I say this to bring it into the world. The idea is floated by a disnovation.org essay about the aesthetic illegibility, weirdness and “failure” of many shanzhai mobile phone models (accompanying their larger exhibition project on the subject), but only when compared to the sleekness and increasing uniformity of mainstream smart phones. Shanzhai is a term with an evolving and contextual meaning; in general I became aware of it being used to describe Chinese goods that copy and remix Western Brand Imagery in highly idiosyncratic and basically preposterous (within the Western IP System) ways. Friend of the blog candle has also recently been investigating it as a concept that that can feed or inspire their remixable/user-servicable tools practice, and the general ethos of freely adapting/re-using/combining parts to suit when it comes to imagining new ways of using and relating to technologies.
I, like many others, as candle noted, can only write about shanzhai as an outsider, relying on a variety of English-translated sources about the concept, which ends up having certain biases and limitations. But it's a concept that has a certain appeal alongside the pirate, the clone, the copy, the shovelware, the asset flip, the remix, the homebrew, the mod, the rip, the gray-legal etc. as locations where professionalized production cannot meet desire, and bends or is bent to the wilfulness and whims of smaller scale preference, production and aesthetics, as well as alternative models of both cultural ownership and cultural contribution.
This is not to say that shanzhai is liberatory, “the little guys coming together and using their creativity and salt of the earth know-how to reject big tech and do better” etc (which just seems to be a highly reactionary and recuperable narrative in itself). The same disnovation.org report notes that many of the factories were such poor working environments that moving to a Foxconn factory job could seem like a step up, and their rapid, strange iterations also meant a lack of concern for any sort of environmental or safety oversight. Jaime Chu also critiques the use and misunderstanding of the term by touristy silicon valley authors who want to use it to present the possibility of a superficially defanged version of the tech industry or validate the impetus to constantly “innovate,” vanishing all of the bad and using it as a convenient and exotic ideal.
In essence, none of these practices that I find compelling on their own can, by themselves, defeat or even evade systems of capitalism, property relations, and the cult of productivity even locally, even if they may succeed at spitting in one of its many horrible eyes or scratching back some unexpected joy and possibility. That they provoke questions and leave alternatives open, alternatives where the minimalist, sleek, ascetic hyper-productivity aesthetic of unrestrained technocapitalism becomes “cringe” and having a purely pleasurable phone, unconcerned with scheduling meetings or fitting into the pocket of a blazer cleanly, and which doubles as a dolphin figurine or cigarette lighter or portable stereo becomes “cool,” for example, is their value to me.
I think the “aesthetics of productivity” is more than just something for selling phones and laptops and so on, things that are at least in part Tools For Work, it leaks into how we go about leisure and expressive cultural practices. It's how some videogames are basically a job, or, alternately, sold to you in a purely self-improvement-oriented argumentation. So much art is oriented towards, or worse, sold as, self-help and self-improvement. Are the characters likeable, ie, do they act perfectly how I would want someone to act to me in real life? Does it give me more Empathy, does it have an Important Message, is it The Game We Need Right Now. Etc. Basically I find all of these things irrelevant to anything being interesting or valuable to me (sorry!), so in general it feels like it's a bad time to be seeking out anything else “from media.”
I have been thinking recently about how I have less and less faith in like, “good curation” or “being a less shit polygon” fixing whatever is wrong with indie discoverability and sustainability. Those structures still, at the very least, seem to rely on browbeating people into eating their broccoli because these are the Good Games that make you a Good and Discerning Game Player... It's overwhelmingly easy to find stuff that is fascinating and exciting to me that isn't saleable in that way; the sell they make is actually being ambitious and unusual in a way that expands my sense of form. Is there any memory around most of the things that sand themselves down to the point of getting blurbed as legible by a Gaming Site anyways? We don't need more curation in the sense of seeing yourself as a little biennale guy tastemaker, we need more curation in the boring sense of hyperspecializing, learning historical context and preserving a specific area of this stuff!
I have a new job now which is a 9-5 only vaguely related to my “passionate” interests. Productivity feels good, in a shallow and immediate way – something less hopeless to explain to my parents on the phone! Telling an HR person my bank details and getting pamphlets on extra healthcare stuff I can get refunded and the company pension plan etc. Not feeling the crushing weight of not doing enough, not doing “anything”... these are all obviously socially coerced desires, though... the cudgel of the coercion is ofc Money and Property and how it is stupidly fatal to not have enough. These are the Aesthetics of Productivity that are divorced, I think, from what is actually productive about the job, that on a basic level I am part of a long supply chain that makes flexible digital versions of educational material previously formatted as print textbooks, which, you know, if it makes things easier for distance learning or kids with vision or motor skill issues etc is probably a basically fine thing to be entangled in. There's also the satisfaction of the systematic thinking and precision and occasional mild problem solving the role entails, which is low impact but feels good for my brain to do in the same way that going for a leisurely walk that maybe has a bit of a hill in the middle feels good for my legs to do.
I guess all this is not to say that aesthetics are “superficial” or “merely decorative” but that they are “the how” and the ideology of how material reaches us. Ultimately the instagrammable home working setup, aspirational diets, dress, pastimes, the Just Do X Y and Z, pet the doggo and have the three different genres of wish fulfilment as romance options, write like an Iowa Writer's Workshop grad strung out on True Detective for “characterful” “prose” (or just hire the most insufferable guy from Mad Men to VA), all these Authoritative Advice Threads and the boring games they trickle down to, blah blah blah etc etc and your work / you will be both Successful and Worthy, these things all serve a remarkably palatable social function, because they are easily reproducible, consumable as a multivitamin, and keep you on the treadmill towards “happiness” which will CERTAINLY come when you X Y Z... Unfortunately I have lost faith in that and cast my lot with more interesting forms of dissatisfaction!
As a counterpoint to productivity in the Official sense-- the social and cultural productivity inherent to time theft. I am timid and unpracticed here (I say, squirrelling away notes for this blog post on the clock) but this is something that seems to sprout at the point where the aesthetics of productivity squelch, hinder or pervert the productivity we can actually feel on a material, social and expressive level. Is there anything more tender than running off shoddy copies of a beloved zine or out of print publication for someone from the workplace xerox machine? They soften and blur each time, as if you've been panting against the glass. They come out warm. It's a love letter written on the clock that manages to steal a little toner, a little paper, a little intellectual property in addition to time. Social Reproduction! Everyone I've ever bootlegged a zine or academic book chapter for is my offspring, in part, and I felt cared for when a rare film connoisseur started up their torrenting application of choice after hours of dead air and started passing bits of a rare David Cronenberg TV short to me personally, because I wanted to watch it on my birthday.
Ok well, to be slightly less polemical, I like the idea that candle tentatively proposes in their post, for a strategy that can find shanzhai or the potential it represents interesting and informative without resorting to essentializing generalizations about China or pure innovation-will-fix-it utopianism, which is to situate this historically among other practices that operate outside of or differently to IP law in the present, and see IP law as a historical anomaly, the ultimate disruption to how people relate to and participate in culture broadly, rather than a norm or crown jewel of progress for us poor creatives (lol), and I will actually pursue further research along these lines and have acquired a copy of Piracy: the Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, which I will hopefully read and develop more thoughts on soon :)