by some of his father’s martial arts students. However, whereas Bruce’s physical presence connoted resistance to racism, colonialism and class exploitation, Brandon (half Asian and half white) is exploited here as an image of assimilation, acceptance, and reconciliation. The rebel’s reluctance becomes the hero’s acceptance of another’s battle. In Rapid Fire, Brandon does not take up his father’s causes, only his father’s characteristic style. Narrative aside, perhaps it is this imitation of Bruce’s physicality, of his definition of Asian masculinity as a rebellion against the American mainstream, that disturbs the film’s neoconservative flirtations with justifying U.S. military/police intervention in Asia/Asian affairs – from Tian’anmen to the Golden Triangle heroin trade. Less a neoconservative icon of the new American hero, Brandon is a postmodern memento mori, a maudlin reminder of the struggles of the past and a fantasy that these battles have been concluded, a hope that the need for Bruce Lee no longer exists. Hollywood, through Brandon, reconstructs a Bruce Lee that never existed and allows Brandon to attempt to transcend him. However, as the body is drained of its anger, style becomes just a gesture drained of its significance, and it really does not matter whether Brandon is in or not. (2006: 218)


It strikes me that Marchetti’s conclusion itself resounds with the postmodernism, nostalgia and disappointment that her own work diagnoses in the text. It certainly diagnoses the plight of the agency of the protestant ethnic (who plays out ‘a maudlin reminder of the struggles of the past and a fantasy that these battles have been concluded’). But I also think that the orientation of Marchetti’s analysis suggests a positional mourning or melancholia of the critic’s own: a disappointment that ‘Brandon is a postmodern memento mori’, and that, in this text, ‘it really does not matter whether Brandon is in or not’.


Certainly, I would want to propose that had the ending of the film been slightly different – had Brandon answered the interpellative question with the answer that he was not ‘in’, but that he was instead ‘out’ – the film would have been unable to represent this in any way other than as being something negative, problematic, unsatisfying. Recall the end of a film such as Good Will Hunting (1997), when Will – who is an untrained autodidact prodigy and, specifically, a ‘natural’ mathematics genius – rejects the option of taking a privileged place within the elite institutional status quo of well-paid scholars. This is conveyed as a largely unintelligible and inexplicable ‘rebellious’ gesture par excellence – as the stupid immature irrationality of someone who does not know a good thing when he sees it. Of course, Will Hunting will always have the option to return, meaning that his rejection of ‘the status quo’ is not necessarily a rejection but rather a deferral. Will is going off to ‘live life’ and to ‘mature’. But my point is that, were Jake to opt out, to reject the offer of inclusion, this would constitute a certain frustrating lack of resolution or ‘closure’ to the film.


For rather than asking the question of whether the ‘normal’ rebellious teen wants to grow up or not, Rapid Fire asks whether the protestant ethnic wants to be in or out. The question Marchetti alerts us to is: On what grounds is continued ethnic protest justified or necessary? Fist of Fury depicted a situation where the Chinese in China could not walk through public parks, and where colonial powers intruded oppressively in multiple ways into everyday freedoms. Even the ‘sanitized and hagiographic’ Hollywood biography of Bruce Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), depicted the experience of blatant and intrusive day to day racism. Rapid Fire, on the other hand, depicts a much more stabilised environment of intelligible and sedimented ethnic enclave identities: everyone can instantly recognise others according to fully intelligible stereotypes; whilst, reciprocally, characters can opt out of their stereotypical culturally (over)determined identities by claiming to be not, say, ‘Italian’ or ‘Chinese’, but rather, as Marchetti notes, ‘American’.


Despite the ambivalence at the heart of all hyphenated identities (Asian-American, Afro-American and so on), all of these options are fully available and none would disturb what Rancière often evocatively calls the distribution of the sensible, or what he calls in Disagreement (1999) the geometrical organisation of society. Society has been conceived of as geometrically arranged or structured since the time of Plato, observes Rancière; with different ‘groups’ assigned different positions, both theoretically and practically, both in terms of the way ‘groups’ are thought of and in terms of the ways they are related to, in the form of their social, legislative and institutional organisation. In this case, one can be ‘ethnic-identity-x’ or one can be ‘American’. The hyphenated identity allows one to oscillate from one pole to the other. Of course, the (unhyphenated) American is the norm, or rather the ideal. The ethnic is, to borrow a phrase from Freud, the internal foreign territory. Indeed, as is well-known, the ethnic must always also be a hyphenated ethnic-American – a double status which involves both elements of mainstreaming and marginalising, of being both in and out, both normal and abnormal, both equal and unequal. The hyphenated identity is often regarded as a solution to the problem of multicultural identity politics. But it is rather more a stabilisation, taking the form of an irreducibly problematic yoking together of incompatible entities.


Despite its residual complexity, becoming this stabilised, neutralised, hybrid identity is the only real option made available to Jake, and the option he ultimately takes. Marchetti pinpoints precisely the way that the film handles the threatening dimension of ethnicity and fully ‘inoculates’ Jake:


Finally, after all the efforts of the film have been spent tricking, trapping, coaxing, seducing, and generally brow-beating Jake into feeling guilty for distrusting the government that he blames for killing his father, Jake accepts America. However, despite all the plot time devoted to his forced welcome into the American mainstream, the fact of his racial/ethnic difference still disturbs the fantasy. He cannot be at peace in America until something Asian dies, so his final confrontation is with Tommy Tau. By killing Tau, Jake disposes of the alien presence within himself. Tau’s Chinese ethnicity parallels Serrano’s Italian exoticism. They both stand as excesses within a fiction that prizes homogeneity – for example, Jake and Karla’s androgyny, Jake’s ordinary, ‘dull’ dress and demeanor. (2006: 216)


There is, then, an enigmatic relation between several different sorts of ‘difference’: cultural difference, ethnic difference, and sexual difference. The protestant ethnic is easily masculine or masculinised. That is, protest is easily rendered as a process of remasculinisation. But the included ethnic – what does he or she become? Does he become a she? Rey Chow has noted that even in such influential (and hence exemplary) modes of thinking of ethnic agency and politics as that of Franz Fanon, political agency is gendered: the protestant ethnic is masculinised. Anything other than separatism is feminised. Hence, feminisation and complicity are drawn into a relation. Miscegenation is regarded as treachery (Chow 1998: 55-73).


But what if ethnics wish not to be protestant ethnics – if not to not ‘protest’ at all, but rather to protest the forces of coercive mimeticism which want to force them ‘to resemble and replicate the very banal preconceptions that have been appended to them’ (Chow 2002: 107)? As Chow clarifies, coercive mimeticism is ‘a process in which [ethnics] are expected to objectify themselves in accordance with the already seen and thus to authenticate the familiar imaginings of them as ethnics’ (ibid.). Now, Nitta contends that something important and distinct occurs in the martial artist as a character vis-à-vis the situations of coercive mimeticism. Supplementing Chow, she proposes that ‘in so far as the martial artist displaces the dominant heterosexual structure of the Western action film’, then, ‘his significance [might] be evaluated in terms of more cutting-edge queer theory or psychoanalytical theory, rather than a theory of stereotype’ (Nitta 2010: 384). This is because, as we have seen, ethnicity is bound up with the gendering of agency per se. So, where Bruce Lee is masculinised (without, nevertheless, necessarily acting as a force of or for heteronormativity), Brandon Lee is feminised. (Marchetti details at length the feminisation involved in the eroticisation of Brandon’s body, even in the heterosexual love-making scene.) Moreover, the masculine body is the active body of the protestant; the feminised body is rather more passive. As Marchetti puts it: ‘whereas Bruce’s physical presence connoted resistance to racism, colonialism and class exploitation, Brandon (half Asian and half white) is exploited here as an image of assimilation, acceptance, and reconciliation’ (Marchetti: 218).


Yet, is this destiny of the ethnic identity necessarily one of a journey from active, strident, striving ‘father’ to passive, castrated homogeneity? Even if the Oedipus complex were stereotypically to be regarded as resolving itself in such a way anyway (it is not: the son tends to replay the role (re)played by the father), there are other positions that remain to be considered: What about the position of the mother, for instance? Or, indeed, as one of Marchetti’s subheadings phrases it, what about ‘Oedipus in Diaspora’? Nitta explores this question thoroughly in her study of the interplay of masculinities in such post-Bruce Lee martial arts films as The Karate Kid series of the 1980s  (1984, 1986, 1989). In these films she finds the martial arts subjectivity of the Okinawan-Japanese-American father-figure Miyagi to constitute the positive realisation of the masculinities produced by and in the wake of World War II. Miyagi, it must be remembered, is systematically contrasted to the ex-military martial artist ‘Sensei’ John Kreese of the Cobra-kai. She concludes:


Miyagi and Daniel defeat an extremely vicious version of machismo as connected with the military culture of the Vietnam War. When the film rejects the machismo, one that misleads American teenagers, the martial arts master’s gender-crossing space of training is recognized as a site where one can learn a seemingly more peaceful and less antagonistic way to dominate the Other. In this sense, Miyagi is awarded the place of man: his masculinity is certainly unconventional but he is never feminine. This might be exactly the model of hero the American martial arts film, a sub-genre of the action film, seeks to buttress as its uniqueness. Miyagi’s karate as the art of self-defense, while suggesting the similarity between his cinematic role and the role of Japanese Self Defense Forces, ultimately anticipates a way of defending a ‘new world order’ in the post Cold-War era. (Nitta 2010: 390)


Such an argument has its precedents in such founding works on globalisation as Armand Mattelart’s identification and description of some key characteristics of contemporary developments in capitalism, which he approaches in terms of the ‘communications revolution’ (Mattelart 1993: 5-8). This revolution in communication has, Mattelart argues, precipitated a ‘need’ for the ideological re-working of erstwhile mythologies of nationalism, and hence precipitated all sorts of crises of cultural identity and transformations in the status of alterity. Such rearticulations are necessary, according to Mattelart, in order for capitalism to realise what he calls its ‘global target’ (1993: 6). Thus, processes of globalisation constitute the development of a spurious universalism, an ultimately Western or Eurocentric hegemony (Amin 1988). This amounts to a change in ideologies, away from the dialectics operative even during the very recent past, and into a state characterised not simply by nationalist ideologies but rather by ‘discourses of truth’[1] which advocate the equivalence in difference of all cultures, and, therefore, the rejection of the idea of ethnic or cultural antagonisms.


Cultural antagonisms are things of the past. At least, this is the ideology of globalisation rhetoric. Traces of the impulse to represent things accordingly can be seen in the orientation of the universalist egalitarian discourse of the later Bruce Lee, of course, and also in Game of Death. But it can also be seen far beyond Bruce Lee. For instance, we can easily see in many other filmic texts, which can be variously regarded as iterations and reiterations of different elements of this ideology. Again, a prime example would be The Karate Kid (1984), a film whose popularity could be diagnosed by ideology-critique as being a consequence of the fact that, as the poststructuralists used to say, it is an utterance (or, better, a parole) originating from and destined for a ‘dominant hegemony’ which ‘speaks itself back to itself’ through filmic texts like this. Semiotic analysis can reveal the ways that ‘encoded messages’ surround the main characters, Danny Laruso and Mr Miyagi, in particular, but also ‘sensei’ John Kreese of the Cobra-kai karate club (Nitta 2010). Ideology critique and semiotic analyses both seek to delineate the relevant features of the hegemonic discourses into which alterity – in this case, the Oriental alterity of the Okinawan karate expert, Miyagi – is handled. Such analyses can also reveal the extent to which Miyagi is a construction built from elements of Orientalist Western myth. But in the context of our current concerns, along with approaches which focus on discourse, ideology and hegemony, other important theoretical tools, as suggested by Nitta (2010), do still come from psychoanalysis – and, I would add (supplementarily) also from deconstruction. The connection of psychoanalysis and deconstruction within the same work can be justified in many ways. But in the context of a consideration of The Karate Kid, it most immediately imposes itself because of a similarity between the status and work of the phallus (Lacan) and the logos (Derrida) – as both being principles containing the ‘constitutive contradiction’ of misrecognised synthesis, coherence, plenitude, and presence.


The Karate Kid conforms to the Barthesian concept of the ‘readerly’ text. It is designed so as to be interpretatively unproblematic. It utilises established, sanctioned techniques of encoding, that should not (ceteris paribus – other things remaining the same) frustrate the (Western) viewer’s horizon of expectations, as it requires only that the viewer be au fait with dominant Hollywood ‘realist’ action cinema conventions. The film assumes a viewer situated within or intimately literate with what Kaja Silverman once termed the dominant fiction of the Western hegemonic intertext (1992).The film encodes its messages in such a way as to facilitate the unselfconscious arrival at ‘the’ unequivocal interpretation, achieved by the use of traditional enunciative and fictional conventions, such as sequential narrative causality, strictures of continuity, verisimil­itude, and effects of ‘vraisemblance’ derived from the familiarity of the iconic character of the televisual signs – in short, the text utilises performative codes in such a way as to create denotative effects: that is, appearances of referentiality and codes of such fixed conventionality as to have become universal in meaning among Western viewing subjects. As Stuart Hall once put it in a now canonical essay:


Naturalism and ‘realism’ – the apparent fidelity of the representation to the thing or concept represented – is the result, the effect, of a certain specific articulation of language on the ‘real’. It is the result of a specific discursive practice. What naturalized codes demonstrate is the degree of habituation produced when there is a fundamental alignment and reciprocity – an achieved equivalence ­between the encoding and decoding sides of an exchange of meanings…. This does not mean that the denotative or ‘literal’ meaning is outside ideology. Indeed, we could say that its ideological value is strongly fixed – because it has become so fully universal and ‘natural’. (Hall 1980: 132)


The thematic structure of The Karate Kid is, again, familiar. Apart from the extra-textual or a priori signifying value of the title itself, the story follows a tried and tested plot formula which takes the form: upheaval – conflict – resolution. Intertwined and integral to this is the approximation to a romance, which follows a parallel pattern. Because of this, traditional methods of textual analysis would only really arrive at the conclusion that the film is not in any way a work of art: it is not innovat­ive enough to occupy this status. But this is precisely what makes it a valuable text for cultural analysis.


The film presents the journey of Danny Laruso from the loss to the subsequent ‘symbolic reappropriation of presence’ (Derrida 1974: 142-3). The geographical upheaval of Danny from New Jersey to Los Angeles initiates a personal crisis which, though not immediately discernable, comes to prominence very early on in the narrative. In the Lacanian terms of Kaja Silverman, on his arrival in L.A. Danny can be said to be still playing out his previously achieved and maintained ‘other and fictive’ fantasy of self (Silverman 1992: 3). This is depicted by his pose as karate expert, and his amorous pursuit of the rich girl, Ali (who is the ex-girlfriend of a jealous boy, who also happens to be the most senior of the Cobra-Kai karate students: hence the conflict). At this stage, the ‘objets a‘ (Silverman 1992: 1-7; Silverman 1983) through which Danny has created his sense of self are intact, so to speak: he is seen by himself and others as a wielder of the power of karate, and he is seen in the same way to be obtaining the attractive Ali. So, he is, in his own ego, or ‘moi‘ (as Silverman notes, ‘Lacan often refers to the ego as the moi, since for him it is that which is responsible for the production of identity or a “me”‘ [Silverman 1992: 3]), the wielder of agency, potency, completeness. Silverman notes that:


Part of what it means to pursue the relation of fantasy to the ego is to grasp that the subject’s own bodily image is the first and most important of all the objects through which it attempts to com­pensate for symbolic castration – to understand that the moi is most profoundly that through which it attempts to recover ‘being’. The self, in other words, fills the void at the center of subjectivity with an illusory plenitude. (1992: 4-5)


It is the illusory plenitude of self that is shaken by Danny’s physical and psychological beatings on the beach, the soccer field, and the journey home on his bicycle; as well as the trauma of seeing that his enemies are senior students at the local karate club – compounded by the fact that they see him seeing them in their own ‘phallic’ glory. Being seen in the impotent state of the desiring spectator by the senior student of karate (who is therefore the fullest bearer of the image of phallic potency) is the penultimate event in the ‘upheaval’ section of the film. The last straw, so to speak, comes with the beating Danny takes whilst on his bicycle (castrated state) by the motorbike gang of karateka (phallic plenitude).


