Extending recent seminal studies that focus on networks of multiple actors in Chinese civil society instead of state-society dichotomy, this article explores independent film consumption in contemporary urban China. It shows how a collectiveentity composed of independent films, people, and discourses is assembled to become civil society, despite the continuing existence of government restrictions on independently produced films. Relying on data collected through ethnography set in the capital city of Beijing, I use the “three moves” suggested by Bruno Latour’s recent description of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to follow the actors themselves. I first “localize the global” concept of civil society and its attendant notion of state-society relations by discussing an independently organized film festival in which I participated and observed. Second, by discussing an empirical case of DVD stores, through which independent films circulate, I “redistribute the local” by detailing the processes in which particular local sites of the retail spaces of DVDs are connected to “actants” dispatched throughout the globe. Finally, I “connect sites” by putting to work the conceptual tools provided by Latour including “connectors,” “mediators,” and “plasma.” I conclude by arguing that ANT contributes to a seemingly modest, but essential political task of preventing the hasty closure of what is to be included in the collective, as well as how the collective is to be composed. In the case I examine, ANT clears the path for the future reassembling of civil society in contemporary urban China.
The past several years have seen a surge of interest in Chinese independent films (e.g., McGrath 2008, 2011; Pickowicz and Zhang 2006; Zhang 2007). Existing studies, however, focus on films as “text,” and sociological analyses of production, distribution, and exhibition remain sparse. Utilizing interviews with film directors, highly informative works on the production of Chinese independent films have appeared (e.g., Berry 2004; Berry 2006). Nevertheless, research that deals with consumption, that is, how Chinese independent films are actually circulated, exhibited, watched, and discussed by Chinese audiences is virtually non-existent. In this article, I attempt to fill this gap by presenting an empirical study of independent film consumption in contemporary urban areas of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Chinese independent films, both fiction and documentary, often put forward representations of social issues that differ from those presented by the government-controlled media. Moreover, the watching of Chinese independent films produces discourses on the films, as well as discourses on social phenomena depicted by the films. In other words, these films offer the potential for enabling an important criterion of the existence of public sphere and civil society, as discussed by Jürgen Habermas (1962/1989), that is, “the problematization of areas that until then had not been questioned” (36). As detailed below, however, because China is an authoritarian state under the one-party rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Spires 2011), the processes through which alternative discourses are realized differ vastly from the autonomous model of civil society described by Habermas, which was “constituted by voluntary unions outside the realm of the state and the economy” (Habermas 1992, 453). Consequently, the key research question I tackle in this article is: How is a collective entity—composed of independent films, people, and discourses produced through film consumption in contemporary urban China—assembled to become civil society, given the continuing existence of restrictions on independently produced films?
One of the strongest candidates suited to tackle such a processual question is Actor-Network Theory (ANT), developed by key figures including Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law. The crux of ANT is that there is “No Group, Only Group Formation” (Latour 2005b, 27). In other words, “we follow the actors’ own ways and begin our travels by the traces left behind by their activity of forming and dismantling groups” (Latour 2005b, 29). I engage with and put to work the concepts and tools provided by ANT to tackle my research question.
Specifically, I draw upon Latour's (2005b, 173–246) “three moves.” First, I “localize the global” concepts of “state,” “society,” and “state-society relations” by focusing on an independent film festival in which I participated and observed. Next, I “redistribute the local” by showing how specific local sites such as DVD stores that sell independent Chinese films are connected to different parts of the globe outside of China. Having performed the two moves of disaggregation, I subsequently “connect the sites” by discussing how the locations discussed in the previous two sections are linked as actor-networks composed of humans and non-humans. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on the political relevance of ANT in thinking about the making of civil society in contemporary urban China.
Chinese Civil Society and Actor-Network Theory
Studies on Chinese Civil Society
In Chinese studies, debates on civil society were prompted by the 1989 Student Movement and the CCP’s violent crackdown of the movement on June 3rd and 4th, 1989. Coinciding with the English translation of Habermas’s (1962/1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, scholars’ discussions centered around the question of whether something similar to Habermas’s public sphere and civil society existed in Chinese society. In particular, due to its historical legacy of strong control by the party-state, the issue of civil society’s autonomy from the state was one of the key points of contention. The majority of scholars argued that the fully autonomous sphere of civil society did not exist in China (e.g., Brook and Frolic 1997; Chamberlain 1993). Some scholars rightly critiqued that imposing concepts devised for the study of the historical emergence and disintegration of bourgeois public sphere in Western Europe is unwarranted (e.g., Huang 1993). Others, utilizing the concept of corporatism, emphasized the cooptation of various social groups and hence pointed to the existence of state-society symbiosis (e.g., Dickson 2000–2001; Pearson 1994; Unger and Chan 1995).
As a number of careful empirical studies have accumulated in the past two decades, scholars now increasingly focus on concretely specifying the mechanisms and processes through which “variation in autonomy” (Teets 2009, 334) are manifested in specific locations, whether they be in the sphere of business (e.g., Nevitt 1996; Wank 1999), labor (e.g., Perry 1995; Yang 1989), environmental movement (e.g., Yang 2005, 2009), or cultural organizations (e.g., Nakajima 2010; Yang 1994). For instance, in religion, Ashiwa and Wank (2009, 3–5) propose what they term the “institutional framework” of “multiple actors” and “multiple political processes” in contrast to “dichotomous frameworks,” either pitting religion against the state or emphasizing hegemonic control of religion by the state. In contrast to the zero-sum characterizations of the dichotomous frameworks, the institutional framework “emphasize[s] multiple actors. These various actors include different levels and agencies within the state, religious associations, clergy, religious adherents, overseas Chinese, foreign religious groups, and such sectors as tourism, business education, and philanthropy” (Ashiwa and Wank 2009, 4–5).
Another example of works that transcend the state-society dichotomy is Jessica C. Teets’s (2009) study on the relief and reconstruction efforts by Chinese citizens after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. She attempts to “re-envisage civil society as an action-based category” (Teets 2009, 338). The action-based definition theorizes “the state-society relationship…to be dynamic and contested, and thus not dependent on autonomy as the primary determinant of the relationship but rather allowing for a relational view that includes varying degrees of partnership and collaboration” (Teets 2009, 338).
