Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teresa Kuan's "Love’s Uncertainty"

Teresa Kuan is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Love's Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China, and reported the following:
From page 99:
combines neoliberal logic with many other logics in a hybrid formation. Governmentality refers to a productive modality of power that depends not on constraint but on the capacity of individuals to act and to choose. It operates by acting on the actions of others and may be found in any relationship involving the guidance of conduct—for example, by experts, teachers, parents, life coaches, career counselors, or doctors—according to any number of techniques for subject formation, including advice, modeling, exercises, life goals, mantras, and so on (Rose 1999).

In China, techniques of enablement have become especially salient in the context of economic liberalization. The modernization strategy of the post- Mao Party-state is staked on unleashing the hidden potential of the market and of labor. Because the hidden potential of labor is seen to rest inside the human person, all adults involved in the education of children have a special responsibility for ensuring the liberation of that potential. In this context, the inner life of parents—or mothers more specifically—also becomes a critical terrain. Contemporary emphasis on the psychological interiority of the child, the putative origin of curiosity and creativity, obliges parents to conduct emotion work so that they will not obstruct the development of nation- transforming human qualities.

According to Sun Yunxiao, the time management issue that frustrates both Wang Yan and Wen Hui is one that must be approached with care and caution. In fact, it may be precisely because parents are so intent on instrumentalizing every moment of time that the child becomes slow. For this reason, Sun says, “Don’t ‘press’ a child without understanding causes, nor should parents make rules about when a child ought to finish a task according to their own imagination. This will only place a psychological burden on the child” ([2005] 2006: 64). Sun goes on to say that a child’s speed will naturally increase when parents “trust” and “understand” their child, both of which require “patience.”

With the specter of undesirable or opposite results always looming, many mothers practice emotion work. This private, self-directed labor begins with the recognition of “feeling rules,” which are found in “the pinch between ‘what I do feel’ and ‘what I should feel’” (Hochschild 1983: 57). We see them at work when Wang Yan states, “I’m the kind of person who knows what I’m supposed to be doing at that moment,” contrasting herself to parents who do not have any regrets over losing their patience. Wen Hui recalls the pinch she felt between the “do” and the “should” after hearing a Zhou Hong lecture. She wondered if it was right for her to lose her temper and sometimes spank
I chuckled to myself when I pulled page 99 from Love’s Uncertainty. This page is reminiscent of your typical Hollywood movie beginning, how it brings its audience into a story with the slow movement of a camera-eye that descends from the sky into a happy suburban street, buzzing with gleeful children on bicycles. Only the scene here is not so cheerful. Page 99 provides a discussion of three ethnographic cases presented earlier in the chapter, “ethnographic” referring to the method anthropologists use to conduct and present research, “cases” referring to my descriptions of the experiences of a small sample of urban middle-class mothers in the People’s Republic of China, particularly, their experience of conducting “emotion work” in a broader effort to become a “good parent.” The key point of the chapter is that urban mothers at the start of the 21st century found themselves having to reconcile incommensurable goods: understand and respect a child’s psychological needs on the one hand, and produce a test-taking machine that can survive intense competition on the other.

Both set of values stem from state projects to “improve population quality” through the reform of educational practices and educational expansion, demonstrating how the lives of ordinary citizens continue to be yoked to the ambitions of the Party-state. Page 99 descends down into the experiences of particular individuals, through the advice of a well-known parenting expert, from a discussion of governmental techniques aimed at fostering the kind of human subject that will help China integrate into a knowledge and information-based global economy.

On its own, page 99 both encapsulates and misleads. The ultimate purpose of the book is not to tell a story about how the Chinese government continues to engineer society. Although this is certainly a part of the story, I became, in the process of writing this book, much more interested in how ordinary people manage the contradictions of contemporary life. Having spent a lot of time chatting and hanging out with families, I came to realize that my interlocutors had cultivated a kind of wisdom that few social theories equip us to see. In other parts of the book, I use the phrase “artful disposition” to refer to their life management strategies. Artful disposition has something to do with discerning the boundary between what one can and cannot control. Cultivating this skill is both humbling and empowering. Empowering because it is humbling.
Learn more about Love's Uncertainty at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue