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Nguyễn’s Tale of Kiều as Post-colonial Classic Copyright © 2003 Dennis Redmond One of the most intriguing features of the dawning 21 st century has been the convergence of postcolonialism – understood in the broadest sense of the term, as a cultural condition, political conjuncture, and economic situation, all at once – with quite another concept-turnedperiodization: namely, postmodernism. More is at stake here than the oft-remarked First Worldization of the Third World, the Third Worldization o
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  Nguyễn’s Tale of Kiều as Post-colonial Classic Copyright © 2003 Dennis RedmondOne of the most intriguing features of the dawning 21 st century has been the convergenceof postcolonialism – understood in the broadest sense of the term, as a cultural condition, political conjuncture, and economic situation, all at once – with quite another concept-turned- periodization: namely, postmodernism. More is at stake here than the oft-remarked FirstWorldization of the Third World, the Third Worldization of the First, and the disappearance of the Second. What is at issue is the emergence of a multinational world-system very differentindeed from its Cold War antecedents, everywhere from the geopolitics of the European Union tothe economic might of East Asia, and from the rise of a post-American media culture to theconstruction of the informatic commons. In retrospect, much of the broad appeal of the postmodernisms and postcolonialisms was derived from their capacity to think beyond the usualcategories of the Cold War – most famously, as Jameson’s project of the cognitive mapping of the cultural logic of consumer capitalism, and as Spivak’s meditation on the subaltern or FourthWorld peoples who, although excluded from the demesne of the nation-state, understood the totalsystem well enough to turn the latter’s logic against itself, everywhere from the jungles of Chiapas to the riverbanks of the Narmada.What we have lacked, however, are conceptual instruments capable of triangulating between   the postmodern and the postcolonial, and thereby rising to the concrete level of themultinational. As late as the mid-1980s, the work of postcolonial thinkers such as Edward Saidand Gayatri Spivak remained firmly anchored in a specifically national political and culturalcontext, i.e. the desperate struggle of occupied Palestine and neocolonized India for nationalsurvival, and the identity-politics of a utopian Third World nationalism, respectively. Conversely,Fredric Jameson’s thesis of postmodernism as the cultural logic of consumer capitalism took thehegemonic US media culture of the late 1970s as its starting-point – postmodernism was thehalfway house, as it were, between theories of 1950-style Americanization and those of 1990s-style neoliberalization. Put another way, the leading theories of the 1980s were primarilyaccounts of the localizations which preceded   globalization: Jameson’s breakthrough essay on postmodernism, for instance, diagnosed the multinational corporate atrium out of the spatializedThatcherism of the Bonaventura Hotel, while Spivak’s subaltern crackles with the micropoliticalenergies of the neocolonial favelas – the destitute mass of female laborers, landless peasants, andFourth World peoples spawned by decades of the most brutal neoliberal marketization, not yetconscious of their class identity or capable of organizing a project of resistance in the mold of Porto Alegre.The hallmark of the 1990s, on the other hand, was the emergence of new types of multinational solidarity, capable of combating neoliberalism on its own global turf. The post-colonial reflections of Aijiz Ahmad, Gayatri Spivak, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Enrique Dusselwere very much the transcendental pole of this resistance, precisely where the postmodernmeditations of Fredric Jameson, Pierre Bourdieu and Slavoj Zizek carried the banner of theimmanent resistance. A strikingly similar dynamic can be observed in the cultural field, wherethe stupendous achievements of post-colonial writers, directors and media artists such as Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, China’s Can Xue, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami andPoland’s Krzysztof Kieslowski demolished the prison-house of the Cold War media culture from1  without, precisely where the radical postmodernisms of Germany’s Heiner Müller, Ireland’sPatrick McGoohan, Northamerica’s William Gibson and Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki bored into themediatic infrastructures of the US Empire from within.This is not to argue that the rift between postmodernism and postcolonialism, or more precisely, between theories of First World consumerism and theories of Third Worldneocolonialism, was a mere optical illusion or false problem. This rift marked a genuine socialfault-line, the functional equivalent of what Fredric Jameson called, in a rather different context,the problem of the “vanishing mediator” in Max Weber’s concept of rationalization. This latter expressed the insoluble ideological contradiction between the brittle class compromise of theWilhelmine politics of iron and rye, and German capital’s subaltern position vis-à-vis the British,French and American competition. Rationalization is, in short, what you get when liberalcapitalism and its historical agent, the British Empire, reigned but no longer ruled over theworld-system, and a rather different logic begins to assert itself over the world-market: thearrival of bureaucratized corporations and monopoly capitalism. The “vanishing mediator” of themultinational era, on the other hand, is without question the US Empire, which has declined fromthe undisputed economic and cultural hegemon of the Cold War era to the subaltern object of themultinational capitalism it once spawned. 