In sum, recent approaches to the studies of civil society in China converge on the importance of disaggregating the concept of civil society by zeroing in on the specific actions and interactions, both consensual and conflictual, among multiple actors including individuals and social groups. Pushing forward, these existing efforts in disaggregating both actors and actions in Chinese civil society bring us close to the perspectives provided by ANT.
ANT began primarily in the field of science studies, particularly ethnographic case studies of laboratories (e.g., Latour 1987; Latour and Woolgar 1979/1986), but the perspective has since been expanded to diverse topics, including the economy (e.g., Callon 1998), art (e.g., Hennion and Grenier 2000), music (e.g., Hennion 1993), urban studies (e.g., Farías and Bender 2010), drug users (e.g., Gomart 2002), organizations (e.g., Czarniawska and Hernes 2005), and law (e.g., Latour 2002/2010).
ANT is notoriously difficult to summarize and define, as it relentlessly opposes static categories, concepts, and naming (Law 1999, 1–3). There are, however, some entry points from where we can develop our understanding of ANT. John Law (1999), one of the central figures of ANT, posits two initial “stories” (3–4) of ANT. The first is that “[a]ctor network theory is a ruthless application of semiotics. It tells that entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities” (Law 1999, 3). The focus on “relationality” is nothing novel, as most contemporary sociological theories consider the idea as a fundamental point of reference (e.g., Crossley 2011; Donati 2011; Emirbayer 1997). What is unique is that ANT applies this principle equally to both humans and non-humans. Taking seriously the agency of non-humans, ANT sometimes uses the term “actant” to designate the mixing of human and non-human actors (Latour 2005b, 54–55, 106). Law (1999) uses the term “relational materiality” (4) to describe the first story of ANT. This story shows strong influence from semiotics, although ANT emphasizes its application “to all materials—and not simply to those that are linguistic” (Law 1999, 4).
The second “story” of ANT, according to Law (1999, 4) is “performativity.” The notion of performativity points to the processes through which relationally positioned entities sometimes, if not always, become durable, fixed, and taken for granted, or in ANT terminology “blackboxed” (Latour 1987, 258), through those relations.
Both of the two components are based on anti-essentialism (Fuchs 2001), the idea that entities do not have inherent qualities, or essence. It argues that seemingly durable and fixed characteristics of entities, both human and non-human, are spatially and temporally specific results of the relationships in which these entities are embedded. In Law’s (1999) words,
[E]ssentialist divisions are thrown on the bonfire of the dualisms. Truth and falsehood. Large and small. Agency and structure. Human and non-human. Before and after. Knowledge and power. Context and content. Materiality and sociality. Activity and passivity. In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory. (Law 1999, 3)
Extending this rejection of dualities, ANT attempts to “reassemble” (Latour 2005b) the very object of sociology, that is, “society” and “the social.” According to ANT, key conceptual apparatuses of modern and contemporary sociological theories, such as micro-macro linkage, agency-structure framework, and individual-society dichotomy, are inadequate and have to be replaced by more processual, fluid, and situational understanding of society as associations of actants.
At this point, it is useful to recall that the recent studies of civil society in China are moving toward a similar direction, that is, not to take for granted the nature of civil society a priori, but to disaggregate the notion and to analyze the concrete processes through which civil society is constructed by various social actors. In other words, they too emphasize the relationality and performativity in the processes of the making of civil society. To extend these recent studies, I draw on ANT’s additional insights, concepts, and methods to detail the processes through which China’s civil society is being assembled. Yet, unlike existing studies that mostly focus on human actors (both individuals and organizations), I discuss the actor-networks composed of not only humans, but also non-humans.
I liberally draw from a number of insights in ANT but, in particular, those discussed in Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005b), a book that Latour subtitled “An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory.” The book is a kind of “travel guide” (Latour 2005b, 17) for “sociology of associations” (9), which opposes the idea within “sociology of the social”—namely that some essential categories such as “society” or “the social” exist. Latour (2005b, 6) invokes the etymology of the word “social,” the root, seq-, sequi, which means “to follow,” and the Latin word socius, which means “a companion, an associate.” True to the etymology, sociology of associations follows and examines “a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements” (Latour 2005b, 5), including both human and non-human ones.
In the book, Latour presents us with “three moves” to help us follow the actors and trace their associations. The first move is “localizing the global,” that is, the proposition that no such thing as “global” exists; what exists is a connection of multiple localities. Put another way, the first move is “to lay continuous connections leading from one local interaction to the other places, times, and agencies through which a local site is made to do something” (Latour 2005b, 173). With this move, we will be able to avoid blackboxing what in ANT is referred to as “the social.” We will also be able to refrain from jumping to “Context, Structure, and Framework” (Latour 2005b, 173) without describing how the social is actually assembled by the local actors themselves.
The second move is “redistributing the local.” This move makes clear that local face-to-face interactions never conclude themselves in one place. For example, a heated debate in a classroom on two 19th century philosophers is not possible without being connected to these two philosophers, who lived in different places and times from those of the classroom, not to mention non-human objects such as texts, desks, and chairs that might have been made in faraway places and times (cf. Latour’s example of an local amphitheater connected to an architect living “fifteen years ago and two hundred kilometers away” [2005b, 194]).
The third move is “connecting sites.” If what appears to be global is connections of numerous local sites, and what appears to be micro face-to-face interaction is connected to distant places and times, then how are these sites connected and how are we to study these connections? In this article, I perform these three moves in turn.
Data and Methods: Following the Actors
As mentioned, ANT sometimes use the term “actants” in order to highlight the inclusion of non-human actors in their description, in addition to human, social “actors.” Once the inclusion of both human and non-human actors is clearly recognized, however, ANT scholars use the terms “actants” and “actors” interchangeably. I follow their usage by using the two words interchangeably except where clear highlighting of non-human entities is necessary.
