Disaffection in a Special Affective Region | Cho-kiu LI

by Critical Asia

by Cho-kiu LI, Dec. 2021】

When you drop something, don’t find it
When you drop something, don’t be annoyed
When you drop something, don’t be nervous
…perhaps it would reappear in several years’ time

—MC $oho & KidNey: Don’t find what you dropped

The song Don’t find what you dropped (跌嘢唔好搵) has been trending on YouTube in Hong Kong over the past two months by the end of 2021. The music video was staged in Pak Nai, a suburban wetland in Northwest Hong Kong opposite to Shenzhen’s skyscrapers. Two YouTubers, $oho and KidNey, are playing table tennis on the muddy wetland, but they accidentally drop the ball into the swamp. Unable to find the ball, they remind each other of not searching for it as the sense of powerlessness would harm their mental health.

The song seems to carry two meanings. First, the song is like an energy flow—it is an affective investment by the cultural creators of the younger generation in Hong Kong during its difficult time. Despite being trapped in the political and economic depressions, many citizens are working very hard to sustain Hong Kong’s cultural continuity. It is true that many people, organizations, and stores are disappearing, but new bookstores, new digital databases, new films, and new YouTube channels emerge as well. Besides $oho and KidNey, new pop stars such as Mirror, Error, Terence Lam, and Serrini are on the rise, reviving the Cantonese culturalscape.

What drives this essay is the second meaning of the song. The song is cathartic in the sense that it invites its listeners to be composed in the face of uncontrollable happenings, projecting the restraint of political affect and the cultivation of a more immune body. We may mourn that the self-repression of political affect is a sign of self-discipline, a political submission to the government, a retreat from activism to entertainment, or the loss of the city’s free spirit. Trial and Error, the YouTube channel to which $oho and KidNey belong, was blamed for being inexpressive in politics. On the other hand, such pacification of feeling also serves to care for the wounded public, as if public affect was stabilized for the public’s own good. Can citizens’ care of the self, and the mastery of an affective self, also be a practice of freedom?

Countless reflections were devoted to how the media triggers affective alignment and solidarity over the past decades, especially in the age of social media and global activism in the early 21st century. However, more attention has also been given to the reduction, disruption, concealment, and misattunement of public affect, covering a wide range of topics including the unsaid or silence (Murray & Durheim, 2019), invisibility (Busch 2019), and secrets (Han, 2015; Dufourmantelle, 2021), all of which are less (or not at all) expressive and visible, but preserve possibilities through concealment and isolation.

Recently, Xine Yao (2021) proposes that anti-racist politics should rethink what she calls “disaffection”: instead of top-down control of emotion and the loss of humanity, unfeeling is a tactic of self-creation through distancing oneself from the culture of sentiment. “Antisocial affects,” Yao reminds us, “are vilified as unfeeling because they have insurgent potential that may not be legible or instrumentalized towards resistance…we may consider disaffection to be unfeeling rupture that enables new structures of feeling to arise” (2021: 6). May we also see Don’t find what you dropped as a disaffecting song, an insurgent potential that may not be useful towards resistance, but may enable something new to grow?

Hong Kong as an affective region

I think we can answer the above question only through a “radical contextualization” of Hong Kong (Grossberg, 2010). If disaffection appears as a possibility rather than control, it is because the affectivity of its context is unfavourable to cultural development.

Having been a Special Administrative Region (SAR) in China for two decades, Hong Kong has a public affect that is often dominated by the rivalry between statism and liberalism—the former asks for the expression of loyalty (表忠) to the nation and the party, while the latter asks for the expression of a sympathetic stance (表態) to an anti-state community. We may see the activism in 2019 as a conflict between liberal sympathy and statist loyalty. After the state tried to crush activism with policing and the national security law, statists show gratitude to state power, while liberalists mourn the decline of the civil society and activist community. If disaffection points to a new possibility, then it should be an action that creates a sense of emotional freedom from statist joy and liberalist despair.

Conflicts between affective liberalism and affective statism might be common worldwide, but it has significantly defined the affectivity of Hong Kong because of its geopolitical position and unique history. The city has been a symbol that would trigger nationalist and liberalist affects. To Chinese statist nationalists, the city, previously colonized by the British, marks the loss of China’s national dignity and sovereignty yet to be fully revived. Signs that do not fit into the Chinese nationalist imaginary would hurt the nation’s feelings and trigger national anger. To the liberals, the city serves as an alternative imagination of China and Chineseness. Liberals tend to simplify changes of the city as symptoms of an external invasion that should be sympathized with, mourned, and remembered. In view of current China-US conflicts and Covid-19, competitions between the two affects can be seen in different political, economic, and social events.

