Christopher Bush, “Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media”
Summary: Orientalism, the ideograph, and media theory grew up together. In Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media (Oxford University Press, 2010), Christopher Bush offers a wonderfully trans-disciplinary account of modernism through the figure of the ideograph, or Chinese writing as imagined in the West. The beginning of the book introduces the ways that modernism wove together speculations about Chinese writing and responses to technological media. The following four chapters develop this set of ideas by looking at different conceptions of the ideograph and the uses to which they were put in texts ranging from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Each chapter explores a particular author or authors’ engagement with China (or with an idea thereof) through a specific understanding of what Chinese writing was and how it related to a given technological medium. Bush thus takes us from Ezra Pound and Paul Claudel’s imagistic ideograph and photography, to Victor Segalen’s inscriptive ideograph and phonography, to Walter Benjamin’s mimetic ideograph and cinematography, and finally to Paul Valéry’s historical ideograph and telegraphy. Bush’s work is particularly fascinating not just in integrating media theories into the history of thinking of/with China, but also in its attention to the ways that China was central to how modernists refashioned their ideas of time and space. It is a wonderful work that helps scholars of East Asia understand an important period in the history of engagement with one of the central objects of our field. Enjoy!