Ghost of Revolution
München Hbf. April 10, 2022. Photo: NL.
a conversation, or a prelude Nikita Lin
Q: Ghost of Revolution adopts a rather unusual approach, a hybrid literary format that, for the moment, sounds relatively obscure and a bit confusing. Would you like to describe your original purpose and motivation? What kind of deliberation makes it look that way, which is not like the usual type of a scientific report? Wouldn’t it be easier if you co-authored a scientific article with someone?
The confusion also arises because there is an expectation, or presupposition, that this text is the result of rigorous research and there is scientific data in the background. So how do you present those scientific observations? Since it is called an ‘art-science interface,’ it gives an impression, perhaps a false impression, that it is a translational effort to build interdisciplinary dialogues.
A: You are right. Interdisciplinary dialogues are often more capable of generating questions than answering them. An artist and scholar at MIT once said jokingly that interdisciplinary researchers sometimes (or very often) ‘fall in the gap’ instead of ‘fill in the gap.’ To my mind, it is a matter of how you conceptualize the gap. Commonly, the gap is seen as a problem, and researchers are hired to solve the problem. We need to bring the gap to the same level as the established disciplines, not as a black hole of an abyss that one would not even dare to look at, let alone talk about. However, perhaps the actual situation is precisely the opposite of my observation: there is too much talk of interdisciplinary collaboration these days.
‘Art-science interface’ exactly falls victim to this conceptualizing of the gap. At first sight, it is an abstract (i.e. almost empty) term. One could not find a signified for the signifier, i.e. a concrete object named ‘art-science interface’ in the world; it exists only in correlation to other signs. Ghost of Revolution is an attempt to break this spell or free itself from this immediate, literary, often superficial association of signs. There is more work than just clicking the mouse and drawing a thin line between the two arguable ‘systems of signs,’ i.e. art and science.
My original plan was to co-author an article and get it published in a scientific journal. There are a couple of reasons why I changed this plan. I did not entirely drop the plan, however. The collaboration is still in there. Additionally, I wanted to broaden the scope and gain a certain depth, so I naturally turned to something more experimental, which allows me to look for the specific materials for the building block of my work.
That also explains why Ghost of Revolution is, by nature, a piece of experimental writing, and it’s a collaborative project as well. In it, I deliberately integrate the process of collaboration into the form of the text itself. In this way, the text refuses to be reduced to a two-dimensional representation of something. That is to say, it is not a few pages of neatly typed out sentences, words, or vocabularies. On the contrary, it is actually the first thing I have in mind — an innovative form of writing that can synthesize the collaborative process and the end product, i.e. the final presentation of the text. This goes in the opposite direction of writing a scientific report. You usually take out the rough process, smooth out the undesired roughness and only keep the satisfying findings that correspond to your hypothesis.
That said, I must clarify that I do not reject this scientific type of writing; it is crucial and, in fact, not easy. But I was given more freedom to do whatever I liked with the fellowship, so I decided to do something more open-minded.
Speaking of the necessity of doing this — or to use the word ‘deliberation’ in your question; indeed, it is based on an observation that the usual type of scientific text cannot provoke debates and discussions that my topic involves. They are not ‘accommodating’ enough, so to speak. I needed something more open-minded and similar to a polyphonic form.
Clarity and Sanity
Q: I'm afraid we are still discussing something very abstract. You seem to cause yourself a lot of trouble. Experimental could be innovative, but it also means uncertainty and instability. How do you ensure that this piece of experimental work sustains the expected scientific quality? I mean, it's for a scientific journal, isn't it?
A: Yes, exactly. To simply be innovative in style is not enough. Also, I had to consider how not to compromise its scientific rigor. Basically, the work has to maintain two elements simultaneously: on the one hand, it is experimental and fictional, while on the other hand, it's philosophical and is aimed at articulating ethical and aesthetic arguments. More specifically, the form is brought out through philosophical arguments. It learns from scientific texts as well, for instance the effort involved in attaining a certain clarity of writing.
