The Origins of Self-Flagellation

By what I am sure is unsynchronized coincidence, I was quoted by two mainstream media sources for what I wrote on this blog (see Comment 200602#031):

(KR Washington Bureau via San Jose Mercury)  Many Internet users in China unfazed by government censorship.  Tim Johnson, February 15, 2006.

Some bloggers say bringing officials from U.S. Internet companies before Congress is unlikely to help the situation.

"These are regarded as simply Western exercises in self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-flagellation, and completely alien to the Chinese situation," Roland Soong of Hong Kong said on his EastSouthWestNorth blog this week. 

(The Guardian)  War of the words.  Jonathan Watts, February 20, 2006.

Many influential Chinese bloggers believe the media furor surrounding them miss the point. "These are regarded as simply western exercises in self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-flagellation, and completely alien to the Chinese situation," says Roland Soong, in his EastSouthWestNorth blog.

There was really nothing particularly perceptive or remarkable about the comment, so this particular quotation was probably liked for a literary reason (to wit, the imagery of self-flagellation).  

At the Chinese-language MSN Spaces blog 报事贴, this may have caused some problems with the translation of Tim Johnson's article.  The title of the post is "再贴一篇,看看我们伟大光荣正确的治国者是如何被诽谤的。"  (ESWN translation:  Let me post another article in which are our great, glorious and correct national rulers are 'defamed').  When the blogger came to this particular paragraph, he/she gave up:

"These are regarded as simply Western exercises in self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-flagellation, and completely alien to the Chinese situation," Roland Soong of Hong Kong said on his EastSouthWestNorth blog this week.

(这个香港人的话该怎么翻译?)”  [ESWN translation: "(How to translate what this Hong Kong person is saying?)"]

The problem must be that the notion of "self-flagellation (=自我鞭罰)" is probably totally alien to the Chinese.  In both Christian and Muslim cultures, self-flagellation has historical and metaphorical realities, but not many people in China went about whipping themselves literally.  This is why "self-flagellation" is incomprehensible and untranslatable.  However, the reference here is really metaphorical.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, there are two definitions of "self-flagellation":

1. The act of severely criticizing oneself. 
2. The act of punishing oneself.

For anyone who has lived through the Anti-Rightist Campaign or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the metaphorical concept of self-flagellation (=self-criticism) should not be too hard to understand.  But I wasn't living in China during those historical episodes, so how did I arrive at this term?

I used Google to check the EastSouthWestNorth blog, and the only reference was Comment 200509#032: "I guess that it must have been for self-flagellation that I went to see the Chinese movie On The Mountain Of Tai Hang (太行山上)."  That is not much to speak of.  I am actually surprised that the term "self-flagellation" had not been much more often on this blog, since it is a formative factor of my being.  The explanation is offered at the Andrés Gentry profile when the question of my intellectual heroine came up:

Susan Sontag, without doubt, is foremost in my heart. I would not be the same person otherwise. Above all, I inherited her sense of guilt and ambivalence about being a privileged intellectual in a western society without any responsibility for the rest of the world. Whereas that sense of guilt impelled Susan Sontag to action, my guilt is compounded by my lack of significant action.

But the actual situation has more nuance that that.  The time was the early 1970's and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was in full swing.  On American university campuses, many Chinese-American  students and foreign students from Hong Kong and Taiwan found a romantic political ideal for the first time in their lives (as observed from afar).  Yet, the mundane reality of their daily lives is that they may believe that they have the theoretical truth, but the "masses" (=working-class Chinese-American students who worked in garment factories and take-out restaurants to earn their tuition money) around them were very much indifferent.  In the end, they had to recognize that as much as their rhetoric demands that they melt into the masses, they were not members of the masses due to their intellectual backgrounds and, more devastatingly, they could never ever be.

From Version 1.0 of the EastSouthWestNorth blog on January 6, 2004, there was this blog post:

Trip To Hanoi

I will be making a tour trip, but it won't be to Hanoi.  The title of this post comes from an essay written by Susan Sontag.  Here are the relevant paragraphs:

As Hegel said, the problem of history is the problem of consciousness.  The interior journey I made during my recent stay in Hanoi made the truth of this grandiose maxim sharp and concrete for me.  There, in North Vietnam, what was ostensibly a somewhat passive experience of historical education became, as I think now it had to, an active confrontation with the limits of my own thinking.

