My Work on Academia.edu
Kung Fu with Braudel
An occasional blog, related to my research on martial arts cinema
Dr Luke White
Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture and Fine Art
Luke White is Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture, at Middlesex University, teaching in the Fine Art and Communication Arts areas.
Areas of general interest include: Hong Kong cinema and martial arts cinema; martial arts studies; the body; theories of the popular; postcolonial identity; contemporary and post-war art, design, film and visual culture; aesthetics and theories of the sublime; commodification and consumer cultures; the yBas; public art and urban space; landscape; eighteenth-century and early modern art, literature, thought and culture, especially in Britain; Marxian thought and histories and theories of capitalism.
My current research explores Hong Kong martial arts cinema genres, primarily of the late 1960s and the 1970s. I am interested in these examples of popular and populist cinema, and in the forms of resistance and revolt that they might harbour. These are read within the context of countercultural and postcolonial discontent, and of the entry of such films into global circuits of consumption. They open an exploration of a number of broader stakes, including: the question of the possibly resistant functions of popular culture; the forms of cultural (counter-)memory and practice that this might harbour; the post-colonial experience; problems of violence, non-violence and social change.
Some (fairly occasional) musings on this project are available at: http://kungfuwithbraudel.blogspot.co.uk/
I have a book forthcoming from University of Hawai'i Press, scheduled for publication in April 2020, Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Kung Fu Comedy Films. This gives the first book-length account of a genre that remains somewhat critically neglected and offers a range of analyses of films from the late 1970s to the present day. Whilst kung fu comedies have often been seen as apolitical, or even conservative, here I explore the complicated, ambivalent politics that permeates them. A range of theoretical forays question the meaning of the elements of carnival humour they incorporate, their 'utopias of the body', and the 'hysterical' mode of politics that they seem to engage in. As well as exploring gender in these films, the book examines the relation of the comedic martial arts body to debates around Hong Kong's relation to mainland China and the shifting nature of Hong Kong identity.
The book will be available from UHP here:
I have also been contracted to write a book for Reaktion Press (still in the early stages of drafting) which examines the history of the 'kung fu craze' of the early 1970s, seeking to examine the reception of the kung fu film in Europe and America, and placing this in the global context. The book will propose that the kung fu film -- arriving in the wake of civil rights, decolonisation and feminist movements, and at a moment of globalising economic and cultural circuits -- became a mode in which ideas of East and West were rearticulated, and through which, within Euro-American cultures, racial/ethnic, gendered and class identities were renegotiated. It argues for the significance and lasting impact of kung fu on transnational cinematic and popular-cultural landscapes.
Essays from my research in martial arts cinema have also been published in Journalism, Media and Culural Studies 5 (2014), in Asian Cinema 26.1 (2015), and in The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Rowman and Littlefied, 2018).
In the longer term, my research has also more broadly centred on the intersections of contemporary art and the broader cultural industries of which it is now so clearly a part. I am fascinated by the question of the longer histories of such an intersection, and by the nature of culture within capitalist societies.
My PhD (awarded 2009) focused on Damien Hirst and the legacies of the sublime in contemporary art and culture. It proposed that the eighteenth-century poetics and aesthetics of the sublime were intertwined with the commercial imperatives of increasingly commodified cultural production. I argue that such a commodification of the sublime is not merely a contingency which befalls it, but is at the heart of its development. Hirst is a contemporary artist in whom we find a series of unsettling reiterations of this eighteenth-century commodified sublime. Reading such echoes – and looking for a way to understand the relation between current cultural production and the longer histories of modernity – the work ranges across a diverse series of loci, including the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Alexander Pope, Bruegel the elder, Mary Shelley, Emile Zola, Wordsworth, John Singleton Copley, Berthold Brecht, Jaws and Jeff Koons. It considers the history of representations of sharks, the figure of the Dunce in eighteenth century literature and the meat markets of London and Paris.
Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Kung Fu Comedy Films
Due out from University of Hawai'i Press, April 2020
In 1978 the films Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, both starring a young Jackie Chan, caused a stir in the Hong Kong cinema industry and changed the landscape of martial arts cinema. Mixing virtuoso displays of acrobatic kung fu with knockabout humor to huge box office success, they broke the mold of the tragic and heroic martial arts film and sparked not only a wave of imitations, but also a much longer trend for kung fu comedies that continues to the present day.