Danny projects his rage about this castration onto the bicycle itself. This is, then, a metonymic condensation and displacement related to his own (ego’s) position, as conveyed in the symbolic contrast of bicycle/motorbike, or rather inferiority/superiority (Silverman 1983: 177). Whilst he is taking out this anger on his bike, he tells his mother that the cause of this anger is that he does not ‘know the rules here’. When asked the way in which his anger could be eradicated, he comes out with the contextual non sequitur of ‘I gotta take karate – that’s what!’ This is a non sequitur in the sense that all the information he has given his mother so far is that he ‘hates’ his ‘stupid bike’ and that he wants to go home: ‘Why can’t we just go home?’ It is not the bike that he hates, of course, just its signifying function as being a vehicle for the metaphor of his own castration. And it is not necessarily ‘home’ he wants to return to, but rather the state of ‘illusory plenitude’ that he had attained and maintained before being divested of his earlier untested sense of self. Similarly, Danny does ‘know the rules here’. He knows them only too well. They are the rules of masculinity and male identity condensed and displaced into the injunction, ‘master karate’. When ‘here’ means in his own ‘psyche’, then his ‘moi’ requires the rule of ‘mastery of karate: invincibility’; and when ‘here’ means ‘within the context of the logic of this film’, then the rules remain ‘Danny must achieve mastery of karate’.


However, fundamentally, karate itself is not the motive force of the narrative. Karate is just conceived of by Danny and the value system of the film as an answer to all his problems. To be physically invincible is the conflation with psychic plenitude afforded by the ideal representation of his superego: and such representations, Silverman asserts, play a ‘vital part’ in ‘defining for the subject what it lacks’ (Silverman 1983: 177). The motive force of the narrative is the obtainment of the girl, Ali. Karate is the means to plenitude; Ali is the affirmation of that plenitude:


Identity and desire are so complexly imbricated that neither can be explained without recourse to the other. Furthermore, although those constitutive features of subjectivity are never entirely ‘fixed’, neither are they in a state of absolute flux or ‘free-play’; on the contrary, they are synonymous with the compulsion to repeat certain images and positionalities, which are relinquished only with difficulty… (1983: 6)


Danny will not relinquish the repetition of those representations of himself to himself, of his moi: karate equals phallic agency, mastery equals the reappropriation of value, signalling the point of structural narrative closure: the assertion of presence: resolution.


The means whereby Danny achieves mastery is through Mr. Miyagi. This relation­ship is constructed for various reasons, such as the stylistic symmetry of the film, and making the manifest themes of the ‘true nature’ of karate and the noticeable differences between Oriental ‘wisdom’ and Western insufficiency more superlatively stated, and this aspect will be considered in due course, but first it is more appropriate to continue with the examination of Danny.


What is most striking in the Danny-Miyagi relationship for the purposes of our discussion is its deployment of Oedipal structures. The absence of any other father figure in Danny’s case expedites the adoption of Mr. Miyagi as a substitute. Just as the theoretical position of the father in the Oedipal triangle designates ‘all those values which are opposed to lack’, that is, the phallus, so Miyagi, within the parameters of the text’s discursive space, should be the perfect embodiment of that symbolic position. However, in a classic Oedipal drama, Danny should work through an ambivalence towards him, which in the psychoanalytic developmental narrative would correspond with the ambivalence felt by the child of the same sex, arising because of an ultimately rivalrous desire for that symbolic position. In this fictional situation, the desired position would be that of Miyagi as the ideal representation of phallic agency, in this case crystallised in karate, of which Miyagi is presented as the master. In the psychoanalytic narrative, the Oedipal subject experiences a ‘brutalizing sense of inadequacy … because he can never be equivalent to the symbolic position with which he identifies’.[2] However, in this text, things are slightly different.


As Nitta (2010) observes, the model of masculinity offered by Miyagi could be regarded as a potentially more significant advance on the models of masculinity proffered elsewhere. As we have seen, Nitta scrutinises Chan’s (2000) contention that Bruce Lee’s ‘ambisexual’ mode of masculinity is ineffective for hegemony and hence offers a kind of ethico-political innovation. But Nitta finds Miyagi’s masculinity to be even more productive a model – for, Miyagi is nurturing, caring, soft, delicate, passive, yielding: in other words, closer to the feminine and hence occupying a position more akin to the mother. However, if this is the case, then rather than looking for a new model of masculinity in Miyagi, perhaps two possibilities need to be engaged beforehand. The first is the possibility that the film is simply Orientalist. This has all the hallmarks of Orientalist fetishisation of the good other. Miyagi represents everything feminine, enthralling, mysterious, soft and subtle.


The second is the possibility that Danny’s Oedipal father figure is not something embodied in one character, whether that be Miyagi or anyone else; but rather the desire for karate insofar as it stands for complete potency and plenitude. Danny has an initial ambivalent relationship with karate: first playing at it (kicking open the entrance to the apartment complex he is moving into on arrival in L.A.), a play acting which is witnessed by another teenager who takes his performance seriously and hence offers Danny the possibility of claiming the social status and cultural capital of ‘karate expert’. Then, when Danny is beaten in a fight on the beach by Ali’s ex-boyfriend, he tries to recuperate his lost cultural capital by looking for a karate club in order to become the subject he fantasises himself to be. Unfortunately the club he finds is full of the very teenagers who were his opponents on the beach, and – worse – the very one who fought Danny and beat him so comprehensively is the head student. After this crushing sense of inadequacy is forced upon him, Danny tries to walk away from karate and conflict, but he is relentlessly pursued and humiliated by the Cobra-kai karatekas.


Thus, the phallic plenitude that Danny initially desires (to be) takes the form, first, of a fantasy (his play-acting the persona of being an experienced karateka). It then becomes embodied by the version of phallic potency offered by the aggressive, hyper-masculine white American karatekas. However, excluded from this club, it is Miyagi who teaches Danny not so much an alternative interpretation of karate mastery but rather a different route to that mastery, coupled with a different ethos. Where the Cobra-kai are taught ‘strike first, strike hard, no mercy’, Danny is taught through a series of apparently non-training, indeed apparently nonsensical pedagogical devices (‘wax on, wax off’, ‘sand the floor’, ‘paint the fence’, ‘paint the house’) to understand karate in terms of a certain paradox – namely, that he trains to fight so that he ‘won’t have to fight’.


In other words, the film divides and displaces the Oedipal ingredients or coordinates throughout the film. This reminds us, in a way, not to anthropomorphise or be too subject-centric or humanist even when thinking about subject formation.


In any eventuality, the end of The Karate Kid, depicts the fantasy scenario of Danny resolving a kind of ideal Oedipus complex. The film ends at the moment of resolution, at the very point of Danny’s emancipation from being bullied and his establishment of a coherent, complete and ‘fully present’ identity. In the simple universe of the Hollywood film, the culmination is this rather than the messy consolidation of multi-layered and compounded misrecognitions. Danny has mastered karate, become reconciled with his mother and won Ali; he has gained social acceptance through the affirmation of his ‘value’: he gets the power, the car, the girl, the trophy, and the vanquishing and approval of his former enemies. The last words of the film are spoken by the previous karate title-holder, whom Danny has now supplanted: ‘You’re all right, Laruso!’



Laruso as Rousseau


Even though the direction I would like to nudge readings is not subject-centred, it is important to note the ways that, like many films, The Karate Kid gives a kind of insight into the way that complex problems of identity are treated ideologically, and the way that difference or alterity are brought into line, moved into place. The question is the nature of any relation this may have to the process and practices of subjective ‘reality’. The story of Danny is a simple depiction of any number of standard, standardised and intelligible movie themes: justice overcoming injustice, the journey from boyhood to manhood, righteousness prevailing in the face of the odds, good overcoming and correcting bad, purity overcoming corruption, flexibility trumping rigidity, and so on. The film is easy to interpret. It is designed to be ‘consumed’ rather than ‘wrestled with’. And, as Stuart Hall argued in his canonical work on the cultural logics of viewing and spectatorship, any text offers a ‘discourse’ which:


must then be translated – transformed – again ­into the social practices if the circuit is to be both completed and effective […] If no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be no ‘consumption’. If the meaning is not articulated in practice, it has no effect [..]. Before this message can have an ‘effect’ (however defined), satisfy a ‘need’ or be put to a ‘use’, it must first be appropriated as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded. (1980: 91-3)


In this sense, the work is an ideologically saturated utterance whose principal ‘effect’ is the reactivation of the very values that gave birth to its messages – the ‘culturally instigated, and hence collective’ desires of the ‘predetermined narrative’ of Western culture, within which the ‘normal’ ‘Western subject is fully contained’ (Silverman 1983: 136). As such, the film may be deemed unimportant or insignificant in and of itself. However, Gayatri Spivak draws our attention to what she calls Pierre Macheray’s ‘formula’ for ‘the interpretation of ideology’. This begins from the proposition that ‘what is important in a work is what it does not say’:


This is not the same as the careless notion ‘what it refuses to say’, although that would in itself be interesting: a method might be built on it, with the task of measuring silences, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. But rather this, what the work cannot say is important, because there the elaboration of the utterance is carried out, in a journey to silence… (Spivak 1988: 286)


Like any ‘classical’ Hollywood film, what The Karate Kid ‘refuses to say’ relates to the maintenance of its enunc­iative status, as well as its fictionality: to the concealment of its method of production as well as the necessary but acknowledged censorships of its narrative strictures, excluding all other cinematic thematic and stylistic possibilities, so as to maintain its interpretative stability. What it cannot say is a different matter altogether. For what this proposition would seem to rely upon for its validity would be several qualifications, among which is the more complete notion of ‘what it cannot say if it is to remain the same’ – the same in status, appeal, audience, income, identific­ation, and ‘effect’. But, of course, this qualification may constitute a reversal back to the former category of ‘refusals’. The question of whether a silence is a refusal or an inability to signify is perhaps largely undecidable. But for our purposes, let us merely add the minor proviso of ‘staying the same’: what can the film not ‘say’ if it is to remain ‘the same’, generically, ideologically?


Among the things that The Karate Kid cannot say must include the extent to which the dynamics of the situation occupied by Danny exemplify a certain elaboration of the ‘working through’ of what Jacques Derrida called the ‘metaphysics of presence’ (1974). Preferred hegemonic discourses concede to what Derrida often referred to as the metaphysical desire for resolution, for ‘closure’, for unitary and stable interpretations and meanings. (This is similar to the way Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis construe the work of the ego.) The metaphysical desire is for resolutions of certainty, the plenitude of the ‘moi’, the possibility for the closure of the sign.


Danny Laruso is contained in a narrative in which the attainment of full presence is presented as simultan­eous with the full statement and real-isation of worth.[3] However, in Derrida’s examination of the problems of ‘presence’ and ‘value’ as located by Rousseau, Derrida argues that in Rousseau there is no escape from a kind of inverse relationship between speech (presence) and writing (worth). Derrida quotes Rousseau: ‘If I were present, no one would ever know what I was worth’. In other words, according to Rousseau, one must always sacrifice either one or the other state of ‘existence’. This is because ‘the operation that substitutes writing for speech also replaces presence by value: to the I am or the I am present thus sacrificed, a what I am worth is preferred’ (Derrida 1974: 142). If there is any philosophical or theoretical truth in this relationality, it could be said that the hegemonic operation carried out by such texts as The Karate Kid works to insist not on a kind of inverse proportionality of presence to value but rather on a relation of direct proportionality or co-incidence. It can therefore be ‘said’ that the film exemplifies the hegemonic necessity for the maintenance of the mythological fallacy that insists upon the co-incidence of presence and value, logos and phallus, that has been called ‘phallogocentricity’. Laruso is ‘written’ so as to be known, and the existential knowledge of his worth is constructed so as to coincide with the moment of his presence, which is, of course, fictive. This makes Danny into a ‘native’, a ‘specimen’. As Spivak puts it:


the person who knows has all of the problems of selfhood. The person who is known, somehow seems not to have a problematic self…. Only the dominant self can be problematic; the self of the Other is authen­tic without a problem… (Spivak & Gunew 1993: 202)


Posed in this way, the processes integral to the hegemonic maintenance of the dominant symbolic order (phallus/logos) – specifically, the idea of the ‘unary’ self, the plenitude at the centre – necessarily involve these myths of coherence and cohesion. They are the pinnacle of identitarian thinking. So there is a sense in which such texts coax viewing and consuming subjects away from the traditional status of Western Imperial ‘knowers’, cultural ethnographers (replete with a ‘problematic self’), and that they have rather become inculcated with the desire – as the ultimate goal – of occupying the position of the ‘known’ (the traditional state of the ethnographer’s ‘native’). The idea that ‘the person who is known, somehow seems not to have a problematic self’ has as if been ideologically rewritten within such texts, as: ‘the person who is known obviously cannot have a problematic self (and who would want such a thing!)’. We are all known others now. We are all protestant ethnics. So what, then, is made of or done with the ‘ethnic’ ethnic within this text?


The acknowledged and articulated form that alterity takes within The Karate Kid is embodied in Mr. Miyagi. He is precisely one of those ‘recurrent token figures’ which Spivak concedes ‘it is so much easier to have’ in handling alterity when it comes to representing it (Spivak and Gunew 1993: 195). For example, the first time we see Miyagi, he is sitting, facing away from us, inexplicably clicking chop-sticks in the air. He tells Danny that he will fix his faucet ‘after’. When Danny asks ‘after what?’, Miyagi snaps ‘After after!’ Later, when showing Danny how to cultivate bonsai, Miyagi’s only advice is that Danny should ‘close eye’ and ‘think only tree’. Through all of these and other similar devices, the connotations are all those of that ‘alien’ yet ‘lisible’ imagery of Japanese Zen.


This is the economy of repres­entation employed by the text. For the purposes of the film, the figure is basically a composite derived from several strong myths about the Oriental native, combined so as to maintain the familiarity of the figure. Indeed, the very title itself establishes a specificity within the viewer’s horizon of expectations. The chain of expectations activated firstly by the title, secondly by the ‘kid’, and thirdly by the demonstrations of the kid’s inept­itude at the ‘karate’ promised by the title, all pave the expectant way for the rapid ascension of the otherwise incongruous and redundant Oriental character to an unequivocal genre-specific position of the ‘Oriental Martial Arts Master’.


The ascension of Miyagi to his signifying status is not immediate, of course. As a necessary component of the unfolding drama the connotative sign under­goes a series of deferrals before being strongly ‘fixed’ – he is not, for example, presented in a freeze-frame, wearing full karate suit and black belt, looking at and saluting the American flag, as the Barthesian system might prefer. All the imagery condensed in and around him is presented intermittently and cumulatively, so as to develop the connotation of his exoticism and Zen-esque appeal. Indeed, the association with the mystery and impenetrability of ‘Zen-ness’ has for a long time been a prerequisite for the ‘Oriental Martial Arts Master’, and it is complexly intertwined with the martial arts film. The inclusion of such mysticism within this cinematic style is a convention of the ‘langue’ whose primary utility comes from its propensity to signify either lofty idealism or (tautologically) just simple mysticism, or both, so as to elevate the practices advocated therein from crude violence into the ostensible realm of the ‘spiritual’.


Alterity is then contrived simultaneously as being both alien and actually familiar: everyone in the film knows what it is and hold it in esteem, but the film stipulates that despite this familiar­ity in the West it remains Oriental and perfect only in its ethnicity, so to speak: Danny beats the seasoned karateka because his ‘source’ is more pure, as it comes replete with the holistic, informing ‘zen-esque-ness’. Indeed, Miyagi is actually the name of one of the reputed founders of karate-do; and this lineage does stem from Okinawa and not Japan as such; a fact which complicates the commonplace belief that karate is simply Japanese. Karate-do has a rather more complex colonial and post-colonial history.


