This piece is about 20 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Shanxing Wang and Nathan Brown and Jacket magazine 2007.
Shanxing Wang might variously be described as a poet, as a scientist, and as a political activist. His groundbreaking debut volume, Mad Science in Imperial City, synthesizes these three vocations, fusing Wang’s past a scientist and an activist in 1980s China with his present situation as a poet writing in America under the “War on Terror.” Published by Futurepoem in 2005, Mad Science was awarded the 2006 Asian American Literary Award for poetry. It has been described by Lyn Hejinian as “a work of genius,” by The Believer as “an extraordinary work of collapsed geography and conflated event,” and by Brian Kim Stefans (in the Boston Review) as “a brilliant gem dropped through the keyhole from an alternate universe.”
Wang’s work is particularly notable for its tonal capacity to evoke a tragicomic affective vulnerability through extreme denotative rigor. Indeed, Mad Science exhibits a ’pataphysical impulse toward the mathematical formalization of historical processes and the algebraic encoding of subjective experience. The equations and the scientific diagrams that constellate the book’s pages map a highly complex non-territory opening between two discrepant upheavals of the contemporary East and West (the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 and the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001) while also serving to index the contingent encounters and emotional investments of a life that ricochets between these historical brackets. Perhaps the primary import of Wang’s first volume lies in its compelling demonstration that a political poetics fully engaged with the problematics of identity might remain faithful to historical particularity and autobiographical specificity while developing a highly abstract formal language.
Wang was born in the Shanxi Province of China in 1965, “on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.” He studied Mechanical Engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University and was an active participant, as a faculty member in Beijing, in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations during the spring of 1989. In 1991 he moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at U.C. Berkeley. In 2001 he began taking creative writing classes while teaching Engineering at Rutgers, eventually giving up that position in order to focus on writing, attending further workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and at Naropa University. He currently lives in Queen’s, New York, where he is engaged in research toward a second book.
This interview took place in Manhattan through the morning and early afternoon of November 13, 2006. I had traveled from Los Angeles to present a paper at the annual meeting of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. Having just read Mad Science in Imperial City during the previous week, I contacted Shanxing before flying to New York to ask if he might be available for an interview while I was in the city. With what I have since come to recognize as his characteristic openness and generosity, he agreed to the following interview despite the short notice.
Nathan Brown: For a small press publication, Mad Science in Imperial City has been getting a lot of attention since it came out last year, and I think it’s one of the most impressive debut volumes of poetry I’ve read in a long time. It strikes me as a book that has been gestating for a long time, dealing with material that you’ve been thinking about for years, and which you’ve really had to work through. When Emerson responded to Whitman about Leaves of Grass, he said it was a book that seemed to have had “a long foreground.” Perhaps that’s a rather grandiose reference, but I’m wondering if you can tell us about the foreground of Mad Science and about the process through which you came to write the book.
Shanxing Wang: It has been a long time, and not just in terms of the actual composition. I think the first impulse for the book, though maybe not in this form at the time that I first conceived of it, was about ten, actually twelve years ago, around 1994. The summer of ‘94, I went to Berkeley. I was walking on Telegraph Avenue, and there was a book fair. Some lady showed me her first novel, just published...You know I always wanted to be a writer, but I never wrote anything, even in Chinese, I never wrote anything since college. So I bought her book and then she signed it. And that got me thinking about writing a novel. And then I went back home and started taking some notes, which was the first time, really, that I actually started physically doing some writing, in my notebook. A few lines or something. That’s about it, you know. Then school starts, classes, exams, and everything was always put into the background.
Then, around 2001, seven years later, just before 9-11, the summer of 2001 — that’s the first time I took a summer course. It was a one month long, intensive introduction to creative writing, including poetry, fiction, drama, everything.
And that was at Rutgers?
Yeah, at Rutgers. And actually I knew nothing then about writing, at all. I didn’t know any work in the American canon. I never really read anything significant before I came to the U.S. So, at that point we really started writing fiction, and poetry, and drama.
And I tried to dig out the old notes from Berkeley and tried to materialize them. That was really my first attempt at putting something together. But it was really more tangential — not directly related to the core issues of the book as it is now. But I was just trying to see “How to Write” basically. And I remember I asked the teacher, you know, what’s the difference between poetry and fiction? And her answer was that poetry works in lines and fiction works in sentences. And that was always kind of hanging there.
You can really see that tension between “poetry” and “prose” in the book.