Disaffection also appears as distanced from the passionate pursuit of an expressive communitarianism. On the one hand, Hong Kong’s fervent localism is nurtured with the emergence of social media, mobile media devices, and activist generations worldwide. They have accelerated the circulation of affective signs, making instant responses and continuous updates as a major form of cultural and political participation. On the other hand, we may say that Hong Kong culture has always been driven by an anomalous strive for appearance. As Ackbar Abbas observed in the 1990s, Hong Kong was a space in radical transition and uncertainty. This evolving cultural space has been riddled with the tensions between a floating identity and a last-minute search for a definite collective identity, the strive for autonomy and dependence, and a culture of disappearance—“whose appearance is posited on the imminence of its disappearance” (Abbas 1997: 7). We may say that the continuation of the culture of disappearance has fuelled Hong Kong’s cultural heritage movement, civil society, and activist community.[1] Burnism (攬炒) can be seen as the peak of this culture for appearance: rather than short-term speculation of international politics, burnism is a semi-religious act—through self-sacrifice, a city or community would be recognized and remembered in human history, achieving a sense of eternity through a spectacular deathstyle. This affective resistance is then responded by the implementation of an affective law, which provides security to statists and fear to liberal democrats.

Disaffection as a cultivation of plasticity

How can we further understand disaffection? We should not forget that it is not something new. Actions of hiding and disrupting affect can be found in philosophical and activist discourses.

The Analects proposes that when the Way is found in the world, reveal yourself; when there is no Way, hide yourself. Many citizens were also well taught how reclusive lives of ancient Chinese intellectuals preserve a possible way of living in contrast to the brutal struggle for political power. In public discussions on activism, similar ideas of self-containment and concealment are also shared online. Some participants propose “winning quietly” questioning the over-exposure of supporters.[2] A young cultural critic argues that the making of a disappearing demo might be a more sensible tactic in responding to the surveillance state (Shek, 2020). When activist leaders were arrested, many of them shared their feelings, via media, about their rejection to collaborate with the state in disseminating fear. In the rest of China, “lying flat” as a tactic to evade “being reaped” has become popular. These tendencies point to a tradition that believes in the power of hiding the affective self, as well as the disorientation and disruption of affective power. Clarifying this tradition might lead us to transcend the simple imagination that visibility always leads to a stronger public and power of resistance. The disaffected self and disaffecting tactics have their potentialities, too.

I would like to discuss two disaffecting works made by $oho and KidNey. The works seem to point to how disaffection—as an action that contains, conceals, and deflects affect—might facilitate the cultivation of the imaginations of community and place—making it more “plastic” in comparison to the former rigidness.[3]

The first work is a song viral on YouTube called Got to Go (係咁先啦), which deflects the unpleasant affect of migration by reframing it as the end of a party. The lyrics describe a social experience that many citizens have in common: “I” want to leave the party as “I” dislike leaving too late by bus or by taxi to the remote home in Tuen Mun (in Western Hong Kong near the airport), but “I” am stopped by friends and relatives in the party. After a struggle, “I” decide to stay and not ruin the party mood, only to find out soon that nobody really cares about “my” existence—“my” participation is not as essential as “I” thought, though party participants eagerly ask “me” to stay in half-hearted empty words.

$oho is leaving the party but stopped by friends

The song deflects the affective debates on migration after the enactment of the highly affective security law in Hong Kong. Migration is currently a political topic because “leaving” means more than a personal and family choice. It also implies the betrayal of a political community long established since the activism in 2019. Unlike migration, the party is another form of human connectivity. It is more light-hearted as the departure is impermanent, merely a retreat to one’s private space, and reunion is possible another day—if they want to meet each other again. Got to Go contains and disrupts the contradictory affect within a centripetal political community by projecting a daily human relation, in which leaving and staying are simple separations. We may read this work as facilitation of what Abbas calls “hyphenation.” According to Abbas, there is no hope for Hong Kong to build a nation, but it would likely be a mutant “hyphenation” that integrates and separates different paradoxical forces in the changing world. $oho and KidNey reorient departure from grave betrayal to a light goodbye, loosening a tight-knit community to a plastic network among community members in different parts of the world.