The fact that Miyagi is from Okinawa is emphasised throughout The Karate Kid. It is as if this information subtly changes the status of Miyagi, creating a category for his ethnicity more suitable to a narrative which is so susceptible to the use of superlatives. Because Miyagi is not simply Japanese yet Japanese-esque he can occupy the more perfect position of authenticated alterity combined with the USA-condoned patriotic immigrant national – who earned a medal ‘for valour’ in World War II by ‘killing many Germans’, as the inebriated Miyagi puts it. The Okinawan origin overcomes the potential signifying pitfalls inherent in either Japan or China, or any of the other ‘authentic’ nationali­ties of Martial Arts Masters, such as Korea or Thailand. For all of these Eastern possibilities carry potentially negative nationalistic connotations, and such connotations would cloud the purity of the film’s messages and frustrate that strenuously motivated anti-ambiguity of the celebratory nature of the Oriental, even though that celebration belies the servitude of that Oriental to the Western subject.


The appeal made by the film to a myth of Oriental superiority regarding karate is a reflection of the hegemonically sanctioned ‘understanding’ of the ‘reality’ of Oriental otherness, and that this otherness manifests as a ‘real’ difference in the subjectivity of the Oriental. This subjectivity is represented in Miyagi as the warrior-poet, the fisherman-philosopher, the harmony of the yin-yang. Edward Said notes (including the tell-tale word ‘known’): ‘As a known and ultimately an immobilized and unproductive quality, they come to be identified with a bad sort of eternality: hence, when the Orient is being approved, such phrases as “the wisdom of the East”‘ (Said 1978: 205). Of course, Said is discussing the Middle East here, but it is readily seen that the Far East contains the same myths of mysticism with immense appeal in the West. Its aphoristic philosophies of Buddhism, Zen, and Taoism are so popular as to go some way towards the explanation of the popularity of the West’s recent martial arts explosion, at least, and its hegemonic assimilation as negotiated through the generation of its own discursive idiom yet consistent with all other hegemonic utterances.


That there is such an affinity here between the West’s ‘utterance’ about one of its others and the demythologised and demystified components of that same alterity’s own formulation of itself; and that this affinity occurs at a moment of ‘affiliative engagement’ in a field of discourse prone to the antagonisms of nationalism and racism, is an event which implies a hegemonic tendency towards the incorporation of nationalist difference into the positive and preferred position of that discourse. Bhabha notes that:


Terms of cultural engagement, whether antagonistic or affiliative, are produced performatively. The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of convention. (Bhabha 1990: 3)


The representations offered by The Karate Kid suggest an ‘affiliative cultur­al engagement’. It does, of course, use as its paradigm a ‘hasty’ reading of the myths surrounding ‘ethnic or cultural traits’ as well as the premise of ‘the fixed tablet of tradition’ (Spivak 1988: 274), but the fact of its occurrence is ambig­uous. That the alterity of Japaneseness is approximated to and celebrated as a form of difference with cultural ‘worth’ in the West is jarring. That this message is ‘lisible’ (readable/intelligible) and therefore hegemonically sanctioned is still a further complication of the common theoretical equation and starting point of ‘superstructural’ ideology as being determined by the economic interests of the ‘base’ – for, economically, the Japanese economy is the prime mover in undermining the West’s desire for monopoly, so one would expect the continued maintenance of pro-West/anti-East myth. But there are, of course, economic reasons for the eradication of constraining national ideologies: as Samir Amin argues,


the ambiguities of the new capitalist culture developed from the Renaissance onward. On the one hand, the new culture breaks with its tributary past (a break which gives it its progressive dimension and feeds its universalist ambition). But on the other, it reconstructs itself on mythical foundations, whose function is to blur the extent of the rupture with the past through an affirmation of a non-existent historical continuity. This false continuity constitutes the core of the Eurocentric dimension of capitalist culture, the very dimension which undermines its intended universalist scope. (Amin 1988: 3)


It is evident, therefore, that the dimension of capitalism that is Eurocent­rism which ‘undermines its intended universalist scope’ is that which is being hegemonically re-worked, so as to facilitate the realisation of capital­ism’s universality. This is consistent with Bhabha’s contention that


the nation-space [is] in the process of the articulation of elements: where meanings may be partial because they are in medias res; and history may be half-made because it is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be caught, uncertai­nly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image. (Bhabha 1993: 3)


In this sense, it can be said that the ‘extension’ of dominant discourses from crude nationalist and ethnocentric constructions into the ‘ideological emancipation’ of multicultural interaction and acceptance postulated by globalisation stem from the complexities of the relationship between ‘interest’ and ‘desire’ – not only in the subject-specific terms as it was presented earlier by Silverman, but also in terms of the wider theory of ideology as examined by Spivak: as being ‘a theory which is necessary for an understanding of interests’, the adoption of which avoids the pitfalls and shortcomings of theorisations which reject it. As Spivak argues


Because these philosophers seem obliged to reject all arguments naming the concept of ideology as only schematic rather than textual, they are equally obliged to produce a mechanically schematic opposition between interest and desire. (Spivak 1988: 274)


So to propose that economic interest is a determinant of ideological desire, and to acknowledge the universal aims of capitalism, is to account for the generation of the environment within which this utterance exists. The expansion of capitalism could be said to have moved beyond the imperial­ist forms of its recent past, entering into a stage of globalisation no longer dependent upon the fuel of nationalist discourses and ethnocentric mythology for momentum. Processes of homogenisation to a global scale, in terms of consumptive practices and ideals, have spawned mythological discourses of putative emancipation, which could be encapsulated in the epigraph: All consumers are equal in the eyes of the commodity. Of course, this is not to say that myths incorporating national and cultural alterity are inert, for they clearly still permeate as residues echoing earlier voices of hegemony, as well as persisting as political positions and equations, and codes to be ‘played-off’ with each other and newer codes, but the forms of the ‘homogenising hegemony’ do desire the decommissioning of some of these outmoded codes and conventions of commonsense interpretation.


Is this then to enter a discourse of postnationality? Interethnic identification and cross-cultural affiliations do seem to be increasingly possible in a world that is networked and culturally fluid on the basis of postnationalist communications technologies. These are of course ultimately and intimately intertwined with the development and functioning of capitalism. But, they are not reducible to capitalism as such. To echo T. M. Kato’s Kristevan and Irigarayan point that we encountered earlier, such new materialities can and will have unintended and far-reaching effects and consequences. Indeed, as Barthes wrote in the 1970s: ‘the metaphor of the Text is that of the network…. Hence no vital ‘respect’ is due to the Text: it can be broken…; it can be read without the guarantee of its father, the restitution of the inter-text paradoxically abolishing any legacy’ (Barthes 1977: 161). Barthes’ theorisation of textuality still offers us a productive way to approach Bruce Lee, martial arts, film and culture, even when erstwhile forms and forces of articulation with politics seem drained of affect.


In ‘From Work to Text’, Barthes clarifies the effect of structuralist studies on our understanding of, in a sense, everything. Barthes’ post-structuralism (it is post-structuralist because Barthes now sees all ‘structures’ as open and de-centred, and therefore susceptible to being opened, fractured, broken, and hence changed) makes the following observations and assertions. Firstly, language is not a ‘tool’ that we simply ‘use’. Language ‘makes’ us. Second, language does not magically ‘divide itself up’, into literary and non-literary language. On the contrary, the division of language into literary and non-literary forms is the work of powerful institutions – and the very distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘non-literature’ has nothing to do with ‘reading’, but rather with imposed cultural values (‘tastes’, ‘cultured-ness’ and so on), which have nothing to do with reading, but work to impose order through a kind of value-driven censorship. As part and parcel of this process, literature has become sacralised, fetishised, without us ever having really noticed its social functions of instituting hierarchies of power, domination and exclusion. But, he argues, the birth of the concept of the Text changes all this. He distinguishes between ‘works’ and ‘texts’: the ‘work’, thought of as a ‘proper’ literary object, is thought to be what it is because of the ‘genius’ of a particular ‘Author’. However, this, he argues, ignores language. All works are actually produced by language, and are therefore texts – fabrics, woven from citations. ‘The Author’ is something of a fantasy used to stabilise meanings by the dominant interpretive institutions (such as the university). Indeed, for Barthes, society is governed by institutions that control – produce, police, and regulate – meanings, and hence, practices and people, in diverse ways. But the Text is a force of political and cultural change. This is primarily because, argues Barthes, ‘a certain change has taken place (or is taking place) in our conception of language’ (1977: 157). But its consequences extend beyond the concerns of the English Literature Department, and right into the realms of culture.


Nevertheless, the notion and the ramifications of textuality are a matter of reading and interpretation. Barthes contrasts the text to the earlier notion of ‘the work’. As he argues, ‘the work is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the space of books (in a library for example)’, whereas ‘the Text is a methodological field’ (1977: 157). This he calls an ‘opposition’ – a distinction – in which ‘the one is displayed’ (i.e., the work is a ‘thing’), whilst the other, the text, is only something to be ‘demonstrated’ (i.e., the Text is a process): ‘the work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language’. Crucially, argues Barthes, ‘the Text is experienced only in an activity of production‘ (ibid.). In other words, you cannot simply ‘see’ Texts. You can see ‘books’ or ‘works’. Textuality is a mode of reading – based on an acknowledgement that meaning is produced just as much, if not more, by the act of reading, than it is by the ‘author’s’ act of writing. Indeed, ‘the Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed’ (1977: 156), insists Barthes. If texts are produced by language, then you cannot delimit what they mean or say; the ‘writer’ or ‘producer’ may have had intentions, but they cannot be ‘known’, nor do they have any relationship to the possible meanings that can be produced on ‘reading’. The Text is infinitely polysemous. ‘The Text is plural’ writes Barthes, because ‘the text is a tissue, a woven fabric’ (1977: 159). The text is ‘woven entirely of citations, references, echoes, cultural languages’. Moreover, ‘the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas’ (1977: 160).


Although this influential argument is rightly familiar to those within literary, film and cultural studies, its pertinence for the study of Bruce Lee or martial arts culture per se has yet to be stated, let alone fully elaborated. But put bluntly, Bruce Lee has always been approached as work, as a work, as a worker with a work to do, and so on. However, says Barthes, ‘the work closes on a signified…. The Text, on the contrary, practices the infinite deferment of the signified’ (1977: 158). To approach Bruce Lee as Text is to allow for the re-opening of Bruce Lee: Bruce Lee re-opened, reloaded, recharged, precisely because no longer regarded from a position which valourises the original moment of emergence or of task, responsibility or labour. ‘The reader of the Text may be compared to someone at a loose end (someone slackened off from any imaginary)’ (1977: 159), writes Barthes. Such a reader of Bruce Lee must be prepared to avoid the temptations of utopianism, urgency, politicised ‘realism’, and so on; prepared instead to allow ‘the infinity of the signifier’ (1977: 158), prepared in other words, to let the signifiers ‘play‘.


In other words, then, to study Bruce Lee, to do justice to the impact, influences and effects of Bruce Lee, one must forget Bruce Lee. Forget the protestant eth(n)ic, the intentions, the aspirations; and accept the chaotic dissemination of a truly unique intervention into myriad realms and contexts. Bruce Lee cannot simply be regarded as ‘author’, authority, origin and measure of the cultural legacies of Bruce Lee. Of course, as Barthes writes, ‘It is not that the Author may not “come back” in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a “guest”. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters’. How can ‘the author’ be the origin of the meaning of the text? Yes, he or she may have an ‘intention’, but how can we ‘receive’ it? Historical or biographical research into their life is itself only the production of yet more texts. If you have an ‘archive’, you still have to interpret it, decode, translate, guess, add, infer. Your interpretation cannot be ‘final’ or ‘decisive’. Indeed, this whole course of action is skewed from the outset by the fetishization of ‘authorial intention’, the fetishization of ‘Man’ as origin and controller of life, meaning, and destiny. The facts are, as it were, under your nose: it is language that produces us, and not the other way around:


his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work…. The word ‘bio-graphy’ re-acquires a strong, etymological sense, at the same time as the sincerity of the enunciation … becomes a false problem: the I which writes the text, it too, is never more than a paper-I. (1977: 161)


The same may be said of the celluloid-I, and of the films we consume. But do we all always ‘consume’ Bruce Lee? According to Barthes, it is ‘the work’ that ‘is normally the object of consumption’. That is to say, we ‘consume’ works when we read them as ‘works’. They are commodities. However, in Barthes’ schema, we ‘produce’ texts when we read things as texts. This is, in a sense, the first stage of a kind of empowerment. For, not passively consuming, but rather approaching texts as Text, argues Barthes, ‘requires that one try to abolish the distance between writing and reading’. The traditional notion of ‘reading’ is one of passivity. The textual notion of reading is one of activity, of production. Thus, reading is itself a kind of writing – or re-writing: ‘reading, in the sense of consuming, is far from playing with the text…. the text itself plays (like a machine with ‘play’) and the reader plays twice over’. Hence, Barthes proposes ‘a final approach to the Text, that of pleasure’: ‘As for the Text, it is bound to jouissance, that is to a pleasure without separation’ (164). And this is doubtless the most enduring and perhaps important force in the cultural legacies of Bruce Lee: the production of a pleasure without separation.



[1] See Foucault: ‘in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which oper­ates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth’ (Foucault 1988: 93).

[2] Silverman notes: ‘When the child internalizes the image of the parent of the same sex at the end of the Oedipal crisis, it compounds mis-recognition upon mis-recognition. The result is a  brutalizing sense of inadequacy both for the male and female subjects – for the former because he can never be equivalent to the symbolic position with which he identif­ies, and for the latter because she is denied even an identification with that position’ (1983: 191).

[3] The Karate Kid, as a fiction, utilises a process whereby the effect of closure can be affected: as the cinematic text is a process reliant upon writing, so the film is ‘written’, and, ‘To write is indeed the only way of keeping or recapturing speech, since speech denies itself as it gives itself’ (Derrida 1974: 142). Through this economy, the situation of Danny Laruso avoids the full realisat­ion of the paradoxes integral to the desire for presence.

Bruce Lee between Popular Culture and Cultural Politics


Hong Kong Phooey played and erased race and ethnicity in sending-up the kung fu craze and its popularity among black Americans

Bruce Lee between Popular Culture and Cultural Politics 

Movie Posters and Muscle Poses: Generic Ethnicity and Popular Cultural Genres


To suggest that seeing Bruce Lee could perhaps have some relation to politics or to the political may seem preposterous. However, there are several ways to verify this claim. The most obvious is empirical: the sheer volume of the occurrence and even prominence of the figure of Bruce Lee in political or politicised discourses. Bruce Lee often features as a countercultural motif, in much the same way as (and sometimes even alongside) the likes of Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix. As testified by innumerable autobiographical accounts, filmic allusions and popular cultural juxtapositions and combinations, Bruce Lee functions in diverse popular narratives of struggle. And his appeal was not confined to particular ethnic or cultural groups. As Keiko Nitta observes, ‘if Lee’s ethnic representations have marked so strongly his impact, this is enabled by their equivocality that allows a translation of ethnicity to social alienation or a marginalized experience of struggle in general’ (Nitta 2010: 380). She points out that ‘contemporary cinema has repeatedly reproduced Lee as the idol of not merely Asian men, supposedly confined in an emasculated stereotype, but also men socially vulnerable for disparate reasons’ (380), and gives the example of the Bruce Lee poster which features in a famous early scene in Saturday Night Fever (1977). This scene:


uses an impressive cross-cut of Lee’s naked torso in a poster on the wall and flesh of Tony Manero (John Travolta), an unskilled paint-shop clerk without any promised future. First imitating the poster at his bedside in a primary scene, Tony then dresses up flamboyantly in pink silk-satin, transforming himself to the weekend disco king. (Nitta 2010: 380)


Twenty years later, Boogie Nights (1997) was still evoking the strength of this early popular cultural connection in its depiction of what Nitta calls the ‘popular cultural landscape of the 1970s’ (380). The film utilises ‘Lee’s figure and kung fu moves to represent the ideal self-image of Eddie Adams ['Dirk Diggler'] (Mark Wahlberg), an underachieving high-school student who has no particular redeeming features other than oversized genitalia’ (Nitta 2010: 380).


Perhaps the first cinematic instance of this connection is to be found in the use of a Bruce Lee poster in Horace Ové’s 1975 social realist classic about life in West London, Pressure: we see a long shot of a Bruce Lee poster, which is the only apparent decoration in a room, before panning down to see the teenage hero sobbing on his bed after a nasty brush with the reality of racism – the inscrutable Lee staring out impassively like the protecting/judging super-ego.


