Shanzhai Conservatism

From Ezra Pound to Byung-Chul Han: Why Tradition is “Fake”

“And then went down to the ship…”
— Ezra Pound, Canto I

When Ezra Pound began his Cantos with this verse he meant that we have to be like Odysseus and commune with the dead before we can begin to make our journey home. Beginning in medias res suggests the tapped root is still fecund. We’ve only to cut away the deadwood and get at the sap again. Or, Pound’s ship might as well have been Theseus’, making the same trip to a sacred island every year according to tradition, to commemorate the founding king of Athens’ triumph over the monster the Minotaur, yet a ship ever so often renewed, part by part, according to necessity. Is the tradition reconstructed in the Cantos the same tradition ripped apart and stored plank by moldering plank in the forgotten cellars of popular culture? Is it ‘fake’ for having been reconstructed and remade in order to be kept seaworthy?

Too many American conservatives think that something can only be venerated once it’s been put in cold storage. Or as a younger Pound wrote:

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

The first major Western poet to obsess over Eastern poetry, Pound is a meet introduction to the East. In Japan, there is a contemporary Shinto correlative of the “Ship of Theseus”: The Ise Shrine. Unlike so many empty cathedrals in the West, millions of pilgrims make the journey to worship each year. The Ise temple is 1,300 years old. It is also rebuilt from scratch every year. These two facts are not contradictory. As the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han explains in his book Shanzhai:

“This religious practice is so alien to Western art historians that after heated debate UNESCO removed this Shinto temple from the list of World Heritage sites. For the experts at UNESCO the shrine is twenty years old at most. In this case, which is the original and which is the copy? This is a total inversion of the relationship between original and copy. Or the difference between original and copy vanishes altogether. Instead of a difference between original and copy, there appears a difference between old and new. We could even say that the copy is more original than the original, or the copy is closer to the original than the original, for the older the building becomes the further it is from its original state. A reproduction would restore it, as it were, to its ‘original state’, especially since it is not linked to any particular artist.” 

In Han’s Shanzhai, The Ise Shrine becomes the metaphor at the center. Like all his texts, it’s the length of a pamphlet, not a treatise, but it’s composed of elements so heavy that a spoonful weighs a ton. According to Han’s thesis, Western culture is overly obsessed with specific authenticity, with being and essence, so much so that it eradicates the possibility of true cultural continuity. Imagine instead of having progeny we extended our physical existence by being stuffed, taxidermized, and sat at the kitchen table. It’s morbid. It’s not continuity in the true sense. Chesterton wrote about true conservation being the constant repainting of a white fence rather than letting it flake and rot, but the image doesn’t go far enough. Instead, imagine constantly rebuilding the fence in response to shifts in the landscape, changes in legal title, etc. Don’t simply repaint the fence, but remember and understand its form and purpose — change will again and again be needed if it is to serve as border and demarcation.

Preservation, in other words, doesn’t halt growth, but presents a constant readmittance to the path of growth. Han tells us that in Chinese painting a masterpiece is never static. It is “regularly overwritten by connoisseurs and collectors” who inscribe traces of themselves onto the image in the form of signs and seals, altering the image in order to keep its pulse. The change is continual, and the transcription is permanent. In this sense, conservatism is a way. A method. “The work empties itself out,” writes Han, “to become a generative, communicative locus of inscriptions. The more famous a work is, the more inscriptions it has. It presents itself as a palimpsest.” 

This is how memory works, too. In 1896, Freud wrote in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess: “I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come about by a process of stratification: the material present in the shape of memory-traces is from time to time subjected to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances — is, as it were, transcribed. Thus what is essentially new in my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is registered in various species of ‘signs’.” Memories are not unchanging monuments dead inside of us. They are, as it were, fabricated by us in a complex psychic process and as such are made and remade continuously. 