From the outset, it was clear that I didn't want to write science fiction. And I absolutely do not want to waste my imagination on apocalyptic scenarios in 2022. I just have to keep my eyes wide open and see enough tragic events around the globe. With the ongoing pandemic and the war, the real world is more like a fantasy world. There's a popular saying in China about our current society, which we call an enactment of 'magical realism.' The reality itself is more magical than anything you can imagine.
Therefore, the practice of writing, thinking, and acting must seek clarity of language, which in my mind also means the sanity that gives us the strength to counter-balance all the insanity going on around the globe in 2022.
Q: What type of sanity do you mean? Do you mean normality? Is it a question concerning the possibility of going back to normal that's in your mind?
A: No, sanity has been an issue that existed, exists, and will continue to exist before, during, and after the pandemic. It's always there, and we, both as a society and as individuals, have to deal with it. It's a general condition of human society. But you are right. I need to give a definition of sanity. At least I need a few keywords that can describe roughly the context in which I want to bring in the discussions of sanity. The keywords were somehow already there, to some extent, for the framing of my topic: life, health, technology. But I need to keep narrowing the scope by asking some specific questions. For instance, having this conversation is one way of framing and narrowing it down.
The first question concerns the technical aspect: where am I looking for this sanity? Where is sanity around me? Of course, I'm not saying that everybody is insane around me. In fact, I'm surrounded by the most responsible and amicable people in a research institute, which was unimaginable in the culture I come from. Then another question emerges: what is sanity in different cultural and political systems? How do we talk about it? Such questioning steers me towards the linguistic and philosophical approach.
Writing as Self-Critique
Q: Now I think I understand it a little better with this dire situation of our time as the background. Let's go back to the question of clarity with regard to scientific language. How is this effort of seeking clarity or sanity reflected in your writing? Since you are not writing completely in the style of scientific language, are you thinking of writing as a kind of critique of scientific language?
A: Not writing as a critique of scientific language, it's close, but more precisely, it's writing itself as a practice of self-critique. Writing is a form of art, a very archaic form of art, I must say, also long-lived. But this is easily forgotten nowadays since we have a lot of distractions generated by a variety of new media technologies or communication technologies, which we regard as alternative solutions to old communicative and socializing problems.
Quite obviously, today, when one gets tired after work, one just wants to go and entertain oneself with TikTok. I'm very old-fashioned and don't even have a TikTok account. Those kinds of things are very invasive to me and, in general, not appealing. But writing has always been healing, for me at least, and it is a very economical form of productivity — you, as a conscious human subject, basically just sit and type on your laptop — and it doesn't have to be limited to a two-dimensional representation.
Various creative forms of work using different tools, materials, and methods could also be seen as "writing" in an expanded sense of the term. From a materialistic perspective, writing means actively engaging in production and consumption both at the same time. You are very aware of what you are doing, and you see the potential and limits of what you are doing at the same time. It is this type of awareness or so-called reflexivity that I want to reclaim in writing.
Speaking of scientific language, I regard clarity of writing (which, of course, is not only restricted to scientific language, and it's equally true that not all scientific work articulates itself very well) as a virtue. Here, virtue refers to non-doing or the awareness of what you can't do or what you can but shouldn't; when you write something or say something, having the virtue of clarity in mind, you are not saying things that are nonsensical. You are not saying more, not because you want to hide something or repress something. On the contrary, you keep it open. This is a kind of 'open silence' or 'critical silence.' Does this make sense? No?
Maybe I'm drifting towards the nonsensical myself; I realize I'd better stop here.
Q: All right. What do you consider to be the limits of scientific writing? Do you mean the limits of scientific objectivity, or what?
A: The limits of claimed scientific objectivity have been subject to criticism by scholars. But it's more than that. In terms of language, the tricky thing has to do with the games of the private and the public. There are rules (of games) governing the public domain, but within the private world it is not clear or fully transparent. Of course, it is true that rules concerning public affairs are not always transparent either, and this has to do to some extent with private involvement or privacy. There is, in fact, no clear-cut boundary between the public and the private; the boundary is always challenged and contested.
My point is not about drawing a line between scientific language and non-scientific language but more about how the border is formed; observing for example the role that language plays in harnessing solidarity. That is to say, instead of creating layers upon layers of mediation, language must have some sort of power of being direct and powerful; it connects the private and the public through immediacy. I often wonder what the challenges are that kill such directness.
