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ESC Routes


After Surveillance?  After Authoritarianism? After COVID? 

A Chinese-English Keywords Workshop Series

February-April, 2021, Remote/Zoom

Touted as border-crossing and irreverent of human differences such as nation and class, the C-19 pandemic has nonetheless become a fulcrum for slicing populations into insiders versus others. While the US promulgates histrionic demonizations of communist totalitarianism, China champions its benevolent state discipline and its citizens’ purported self-discipline (zilu) as enablers of victory over the pandemic and of a spectacularized return to normalcy. This participatory workshop series centers language incommensurabilities in Covid technologies so as to complicate binaries such as liberalism vs. authoritarianism, science versus politics and high tech as enabler of health safety or as surveillance mechanism. Specifically, we explore how the discrepant subjectification of populations allows one virus to be lived so differently. Mobilizing the plural meanings of “after” we subvert narratives of inevitable, linear progression and  question what they render invisible.

Unpacking keywords from both languages as windows onto respective values and sensibilities, we query, for instance, what difference it makes when restrictions on movement are captured through the English “lockdown”, which connotes stern prison control, state mandates and active shooter protocols, versus the Chinese “fengcheng” which evokes a more protective sealing off of a city. What in English is chronically denounced as government violations of rights and freedoms, is lauded by some Chinese speakers as effective management (guanli) and an ethic of care (zhaogu). And while such technologies as China’s QR Health Code app are impugned by Western media as encroachments of a top-down surveillance state, China’s national discourse relies on these digital technologies to govern through safeguarding and “positive energy” (zhengnengliang). Aggregating words from both languages that emerge from the COVID crisis, we meander through their varied social lives and allow them to speak in official, academic, mass media and vernacular registers, thereby pluralizing and destabilizing the categories they invoke. 

Format: Zoom workshops will take place on Feb 6, Feb 27, Mar 27 and Apr 17, 2021 from 9-11 AM EST. Multidisciplinary workshop facilitators rely on active interchange and collaborative knowledge production for analyzing the social lives of keywords. Showcasing certain revealing words in their accompanying contexts we then invite attendees to contribute from their respective vantage points, both semantic and sociological. Working knowledge of Chinese is recommended. 

Find the Final Report of this workshop series here:

Hosts: Louisa Schein, Fan Yang, Silvia Lindtner

Graduate Coordinator: Yuchen Chen

A collaboration between the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing (ESC) at the University of Michigan (as part of the ESC ROUTES series), the Chinese-English Keywords Project, and the Rutgers University Center for Chinese Studies.

About the Chinese-English Keywords Project

The Chinese-English Keywords Project (CEKP) is a global and growing network of scholars interested in mapping the multivalence and conceptual gaps that emerge when key terms migrate between English and Chinese. Representing fields such as anthropology, sociology, literature, politics, geography, media and technology studies, participants are based in China, the U.S., Europe, Australia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Through international workshops and panels, we create ongoing dialogue on the key concepts themselves as well as their social import.

As theorists of sociocultural process, we investigate incommensurability of usages and connotations not as problems to be solved but as windows onto distinct contexts, histories, and social relations. We strive toward an evenhanded approach to vocabularies in both Chinese and English, eschewing the linguistic domination that might develop as scholars in mainland import and disseminate prestigious Western terms such as “ethnography” or “decolonizing”. We attend to words in all their specificities of usage to grasp the societal impacts of Chinese and Western semantic interplay and of the discrepancies even between Chinese regions.

We are not linguists per se, or philologists, nor are we translators or etymologists. Our emphasis exceeds terminology as we are fascinated with anecdotes, frustrations, resolutions, and conversations from diverse perspectives and locations. Disaggregating usages into official, scholarly, popular media and vernacular domains, we take what we call the “social lives” of keywords as lenses on China and pursue vibrant accounts that reveal how power, authority, dissent, even humor and parody, proliferate meanings rather than standardize them. In the ethnographic spirit, we are interested in observing, listening and talking to a range of people, including ourselves, to collect disparate usages and portray them evocatively. Keyword entries assemble a heteroglot set of sources and vignettes to tell vibrant stories reflecting that word’s significations. Hence, our method is to construct entries through collective participation so as to capture heterogeneity, polysemy, multiplicity.

Please note that if you subscribe to the ESC mailing list, you will receive updates about ESC activities broadly. If you are interested in participating in this particular event, please reach out to Yuchen Chen, [email protected].

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