1 In order to measure the full extent of this decline, it’s worth pausing for a moment toreflect on how thoroughly the era of monopoly capitalism (very roughly, the 1870s to the 1950s)was dominated by the United States. The high point was surely 1945, when the US accounted for almost 50% of global industrial output, generating three times as much GDP per capita than theUK and Sweden, eight times as much as West Germany, and ten times as much as Japan. Withthe assistance of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and the installation of the USdollar as world reserve currency, US military Keynesianism powered the world economy for thenext thirty years, spreading Hollywood, shopping malls and automobilization across the globe.All this changed in the post-1975 conjuncture, when two semi-peripheral regions of theworld-economy – not Japan and Germany, but East Asia and Central Europe – began to catch upwith their erstwhile US mentor, in fields ranging from autos to computers, banking to electronics,and machine-tools to telecommunications. Powered by a wide variety of corporatist and welfaristdevelopmental states, East Asian and EU firms ranging from Sony and Nokia, to STMicro andToyota, rose to global prominence by out-engineering, out-servicing and out-thinking their UScompetitors. 2 By the late 1990s, even that last bastion of US supremacy, namely the media andentertainment biz, suddenly had to contend with powerhouse EU media firms (e.g. Bertelsmannand Vivendi Universal) as well as East Asia’s near-monopoly on the videogame industry (a fieldwith an estimated $49.99 billion in 2001 revenues, according to the Wall Street Journal). 3 Thiseconomic transformation went hand-in hand with a vast financial transformation: by 2001, theUS had not only become the world’s biggest debtor nation (to the tune of minus 2 trillion euroson its net international investment account, a figure equivalent to around 20% of US GDP), buthad to import 400 billion euros per annum from East Asia and the EU, the dominant creditors of the world-system, to pay for its trade and current account deficits and keep its economy afloat. 4  To make a long story short, the US is no longer the economic, financial or even culturalcenter of the post-Cold War world-system, a fact of inconceivable significance to cultural theory.For whatever their other differences may have been, both postmodernism and postcolonialismdid share a common social geography and narrative metric: namely, US economic, political andcultural hegemony – or what we call US monopoly capitalism, the Cold War, andAmericanization, respectively. Postmodernism derived its content from the immanent version of 2  this hegemony, i.e. the US mass media and communications infrastructure, precisely where postcolonialism focused for the most part on transcendental models of Americanization, i.e. the progressive nationalisms and internationalisms of the Second and Third World which reverse-engineered their very own Americanizations, as it were, in order to resist the encroachment of theUS hegemon (e.g. the cultural innovations of Soviet and Third World cinema, as well as the political mobilizations of the anti-colonial movements, national revolutions, and Communist parties). 5  Put bluntly, even at their most radically anti-American, postmodernism and postcolonialism remained all too Americentric, and we will go so far as to suggest that the all- purpose term “Eurocentricism” as a shorthand reference to imperialism ought to be shelved infavor of the more accurate “Americentrism”, “Anglocentrism” and “Francocentrism”, dependingon the national imperialism in question (one could also speak of “Lusocentrism” and“Iberocentrism”). There may indeed be a kind of “eurocentrism” in the future, with a small “e”, based on the EU’s common currency and hegemonic might vis-à-vis the Maghreb and EasternEuropean regions, but this needs to be radically distinguished from 19 th century colonialism and20 th century neocolonialism. What the current usage of Eurocentrism fatally occludes, in particular, is the history of the East Asian nation-states, and in particular the ghastly history of Japanese imperialism, as well as the long-running sub-imperialisms of feudal China vis-à-vis thecultures which became modern-day Korea and Vietnam – the local subvariants, in short, of  Nippocentrism and Sinocentrism. Nowhere are the unique vectors of East Asian nationalism and postcolonial identity morecrucial than in Du Nguyễn’s [pronounced “nwahn”] magnificent verse novel, The Tale of Kiều (1813), the national epic of Vietnam. A high-ranking mandarin who personally witnessed thetumultuous birth of the Vietnamese nation-state, Nguyễn created a masterpiece equal to thegreatest verse epics of Goethe and Schiller, but which has languished in relative obscurity due toall the usual colonial and neocolonial reasons (for one thing, the first English translation was notavailable until the 1970s; for another, Vietnamese language and culture remains vastlyunderrepresented in First World universities). What makes  Kiều especially interesting is itscontemporaneity with the French and American revolutions, and in particular the moment of rupture or break between the revolutionary-national revolutions of the 18 th century and the processes of state-formation in the early 19 th