The Vietnam that, before my trip to Hanoi, I supposed myself imaginatively connected with, proved when I was there to have lacked reality.  During these last years, Vietnam has been stationed inside my consciousness as a quintessential image of the suffering and heroism of the "weak."  But it was really America "the strong" that obsessed me -- the contours of American power, of American cruelty, of American self-righteousness.  In order eventually to encounter what was there in Vietnam, I had to forget about America; even more ambitiously, to push against the boundaries of the overall Western sensibility from which my American one derives.  But I always knew I hadn't made more than a brief, amateurish foray into the Vietnamese reality.  And anything really serious I'd gotten from my trip would return me to my starting point: the dilemmas of being an American, an unaffiliated radical American, an American writer.

For in the end, of course, an American has no way of incorporating Vietnam into his consciousness.  It can glow in the remote distance like a navigator's star, it can be the seat of geological tremors that make the political ground shake under our own feet.  But the virtues of the Vietnamese are certainly not directly emulatable by Americans; they're even hard to describe plausibly.  And the revolution that remains to be made in this country must be made in American terms, not those of an Asian peasant society.

Radical Americans have profited from the war in Vietnam, profited from having a clear-cut moral issue on which to mobilize discontent and expose the camouflaged contradictions in the system.  Beyond isolated private disenchantment or despair over America's betrayals of its ideals, Vietnam offered the key to the systematic criticism of America.  In this scheme of use, Vietnam becomes an ideal Other.  But such a status only makes Vietnam, already so alien culturally, even further removed from this country.  Hence the task awaiting any sympathetic person who goes there: to understand what one is nevertheless barred from understanding.  When American radicals visit North Vietnam, all things are thrown into question -- their necessarily American attitudes to Communism, to revolution, to patriotism, to violence, to language, to courtesy, to eros, not to mention the more general Western features of their identity.  I can testify that, at the very least, the world seems much bigger since I went to North Vietnam than it did before.

It is possible to read these paragraphs as the self-flagellations by a naïve American radical, but that is completely missing the point.  The real point is about encounters with the Other (which is defined as that which is Not Self).  

You can re-read the above while substituting North Vietnam by Iraq and you have a contemporary situation update.  Of course, it is inadvisable for any foreigner to travel to Iraq these days, but you can read this as a metaphysical trip.  Then the point about these paragraphs is that when Americans look inside Iraq today, they are really looking inside their own souls.

You can also re-read the above while substituting North Vietnam by the United States, the Americans by the Chinese and radical by businessman.  This becomes a reading of America by Chinese business tourists.  Then the point of the trip is to look at your own assumptions about how business ought to be conducted.

An alternative attitude is to go there and then wonder why they don't live the same way that you do and to insist that they ought to.  If such is the attitude, the person ought to have just stayed home and looked at postcards and picture books.

A more extreme case comes from Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism:

I spent seventeen years working beside men I never had any intimacy or shared experience with, doing work which numbed my mind and for I had no physical facility.  Its sole purpose was to allow me to grow close to the men and be read to move when a rationally pregnant situation arose.  Well, I was never close to the men, and no situation arose.

I was more fortunate.  I did not belong to any organization and I had no plan or intention to change the world.  In that sense, I was the intellectual who could always get along with the so-called 'masses' because I wanted nothing of them.  I spoke their language, I lived their lifestyle and I was quite content.  But I knew and they also knew that I was different somehow.  Yesterday, I spoke to a long-lost friend from those years (we last met in 1986), and he said; "Among all the people there, you were somehow unusual.  Whereas we worried about mundane issues such as making money, you never seemed to care.  It was not as if you were rich or anything, but you simply didn't care.  It is for that reason that you are one person that I always wanted to locate again."  This friend would find me again through the article in Next Weekly magazine (see Letters from China).

Therefore, my self-flagellation operates at two levels.  In the first instance, I am different from the 'masses' and I cannot help it.  It is no use to pretend otherwise.  In the second instance, I did not change the world but it seems that I can still do that.  That is my essence.

So what is your self-flagellation about?