In various ways, each of these examples can be said to provide grounds for Slavoj Žižek’s claim that the first kung fu craze of the early 1970s testified to ‘a genuine working class ideology of youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their only possession, their bodies’ (Žižek 2004: 78-9). (We will look further into Žižek’s argument in due course.) Of course, the Bruce Lee poster features in very many teen identity conflict/struggle flicks, from No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) (which actually stars the resurrected ‘spirit’ of Lee as the teen hero’s teacher) to Forbidden Kingdom (2008). But, if the use of Bruce Lee posters in the opening scenes of films like No Retreat, No Surrender and Forbidden Kingdom testify to the power of Bruce Lee as a generic muse, inspiration and pedagogue, it is the use of the poster in Pressure that precisely pinpoints the initial significance of Bruce Lee for a significant constituency of viewers: his ethnicity.


Bill Brown argues that what he calls Bruce Lee’s ‘generic ethnicity’ was evidently of immense importance to the first clearly defined Western viewing constituency of Eastern martial arts films: blacks and Hispanics in American cities. Hollywood’s awareness of this constituency – this market – was signalled first by its tentative allocation of starring roles to both the Asian Bruce Lee and the black Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon (1973) – a film which divided the starring role three ways, rather than entrusting it to Lee alone. Both Lee and Kelly ‘star’ alongside the white John Saxon. Lee is given no discernible personality (remaining, of course, ‘inscrutable’), while the black Kelly is characterised as appropriately politicised (on seeing the squalor of the harbour in Hong Kong he declares ‘ghettos are the same everywhere: they stink’). Kelly is also drawn along ethnic stereotypes, as someone who is ‘street’, hip, promiscuous, and – predictably – destined to be killed off. Saxon, meanwhile, functions as an ersatz James Bond character, but one who has been reduced to a suave swagger, a gambling habit and a certain kind of formulaic attractiveness. Hollywood’s awareness of ‘the black connection’ was signalled secondly by the subsequent film, Black Belt Jones (1974), a film ‘in which black martial arts students battle white gangsters’ and which was the ‘first U.S.-lensed martial arts actioner’ (Brown 1997: 33).


In addition to class and ethnicity, an equation was quickly established between martial arts prowess and physical power and hence possible female empowerment (aka feminism) – as exemplified by numerous female martial arts stars in Hong Kong film, and then a legacy from Cynthia Rothrock to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and the Western reception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the West. But whether approached in terms of class, age, ethnicity or gender, what is crystal clear is that Bruce Lee always functioned within what Meaghan Morris calls ‘a “popular” cultural genre’. She writes:


A ‘popular’ cultural genre is one in which people take up aesthetic materials from the media and elaborate them in other aspects of their lives, whether in dreams and fantasies, in ethical formulations of values and ideals, or in social and sometimes political activities. (Morris 2005: 1)


What, then, are some of the ‘sometimes political activities’ with which Bruce Lee might be linked?



Bruce Lee and the Black Connection


In a wide-ranging and detailed study organised by an argument about ‘the revolutionary significance of popular culture’ (Kato 2007: 8), M. T. Kato focuses on what is referred to as ‘the kung fu cultural revolution’. The key argument in Kato’s book, From Kung Fu to Hip Hop, is about ‘Bruce Lee’s kine-aesthetic of liberation and [its] reverberation with the decolonization struggles in Asia’ (2007: 6). Kato connects 1960s decolonisation struggles in Asia with the Western counterculture, which he construes as epitomised by Jimi Hendrix, driven by the cultural responses to the American war in Vietnam, and traces all the way to the American hip hop culture of the 1990s. Kato characterises all of this as ‘revolutionary’ – a claim which demands some clarification.


Popular culture is revolutionary, Kato claims, despite the fact that the ‘circulation of the popular cultural revolution, such as … kung fu films and hip hop culture …, takes place primarily in the global commodity market as a deviant by-product of the mass consumer culture’. For, ‘popular cultural revolution arises from the historical context in which the commodity culture constitutes the infrastructure of communication among the masses’ (2007 2):


Accordingly, the mass’s appropriation of the progressive aesthetics of popular cultural revolution can render the commodity to ‘speak’ for itself against the grain of its commodity identity, similar to how Luce Irigaray demonstrates that women’s autonomy undermines its imposed identity as a commodity: ‘For such actions turn out to be totally subversive to the economy of exchange among subjects’. (Kato 2007: 3)


Kato turns to Jameson to note the problem of the ‘penetration and colonization’ of ‘the unconscious’ that occurs with the ‘rise of media and the advertisement’ (ibid.), and then turns to the work of Guattari to support his claim that ‘affects’ can nevertheless arise at certain times and in certain places which supplement bare commodity relations, and engender a subversive form of affective communication or communion (2007: 5). Thus, the ‘colonization of the unconscious’ (8) is drawn as a cultural-political problem connected to ‘the cinematic mode of colonization’ (ibid.). In Kato’s text, this is illustrated by the example of African-born viewers and spectators who would not only cheer for (the white) Tarzan but who, ‘whenever Africans sneaked up behind him, … would scream …, trying to warn him that “they” were coming’ (Haile Gerima, qtd in ibid.). In response to this, Kato suggests that, given the problem of ‘the colonization and decolonization of the “mental universe” [associated with] cinematic colonization, the decolonization in the cinematic mode necessitates reconstruction of a vernacular imagery, narrative, and mode of reception, which can transcend the colonial imagery imposed upon the colonized’ (ibid.). Kato finds precisely such a decolonising vernacular in the work of Bruce Lee.


Similarly, Vijay Prashad writes: ‘There was something extraordinary about Bruce Lee’ (Prashad 2001: 126). This related to his screen presence, of course, but also to the fact that Bruce Lee was clearly a trailblazer. In Prashad’s words, ‘The anti-racism of Bruce was not matched by the world in which he lived’ (127). Indeed, Prashad refers us to the fact that Lee lived in an era in which Asians, whilst gradually gaining some legal, social and civil advances within U.S. society, were highly marginalised and ongoing victims of historical prejudices and stereotypes. It is in this context that Bruce Lee emerges – a context in which ingrained ‘cultural stereotypes enabled the mockery of a people by suggesting that they could never be part of the republic, since they had too much alien culture’:


This was to change somewhat in the 1960s, as social movements against racism and state management of these movements helped produce what we know today as multiculturalism. U.S. television, with The Green Hornet, 1966-67, embraced Bruce Lee to play the Asian, just as the state acknowledged the role of Asians in the creation of a cold war United States. The passage of the 1965 Immigration Act signaled a shift in U.S. racism from outright contempt for Asians, as evinced in the 1924 Immigration Act, to one of bemused admiration for their technical and professional capacity. In the throes of the cold war, and burdened by the lack of scientific personnel, the U.S. state and privileged social forces concertedly worked to welcome a new crop of Asians whose technical labor was to be their crucial passport to this New World. That is not to say that Asians found life easy. . . (Prashad 2001: 127-8)


Prashad is keen to number Bruce Lee as part of what in Raymond Williams’ terms one could call an emergent and progressive political formation (Williams 1977) (for which ‘multiculturalism’ is only one possible name: multiculturalism refers us to only one sociological dimension of a far wider array of overlapping emancipatory and egalitarian struggles). This is why the final words of Prashad’s book are: ‘To remember Bruce as I do, staring at a poster of him ca. 1974, is not to wane into nostalgia for the past. My Bruce is alive, and like the men and women before him, still in the fight’ (2001: 149). This ‘fight’ – if it is indeed one fight – is represented as a very widely proliferating series of skirmishes, and as taking many forms across the globe. Prashad himself focuses on the significance of ‘Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity’ in the fight against racism and the movement towards an egalitarian multiculturalism. In such accounts, then, Bruce Lee is shown to be part of a counter-hegemonic movement, versus hegemony.


However, as is the case with other similar accounts, a certain question also emerges and remains unanswered. This is the question of articulation. Specifically: precisely how is Lee articulated with this (or that) emerging discourse? As we have already seen, Bruce Lee could quite easily be lined up alongside all sorts of things and said to be ‘like’ this or that, ‘part of’ this or that, or an ‘example’ of this or that. But which claimed articulation or linkage is valid and which is not? Which interpretation has the greatest claim to veracity, and on what grounds? This boils down to the question of articulation.


By ‘articulation’ I mean specifically the following. A thing may be said to be articulated to, with or by another thing in a number of different ways. It may be linked to it (as in the case of an articulating joint, hinge, or chain). It may be something spoken by another thing or expressed through another thing (as when a sentiment is articulated by someone). It may be a situation or relation in which one thing determines the character, behaviour, status, meaning or form of another thing. Or, vice versa, one thing may be determined by another. One thing in the relation may have produced the other thing or been produced by it. Or it may be said to be ‘affiliated’ with another thing, ‘expressing’ or ‘an expression of’ another thing, and so on.


Some relations are literal, mechanical or unequivocal. However, there is a sense in which in the realm of culture – in which relationships are neither straightforward nor predictable nor perhaps even knowable – they all have a figural element to them. And this is where difficulties enter. For being affiliated with, expressing or being an expression of, and so on, all beg the question of the precise nature, ‘mechanism’ or ‘logic’ of the relation. What is the nature of the articulation? What do figurative expressions like affiliated, expressing, attuned with and so on, mean? Is the ‘expression’ active or passive, productive or produced, determined or determining? In any case, how and why? In other words: Where does the agency lie? Where does the articulating action take place? This question is often elided, in many different kinds of (cultural) study – and certainly not just in accounts of Bruce Lee which attempt to deal with ‘Bruce Lee and…’ or ‘Bruce Lee as…’ Rather than offering an analytical account of the relation of articulation that specifies where agency lies, such accounts offer descriptive or synthetic accounts that claim associations without fully specifying the nature of the association.


The work of Kato is an exemplary case in point. Throughout the book From Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution, and Popular Culture, Kato asserts and reasserts a ‘connection’ between Bruce Lee and lots of other things. But the nature of these connections more often than not boils down to rhetorical sleights of hand on the part of the author, rather than being straightforwardly demonstrable. Kato repeatedly equates things that are ‘like’ each other, or translates distinct realms, practices or phenomena ‘into’ each other by way of a third term – very often the idea of ‘the beat’ or ‘the groove’ – the jeet kune do ‘beat’ and the hip hop ‘beat’, and so on.


It is possible to open the book at virtually any page in order to see various unanalysed rhetorical devices structuring the work. For instance, Kato writes:


In both Jeet Kune Do and hip hop culture, creativity arises from the autonomy of self-expression. Accordingly, the quality of a work of art is gauged by the uniqueness of individual expressions that transcend the institutional boundaries. Hip hop comes from funk, rock and r&b, or reggae, but it’s free from any genre boundaries. So is Jeet Kune Do: it incorporates different styles into an open-ended system that is not institutionalized by any styles. However, both hip hop and Jeet Kune Do are not a postmodern bricolage of cultural multiplicity with weak or no foundation. The flourishing individual expressions in hip hop and Jeet Kune Do are well embedded in the cultural foundations and historical legacies: the African culture for hip hop and the Chinese culture for Jeet Kune Do. (Kato 2007: 177)


The range and interplay of internal contradictions and essentialisms within this paragraph is noteworthy (although, in the context of the book as a whole, this paragraph is not unique). Hip hop is essentially African, we are told, while jeet kune do is essentially Chinese. One may pause for thought about this. Both value the individual’s creativity when faced with a range of material from a multiplicity of styles and practices, and this creativity means that neither are institutionalised nor limited by styles. And yet, this creativity is not ‘postmodern’ – because it is anchored in essential traditions, African for the hip hop individuals, Chinese for jeet kune do individuals. Yet, these two cultures, ‘both Jeet Kune Do and hip hop culture’, can be singled out and compared or drawn into supposed equivalence or identity because within them both ‘creativity arises from the autonomy of self-expression’. Implicitly, that is, these ‘two’ are ‘the same’ in a way that is different from any other possible thing that either might be put into a comparison with. But is this necessarily so? Is it not possible to compare either of these two not with each other but with, say, artistic practice, business practice, school work, and find that ‘creativity’ arises in much the same way? The rhetorical trick here involves proposing a state of exceptionality for these two valued ‘cultures’, drawing them into equivalence and then conflating that equivalence into a state of effective identity.


Kato immediately proceeds to quote a passage by Jeff Yang which performs much the same operation:


In inventing Jeet Kune Do, [Lee] took the lean and lethal kung fu style known as Wing Chun and stripped it down to the primal beats. . . . Because the art of Jeet Kune Do was motivated by practicality, it evolved like hip hop: It began in the old school – spare, freestyle, with nothing separating the master from the rhythm. And then, only after locking down the basics, did Lee start sampling the best of what other disciplines had to offer, biting on world flavours like Muay Thai, Jiu Jitsu, and Tae Kwon Do. Even toward the end of his days, Lee was still remixing. (Yang, qtd. In Kato 2007: 177-8)


Although it is much more apparent in Yang’s passage here, the constructive/inventive processes are effectively the same as those used by Kato: the valued terms are represented through attractive images and analogies and presented as if unique.


But let me be clear. To say that the connections between a and b are neither clear nor certain is not to say that there is not a link between, say, Bruce Lee and international anti-racist movements (Prashad) or even between Bruce Lee and ‘popular cultural revolution’ (Kato 2007), or indeed between Bruce Lee and anything else at all, for that matter. It is simply to ask for further specification of the relation. What we mostly see in this regard is exemplified in the passage from Prashad given in the quotation above. In it, Bruce Lee is lined up with other historically, geographically, temporally or otherwise potentially ‘associated’ material, and a relation is assumed, implied or fabricated, but without being fully clarified. If we reread the following sentence from Prashad, for instance, we can see this occurring. He writes: ‘U.S. television, with The Green Hornet, 1966-67, embraced Bruce Lee to play the Asian, just as the state acknowledged the role of Asians in the creation of a cold war United States’ (2001: 128). Here, a connection is made between the televisual emergence of Lee and certain legislative changes. But is there a connection? If so, what is it, where is it, who is it a connection ‘for’, how does it ‘work’, where and why did or does it happen?


Kato is most helpful with the suggestion that the connection between Bruce Lee and ‘popular cultural revolution’ is ‘expressed in two narrative modes: symbolic articulation and kinetic articulation’ (Kato 2007: 41). By this, Kato refers to the way in which the narrative and choreographic styles, techniques and formulas employed by Bruce Lee’s films tapped into ongoing struggles in ways that appealed to certain constituencies at a particular historical political moment – a moment Kato characterises as dominated by ‘decolonization struggles’. Thus, for Kato, in Lee, it’s not just that the underdog wins, but it is the way the underdog wins, and who he beats. This suggests that the ‘reality’ of Lee’s relation to wider struggles is a visibility produced by the combination of two factors: first, the encoding of historical and ongoing cultural struggles, dramas and conflicts within the semiotic structure of the text, combined with a context of reception in which the interpretive tendencies of the audience are more or less attuned or inclined towards seeing such connections. This is why, although many texts employ the same sorts of familiar devices as those that are found in Bruce Lee films – devices which are little more than dramatic and semiotic clichés – in certain times and places, these can become politically affective. Or, as Kato puts it, ‘only through rigorous historical and social contextualization can this symbolic narrative become legible, thereby unfolding the means by which it liberated the unconscious of the Asian people faced with the image of colonization by the neo-imperialist cultural industry’ (2007: 40). As such, for both Kato and Prashad, the decisive factor about Lee that ‘connects’ him with other contexts and scenes relates to the convergence of his films’ dramatisation in condensed form of ongoing tensions, resentments and ethnically inflected power imbalances. Bruce Lee films offer the possibility of politicising consciousness – of producing a visibility.


