Thursday, April 12, 2018

From Joshua Tree to Hong Kong, Part Five - Thinking about History, Talking about Marcuse in Hong Kong

Our trip began and ended at the Oakey Dokey Wine Bar. 
On our third morning, I met Rob at his hotel.
You know you look a lot like Jack Kerouac, noted Rob.
No, more like Dean Moriarty.
I’m not sure.
He’s not that great a writer.
Better to read about the myth, than read the novels.
There is always a story about rebel friendships taking place as we travel.

neil and jack above,
rob and bs below.
I'm not sure about the resemblance. 

And so our day began. We walked out into the city, off to the Museum of the City of Hong Kong.  The museum is located in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong.  Just getting there is a pleasure, the metro works so well in Hong Kong, the streets are vibrant.
Walking Rob and I continued our conversations about the city, our lives and what global cities can be.
The exhibition only added to the conversation. At the museum, the permanent exhibition was dubbed The Hong Kong Story.  The catalog explained:
 The Hong Kong Story permanent exhibition is a showcase of the dedicated hard work done by the Museum staff in the past years in collecting, preserving and researching the history and development of Hong Kong. Occupying an area of 7,000 m2, The Hong Kong Story comprises 8 galleries located on two floors. Through the display of over 4,000 exhibits with the use of 750 graphic panels, a number of dioramas and multi-media programmes, and enhanced with special audio-visual and lighting effects, The Hong Kong Story outlines the natural environment, folk culture and historical development of Hong Kong vividly. The exhibition, which is both entertaining and educational, starts telling the story from the Devonian period 400 million years ago and concludes with the reunification of Hong Kong with China in 1997. We sincerely invite you to this 400 million years of historical and cultural journey, and hope that it can arouse your interest in and introspection on the historical and cultural heritage of Hong Kong.

I was particularly moved by the discussion of the Opium war, British Colonialism, and the current period. The whole thing was patently obscene.

The final exhibit considered the modern period.
Noticeably absent was any talk of the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when thousands of people occupied the streets of the financial district for two and a half months demanding more democracy, free of speech, and free elections.  Tomorrow’s blog considers this movement.

occupy-central-with-love-and-peace-hong-kong, 2014.
The City Museum did not mention this bit of recent history. 

Walking around after the show, I kept on thinking about China’s history. After China was unified, the dominant Han Culture largely assimilated the Yue Culture, which largely disappeared.  Walking through Hong Kong one gets the feeling the same thing may be happening with Hong Kong today.
With thousands of years of history, China plays the long game.  150 years of colonial rule in Hong Kong is a blip in time.
Today, more and more people from the mainland are moving to Hong Kong, freedoms are gradually disappearing, civil liberties eroding.  But a spirit and yearning remains.
Walking around, one feels thriving metropolis full of kids lining up outside stores, discount wares, food vendors, and vibrant streets.  Pop culture is everywhere. So is fashion. Everything is for sale.
Walking, Rob and I talked about teaching, his class, the philosophy of faith, his journey to teach at Vassar in the fall and the ways our lives have shifted.

My favorite novel this year has been The Golden Notebooks, I explain to Rob, encouraging him to read it. Navigating between totalitarian systems, it’s a useful story to consider, especially here in China, where the communism the authors bemoan, has become a neoliberal force.
We’d meander back to the Royal Plaza for the spa and free buffet and back out into the streets, taking in the views of the city from the Ritz Carlton, full of one percenters. Global capital feels everywhere, in the cars, the people, the view of the promenade.
Lets get out of here.  Back to Mongkok, we made out way to the Oakey Dokey Wine bar, visiting our host Matthew, making new friends along the way.  I have a feeling I would be there every night if I lived in Hong Kong.
The weekend visit is wrapping up.
Rob wants to talk. Why Herbert Marcuse he asks, running with another piece of a conversation from hours prior.  We need to discuss this.
Matthew opened a bottle of red from Northern Italy, describing what we were drinking, joking and laughing at himself when he started to sound pretentious.
Well, he’s my favorite philosopher, influencing my writing and activism in countless ways. I tried to situate Marcuse’ work within the context of German American philosophy and Frankfurt School Critical Theory.
Everyone at Vassar read ODM, or One Dimensional Man, his tome on reification.
We read theory because it helps explain who we are, what is happening in our moment, and what we can do moving forward.
Discussing the writings of this Frankfurt theorist who found himself living in the San Diego sun after the carnage second world war when he wanted socialism and got National Socialism, inspiring the generation of 1968 five decades ago, it felt entirely relevant to the moment in Hong Kong.
“Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves” he wrote.
Sitting in Hong Kong, where the state has told its democracy advocates that they can have free elections as long as the party identifies the candidates, Marcuse’s thinking felt apt, the commodity expanding everywhere, steamrolling over ideas and ambitions. “The people recognize themselves in their commodities;” he wrote. “They find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” 

Marcuse was also a surprisingly witty man, teaching activists and funnymen, such as Abby Hoffman, alike.

“Not every problem someone has with his girlfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production,” he pointed out.

I was first moved by Marcuse’s thinking during that intellectual history class all those years ago at Vassar.  Even then, he pointed at the specter of agency.  Reading his Aesthetic Dimension, I wrote about jazz and Latin American fiction as sources for freedom, and pleasure, positing each offers means of resistance.

In it, he wrote: “Against all fetishism of the productive forces, against the continued enslavement of individuals by the objective conditions (which remain those of domination), art represents the ultimate goal of all revolutions: the freedom and happiness of the individual.”

My favorite of this works by Marcuse is Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955).  This is his seminal Frankfurt School text engaging philosophy and psychoanalysis.

We read a great deal of it in my seminars with Stanley Aronowitz, I told Rob, who did not seem convinced of its relevance.

Out of those readings of Marx and Lukacs, I found myself digging through Reason and Revolution, his study of Hegel. 

There he writes:

“As Hegel defines it: "Thinking is, indeed, essentially the negation of that which is before us." ... Reason is the negation of the negative. ... Reason, and Reason alone, contains its own corrective.”
Rob looked at me and poured another glass of wine.
I think its all becoming unhinged, I told Matthew, thanking him for helping us out and sharing his space with us.
Its ok, take it easy, he counseled. 
Rob was chatting with a new friend.
Our two and half day hang was over.  Rob had to catch a plane in a few hours.  And I needed to get to bed before my last day in Hong Kong.
See you at Vassar, I told Rob, saying goodbye.
Who knows where we will be next Spring Break? Perhaps Bucharest Romania or maybe back in Falmouth in the UK?
Its always a pleasure.

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