AUGUST 30, 2013
COPYING HAS A BAD NAME in Western culture. In his seminal dialogue The Republic, Plato infamously views artistic endeavors as the production of bad copies. Painters, he insists, merely copy what they see, such as objects designed by craftspeople, whose work itself allegedly is but a derivative copy of ideal forms. Their imitative endeavors fall “nothing short of witchcraft,” he laments, because their techniques distort proportions to fool viewers into believing that the artifacts they see are realistic. As he sees it, by presenting powerful but untrue representations of people and their relationships, artists can overwhelm an audience’s emotions and undermine their capacity to make rational decisions.
Several issues motivate Plato’s crusade against art and copies. A crucial one, though, is powerful distrust of democratic populism. Plato worried that, in a direct democracy, anyone can authoritatively claim anything. As part of his technocratic strategy to legitimate political rule by an elite group, Plato valorizes a form of expertise that can transcend the limits of imitative ideas and images and arrive at an understanding of the essence of all things. Philosopher kings validate this essence, and are charged with arranging social and political relations in such a way that the populace doesn’t see the need to contest their wisdom.
Plato’s distrust of copying continues to inform our attitudes today. Many of us find the monkey see, monkey do moments of child development endearing, beginning with a newborn’s ability to copy basic facial expressions, like smiling and sticking out a tongue. And there are occasions when the old cliché rings true about imitation being the highest form of flattery. But, for the most part, being called a copycat is an insult. Imitators are said to lack originality, authenticity, creativity, or sincerity.
Against this backdrop, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China by Bianca Bosker, the Executive Tech Editor of the Huffington Post, turns our attention to a country the West has come to associate with self-serving reverse engineering and rampant intellectual property violations, especially knockoff designer handbags and pirated DVDs. Drawing upon a thorough grasp of history, original field research that she personally conducted in China, and discussions with leading scholars, Bosker has written a fascinating, nuanced, visually compelling, and extremely readable book about China’s “duplitecture”: the copycat production of iconic versions of Western buildings and cities. While many commentators view these “simulationscapes” as a “form of ‘self-colonization’” that reflects “the body politic’s self-loathing and its glorification of the West,” Bosker convincingly argues that neither historical nor sociological considerations support overly reductive attributions of alienation and abjection.
Bosker boldly contends that China’s experiment in creating residential fantasylands that appropriate images and ideals from abroad may very well be a movement that creates “the most enduring monuments” to a new, post-Tiananmen Square country. Moreover, if we look past signs of obedience to the slavish logic of consumerism, she suggests we just might find the beginnings of dissent: imitation inspiring liberation.
She begins by painting the reader a picture of Chinese architectural mimicry:
[W]hile the centers of Chinese cities now flaunt cutting-edge style, engineering, and technology, the suburbs and satellite townships are giving way to an entirely different breed of architecture: not innovative but imitative and backward-looking. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, has constructed a residential complex for nearly two hundred thousand that is the twin of Dorchester, England, from its Poole Promenade down to the cobblestone paving on the streets. In the Yangtze River Delta, a 108-meter replica of the Eiffel Tower graces Champs Elysées Square in what has been branded the “Oriental Paris,” a faithful reconstruction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s City of Light […] On the peripheries of its first-, second-, and third-tier cities, China appears to be inverting the paradigm of the “Middle Kingdom.” While it once considered itself to be the center of the world, now China is making itself into the center that actually contains the world.
While these uncanny locations have qualities that resemble Western tourist attractions, they are, in fact, homes and communities that people live in year round. Therefore, comparisons to kitsch hotspots like the World Showcase pavilions at Epcot Center or Paris Las Vegas only go so far — even though, in both cases, the ideal is limited cultural fidelity, not spitting image.
On the one hand, simulacra towns use foreign cultural amenities to amp up their Western feel. Examples include imitated furnishings (“sparkling gold-tipped chandeliers” in Wuhan’s Long Island Villas), imitated businesses (Thames Town outside of Shanghai has a commercial area “dominated by businesses catering to European food and entertainment”), imitated public fixtures (Chengdu’s British Town has black metal street lamps), and foreign street names (“New York Road” in Shanghai’s Jiande World Villas).
On the other hand, hybrid norms abound. For example, Western layouts and landscaping sometimes are infused with principles of feng shui. More fundamentally, Chinese consumers desire a type of replicated architecture that resembles remix more than pirate culture. “It’s not just Paris that is being copied,” Bosker states in an interview with the Wall Street Journal blog. “It’s a particular vision that the Chinese hold of Paris”:
In Hangzhou, they have a 3/4 replica of the Eiffel Tower. There are town houses that have very dark roofs and shutters. But they’ve tiled all these non-Parisian landmarks into the development. You’ve got the Eiffel Tower in Champs Elysées Square. You’ve got the amphitheatre of Nîmes from a totally different part of France. You’ve got the parterre garden of Versailles. This is not an honest true replica of France. This is kind of an amalgamation of the greatest hits of French architecture and those that are evocative of an aristocratic lifestyle. You look at what they’ve left out: the Pompidou, any sort of modern architecture because that is not fitting into the concept of French architecture.