So I really got into the more serious issues of the book in the fall and in the spring — that’s when I took a longer writing course. The summer course was really not that rigorous. My teacher in the longer course, Sabrina Orah Mark, had just graduated with a degree in creative writing and had come to Rutgers. And she was very encouraging of my writing, even though I had great difficulty, frankly speaking. I made a lot of errors. And I had to use the dictionary all the time. It was really very hard, actually. Very, very hard.
We started with very short pieces, wrote stories. And then I tried to apply for to an MFA program, for fiction. That application got rejected, but now I’m very happy, actually, with the way that worked out!
Yeah, it seems to have worked out for the best.
And then at the end of the semester, Sabrina gave a reading at the Cornelia Street Café in the West Village. That was the first reading I went to. And she encouraged me to take her poetry workshop during the next semester. So the most significant work on the book began during the second semester — I was taking a poetry workshop with her and a fiction workshop with another instructor.
So this was during the winter of 2002?
Yes, through the spring of 2002. So I was really working through that material then, working through the form of the book, though a lot of that material is not included. And at the end of that semester we were introduced to Lyn Hejinian’s work, A Border Comedy, and that was very significant for me because before that I had mostly been reading canonical work, and it never really felt like it was part of me. The Language of Inquiry had just come out, and we read that, and that was the first time I read Stein, through Lyn’s essay. And “The Rejection of Closure” — we studied that essay in class. Then we had to write a review of a book of poems by a language poet, so I took out Michael Palmer’s Sun, and I wrote something on that. And it was through that book that I found a strategy. I think that’s the book, really, that made an impact on me.
It’s interesting that Sun was so important to you, since it was published during the late 1980s, which is the period that is most at stake in the content of your work.
I’m very conscious about those kinds of links. I remember reading his book Notes for Echo Lake on the subway in New York, and I couldn’t get it, but I just loved it, and it was that that really made me want to write poetry. And I didn’t know yet if I could, but I wanted to try. It was that book that made the decision much easier, because I was really swaying between poetry and fiction, because I always felt the limits of poetry — you know, a one-page poem in a book, or even a prose poem — I always felt the limitation of that.
I wanted to ask you about the form of the book. I think you can really see the traces of you beginning to investigate writing and thinking about writing fiction — first of all because the text isn’t lineated for the most part — but also in its structure. It’s interesting that you never felt any connection to the form of the single discrete poem in a larger collection or an anthology.
That’s obvious in the book, which is structured in 4 sections: “PVD,” “J Integral,” “A’s Degeneracy,” and “T-Square.” Each of those is very much a separate part of the book which has its own logic and feels distinctive, but at the same time there certainly is a narrative that runs throughout, or at least there’s a tight consistency of concerns that runs through the book. How would you describe the relationship between these sections: do you think of this as a “collection” of poems? Or as a serial poem? Or do you think of the book as one long poem?
I tend to think of it in that last sense, as one long poem, even though there are different titles for different sections. There are a lot of persistent concerns between the different parts. Not links like in a narrative fiction. But I think of it as one project. Of course the composition of individual pieces happened at different times. And we actually did reorder those pieces a few times before publication.
So you were still working on the book after your classes at Rutger’s, and then you took more creative writing classes at Naropa?
Actually, first I went to the Poetry Project in New York. That was in the fall of 2002, when I left Rutgers. So that was when I officially became a poet [laughs]. That’s when I took Anne Waldman’s workshop. We met 4 times, and I met a lot of people that way. She gave us a lot of exposure to Pound’s poetics, ideas about history and the image, and the politics of that. So I thought, huh...you know...cool [laughs]. And we looked at some other contemporary work. And then at the end of the class everyone read a piece. So I read “J Integral,” at that time with a different title, and in a different version. And then suddenly everyone was clapping, which hadn’t happened before in the workshop, and Anne Waldman said that she wanted more work. So this book is in some way an answer to that request.
So “J Integral” was the first section that you wrote?
Yeah, that was the first one, and I think it works as a link between all the sections. And it was also the first poem that I published. It appeared in 2004 in the May issue of 580 Split, before I knew about the book publication.
And how did you find that — getting into publishing, looking through journals? How did you orient yourself to different presses and journals?
Well, Sabrina gave us a list of journals. So I tried a lot of them and got mostly rejected. But 580 Split picked up on “J Integral.” And I was very happy actually — at that time it was a huge thing for me, because I didn’t know about the book publication yet. And then a few days later I got a phone call from Dan Machlin at Futurepoem about the book.
