Anthropocene Visuality and Countervisuality in Contemporary Chinese Visual Culture


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • Linda Chiu-han Lai (Supervisor)
Award date17 Feb 2022


The current configuration of the Anthropocene discourse as a global and universal geologic condition risks removing the disparities manifested in different regional and local contexts. A more contextualized analysis of the Anthropocene and its visuality is needed with more nuanced references to the specific geographical, socio-political, cultural and ecological particularities. Observing the manifold acts of human conquering nature generated in western visual culture in the new geologic epoch, Nicholas Mirzoeff (2014) coined the theoretical frameworks “Anthropocene visuality” and “countervisuality” to invoke the imperial aesthetics of this visuality, as well as point to a possible resistance. Departing from Mirzoeff’s conceptual foundation, which is built upon found evidence in Western society, I critically employ this framework in my thesis to examine contemporary visual culture in Chinese society. Addressing the gaps of current discourse and scholarly research on the Anthropocene and its visuality, I examine the complexities of Anthropocene aesthetics and envisage possible creative strategies manifested in a broad spectrum of visual texts found in different communities and cohorts of visual cultural practices in contemporary China. Through interdisciplinary literature research that considers visual culture, environmental humanities, critical security studies and geopolitics to be heavily informing one another, I incorporate knowledge from these disciplines to establish my analytical parameter of security aesthetics and visualization technologies to enlighten the subject. I argue that a security aesthetic is inherently embedded in Anthropocene visuality, which constantly reconfigures our sense of (in)security in human and more-than-human entanglements, thus also hinders the perception of and reflection on the Anthropocene crisis. This demarcating visualization process is made possible through various visualization technologies utilized by different authorities at play in creating the security spectacles of dominant scopic regimes. To further discuss the issues at stake, I conducted four case studies on four relevant visual clusters: the atomic bomb imagery of Chinese nuclear anthropocene; the smart and eco-city envisioned in the security expos (2010, 2019) that reify anthropocene urbanism; creative artworks built on surveillance imagery of the last two decades that reverse the surveillant visualization mechanism of a technocentric milieu; and the eco-cosmological films and environmental activism from rural Tibetans since the 2000s as non-anthropocentric practices for building a more-than-human eco-community. Whereas the first two cases center on the critique of the security aesthetics that disavows the hierarchical biopolitics and geopolitics in the current anthropocentric visualizations, the latter two seek to identify strategies and tactics in creative arts in countervisualizing the (Chinese) Anthropocene, namely to reverse the security aesthetics and engage with non-anthropocentric ecological visions and worldings based on local knowledge and indigenous cosmologies. Overall, this thesis opens up in-depth discussions on ecocriticism and visual culture in China, beyond the discursive limits on ongoing critique of the Anthropocene epoch.