Legacies of the Drunken Master—the first book-length analysis of kung fu comedy—interrogates the politics of the films and their representations of the performing body. It draws on an interdisciplinary engagement with popular culture and an interrogation of the critical literature on Hong Kong and martial arts cinema to offer original readings of key films. These readings pursue the genre in terms of its carnival aesthetic, the utopias of the body it envisions, its highly stylized depictions of violence, its images of masculinity, and the registers of its “hysterical” laughter.
The book’s analyses are carried out amidst kung fu comedy’s shifting historical contexts, including the aftermath of the 1960s radical youth movements, the rapidly globalizing colonial enclave of Hong Kong and the emerging consciousness of its 1997 handover to China, and the transnationalization of cinema audiences. It argues that through kung fu comedy’s images of the body, the genre articulated in complex and often contradictory ways political realities relevant to late twentieth-century Hong Kong and the wider conditions of globalized capitalism. The kung fu comedy entwines us in a popular cultural history that stretches into the folk past and forward into utopian and dystopian possibilities.
Theoretically rich and critical, Legacies of the Drunken Master aims to be at the forefront of scholarship on martial arts cinema. It also addresses readers with a broader interest in Hong Kong culture and politics during the 1970s and 1980s, postcolonialism in East Asia, and action and comedy films in a global context—as well as those fascinated with the performing body in the martial arts.
Carnival of the Drunken Master: The Politics of the Kung Fu Comedic Body
Chapter in The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018)
‘Carnival of the Drunken Master: The Politics of the Kung Fu Comedic Body’, focuses on films that are now regarded as classics of the transnational ‘popular cultural formations’ of martial arts. The shift from the primarily heroic kung fu films of the early 1970s to the kung fu comedies of the end of the decade (typified by the ‘Drunken Master’ cycle that launched the careers of Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping) has often been understood as marking a depoliticization of the genre. However, seeking to refute such readings, I read Hong Kong kung fu comedy through the changing motif of the body, in relation to wider twentieth-century histories of physical culture in greater China. I argue that the heroic kung fu body continues nationalist narratives of identity, promulgated in the fitness movements of the Nationalist and Communist periods, which saw the individual’s health and strength as an instrument for the construction of a competitive body politic, a viable modern state and the means to resist foreign imperialism.
Conversely, emerging at a moment when Hong Kong identity was becoming increasingly ambivalent towards the Chinese mainland, the comedic kung fu body – carnivalesque, materialist and disordered in contrast to the idealism of the sculpted, muscular nationalist body – is significant precisely in its refusal of nationalist narratives, offering a different image of the ‘popular’ body, moving beyond the nation-state as an object of identification (or even what Stephen Teo has termed ‘abstract nationalism’) and addressing instead what Petrus Liu might call ‘stateless subjects’. As such, I propose that, far from a depoliticization, this marks a shift in the ground of the politics of representation away from the modes most familiar to cultural analysis (as articulated in film studies and martial arts history alike). I read the kung fu comedic body through Bakhtin’s ‘grotesque realism’ and DaMatta’s colonial carnival, as offering alternative means through which experiences of (post-) coloniality, diaspora and rapidly globalizing capitalism, as expe- rienced in a rapidly transforming Hong Kong, are registered and contested.
Toward an Aesthetic of Weightlessness: Qinggong and Wire-fu
Catalogue Essay for susan pui san lok's RoCH Fans and Legends (QUAD and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art) 2017
Susan pui san lok's exhibition RoCH Fans and Legends at QUAD (Derby) and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (Manchester) explored diasporic Hong Kong and Chinese disaporic identity through a series of video and installation works. This was staged in particular in relation to the experience of imported and bootlegged wuxia (swordplay) and kung fu television series and films, and with regards to the international fandom of wuxia author Jin Yong. I contributed an essay exploring the aesthetic of weightless flying leaps of swordplay cinema, created through 'wirework', and the ways in which this paralleled a metaphoric 'weightlessness' of diasporic and postmodern identities as experienced in an era of transnational popular culture.
Susan's elaborate, interactive digital catalogue -- which presses on the boundaries of what an 'e-book' might be -- is available through her website here:
A ‘narrow world, strewn with prohibitions’: Chang Cheh’s The Assassin and the 1967 hong Kong riots
Essay in Asian Cinema 26.1 (2015)
Chang Cheh is one of the most influential directors in Hong Kong martial arts cinema, and his film Da cike/The Assassin is a significant work produced at a key moment both in Chang’s early career and in the development of the increasingly violent 1960s swordplay (wuxia) genre that led ultimately to the appearance of the kungfu film in the 1970s. The Assassin was made during the Leftist Riots of 1967, a ‘watershed’ in Hong Kong’s modern history. In order to understand the changing fantasies of violence in Chang’s wuxia cinema during this period, this article makes a close reading of The Assassin in relation to the 1967 riots and through Frantz Fanon’s account of the effects of violence on the colonial subject. It argues for a close relationship between Chang’s cinematic violence and the real-world political violence which was erupting at the moment of its production and first reception.