So your first poem and the book were accepted for publication at almost the same time?
Yeah. [laughs] And I was in New York at that time, thinking about moving back from California to New York, and I was looking for an apartment. I had almost forgotten about having submitted the book, and then I heard from Dan right when I was thinking about moving back. But while writing the book I had also been to Naropa after the Poetry Project–I went there for two weeks on a scholarship. I drove there. It was Eleni Sikelianos at Naropa who drew my attention to Futurepoem later on.
I wanted to ask you about your relation to “poetic tradition.” When you’re taking workshops you’re reading a lot of other work as well as coming into your own writing for the first time. Are you a poet who thinks very closely about the relation of your writing to poetic precedents? For example I think of someone like Olson really working through The Cantos and Paterson, thinking about what was left to be done with the long poem and taking that as the basis of a poetics — what the previous generation had left undone.
Or I think about Susan Howe’s relation to Emily Dickinson, or Kenneth Goldsmith extrapolating a poetics from indications in the work of John Cage and Andy Warhol. Do you think of yourself as someone who works with poetic tradition in that way, or are you a poet whose work exists in a more primary relation to other fields of concern?
This question of poetic lineage was always stressed during Anne Waldman’s workshop, particularly the history of the New York School. And she introduced me to John Ashbery’s Three Poems. I really loved it. That particular poem has some influence on my work. I mean I was really absorbed in that book. And in Kristin Prevallet’s workshop we explicitly addressed poetics, including revisiting Lyn Hejinian’s The Language of Inquiry and some of the essays there, and also Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee — we discussed her poetics. And she also brought in some of the original publications of the Language school.
I also really like Anne Waldman’s performative poetics. I went to Anne Waldman’s reading of Iovis, which lasted 6 hours. That was an eye opener, because I was thinking at that point of a long poem, and that was really my first example, or first immediate example. Also Lyn’s work — My Life, and A Border Comedy. And then I’ve been reading Ron Silliman’s book, Tjanting. That’s been a fantastic experience, though I have some questions about that project. But I love that kind of effort — you know, “Not this”...”What then” — you know, how do you proceed?
The way that book takes up the question of its own poetics as a means of generating itself...
That effect of accumulation — cumulative sentences. That really had an effect on me. Especially Silliman’s use of a mathematical structure to count the number of sentences.
The Fibonacci sequence.
Right. That book had a major influence on me. As for Olson — I read his “Projective Verse” essay in Paul Hoover’s anthology. Along with Robert Duncan. But I’m not really influenced by Olson. I know a bit about the work of the Black Mountain poetics, but I would align myself more with the Objectivist movement and with Zukofsky. A little later I read “A”, and then in 2004 I went to the Zukofsky centenary conference at Columbia. And I’m also interested in connections between Zukofsky’s work and Stein’s.
The Stein link, particularly through Hejinian, is interesting because the bulk of your book is taken up by one long section entitled “A’s Degeneracy” and that section is internally structured by permutations on and extrapolations from the phrase “How to Write,” which is, of course, Stein’s title. How is Stein’s writing important to your practice?
Well, as I said I met Stein first through Lyn’s essay, and then I read Tender Buttons. And that was really kind of liberating.
Everything there felt so...fresh, and so totally new. Though sometimes you do have to make a real effort to connect. But it’s just so liberating — that was my feeling. So — How to Write — of course I have that book and I’ve read it, but it was really just that title, and that question that she raised. And I just improvised on that. Interestingly, the permutations involve 24 sections and that’s an important structure in the book. You mentioned that there are 4 sections. Initially I settled on 6 sections, and then Dan, the publisher, suggested regrouping it into 5. But I said, no no no, it can’t be 5. It has to be either 6 or 4.
Well, in my consciousness that’s June 4.
June 4, 1989–that’s Tiananmen. So that’s there, my memory of that, that history, through the structure of the book.
You encode that formally.
Yes, that’s kind of a code. It had to be either 6 or 4–there was no compromise on that. [laughs]. So I worked in that one section with 24 parts–built out of 6 and 4.