“Independent films” here refer to relatively low-budget films, including both fiction and documentary, targeting a relatively small group of audiences whose members are particularly interested in the Chinese equivalent of “art-house” films. Especially with the increasing availability of portable digital video (DV) cameras, as well as personal computers and software to store and edit films, independent filmmaking in China has been on the rise since the late 1990s. Some films are explicitly banned by the state authority (Berry 2005) (as in the case of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Frozen ) while others are illegal simply because they skip the government censorship process. The directors of these Chinese independent films share experiences of having to deal with the issues of rapid social change and attendant social problems emerging in the urban areas in the 1990s, such as increasing social inequality, unemployment, and deviance of youth. Directors of these films are often called the “urban generation” (Zhang 2007). Most, if not all, of these films are denied distribution and exhibition through legal channels because they do not go through the government approval and censorship by the Chinese film bureaucracy. Hence, the alternative social spaces and media of film watching I discuss below are crucial means through which Chinese independent films are circulated, exhibited, watched, and discussed by the urban audiences.
I conducted ethnographic participant observation of Chinese independent film consumption in the capital city of Beijing for more than 18 months from February 2003 to August 2004, and again throughout three summers in 2005, 2009, and 2011, observing and taking fieldnotes in various settings including film clubs (that is, social organizations where people gather, watch, and discuss Chinese independent films), independently organized film festivals, and DVD stores. I have been actively involved in independent film consumption practices, and at one time, was one of the main curators of a film festival organized by a film club (see the section “First Move,” below, for more details), which gave me an opportunity to closely observe the internal workings as well as external connections to other entities like state-bureaucracy. I conducted 103 semi-structured interviews, recording more than 120 hours of input. A typical interview lasted approximately 45 to 90 min, while some lasted more than three hours.Footnote 1
As Latour (1999) clarifies, if the term “theory” only means “to explain the actors’ behaviour and reasons” (21), ANT is “a method and not a theory, a way to travel from one spot to the next, from one field site to the next, not an interpretation of what actors do simply glossed in a different more palatable and more universalist language” (20–21, emphasis added). In this respect, ANT’s method is clearly inspired by ethnomethodology (e.g., Garfinkel 1967, 2002). According to Latour:
For us, ANT was simply another way of being faithful to the insights of ethnomethodology: actors know what they do and we have to learn from them not only what they do, but how and why they do it. It is us, the social scientists, who lack knowledge of what they do, and not they who are missing the explanation of why they are unwittingly manipulated by forces exterior to themselves and known to the social scientist’s powerful gaze and methods. (Latour 1999, 19)
Because ANT is “a way to travel” (Latour 1999, 20), a brief description of how I encountered and learned more about the topic is in order, so as to better contextualize the empirical findings presented as I “follow the actors” in subsequent sections.
At the beginning of this research, through my friend’s introduction, I met an independent film director, Wang Shiqing. He had made a film about the SARS epidemic in Beijing entitled SARS in Beijing (2003). According to the director’s statement,
In the spring of 2003, Beijing was hit by an outbreak of atypical pneumonia called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The epidemic sparked off a public panic and soon, people were fleeing the city in droves. On May 8, 2003, I decided to go to Beijing’s west railway station to film and interview some of the travelers. This film is a record of the events I witnessed that day in the station. (Wang 2004)
I obtained a DVD copy of the film burned by the director himself. In early May 2003, when Wang made the film, the Chinese government had already acknowledged the severity of the SARS epidemic, but the discourses available through official news media were heroic and effective, if difficult, tacklings of the issue by the government (Eckholm 2006). In contrast, Wang’s film, moving his camera around Beijing’s west railway station, followed the movement of people, both those fleeing and those coming into the city through the station. For instance, a scene from the film depicted the misfortune of two young males who had just arrived by train from Guangzhou, a southern city more than 2,000 kilometers from Beijing. They had rushed to Beijing, lured by false advertisements of highly paid temporary jobs as healthcare workers fighting against the SARS epidemic, but found out no such job was available. Crying in desperation, they talked to the camera and explained that they had spent all their money for their travel, and had no money to go back, nor did they have a place to stay for the night. In other words, the film was “assembling the social” in different ways from the mainstream government-controlled media outlets.
Here, an important question arose: whether and where these independent films are distributed and exhibited in China. Clearly, these films cannot be distributed through commercial film theaters or as legal DVDs. I asked around to ascertain where I could watch more of these films in China. Many of my friends suggested I go to film clubs. In particular, they mentioned that film clubs, in addition to their regular single-film-per-event screenings and discussions, often organize film festivals showing and discussing a collection of Chinese independent films over several days. They also suggested some stores that specialized in selling DVD copies of these independent films.
First Move: Localizing the Global: Localizing the State-Civil Society Relations
As I have reviewed, one of the crucial points of debate in the discussions of civil society in contemporary China was the relationship between the state and society. As I have shown, whether emphasizing the power of the state or the resilience of society, the existing views until recently have tended to blackbox the state, society, or state-society relations without carefully following the actors involved in the making of these entities. The first move of “localizing the global” exactly enables us to open up such black boxes. “Global” here could mean “world-wide scale” or something that goes beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. In ANT parlance, however, “global” includes any sort of hasty abstraction or “jump” to macro-structure such as the state, society, and state-society relations. To illustrate how what could eventually be called civil society is being assembled by the actors, I zero in on one specific occasion during which I was both participant and close observer: A documentary “film exchange week” organized by one of the film clubs in Beijing, in particular, the public symposium (yantaohui) held during the festival.Footnote 2
The Documentary Film Exchange Week
The film exchange week was held in the early summer of 2004 and the screening schedule was stretched for seven days, during which 70 documentary films, both Chinese and foreign, were on the program.Footnote 3 In addition to the film screenings, the film exchange week included a well-attended banquet, a public symposium on documentary film, and an opening ceremony, during which five documentary filmmakers, film critics, and film scholars were invited to give short speeches. The main theme of the symposium was “The Creation and the Development of Chinese Documentary Film” (Zhongguo Jilupian de Chuangzuo he Fazhan). The symposium lasted for about three hours and included many heated discussions and more than 60 people attended it. The participants were of very diverse backgrounds, from well known documentary filmmakers to lesser known filmmakers, film scholars, and film studies students, as well as interested citizens. At the beginning of the symposium, eight people, including documentary filmmakers, film critics, and film scholars were invited as panelists to give brief presentations of their observations of the past, present, and future of the documentary film scene in China. After the initial presentations by the panelists, the floor was opened to the audience to express their views. As one of the participants in the film exchange week stated proudly, “This event will be a platform for exchanges (jiaoliu de pingtai) for the documentary film world in China. More importantly, this kind of activity gives people a space for free exploration (ziyou de tanfang kongjian).” In one of the festival organizers’ words, it provided a space for “free exchange” (ziyou de jiaoliu) of opinions.