Q: What are the challenges you have observed so far? Could you elaborate on privacy and publicity a bit more? For instance, what do privacy and publicity mean in terms of scientific writing?
A: I'm not sure if I can use the term 'scientific writing' without getting into more trouble. Let me try to think through the perspective of writing as a material process. In capitalism, writing is part of the system of production and consumption. This also conditions the writing of a scientific report. In this sense, you may question if any clarity in a scientific report could be regarded as a virtue because it's simply following instructions and forms that have been instituted. From this perspective, 'scientific writing' is almost synonymous with being 'non-critical.' It's not possible to proceed with the discussion like this.
Let's take a step back instead. Some would say that anything you write belongs to yourself, and only when it gets publicized does it get into the public domain. I don't quite agree. First of all, writing itself consumes public resources, such as the intellectual references you draw upon — not to mention that huge public infrastructure that provides you with educational access, etc. In my view, a scientific report is both private and public because it concerns self-sovereignty (no one should, in principle, force you to write anything like that) and public interests. Both dimensions (self-sovereignty and public interests) can be easily violated when you see writing as an infrastructural extension of power (consider scientific infrastructure in this case).
In the meantime, when we put privacy and publicity in juxtaposition, we can also see that writing is always being supervised. This supervision could be read as a mechanism to monitor and regulate violations of self-sovereignty and public interests. From an ethical perspective, there is both strong supervision and weak supervision. Codes that regulate academic writing and publication belong to the category of weak supervision. The virtue of clarity in a scientific report is not absolute; it rather depends and is conditional. To attain strong supervision, we have to return to the author as a conscious human subject who is able to examine themself from the inside. Through strong self-supervision, we might have a chance to restore the power of the directness of language. This directness enables us to see that language is not restricted to activities within the brain (thought), but rather its dynamic has to be sustained through active participation in the world that blends the private and the public.
This is not an easy task, in the case of writing a memoir, for example. All of a sudden, you become the only dictator of your memories. But when you were undergoing actual experiences, you knew you were not the only force that shaped the events and consequences.
Q: All right. That’s enough about writing as a form of art and critique for now. Let's turn to the topic of your research project. Are there concrete case studies? Do they also inform the theme of Ghost of Revolution?
A: Yes, the object of study concerns 'living technologies', that is, technologies (originally intended for health and medical purposes) that provoke social and ethical controversies. Genetic manipulation, for example. It's a broad term and includes a wide range of practices.
In Ghost of Revolution, I specifically focus on technologies that have the potential to change human reproduction. The idea that one day women will no longer have to bear the burden of procreation is very liberating. It's a revolution, isn't it? In China, I learned that a considerable proportion of the population need assisted reproduction technologies because of infertility. It's pragmatic. Infertility is considered a latent social and economic problem. Like many other countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany, China is an aging society where the birthrate is declining. So for these practical reasons they accelerate research and development to find 'alternative' reproductive mechanisms. One day, the female body might be obsolete as a procreation machine, but I'm pretty sure that society will have new problems. There are other forms of exploitation to be invented.
Ghost of Revolution is a reflection on the meaning of female reproduction. From a modern perspective, childbearing is a kind of freelancer's job. You get a temporary contract, twelve months roughly, to conduct a project. You are not allowed to multi-task, normally having only one child at a time, due to the primitive set-up of a female body. The female body is a very primitive technology of reproduction in this respect. Sounds very brutal, I know. There are many technical descriptions as well, I mean, scientific studies on human procreation. The question I raise in Ghost of Revolution is: what does it really mean when two independent individuals are biologically related, i.e. one gives birth to another? The story basically follows some sort of 'birth speculation' about an ambivalent relationship between a mother and a son. The son is a project of the mother. I intend to blur the boundary between the body and the mind, the intellect and the sensual. So, when you read the story, it almost makes you believe that the son is a real human being, like us, but when you read it again, it could be something else, for instance an artwork or an artificial narrator inspired by machine learning that is fooling you.
