Ontopower and Queer Radical Changes – Victor Fan

This blog is a response to the original planned panel event titled ‘Reclaiming ‘queer’ and radical politics’, which was rethought of as a two-round conversation between the panellists. Our thanks to Victor for sharing his responses to the first round here.

  • How is queer and queerness still radical? What spaces and practices in the contemporary continue to shape and inform our understanding of the radical potential of queer?

Let us work through this question philosophically and practically.

Back in March this year, for teaching purposes, I revisited some interviews with Chinese(-American) queer filmmaker Cui Zi’en conducted by Petrus Liu and Bao Hongwei respectively.1 One of Cui’s statement is particularly inspiring for me:

I think the process of deconstruction itself is a new outcome, not that something new and different will arise and replace the deconstructed ones. If I kick this table here and it falls apart, the ruin is already a new outcome…. Actually, this so-called deconstruction is not deconstruction. It’s really my own innovation. The system we are confronted with is so big that every independent innovation on our part is read against it.2

Cui’s idea resonates with some of the thoughts I have been developing when I work comparatively between engaged Zen Buddhism and Brian Massumi’s notion of ontopower.

In my forthcoming monograph, I argue:

In our ordinary lived experience, apprehending what lies in front of our eyes, here and now, is an impossible task. It is because the very temporal point-instant at which we become aware of the here and now,it is already a recognition: which is in turn in-formed by a recollection and an anticipation. For example, when I feel thirsty and want to drink some water, I seldom pay attention to the sensations and affections that in-form my thirst and my desire for water. Rather, a recollection of these sensations and affections habitually stimulate an impulse to grab a glass of water. By the time I grab the glass, I have already diverted my attention to the next sentence I am about to compose.3

If we are able to apprehend here and now, we are able to be mindful of a bare cognition at a singular kṣaṇa (moment or the smallest unit of time),whichneither refers to a recollection or anticipation. In Buddhism, it is called sati/smṛti. Brian Massumi calls this microperception.5

Why is sati or microperception important? Yogācāra Buddhists believe that each kṣaṇa is an actualization of a potentiality and a virtualization of an actuality.6 On a day to day basis, when our mind is drawn to a recollection that no longer exists and an anticipation that has yet to exist, we simply let our consciousness operate on autopilot. This is what Buddhist practitioners call avijjā/avidyā (ignorance).7 The moment we are being mindful of the here and now, we are able to take control of the potentiality and reconfigure the way it is, from one moment to another.

In other words, every moment is constituted by a radical potentiality––only that we often fail to acknowledge it. Queer radicality cannot be actualized if we simply wait for an opportunity to arise. For Brian Massumi, neoliberalism operates upon an active appropriation of our ontopower––from one moment to another––to mobilise our desire to consume and our fear of otherness.8 If we look at neoliberalism as a system, there is no way out for us and there is no room for radical changes. However, if we look at this as a fabric woven out of mobile relationalities (or in Foucault’s terms, power relations), we can see that each moment is constituted by a potentiality to change.9 This change is not about a change of an individual or a collective. Rather, it is a change of a layout of relationalities: including those rules that in-form the ways we are individuated and transindividuated in a social process.

  • Keeping in mind the pervasiveness of the neoliberal global framework we are mindful of the increasing deployment of the term queer as a sign of ‘radical newness’ without necessarily being grounded in a practice that challenges dominant hegemonic formations. How do we respond to and recuperate our understanding of queer from the term ‘queer’ as just another marker that can be co-opted?

Neoliberalism operates as a paradox. On the one hand, it encourages innovations and venerates ‘radical newness’ as a sign of its progressiveness. On the other hand, it takes away the means and agency from individuals to instigate radical changes.10 It does so by channelling our ontopower for pre-emptive measures.11 Under neoliberalism, we are encouraged to think inside the box by imagining radical changes within the system, thus turning these radical changes into an impetus to encourage productive consumption and pre-emptive measures. Alternatively, we seem to face one remaining option: to think outside the box by dismantling the system.

We often fail to recognise that there has never been a box in the first place and the box is put there––by our own desire and fear––and is designed for us only. This is something we can learn from Kafka’s ‘Vor dem Gesetz’ [‘Before the Law’].12

When queerness was proposed in the 1980s, scholars were already sensing that we could no longer imagine radical changes in structural (or post-structural) terms. For Teresa de Lauretis and Earl Jackson, Jr., by regarding ourselves as individuals who participate in––and are interpellated by––a structure or a process of structuration, we overlook the fact that individuation and subjectivisation are processes.13 Individualities, subjectivities, and agencies are produced in every act, and every act instantiates a potentiality to enact and be enacted, affect and be affected, and configure and be reconfigured (we can learn this from Deleuze’s discussion of Spinoza).14

The term ‘queer’ was originally proposed as an act of defiance, so that we can open our eyes to each act as a potentiality to make radical changes. Yet, when the term is used on a day-to-day basis in consumption (including media consumption), the ontopower of being queer has been pre-empted. We build a box for ourselves in our acts of consumption and pre-emption, that there appears to be a system out there that makes it difficult––if not impossible––to instigate the kind of radical changes that queerness is supposed to empower us to do.