That sort of coding behind the structure of the book brings up the issue of abstraction. And so does a text like Tender Buttons, which arguably involves a poetics of abstraction, or a reactivation of the concrete through a mode of abstract writing. I wanted to read a page from “A’s Degeneracy” where you address abstraction directly. You take up abstraction self-reflexively in the book as a feature of your poetry and as something other people have warned you away from, which reminded me of Pound’s Imagist warning: “Go in fear of abstractions.” You write: “Yes, I say. His obscure remarks on that little yellow note stuck on my 1st poem, You can use the word W...in your...Poetry is not for you, A. I was told that he was referring to relying on concrete images and metaphors and resisting abstraction in poetry. But I had many grudges against this blasphemous affair between the Deity of Poetry and earthly images and metaphors.” And then immediately on the following page we find a scanned image of a crumpled page containing the definition of “abstraction” from the American Heritage Dictionary. This seemed to me to be one of the key sequences in the book. What is the relation between abstraction and materiality in your poetics?
The section you just read is kind of a poetic argument, or quarrel. Abstraction — of course we have the definition there from the dictionary. But the way it works for me, abstraction is actually very concrete, it’s probably the most concrete way of dealing with some contexts, the most powerful and emotionally intense. “J Integral” for example, that piece, in the end is based on a mathematical equation. And I really felt that there was no other way I could say anything adequate.
There’s a formalization involved in an equation — the formalization of something concrete into a sign that insists on its own materiality. Right after you quote the definition of abstraction — or after you scan the dictionary page, insisting on its materiality as a piece of paper — there’s a passage about reading the entire poetry section of the library with an atomic force microscope. An extreme zoom-in on the textual surface of the poem. This whole section seems to be investigating the way in which the concrete materiality of anything becomes increasingly abstract as one gets closer and closer to it...That the more closely one investigates the material, the more it becomes abstract.
Yes, definitely. That’s a perfect formulation — that the closer you look, the more abstract something becomes. This is especially true in quantum mechanics, or in nanotechnology, for example. If you look at an atom...you know every object is made of atoms, but if you look closely enough at an atom, there is no object. There is no “thing,” basically. And if you look further into the atom, all the protons are identical, they’re the same. The electrons are the same. The universe is the same, at that level. That’s kind of an abstraction. And that abstraction is the basis of a deeper understanding gained by investigating different scale levels.
Maybe we can take that up further by addressing the relation of your work to organic form, or to the different models of “natural” form that poets have used to organize or structure their writing. There’s another passage that I wanted to read in the same poem, “A’s Degeneracy,” that I think is indicative of the approach of your poetics to these issues. Here the speaker cuts his tongue by licking a birch tree, and he’s flooded “with questions about molecular mechanisms of sliding friction between dissimilar solid surfaces.” Further down the page you write: “I must have mistaken the hard-skinned birch outside the nanofabrication lab for the tender thigh of the marble statue. I must have mistaken the transplanted skew symmetric birch matrix greening the postmodern factory complex in the industrial park, the postmortem phalluses, for the lonesome withering willow meditating the nature of slow slaughtering by time at the man-made lake in the heart of the ancient city, the ancient thing,”
I couldn’t help thinking in reading that passage of Frost’s poem “Birches,” and the self-reflexive pathos of his treatment of the birch tree, where the young boy climbing the birch and launching himself out from it becomes a metaphor for poetic process. But aside from that particular reference, what becomes of the legacy of organic form in your poetics, and how do you think that new technologies — like, say, “nanofabrication labs” — affect the poetic practice of mimesis, of imitation, and the models for imitation in poetry?
Well, first, the birch. Where does the birch come from? I have a big problem with nouns, since I’m a non-native speaker. There are all these things I really can’t name. Especially in biology, with animals and plants. I can’t really name that many plants. So every time I imagine a tree, I don’t really know what the tree’s called. I have to ask. Unless I’m in one of those, what are they called...botanical gardens, with all the plaques — then sometimes I’ll go and check. [laughs] But I don’t really have a clear idea about the “birch tree”. But the thing is I know about one tree, from back east, the French wu-tong tree, that I address directly later on. That I know. It’s a huge tree, a lot of leaves that cover the sky, you can’t really see the sky from under it. And people told me, you know, it’s a French wu-tong tree, and I said oh, okay, a “French wu-tong.” [laughs]. So the figure of the tree comes from there. In terms of “organic,” you know, that’s organic. It comes from my grounding as a person, from my childhood. That image started from there, from that memory, and I keep coming back to it. But this birch — I was interested in the sound of that, “birch” — like “bitch” or also like “Bush” — there’s even a little connection to contemporary politics in that word for me, a response to the current of the U.S. around 2003.
A play on the sound of the word itself...
Right, and it kind of takes off from there and I get a bit carried away. But the birch is in a kind of in dialogue with...nanotechnology, for example, or the nanofabrication lab. Or the various other “symbols” in the book, which are mathematical symbols, like the “I”:
Those are basic elements of the poem, those are its “symbols.” And then the letters, as a linguistic unit, for me that’s an atom, a linguistic atom. And nanotechnology works with atoms, atomic scale manipulation. Mostly nanotech builds from the “bottom up,” though it can also be top down in some cases. So the way it works is that throughout the book the letter functions like an atom. You can see that in the titles: “PVD”, “J Integral”, “A’s Degeneracy”, “T Square” — the poem is nanostructured in that sense.
You often take up that sort of play with letters in relation to pronouns, and often in relation to the periodic table. For example, you associate “HE” with Helium, or you take the word “it” and read it backwards as “TI” or Titanium, or you take the word “she” and detach the “s,” then attach an “i” to it so that it becomes “is” or becomes “SI” for Silicon. What does this sort of micro-engineering of pronouns have to do with relationships between subjects and objects, and what does it have to do with the elemental, with the elements of the periodic table?
You’ve mentioned materiality. What are materials made of? They’re made of elements — that’s the basic unit. At the bottom of things, materiality consists of the core elements. You can’t get any more material than that! Then we have these pronouns, and those are big to me, to my thinking. I’ve found that pronouns are very very powerful. So the association between the pronoun and the elements, the I, for example, as a sign and as a person and as an element. That’s a sort of “blurring” of the object, of the material object with the symbol, and with the subject of the pronoun — those getting mixed up. For me it’s very difficult to separate them. At least in my associations, they’re always connected, they’re not really totally independent. And also the association of “she” and “he,” and then the separation of the “s” — the “s” standing for the snake or the serpent in the story from Genesis. And also some confusion, in real life, between the he and the she. I don’t know, at a certain point, when I’m writing, maybe suddenly it just says “she.”
I wanted to ask you about what this has to do with gender. How does bringing in the symbols of the periodic table alter the way we think about gender in relation to pronouns?
The confusion is definitely there between the he and the she. Literally, I always end up mistaking them, just in terms of pronunciation. And certain elements...well, I try to use elements as characters, to use the symbol like we would use the abstraction of a name. For example S could be Sophia or Sodium, and we can explore how that reacts with, say, P, how their chemical properties interact. And maybe there’s some relation there to certain...”events” in real life. Because you know it’s hard to really talk about a real person. This allows one to explore relations more freely; it’s more interesting.
It goes back to abstraction.
These are abstract signs for concrete things, and those signs can be recoded so that they correspond with other concrete things. And the fact that the sign can be associated with something else because of the way it looks also emphasizes the materiality of the sign itself, or the fact that language is abstract and material at the same time.
For me there’s a kind of transcendental element of language. Not in a theological sense. But the abstract function of language can open up a higher level understanding of the material. So that’s why there’s this insistence on that capacity throughout the book.
We’ve been getting into the “scientific” aspects of the book, and in fact the book’s engagement with science is so integral to it that it doesn’t even make sense to speak about it in those terms. Its “engagement” with science is simply what the book is. Could you tell us a bit about your background as a scientist?
Well, let’s see, I started college in 1980, in Mechanical Engineering. So I specialized in manufacturing processes and automation, and we had to work with all the machines in the machine shop. And all of my best friends hated it. [laughs]. And a lot of us were really into music and also into table tennis — which is in the book. So those are the two things that I really learned in college: the enjoyment of classical music and how to play table tennis. The spiritual and physical. I can’t imagine how I could have survived college without that. And most of those people I studied with are in the book in one way or another.
So that was my engineering background... and then I continued to graduate school, more or less against my wishes. Somehow, I don’t know, I just compromised myself by continuing with more of the same thing. Then I came to the U.S. and continued with mechanical engineering. But the one thing that was interesting was that at Berkeley I took some physics courses on quantum mechanics and solid state physics that got me really excited about science. Because that was really my first direct contact with “hard” science. I did some dissertation research with lasers, using lasers to process materials, ceramics and metals. And that partially satisfied my interest in science, but I was always really interested in more fundamental issues. I continued my research as a professor at Rutgers, where we set up a lab called “Laser-Based Micro-Manufacturing.” We spent about one hundred thousand dollars to set up a lab, but we never really did any significant work. And then I left. We engaged with nanotechnology at the very last stage of my work. That was kind of a trend at the time, early in the new millennium. So there’s a nanotechnology theme running through the whole book — as kind of the zeitgeist of the 21st Century.