There are ethical as well as aesthetic debates there, as well. It challenges us to rethink human life, the biological sense of life. What counts as 'natural' there? In terms of aesthetics, there are also other questions, in particular the question regarding 'love,' both sensual and intellectual. There's this very strange type of intimacy between a mother and her children. I'm still figuring out how to bring it forth.
Mother and Son
Q: Why is it 'mother and son,' not 'mother and daughter'?
A: Yes, that's a good question. When I was conceiving the idea, I immediately turned to the culture where I was born and brought up. In China, in my view, 'mother and son' constitutes the basic, fundamental unit of the social fabric, also the very basic 'production unit' of the economy. You know what I mean. There is this gender bias. Girls have less social and economic value. This notion was still there, at least when I was a child. As I said, the conception of that story itself is a sort of critique, so it turns out that the son doesn't look very much like a son in the end. The story, in fact, is permeated by the mother's consciousness of self-sovereignty. And you know, the mother is someone else's daughter. So it's a plain irony.
Q: Could you elaborate a bit on how this basic socio-economic 'production unit' connects to the bigger social, political, and economic picture in Chinese culture and society? Is it a traditional legacy from past generations, or is it taking up new forms and integrating with the contemporary neo-liberal thinking that is currently quite dominant in China?
A: That's a good point. I'm also trying to understand this question better myself. I remember that in our high school textbooks one individual household is described as the smallest 'production unit'. That's the officially correct answer. But I was never satisfied with this answer. I was born and grew up in a rural area, and I saw how in every household, women were used not only as tools for childbearing and bringing up the child and were responsible for all the domestic, menial labor, but women worked in the agricultural field, too, and engaged in hard labor. More importantly, women are the spiritual center of the family. They have incredibly strong faith and empathy. While I was growing up, I saw in many families there were incompetent fathers and husbands, drunken wife-beaters, and when everything falls apart, it is always the mother who holds them together. And I want to give credit to the mother.
So this story is about female power. And my point is to deconstruct the social, political, and economic order. With new technologies, we really have to rethink this to reclaim female power. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that we should marginalize men and make them completely invisible or obsolete. In fact, men are also victims of this type of institution. Many men are sick, aggressive, and abusive, but they are not aware of the fact that they are actually being conditioned. Instead, they take it out on women, children, or other disadvantaged groups.
Speaking of traditional and contemporary values, I'm also curious how the 'mother and son' relation is evolving, that is to say, if we compare today with 30 years ago, is there a substantial change? What kind of power relation is there between the mother and the son? There is a widely known, traditional value that governs the relationship between mother and son. That is, the son should obey the mother, and the mother usually regards producing male heirs as the foremost duty of her sons. This is the stereotypical traditional thinking, but it is still dominant today. If you have ever been to Shanghai, you probably would have heard of this 'dating corner' in the People's Square, a public space for social networking occupied by anxious Chinese parents who openly advertise their sons' and daughters' dating requests. The primary concern for the parents is material, so the first question they ask is: how much does your son earn monthly? Do you have a house in Shanghai? Such 'materialist' questions.
There is an absurdity in this kind of mother and son relation. Procreation is considered the highest moral obligation that the mother imposes upon her male offspring (female as well). I've been recently wondering whether this is partially influenced by the Chinese indigenous religion: the Dao religion (道教). According to the well-known Chinese historian Ge Zhaoguang, the creed of the Dao religion could be boiled down to the pursuit of immortality and happiness. Immortality and happiness are totally secular for the Chinese. None of the transcendental kind of stuff you have in Christianity.
Well, I'm happy to talk about this, but it's not what I intend to respond to in Ghost of Revolution. As you will see, Ghost of Revolution is very radical, and it strategically 'gives up' arguing with this type of traditional, self-contradictory values.
On the other side, of course, we also see a growing awareness among the younger generations who try to participate in the debate on having children: is it social responsibility or a personal choice? This is much too familiar in the west. At the moment, it is still not possible to tell if the traditional, old value will entirely disappear. Perhaps we have to wait until my generation retires and becomes grandparents. I mean, if we look at this issue at the macro level, we have to continue to observe this dynamic social-economic pattern. This is, I think, the type of job that is usually taken up by social scientists, or even more and more trendily by data scientists.