Indeed, both the panelists and the audience members presented highly diverse and sometimes contradictory views on the past, present, and future of Chinese documentaries. I discerned several topic areas of discussion (Nakajima 2010, 122–128) including: different understandings of the history of Chinese documentary; the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity or non-fiction and fiction; the relationship between filmmakers and audiences; ethical issues pertaining to documentary filmmaking, including the issue of privacy; and state-civil society relations as they pertain to Chinese independent films. In this article, I focus on the last issue of the participants’ understanding of state-civil society relations.
State-Civil Society Relations
At the symposium, one panelist presented his view that the state encroaches on the development of independent documentary films in China. He mentioned a recently published government notice regarding DV film broadcasts, which requires both the broadcasting units and the filmmakers to report their broadcasting and filmmaking activities to the state authority. The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT)—the ministry-level government organization that oversees radio, film, and TV industries—announced the “Notice on Strengthening the Management of Broadcast of Digital Video Films in Film-TV Broadcasting Organizations and on Information Networks Such as the Internet” (Guanyu Jiaqiang Yingshi Bofang Jigou he Hulianwang deng Xinxi Wangluo Bofang DV pian Guanli de Tongzhi) (hereafter “Notice on DV Broadcast”) on May 24th 2004. According to the notice, filmmakers are banned from film-related activities for three years if they violate the notice. The panelist spoke a bit irritatedly, but also with a touch of humor:
My personal view on those regulations is that it is like telling people to always use the crosswalk when you cross the street, and that you will be arrested and won’t be allowed to cross the street for three years if you don’t [the audience laughs]. It’s also like arresting people who don’t get off a bike while waiting for friends. If you wait for a friend and don’t get off the bike, you will be arrested and banned from riding a bike for three years.
In other words, according to his view, the state encroaches on the everyday lives of independent filmmakers. For him, the involvement of the state is inhibiting the development of filmmaking in China. The person continued,
I admit that the effect of this DV regulation might not be as straightforward as it sounds. It’s one thing to put this regulation on paper, but is quite another to implement it. But it definitely affects the dynamics of independent filmmaking in China. Because, as filmmakers know very well, even if the regulation is not fully enforced, the existence of it creeps into your thinking when you make films. One thing for sure is that this kind of activity [the film exchange week] will become more and more difficult to organize.
Then, another panelist partially countered his view. Although he was also negative about the possible interference by the state in independent filmmaking, he took a more “pragmatic” approach, expressing,
If you are banned by the state from making films, why don’t you become an actor? If you are banned from acting, why don’t you become a cinematographer? My view is very different from yours. Although I respect your strong stand against the state, the state is not as capable as some people think. We still have lots of ways to develop filmmaking in today’s China. You only have to be just a little bit smart, to try to work around and find ways to make good films.
As illustrated by these exchanges, highly diverse views on the role of the state and politics were presented during the symposium.
Given that the organizers and participants claimed to have provided the space for free exploration and free exchange, we could jump to the conclusion that this case demonstrates the existence of civil society as autonomous from the state. However, if we implement the suggestion of the first move by ANT (localizing the global) or, in this particular case, localizing the state-civil society relations, a different picture emerges.
The documentary film exchange week was planned to run for seven days, but it was “stopped by the government,” as one participant put it, on the third day. The main organizer of the festival called me that morning and told that the curator of the exhibition hall told him that they could not continue with the screening. At that time, even the main organizer did not know exactly what had happened because he had not talked directly to someone from the government. A couple of days later, after talking to the curator, the main organizer and I found out that the termination of the film event was more a case of self-censorship on the part of the venue rather than any explicit political action by the government. After the first day of screenings, the curator and her boss found larger audiences than they had anticipated as well as a great variety of independent films shown. Due to this, they became afraid of trouble with the government. Given that the event was held right after the SARFT announcement, they were especially cautious. The result was a combination of subtle and indirect pressure from the government and self-censorship on the part of the people working with the festival.
Of interest here is that even after this matter of self-censorship became known to the core organizers of the activity, many people who had attended the exhibition continued to stick to the discourse of “the Film Bureau (a SARFT division which specifically oversees the film industry) closed down our activity.” To know more about what actually happened in the process, I interviewed one Film Bureau official and asked what he thought about the recent publication of the Notice on DV Broadcast. He appeared to be taken by surprise and told me, “What is that notice? I’m not aware of the publication of that notice.” He asked a younger official who was sitting by us, and after finding out the details of the notice from him, told me, “Oh, that notice wasn’t published by us but by the SARFT above us.” It turned out the notice was under the jurisdiction of SARFT, which manages all the media industries, including radio, TV, film, and Internet content, rather than the traditional film bureaucracy centering on 16 mm and 35 mm films, which is governed by the Film Bureau. Moreover, while the Film Bureau was not directly involved in closing down the film exchange week, a number of participants, if not all, still claimed that the Film Bureau was involved in stopping the activity.
This episode indicates the importance of following the actors by keeping the social, in this case civil society, “flat” (Latour 2005b, 165–172), that is, not jumping to pre-given categorizations (e.g., autonomous civil society) that explain away local sites without capturing the specific connections performed by actors themselves. First, as I have described, power neither came from above, from the state, nor did it come from the civil society in the abstract. Power was embedded in the entire actor-network composed of numerous actants, including the Film Bureau officials of different seniority, the hierarchical organizations in which the Film Bureau was positioned within the Chinese bureaucratic system, the laws and regulations passed, the curators of the venue of the festival, the organizers and participants of the film festival, and the independent films screened and discussed.
