Ideologies of the Anesthetic:
Acupuncture, Photography, and the Material Image
This chapter begins by reading the controversy of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1974 documentary film, China and Pearl S. Buck's China: Past and Present (1972). Moving from Antonioni's filming of a surgical operation performed under acupuncture anesthesia to Susan Sontag's discussion of just such an operation in On Photography (1977), the chapter argues that part of what was at stake in China's public performance of such operations in the early 1970s was nothing other than the nature of modernity itself. But how, given such a theorization of the photograph, are we to understand the photographs of Chinese torture that circulated in the West in the early twentieth century? Images of Chinese lingchi, the “death of a thousand cuts,” terrified and titillated Western viewers as lingchi became an emblem of the enormous cultural gulf separating the West from China. The chapter closes by reading a photograph famously owned and reproduced by the French philosopher Georges Bataille. Bataille's relation to the photograph, the chapter argues, must be rethought inside the framework of China's relation to modernity, and to the identificatory and sympathetic claims made by the photographic subject's shocking and transformative pain.
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