To understand the power of the digital imaginaries of the Chinese nation state, I argue that scholarship needs to consider how corporeal experiences of digital platforms
support the narrative production of the nation as a unified space. Benedict Anderson (2006: 37–46) famously pointed to the role of print capitalism and the creation of new spheres of communication as a central factor in the creation of ‘national consciousness’ and imagined communities. It is only a small step to extend his discussion to the Internet in China and ask how digital media support national imaginaries. However, as I have argued, a critical analysis has to move beyond an analysis of discourse to consider the corporeal experiences of digital platforms
The digital imaginaries of the Chinese nation state gain power in relation to bodily experiences of digital platforms
. What makes this emphasis on the corporeal important is the question of how imaginaries find traction in people’s lives. To address this issue, I draw on Birgit Meyer’s (2009) critique of Anderson’s emphasis on imagination in the formation of communities. Her intervention seeks to shift our conceptual gaze from the mind, imagination and judgement to the senses, experience and the body. My discussion of digital platforms
and national imaginaries similarly tries to highlight the crucial role of corporeal experience in sustaining national imaginations.
A consideration of the corporeal experiences enabled by digital platforms,
I contend, is crucial to understanding how digital imaginaries of the nation state find traction in people’s lives. Meyer (2009: 3–5) argues that Anderson’s concept of the imagined community fails to consider sufficiently how communities materialize. For this purpose, she introduces the concept of ‘aesthetic formations’, through which (2009: 6) she hopes to shed light not only on the ‘modes though which imaginations materialize through media’, but also on how such materializations produce sensibilities ‘that vest these imaginations with a sense of truth’. By giving more room to materiality and sensation, Meyer hopes to broaden Anderson’s argument while holding on to his focus on media and mediation.
In previous sections, I have highlighted the important role played by discourses around digital platforms
. Such discourses, however, must find purchase in people’s lives. How, then, does the discourse of the participatory and unifying potential of digital platforms
become an experiential truth? Imaginations, Meyer argues, are invested and become matters of truth by becoming ‘tangible outside the realm of the mind, by creating a social environment that materializes through the structuring of space, architecture, ritual performance, and by inducing bodily sensations’ (ibid.: 5). Her argument is directed against ‘a representational stance that privileges the symbolic above other modes of experience, and tends to neglect the reality effect of cultural forms’ (ibid.: 6). Drawing on her discussion, I argue that corporeal experiences of digital platforms
as participatory and unifying can invest digital imaginaries of the Chinese nation state with a sense of truth.
This very truth of digitally mediated communities has been questioned in scholarship, which considers affective experience an insufficient basis for real communities. In online spaces such as blogs, social networks, twitter and video platforms, Jodi Dean (2013: 95) argues, affect is ‘a binding technique’ that is produced through reflexive communication: ‘Every little tweet or comment, every forwarded image or petition, accrues a tiny affective nugget, a little surplus enjoyment, a smidgen of attention that attaches to it, making it stand out from the larger flow before it blends back in’. Such affective links, however, she argues, do not result in ‘actual communities’ but ‘produce feelings of community’. Her argument appears to suggest that online communities aren’t quite real.
However, as with any other kind of community, what matters is that digital communities are experienced as true. Like national communities in general, digitally mediated communities, national or otherwise, become very ‘real’ when they are experienced as such. The more important question, therefore, is how digital platforms
invest feelings of community with a sense of truth. Instead of questioning the actuality of China’s online community, I suggest, we should investigate how uses of digital platforms
and the affective experiences they afford support the digital imaginaries of the nation. Crucially, this mediation draws on a digital aesthetics of access and participation. How China’s online community is experienced is therefore central to the production of digital imaginaries of the nation.
Beyond simply facilitating a national online sphere and a national digital economy, digitality can invest the imaginaries of a participatory Chinese modernity
and a unified nation state with a sense of truth. Efforts to unify a wide range of experiences within the framework of the nation state seek to control the meaning and political significance of digital platforms.
This stabilization of the meaning of the digital, however, takes place in relation to corporeal experiences, specifically in relation to experiences of digital platforms
as participatory. Digital platforms
provide a grammar through which a strong and unified China can be envisioned. They also afford the experiences in relation to which digital imaginaries gain purchase. Accordingly, the digital narration of the nation cannot be reduced to the imagination of a mind, but also needs to include bodily experience and the work performed on digital platforms
, including online environments such as Taobao.
Digital experiences aren’t homogenous in China, and promises of digital participation and ultimately unification certainly won’t convince everyone. However, those who experience digital platforms
as a positive force in their lives are more likely to find the promise of a participatory Chinese modernity
and a unified nation state convincing. The widespread use of the Internet in China
thus provides legitimacy to depictions of a nation that is spatially and temporally unified. To understand the power of digital imaginaries of the Chinese nation state, scholarship must consider how digital platforms
afford experiences of access and participation, as well as show how such experiences are in turn used by the Chinese government as evidence of a digitally flattened and unified national space.