In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the word “nano” appears in the book 17 times in about 130 pages. One of these references even involves the sentence “work nano, think cosmologic.” Is this an ethical imperative? Do you think that poetry as field of contemporary practice has an obligation to address itself to developments in the sciences?
One thing I was dissatisfied with in contemporary poetry was the lack of engagement with real occurrences in technology and science and with political issues. A lot of the dominant mainstream poets, of course, and also a large number of poets in the more experimental strain, deal with a very limited scope of concerns. Basically I want to engage everything, ideally. Which is of course impossible. In terms of that phrase “think cosmologic”...well, what’s new about nanotechnology? It’s not really that significant scientifically. What matters about it is mostly this change of scale in fabrication. In terms of basic science there’s not much there, though there are some new phenomena — let’s say surface phenomena, in terms of things to do with friction and quantum effects, sometimes. But in speaking about manufacturing: I worked at the macro scale, working with industrial machines and automobiles, at the level of the everyday macro world. And then we ventured into laser manufacturing at the micro level, and then finally began working at the nanoscale.
But ultimately manufacturing, if you trace it back all the way, if you regress all the way back, its like — the Big Bang. That’s the first “manufacturing” really — you know, photons, random fluctuations of temperature, the formation of elements. Hydrogen forms, and titanium, the other heavy elements. Gravitation, planets, stars. That’s where we really come from. And we can try to trace ourselves back to that source of our being. Not just where we are from spatially, in terms of location.
These vast time scales...
I am always concerned with history.
With how things came to be the way they are.
Right, because that’s really key to understanding our problems. You know, I try to figure out this administration in the U.S. Because I didn’t really understand America. I have been living here for fifteen years, and for the first ten years I feel like I had no idea. And then suddenly 9-11 happened, and that completely re-oriented me. That’s basically what I try to deal with in “A’s Degeneracy.”
The question of how to write...
That’s also the question of how to understand our situation, or how to understand all these abstract slogans we’re always hearing.
You often activate nanotech as a directly political issue. In “T Square,” the surface of Tiananmen Square is coated with carbon nanotubes, and this makes the surface frictionless and wear resistant. Later there’s a “nanotech greatcoat” introduced that the speaker is wearing, and it’s absolutely invisible. So you have this invisible clothing. The line at the end of that paragraph is: “We have finally materialized the cloth of the emperor.” So the emperor has no clothes — he’s been exposed, since the coat is invisible. But at the same time that absence of clothing has itself materialized — and this invisible materiality has become the emperor’s “new” clothing. The extremely finite scale at which matter is now fabricated seems indicative of some new political condition. When the surface of the Square is totally resistant to wear, how is resistance possible? How is science engaged in your work as something that is immediately political?
Nanotech has been such a huge thing in the early 21st century — the U.S. Government has spent an enormous amount of money on the National Nanotechnology Initiative. So you could say that’s now directly linked with our “national character.” And then we have this so-called “War on Terror.” You can listen to this rhetoric in the news media, it’s almost like a rape — this kind of invasive aggression on the part of the government. As though the emperor’s clothes have materialized as this brutal nakedness. This language of barbarism.
It resonates with my background, growing up in the Cultural Revolution. I was born just on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, and I went through that, even though I don’t have a very good memory of it. And some of the rhetoric is similar. Here we have this permanent “War on Terror.” There we had a permanent revolution, a permanent “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” It resonates so strongly, and they’re so similar, though when you study the logic they derive from totally different assumptions — a communist country and the logic of capitalism. But somehow these surface phenomena appear so similar. And that’s something that I try to address, politically.
In both cases there’s an attempt to establish a context whose borders are completely undefined — or perhaps defined as infinite. The surface of the imperial Square can’t be damaged — it claims a certain imperturbability.
And also, you can’t walk. The public can’t gather in the Square. But the image that really woke me up, that actually gave me hope, was February 15th 2003, in New York City.
The anti-war demonstrations.
I was so touched, and I had hope, when I saw so many people come out, and it reminded me of Tiananmen. Of course then, in 2004, I watched the results of the election — the map on a big screen — I saw the redness spread over the map. My association is with Tiananmen square — that day on June 4th — redness. Of course the real red in this situation is in Baghdad. But I couldn’t really bear it... the association was too vivid.