‘Visibility’ is considered by Rey Chow to involve more than mere literal vision (as in the sense of ‘There it is: I can see it!’) and also more than metaphorical seeing (as in the sense of ‘Aha! I see! I understand!’). Rather, Chow directs us to the sense of ‘visibility as the structuration of knowability’ (2007: 11). In this, Chow takes her inspiration broadly from Foucault and occasionally from Gilles Deleuze (especially in Deleuze’s explicitly Foucauldian moments).[1] Similarly, one might equally evoke Jacques Rancière’s notion of the ‘partition of the perceptible’. But the point is that, as Chow puts it, ‘becoming visible is no longer simply a matter of becoming visible in the visual sense (as an image or object)’ (ibid.). Rather, there is also a sense in which visibility should refer not only to visible images and objects but also to ‘the condition of possibility for what becomes visible‘. For, whatever objects and images are visible, and the way in which they are visible, depends on what she calls ‘this other, epistemic sense of visibility’.


Visibility and making-visible, then, are more complex processes than simply empirical orientations could countenance (or indeed ‘see’). The theoretical and conceptual issues attending to visibility involve something other than empirical considerations, such as those relating to the selection and make-up of who or what is represented where and when and how. According to Chow, in fact, there is a ‘political’ dimension to visibility and visuality which relates to ‘the condition of possibility for what becomes visible‘ and involves matters to do with the ‘discursive politics of (re)configuring the relation between center and margins’. That is, visibility depends first on the establishment of a shared field of intelligibility as the condition of possibility for understanding (‘seeing’) and being understood (or ‘seen’).[2] The condition of possibility for any ‘shared meaning’ and hence ‘intelligibility’ or ‘visibility’ per se is always already a complex ‘achievement’, ‘construction’, ‘outcome’ or ‘stabilisation’.


The question is what kind of visibility was Bruce Lee involved in the production or construction of. The relation between kung fu in America, America in Vietnam and Vietnam ‘in America’ has become a subject much remarked. However, Brown points out, such a connection was rarely perceived or proposed at the time, not least because it is ‘a connection that necessarily blurs the geographic history and the heterogeneity of the martial arts’. Nevertheless, notes Brown:


The connection between a post-Vietnam moment and the moment of the kung fu ‘craze’ … surfaced rarely in 1973, but tellingly. David Freeman explained the craze bluntly: ‘They beat us over there … [and] we demand to know why. Our POWS are home and now America needs to know’ the ‘enemy’s secret weapon’. While kung fu per se was certainly no secret weapon during the war, [Bruce] Lee’s guerrilla tactics [particularly in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon] replicate what was taken to be the strategy by which U.S. forces were defeated – which might be best understood not as knowledge about why ‘we’ lost, but as knowledge about how ‘they’ won. The conservative commentary on the martial arts, long after 1973, still considered their popularity an expression of global conflict. One satirical reporter claimed of the All-American Open Karate Competition that ‘half the contestants and more than half the audience are black or Hispanic: karate is Third World anger release. Anyone can guess the unspoken implication: that those little, wiry yellow folk are superior’. It would be wrong to perceive in this anything less than anxieties about a new yellow peril, exacerbated by the image of an interethnic bond. (Brown 1997: 36)


Much has been written about the ‘interethnic bond’ indexed by the appeal of Asian martial arts to black Americans. Some have connected it to a ‘countercultural investment in Taoism and Buddhism’ (1997: 32); others to slick and targeted trailers for the films themselves; whilst ‘Raymond Chow himself pointed to Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and the subsequent U.S. interest in Chinese culture’ (ibid.). But for Brown, it ‘is less the ethnic specificity of Bruce Lee than what we might call his generic ethnicity that seems to have inspired the enthusiasm of the U.S. black inner-city audience’ (ibid.). This ‘generic ethnicity’, he proposes, was accompanied by ‘an implicit invitation to translate the ethnonationalist conflicts staged within the kung fu film into the conflict of class’ (ibid.).


Many Hong Kong kung fu films, including Lee’s, are strongly organised by class antagonisms. Indeed, says Brown, ‘if we’re to believe the accounts of this international mass spectatorship, we might imagine a (failed) moment of international class longing’ (ibid.). In any eventuality, if there was a lag in scholarly knowledge about martial arts culture and its connections with ethnic groups globally (‘commentators groped for a rationale to explain the particular attraction of kung fu for black audiences’, writes Brown), market mechanisms in the form of marketing strategies were quick to respond: ‘the industry’s report on the primary audience for the twenty-one kung fu films that appeared in the United States in 1973 made it clear to producers that a new market had emerged’. As such, continues Brown, ‘Not unpredictably, Black Belt Jones (1974), in which black martial arts students battle white gangsters, became the “first U.S.-lensed martial arts actioner”‘ (ibid.). Thus, notes Brown, ‘While “invisibility” had come to be understood, by some, as the provocation of the city riots of the 1960s, in the early 1970s the black population had become visible to the film industry as a potent consumer constituency’ (ibid.). The interethnic bond, then, could be said to be structured by the visual contours of a common process of ethnicisation shared by black and Asian subjects and organised by cinematic texts with Bruce Lee, who instantly ‘became synonymous with kung fu’ (Brown 1997: 31), at the forefront.


We see here the workings of a complex relation between visibility and invisibility around martial arts and cultural politics. Invisibility, exclusion, subordination and marginalisation in social, cultural and political realms and registers help add an affective interpretive charge to moments of visibility. Even texts that are, semiotically-speaking, simplistic, clichéd or hackneyed may then be said to become variously ‘related’ to wider social issues. A claim such as this implies that articulation involves processes of displacement and directness, fantasy and social engagement, escapism and expression. As Brown puts it, ‘The slippage between race, nationality, and class – not in oppositional thought but in urban culture – is precisely what seems to underlie the attraction to kung fu in 1973′ (1997: 36).


Yet there is a double movement involved here, which suggests that we should hesitate before rushing to the conclusion that the interethnic bond activated in the process of cinematic identification is simple or simply emancipatory in any way. For, first of all, it is not simply ‘Hispanics’, ‘blacks’ and ‘Asians’ who are somehow ‘united’ or ‘hybridised’. Rather, any ‘postnational political affiliation’ that may emerge is clearly predicated on ‘the affiliation between Hong Kong and Hollywood’. This affiliation is easy to specify. Its nature is financial. It ‘worked’ to the extent that it was, in Brown’s words, ‘affectively subsidized by the longing of the urban masses’ (1997: 36-7). So, as Brown emphasises, we also need ‘to understand the attraction to kung fu films as taking the place of, as displacing, any sustained attraction to the radical postnationalizing imagination’ (1997: 36). Indeed, he notes: ‘As one French commentator dismissively put it, the films offer a “dream where politics are resolved by a boxing match”‘ (ibid.). So, the potentially problematic or complicating dimension to martial arts films is that the ‘kung fu craze thus seems explicable within the cultural logic of urban history as explained by David Harvey, intensifying his sense of 1973 as the pivotal year in the transition to what he calls postmodernity’. In a sense, then, what this means is that the ‘urban spectacle of mass opposition that violently disorganized the space of American cities in the 1960s was finally transformed into the organized spectacle of consumption’. In this, the ‘countercultural scene resurfaces as the commodification of subculture’. And it is within such a movement that, with their films that include ‘the local display of local ethnicity and multiethnic harmony, Golden Harvest, the Shaw Brothers, and Cathay Studios displayed interethnic and interclass violence that marked and managed the otherwise suppressed conflicts of the inner city’ (Brown 1997: 37).


Thus, the move to the multicultural moment also involves a distinct displacement away from politics as such. Indeed, Brown’s entire essay is an analysis of ‘how the political resistance of the 1960s transforms into the consumer pleasure of the seventies and eighties and, further, how collective radicality becomes transcoded into a privatizing politics of consumption’ (1997: 25-6). However, unlike cultural critics who bemoan this familiar movement of cultural appropriation and domestication, what Brown seeks to emphasise is the way that ‘the conditions of postnational possibility – the structural costs of what we might call outward mobility – are inscribed within the everyday’ (1997: 26). Indeed, Brown concludes, it might be said to be the case that, at least sometimes, ‘postnationality finally exists neither as the work of “internationalists,” nor as the local instantiation of an interethnic and international bond, but as a physical feat consumed as an image in the register of mass culture’ (1997: 42). As a visual ‘physical feat’ par excellence, Bruce Lee – even though always-already commodified – can similarly be seen to constitute a pole of identification enabling the possibility of consciousness:


if the reception of [Bruce] Lee’s films seems to displace an overtly political and explicitly postnational affiliation with interethnic identification, then Johnson’s story, [a story I will introduce and discuss further below] while metonymically recording that reception, exhibits a double displacement: violence has been evacuated from the martial arts aesthetic, and, characteristic of the growing appreciation of kung fu in the 1980s, a class-coded mode of revenge (harking back to the Boxer Rebellion) has been transcoded into a search for self. By 1980, one could learn in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly that the ‘real value lies in what the martial arts tell us about ourselves: that we can be much more than we are now’. Existentialist struggle replaces both class and ethnic conflict in a classic case of the embourgeoisement of mass-cultural and cross-cultural novelty. (1997: 37)


In other words, in a positive register, we can say that hindsight and familiarity allow us to construe Bruce Lee’s anti-institutional interdisciplinary humanist countercultural vitalism as something relatively typical of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These were the wonder years of political imaginaries: Paris 1968, civil rights, the counterculture, Mao, Marx, anti-psychiatry, feminism, and so on. Bruce Lee cobbled together and baptised his postmodern anti-institutional inter- and antidisciplinary martial art ‘Jeet Kune Do’ in (of all places) California in (of all years) 1968 (Inosanto 1980: 66). But, in a less positive register, we can also say that perhaps hindsight obliges us to regard this change as historically or ideologically overdetermined, rather than straightforwardly emancipatory. Such would be the position of a Régis Debray or a Slavoj Žižek: it’s the economy, dummy. It’s the commodifying logic of late capitalism. As is widely known, for Žižek, the key consequence of the student protests of 1968 was that, ‘in Hegel’s terms, the “truth” of the student’s transgressive revolt against the Establishment [in 1968] is the emergence of a new establishment in which transgression is part of the game’ (Žižek 2001: 24). All concomitant revolt against institutions, status quos and indeed even cultures and societies (for being constraining, stultifying structures) is merely the demand of a zeitgeist, which itself is produced during a time of capitalism’s upheaval or readjustment to its ‘late’, postmodern stage.



Bruce Lee and the New Age Spirit of Capitalism


It is pertinent to note here that Žižek also often asserts his conviction that ersatz forms of Buddhism and Taoism – what he calls Western Buddhism and Western Taoism – came to arise as the ‘spontaneous ideology’ of contemporary global capitalism. This, he claims, is because Taoist and Buddhist tropes, terms, platitudes and mantras seem to answer the questions and to calm the anxieties that arise in states of confusion, chaos, indeterminacy, deregulation and flows (i.e., in free-market capitalism), much better than more hard-line alternatives, such as the regressive retreat into nationalisms or fundamentalisms. In making this argument, Žižek follows Max Weber, explicitly supplemented by ideas from Althusser and Lacan, by claiming that just as Protestantism and beer were a large part of the hegemonic ideology of industrial stage capitalism, so Westernised Taoism, as crystallised in fashionable practices like meditation and feng shui, are the superlative ideology of postmodern consumer capitalism. Indeed, as he sees it:


The ultimate postmodern irony is … the strange exchange between Europe and Asia: at the very moment when, at the level of the ‘economic infrastructure,’ ‘European’ technology and capitalism are triumphing world-wide, at the level of ‘ideological superstructure,’ the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the European space itself by the onslaught of the New Age ‘Asiatic’ thought, which, in its different guises, from the ‘Western Buddhism’ (today’s counterpart to Western Marxism, as opposed to the ‘Asiatic’ Marxism-Leninism) to different ‘Taos’, is establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. Therein resides the highest speculative identity of the opposites of today’s global civilization: although ‘Western Buddhism’ presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of the capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement. (Žižek 2001: 12)


If this is so, then it seems reasonable to propose that Bruce Lee must obviously be a part of any such strange exchange between Europe and Asia. Indeed, all the narratives about Bruce Lee’s life offer versions of this strange exchange: Western-led ‘success’; ‘victory’ of ‘Eastern’ ideas. And although Žižek does not assess Bruce Lee in terms of this argument, he has passed comment on the changing status of Bruce Lee’s popularity, as we have already seen. The context of Žižek’s comments on the popularity of Bruce Lee is Žižek’s Afterword to Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics. Žižek’s title is ‘The Lesson of Rancière’, a title based on a strong allusion to Rancière’s own text The Lesson of Althusser (Rancière 1974). It is in this context that Žižek mentions Bruce Lee to exemplify his argument about ‘new age’ ideology:


when, three decades ago, Kung Fu films were popular (Bruce Lee, etc.), was it not obvious that we were dealing with a genuine working class ideology of youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their only possession, their bodies? Spontaneity and the ‘let it go’ attitude of indulging in excessive freedoms belong to those who have the means to afford it – those who have nothing have only their discipline. The ‘bad’ bodily discipline, if there is one, is not collective training, but, rather, jogging and body­-building as part of the New Age myth of the realization of the Self’s inner potentials – no wonder that the obsession with one’s body is an almost obligatory part of the passage of ex-Leftist radicals into the ‘maturity’ of pragmatic politics: from Jane Fonda to Joschka Fischer, the ‘period of latency’ between the two phases was marked by the focus on one’s own body. (Žižek 2004: 78-9)


Although there is a lot going on in this argument, the essential point is that, to Žižek’s mind, the initial Western interest in Bruce Lee during the kung fu craze in the early 1970s was a ‘genuine working class ideology’. By the 1990s, this interest had morphed into its monstrous double, becoming a ‘perfect ideological supplement’, an exemplary part of ‘the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism’. In other words, in Žižek’s schema, Bruce Lee iconography once worked aesthetico-politically as a kind of subjectivating fantasy for the working classes, for ‘youngsters whose only means of success was the disciplinary training of their only possession, their bodies’. But now, at least to the extent that interest in martial arts has become bound up with the wider ideological tendency to focus on ‘the realization of the Self’s inner potentials’, Bruce Lee and martial arts become disarticulated from ‘class’ and therefore (in Žižek’s model) from ‘resistance’ (Žižek 2004: 79).[3]


As this argument about Bruce Lee and ‘class’ is made in Žižek’s Afterword to Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, it seems pertinent to consider Žižek’s reading of Rancière. Readers of Rancière will note that Žižek’s move into a discussion of ‘class’ is in a strong sense a contortion of Rancière’s own thinking of politics as arising from a miscount – as it were, for Rancière, politics is not simply about class, but rather the inevitability of misclassification – the impossibility of a smooth, geometrically ordered society into stable classes. But Žižek’s reading of the potential politics of kung fu aesthetics (as exemplified by, as he says, ‘Bruce Lee, etc’) is this: The image was good, he suggests, the image was generative. But then it became warped or perverted – ideologically ‘appropriated’, ‘colonized’ or ‘hegemonized’. In fact, Žižek’s position appears to boil down to something strongly akin to a witty observation once made by the comedian Frank Skinner: the difference between working class men and middle class ‘new men’ is that although both may be equally interested in fighting, ‘new men’ go to kickboxing or Brazilian jujitsu classes three times a week to improve themselves and to keep fit, while working class men simply really fight – in pubs and on the street (Skinner 2002). In other words, for Žižek, if the emergence of the image was a pole of subjectivating identification, the future of the image is ideological phantasy. So, like many thinkers, Žižek’s point is that images, moments, events, become (to use an overburdened and deeply problematic word) ‘co-opted‘ – ideologically recuperated: domesticated, channelled: moved into a place.


Taken on the strength of his reading of Bruce Lee alone (or rather, Lee-inspired martial artists), then, Žižek’s reading of Rancière’s Politics of Aesthetics (and his assessment of Bruce Lee’s intervention) appears rather awkward and limited. Nevertheless, his proposition that something about Bruce Lee’s image has (or had) ‘aesthetico-political’ potential remains tantalising. This is especially so given the double or chiasmatic status that such a figure as Bruce Lee must ineluctably have within Žižek’s idiosyncratic ideological cosmology. For if – as Žižek repeatedly claims – the hegemonic ideology of contemporary capitalism can be seen in ‘the strange exchange between Europe and Asia’ (with ‘Western Buddhism’ and ‘Taoism’ becoming the hegemonic ideology of contemporary capitalism) then therefore we must surely accord a central status to the exchanges facilitated by precisely such figures as the star of ‘the first American produced martial arts spectacular’.