The disaffection of affect can also be seen in another YouTube video, Iceland-Tan Kwu Lung (冰島灘鼓龍), which reframes a local beach Lung Kwu Tan (in Tuen Mun) as Iceland. In the story, KidNey and Chi brings their good friend $oho to Lung Kwu Tan because his mother is ill, but they playfully joke that they are in Iceland. $oho seems to perform being cheated. He is thankful to his friends and excitingly take photos of “Iceland,” not without questioning why Chinese characters and Chinese white dolphins appear, which makes KidNey and Chi burst into laughter. On the beach, $oho receives his brother’s call and learns that his mother is dying in Tuen Mun Hospital. Awakened by this bad news, KidNey and Chi stopped laughing and ask $oho to go to the hospital. KidNey and Chi manage to bring $oho to the entrance of Tuen Mun Hospital, but $oho refuses to admit that they are actually in Hong Kong, even angrily blaming his friends for staging a fake Tuen Mun Hospital to cheat him. KidNey and Chi look confused, unable to understand why $oho would not rush to meet his dying mother. The story ends with $oho saying goodbye to KidNey and Chi, telling them that he would return to the hotel, and urge them not to come back too late, with a confident smile.

We might read the story as merely escapism, avoiding the trauma of the mother’s death by staying in an imagined Iceland. I think it also relates to how a suffering subject masters his own negative affect in a sublation process—fully aware that his mother will die, $oho chooses to continue enjoying the place and his vacation with friends. What enables this disaffected subject to do so is the reimagination of the local as a foreign place. It is not new that many Hong Kong locals feel like strangers in their hometown.[4] But unlike passive strangers, $oho chooses to see Tuen Mun’s beach as an enjoyable Iceland, exploring old places with newfound curiosity instead of coming to terms with a corpse. It is a disaffecting choice, a rejection to be—predictably—victimized, but choosing to be a composed visitor and explorer of one’s hometown.

$oho’s post-traumatic composure

Whether and how this disaffecting tradition and tactics would be rebuilt and repressed in post-liberal Hong Kong remains unknown. What is certain is that $oho, KidNey, and their friends in the YouTube channel Trial and Error are trying to create their own stories. Trial and Error’s core members grew up in Tuen Mun—it has a beautiful Green Hill with a Buddhist Monastery for the monk Pui To. It would be far-fetched to say that disaffection is merely a variation of Buddhism and its equanimity, but it makes sense to say that besides the conventional and mythological hybrid cosmopolitanism (under the Victoria Peak) and refugee communitarianism (under the Lion Rock), something new is happening.


AUTHOR
Cho-kiu Li, Hang Seng University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong


NOTES

[1] Pang (2020) argues that the determination for political appearance in 21st century Hong Kong differs from the ambiguous appearance of cultural identity Abbas observed in the late 20th century.

[2] The affective politics during the activism can also be seen when a public intellectual leader Leung Man Tao was criticized by the younger intellectuals Yim [email protected] the Youth as showing no sympathy to the activists because he believed that one should control emotion and learn to be numbed in the face of authoritarian rule. Leung was also criticized by other key opinion leader The Atheist’s Babel Tower. See Initium’s video

[3] I borrow the idea of “plasticity” from Catherine Malabou. In explaining how “plasticity” affected her, Malabou mentioned that it “[opened] a dialogue between continental philosophy in its European form and new modes of philosophizing coming from non-Western cultures. This is the first strong plastic influence on my spirit, which is to delocalize my universe from the West to somewhere else.” See What Should we do with Plasticity? An Interview with Catherine Malabou

[4] This stranger and tourist mentality could be found in the lyrics of my little airport’s song My Beautiful New Hong Kong (美麗新香港) This Hong Kong is no longer my turf / Just try to think I am travelling elsewhere…

REFERENCES

Abbas, M. A. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. New York: Penguin Books, 2020.

Dufourmantelle, Anne, and Lindsay Turner. In Defense of Secrets. Fordham University Press, 2021.

Grossberg, Lawrence. Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Han, Byung-Chul, and Erik Butler. The Transparency Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Malabou, Catherine. What Should we Do with our Brain? Fordham University Press, 2008.

Murray, Amy Jo, and Kevin Durrheim, eds. Qualitative Studies of Silence: The Unsaid as Social Action. Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Pang, Laikwan. The Appearing Demos: Hong Kong during and after the Umbrella Movement. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020.

Shek, Ki Chau. Is the Appearing Demos Adequate? – A commentary on Appearing Demos. Zihua, 2020.

Yao, Xine. Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.

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