Part of: Death

Video Essay: System = Power = Ideology

by Nicolas Niarchos on 23 July 2012

Nicolas Niarchos' spoken essay on Mao's relationship with multiples is juxtaposed with silent views of London from the top floor of the 148 bus.

Nicolas Niarchos' spoken essay on Mao's relationship with multiples is juxtaposed with silent views of London from the top floor of the 148 bus.


Red, orange, yellow, green,
blue, violet, indigo:
Who is dancing with these
rainbow colours in the sky?
Air after rain, slanting sun:
mountains and passes turning blue
in each changing moment.
Fierce battles that year:
bullet holes in village walls.
These mountains so decorated,
look even more beautiful today.

—   Mao Zedong, Tapoti, Summer 1933

Rainbow spectrum

We begin with the colour Red, the colour of the two-year-old Chinese Soviet Republic in Jiangxi. And then others — warm Orange, then Yellow and Green. A line break and coldness — blue, violet, indigo. Here for a moment is a quiet reflection upon the Rainbow multiple that consists some 'dancing' in the sky; or rather, they are instruments for the dancing that is going on in the sky. Some unknown figure is combining the two verse lines of colours and the seven colours into a unified movement, and they hang as traces of a dancing that yet remains invisible. The figure, and perhaps the dance itself are yet unknown, they are an order that does not reveal itself but rather seeks to give an impression of beauty even after conflict. It is this idea; of parts holding together a unity, rather than a unity holding together parts, that defines Mao’s thinking from this time.

But in 2012, images of the New China do not admit so easily to the presence of multiples. The (Western and Chinese) Media and the Chinese State prefer to give us powerful images — emphasising the importance of the parts while highlighting the overbearing importance of the whole. In a recent issue of the journal Social Text, Ackbar Abbas points out two of the first images that come to mind when we think of the New China: the man facing the tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the stadium for the 2008 Olympics. Abbas notes the development that has taken place in between the taking of the images, and proposes that Zhang Yimou’s 2008 Opening Ceremony was a way of ‘exorcising’ the ghosts of 1989 by performing 'with confidence in this new space' (Abbas 108) — that is, by demonstrating that the virtual world is 'more malleable and controllable than actual space' (107). Inferring from Abbas, we can say that what has happened here is an attempt not only to make concessions to the new (and potentially frightening) Capitalist world of social media and networks, but also an attempt to subsume them into the greater narrative of the whole.

The image that Abbas does not mention — because (and I don’t say this to spite him: its inclusion would have been incongruous at best in his piece) it is too whole, un-malleable, and a kind of historical signifier that he wants to avoid in taking into account the faces of modern China — is the well known Zhang Zhenshi portrait of Mao Zedong that adorns images of China — most noticeably, in my case, Facebook pictures of friends returning from the Forbidden City. The image is monolithic, terrifying to Westerners weaned on the fear of the Cultural Revolution and of the 20 million who perished under his rule, strangely full of compassion, yet empty as the space between Ai Weiwei’s hands in the triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn. In the picture, Ai can only gesture as the Han Dynasty Urn has left his hands and is in pieces on the floor in front of him.

Yet Mao was also the author of Tapoti, a poem that becomes a little clearer with reference to On Practice, a 1937 essay of Mao’s which delineated 'the dialectical materialist theory of the unity of knowing and doing' (Mao 66); Mao called this 'Practice' —

Discover and truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth. Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it into rational knowledge; then start from rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and the objective world. Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge.

(Mao 65-66)

The profound simplicity of this theorem is all the more remarkable if one considers that its author had already implemented a set of purges that saw over around 100,000 people exterminated. It is tempting to romanticise the Mao of this era, to think of him as a ragged and Romantic revolutionary in the face of Chiang Kai-Shek’s brutal Kuomintang, perfectly attuned to the dialectical significance of what was going on around him; indeed, his easy, conversational tone paints an incredibly convincing picture to this effect. The reality was very different — Mao was sidelined, disgraced even, at this point, criticised by the leaders of the Communist Party and consigned to being a figurehead. The battles he is remembering in Tapoti are most probably those of 1929, already only memories to the poet Ma who looks back, with some nostalgia even — although they are still necessarily present in the final enunciation of the word 'today'.

But what do the image of the rainbow, the face of Mao and the two faces of the new China have to do with each other? The title of Abbas’s article is 'China and the Human' (indeed this is the title of the entire two-volume edition of Social Text in which it is contained). It is aptly chosen, for the essay and the volumes provide multiple analyses not only of the effect of China on the human (a new socialist human) but on a very simple a dialectic between 'human' (the individual and his or her needs) and the State (China, a single Signifier that is not human). What better, then, to place against Abbas’s images of the human in China than the China in human — the face of Mao as Deity; Mao as the embodiment of China and the direction of the Revolution?

Many Maos

Xu Changfu, in an article entitled ‘The Incomplete Transformation of Sinicised Marxism’, explains that this role of the single signifier is the role Marxism plays in China today. In the article, published in the journal Socialism and Democracy, he notes that, 'The most important role that Marxism plays in China is to be the ultimate rationale and justification for the Party’s practices' (Xu 6). Changfu’s argument gives an interesting glimpse behind the shiny façade of the Chinese state media of the importance of Marxism to Chinese intellectuals today. Xu criticises the self-reflexive and 'hermeneutic' form of Marxism that has been created in China through decades of pragmatic 'translating, introducing and propagandising' (5) the theory and laments the abandonment of theoretical discourse and dialogue that has gone hand in hand with the 'hermeneutic' Marxism he describes. Indeed, the fact that his article, by all accounts an insistence on Marx’s original ‘liberal’ theories, has been banned in China says a great deal.