How are we to assess the strange exchanges taking place in, around and through a transnational text like Enter the Dragon? Whilst analyses like those of Prashad and Kato are compelling and detailed, their outright blindness to the possibility of a critique of the order of Žižek’s basic Marxist proposition suggests that they are organised in such a way that they stop before fully considering or focusing on the complexity of the emancipatory claims they value. That is, they do not fully interrogate their own values and investments. This is not to say that Žižek fully interrogates his, of course. Far from it, perhaps. It is just that, in these and many other works, Bruce Lee is largely constructed as an unequivocally progressive and positive object. Yet, as Bill Brown sagely points out:


One of Stuart Hall’s reiterated points that ‘this year’s radical symbol or slogan will be neutralized into next year’s fashion’, that ‘today’s cultural breaks can be recuperated as a support to tomorrow’s dominant system of values and meanings’ – is a point easily illustrated by the history of kung fu’s success. Chuck Norris, who had demonstrated martial arts at several U.S. military bases in the early 1960s and co-starred (as the loser) with Lee in 1973, soon managed to whiten martial-art masculinity on film. The further commercialization and institutionalization of kung fu marked by the proliferation of kwoons and regional kung fu federations depended on attracting a more heterogeneous consumer group. To take a well-known case in point: on the one hand, Jamaican-born Carl Douglas, culturally cross-dressing as the martial artist to promote his hit ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (1974), sustained the sign of interethnic, countercultural challenge; on the other, the song mainstreamed and streamlined the aggression by reducing it to the rhythm of disco. The ‘discotized tribute to the legacy of Bruce Lee’, as the music industry called it, might be understood as working to discipline the notoriously raucous audience reaction to the films by syncopating the physical response to Lee’s violence, just as it worked to homogenize martial art choreography into the mainstream codes of dance. (Brown 1997: 37)


Following trends and transformations equivalent to these in other aspects of the political dimensions of popular culture, perspectives offered by many thinkers (including Régis Debray, Slavoj Žižek (2001), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000), or Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (2005)) often take us to this sort of point – namely, the point at which potentially revolutionary impulses are shown to have been ‘co-opted’, appropriated, expropriated, (re)colonised or hegemonised by ‘the mainstream’, or indeed by the capitalist logic of commodification. Such approaches often slide from this observation into sad conclusions about the failure of popular culture to achieve anything like a progressive political agency. In fact, it is also the case that part of Brown’s own study of the martial arts phenomenon is to ‘make legible the way U.S. kung fu culture itself effectively expropriated and existentialized mass-cultural, inner-city history from the early 1970s, a history in which the radical politics of the 1960s seemed to resurface as “radical consumption”‘ (1997: 38). However, unlike the types of critique offered by cultural commentators such as Žižek or Heath and Potter, which are little more than the claim that ‘the counterculture became the consumer culture’, Bill Brown’s reading of martial arts culture does not proceed according to an all-or-nothing mode, and so does not settle on such a dramatic, fatalistic (or anti-popular-cultural) point. Rather, Brown asks: ‘How does the transnational flow of goods and services extend the consuming subject’s affiliative horizon, and how does it thus revise (or leave unrevised) existing accounts of ethnic, national, and mass subjectivity? (1997: 24)


Brown poses this question in terms of a reading of a short story by Charles Johnson, entitled ‘China’ (1983), which centres on the life of Rudolph and his wife Evelyn:


Rudolph Jackson is a fifty-four-year-old national employee, a post office worker with high blood pressure, emphysema, flat feet, skinny legs, a big belly, and a ‘pecker’ that shrinks ‘to no bigger than a pencil eraser each time’ he sees his wife undress (…). Out with his wife one Saturday night to see a ‘peaceful movie’, his ‘eyelids droop’ during the feature, but he is enthralled by a trailer for a kung fu film, which Evelyn thinks of as ‘a poor excuse for Chinese actors or Japanese (she couldn’t tell those people apart) to flail the air with their hands and feet, take on fifty costumed extras at once, and leap twenty feet through the air in perfect defiance of gravity’ (). Rudolph, rather than joining her the next day at the revival meeting at their Baptist church, returns alone to watch the movie at the Commodore Theater. Even more enthralled by the ‘beauty’ of the martial art, he joins a kwoon, sends for eight hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, starts to meditate, begins an extraordinary physical regime that prompts his complete physical and psychic rejuvenation, and finally performs his success, after eight months, by competing in a kung fu tournament held in Seattle’s Kingdome. (Brown 1997: 24-5)


This familiar narrative again describes a process initiated by a cinematic experience. The process itself (its formations and its results) exceeds the bounds of cinema, of course. The ‘contour of this plot is not unfamiliar’, says Brown, because ‘it corresponds to what Susan Jeffords has taught us to call “the remasculinization of America”‘. Yet, Brown reminds us: the putative ‘process of remasculinization ought to be understood … as the permanent state of American manhood’ insofar as it is ‘the projected crisis’ itself ‘which (from James Fenimore Cooper to Robert Bly) helps to sustain the power of American men, who – appearing perpetually oppressed by the family, the economy, the state – appropriate the rhetoric of oppression to justify their self-assertion’ (Brown 1997: 25).


What is specific to this example, though, is that Rudolph’s ‘access point to masculinity is … Hong Kong’s film industry’ (ibid.) – and pointedly not the American military. For, having been prevented from entering the military for medical reasons, Rudolph nevertheless expresses his newfound passion for kung fu in terms ‘echoing the U.S. Army’s famous slogan of the early 1980s “Be All You Can Be”‘. As Brown notes: ‘Exasperated by his wife’s failure to understand his new preoccupation, Rudolph patiently explains that he doesn’t “want to be Chinese”: “‘I only want to be what I can be’” (Brown 1997: 24). Given that the military slogan that Rudolph is echoing here was designed as an interpellative device of the state (‘a slogan meant to recode the post-Vietnam military as the site of postpatriotic self-realization’ [ibid.]) but is reiterated by Rudolph and put to quite different ends, Brown approaches the story in ‘China’ as a work which engages with the question of the interaction of ‘commodity culture, mass masculinity, and spectatorship’ in terms of ‘three different, and differently narrated histories – of “world literature”, of the global reception of kung fu films, and of the war in Vietnam’ (1997: 25).


So, on the one hand, if what Rudolph sought was remasculinisation, a sensuous experience of self-worth and potency, then the manner in which this became possible – and indeed, what Rudolph’s ‘decision’ testifies to – is the subjective power of the workings of a complex discursive moment or movement. This can be most obviously seen in the fact that his ‘new body is predicated on a globalizing media-distribution network’ (1997: 24). The effects of this network condense in the encounter with the cinematic text of those whose experiences and existential struggles involve problems of ethnic and class prejudice and exclusion. They enable new forms of identification and practice to emerge. Accordingly, even if Žižek and other all-or-nothing thinkers are right to lament the fact that the future of the image is hegemonic incorporation and ideological domestication, there remains something more at issue and at work than straightforward politics and straightforward protest, conceived in the most prosaic or indeed Cartesian manner (in terms of the intentionally, consciously protesting political subject). What this is relates to the significance of discursive mediation, discursive ‘communication’. For, what ‘happened’ when Bruce Lee ‘happened’ constituted an intervention, a displacement and a transformation, in many registers and realms – public, private, discursive, psychological, corporeal – in transnational popular culture. Enter the Dragon, no matter how celluloid, phantasmatic, Orientalist asiaphiliac/asiaphobic, was an intervention – an event. To borrow the words of Jacques Derrida, it seems clear that ‘what happens in this case, what is transmitted or communicated, are not just phenomena of meaning or signification’, for ‘we are dealing neither with a semantic or conceptual content, nor with a semiotic operation, and even less with a linguistic exchange’ (Derrida 1982: 309). Rather, to isolate the word that Alain Badiou has made his own: we are dealing with an event.



The Event of Bruce Lee


As Badiou argues, events are encounters. Moreover, they cannot be communicated as such – at least not in any conventional sense of the term communication. Rather, in Badiou’s view:


Communication is suited only to opinions (…). In all that concerns truths, there must be an encounter. The Immortal that I am capable of being cannot be spurred in me by the effects of communicative sociality, it must be directly seized by fidelity. That is to say: broken … with or without knowing it, by the evental supplement. To enter into the composition of a subject of truth can only be something that happens to you. (Badiou 2001: 51)[4]


But what was it that happened? And how? If there is a ‘change’ as a result of an encounter with the cinematic text, then, in the words of Rey Chow, what is clear is ‘the visual encounter and the change, but not how the visual encounter caused the change’. Thus, Chow suggests: ‘The central question in all visual encounters boils down to this simple how…  how do we go about explaining the changes it causes in us?’ (Chow 1995: 7) What happened to the many who reported a profound change in light of the encounter with the celluloid Bruce Lee might perhaps be understood in terms of the Althusserian paradigm of interpellation, which is, after all, a theory about the mechanism of how we become (again and again) certain sorts of subjects. Yet, the question remains: who or what is or was doing the interpellating, or the making of subjects of and for what power or institution? For someone like Žižek, it is the case that if the emergence of the image was once a pole of subjectivating identification, the future of the image is ideological phantasy. As others have noted before him, Žižek’s point is that images, moments, events, become (to use an overburdened and deeply problematic word) ‘co-opted‘ – ideologically recuperated: domesticated, channelled: moved into a place. This is interpellation. However, as Rancière has argued, there is also the process of subjectivization, which often exists in complete opposition to ‘interpellation’. So, where Žižek (in a way that is not all that different from Althusser) would see imaginary and symbolic identification as placing us in a pre-given ideological ‘place’, Rancière prompts us to see identification as a disidentification that displaces us into a political ‘place’. This is a place of what Rancière calls ‘the aesthetic dimension of the reconfiguration of the relationships between doing, seeing and saying that circumscribe the being-in-common’. And this ‘aesthetic dimension’, he continues ‘is inherent to every political or social movement’ (Rancière 2000: 17).


The question then must be: Is the entrance of the dragon therefore part of a political or social movement? Yes and no. Not in any necessarily conscious or realist sense of ‘political’. But definitely in terms of the discursive ‘reconfiguration of the relationships between doing, seeing and saying that circumscribe the being-in-common’. This aesthetic event is embodied in a restricted economy of movement (and stillness) punctuated by what instantly became signature gestures. Yet, even so, in this, to use Derrida’s words again, ‘what is transmitted or communicated, are not just phenomena of meaning or signification’, for ‘we are dealing neither with a semantic or conceptual content, nor with a semiotic operation, and even less with a linguistic exchange’. But at the same time, the entrance of Bruce Lee into global popular culture constituted for many an event of the order of what Badiou makes of St. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus – as mentioned earlier – an event producing a range of performative fidelity-procedures. And this is where we began, with Miller, Rudolph, Prashad, Kato, and countless others; even if, paradoxically, what most remains of Bruce Lee today – what remains most ‘familiarly known’ – are the gestures – the signatures – gestures which once punctuated and defined a discourse, but which, outside of that discourse, to borrow a phrase from Ernesto Laclau, have become fetishes, dispossessed of any precise meaning.



Bruce Lee Beyond Belief


Nevertheless, Bruce Lee arguably remains incredible. Certainly, every time I see him again, it is as if for the first time. I use the word ‘incredible’ deliberately, and not uncritically. This is because, despite its apparent simplicity and familiarity, the word ‘incredible’ can and often does mean both ‘believable’ and ‘unbelievable’ – at the same time. If something is incredible, it is hard to believe. You want to, but you cannot entirely commit to it. Bruce Lee remains incredible in this way: incredible in a paradoxical and ambivalent sense. For, the cinematic spectacle of Bruce Lee seems to testify to something believable (Bruce Lee’s apparently real – incredible – skill), but at the same time, what the image shows us also appears to be an incredible, unbelievable, constructed, spectacular simulation.


This ambivalence is a characteristic problem of all representation. In this context, representation drags the cinematic spectacle and the uncertain reality or unreality of bodily ability into an incredible relation. Yet, is this essentially distinct from other forms of representation, or indeed from representation as such? According to Alain Badiou, there is a ‘preformed philosophical response’ to cinema, which ‘comes down to saying that cinema is an untenable relation between total artifice and total reality’. Badiou writes: ‘Cinema simultaneously offers the possibility of a copy of reality and the entirely artificial dimension of this copy’. What is more, he continues, this preformed response asserts that: ‘With contemporary technologies, cinema is capable of producing the real artifice of the copy of a false copy of the real, or again, the false real copy of a false real. And other variations’. As such, ‘This amounts to saying that cinema has become the immediate form (or “technique”) of an ancient paradox, that of the relations between being and appearance’ (Badiou 2009: 1).


Writing about written and spoken testimony and belief, Jacques Derrida proposed that:


one can testify only to the unbelievable. To what can, at any rate, only be believed; to what appeals only to belief and hence to the given word, since it lies beyond the limits of proof, indication, certified acknowledgement [le constat], and knowledge…. It is always a matter of what is offered to faith and of appealing to faith, a matter of what is only ‘believable’ and hence as unbelievable as a miracle. Unbelievable because merely ‘credible’. The order of attestation itself testifies to the miraculous, to the unbelievable believable: to what must be believed all the same, whether believable or not. (Derrida 1998a: 20)


Although Derrida’s words here refer to spoken and written words, it is clear that the complex ambivalence of such representation is active in terms of the status and work of the visual image or spectacle. As both Brooks Landon (1992) and Leon Hunt (2003) have depicted it, what they call ‘the aesthetics of ambivalence’ permeates all kung fu films. Hunt characterises this in terms of ‘an ambivalence predicated on the paradox of cinematic trickery (accepting the ‘fake’ as ‘real’)’ that is involved in all action cinema, combined with ‘a seemingly impossible investment in both documentary realism and fantasy’ that characterises martial arts fandom in particular (2003: 28). As has been widely remarked, watching Bruce Lee move and fight seems to involve all three components, in a way that is rare even in martial arts film: yes, we know it is a fictional film with staged and edited choreography, yet Bruce Lee’s skill seems persuasive, plausible and real (incredible yet credible); yes, we know this is fantasy, yet it seems so convincing, and so on, in a vertiginous circle of belief and disbelief, with each element feeding and frustrating the other, in terms of a desire to believe combined with a knowledge that, in any case, there is always going to be something fundamentally fantastical, phantasmatic and fake about the spectacle … and yet always also something that is going to seem ineradicably to be fundamentally believable.


One way to encapsulate a dimension of this is to state that the aesthetics of ambivalence involve knowing very well that something here is fake, but nevertheless desiring it, believing it. According to Slavoj Žižek, in psychoanalytic terms, the perspective or attitude of ‘I know very well, but nevertheless…’ is the very formula of the fetish. (This is reiterated so often throughout Žižek’s work as to make one reference superfluous.) So, martial arts fandom might easily be ‘diagnosed’ as fetishistic. And this may be so. Yet such a diagnosis too hastily downplays the complexity of the doubt and desire that can arise in response to the spectacle. For it is not as if viewers who come to enjoy the spectacle or sometimes enjoy the spectacle always knew this, in advance, or came to view it in order to get a ‘fix’, or to ‘get off’ on the violence, because it is their fetish and they are fetishists. That is to say, such a perspective is too quick to characterise viewers as ‘types’ – as groups, as pre-constituted viewing constituencies. Moreover, such a diagnosis does not in itself tell us anything about how or why this might happen: how one might ‘become’ such a fetishist/fan, how or why one might be affected, altered by a visual spectacle – and when, where, in what contexts, with what effects. How does ‘being’ a fetishist/fan affect my ‘being’? Is it the case that martial arts fans are a ‘group’, a ‘type’, in the sense that they all share some psychological or sociological similarity – some shared developmental ‘tic’ in common? Is the film a spark which can only ignite certain socio- or psycho-logical ‘types’?