century, i.e. the distance from the storming of theBastille to the Napoleonic Code, or from the shots fired at Lexington to the drafting of the USConstitution.As it turns out, the late 18 th century was an equally momentous period in Vietnamesehistory as well, characterized by a thirty-year cycle of dynastic wars, peasant uprisings, Chineseinvasions, wars of national resistance, and wars of national unification. The cycle officially began with the Tây Sơn rebellion in 1771, one of the first great peasant revolutions in worldhistory. Unlike the peasant uprisings of the European Reformation, which were stamped out withextreme brutality, the Tây Sơn (named after the three brothers who led the revolt) soon grew intoa national movement which toppled the ruling houses of northern and southern Vietnam, andeven carried out a modest amount of land redistribution. This drew the ire of China’s Qingdynasty, which was pledged to support the traditional rulers; the Qing consequently invadedVietnam with a massive army in 1788. Under the leadership of Nguyễn Huệ, the Tây Sơndemolished the invasion force in 1789 via a tactically brilliant Tet offensive. Although Nguyễnlater crowned himself Emperor Quang Trung, he did not live long enough to consolidate hisregime, and his death by natural causes in 1792 sparked a renewed round of civil war. The3  conflict did not end until Nguyễn Anh, the only surviving member of one of the lesser south-eastern ruling families, established the Gia Long dynasty and the first administratively unifiedVietnamese state in 1802.This eventful political history was matched by an equivalent outpouring of literaryinnovation, something attested to by the work of Nguyễn’s contemporary, Hồ Xuân Hương, theother indispensable Vietnamese poet of the early 19 th century, who carried out the sort of nationalrevolution in the field of lyric poetry which  Kiều accomplished in the realm of the verse novel. 6  Nguyễn interwove key strands of this historical period into the narrative fabric of Kiều,transforming an eclectic admixture of Confucian sayings, Buddhist and Taoist lore, classicalChinese literary forms and plebian Vietnamese poetry, proverbs, ballads and folklore into a truenational epic, crackling with the energies of a Napoleonic thunderbolt.What  Kiều offers us, then, is an incomparable opportunity to rethink the development of national culture, nation-state formation, and cultural modernization from a multinational (that isto say, post-American) perspective. Viewed historically, few national cultures have ever emergedin precise lockstep with their corresponding political and economic infrastructures; Emerson andThoreau composed their meditations on the American national character decades after theAmerican Revolution, while Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone , the great Chinese novel of the 18 th century, was written a hundred and eighty years in advance of China’s emergence as a politicalnation-state in 1949. Perhaps the one author who can be said to have produced a canonic nationalaesthetics during an era of national revolution, namely Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, one of thegreatest novelists of the 20 th century, is very much the exception which proves the rule: not onlydo Mahfouz’ later works turn sharply against the official institutions of the Nasserite one-partystate, but the stylistic trajectory from the realism of his Cairo trilogy to the startling modernismof  The Thief and the Dogs , and finally to the full-blown postmodernism of   Adrift on the Nile and Miramar  , recuperates the 150-year span from Balzac to William S. Burroughs in the space of twenty years.If Mahfouz offers an object-lesson in how centuries of past metropolitan aesthetics can bereappropriated by the periphery in a radical turn, then  Kiều offers an intriguing example of how awork of art can, at the right time and place, anticipate centuries of future history, namelyVietnam’s 150-year struggle against French, Japanese and American colonialism. This in turnraises all sorts of interesting questions about how one might periodize a text which seems soutterly asynchronous to its cultural time and place. Certainly,  Kiều certainly strikes many of thesame proto-national chords as Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel,  Eugene Onegin , while itsinvoluted narrative structure bears more than a passing resemblance to the famously binomial protagonists of Weimar theater. But whereas Pushkin’s work retrofitted the superstructure of thearistocratic marriage-plot with a utopian Russian national identity, and where Schiller reverse-engineered a preexisting Swiss national culture into the model nationalism of  William Tell  , Nguyễn will forge a uniquely Vietnamese national identity on the grounds of gender identity- politics. Not only is the central figure of the story is a woman, Kiều Thúy, but much of the plotrevolves around a breathtakingly advanced denunciation of the gender roles and patriarchal clanrelations of late Vietnamese feudalism. In effect,  Kiều turned the familial into the political, morethan a century before the cadres of the Vietcong would put the cultural insight into political practice, by telling peasants in the villages, “We   are not your fathers;  you are our mothers”.One of the key reasons for this startling modernity was the complicating factor of Vietnam’s neighbor to the north, namely China. The territory of present-day Vietnam existed for a thousand years as a tributary province of various Chinese Empires, and it was only after 4
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