In Han’s Shanzhai, The Ise Shrine becomes the metaphor at the center. Like all his texts, it’s the length of a pamphlet, not a treatise, but it’s composed of elements so heavy that a spoonful weighs a ton. According to Han’s thesis, Western culture is overly obsessed with specific authenticity, with being and essence, so much so that it eradicates the possibility of true cultural continuity. Imagine instead of having progeny we extended our physical existence by being stuffed, taxidermized, and sat at the kitchen table. It’s morbid. It’s not continuity in the true sense. Chesterton wrote about true conservation being the constant repainting of a white fence rather than letting it flake and rot, but the image doesn’t go far enough. Instead, imagine constantly rebuilding the fence in response to shifts in the landscape, changes in legal title, etc. Don’t simply repaint the fence, but remember and understand its form and purpose — change will again and again be needed if it is to serve as border and demarcation.
Preservation, in other words, doesn’t halt growth, but presents a constant readmittance to the path of growth. Han tells us that in Chinese painting a masterpiece is never static. It is “regularly overwritten by connoisseurs and collectors” who inscribe traces of themselves onto the image in the form of signs and seals, altering the image in order to keep its pulse. The change is continual, and the transcription is permanent. In this sense, conservatism is a way. A method. “The work empties itself out,” writes Han, “to become a generative, communicative locus of inscriptions. The more famous a work is, the more inscriptions it has. It presents itself as a palimpsest.”
This is how memory works, too. In 1896, Freud wrote in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess: “I am working on the assumption that our psychical mechanism has come about by a process of stratification: the material present in the shape of memory-traces is from time to time subjected to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances — is, as it were, transcribed. Thus what is essentially new in my theory is the thesis that memory is present not once but several times over, that it is registered in various species of ‘signs’.” Memories are not unchanging monuments dead inside of us. They are, as it were, fabricated by us in a complex psychic process and as such are made and remade continuously.
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