Neoliberalism does what fascism has been historically doing: to take away our living condition one bit at a time––and we are convinced that each act of deprivation is either necessary or that ‘it doesn’t matter’. It means that we need to be mindful that every time we say, ‘it doesn’t matter’, we are letting go of a condition to subsist wilfully. As queer individuals of colour, we have a lot of battles to fight every day and we cannot possibly fight every one of them. That is why the Therāvadin notion of mindfulness is useful here. A condition is a two-way street: in Spinozian terms, it affects––and is affected by––other dependent conditions around it.15 By staying mindful of each configurational change in our relationalities, we become mindful of how a living condition slips away and how such a deprivation makes the overall ecology of relations unliveable. In so doing, we can focus on how to restore the ecology as a whole. 

  • Queer knoweldges and practices can be co-opted within nationalisms, post-colonial structures, and neoliberal practices. How do we imagine radical queerness in opposition to these frameworks?

This is the reason why ‘Queer Asia’ as method is an urgent matter.

Scholars of queer studies of Asia have long pointed out that queerness, as a layout of conditions or strategies, is not universal. For instance, Petrus Liu’s research has demonstrated that when the term was translated and circulated in the People’s Republic of China, activists argued that the modes and forms of homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity have been historically configured in a different way than their Euro-American counterparts. Meanwhile, under socialism and postsocialism, biopolitical lives also operate more on relational and transindividual terms, than individual and subjectival terms. This means that the mode of individual agencies and powers that the term ‘queerness’ seeks to instigate and the relationalities between individuals that it inspires in the Euro-American context cannot be grafted directly onto the biopolitical experience in China. In China and the rest of the Sinophone, the term tongzhi (comrade) is more widely accepted, one that appropriates and rewrites the legacies of China’s socialist past and maintains an alertness to the ongoing battles that biopolitical lives must fight relationally under party-state surveillance. Of course, even the term comrade means something different in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, where the Sinophone communities there were under different forms of pressure from the nationalist, postcolonial, and neoliberal layouts in China and Euro-American respectively.16

In scholarly debates, my worry is that we sometimes have a tendency to shut down the conversation before we begin! In my first monograph, I pointed out that understanding Asia as method is not a matter of throwing Asian theories and concepts into the larger Euro-American canon. Yet, by asserting that Asia and Euro-America are radically different, we are simply reiterating the colonial and postcolonial differentiation between the imaginary Orient versus the imaginary Occident. In other words, we can fall into the trap of saying that ‘We have nothing in common in the first place.’ If so, why should we bother starting a conversation if a common vocabulary cannot possibly be established––or, if we do not even desire to establish it?17

This discussion has not been easy over the years. On a practical level, a vocabulary is necessary. Asian theories, concepts, and methods are not only applicable in Asia. In fact, they are important for us to see where the edges and limitations of our existing debates are and in what ways these debates have been configured through colonialism, postcolonialism, nationalism, and neoliberalism. Yet, as Edward Said has taught us a long time ago, knowledge developed in Asia is not considered proper knowledge. Hence, while specialists of Queer Asia can see the benefit of a cross-cultural conversation, Euro-American scholars are blind to this need. In many conferences, I have encountered well-respected Euro-American scholars who would tell me: ‘Victor, you should have stayed in the US or consider teaching in Asia, where your knowledge is needed.’ The only way to open this dialogue is to conduct cultural translations so that we can fight for an access into the discourse. But then, such a gesture is easily read as a desire to canonise Asian theories.

Such an effort to establish a topos has been criticised by some scholars or even being accused as a form of epistemic violence (as Spivak would put it).18 Some scholars believe that Asian theories and methods have been developed out of their historical, sociopolitical, and economic specificities and should be proud of asserting these particularities. For centuries, Euro-American scholars have tried to set the Euro-American exception (a provincial particular) as universal. They then turn around to measure cases in Asia and Africa as the exceptions. Asia as method is therefore being configured as the exception of the exception, a technology of recognition that affirms Euro-American subjectivity and universality.As a result, many specialists in Asian theories and methods argue that in order to undo this power asymmetry, we should prevent ourselves from configuring Asian theories as the new exceptions.19 But then, we are again asserting that no conversation is needed.