Second, although the Chinese film bureaucracy is powerful, it is not omnipotent. Consider, for example, that many of the participants in the film exchange week thought the Film Bureau was directly involved in shutting down the event; it might first appear as a naïve misunderstanding or lack of knowledge on the part of the participants about the objective reality that the Film Bureau’s main jurisdiction is over 35 mm (and 16 mm) films for theatrical release and not over independently produced DV films. However, on closer examination, the Notice on DV Broadcast explicitly mentions the “Film Management Regulations” (Dianying Guanli Tiaoli), which were published in 2002 and administered by the Film Bureau to manage the film industry based on 35 mm (and 16 mm) films, as one of the regulations to be followed by independent DV filmmakers because there are no comprehensive regulations on independent DV filmmaking comparable to the film-industry-based regulations. For example, the fifth clause of the Notice on DV Broadcast explicitly mentions,
When entering film theaters, popular broadcast media such as TV film channels, and other public places, and also when participating in film festivals (or film exhibitions), etc. both in China and abroad, DV films shot with DV cameras or film works that are converted to [35 mm] films should be administered by the “Film Management Regulations” and other related laws and regulations. (emphasis added)
Although this clause is referring to relatively large-budget DV films or films converted from DV to 35 mm for theatrical release, it can be read as simultaneously targeting independently produced DV films for relatively small-scale, non-commercial audiences, such as the film exchange week. Hence, it is not simply a misunderstanding, but “translations” (Latour 2005b, 108)—a process of transformation through a concatenation of actors—of the ambiguities and gaps in the government’s ability to manage and administer the rapidly developing world of independent DV filmmaking.
Third, this episode demonstrates that independently produced films and the civil society they assemble are independent, not because they are completely disconnected from the larger context of the state and the economy, but because they network with the state and the economy in localized ways. In ANT terms, there is no broader global context, structure, or framework such as civil society, the state, or the economy outside of local actor-networks. In sum, the first move of localizing the global “render[ed] visible the long chains of actors linking sites to one another without missing a single step” (Latour 2005b, 173), and the move enabled me to advance one step closer to describing better the assemblage of civil society in contemporary urban China by the actors themselves.
Second Move: Redistributing the Local: DVD Stores in Beijing
The second move clarifies that local interactions never conclude themselves in one place, but are connected to various locations of the globe outside China. I show this through an examination of DVD stores that sell independent Chinese films.
The main format of watching independent films is DVDs (including both regular DVDs and Blu-ray Disks). DVDs are used both in individual viewing and collective viewing, such as in the film festivals I mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, given that the majority of Chinese independent films are not officially permitted, getting private-viewing or screening copies can be tricky. If you know independent filmmakers personally, you may have opportunities to get DVD copies of films directly from them. More often the distribution of DVDs occurs through semi-illegal DVD stores. Despite periodical governmental crackdowns, small makeshift shops that sell (mostly) pirated films continue to survive throughout China’s urban areas including Beijing (Landreth 2011).
A number of these stores are found around university campuses in the Haidian District, the northwestern area of Beijing, and have a bit of an “underground” feel to them, hidden in alleys and behind backdoors. For instance, a DVD store near Tsinghua University is located on an alley and operates in one of the rooms of the traditional Chinese courtyard (siheyuan). The shop has been in operation for about a decade and is dedicated to selling DVDs of Chinese independent films.Footnote 4 They also stock non-Chinese films, but the focus is on films not easily available in mainstream DVD stores. They also sell books related to film, literature, and art. This particular store is attached to a small café and, although its operation is irregular, the café serves coffee, tea, and some light snacks when it is open. The shop owner is quite knowledgeable about independent films in China and abroad, and answers questions buyers may have on rare films. He is also an artist and the store is decorated with his oil paintings inspired by such diverse artists as the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, and the French painter Jean-François Millet. Many college students as well as professors specializing in film studies frequent the shop, and it is one of the most famous in Beijing’s independent film world. It is open to the public in the sense anyone can come into the store and purchase books and DVDs. However, due to its location, it is difficult to find the store if you are simply walking around the city. Many, if not all, of the customers are either acquaintances of the storeowner or people referred by friends. In fact, I would have never visited if I had not been connected to this store through a friend of mine. While I was conducting research in Beijing, I came across an e-mail message from an American doctoral student from a university in New York. She was interested in studying film and literature in Beijing and was about to begin a one-year field study at the same Beijing Film Academy where I was based. In an e-mail list for people studying Chinese film and literature circulated from a server in Ohio, she sent an inquiry asking if there was someone on the list who was willing to reserve a room at the student housing at the Beijing Film Academy. Because I was studying at the Academy at the time, I volunteered to help her reserve a room. About a week after her arrival, we met to introduce ourselves and our research projects at a café near Beijing University, and at that time, she told me this shop was a good place to find difficult-to-get DVDs of Chinese independent films. After I got to know the store, I introduced it to a handful of scholars, both Chinese and non-Chinese, based in universities throughout the globe, e.g., London, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, Beijing, and Tokyo. Because some of the films are non-Chinese films, this small location is connected to all the places around the globe where these non-Chinese films are produced and made into DVDs. Chinese independent films not officially released in China due to government prohibitions are legally released in other countries and contribute to redistributing this small location to different parts of the world. The store is even connected to The Netherlands, Norway, and France through the inspirations the storeowner received on his oil paintings from the painters mentioned above.
In other instances, DVD sellers are more discreet. For example, another café located near Beijing University has been in operation for several years, and the English words “COFFEE,” “READING,” and “CINEMA” appear on the name card as well as on the outside wall of the café.Footnote 5 The café serves relatively high-quality coffee (including Illycaffè, a coffee brand produced in Trieste, a seaport city in northeastern Italy bordering Slovenia), tea, snacks, and some light foods. The shelves of the café are filled with books and magazines related to literature, art, film, and fashion, and the café customers can freely browse these while sipping a cup of coffee. Through my Chinese friend’s introduction, I found out that the café also sell DVDs in the back room, but these items are not openly promoted; they are sold only to selected customers. The process of buying DVDs is secretive and tightly controlled. After asking for a DVD, customers are taken to a room at the far end of the café that is hidden behind a red velvety curtain. Customers are permitted to browse the DVD collection only one person at a time to ensure privacy and confidentiality. At the time of my fieldwork observation in 2009, the café staff brought three baskets of DVDs, one by one, each containing about 100 DVDs. As far as I observed, all of the DVDs are independent or classic art films in China and abroad, both fiction and documentary. For example, I noticed copies of films by Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky, Aki Kaurismäki, Alexander Kluge, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Ying Liang.