Maybe the difference between our cultures isn’t so stark as Han makes it out to be. The notion that history is a series of discrete and unique ruptures is a relatively recent one in the West. Mostly we’ve adhered closer to something like Fortschöpfung, or a “persisting creation” as Han puts it, composed of minute continuities and muted transformations. Writing and rewriting. Remembering and re-remembering. Even in contemporary times (was ‘the contemporary’ created by a rupture?) there has always been a small platoon of cultural Hiroo Onoda’s keeping the manuscript business going.

Pound is the most obvious. When he enjoined us to “Make it new!” he was appealing to a kind of Fortschöpfung gathering up of the materials of culture and to do something with them to keep it alive. It only lives through the doing, in only lives through the making. The “it” is the word hoard, the “make” is the act of reverential handling, and the “new” is the palimpsest that registers pulse. Poet and critic R.P. Blackmur explained The Cantos by writing in his book The Double Agent that: “The Cantos are not complex, they are complicated; they are not arrayed by logic or driven by pursuing emotion, they are connected because they follow one another, are set side by side, and because an anecdote, an allusion or a sentence begun in one Canto may be continued in another and may never be completed at all; and as for a theme to be realized, they seem to have only, like Mauberley, the general sense of continuity — not unity — which may arise in the mind when read seriatim. The Cantos are what Mr. Pound himself called them in a passage now excised from the canon, a rag-bag.” 

My own suspicion is that the “rag-bag” is a result of Pound trying (mostly failing) to expunge the presence of his personality from the poem. The story that results from the palimpsest, ignoring some of the crasser political injunctions, is one of a cult of personality becoming the norm of culture. Being solipsistically cut off from ourselves and one another and the past and, ironically, the very criterion by which we would even be able to individuate ourselves. This is why we don’t understand the importance of copies. It’s worth going back to Han again on Eastern conception of copies:

“The Far East is not familiar with [the] cult of the original. It has developed a completely different technique of preservation that might be more effective than conservation or restoration. This takes place through continual reproduction. This technique completely abolishes the difference between original and replica. We might also say that originals preserve themselves through copies. Nature provides the model. The organism also renews itself through continual cell replacement. After a certain period of time the organism is a replica of itself. The old cells are simply replaced by new cell materials. In this case, the question of an original does not arise.” 

We of course used to understand this in the West, and some of us still do. William Gaddis: “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people to protect themselves from talented people…” Dustin Illingworth gives the best description of the spirit animating Gaddis’s The Recognitions when he writes: “The effect of The Recognitions is palimpsestic. We descend through layers of artifice, one after another. Double-talk pollutes the novel’s atmosphere. Counterfeit currencies circulate continuously. Words are recycled, or regurgitated, or falsely attributed. Originality — “that romantic disease,” as Wyatt’s [the protagonist and art forger] teacher calls it — is routinely disparaged as a misunderstanding of the artist’s duty. To be original is to do something one’s own way because one couldn’t do it the right way. The reproduction of an archetype — in this case, the fifteenth-century Flemish painting — is transfiguring only insofar as it is devotional. Before Wyatt meets Recktall Brown, his forgeries are pious acts of appreciation. But the moment the unscrupulous dealer asks him to sign his recreations — as Hugo van der Goes, say — their sanctity is destroyed. A once reverent act has become complicit in the market’s depredations.” Or as Pound put it: The temple is holy because it is not for sale. A copy becomes suffused with meaning through the reverential act of copying itself. Put a name on it and sell it and the reverence curdles. 

This all leads us back to the original question about the Ise Shrine. Unauthentic? UNESCO, an organization which itself is built out of ideas still young enough to be suckling, has the audacity to put itself in such a position to judge the authenticity of a shrine where millions of people worship, as it has been for thousands of years, simply because the floorboards were eating sunlight last year. The notion of a cargo cult comes to mind. In this case, the United Nations must be like the Pacific tribes building cardboard airports in the hopes of manifesting cargo. Bare rationality and presentism are the cardboard. Meaning is the cargo. Keep making engine noises with your mouth and wait for the gods to smile. Meanwhile, Ise is being rebuilt.

Scott Beauchamp is a New York Press Club award-winning writer and the author of “Did You Kill Anyone?“.

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