The task for me is to ask: what can humanities scholars do? We can't just sit there and watch until everything's done. So, we have to do nothing. That's the position of Ghost of Revolution. To capture and understand, proactively, the pattern of change, the change of time – this is something that more heavily relies on our own perception and intuition, and it's not separable from our action, our daily activities, which feed into the larger societal machine. This should not be completely handed over to big data analysis. Scientists who are skilled at manipulating data should know their limits and responsibility.
Revolution of Revolution
Q: Now, again, we come to a point where the different sciences – natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities – seem to all converge under the topic. It's obvious that they have different tools and methodologies for studying the same object. One of the results is the different temporal scales they assume. Speaking of revolution, there is this so-called scientific paradigm, cognitive revolution; there is a social revolution (characterized by different social movements, etc.), the industrial revolution, cultural revolution (notoriously associated with the man-made disaster during the 1960s and 70s in China), etc. As I understand, these are different references or models of thinking about revolution. But Ghost of Revolution is conceived within the humanities tradition or perspective. Since we've talked quite substantially about the background of the story, we can now move to the foreground and discuss the central subject matter of the story. From the humanities perspective, what is the most important theme that you bring forth, to the forefront, to the attention of the reader, in Ghost of Revolution? Does 'ghost' refer to the revolutionary power of technologies? The kind of utopian and dystopian visions?
A: The title could be read literally as 'spirit that revolves.' In fact, there is too much speculation there about technologies, usually divided between utopia and dystopia, and I am kind of growing sick of this paradigm. So 'ghost' actually implies a kind of self-contradiction, particularly in our language, directly linked to our thoughts and acts when we try to make sense of what is coming to us next with all the so-called revolutionary technologies. We frequently get ourselves into a linguistic predicament and logical contradictions, and we end up being repetitive of ourselves in a nonsensical language without being aware of it.
‘Ghost' is an attempt to get rid of this type of nonsensical repetitiveness, at least within the design of the story itself. I find the attempt is almost suicidal. It's not possible to eliminate self-contradiction, and the only possible way of doing so, or of coming close to doing so, is to embrace it, to make it explicit, or as explicit as possible. The result is that 'ghost' comes into being as a logical self-contradiction. So 'Ghost of Revolution' actually reads: Revolution of Revolution, or Re(re)volution. It's a repetitiveness there. There are different interpretations, of course. If you see it as 'negative against negative,' then double negative equals positive, so it's just 'volution,' meaning just a turning motion; it is still turning but turning in the opposite direction. The second layer of this ambiguity concerns the reference system or the object of reference. Take the 'Copernican Revolution' for instance; there is the change of 'the object of reference': previously, it was the sun revolving around the earth, and now it's the earth revolving around the sun. The problem here is that in order to describe something in motion, you have to point to something that is still, that is unmoved. When the 'Copernican Revolution' is taken as a social metaphor that enters value systems, it generates stereotypes. For instance, you easily associate the West as being progressive and the East with being backward and needing to catch up with the West. That is, instead of blindly and arrogantly sitting there still, you should set yourself in motion, speed up because you are not the earth, not the sun; we are in the 'Copernican era.'
You see how ridiculous this could be. It's a game where some distant celestial bodies are fooling around a bunch of homos sapiens on earth. Indeed, we are controlled by non-human superpowers.
Randomness and Disruption
In Ghost of Revolution, I am thinking about how to get rid of this kind of nonsensicality, so the story is looking at something more radical, or from a more radical perspective, and it is returning to criticizing, instead of simply negating, the more primitive potential of human reproduction. If we go back to nature – here, what I mean by nature is not something that opposes artificiality or technology, but something that allows for randomness, and we find that the sort of disruptive power has always been there, but it's exactly the type of disruption that human society tries to tame, that is, it's always in the interest of man to reduce randomness in order to make things controllable at a societal level. For instance, birth control in China, you know, the one-child policy, and many other variants around the world, not to mention the extreme cases. If we look at the 'single unit' level, that is, the level of one family, and see how 'nature' operates with randomness in human reproduction, it gets more interesting. You see the disruptive power of this randomness: you can be a successful politician or a billionaire, and your son could be a complete moron. What I want to emphasize is that nature, because of its randomness, is able to attain this kind of 'benign disruption,' which makes 'revolution' (change of time) possible. Otherwise, it gets stuck: it's always the same bunch of people who are in control of everything. No matter what, talent is randomly distributed according to nature's law. That's my assumption.
