Performing Modernity

Essay Excerpt

The question has become no less urgent for having begun to be entertained:What are the implications of paradigmatic sketches of modernity for analyzing the lives of those who are seen, in one way or another, to not exemplify it?

I want to sketch briefly some of the strategies through which responses to this question have been formulated. My discussion strategically selects several examples of disparate approaches including modernity as racial domination, alternative modernities, modernity as mobility of people and ideas, and ethnographic analyses of specific modernities. This account does not purport to be comprehensive or canonical. Rather, I offer these alternatives as framing for the argument that will constitute the body of this article: that is, that the modern is usefully thought of not only as a context in which people make their lives, nor only as a discursive regime that shapes subjectivity, but also as powerfully constituted and negotiated through performance. This can be seen in myriad negotiations of cultural politics; in this article I look closely at the practices on- and offstage of members of the Miao minority in post-Mao China. I will return to this shortly.  (Schein, 361)

About the Author

Louisa Schein has taught in the Anthropology and the Women’s and Gender Studies Departments at Rutgers since 1993. She has researched the Hmong/Miao people in China and the United States for almost three decades. She is the author of an ethnographic study of the cultural politics around the positioning and experiences of the Miao, a southwest minority people, in China’s postsocialist transition. Minority Rules: The Miao and the Feminine in China’s Cultural Politics (Duke 2000) takes a close look at the changing status of non-Han minorities over time and at how Miao people strategized cultural identities and economic change as China embarked on its market transition in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Schein is currently writing a book, Rewind to Home: Hmong Media and Gendered Diaspora, about the production and consumption of grass roots media in the Hmong diaspora. This study, primarily sited among Hmong refugee producers in the U.S., reflects what Schein calls “itinerant ethnography” of a widespread practice of media-making and circulation arguing that ongoing transnational Hmong/Miao relations are in part constituted and shaped through media. With Va-Megn Thoj, Schein has also produced several collaborative publications on Hmong Americans dealing with race, violence, masculinity and media. This work has extended into racial justice activism and several critical projects and publications around the film Gran Torinoand related mainstream portrayals of the Hmong. She is also co-founder of the scholarly network Critical Hmong Studies Collective. 

Schein is also co-producing two documentary films on Hmong Americans. One, with Peter O’Neill, is a sequel to the 1982 film,The Best Place to Live, and follows original Hmong immigrants to Providence, Rhode Island to update where their lives have taken them in the last 25 years of resettlement in the U.S. The other, with Va-Megn Thoj, explores the worlds of Hmong health and healing from biomedicine to shamanism, and from St. Paul to Vietnam. 

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