Once I learned about this cafe – just as with the DVD store – I introduced the store to a number of friends throughout the globe, expanding its connections beyond China. Also, all the DVDs stocked at the store contribute to redistributing the local since films they sell are coming from all over the world. In both the DVD store and the café, action exceeded face-to-face interactions. Different kinds of connections “re-dispatched and redistributed” (Latour 2005b, 192) these “local” sites to far-flung places.
At this point, the role non-human objects play in this second move must be highlighted. For local interactions distributed in different places and times to be connected to each other, non-human objects Latour (2005b) calls “articulators” or “localizers” (194) play crucial mediating roles. In my empirical case, for instance, a DVD copy of Akira Kurosawa’s film I found in the store helps redistribute the local place to a film studio in 1950s Japan, where the film was shot, or to an illegal factory in southern China, where the pirated DVD copy was produced. Notably, the redistribution of this DVD store to various faraway locales contributed to its status as one of the leading DVD stores that stock Chinese and foreign art films in Beijing. Human actors, of course, all play an important part in the process of redistribution, but not without the assistance of objects. Thus, in addition to the inter-subjectivity between human actors, Latour (2005b) suggests we “should add the inter-objectivity that has dislocated actions so much that someone else, from some other place and some other time, is still acting in it through indirect but fully traceable connections” (196).
Other interesting observations can be made following ANT’s focus on materiality of non-human objects, which, as I have mentioned, play a crucial role in this second move of redistribution. Because I was told by my Chinese friend that they sell DVDs, I went to the café knowing that they carry DVDs. I wondered, however, how this friend of mine found out about the existence of a back room DVD store. I asked my friend, and he replied,
That’s a really good question. Actually, I found out myself without anybody telling me. You know, I’m a film studies student and I like Chinese independent films. It takes a bit of an effort to obtain DVD copies of these films because they are illegal. I’ve found many of these stores in Beijing, some through friend’s introduction, but others just through serendipity. You know the store Red Devil?Footnote 6 That one I was told about by my friend. But this store, I actually found out myself. They put signs saying “COFFEE,” “READING,” “CINEMA” on the store’s outside wall. I just was walking by and the word “CINEMA” caught my eye. So, I went in. I ordered an iced coffee, and noticed a kind of strange, red velvety curtain that seemed to hide some back room. I cannot put it into words, but because of my experience finding out good DVD stores, something clicked. And it’s kind of obvious, right? That red velvety curtain is kind of enticing, don’t you think? Anyway, I thought maybe they stock DVDs there. So, I asked a café server if they had any interesting DVDs. That’s when I found out about the back room where they sell DVDs.
In ANT terms, the non-human objects of signs on the outside wall as well as the red velvety curtain led my friend to find out about the selling of DVDs. These two actions of non-human objects, however, are still human-centered in the sense the non-human objects are treated only as objects that are cultural-semiotically interpreted by a human actor--in the case of the signs, the English language of “CINEMA,” and in the case of the red velvety curtain, a sign of enticement.
Repeated observations at the café helped me uncover more material workings of the red velvety curtain. Watching other guests going into the back room, I noticed the materiality of the red velvety curtain works well as a separator between the café and the back room.Footnote 7 First, especially in the evening when the café is at its busiest, the café’s main-room lights are dimmed and the café becomes a bar serving alcohol. But the backroom lights are kept bright so that customers are able to look at the covers of DVDs. Without a relatively thick and dark color of red velvety curtain, the café would not be able to hide what is going on in the brightly lit backroom, which could lead to trouble due to the illegality of the operation. Second, because the curtain is made of one narrow sheet of cloth measuring roughly 80 centimeters in width and two meters in height, and does not have a center slit, to enter and exit the back room, a person needs to navigate around only one side of the curtain, an action that effectively prevents the visibility of the back room from other café customers. If this separator was a solid door or a curtain with a center slit, then the inside would be in much more open view. In sum, through the “hybrid” (Latour 1991/1993, 10) of human-mediated cultural semiotics and material semiotics, this nonhuman object of red velvety curtain, in addition to humans, assembles the existence of this DVD store as a node in the actor-network of Chinese independent film consumption.
Another point to note is my friend’s highly sophisticated, but ineffable and embodied sense for finding good DVD stores. Without anybody telling him that there was a hidden DVD backroom, he could sense that there was something going on. These kinds of practical senses and skills are called “plug-ins” in ANT terms (Latour 2005b, 204–213). It is similar to Pierre Bourdieu’s (1972/1977) notion of “habitus” (82-83), but different in that the plug-in “does not come in bulk any longer [as in class habitus] but literally in bits and bytes” (Latour 2005b, 207). In other words, the notion of plug-ins follows the principle of ANT in that it argues that different plug-ins which characterize a human actor come from all the actants connected as an actor-network with a particular human actor as a node, and are not reducible to macro social-structural categories such as class. In Latour’s (2005b) own words, “If you began to probe the origin of each of your idiosyncrasies, would you not be able to deploy, here again, the same star-like shape that would force you to visit many places, people, times, events that you had largely forgotten?” (209).
By examinnig a local DV store and a café through the lens of ANT, I have distributed the local to many directions to which the star-like shape—ANT’s favorite metaphor for actor-networks—leads.
Third Move: Connecting Sites
Now that I have localized the global and redistributed the local, the third and the final move Latour proposes is to connect the sites disaggregated in the previous two sections. Here, three new questions arise (Latour 2005b, 221). The first question is “to detect the type of connectors that make possible the transportation of agencies over great distance and to understanding why they are so efficient at formatting the social” (Latour 2005b, 221). In other words, if what appears to be global, macro-structures, such as the state and civil society, are composed of connections of many different places and times, and what appears to be micro, face-to-face interactions results from many connections extending to far-away places and times beyond the local, how are we to understand the mechanisms of these connections? In answering this first question, I discuss what Latour (2005b) calls “standards” and “collecting statements” (221–232). The second question is to understand the precise nature of “mediators” (Latour 2005b, 232–241), that is, connections as potential sources of transformation and modification. The third question is, “What lies in between these connections? In other words, how vast is the terra incognita we will have to have blank on our maps?” (Latour 2005b, 221). Put another way, how are we to understand the not-yet connected, standardized, or accounted-for? This not-yet-accounted-for element is what Latour (2005b) calls “plasma” (241–244).