But with technologies, there's this possibility (both utopian and dystopian) to remove this randomness, to create a seemingly 'fair' distribution of everything (health, intelligence, etc.) among people. This sort of technological intervention, in my view, is 'disruption against disruption,' or 'revolution of revolution.' The point is not whether it's utopian or dystopian. It is to fundamentally question: what is humanity with and without this natural randomness? Is the difference quantitative or qualitative? So the fundamental question concerns humanity or our understanding of humanity. And this is an ancient question. I mean, there is a long history and tradition of philosophical debate about this.
Sweet New Style
Q: Which history and tradition are you looking at? Different cultural traditions may hold different visions of and values relating to humanity. Are there shared values, for example, when it comes to family and love?
A: Yes, questions of love and compassion occupy the center of the story. That’s how you may see Ghost of Revolution as a love story. But it’s not the type of love story you find in romance, novels or films, TV dramas featuring men and women falling in love with each other, and then the whole clichés that date back from the medieval. In this case, the major inspiration of the story is drawn from the philosophical and literary works of Dante, especially his Vita Nuova, published in the last decade of the 13th century. It’s the literary movement called the New Sweet Style, with which Dante celebrates the ‘intellect of love,’ it’s a highly philosophical type of love where you see the intellectual and the sensual come together. In a sense, this enables the story to bypass the modern Descartian mind-body dichotomy and to discontinue or disrupt this type of ‘revolving’ or ‘revolution’ that goes straight (lineally) into today’s cognitive schema of bio-engineering.
Q: That’s a big detour you take, I mean, to draw upon a 13th-century literary text for the purpose of illuminating contemporary debates around biotechnologies. In what kinds of specific form does this dialogue happen? How is this reflected in the form and content of the story?
A: Yes, there are challenges involved in doing this. Honestly, I’m not sure how successful I could make it; it might be a complete failure. The main issue now at hand concerns the integration of the formal structure of the text and the theme (or content).
Regarding the theme of the debates, as we have touched upon some of the aspects above, it concerns the mother and son relation, biological (technical and materials aspects) and spiritual (questions of love and compassion), and above all, the ethical issues triggered by ‘living technologies.’ It provokes us to rethink the invisible productivity of the female body repressed by the existing social and economic order. I mean, for the long history of human civilization, the female body has not only, through procreation, kept the human species from becoming extinct, but has also spiritually held society together through the production of emotional and spiritual bonds, which has been totally undervalued. Now, this type of female productivity is getting a chance to become visible and be discussed under the disruption of new technologies, and the female body is finding an alternative way to substitute itself for labor. Correspondingly, we need to theorize and find another model for love, not only the type of love between a mother and a son but for the solidarity of the whole society: the ability to care for others who are not related to you biologically in the ‘natural’ sense. For instance, how could we face a war where children of mothers are killing children of mothers? If the soldiers are mass-produced robots, how are we able to find a language of ethics to talk about war?
So, Ghost of Revolution has a two-fold structure: on the one hand, there is a very private, inner retrospection of a voice that investigates love and other stuff going on between a mother and a son; while on the other hand, this voice is joined by another voice (or more than one voice) to develop this private reflection into public discourse.
In a nutshell, GoR is conceived on the formal level as a dialogue with Hermeneutic Technology Assessment (HTA). It is a self-critique of HTA. The work has a two-fold structure: it’s a text within a text. One serves as the other’s object of study and vice versa. We are now discussing the conception and production of the text, but we haven’t seen the text yet, because I’m still writing it, and it is responsive to our conversations in the sense that it is changing during the course of writing. Some of my ideas are changing, and even the structure is malleable, but there is still a kind of coherence that will bring it forth in good form in the end.