Lau Kar-leung with Walter Benjamin: Storytelling, Authenticity, Film Performance and Martial Arts Pedagogy
Journal article in JOMEC 5 (June2014)
This recent article considers how we might understand the politics of corporeal identification that stands at the heart of the pleasures of kung fu cinema, and how might this be built on the forms of pedagogy – the ‘embodied knowledge’ – of the martial arts themselves. Might the forms of visual-corporeal communication at the heart of ‘kung fu’ (as cinema and physical practice), harbour emancipatory impulses, even if – or paradoxically because – they are rooted in a ‘premodern’ past? In order to argue that this is indeed the case, this essay examines the work of Lau Kar-leung, one of kung fu cinema’s most innovative auteurs during the 1960s and ’70s. Lau’s films, made in the wake of the countercultural and anticolonial turmoil of 1960s and ’70s Hong Kong, are posited as part of a culture of resistance with their protagonists (also ostensibly his own martial arts ancestors) in revolt against Manchurian occupation and semicolonial domination by the West, connecting to a history of the Chinese martial arts as involved in resistance from below.
I analyse these through Walter Benjamin’s thought about aura and authenticity. Though the famous Artwork essay primarily posits ‘authenticity’ and ‘aura’ as retrograde, some of his other late essays open up ways of thinking the auratic body of the kung fu performer in a more positive light. I draw on Benjamin’s ‘The Storyteller’, examining parallels between the forms of embodied memory and experience (Erfahrung) transmitted in storytelling and the oral pedagogies of Chinese martial arts in order to argue that ‘Kung fu’ culture thus entails a storytelling mode that, in the context of (post)modern, (post)colonial, globalisation, presents a counterforce to the abstraction, atomisation and instrumentalisation that characterise capitalist social relations.
Flogging a Dead Hirst?
Journal of Visual Culture, Spring 2013
"Flogging a Dead Hirst?" examines the critical responses to Damian Hirst's recent blockbuster retrospective at Tate Modern. A renewed urgency and intensity seem to mark the attacks on Hirst in these. Does this signal (or even create) a revival in the critical "currency" of Hirst's work? And how might the nature of this cultural "currency" be something very different from the contemporaneity of the yBa phenomenon in the early 1990s? Answering these questions involves looking at the relation between Hirst's career and the various forms of Neoliberalism which it has spanned, and probing the methodological investments of art criticism, art history and "visual culture".
The Art of the Sublime
Online Tate Publication
The Tate have collected the research produced through the auspices of their "Sublime Object" project in a new web publication (released in Jan 2013), entitled "The Art of the Sublime". This includes my essay, "Damien Hirst's Shark: Nature, Capitalism and the Sublime" (originally published in Tate Papers, 14).
The larger site is up at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime
The Sublime Now
The Sublime Now is a collection of essays I co-edited with Claire Pajaczkowska, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2009. This includes an essay by me on Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, as well as a co-authored essay on the Sublime in the work of Cornelia Parker.
PhD / MPhil supervisions:
Michael Eden, "The High Wasteland, Scar, Form and Monstrosity in the English Landscape."
Casey MacKenzie Johnson, "Blood & Death in the Desert: Investigating the differing approaches to the symbolic representation of blood, death, and desert in Christian radical theology and contemporary art."
Anthony Iles: "Inventory’s Paper Assembly: Fierce Sociology, Sovereignty and Self-Organisation in London’s Small Press Publishing Scene 1995 to 2005" (PhD, completed 2019)
Lucy Bayley: "Mediating (Hi)stories: An Exploration of Audiences and Exhibitions in London's Institute of Contemporary Arts" (PhD, completed 2018)
Sophie Mobbs: "The Meaning and Perception of Body Language as Expressed through Animation" (MPhil, completed 2018)
Nicola Clewer, "Memorialisation in the Postmodern-Neoliberal Conjuncture," PhD, University of Brighton, 2016.
Nicola McCartney, "Negotiating Authorship in Contemporary Art Practice," PhD, Birkbeck, University of London, 2015.