Margaret HillenbrandOct 14, 2023
On the Edge
Feeling Precarious in China
Columbia University Press 2023
Margaret Hillenbrand’s On the Edge: Feeling Precarious in China (Columbia UP, 2023) examines the negative cultural forms that have emerged in response to China’s exclusionary contemporary socioeconomic system. Hillenbrand considers the social strain exerted on members of the “underclass,” the 300 million migrant workers whose toil has underwritten China’s economic rise since the passing of the command economy. She describes the socio-legal condition of disenfranchisement, an internal displacement or “civic-half life” experienced by marginalized workers, as “zombie citizenship,” a purposefully inflammatory definition that evokes both the workers’ experience of civic suspension and their class others’ fears of falling into similar abjection. In this compelling narrative, contemporary Chinese social, legal, and cultural life is wrapped in an ambient mood of jeopardy.
Through close readings of diverse texts, performances, and films that both amplify and diffuse the violent conflicts of dispossession and dislocation, she makes the case for culture’s capacity to “intervene palpably in social experience.” The cultural forms Hillenbrand introduces and analyzes themselves teeter on the edge, on one hand, the edge of exploitation and aesthetic empowerment. The ugly feelings these works evoke affectively concretize the “ever-impending dissolution of that apparent boundary” between those already on the cliff’s edge and those who may yet come to share this precarious space. I look forward to probing the complexities of this freighted and violent cultural work with our guest.
Julia Keblinska is a postdoc at the East Asian Studies Center at the Ohio State University specializing in Chinese media history and comparative socialisms.