giovedì 2 febbraio 2012

(Mis)reading “The mirror stage” in Hong Kong

The baby receives his image by the mirror. A mirror that, far from simply reflecting an image, literally creates the image. The image that the baby is receiving is what gives the imaginary sense of unity that will constitutes the imaginary I. The image seen by the baby is an image supposed to be already there, while indeed it exists only and first of all in the mirror. Inside or outside, who’s seeing what? Who comes first, the baby or his image?

When I first arrived to Hong Kong I felt like I have lost all my coordinates. I started observing and noting all those phenomena that were so far from my understanding. I started reading a lot, trying to question the grounds for my cultural shock. Soon I noticed that most of the western literature about Chinese culture is absolutely biased and misleading. Usually the westerners have interpreted China through the western philosophical categories and western terminology (the very idea of an “orient” is most likely a western idea). As a consequence, China is often interpreted in terms of “lack”, in terms of “more” or “less”, compared to what are supposed to be the universal standards. Such interpretation of China is not just wrong, and misleading: while it aims at describing China, what happens instead it that it reveals the limits of the western discourse itself. If we are aware of this, it can also become a chance for us.

So, the mirror is not just neutral. It does not simply reflect the picture of the “real” object. (by the way, the metaphor of the mirror was used at first by Freud; but what Strachey has been translated into English with neutrality was the German word indifferenz, which sounds slightly different). So, such interpretation of China leads to the creation of an imaginary China, a fictional place that doesn’t exist anywhere. And in fact we can say that nothing exists in the image, meaning that nothing really exists before the speech. Just naming things, things become. (think for example at the very recognition of the image at the mirror: can we really say that this goes without the speech? Are we saying that it goes out of the language?).

Coming to Hong Kong I thought that I could finally meet some locals who could give me a more “Chinese” version of China; I thought that being here and talking to local people I could get a better access to the true Hong Kong and China, meaning a version not mediated by the western conceptual system. But to my surprise, I have found that most of the local intellectuals, scholars, and students, are formed on western books, on western ideas, and they already have a western conception of the Chinese world. As to say: they have an image of China as it is reflected by the mirror of the West! (I think this is what we call Westernization). So, what is surprising to me, is that this sort of original image does not exist anywhere. Again: the image in the mirror is a creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. It is not simply a reflection, maybe inverted; it is not the negative, nor is a distortion of the original. Because originary is the speech, and not the image!

I think that we can see such phenomena easily in Hong Kong. Even though Hong Kong people are quintessentially Chinese, the city is pretty much oriented to adopt ideals coming from the external, from the US and Japan for example. (which is curios, as I thought I was a “westerner”, before I came to Hong Kong. But then I realized that when speaking of “West”, generally Hong Kong people think to US). 
Chinese culture is probably the most ancient in the world, but it has always been somehow closed to the external influence. Now the attitude has apparently changed, but in a way that seems to assume literally the ideals founding the western discourse (capitalism, results, happiness, etc..) and the image offered by the West. (Hong Kong has a different story, but still, it was a colony for long time, so a certain discourse, and a certain image have been somehow imposed, in a relation that was asymmetrical). How does the West work as a mirror for Hong Kong, and for China? What can we say about this process of identification to the image? And how this identification leads at the same time to the alienation

Hong Kong at the mirror

At the risk of being pedantic, scholastic, I would like to trace briefly a distinction between the ideal-ego and the ego-ideal. I would summarize like this[1]:

Ideal-ego: it is the unifying image offered by the mirror, what arises during the Mirror stage. It is basically only imaginary. It is what the other loves, and as such it sets the ideal that the “subject” tends to reach.

Ego-ideal: it is given by the identification with the others, for example with the parents, friends, etc…It is imaginary, but also symbolic, in the way it gives the “subject” a place in the discourse. So it is also tied to language. It is given by the identification to values, to a culture. This happens within groups, within society, and it aims at providing cohesion among individuals. Then, even though we speak of “ego”, the ego-ideal has a deep collective dimension, not just individual. The ego-ideal is very strong and demanding, because it requires adaptation and a certain level of conformism.

I consider the tension between these two dimension very important when talking about Hong Kong. Hong Kong is often described as the city where East and West meet, but I consider this stereotype quite misleading. On the contrary, I would say that Hong Kong is more westernized than the West, and more Chinese than China. It is westernized (or most likely Americanized) in the way it ideally assumes and exacerbates the ideals founding the western discourse: technique and technology, capitalism, happiness, results, efficiency, fast-paced life. At the same time it remained very traditional because it did not know the Cultural Revolution and has maintained very traditional Chinese values, structure of social relationships, family organization, attitude to speaking, and relations between genders.

It is a matter of fact that Hongkongers hardly recognize themselves as “Chinese” (, meaning being part of Mainland China. Hongkonghers and Mainlanders are just two separate groups. In last days particularly, we assisted to mutual attacks from the two sides (this video being the most popular: It is interesting, because Hong Kong identity was set only recently, end of the ’60 I would say (see: A modern history of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang), and actually the great majority of Hongkongers are descendant by people from Mainland (now arguably at the 3-4th generation in Hong Kong). It is a process common worldwide, also in Italy there is something similar: the sons of the migrants are always quite harsh toward the place of origins of their families. But Hong Kong has always maintained close relations with Mainland, good commercial relations. But now it seems that something is broken, it seems that an identification is no longer possible. Suddenly the picture in the mirror turned into the uncanny.

A couple of months ago I was watching a demonstration against the Chinese Communist Party. I was in Nathan road (one of the main streets in Kowloon side). The demonstration was a huge column of people with banners against the CCP. I remember one in particular, that was saying: “The Chinese Communist Party ruins tradition”. I find this particularly relevant. The hongkongers believe to be the depositary of the tradition, and of the “real” Chinese culture and values. Values and culture that, on the contrary, would have been betrayed by Mainland. Whatever this it true or not, what matter for us is that obviously, at this level no identification is possible. The ego-ideal no longer works, because there are no more values being shared, there is no more sense of proximity. For Hong Kong is probably like this since few years already (just before Hong Kong returned to Mainland, in 1997, some hundred thousands of people flew away for fear of the reunification), but before it was enough to turn the head somewhere else, to the West for example. Mainland is obviously not offering the ideal that everybody can recognize, and it is far from being perceived as the place of perfection. 

The ego-ideal for Hong Kong is provided by the sense of identity of being Hongkonghese, rather than Chinese. At the same time Hong Kong finds his mirror in the West, where it finds the image of what is considered good (good manners, good values, acceptable goals for life, etc…), and that is the place where it builds its ideal-ego, and where it tends too. And it takes such ideal so seriously, so literally that probably it exacerbates such values, more than West itself. Thought my (mi)reading of the mirror stage applied to Hong Kong is probably quite naïve, and it should be taken as a telling, nothing more than a pre-text for speaking of Other, still I consider this tension between the ideal-ego (the process of westernization) and the ego-ideal (the tradition, the values) quite fitting Hong Kong. 

The identification to the image is the identification to the phrase, to the statement, and as such is not something that we can hope for. Probably the chance for Hong Kong is that the image of the ideal-ego and the ego-ideal are not coinciding, but more important is a (mis)recognition of any image, what could happen meeting the uncanny, for example. 

[1] For references: A Compendium of Lacanian Terms, Edited by Huguette Glowinski, Zita M. Marks and Sara Murphy, Free Associations Books, 2001, London

7 commenti:

  1. Your writing is excellent and you are raising very important questions.

    However, I believe you are deeply mistaken about Hong Kong identity: You have not yet resonated with the deepest level of Chinese personality, which is below the level of language.

    Hong Kong people are not Westernized, even thought it looks this way on the surface. It is nearly impossible to turn a Chinese person into an American. The "face" that Hong Kong people put forth for Westerners (pretending they are like you) is not who they actually are.

  2. thanks for the comment Richard

    I agree with you. Probably it was not clear in my writing.
    But still, it is interesting: "The "face" that Hong Kong people put forth for Westerners (pretending they are like you)". the concept of face reminds in some ways the concept of "person", that was originally the "mask" in the ancient Greek theater. But still, the identity is constructed around a fundamental misrecognition, behind the mask there is not a "real" face.

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  4. Good job, excellent writing, Diego.
    But I want to be harsh about 'Hongkongers' in the point above recalled by Richard. I agree, they are not Westernized, just because they have no clue about the external world. I've never expected a place with so "shallow culture" like HK. They know what is presented to them by sparkling media and films, but not many of them (probably the real Westernized one used to mingle with 'Kwei-lo') know much about 'Western world' or even about the rest of Asia. Point two: something broken with China. A couple of month ago a fellow Sardinian friend of mine was in HK for business and the firts thing he told me was "Am I wrong or people are a bit racist here?". I wouldn't call it 'racism' but yes... a very high opinion of themselves that let them look down whoever comes from other Asian countries (except Korea of Japan because of fashion and pop stars). They just feel they are 'superior' to mainland Chinese, that's all.
    Luigi Coradduzza

  5. grazie del commento Luigi, molto interessante.

    I believe we also have lots of stereotypes about Asia, in Europe. But you raise some important points, thanks. For example, what we call "westernization" exactly? and what is the difference with racism? They both lies on a "representation" of the other, a fundamental mis-recognition. The image of the other is idealized, and this hinder to meet the other, in both cases. As such, whatever we call westernization or racism has some concrete effects in our lives, though it arise from an imaginary register. Westernization is often considered as the spread of the Western Discourse, then as a matter of language. But isn't it a Discourse an imaginary formation? The Discourse is not at all the speech, the Discourse goes without words. And as such it is not surprising to me that such "westernization", which indeed happens only at the level of the ideal, find its way at the "surface" level. To be noted: sur-face. Again the face, the mask (person, in Greek), quite e relevant term also in HK.
    I would say that there is not a true or a fake Westernization. Values cannot be transmitted. Trasmitted is the idea, the concept, the phrase. But values can only be cultivated, and then re-invented, every time, encountered along the way.
    Westernization lies along the "fascination" of the other. The other has to be idealized, and then has to be kept distant, because only being distant the ideal can resist. There is no curiosity for meeting the other; quite on the contrary, it is better not to meet the other, or the very image which has been constructed might fall.

  6. Grazie Diego, totally agree with this. This 'idealistic westernization' it's as stereotypical as racism, could we call it a 'positive racism'? With emulation spirit though! A sparkling, unreal Dionysian mask that as you said they like to wear. Your last statement may explain why Hongkongers (but I should say Chinese in general) are not very open to strangers (not only foreigners) and they keep their 'vault' of long dated friends since the Secondary school.

  7. Hello Diego. Thank you for your excellent writing and I super appreciate your detail observation toward Hong Konger (actually "Hong Kongese" is not that commonly used).

    About the point of Hong Kongers being westernized, I would say it is half true and half not true. It is a complicated matter when it comes to foreign culture within Hong Kongers' hearts. It's almost impossible to generalize to say Hong Kongers either westernized or Chinese.

    First, starting from my personal observation and experience as i grow up here(yeah,20 years), I notice Hong Kongers' culture can be divided into two age levels and then sub-categorized into more layers.

    Start with age level first. Older generation of Hong Kongers would more likely to either identified themselves Chinese or Hong Kongers,but since they are mostly immigrants from China, they tend to identify themselves Chinese. For older generation, it's not difficult to find their identities because it goes A/B options.

    Get to the more difficult generations, which are my generation and my parents'... As you notice, 1997 was a big changing points for young generation and I also would say it's the time Hong Kongers has taken western culture in their minds to the next level. 1997 was too intimidating that Hong Kongers dropped their identities to become Canadians, Americans,Australians, New Zealanders and British or whatever English-speaking countries' identities. After 5-7 years later, tons of returnees, especially from Canada, have brought the culture along with them. The influence to local Hong Kongers is inevitable as Hong Kong Canadians may work in education industry, like secondary schools and universities. More or less, Hong Kongers/ WE are influenced regardless not completely westernized or overly westernized. Being westernized or not, it depends on the person himself/herself. People who surround me are NOT westernized. Instead, they find their identities in Japanese or Korean culture rather than local culture/ Chinese culture, so I would say younger generation has no so-called"original" culture in their hearts, mostly. Some do... a small bunch of young Hong Kongers insist to maintain Chinese culture because they believe it is their roots. In conclusion, There are Korean, Japanese, Chinese and westerners(all different western countries) in young Hong Kongers' hearts.

    Personally speaking, it is okay to lose the Chinese root and be a mix of Chinese,Japanese, American, Korean or British culture. I believe that is how new trend and culture will born. Look at the "new world" countries examples, The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They don't carry so-called original culture. The immigrants brought their culture and put their own culture into the melting pots, so Why couldn't Hong Kong do the same?