Q&A: Eric Hayot

Q&A: Eric Hayot

Photo by Jill Schleifer

A Global Fellow at the International Institute takes up queries on torture, Abu Ghraib, the adoption of Chinese girls, and success in academia.

Eric Hayot, an associate professor of English at the University of Arizona, is spending the 2005–06 academic year as a Global Fellow at the UCLA International Institute. He is writing a book on Western responses to Chinese people in pain and, in the spring, teaching UCLA courses on literary theory and Chinese and American poetry.

Q: What is your particular interest in torture?

I'm not just interested in torture. That's part of what I'm interested in, and it's probably the most spectacular part.

I'm interested in a much broader European and American experience, and Chinese experience, of Chinese bodies in pain. And some of those reactions, some of those experiences, have to do with [westerners and Chinese people] looking at images of Chinese people being tortured.

But some of them have to do with things like the first Western missionary hospital in China, which also obviously deals with Chinese bodies in pain, but does so in order to heal them.

Some of them have to do with reports about the way that Chinese people behave towards people who are in pain. And that pain can sometimes be torture.

The broader historical scope in which I'm looking at this is the history of the West's relation with China in the era of modernity, which starts around the 1550s, to my mind, and goes to the present.

I'm also going to talk about adoption, the adoption of Chinese children, as a kind of event or moment in this relation, this Western relation to Chinese bodies, that's focused around notions, almost always, of sympathy and care.

We don't like to think of children as being bought and sold, but obviously the adoption of Chinese children requires the payment of fees. This is an enormous international economy that has profound effects on immigration, the flow of bodies transnationally, the ethnic make-up of American families, especially gay families, which are able to occasionally adopt children from China even though they can't adopt them from the United States, civic organizations connected to families with Chinese children, and so on and so forth.

My argument is that these forms of care, which at the individual level are almost always expressions of generosity, are caught up in a large-scale management that's occasionally conscious, but mostly unconscious, of Chinese bodies—in the framework of what becomes international human rights. But it doesn't really become that until later on, that is to say, in the late twentieth century.

Q: How does adoption fit into "pain"?

It's connected to "care." First of all, if you look at the adoption stuff, what they will talk about is how terrible the living conditions of the Chinese orphans are. Which is absolutely the case. They are terrible. So every kid who gets adopted out of those conditions is very lucky.

So this is why "pain," because what's connected to this notion of pain is this idea that there are children in pain that you are going to save, who there is an active attempt to care for. And the act of caring assumes pain, or assumes the potential of pain, assumes that someone could be in pain if they're not cared for.

Secondly, it's about the export—I'm just writing about this. Think about compassion or caring as a kind of export commodity. The way that is works is that you basically have an excess of compassion or care, and you send it abroad. There's always the implication that you're doing it because these people couldn't care for themselves, or don't want to, or are too stupid to, or are evil, or whatever.

The classic formulation of this in the Indian context has to do with the British making sati illegal. Sati is where the widow throws herself or is forced to throw herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

[Postcolonial theorist] Gayatri Spivak famously refers to this as "white men saving brown women from brown men." What that formulation captures very nicely is the degree to which so much of this kind of international trading in passion is gendered and has to do with European countries saving non-European women from non-European men.

And in the case of Chinese adoption this is absolutely the case, because almost all of the Chinese adoptees are female because of the politics of gender in China.

So you have this very generous act, in which American parents basically decide to spend some enormous portion of their income and their time to raise a child that does not originally belong to them. And then you have the larger context in which Chinese girls have become a kind of export commodity, with all the complexities that that implies.

Q: What do you make of Abu Ghraib?

It's important to distinguish multiple kinds of torture. There's something that I'll call judicial punishment, which I don't think is necessarily torture but looks like torture to other people. Judicial punishment is something like someone committing a crime and then being whipped 20 times for it. It begins and ends.

Then there's the torture that is interrogative, and this is the most common form of torture in the public imagination right now.

And then there's torture that's torture for pleasure.

And of course Abu Ghraib was very clearly torture for pleasure marketed as, to the soldiers themselves, torture for interrogative purposes. Those soldiers were told that they were "softening those prisoners up" prior to their interrogation. They were given an interrogative justification, but clearly when you look at those pictures, it's about their sexual and other kinds of pleasure. And I don't think there's anything wrong with sexual pleasure, but it should be consensual.

Q: What for you is a successful career?

I would like to have mattered. I would like to have done work that changed other people's work. To me, that's what mattering means.

Hayot calls Web-based video games "the most profoundly underestimated new cultural form of the last 20 years." Weekly posts by Hayot can be found at printculture.

Published: Tuesday, November 08, 2005