IN THE POSTSCRIPT to Wang Min’an’s collection of theoretical essays, A Discourse on Household Electronics, he writes that one of his best students once asked him to explain their scholarly significance. By way of response, Wang explains that he loves the feeling of coming home and being surrounded by electronics. The careful reader will find that the postscript revolves entirely around this question. Although the literary style of these theoretical articles makes them hard to categorize in an academic system, the Discourse is significant. I understand the book through its three M’s: medium, means, and meditation.
The first M is the object of consideration: “medium.” Wang’s concerns are particular: household electronics are meaningful in and of themselves. Their domestic quality means that they have been detached from their inborn nature at some point in history—domestication has supplanted or supplemented their production. This links these objects to the resistance of nature, but it also makes them symbols of human desire and need. Their electronic quality means that they belong to the time after the advent of modern technology in the nineteenth century. They are a fundamental historical record of lifestyle changes born from industrial modernization, representative of needs created by technology and modern desires molded by its existence. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Claude Simon tried to give purely descriptive presentations of objects in the nouveau roman of the 1960s; this can no longer be the case. Nor can there be a system of objects, as the theoretical criticism of object-oriented ontology would have it. The nature of the medium demands that this analysis looks to what media tacitly bring to the structure of theories of existence—and here the Discourse succeeds.
The second M is the definition of “means.” If the value of household electronics lies in their ability to mediate the outside world, their actual use value can be found in the means they employ. Wang analyzes these means in a brilliant execution of Hegelian phenomenology. Personal goals, social ends, and the dialectic of interactions between people and society rely on means as the common denominator to realize their reconciliation. In evaluating how a washing machine affects household decision-making and the configuration of domestic space, how lights affect the redistribution of nature and society, and how computers and mobile phones work as rudders in private and public areas, Wang works through a similar Hegelian dialectic of means and telos. The reader begins to see individualized families as being set within a massive foundation of domestic electronics, a parallel yet interconnected system. The methodology of means becomes an end in and of itself. I find myself especially aware of his description of the gesture within these systems: washing clothes becomes a movement, the action of writing becomes percussive, the television covertly begins to required a comfortable couch for sitting. Our attitudes toward objects constitute a major part of this apparatus. Wang proves Giorgio Agamben’s position: “Gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.”
The third M is for “mediation.” Theory has become a stereotyped genre, as if it must conform to predetermined models and speak in a certain language. A Discourse on Household Electronics presents a new approach that incorporates personal experience to analyze the structures of life. Wang says he is “not willing to use theory as violence,” and in this he shatters common preconceptions. This kind of mediation involves the normalization of both the objects under discussion and the demands of the living structures to which they belong; it is the result of the agency of writing as a practice. Beginning with personal experience and passing through social systems of language, objects, as and symbols, the ideas in Wang’s work fold and pile up, ultimately emerging with a distinct form of expression that makes visible the massive mechanisms at stake.
Text by Zhao Wen
Translated by Nathaniel Brown