The title of the final section is T-Square, and it’s a very challenging title. It implies a lot, in terms of connections between politics and poetics and science. The title links the name of Tiananmen Square, and perhaps the events that occurred there on June 4th in 1989, with an engineering instrument designed for drafting, for making straight lines. What sort of problems does that analogy pose for the issue of “measure” in poetry? For a poetics of precision and accuracy? What’s the ideological value of precision and accuracy in poetry, and how do those poetic values exist in a tension with those of totalitarian politics, which perhaps also — at least on the surface of things — espouses those values as the basis of control over a population?
I think that’s probably the most important and substantial question. It has been in my mind for some time — the problem of measurement. “T Square” links drafting, and measurement, with Tiananmen Square and also Times Square. And also, the more abstract level that I try to reach is “time’s square” — you might imagine a figure for time-space. So measurement has everything to do with fabrication and manufacturing, and composition or writing is a kind of manufacturing, or fabrication process. In manufacturing we have a saying: “if you can’t measure, you can’t manufacture.” So measurement, or metrology, is perhaps the most essential element in any manufacturing process.
Measurement is basically a characterization of errors. Of deviation from the design. One scheme of classification is systematic error. Or we could say a bias. That can be corrected, theoretically. Another type of error is random error, from many factors over which we really have no control, and you can’t really help with that. And measurement is not a one-time thing. There are really many many attempts. You measure many times, and it functions statistically. The first classification, systematic error — I would relate that to the question of ideology. Ideology is kind of a system of ideas. Of rigidified ideas, or ossified ideas. Of beliefs. Prejudices, you could say. And any system or attempt to create a system will induce error. So part of my poetics is to address this issue of error.
We can measure systematic error in terms of “accuracy.” But for random error we use the term “precision.” I don’t know if people distinguish between these two, but in engineering they’re different concepts. If you hit the target, that’s very “accurate.” But if you miss the target, and you miss the target very consistently, you are very precise but not accurate. [laughs] That has to do with the statistics of error.
In terms of poetics, I think... well, some people say that history is series of catastrophes. One big error after another. So when you deal with history in any way, you have to deal with errors. That’s the larger scale. On a smaller scale, on a personal level, our lives are made up of a lot of errors. So that’s being addressed directly in my work — if we can’t necessarily correct errors, we at least have to think about them. And that’s very important to my poetics. Politics is always implicated in these issues, and poetics is, directly, politics. It deals with the politics of error.
I mean ultimately, what is art for, or why do I write? You’re trying to influence people, in their thinking or their imagination, or in the most concrete way, in their action — their concrete errors.
Poetry motivates action as a form of concrete error?
Yeah. Art is not ideology. They’re different things, but you can’t escape ideology. Art convinces people to act, not just to react. That’s really the life of art. The reader’s action — that’s really where the life of a book is.
Following that up — thinking in terms of the reader. We’ve been talking about these major issues like measurement, or precision. In totalitarian political projects those take on a certain value. And maybe in a poetic project they can take on a different sort of value. And maybe a poetics that functions through error involves another framework of value. In terms of reception — the way poetic value is “received” by a reader — do you think that ideology, the association of certain concepts or practices with certain values, functions algebraically? Do you think that concepts and practices can be assigned different values in different contexts, or on the basis of different operations? Or is it the case that, on the contrary, the connection between certain ideas or practices and their valuation can be fixed? By certain events? So one might say that after an event like Tiananmen, for example, a certain term is fixed — that the association between totalitarianism and a particular idea or practice established or confirmed by that event can never be altered? Can values be inextricably tied to concepts, or are those always permeable?
That’s a very difficult question. First of all, I believe that ideology, or ideas or thoughts — thinking — to some extent can be modeled mathematically. Because you know, Leibniz, for example, more than 300 years ago, already had this idea of an algebra of thought. Though that’s obviously an unfinished project. [laughs] And in my experience of writing the book — I certainly feel that I can express complex thoughts and emotions algebraically, through equations.
In terms of a larger picture of things, involving ideology — yes, certain historical events will certainly define some variables and fix the values attached to those. Is that immutable? [long pause]
Well, perhaps it’s possible. But if you look at the way history works, you know, when you look back at some things, even ten years after they have happened, their “meaning” has certainly changed. So I don’t think the value of certain terms can be decisively fixed.
Following up these links between the contemporary political situation that you live in now, that you have to deal with now in America, and the situations that you faced in the 1980s in China: how do you think these two situations relate to each other in terms of the value of democracy? Obviously in the 1980s in China, the demand for “democracy” was the rallying cry of the political movement in which you were involved, and it certainly had a very positive value — perhaps even a necessarily positive value. Today in the political context of contemporary America, democracy operates in a rather different way. It’s called upon to justify a certain kind of imperialism. What’s the status of democracy today? Do you think its traditional association with freedom remains valid? Is it still a valid political rallying cry?