What Latour (2005b, 228) calls “standards” are “some sort of universal agreement” that make possible the comparison of agencies located in different sites. An example Latour (2005b, 228–229) cites is standardization, classification, and formalization in metrology, such as the international prototype kilogram (IPK), made of a platinum-iridium alloy. IPK is both local and global (Latour 2005b, 228)—local because it is kept in a specific vault of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sèvres, France, but also global because the kilogram clearly makes possible comparison, exchanges, and communications among goods, services, and people across the globe in different locations and times.Footnote 8
More specifically, in the case of Chinese independent film consumption, the circulation depends on the standardized formats of technology of mechanical reproduction. Before the emergence of the technology of DVD in 1995 and its eventual spread to China, video home system (VHS) videotapes and video compact disks (VCDs, a digital format created in 1993 to store moving images on a CD) were the main media for watching Chinese independent films. However, due to the higher quality of DVDs as compared to VHS and VCD, the main format has now become DVDs (both regular DVDs and Blu-ray Disks). DVDs are used both by individual viewers and film festivals such as the one I described earlier, and the distributions of DVDs occurs through semi-illegal DVD stores I have already examined. As elsewhere, the circulation of Chinese independent films in Beijing depends in part on the existence of standard technological formats for storing and playing the independent films.
The significance of the apparently mundane standard of DVD format can be highlighted when we compare it with the standard of 35 mm films. First, compared to the reproduction of (pirated) DVDs, reproduction of 35 mm celluloid films requires much larger scale and expensive facilities and equipments, which would be out of reach for most of the producers of pirated DVDs. Hence, if it were not for the technological standard of DVDs, DVD stores through which most of the Chinese independent films circulate would not exist. Second, even if the reproduction was possible, the sheer physical size of the 35 mm film role would probably deter many of the individual consumers of independent films from wanting to own them privately. Third, the projection of 35 mm films requires expensive 35 mm projectors, as well as large space for exhibition, which almost make impossible the type of small-scale collective viewing of independent films such as in the film clubs and independently organized film festivals discussed earlier. We could go as far as to say that without what appears to be the mundane existence of standards, in this case, the format of the DVD, the consumption of independent films, and hence, the particular collective of civil society in China I examine in this article, would not exist.
What Latour calls collecting statements are analogous to what is called discourse in contemporary sociological theory, that is, a particular, preferred way of talking about or representing social reality, which at the same time limits alternative ways phenomena could be discussed. Citing Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s (1991/2006) notion of “justification” as an example of collecting statements, Latour states that “they not only format the social but also provide a second order description of how the social worlds should be formatted” (Latour 2005b, 232).
As I have examined through the public symposium held during the film festival, the collecting statements on the state-civil society relations played an important role in activating the shapes of actor-networks; in this particular case, more confrontational versus pragmatic strategies in dealing with the state. More specifically, a speaker at the symposium argued that the government censorship and state intervention were the ultimate causes of difficulty facing independent film production and consumption, and suggested confrontational strategies. Another speaker, however, while acknowledging the potential power of the state, pointed to the gaps and weaknesses in government control of Chinese independent films and suggested more practical strategies of accommodation and negotiation with the state. Although the two sides did not agree on the exact nature of the state-civil society relations, they both collected and stated actor-networks in their own concrete ways. In sum, by closely examining collecting statements—that is, discourses that forge various actor-networks as collective actors--we will be able to clarify how concrete, meticulous actor-networks come to compose macro structural actors and forces such as the state, civil society, and state-society relations.
Mediators, according to Latour’s (2005b) definition, “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (39). For example, with wide availability of DV cameras and personal computers to store and edit the films, virtually anyone can make films. But for the films to become a social reality, they have to be distributed and exhibited through the sites I described earlier—film festivals and DVD stores—as well as connected by all the actants as mediators in actor-networks comprising each of these sites. For instance, the red velvety curtain in one of the DVD stores may seem too trivial to be included in the analysis of Chinese civil society. As I have shown, however, without the hybrid of material (e.g., effectively hiding the sale of DVD from public view) and symbolic (e.g., enticing the potential buyers) mediations of the red velvety curtain, independent film consumption as a form of civil society might not have emerged in its present form.
Another empirical example of the workings of mediators can be observed in the episode of the premature closure of the film festival I discussed in the first move above. The closure was not simply a decision of the government to stop the activity, nor was it a simple decision of self-censorship on the part of the organizers. Rather, it was the effect of the entire actor-network composed of heterogeneous mediators—e.g., the Film Bureau officials of different ranks, the hierarchical organizations within which the Film Bureau and the SARFT position themselves, the laws and regulations, the curators of the venue, the organizers and participants of the event, and the contents and the combination of the independent films shown and discussed.
Hence, following all the actors and carefully examining the roles of mediators are essential steps toward better understanding the nature of connections in various actor-networks of Chinese civil society.
What Latour (2005b) calls plasma is “that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized or subjectified” (244). In the case of my empirical observation, my ethnography was based in the city of Beijing, one of many urban areas existing in the PRC. I have made short visits, researched, and found similar sites of circulation of independent films in other major cities in China including Shanghai and Guangzhou. However, remaining rural areas of China are vast and, although I have travelled through some rural areas, I have not encountered sites where independent films are circulating, and hence have kept the motto of ANT: “[D]on’t fill in the blanks” (Latour 2005b, 246). On the one hand, the notion of plasma is quite mundane because it clarifies the scope conditions of research. On the other hand, it is one of “the most exciting aspects of ANT” because it shows “the extent of our ignorance and the immense reserve that is open for change” (Latour 1999, 19). In other words, the concept of plasma lies at the heart of ANT’s emphasis on the potential for processual assemblage of the social, in contrast to analyses that begin with the pre-configured categories of the social, for instance, the rigid notions of the state, civil society, or the zero-sum relations between the two.
