provocations in east asian modernity (I): schema

Some notes on the 2013 Harvard Reischauer Lectures

Part I: Schema
Part II: Schemes of Sight
Part III: Schemes of Travel

I had the recent good fortune of being able to catch the 2013 Reischauer lectures at Harvard last week, featuring Shigehisa Kuriyama, cultural historian of Japan, exploring what he called an “archaeology of distraction”. For a series of lectures on distraction, it proved curiously difficult to tune out; I think I speak for most who were there when I say that at all three lectures, much attention was, in fact, paid. I found them fascinating & wanted to set some notes down, in part for my own recollections, but also for the benefit of those who were not able to be there and who wished to be, though I fear these will be a sad substitute. I encourage you to follow the hyperlinks.

The lectures were formally some of the most innovative I’ve been to, & certainly without precedent in the long and illustrious lineage of the Reischauer lectures themselves. For one thing, they featured not the usual post-lecture discussants, but pre-lectures. For each day’s lecture, two scholars were given the same five slides from each of Kuriyama’s powerpoint presentations in advance—mute, uncaptioned images—and were asked to present their own lectures based on them: to weave constant slides into variable narratives. Members of the public were also invited to pitch in their own advance remixes (or should I say, premixes), which many did, to lovely and varied effect, & some of which ended up integrated into Kuriyama’s presentations.

Those, too, were refreshingly unorthodox. Imprinted with a distinctive Metalab feel (Kuriyama is a senior researcher there), among many other things, they were a lovely rejoinder to those oft-heard lamentations of the death of the lecture form. No torpid recitation of factoids here, while the room subsides into polite apathy. It was a mode of lecturing which felt decidedly 21st century, in ways maybe familiar to those who think a lot about the internet and new media. It was montage, instead of narrative; webby, rather than linear. It exhibited a new-media-esque unconcern for conventional boundaries of discipline, chronology, region and source. We moved seamlessly between discussions of productivity software, early modern European art & skeletons from the late Song. It was playful instead of serious, which only made its undercurrents of gravitas (a thematic concern with humanity’s inexorable mortality) all the more poignant. Radically conscious of itself as a “lecture”, it was in spirit almost closer to poetry—that sort of suggestive sparseness where the spaces between the meaning and the words are filled largely with intuition.

in fact, they reminded me of a Seurat painting. Each slide was a curious dot—a mosquito rendered with seventeenth century botanical precision, a fragment of Tang poetry, an 8-second YouTube clip of an impossible magic trick, a gorgeous Brueghel painting of paintings within paintings, and others—which accumulated over the canvas of each lecture. Step slowly back as you listen, and a picture mists into view: one much more than the sum of its juxtaposed dots.

And there was a coherent picture—an argument, if you will. I emphasize the lectures’ schema here so much because there was, I think, such a suggestive relationship between that and its content, which I’ll get to in Part III. For now, remember the form!—montage, webby, seamless, playful. The pre-lectures exploited and presented multiple ways of seeing identical phenomena; the lectures juxtaposed seemingly unrelated images out of which was communicated, suggestively rather than directly, a clear picture. Now, the content.

Tomorrow: Part II: Schemes of Sight

This is the first in a series of articles on the Reischauer lectures. Links to all articles in this series may be found here


4 responses to “provocations in east asian modernity (I): schema

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