But Mao’s influence, like Marx’s, extended beyond his own country’s national boundaries. The title of this meditation comes from a note scribbled by the French Marxist intellectual Louis Althusser (Robcis 60) and noted in another article in the same issue of Social Text. Emily Robcis, the author of the second article, makes the point that Althusser’s notes contain clippings of an article using Mao’s theory to refute the 'bourgeois humanitarianism preached by the Soviet revisionists' [1]. The article goes on to say that, 'As president Mao has taught us, there is only a concrete human nature and not an abstract human nature.'

Here and again, we see the single, smiling face of ideology presented as a unitary mode of human organisation — something like the many hundreds of dancers moving to the design of a single choreographer at the Olympics opening ceremony or maybe one of the mass-choreographed public displays in North Korea that we became so accustomed to on newsreels following the death of Kim Jong-il last year.

Althusser mimics Mao’s 'dialectical materialist theory of knowing and doing' when he affirms in his 1973 Reply to John Lewis

Everything that happens in philosophy has, in the last instance, not only political consequences in theory, but also political consequences in politics: in the political class struggle.

(Althusser : 1973, 69)

Here, theory begets action, and the one, single signifier enshrined as ‘theory’ or a ‘theoretical development’ determines the course of political discourse. This is the face of Mao looking into the future and communicating it back through some obscure quality of his gaze to the Chinese people.

But Althusser also says that 'philosophy is, in the last instance, the theoretical concentrate of politics' — politics begets theory that in turn begets politics and so on. The similarity of Althusser’s thought to Mao’s is striking, and even more so when considering the liminal nature of such an arrangement. This is what Abbas calls '‘perpetual motion,’ between promise and compromise, permission and prohibition, free agency and control' (Abbas 104). Inherent in this form of Marxism is what Althusser might call a conflict between Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and the theory that seeks to understand them — perhaps the dialectic that produces such theory in the first place. (An ISA is a function of ideology that enforces the reproduction of the 'conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce' (Althusser 2) not through coercion but through ideology or what might be called ‘social programming’ of the human being; Althusser’s examples of ISAs include the Church, the family, propaganda and so on.)

The Freudo-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek might call this 'the point of dialectical analysis' — the function of which is 'to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance in its very heart' (Žižek 8). The crack implies a multiple nature to everything; the rainbow in Tapoti that is held together as parts but is still made of separated colours — its very nature multiple, a crack between theory and practice acknowledged by Mao as 'contradiction' in a later essay (Mao 67).

This is the theoretical and ‘diverse’ form of Marxism that Xu Changfu’s essay calls for. He calls for a 're-theoreticisation' (Xu 15) of a system that focuses on a single signifier and 'diversification' (14) in the face of this unity.  He is calling for a Tapoti-esque rainbow of many colours as opposed to the unit-mentality praised in a later poem by Mao —

How bright and brave they look, shouldering five-foot rifles ?
On the parade ground lit up by the first gleams of day. ?
China's daughters have high-aspiring minds, ?
They love their battle array, not silks and satins.

— Mao Zedong, Militia Women, Inscription on a Photograph, 1961

So, though this is the face of Mao that is known best in the West, I would like to posit a kind of rupture, for this, in my opinion is not the only Mao. For the second Mao one of his exhortations to dialectical investigation might serve as the best example in light of what I have said. The one I have chosen is contained in another of Mao’s essays, this one from 1930, called Oppose Book Worship and contains all the multiples, dialectics and ruptures in two simply worded lines —

Get into the struggle!
Go out among the masses and investigate the facts!

Works Cited

Abbas, A. 2012 - China and the Human, A Visual Dossier - In Social Text 110. vol. 30. (Spring 2012) pp. 91-108.

Althusser, L. - Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (1971) - In On Ideology (London and New York, Verso : 2008)
- Reply to John Lewis (1973) - In On Ideology (London and New York, Verso : 2008)

Xu Changfu. 2012 - The Incomplete Transformation of Sinicised Marxism - In Socialism and Democracy. 26. 1. (March 2012) pp. 1-17.

Mao Zedong - Mao Zedong: Poems -  online at Retrieved on 16 July 2012, 12:04am.

On Practice (1937) - In Mao: On Practice and Contradiction with an Introduction by Žižek, S. (London and New York, Verso : 2007).

On Contradiction (1937) - In Mao: On Practice and Contradiction with an Introduction by Žižek, S. (London and New York, Verso : 2007).

Robcis, E. 2012 - 'China in Our Heads': Althusser, Maoism, and Structuralism - In Social Text 110. 30. 1. (Spring 2012) pp. 51-67.

ŽZizžek, S. 2012 - Less than Nothing (London and New York, Verso : 2012).

[1] This and the following citation are from a 1967 essay highlighted by Althusser in the review Cahiers de la Chine Nouvelle from the Insitut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine ALT2.A57-05.01. op. cit. in Robcis 60.

Concept, Direction and Author:
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