Why do the Chinese middle and upper-middle classes prefer this sampling of foreign delicacies to a hearty helping of their own native cuisine? That’s one of the main questions of Bosker’s book. Sensitive to the limitations of familiar perspectives, she avoids the pitfall of relying on dominant Western theories.
She rejects, for instance, French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s contention that in the age of simulation, replicas function as props that allow us to indulge in distorted nostalgia. Bosker doesn’t find this theory compatible with Chinese sensibilities, even though there are historical precedents that illuminate the current trend. For example, there are relevant discussions in classical Chinese cosmology about “life force” allowing images to substitute for real analogues and reality being in a constant state of flux. But, Bosker doesn’t suggest that the Chinese are worried modernity has invalidated these beliefs and created a disenchanted spirit in need of architectural therapy. Furthermore, while Chinese emperors once displayed power by filling their gardens with replications of foreign specimens, Bosker only sees signs of approval that this mimetic monopoly has been eclipsed.
After analyzing multiple layers of evidence, Bosker concludes that China’s selective appropriation of European and American styles is primarily a forward-looking endeavor. As she sees it, the “simulacra cityscapes” enable a “New China” to present itself on the global stage, making it big by virtue of being able to fake it big. The big fakes have real value because they confront “domestic and international onlookers” with two tremendous cultural accomplishments: “accumulated wealth” and “technical prowess.” Like billboards associating a location with the good life, these simulacra provide supersized announcements of China’s “ascent and entry into the ranks of […] developed nations.” They can even signal a sense of having surpassed the West. As a character in Chinese film director Jia Zhangke’s The World (2004) notes, New York doesn’t have the Twin Towers anymore, but China does.
Appropriation, then, bespeaks domination — at least it does until geopolitical fortunes change. If China comes to feel more confident about its top-dog status, emboldened consumers could shift gears and come to prefer “their own traditional building forms.” Bosker primarily focuses on details and ideas associated with China’s replicative architectural endeavors. However, there are moments where she addresses the broader topic of how “[t]he ‘authentic’ and the ‘fake’” function as “categories that face off against each other in philosophically and culturally complex ways.” Elaborating upon just how fluid these categories have been, Bosker observes:
Their definitions and distinctions vacillate, depending on the vantage point from which they are considered: idealist or empirical, psychological or anthropological, esthetic or ethical. Some societies lay great stock by these distinctions; the same societies, at different periods of their development, may be blind to their differences or find them irrelevant in various ways.
Despite the sweeping grandeur of this observation, when Bosker reviews Western theoretical considerations about copying, she mostly offers brief comments. Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Umberto Eco, Walter Benjamin, and Gilles Deleuze are mentioned only in passing. At face value, this is a fine strategic decision: Bosker is not writing for an audience steeped in philosophy or literary theory. Problems arise, however, when restricted attention to particular thinkers gives readers false or misleading impressions. When Bosker discusses Baudrillard’s conceptions of “hyperreality” and the “simulacrum,” for instance, she informs us that he was writing with a sense of “panic” and “hysteria” about a “catastrophic” historical shift in which the “continuum that extends from the real to the fake” has been disrupted. But, how, exactly, did this continuum break? And, why, exactly, was Baudrillard “sounding the alarm that we teeter towards an unsteady precipice”? Although Bosker conveniently treats Baudrillard as a proxy for “Occidental anxiety about the emergence of the simulacrum,” she doesn’t even attempt to answer these questions.
To avoid giving readers the misleading sense that Baudrillard was merely experiencing abstract conceptual anxiety — something like a panic attack that people had the audacity to design simulacra that didn’t faithfully reproduce original prototypes — Bosker might have mentioned that he had quite concrete and political concerns. For example, in the essays collected in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), Baudrillard takes issue with how mainstream American media created misleading accounts of the first Gulf War. When the text initially was published, some viewed the polemic announced in the title as proof that Baudrillard was a dangerous postmodernist, a historical revisionist with little regard for empirical facts. But if we look past the excessive rhetoric, we can see that he was preoccupied with the visual and rhetorical strategies used to create the appearance of a “clean war” dominated by smart bombs — one that philosopher of technology Don Ihde, in his 1992 essay “Image Technologies and Traditional Culture,” argues concealed the “actual numbers of military compared to civilian deaths, low percentages of successful Patriot intercepts, offensive events like the live burial of Iraqi soldiers, etc.”