There are many psychological and sociological approaches available to scholarship, which pursue such a thread. Many of these approaches move swiftly into empirical, ethnographic and quantitative styles of scholarship. In doing so, they inevitably turn away from the textual moment or event, preferring instead to conduct ‘fieldwork’ or to ask questions about race, gender, class and other psychological and sociological formations in the determination and significance of ‘taste’. Without disparaging such orientations, my own approach does not seek to follow such a line. Rather, it is concerned first of all with focusing on what we might call the event, the cinematic event, the complexity of the textual moment of encountering the cinematic text or spectacle. For, Bruce Lee is primarily – although not exclusively – a cinematic textual construct. What we ‘know’ of him, and the way in which we know him, has been constituted overwhelmingly by the cinematic apparatus. As such, if ‘Bruce Lee’ is ever involved in anything like a ‘change’ (whether in ‘us’ or ‘them’, whether here or there), then it is the encounter with the cinematic spectacle would seem to define the ‘actual moment’ or scene in or from which a change – whether a change into fan-fetishist, practicing martial artist, or whatever – could be said to ‘happen’, no matter what socio-cultural or subjective ingredients could be said to have been ‘in’ us beforehand.


This is not to abstract film from a social context. On the contrary, Bruce Lee clearly informs, defines, determines or supplements many and varied ‘popular cultural formations’. Such formations clearly matter – at least, if culture ‘matters’. But it seems important to emphasise that such formations are constituted, called into being or organised around or through a cinematic spectacle, becoming what Meaghan Morris calls a ‘popular cultural genre’, in which ‘people take up aesthetic materials from the media and elaborate them in other aspects of their lives, whether in dreams and fantasies, in ethical formulations of values and ideals, or in social and sometimes political activities’ (Morris 2005: 1). It is towards this productive, ‘pedagogical’ dimension to Bruce Lee that we should accordingly turn.





[1] Chow quotes from Deleuze (1988: 52, 58, 59). See Chow 2007: 11).

[2] For Jacques Rancière, the political moment is a certain ‘kind of speech situation’ – which he calls one of ‘disagreement’. It is ‘one in which one of the interlocutors at once understands and does not understand what the other is saying. Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it’. (Rancière 1999: x). See also Benjamin Arditi (2007: 115).

[3] Of course, quite how an ‘authentic’ interest in physical violence (working class or otherwise) amounts to ‘aesthetico-political protest’ or ‘resistance’ (Žižek 2004: 79) is left unsaid by Žižek. Indeed, this is a problematic assertion, given that most studies of working-class or indeed underclass pugilism and prize-fighting among ‘those who have nothing [but] their discipline’ (such as illegal immigrants in the southern USA, for instance) suggest that the ideals and aspirations of those involved are straightforwardly financial, rather than aesthetico-political (Wacquant 1995; Heiskanen 2006). Žižek does not address any of this, or anything like it, at all. Rather, his aim is simply to evoke the way in which the image, the aesthetic, opens a door in perception which can transform not only a viewer’s relation to reality but also lived reality itself.

[4] In its simplest form, the event of Bruce Lee boils down to this: in viewing Bruce Lee, something happened to many people. This took place overwhelmingly at a certain historical moment, and in certain places (although it is not limited to that time or those places). And the effects of this cinematic encounter had effects whose resonances can be felt widely throughout transnational popular culture. This is the case even though the entrance of the dragon was primarily a cinematic event of the order of what postmodernists called the ‘simulacrum’, namely, of the fake or entirely constructed representation; or what psychoanalytical cultural theory calls fantasy (or ‘phantasy’). For, fantasy and physical reality cannot really be divorced. Instead, explains John Mowitt, even ‘in what makes reality seem original to us, fantasy is at work’ (Mowitt 2002: 143). In other words, fantasy ought to be understood in a way that frustrates the possibility of a simple or sharp distinction between objective and subjective, and indeed between the inside and the outside of the subject.

Cardiff University Press invites journals

Cardiff University seeks new journals for Academic Press
Cardiff University is establishing a new academic press. Cardiff University Press will be a major new initiative in the online open access publication of high quality peer reviewed academic journals. It will be 100% free and open access, with no fees and no paywalls.
If you are the editor of an established peer reviewed academic journal and are interested in discussing the possibility of applying to become an imprint of Cardiff University Press, please contact Paul Bowman by email:

The Ignorant Sifu

Here is the abstract for the paper I will be giving at The Pedagogics of Unlearning Conference in Dublin in September. My title is ‘The Intimate Schoolmaster and the Ignorant Sifu: Poststructuralism, Bruce Lee and the ignorance of everyday radical pedagogy‘:  

This paper explores the conference theme ‘The Pedagogics of Unlearning’ by way of a consideration of three figures: First, ‘the ignorant schoolmaster’ as constructed by Jacques Rancière in The Ignorant Schoolmaster; second, ‘the intimate schoolmaster’, as fantasized and feared by a diverse range of theories and theorists (but attention will specifically go to this figure as he features in a key moment of poststructuralism, namely Derrida’s Dissemination); and third, ‘the ignorant sifu’, as the figure which exemplifies a strong impulse in many modern movements in approaches to martial arts, self-defence and combat training. These three figures are constructed as Joseph Jacotot, Plato/Socrates and Bruce Lee. The paper does this in order to explore an undecidability at the heart of the binary ignorance/knowledge, and in order to point out that ignorance has always been a key (even if unacknowledged) premise of the dominant textual and discourse approaches of poststructuralism, as well as to offer some reasons why we might try to unlearn some of our dominant understandings of or assumptions about the political and cultural importance of pedagogy.

VACANCES D’ÉTÉ – Kollectif – « Parti faire des châteaux de sable… »

À une semaine des vacances de la construction, Kollectif prends son congé annuel d’été!

Du moins, officiellement, du 11 juillet et de retour pour le prochain bulletin du 15 août

Officieusement, il y aura le travail sur la nouvelle mouture de Kollectif qui devrait être dévoilée vers la mi- ou fin septembre. J’ai d’ailleurs une rencontre de prévue ce dimanche afin de voir la maquette graphique!

De plus, la page Facebook de Kollectif va continuer à être alimentée avec la revue de presse des nouvelles en design et architecture au Québec qui circulent dans les grands médias.

Mais j’espère bien avoir la chance (un jour) de faire des châteaux de sable magnifiques comme ceux de Calvin Siebert.

Allez voir ses photos – vous pourrez alors mettre vos talents d’architectes, designers ou ingénieurs à autre chose qu’AutoCAD ou Revit…

Bonnes vacances tout le monde!


Martin Houle, architecte
Directeur-fondateur, Kollectif

(Photo: Calvin Siebert)

VACANCES D’ÉTÉ – Kollectif – « Parti faire des châteaux de sable… »

À une semaine des vacances de la construction, Kollectif prends son congé annuel d’été!

Du moins, officiellement, du 11 juillet et de retour pour le prochain bulletin du 15 août

Officieusement, il y aura le travail sur la nouvelle mouture de Kollectif qui devrait être dévoilée vers la mi- ou fin septembre. J’ai d’ailleurs une rencontre de prévue ce dimanche afin de voir la maquette graphique!

De plus, la page Facebook de Kollectif va continuer à être alimentée avec la revue de presse des nouvelles en design et architecture au Québec qui circulent dans les grands médias.

Mais j’espère bien avoir la chance (un jour) de faire des châteaux de sable magnifiques comme ceux de Calvin Siebert.

Allez voir ses photos – vous pourrez alors mettre vos talents d’architectes, designers ou ingénieurs à autre chose qu’AutoCAD ou Revit…

Bonnes vacances tout le monde!


Martin Houle, architecte
Directeur-fondateur, Kollectif

(Photo: Calvin Siebert)

APÉRO DESIGN – Lunettes & Glasses (LNG) – « Prochain RDV au Village Éphémère! »





LNG tiendra, le 3 août prochain (de 16h à 22h), un apéro design (extérieur!) au Village éphémère de l’ADUQ. Cette fois, inspirerez-vous les pieds dans le sable en admirant une splendide vue panoramique de Mourial. Des artistes invités livrant un « graff battle » sans merci, ainsi qu’un service de succulent « street food » seront sur place pour combler vos yeux et vos bouches. Que demander de mieux dans un cadre urbain et paradisiaque débordant de créativité et de designers !

Des musiciens seront également au rendez-vous pour vous en mettre plein la tronche sous une chaleur agréablement accablante !

MTL designers, oubliez pas vos lunettes fumées et vos plus beaux p’tits kits d’été !

Le village éphémère est localisé sur la friche à l’ouest du parc Bellerive, soit entre la rue Notre-Dame et les voies ferrées du port : »

Pour visiter la page Facebook de l’événement…

Pour visiter la page Facebook de Lunettes & Glasses…

Pour visiter le site internet de Lunettes & Glasses…

(Source: Louis Drouin, designer industriel, co-organisateur de Lunettes & Glasses)

APÉRO DESIGN – Lunettes & Glasses (LNG) – « Prochain RDV au Village Éphémère! »





LNG tiendra, le 3 août prochain (de 16h à 22h), un apéro design (extérieur!) au Village éphémère de l’ADUQ. Cette fois, inspirerez-vous les pieds dans le sable en admirant une splendide vue panoramique de Mourial. Des artistes invités livrant un « graff battle » sans merci, ainsi qu’un service de succulent « street food » seront sur place pour combler vos yeux et vos bouches. Que demander de mieux dans un cadre urbain et paradisiaque débordant de créativité et de designers !

Des musiciens seront également au rendez-vous pour vous en mettre plein la tronche sous une chaleur agréablement accablante !

MTL designers, oubliez pas vos lunettes fumées et vos plus beaux p’tits kits d’été !

Le village éphémère est localisé sur la friche à l’ouest du parc Bellerive, soit entre la rue Notre-Dame et les voies ferrées du port : »

Pour visiter la page Facebook de l’événement…

Pour visiter la page Facebook de Lunettes & Glasses…

Pour visiter le site internet de Lunettes & Glasses…

(Source: Louis Drouin, designer industriel, co-organisateur de Lunettes & Glasses)

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RSS medialab prado

  • Fringe Festival Madrid. Stage and Geolocation Project Production Workshop July 29, 2014
    Collaborative prototyping workshop that aims to create five experiences that break the fourth wall and locate the action in a 360º around the audience. Five projects will be developed. […]
  • Building Networks around Langdon Winner's book «The Whale and the Reactor» July 28, 2014
    Work group within the framework of the Commons Lab that will get together periodically during the next course to read and analyze «The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology» and create conceptual and empirical connections in this text by Langdon Winner. Led by Javier de la Cueva.No registration required. […]
  • Open call for citizen innovation projects in Ibero-America July 28, 2014
    The Secretaría General Iberoamericana (SEGIB), through the initiative Ciudadanía 2.0 and the Coordinación de Estrategia Digital Nacional of the Oficina de la Presidencia de la República (México) opens this call for projects related to citizen innovation for their development and prototyping in the Laboratorio Iberoamericano de Innovación Ciudadana which take […]
  • MADdata. Competición de datos abiertos July 28, 2014
    everis and MadridEmprende organize the first Open Datathon in Madrid, the biggestopen data competition in a common space and during a given time.The competition consists in creating innovative solutions from the use of open data. MADdata will make available to each participant some data on the city of Madrid, provided by Madrid's Town Hall open data web […]
  • Workshop: Public policies for citizen innovation July 25, 2014
    The way of making public policies is changing . Nowadays, goverments aren't the only ones who, on their own and isolated, design and implement public policies. And even less so when these policies are destined to motivate innovative activities by the citizens themselves.Next Wednesday July 3rd there will be a meeting in São Paulo with the whole Innovaci […]


  • call: 10th Cologne International Videoart Festival
    Call for entries deadline: 30 June 2014 CologneOFF X CologneOFF Cologne International Videoart Festival is celebrating in 2014 its 10th festival edition to be launched in September 2014. Artists working with “art moving images” are invited to join the celebrations of the 10th anniversary by submitting their most exxiting works experimenting with new forms of […]
  • call: Arse Elektronika 2014
    Call for entries Deadline: 5 August 2014 Arse Elektronika 2014 TRANS*.* monochrom’s festival on sex and tech! October 2-5, 2014 in San Francisco, USA. Call for talks, performances, games, workshops, machines, systems! *.* Trans is a Latin noun or prefix, meaning “across”, “beyond” or “on the opposite side”. What does that mean for sex and […] […]
  • call: Collective Trauma Film Collections
    Call for entries deadline: 1 July 2014 CTF – Collective Trauma Film Collections is calling for film & video works for the coming presentations. CTF – Collective Trauma Film Collections – is a worldwide unique initiative by Agricola de Cologne (director of Cologne International Videoart Festival and Cologn […]
  • call: FIVA – Videoart Festival Buenos Aires
    Call for entries Deadline: 22 August 2014 FIVA FOURTH EDITION International Festival of Video Art Buenos Aires, Argentina December 2014 Conditions 1 – PARTICIPANTS: Artists wishing to participate must be over 18 years old. 2 – WORKS: a) Each artist or group of artists may submit up to two works. b) Video installations will not […] […]
  • call: Piksel14
    Call for entries Deadline: 15 August 2014 Piksel14 November 13-16 2014 Bergen, Norway Piksel is an international event for artists and developers working with Free/Libre and Open Source technologies in artistic practice. It is organized in Bergen, Norway,and involves participants from more than a dozen countries exchanging ideas, coding, presenting art and s […]
  • Call: Marl Media Art Awards 2014
    Call for entries Deadline: 4 July 2014 Call for entries Marl Media Art Awards 2014 Dealing with Space in Video and Sound Historically and spatially, the Marl Media Art Awards refer to the orientation as a sculpture museum and to the modernist architecture of the Town Hall completed in 1966. Because spatial reference is the […] […]
  • call: Without Words Film Festival
    Call for entried Deadline: 30 September 2014 Call for entries Without Words Film Festival expects your videos. The theme of “Without Words Film Festival” 2014 is: “Digital superimpositions”. (Wikipedia: A superimposition is a trick used in films, television and photography, in which a second shooting is superimposed photographically over a first shooting. Bo […]
  • call: Videoformes 2015-
    Call for entries Deadline: 1 October 2014 XXX VIDEOFORMES ·19>21 / 03 Prix VIDEOFORMES 2015 Grand Prix VIDEOFORMES de la ville de Clermont-Ferrand, Prix VIDEOFORMES du Conseil Général du Puy de Dôme, Prix Arte Creative VIDEOFORMES, Prix Numéro 23, Prix Université Blaise Pascal des étudiants (Clermont-Ferrand) Prize winning competition open to all video an […]
  • call: Brave New World
    Call for entries deadline 4 August 2014 BRAVE NEW WORLD is a politically motivated screening event at the “Institut fuer Alles Moegliche” in Berlin. A selection of videos of different genres will be screened dealing with fundmental political incidents or radical social changes of the present time. The first BRAVE NEW WORLD screening is scheduled […] […]
  • call: VideoBabel 2014
    Call for entries Deadline: 31 August 2014 VIDEOBABEL: CALL FOR ENTRIES 2014 I. OUR AIMS  Promotion of video art and experimental audiovisual creation in Peru and other countries in Latin America.  Opening of new spaces for the sharing of experiences between Latin American video artists and their colleagues from other parts of the […] […]

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RSS inside higher ed architecture

