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Laurence Coderre’s Newborn Socialist Things: Materiality in Maoist China (Duke UP, 2021) is an exciting book that considers Chinese socialist culture seriously in terms of materiality and theory by tracing the contours of Maoist China through the heretofore unexpected lens of the commodity and consumerism. In Coderre’s book, the “newborn socialist thing,” a critical concept developed by theorists working to give shape to the coming utopia, is both a historical object and a model that provides the conceptual mapping for her project. Across six chapters that handle terrain as diverse as sounding practices, political theory textbooks, porcelainware, and mirrors, Coderre shows that the newborn socialist thing is much more than a discrete object but rather an “un-thing-like” constellation of objects and bodies that function in relation to each other. In her own words: “instead of distinguishing an object from its production, usage, and discursive apparatus, an old or newborn thing brought all these together into a single conceptual entity, comprising both human and nonhuman actors” (6). In attending to the expansiveness and ambiguity of the newborn socialist thing, the book innovatively explores the media environment of revolution as it negotiates the troubling, enduring fact of commodity culture.
The project, of great worth in its own terms, is underscored by the author’s desire to understand Chinese contemporary consumer culture. Indeed, the book’s short conclusion is pregnant with suggestion, asking readers to consider postsocialism not merely in terms of rupture with a failed socialist project, but as an inheritor of the relationalities developed in the era of the newborn socialist thing.
Interview conducted by Julia Keblinska, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Center for Historical Research at the Ohio State University specializing in Chinese media history and comparative socialisms.
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