This political trajectory of disillusionment with media spectacles deserves emphasis because it complicates the ease by which Baudrillard’s Western views can be juxtaposed against the Chinese ones that Bosker attends to. To determine whether Baudrillard’s worries about the Western media effectively producing propaganda are germane to China, Bosker would have needed to discuss explicitly critical responses to China’s state-run media and the reality constructed for Chinese citizens by censorship through means such as a customized version of Google’s search engine. Those responses would need to be examined in light of the recurring charge that Chinese citizens are insufficiently critical of government control because they’ve grown accustomed to living in a state of false consciousness.
Now, to be sure, Bosker does refer to propaganda when discussing the “massive sums” China spent on preparing to host the 2008 Olympic games. However, this context differs considerably from the political one that Baudrillard analyzes. China was trying to impress other nations, not pull the wool over its own citizens’ eyes. When the Communist Party launched its etiquette campaign to reduce spitting, littering, and cutting in line in Beijing, it was well understood that “local behavioral predilections and cultural habits” were being targeted to avoid international embarrassment.
Despite her lack of engagement with propaganda, Bosker approaches the topic of China’s political power by advancing rather radical claims. She unflinchingly asks whether the themed communities potentially could upset the social order. To open our eyes to the counterintuitive possibility that reproducing places like Thames Town and the Upper East Side in Beijing could “seduce the body politic” into revolutionary action, Bosker invokes Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopias” — “literally ‘different spaces’ or ‘spaces of otherness’”:
As [Foucault] explains in his 1967 text “Of Other Spaces,” they are “different” with respect to the dominant space of society, and they are “other” in that their very existence sets up disruptive, destabilizing juxtapositions of incompatible entities within the social order. Spatially isolated, these “other spaces” bring together dissimilar objects, practices, places, and discontinuous times that open up into “heterochronisms.”
Some readers might find this esoteric language baffling; others might wonder if Bosker is using the concept in the way Foucault intended. When Foucault discusses “crisis heterotopias,” he refers to sacred or forbidden places where out of the ordinary behavior or relationships are not just tolerated but also, in fact, expected, such as boarding schools and honeymoon trips. When he discusses “heterotopias of deviation,” he refers to places designed to house folks who don’t conform to expectations associated with the twin ideals of normal and healthy, including rest homes, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons.
But Bosker actually displays great instincts in turning to Foucault. Although the majority of his references exist outside the walls of domestic living places, he does identify the garden as “perhaps the oldest example” of a heterotopia, giving historical pride of place to the “Oriental” version. Furthermore, one of Bosker’s central insights is that the simulationscapes are so unusual that they have more in common with heterotopic places circumscribed by robust restrictions for entry or participation than with familiar households. Above all, the “usually gated confines” of China’s themed communities blur context, bringing together worlds that otherwise don’t combine so dramatically. In such spaces, Bosker suggests, traditional norms can be renegotiated and reimagined.
By turning to Foucault, Bosker is able to imagine how changing China’s suburban landscape can go a long way toward resetting the culture’s orientation. At least in principle, exposure to foreign architecture (which “spatializes an idea of social dynamics” and communal organization), foreign habits, and foreign manners can alter how residents of a city think, feel, and behave. Perhaps by importing Western aesthetics, the idea goes, some elements of Western politics might come along for the ride, in which case “residents will embrace the political relations characteristic of the cultures from which the architecture has been borrowed.”
Given the Chinese government’s immense power, it might seem far-fetched to envision that “inoculating the population with the habit of making lifestyle choices” can “sow the seeds for significant societal shifts.” And yet Bosker entertains just this possibility, that a new orientation in discipline can yield potent “democra-scapes.” She insists that “these residential communities stand among the most subversive forces operating on the quotidian level of Chinese life.” Although the discourse surrounding the homes celebrates “[a]ristocratic, noble, and aesthetically rich lifestyles filled with luxury and fortune” and is utterly silent on “free speech, suffrage, and judicial limits,” Bosker sees their break with tradition as enough of a departure from the “conformity” that the Chinese state relies on to potentially plant the “seeds of democracy.” Perhaps this time, she suggests, the revolution will be commercialized.
Since I’m examining the book from a philosophy of technology perspective and simply don’t have expertise in Chinese politics, I can’t assess the validity of Bosker’s political theorizing. Will the Chinese middle classes living in simulated democra-scapes really rise up against the regime that’s enabled their success? Given that the Chinese government doesn’t seem worried about copycat architecture and consumerism inspiring unruly or overly opinionated citizens, Bosker’s discussion of Foucauldian heterotopias might be much theoretical ado about nothing. Then again, revolutions can have surprising outcomes, and can be ignited by surprising sources. Forget the truth; perhaps the copy shall set them free.