It’s true that in my generation of China, we never lived in a democracy. And that was our rallying cry in Tiananmen Square. Those people, much younger even than you — I was 24 at that time, and I was a faculty member. I was with the students all the time, interacting with them constantly during those months. But I think that at that time — we talked about abstraction earlier — “democracy” was a very abstract idea, in a more conventional sense, at that time. In the sense that it didn’t have an experiential component. There was a kind of detachment from it. We didn’t know what it was, except for the word. It was probably the highest ideal for my generation in China.
For the first ten years here, I didn’t necessarily have a solid understanding of this system of democracy, as an “alien.” But I did really enjoy the feeling of it — I mean, you could feel it in your daily contact with people, and the way in which people said things with no restraint. But you know 9-11 changed things drastically. What I felt is diminishing, through the Patriot Act and through surveillance programs. It’s the fact that democracy is diminishing here that’s really the difficult problem. But the basic principles of democracy — the rights of citizens, the freedom of the press and free expression: those are very essential values.
Could we close by talking about “universality” and “particularity”? There’s been a lot of work in contemporary continental philosophy on the notion of “generic singularities.” Concepts or terms that are universal precisely and only insofar as they are absolutely singular. “Singularity” is also a mathematical term that has a certain resonance with your scientific and mathematical training. I wanted to discuss a passage in Giorgio Agamben’s book The Coming Community...
Someone just recommended that book to me.
Well, let me read a bit to you. Agamben writes that the Tiananmen Square protests indicated the emergence of a new form of political resistance — a form of resistance that doesn’t seek to be represented, but rather seeks to create a new common life outside of representation. Here we’re already involved with aesthetic or poetic issues. Agamben asks, “What could be the politics of whatever singularity, that is, of a being whose community is mediated not by any condition of belonging (for example being red, being Italian, being Communist) nor by the simple absence of conditions... but by belonging itself?” And he writes about Tiananmen: “What was most striking about the Chinese May was the relative absence of determinate contents in their demands (democracy and freedom are notions too generic and broadly defined to constitute the real object of a conflict)... The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever-singularity and the State organization.” Do you think this is an accurate assessment of Tiananmen? How does your work as a writer relate to this sort of politics, if at all?
My dedication of the book is to “all the children and mothers of the 1980s—” There really was a strong sense of community between us all, especially between all of the students, even if it didn’t have a real basis in concrete political goals — in general, for the average participant, there were only very abstract and universal goals, a utopian and dreamlike feeling. It was really like a dream, those two months. The issue of community — it didn’t matter where people were from, you met them walking down the street and just started talking, though you didn’t know anything about each other.
I think it’s a very relevant characterization of that moment, and that sort of feeling was very important to the background of the book.
A final question about aesthetics. The final section of the Mad Science in Imperial City really is incredibly beautiful. What is the function of beauty in your work — particularly in relation to the modes of scientific and mathematical formalization your writing involves, and also in relation to the political concerns we’ve discussed?
Beauty is the beginning of terror! [laughs].
Maybe we should end the interview right there...
The last section, “T Square,” is a turn from “A’s Degeneracy.” It’s the most sincere, personally motivated section of the book, involving a lot of memory work.
It’s almost as though the previous sections of the book are an effort to construct a context in which that sort of work could exist — in which it could be valid.
The last part almost didn’t make it into the book — it was too long. I had to insist on including most of it, though some still got cut. But I certainly worked a long time on that section. It was the last section that I wrote, and there’s still a lot of material there that I have to work into a second book.
Do you have a current project?
Well, I’m working on a book that deals more extensively with my childhood in the Shanxi Province of China, growing up during the Cultural Revolution. And I’m really trying to figure that out mathematically!
Nathan Brown lives in Los Angeles. He is at work on a dissertation entitled “The Materials — Technoscience and Poetry at the Limits of Fabrication,” at UCLA. Recent and forthcoming publications include an article in Radical Philosophy (144) and a piece in Pre-Specifics: Research, Art, Design in an Expanded Field (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2008). An essay on nanotechnology & experimental poetry (“Needle on the Real,” in Nanoculture, London: Intellect, 2004) is currently being translated into Norwegian for the catalog of the Audiatur festival in Bergan, 2007.
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