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China in Theory: The Orientalist Production of Knowledge in the Global Economy

Cultural Critique, Vol. 76, Fall 2010

26 Pages Posted: 2 Dec 2009 Last revised: 9 Mar 2012

Daniel F. Vukovich

Hong Kong University

Date Written: March 1, 2009


This article examines the place or use of China - of the “China” reference - in recent, theoretical texts (e.g. those of Agamben, Hardt-Negri, Zizek ) that either make claims abut the history of Maoist and post-Mao China in order to consolidate their philosophical arguments, or that use Derridean or post-structuralist precepts (chiefly about “writing,” “graphesis” and the subsititution of ethics for politics) to elide or dismiss the political and epistemological challenges involved in analyzing cross-cultural encounters between the West and China. (In this essay I take these challenges as having been best laid down by Edward Said and the critique of orientalism.) I offer a detailed critique of such ahistorical uses of China in terms of their dubious interpretations of modern China, from the Cultural Revolution era to Tiananmen and beyond. They are problematic in just these ways, even when - as in the case of so-called “Sinography” - they claim to speak for greater theoretical and ethical “complexity” in China-West analysis.

More importantly, however, I also read these uses of “China” not as personal errors or failings on the theorists’ part, but as important signs of the current conjuncture. This means not only the rise of the P.R.C. to global prominence but moreover the re-constitution and resurgence of a global, Sinological-orientalism after the “end” of the Cold War. This is a new orientalism that also indexes - to put it in “vulgar,” Marxist terms - the force or logic of abstraction, of a real abstraction reflected in the mind, that subtends economic exchange. Combining Said and Alfred Sohn-Rethel, in other words, I read such uses of China in theory as part of an orientalist production of knowledge that corresponds perfectly well to the contemporary global economy. Recent transformations of global capitalism and the rise of China, in others words, have their effects on intellectual labor and the practice of “theory.”

Keywords: Orientalism, Globalization, Intellectual Labor, China, Capitalism, Theory, Empire, Tiananmen, Mao Era

JEL Classification: A14, A12, A13, P20

Suggested Citation

Vukovich, Daniel F., China in Theory: The Orientalist Production of Knowledge in the Global Economy (March 1, 2009). Cultural Critique, Vol. 76, Fall 2010. Available at SSRN:

Daniel Vukovich (Contact Author)

Hong Kong University ( email )

School of Humanities, Comp. Lit.
#934 Run Run Shaw Arts Tower
Hong Kong, Hong Kong, SAR 00000


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