Writing with care : Yan Lianke and the biopolitics of modern Chinese censorship
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Author Yan Lianke's experiences with censorship frame this investigation into the relationship between life, politics, and writing in modern China. As Yan's case shows, Chinese censorship goes beyond textual redaction, seeking to reform the very life of political subjects. The effects of this move to bridge politics and life are best demonstrated by acts of internalized censorship (e.g., "self censorship"), widespread in China's modern cultural scene. The historical genealogy of internalized censorship reveals it to be part of a broader Chinese Communist Party program of thought work, engaged in remolding the lives of political subjects. Revisiting the fundamentals of Michel Foucault's biopolitical theory, I argue that this form of censorship plays a key role in the party’s biohistory, the historical institutionalization of power aimed at radically politicizing life itself. The first chapter of this report sketches out the historical foundations of Chinese biopolitics. Regimes of thought work are shown to have been developed as disciplinary techniques of censoring and censuring, systematically deployed to correct individuals' ideological errors. Re-imagining disobedience as illness, the state sought to cure its citizens through "disciplinary care." The Communist Party has thus established institutions seeking to completely fold life into politics; consequently, top-down techniques like censorship have reemerged in the bottom-up phenomenon of internalized censoring. The second chapter returns to the novels of Yan Lianke to argue that his literature responds to the legacy of thought work with a distinct form of "literary care." His recent novels restage historical events in order to narrate confrontations between writers and institutions of state power. Through these encounters, Yan's writing unfolds literary care as a strategy to shield non-normative forms of life against powers aiming to rectify their ideological idiosyncrasies. Literary care thus affirms ways of being that exceed exclusively political interpretive frameworks. In the face of censorship, Yan Lianke does not dream of an autonomous sphere of artistic expression, nor does he campaign for a simplistic notion of intellectual liberty. Instead, Yan Lianke writes with literary care, never neglecting relations between life and politics but maintaining that one is not reducible to the other.