In my forthcoming monograph, I argue:

Acknowledging and respecting the historical contexts of the theories and philosophies we discuss, I argue, is different from incarcerating them within their historical cages and rendering them incommunicable with scholars who work from other culturo-historical contexts. Understanding a concept within its historical context means that its meanings were once produced out of a specific discursive space. Yet, there is nothing wrong with repurposing this concept by establishing another comparative process between its historical semiotic assemblage and our contemporary one. A concept can be transferred, displaced, and reconfigured not by grafting it from one episteme onto another, but by being mindful of the difference between them.20

No sociopolitical, historical, and economic conditions are the same. However, the technicity or operating principles of how they affect, and are affected by, powers, will enable us to learn from one another’s experiences. Decolonising knowledge also requires our active rewriting of what it means by decolonisation, and the operating principles that have created the need to decolonise in the first place.

Dr. Victor Fan is the Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London and also a Film Consultant of Chinese Visual Festival (London). Prior to his position at King’s, he was Assistant Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University. Fan graduated with a PhD from the Film Studies Program and the Comparative Literature Department of Yale University, and an MFA in Film and Television Productions at School of Cinema-Television (now School of Cinematic Arts), University of Southern California. He is the author of Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) and Extraterritoriality: Locating Hong Kong Cinema and Media (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). His forthcoming monograph, The Way It Is: Film and Media Philosophy through the Lens of Buddhism, will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2020.


[1] Bao Hongwei, Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2018); Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).

[2] Qtd. Bao, 125.

[3] Victor Fan, Cinema Illuminating Reality: Locating Cinema and Media through the Lens of Buddhism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), forthcoming; m.s., chapter 2, 1.

[4] Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (DN 22), in dhammatalks.org, https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/DN/DN22.html, accessed May 31, 2020.

[5] Brian Massumi, Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015), 66; Politics of Affect (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2015), 53.

[6] Lo Shi-hin, Weishi fangyu [Introduction to Yogācāra Buddhism] (Hong Kong: The Dharmalakṣaṇa Buddhist Institute, 2008).

[7] Huang, Za ahan jing xuanji [Selections from the Connected Discourses], trans. Gunabhadra (New Taipei: Baoshan shufang, 2017),SA-189, 196–97, 200, 212, 215, 231–33, 236, 249–50, 252, 254, 265, 273, 277, 304, 311, 334–35, 1172, 1774 (105–47); Asaṅga, Yujiashi di lun [Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra or Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice], trans. Xuanzang (Taipei: The Buddha Educational Foundation, 2014), 9:16–20 (1:321–29); Nāgārjuna, Dazhidulun [Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra or Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom], trans. Kumārajīva (Taipei: Shihua guoji gufen youxian gongsi, 2007),5:35–36 (233–34). For a modern discussion, see, Fyodor Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic (1930–32) (1993; repr., Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2008), 1:119–45.

[8] Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7 and 41; Massumi, Politics of Affect.

[9] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (Winter 1992): 3–7.

[10] Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 7 and 41; Massumi, Politics of Affect.

[11] Massumi, Ontopower.

[12] Franz Kafka, “Before the Law” [written 1914; published 1916], trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), 3–4.

[13] See, for example, Teresa de Lauretis, “Film and the Visible,” in How Do I Look?: Queer Film and Video, ed. Bad Object-Choices (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991), 223; Earl Jackson, Jr., Strategies of Deviance: Studies in Gay Male Representation (Durham: N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), 1–3.

[14] Spinoza, Ethics [1667], trans. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3P1C, 165–66 and P8–12, 171–74; Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza [1968],trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Zone Books, 1989); Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille Plateaux. Capitalisme et schizophrénie 2 (1980; repr., Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 2004).

[15] Spinoza, Ethics, 3P2, 166.

[16] Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015), 34–84. See also, Richard Fung, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn,” in How Do I Look?, 145–68; Kobena Mercer, “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary,” 169–222; Tze-lan Deborah Sang, “Translating homosexuality: The discourse of Tongxing’ai in Republican China (1912–1949),” in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, ed. Lydia Liu (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 292–98; Giovanni Vitiello, The Libertine’s Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1–14; see also, Amy Barrow and Joy L. Chia, “Pride or Prejudice? Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Religion in Post-colonial Hong Kong,” Hong Kong Law Journal 46, no. 1 (2016): 89–104.

[17] Victor Fan, Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015) 1–8 and 17–36. For the larger debate on Asia as Method, see, for example, Chen Kuan-hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010), 211–56; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Other Asias (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).

[18] Ahmad Aijaz, “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory’,” in Theory, Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), 95–122; Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 276–86.

[19] See, for example, Aaron Gerow, “Introduction: The Theory Complex,” in Decentering Theory: Reconsidering the History of Japanese Film Theory, Review of Japanese Culture and Society, no. 22 (December 2010): 1–13; Sheldon H. Lu, “Agitation or Deep Focus?: Early Chinese Film History and Theory,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 76, nos. 1 and 2 (2016): 205–07.

[20] Fan, Cinema Illuminating Reality, 4.