On the persistence and power of “backward” things: More-than-human poetics in the cultural transmission history of southwest China

Event time: 
Thursday, September 28, 2023 - 12:00am to 1:00am
Yale Graduate Club () See map
155 Elm Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Free, but register in advance
Open to: 
Yale Community Only
Event description: 

All are invited to a lunch talk with ISM fellow, Dr. Katie Dimmery at the Elm City Club. Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP to Ray Vogel.  Note: Seating capacity is limited and will be given on a first-come, first-served basis.

It is an old, true story that making a “modern” nation means creating internal others within the nation, too. In the case of China, groups that had been conquered or peripheral “barbarians” during China’s thousands of years of empire became, in the new nation-state, “ethnic minorities,” their differences from an implicitly majority Han standard portrayed as backward (the opposite of modern). In ensuing years, ethnic minority culture has remained a touchpoint for Chinese national anxieties, and been targeted in different ways. While periods of overt ethnic cultural destruction, as occurred during the Cultural Revolution (1967-76), are most visible, today’s ethnic heritage preservation efforts, which work to “develop” ethnic cultural transmission processes, are themselves highly ideological interventions. This presentation draws on years of ethnographic fieldwork in Black Rock, a Naxi minority ethnicity valley in southwest China known for its tradition of “pictographic” ceremonial writing, to consider how Black Rock’s various poetic traditions persist in their “backwardness.” Such poetics extend well beyond the human, and have resisted regulatory efforts for the simple reason that outsiders generally lack the interpretive frameworks to notice them. At the same time, Black Rock’s poetics embed ontological premises that are, in the very everyday-ness of their use, powerful.

Katie Dimmery is an ethnographer trained in linguistic anthropology, sociocultural anthropology, and folkloristics. She studies art and aesthetics in sociohistorical context, with a regional focus on southwest China. She is currently a long-term fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.