Conclusion: Reassembling Civil Society in Contemporary Urban China
In conclusion, let me revisit the key research question posed at the beginning of this article: How is a collective entity composed of independent films, people, and discourses produced through film consumption in contemporary urban China assembled to become civil society, given the continuing existence of restrictions on independently produced films?
As I have reviewed throughout this article, most recent studies of civil society in China have converged on the importance of disaggregating the concept of civil society and the state by zeroing in on the concrete local actions and interactions, both consensual and conflictual, among multiple actors, including individuals and social organizations. In many respects, these existing efforts in disaggregating both actors and actions in Chinese civil society dovetail with the three moves I implemented. Beyond the commonality between the two components of literature, however, this ANT-inspired analysis of independent film consumption has enabled me to clarify some of the processes through which the Chinese civil society is being shaped by a wide range of actors, not only within but beyond China, beyond civil society, beyond the state, and beyond the present temporality—the Internet communications that extend the reach of DVD stores globally, the plug-ins of the friend who told me the existence of the secretive process of finding difficult-to-obtain independent films, the 19th century artist Van Gogh, who has inspired the owner of the DVD store, and the material-symbolic hybrid of the red velvety curtain. Among these, of course, are non-human actors that have been neglected by even the otherwise relational approaches to Chinese civil society.Footnote 9
Finally, what are the broader political implications of the descriptive findings laid out in this article, especially considering I have dealt with the topic of civil society, which inevitably entails normative and political moments? To fully answer this question, more detailed discussions of the history and institutional conditions of the emergence and development of civil society in China are required. However, this is beyond the scope of this article. I would suggest, however, that the descriptive study such as the present one does entail a political project. Due to its orientation to descriptions, ANT has often been criticized as not having “critical leverage—being content only to connive with those in power” (Latour 2005b, 251). ANT’s response is deceptively simple, but intriguing. In Latour’s own words,
[T]o study is always to do politics in the sense that it collects or composes what the common world is made of. The delicate question is to decide what sort of collection and what sort of composition is needed. This is where ANT might render its contrast with the sociology of the social more vivid. We claim that the controversies about what types of stuff make up the social world should not be solved by social scientists, but should be resumed by future participants and that of every moment the “package” making up existing social links should be opened for public scrutiny. (Latour 2005b, 256–257)
In other words, ANT’s politics are to continuously renew, refresh, and put into public discussion so that participants can themselves compose and recompose civil society.
ANT’s politics are in clear contrast to the way in which most scholars, including Habermas (1962/1989, 1981/1984, 1981/1987), imagine civil society and other public spaces—as a transparent inter-subjective space of disinterested, rational communication aiming for consensus among human actors detached and abstracted from their actor-networks. Latour finds this untenable and problematic:
We were told that all of us—on entering this dome, this public sphere—had to leave aside in the cloakroom our own attachments, passions and weaknesses. Taking our seat under the transparent crystal of the common good, through the action of some mysterious machinery, we would then be collectively endowed with more acute vision and higher virtue. (Latour 2005a, 20)Footnote 10
ANT replaces the above view of civil society with much more open-ended space assembled by numerous actors, including both humans and non-humans with their heterogeneous networks of attachments. Furthermore, ANT presents the crucial role provisional disagreement plays in the composition of civil society, as opposed to Habermasian consensus buliding.Footnote 11 In Latour’s words,
[W]e don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible or wish to fuse together but because we are brought by divisive matters of concern into some neutral, isolated place in order to come to some sort of provisional makeshift (dis)agreement. (Latour 2005a, 13)
Direct quotes from my informants in this article come from digitally audio-recorded data, which were first transcribed in Chinese, and then translated into English by the author.
Many of the film clubs in Beijing organize de facto “film festivals” (dianyingjie). Film clubs, however, often use less conspicuous terms such as “film exhibitions” (yingzhan) or “film exchange weeks” (dianying jiaoliuzhou) to avoid being noticed by government authorities. According to a person who has organized a series of events in Beijing, “The word ‘festival’ is only allowed for a government-sponsored event, like the Shanghai International Film Festival or the Changchun Film Festival. When we organize a de facto festival, we use the term ‘film exhibition’ to avoid political trouble.”
I have been observing this club since February 2003, and the club has organized seven film exchange week events in the past decade. General orientation and the format of the festival have remained the same. In this article, I draw on data from the 2004 festival because this occasion was the only time I participated in the festival as one of the organizers (a curator of a section of the festival) and not just as an audience member. The experience gave me the most pertinent materials to examine the question of the state-civil society relations discussed in this section. Descriptions of this event in this section partly draw on Nakajima (2010, 127–128, 132–134).
I have been observing this store since the early 2000s, and it has gone through some modifications in the interior layout. However, the location and the basic orientation toward Chinese independent films remain the same. The specific description in this section is based on my most recent visit to the store and an interview I conducted with the store owner-manager on 16 June 2011.
This description is based on my observations and interviews with the store manager on June 20 and 24, 2009. To protect privacy and ensure anonymity of the café and its personnel, I refrain from directly naming the café.
He is referring here to the first DVD store I described earlier in this article. Red Devil is a pseudonym I use to protect the privacy and anonymity of the store.
For a similar but more extensive discussion of the “mixing of humans and nonhumans,” see Jim Johnson’s (pseudonym for Bruno Latour) (1988) sociology of a door-closer.
See Lampland and Star (2009) for more examples and detailed analyses of standards.
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for helping me clarify the argument in this paragraph.
I am grateful to the guest editors for pointing me to this and the next quotes from Latour (2005a).
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I would like to thank the guest editors Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Diana Graizbord, Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, and the editor David Smilde for their insightful feedback and guidance. I also wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. Last but not least, I thank Rebecca Hanson for her superb editorial support.
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Nakajima, S. Re-imagining Civil Society in Contemporary Urban China: Actor-Network-Theory and Chinese Independent Film Consumption. Qual Sociol 36, 383–402 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9255-7
- Actor-Network Theory
- Civil society