Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Margaret Hillenbrand's "On the Edge"

Margaret Hillenbrand is professor of modern Chinese literature and culture at the University of Oxford. Her books include Negative Exposures: Knowing What Not to Know in Contemporary China (2020).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China, and reported the following:
Page 99 in its entirety:
… amid the ruins, Anna Tsing writes: “We hear about precarity in the news every day … But most of the time we imagine such precarity to be an exception to how the world works. It’s what ‘drops out’ from the system. What if . . . precarity is the condition of our time—or to put it another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity?” ­­ Here, I am interested in a further connected question: What if we were to substitute the word “waste” for “precarity” in this quotation? Or rather better, what if we were to consider the ways in which precarity, waste, and the ragpicker as an avatar for zombie citizenship constitute an organically linked method for coming to terms with the present, in China as much as in other places, during an epoch in which so many are “dropping out” from the system—falling off the cliff edge, in other words? To consider these as indissociable forces in the making of the present is to notice their many zones of overlap. To be precarious is to feel futureless. It is to live at the mercy of other people and greater powers, occupying transient ground and subsisting with no forward direction except downward. This is also the space-time of the dump, whose locations shift arbitrarily and whose temporality is at best cyclical rather than teleological—and often simply stalled. When Nicolas Bourriaud writes that “an object is said to be precarious if it has no definitive status and an uncertain future or final destiny,” ­he could just as easily have been describing waste. Yi Jie’s father makes this same point in Plastic China when he describes how he and his family moved from Sichuan, where they lived at the “mercy of nature” (kaotian chifan 靠天吃饭), to Shandong, where they now live at the mercy of refuse—their futures suspended in limbo, poised just above the void. More than this, their status as ragpickers—as people sans papiers and without labor contracts who live in perimeter settlements and manually process the effluvia of their social “betters”—exemplifies in extremis the condition of zombie citizenship. As people caught in the half-death of bare life, the decitizenized, like Bourriaud’s precarious objects, have neither “definite status” nor “final destiny.” Unlike middle-class recyclers in today’s China, who are lauded for their citizenly virtue, ragpickers “have been pinned as intractably unmodern, undisciplined, unsanitary.” ­ As the civic undead, they are fated, like waste, to move through cycles of atrophy at the “mercy of nature” until their rights decompose entirely—as occurred with the Xinjian evictions after the Daxing fire, when the already immiserated became the utterly disenfranchised.

Precarity and underclass belonging are also growing. These states of being encompass ever greater numbers in their orbit of uncertainty, just as landfills…
The Page 99 Test works pretty well for On the Edge. Although this page contains some specific information about a recent Chinese documentary – Plastic China – which the casual browser of page 99 probably won’t have heard of, most of the page gets to the crux of what my book is about.

On page 99, I refer to the two core ideas through which the book conceptualizes what it means to be precarious in 21st-century China. The first of these is zombie citizenship: a state of abject exile from the shelter of the law in which a substantial minority of Chinese workers –well over 300 million people – currently exist, even though they theoretically enjoy full rights under the national constitution. These are people chained by toil yet simultaneously cut loose from the safeguards of the law. The second concept is the cliff edge: the idea that the fear of tumbling into zombie citizenship menaces not just the nation’s vast underclass but also those from the more comfortable classes who at first sight seem far more secure. The book charts the plunge from precarity to zombie citizenship to expulsion, and it argues that those who find themselves on this downward path share feelings of rage and dread that vent themselves in volatile cultural forms.

Page 99 offers a clear portal to the core points of the book because it zeroes in on two linked emblems which illustrate this descent into exile: waste and the figure of the waste-picker. Refuse, I argue on page 99, is a murky entity. It has no fixed shape, purpose, or future, and the people who process it are inevitably tinged by that same grim logic. Waste-pickers who live and work among detritus on the borderlands of big cities embody the hard limits of precarious experience, the point at which insecurity and inequality shade over into social banishment. In my book, I consider a range of cultural practices created by people on the edge in China: from poets on the Foxconn factory floor to construction workers who perform suicidal protest from urban rooftops when their wages are denied. But perhaps none embodies the fear or fact of expulsion more poignantly than the 11-year-old waste-picker – the protagonist of Plastic China – who makes art from garbage to assert her right to personhood amid the miasma of decay.
Learn more about On the Edge at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue