Call for Papers (EACS 2020): Locating Negative Affects in China’s Post-Reform Era


Dear Colleagues,
I am looking to put a panel together on negative affects in Post-Reform China for the next meeting of the EACS 2020 in Leipzig, 25-29 August 2020. A detailed rationale is provided below. If interested, please, send your abstract (250 words) to Lisa Richaud (, by 15 December 2019.

Locating Negative Affects in China’s Post-Reform Era: Public Culture, Stranger Sociability, Political Potentials

Joining the recent “affective turn” in China Studies (Sorace 2019; Wallis 2018; J. Yang 2014), this panel aims to bring together China scholars from different disciplinary horizons to reflect on the expression and performativity of negative affects and emotions in everyday life and public culture. Here, negative affects are not only defined by their attendant dysphoric or unpleasant quality. Crucially, negativity derives from state-shaped emotional regimes, produced through explicit definitional acts or staged atmospheres that promote certain affects and dismiss or condemn others. For if there is such thing as a dominant public sphere in China, its emotional tonality can be qualified as overwhelmingly positive, as evidenced by the recent “happiness” campaigns or state-promoted “positive energy” (Wielander and  Hird 2018). This pervasive promotion of positivity indexes the Chinese state’s growing concern towards negative affects (Sorace 2018), many of which are induced by a political context marked by inequalities and brutal transformations (J. Yang 2015, 2017).

Beyond top-down processes, a growing body of work on grassroots and popular practices has shown how social actors actively emphasize playfulness, fun, joy as a major raison d’être of their activities (cf. the contributions in Frangville and Gaffric in press; see also De Kloet 2019). One thinks, for example, of how entertainment is central to the activities organized by grassroots organizations with a focus on LGBT+ (Deklerck in press) or migrant workers’ rights (Florence in press). While such practices have often been described as endowed with a political potential despite their seeming innocence (e.g. Nakajima in press), one may question the possibility for alternatives modes of action and imagination to emerge from these recurrent performances of cheerful moods. Public display of fun and happiness, it seems, tend to generate atmospheres which have become increasingly difficult to disrupt (Richaud in press; see also Sum 2017). From this perspective, positive affects are viewed as restricting, if not foreclosing, the very transformative agency of these publics.

This panel takes the prevalence of positivity in post-reform China as an invitation to investigate its opposites: the variety of negative ordinary affects that can be viewed as ensuing from state-induced “situations of restricted agency” (Ngai 2005: 2). What can we learn from the various forms of negativity that morph out of the socio-political circumstances of post- reform China, and how to tread a fine line between the risk of romanticization and analytical dismissal (Ngai 2005)? Under what conditions do the expression and performance of negative affects constitute “a manifestation of autonomy from state directives” in the  context  of pervasive “happiness” campaigns (Sum 2017)? Or is their work ambivalent, if not problematic, especially when they come to be associated with specific marginalized groups (Wallis 2018)? This panel invites prospective contributors to reflect on these issues through one of the following aspects:

Locating negative affects

In a political and social context marked by emphases on positivity, what spaces are left for negativity to be expressed, circulated, cultivated, and acted upon? How do Chinese citizens experience negative affects, and what do these affects and emotions do, when they fail to be redirected by, or merely fall under the radar of, therapeutic governance? What are the spaces – physical as well as discursive – through which they come to matter? What kind of cultural repertoires are available and appropriated for people to make sense of their emotional experiences, in ways that evade or contest, well-trodden discourses of pathologization and self-responsibilization? While anger (Pun and Lu 2010; J. Yang 2016) has understandably received a great deal of scholarly attention due to its capacity to foster connections and create dispositions to action, this panel seeks to expand the scope of research on negative affects in present-day China, by attending to context-induced experiences and representations of sadness, melancholy, depression, grief, pain, despair, boredom, loneliness, frustration, disappointment, anxiety and beyond, to include feelings that Sianne Ngai (2005) refers to as “noncathartic” and “intentionally weak.”

Negativity-based stranger sociability

How might negative affects bring strangers together and create new modes of sociality? How are affective publics formed and sustained in the Chinese authoritarian context? What is the role of space – both physical and virtual – in the making of such social relations? What kind of affective “we” emerges when grounded in negativity? How do cultural artifacts such as films, music, or literary work contribute to shaping social imaginaries of stranger sociability (Warner 2002) centered around the collective experience of feelings of despair, melancholy and depressed moods? Thinking through examples such as Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) or Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006) in which negative affects feature prominently (see Zuo 2019), what is achieved through the circulation of cultural products? Conversely, beyond obvious forms of control over WeChat and other technologies of social connections, are there any mechanisms through which the Party-state – understood as a heterogeneous entity – may restrict the possibility to identify oneself as member of larger (counter) affective publics?

Transformative agency and political potentials

If the playfulness and fun one recurrently finds in grassroots practices run the risk of merely reproducing existing frameworks of governmentality, can we locate new disruptive potentials through shared expressions of negative affects? If various forms of emotional affliction in present-day China can be understood as the products of specific socio-political circumstances, what are the mediations through which such affects may become recognized as shared experiences having roots in broader, structural processes? Inspired by recent discussions in the humanities and Cultural Studies on the productivity of “negative feelings” (Cvetkovich 2012; Ngai 2005), this panel will explore the possibility to transpose this line of thinking to the Chinese context. In her book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich proposes that “feeling bad might, in fact, be the ground for transformation” (2012: 3), a “political resource” (Cvetkovich 2012: 2), this panel will ask: under what conditions does such political potential emerge in today’s China? What kind of action becomes envisioned? To what extent do shared experience and expressions of depression, anger, despair and the like contribute to shaping imaginations of alternative futures? And how does the government work to dampen any eruption of transformative agency?

Governing through negative affects?

Finally, while much research has emphasized the role of positive affects in new modes of governance, can we simultaneously identify state-endorsed negative affectivity? The circulation of pain, for example, through cinematographic representations of the Nanjing massacres (Schultz 2016), has been critical to the making of nationalist politics. Can we find other cases, beyond these well-known examples of how the party-state capitalizes on negative affects to reproduce its legitimacy? With what kind of responses from ordinary citizens?
Although pluralism in methodologies and theoretical perspectives are welcome, the contributions will retain a strong empirical basis. Reflections on negative affects from a historical perspective are also welcome.

References cited

Cvetkovich, A. (2012). Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Deklerck, S. (in press). Chinese LGBT+ Activism – Playing, Organizing and Playful Resistance. In: V. Frangville and G. Gaffric, eds., China’s Youth Cultures and Collective Spaces. London: Routledge.

De Kloet, J. (2019). Kuaishou: Platformization of the Unlikely, the Banal and the Ubiquitous. Paper presented at the 11th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS), Leiden, 15-19 July.

Florence, E. (in press). Struggling around the Politics of Recognition: The Formation of Communities of Interpretations and of Emotions among a Collective of Migrant Workers in 21st Century China. In: V. Frangville and G. Gaffric, eds., China’s Youth Cultures and Collective Spaces. London: Routledge.

Hird, D. (2018). Smile Yourself Happy: Zheng Nengliang and the Discursive Construction of Happy Subjects. In: G. Wielander and D. Hird, eds., Chinese Discourses on Happiness. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Nakajima, S. (in press). The Sociability of Millennials in Cyberspace: A Comparative Analysis of Barrage Subtitling in Nico Nico Douga and bilibili. In: V. Frangville and G. Gaffric, eds., China’s Youth Cultures and Collective Spaces. London: Routledge.

Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pun, N. and Lu, H. (2010). Unfinished Proletarianization: Self, Anger, and Class Action among the Second Generation of Peasant-Workers in Present-Day China. Modern China, 36(5), pp. 493-519.

Richaud, L. (in press). Rethinking the Spatial Politics of Presence in China’s Youth Cultures. In: V. Frangville and G. Gaffric, eds., China’s Youth Cultures and Collective Spaces. London: Routledge.

Schultz, C.K.N. (2016) Mediating Trauma: The Nanjing Massacre, City of Life and Death, and Affect as Soft Power. In: F. Chan and A. Willis, eds., Chinese Cinemas: International Perspective. New York: Routledge.

Sorace, C. (2019). Extracting Affect: Televised Cadre Confessions in China. Public Culture, 31(1), pp. 145-71.

Sum, C.Y. (2017). Suffering and Tears: Authenticity and Student Volunteerism in Postreform China. Ethos, 45(3), pp. 409-429.

Wallis,  C.  (2018).  Domestic  Workers  and  the Affective  Dimensions  of  Communicative Empowerment. Communication Culture & Critique, 11(2), pp. 213-230.

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and Counterpublics. Public Culture, 14(1), pp. 49-90.

Wielander, G. and Hird, D. (eds.) (2018). Chinese Discourses on Happiness. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Yang, J. (ed.) (2014) The Political Economy of Affect and Emotion in East Asia. Oxon: Routledge.

Yang, J. (2015). Unknotting the Heart. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Yang, J. (2016). The Politics and Regulation of Anger in Urban China. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 40(1), pp. 100-123.

Yang, J. (2017). Mental Health in China: Change, Tradition, and Therapeutic Governance:

Cambridge: Polity Press.

Zuo, M. (2019). Dull Sex in a Messy Square: Traumatic Boredom in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace. Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 29(2), pp. 103-124.