  • Why no MOOCs on Gaza?
    Blog: GlobalHigherEdI don't know about you, but my sense is global politics seems to be on the up this summer regarding turmoil and debate. And, consequently, there is a lot of debate about conflicts in places like the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and so on. In this context I watched some fascinating, if depressing, documentaries last night on PBS' […]
  • The Psychology of Optimism
    Some people are inherently pessimistic. Others tend to focus on the positive and maintain a sunny optimism. In today's Academic Minute, Michigan State University's Jason Moser digs into the science of this aspect of human nature. Moser is an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State, where he runs the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. A tran […]
  • Bar Exam Technology Disaster
    New law graduates in many states experienced a technology snafu at the worst possible time Tuesday night: as they were attempting to upload bar examinations just before deadlines in their states. Many reported spending hours trying and failing to upload their answers. ExamSoft, a company that manages the bar test submission process in many states, acknowledg […]
  • Admiral Named as Next Chancellor of U. of Texas System
    The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Tuesday evening named Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, as the sole finalist to become chancellor of the system. A Navy SEAL and an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, Admiral McRaven is best known as the official who designed and oversaw the operation th […]
  • Med Schools Criticize Report on Financing Medical Education
    A new report by the Institute of Medicine, issued Tuesday, called for an overhaul of federal financing of physician training and residency programs. The report questioned the idea that the United States needs to increase the number of physicians it trains, but said that there is a need for much more accountability. "Current financing -- provided largely […]
  • New study notes diversity issues in admissions employment
    Survey finds that women and minority professionals don't rise through the ranks in college admissions offices. Editorial Tags: Admissions […]
  • Next Step in Affirmative Action Case: Full Appeals Court
    Lawyers for Abigail Fisher on Tuesday filed an appeal in her suit challenging the way the University of Texas at Austin considers race in admissions. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a 2-1 ruling, this month rejected Fisher's challenge. Her lawyers could have appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already co […]
  • U. of Massachusetts at Dartmouth ordered to promote a professor
    State board orders U. of Massachusetts at Dartmouth to pay damages after finding that an Asian woman's bid for full professor status was not handled in the same way as other applications.     Editorial Tags: Faculty […]
  • Review of Anna M. Young, "Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement"
    Many a thick academic tome turns out to be a journal article wearing a fat suit. So all due credit to Anna M. Young, whose Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement was published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. Her premise is sound; her line of argument looks promising; and she gets right to work without the rigma […]
  • NCAA settlement includes $70 million for concussion testing
    NCAA agrees to create $70 million fund to diagnose concussions and related ailments, but lawsuit settlement won't provide any money for those who need care. Editorial Tags: NCAA […]

RSS inside higher ed: outside architecture

  • Why no MOOCs on Gaza?
    Blog: GlobalHigherEdI don't know about you, but my sense is global politics seems to be on the up this summer regarding turmoil and debate. And, consequently, there is a lot of debate about conflicts in places like the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and so on. In this context I watched some fascinating, if depressing, documentaries last night on PBS' […]
  • The Psychology of Optimism
    Some people are inherently pessimistic. Others tend to focus on the positive and maintain a sunny optimism. In today's Academic Minute, Michigan State University's Jason Moser digs into the science of this aspect of human nature. Moser is an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State, where he runs the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab. A tran […]
  • Bar Exam Technology Disaster
    New law graduates in many states experienced a technology snafu at the worst possible time Tuesday night: as they were attempting to upload bar examinations just before deadlines in their states. Many reported spending hours trying and failing to upload their answers. ExamSoft, a company that manages the bar test submission process in many states, acknowledg […]
  • Admiral Named as Next Chancellor of U. of Texas System
    The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Tuesday evening named Admiral William H. McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, as the sole finalist to become chancellor of the system. A Navy SEAL and an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin, Admiral McRaven is best known as the official who designed and oversaw the operation th […]
  • Med Schools Criticize Report on Financing Medical Education
    A new report by the Institute of Medicine, issued Tuesday, called for an overhaul of federal financing of physician training and residency programs. The report questioned the idea that the United States needs to increase the number of physicians it trains, but said that there is a need for much more accountability. "Current financing -- provided largely […]
  • New study notes diversity issues in admissions employment
    Survey finds that women and minority professionals don't rise through the ranks in college admissions offices. Editorial Tags: Admissions […]
  • Next Step in Affirmative Action Case: Full Appeals Court
    Lawyers for Abigail Fisher on Tuesday filed an appeal in her suit challenging the way the University of Texas at Austin considers race in admissions. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a 2-1 ruling, this month rejected Fisher's challenge. Her lawyers could have appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already co […]
  • U. of Massachusetts at Dartmouth ordered to promote a professor
    State board orders U. of Massachusetts at Dartmouth to pay damages after finding that an Asian woman's bid for full professor status was not handled in the same way as other applications.     Editorial Tags: Faculty […]
  • Review of Anna M. Young, "Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement"
    Many a thick academic tome turns out to be a journal article wearing a fat suit. So all due credit to Anna M. Young, whose Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement was published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. Her premise is sound; her line of argument looks promising; and she gets right to work without the rigma […]
  • NCAA settlement includes $70 million for concussion testing
    NCAA agrees to create $70 million fund to diagnose concussions and related ailments, but lawsuit settlement won't provide any money for those who need care. Editorial Tags: NCAA […]

RSS residency unlimited

RSS media art platform

  • Akademie Schloss Solitude sponsors young artists, scholars, scientists, and econ...
    Akademie Schloss Solitude sponsors young artists, scholars, scientists, and economic professionals via (paid) residency fellowships. Are you interested in applying for a residency fellowship? The application round begins on July 1, 2014, and ends on 31 October, 2014. Info and application: - Akademie Schloss Solitu […]
  • Digital Creativity Awards, for makers from Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Wallonia, Flander...
    Digital Creativity Awards, for makers from Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels. Deadline for submissions is 29 September 2014. Images - Animation, Audiovisuel, Jeux vidéo, Images de synthèse, Technologieswww.plaine-images.frCluster for dig […]
  • Hack the Bells - the world’s first remix competition for carillon. http://hackt...
    Hack the Bells - the world’s first remix competition for carillon. - Homehackthebells.orgHack the Bells is the world’s first remix competition for carillon. This project is an exploration in sound, vision, and performance that asks artists and new media visionaries to use the bells as they see fit - to hack the bells. […]
  • Video Works 2015 Open Call Deadline: August 20, 2014
    Video Works 2015 Open Call Deadline: August 20, 2014Video Works 2015 Open […]
  • The call for entries for VIDA 16.0 is open until July 31st. There are a total of...
    The call for entries for VIDA 16.0 is open until July 31st. There are a total of 82.500 in prizes for finalized projects as well as production incentives. for entries VIDA 16.0 | VIDA | Fundación Telefónicavida.fundaciontelefonica.comCall for entries VIDA 16.0VIDA is the first internation […]
  • The Athens International Film Festival wants your films: Call for entries until...
    The Athens International Film Festival wants your films: Call for entries until July 13th| the festival , entry form | AIFF 2013 | enen.aiff.grThe Athens International Film Festival now accepts film submissions. AIFF is seeking features, documentaries, short films for the 20th Athens... […]
  • 15 June: Lunch Bytes Amsterdam, at FOAM.
    15 June: Lunch Bytes Amsterdam, at FOAM. release | Lunch Bytes Amsterdamwww.foam.orgAfter having successfully taken place in Washington DC, the series will now be presented in Amsterdam by the Goethe-Institut and Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. Lunch Bytes is a series of discussions which examine the increasin […]
  • MARL Media Art Awards 2014:
    MARL Media Art Awards 2014: MEDIENKUNST-PREISE 2014 - Auschreibung 2014www.mkp-marl.deMarler Medienkunst-Preise 2014 Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl Creiler Platz, Rathaus D-45768 + 49 (0)2365 / 99 26 61 […]
  • BRAVE NEW WORLD is a politically motivated screening event at the “Institut fue...
    BRAVE NEW WORLD is a politically motivated screening event at the “Institut fuer Alles Moegliche” in Berlin. A selection of videos of different genres will be screened dealing with fundmental political incidents or radical social changes of the present time. The first BRAVE NEW WORLD screening is scheduled for September 2014 in collaboration with “artvideoKO […]
  • Workshop for professionals working in the field of script and story development...
    Workshop for professionals working in the field of script and story development (screenwriters, editors, tutors, developers, commissioning editors, producers, decision makers). Application deadline: 1st June 2014 for the workshop in Amsterdam, 4th – 8th November 2014 […]

RSS digalarti

  • Appel à projets - Anthropologies numériques 3ème édition
      APPEL À PROJETS ANTHROPOLOGIES NUMÉRIQUES - 3e édition CLÔTURE DES CANDIDATURES : LUNDI 27 OCTOBRE 2014   Les Écrans de la Liberté et Le Cube organisent la 3e édition de la manifestation "Anthropologies numériques" qui propose un espace de rencontres et d’échanges (projections, débats ...) autour d’écritures visuelles, sonores et médiatiques qui […]
  • [Concours] Proposez vos teasers pour la Semaine Digitale de Bordeaux
    Depuis quatre ans, la ville de Bordeaux rattrappe son retard dans le secteur du numérique en organisant la Semaine Digitale. Elle rassemble des artistes, chercheurs, innovateurs sur différentes actions : expositions, workshops, conférences, spectacles. La prochaine édition se déroule du 13 au 18 octobre 2014 sur le thème "La donnée et les objets connect […]
  • [Appel à projet] Mapping
    Les Rencontres Audiovisuelles lancent un concours international de mapping vidéo, ouvert aux étudiants et professionnels de l’audiovisuel, du film d’animation, des arts numériques, du graphisme… dans le cadre des Journées européennes du patrimoine 2014. Les créations devront être conçues pour le Monument aux Morts de la place Rihour à Lille, à partir d’une m […]
  • [appel à projet] Faites parler les objets
    Nous connaissons bien les objets connectés, voici venu le temps des objets conversationnels. Ces objets se connectent à vos réseaux sociaux et conversent pour vous en postant une image, un tweet, etc. Justin Blinder a réalisé un plaid connecté qui partage avec vos amis votre satisfaction à être enveloppé par lui.  Dans le cadre de la première MakersFaire par […]
    La galerie d'art contemporain Les Territoires à Montréal lance un appel à projet pour Automne 2014 - Hiver 2015 dans le cadre de son programme MAPPE. Dates limites :
 Pour automne 2014 : 30 mai 2014
 Pour hiver 2015 : 15 août 2014 MAPPE est un programme d’exposition et de mentorat qui fournit aux artistes de la relève les outils essentiels au démarrage […]
  • [Agenda] Printemps numérique à Montréal
    Cette année, Les célèbres festivals MUTEK et ELEKTRA fêtent leur quinzième anniversaire et joignent leurs programmations pour la première fois du 27 mai au 1er juin. Baptisé EM15, l'évènement couvrira toutes les disciplines des arts numériques, électroniques et des nouveaux médias. Vous verrez donc des musiciens bien connu des dance floors comme Ricardo […]
  • Appel à candidature Prix Cube 2014
                                                                                                     L’APPEL À CANDIDATURE EST OUVERT ! CLÔTURE : LUNDI 12 MAI 2014 - 12h CANDIDATURE SUR WWW.PRIXCUBE.COM   Le Cube organise la 2ème édition de son Prix Cube, un prix international pour la jeune création en art numérique, et lance l'appel à candidatures qui doit […]
  • Deuxième édition du Prix Cube
    Le Cube, haut-lieu de la création numérique implanté à Issy-les-Moulineaux, lance son appel à candidature pour la deuxième édition du Prix International Jeune Création en Art Numérique. Jusqu'au 12 mai, les artistes de moins de 36 ans pourront proposer une œuvre dans les domaines suivants : interactivité, générativité, réseau, internet, mobilité. Attent […]
  • Concours de création vidéo par les inRocKs et Sosh
    Depuis 10 ans, Sosh aime les inRocKs lab parcourt la France à la recherche de musiciens. Pour la première fois, le concours s'ouvre à la création vidéo : vidéo d’art, film court, court métrage d’animation et clip. Un jury de professionnels de l’art contemporain, du cinéma et des cultures numériques remettra deux prix : celui de la création vidéo ouvert […]
  • Résidences de recherche et production
    Programme de résidences RECHERCHE ET PRODUCTION Date de tombée : 15 avril 2014 Géré par des artistes, pour des artistes, le Cabinet est le laboratoire idéal pour fraterniser et créer dans un environnement professionnel et stimulant. Organisme à but non lucratif spécialisé en photographie actuelle, il soutient la carrière de ses membres en leur offrant, à pri […]

RSS digelarti appel a projet

  • Appel à contribution : City Lights – Festival VIA 2014 - deadline : 08-03
    Le projet évolutif City Lights (Digital Video Windows), initié par l'insitut numediart et déjà été présenté en avril 2013 lors du 175è anniversaire de la Faculté Polytechnique, vise à créer, sur la façade du bâtiment de l’UMONS, rue de Houdain, un espace de mapping architectural ouvert à la participation citoyenne. Numediart, (Institut de recherche pour […]
  • فͤ҈ͥ҉ͦ҈ͧ҉ͨ҈ͩ҉ͪ҈ͫ҉ͬ҈ͭ҉ͮ҈ͯ҉ͨ҈ͬ҉ͧ҈ͣ҉ͨ҈ͧ҉ͯ҈ͮAppel à projets - Mobile Art(s) & Network(s) Awards 2014 - - deadline : 10 mars
    Dans le cadre du festival VIA (le manège.mons) et en partenariat avec la Coupole Numérique (regroupement des opérateurs numériques de la région montoise) initié par Mons2015 Capitale européenne de la Culture, Transcultures, Centre des cultures numériques, propose, avec le soutien de Mons 2015, une introduction à la diversité du Net Art via 3 journées consacr […]
  • Sélection de projets Art Numérique en crowdfunding
    En tant que membre "Mentor" de KissKissBankBank, nous soutenons régulièrement des projets liés à l'art, ou parfois plus largement à la création numérique. Voici les récents projets que nous suivons, n'hésitez pas à leur apporter vorte soutien (en contribuant à leur collecte, ou plus simplement, en les partageant à vos contacts). Et si vou […]
  • [appel] Coordonnateur du Prix des arts médiatiques de l'Alliance des Arts Médiatiques Indépendants
    L'Alliance des arts médiatiques indépendants (AAMI) recherche un Coordinateur de son Prix des arts médiatiques, à Montréal (Québec). Afin d'aider dans les domaines de la communication et du développement et de promouvoir l’Alliance des arts médiatiques indépendants et le secteur des arts médiatiques aux donateurs actuels et potentiels, aux bailleur […]
  • Call - Prix Transcultures Mobile "Art(s) en Réseau(x)" 2013 - appel à projets - deadline : 01 sept.
    Dans le cadre de La quinzaine numérique de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (21 septembre > 06 octobre 2013), Transcultures organise, en partenariat avec la Commune de Saint-Gilles (Bruxelles), Les Transnomades 2013 (arts en réseaux), un événement spécialement dédié au Net Art, dans sa diversité innovante. A cette occasion, Transcultures avec ses partenai […]
  • [Appel à projets] Prix Vidéoformes
    Depuis sa création en 1984, Vidéoformes accompagne la video et les arts numériques dans le champ de l'Art contemporain. Une manifestation annuelle, des éditions de DVD, résidences d'artistes, constitutions d'archives… Et des compétitions qui donnent de la visibilité à tous les créateurs, confirmés, underground ou jeunes talents. L'appel p […]
  • [Appel à projets] A vous de jouer !
    Grâce aux appels à projet, les structures rencontrent de nouveaux talents. Parmi ceux que nous avons sélectionné, vous verrez des propositions très différentes, résidence, aide financière, diffusion… Vous pouvez retrouver la plupart des centres d'art numérique et leurs caractéristiques sur   Résidence à la Maison Populaire de M […]
  • [Appel à projets] Frontières
    Les technologies ont fait profondément évoluer la notion de frontière au 21e siècle. AntiAtlas des frontières se propose d'examiner ces mutations et leur impact sur les individus. Au croisement de la recherche et de l'Art, cette manifestation transdisciplinaire proposera séminaire, colloque et expositions. L'appel à projet concerne l’expositio […]
  • [Appel à projets] Park in progress
    Depuis 2003, le festival international City Sonic explore les arts sonores sous ses formes les plus variées. Pour son édition 2013, Transcultures lance l'appel à projet Park in progress. Les artistes sont invités à présenter des petites formes (performances, installations, installations, concerts…) inter ou multidisciplinaires intégrant une dimension so […]
  • [Appel à projets] Une bourse pour les créateurs numériques de moins de 30 ans
    La Fondation Lagardère attribue des bourses dans divers domaines de création, dont les arts numériques. La condition, avoir moins de 30 ans et une expérience réussie dans son domaine professionnel. Le dossier est à télécharger sur le site de la fondation et à renvoyer au plus tard le samedi 22 juin 2013. La bourse Créateur numérique s'élève à 25 000 €. […]