The 2021 ASCA Awards Committee, Jakko Kemper, Misha Kavka, and Jeff Diamanti, have awarded Flora Lysen's dissertation Brainmedia: One Hundred Years of Performing Live Brains, 1920–2020; Marrigje Paijmans article ‘An Ambivalent View of Colonialism: The Spinozist Design for a Settlement in New Netherland’; and Emily Ng's book 'A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost after Mao'. There was an honorbla mention for Marc Tuters's and Daniel de Zeeuw's article 'Teh Internet is Serious Business: On the Deep Vernacular Web and its Discontents'.
For the Best Dissertation Prize, the committee was unanimously enthusiastic about the doctoral work of Flora Lysen. Her innovative, highly readable and alluringly titled BrainMedia: One Hundred Years of Performing Live Brains, 1920-2020 made us gasp at the critical ease with which she associates the brain, media technologies and knowledge production into a set of what she calls “organic/technical/media/cultural assemblages”. Taking the brain ‘made live’ through a range of technical devices as her object of analysis, Flora closely studies this “machine-organism” through the history of its mediations, offering a century-long genealogy that traces the illuminations, figurations and enactments of the brain from the laboratory to popular science to television and art and neuroscience, all the while deftly melding cultural theory with STS and aesthetics. She does this not from the perspective that media can translate the brain-organism into brain-knowledge; rather, her exciting contention is that the brain already is a technology, already is media – hence ‘brainmedia’ as a single word that opens up a dizzying array of critical possibilities. Truly, the wonderful scholarship of BrainMedia had us seeing brains and their mediation everywhere we looked.
This year’s ASCA awards committee was struck by the analytic humility, historical significance, scholarly rigor, and reflexive theorization in Marrigje Paijmans’ “An Ambivalent View of Colonialism: The Spinozist Design for A Settlement in New Netherland” (published in Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, summer 2020). Paijmans tells the story of Franciscus van den Enden, a companion and keen reader of Spinoza in mid-17th century Amsterdam, whose design for a democratic settlement in what would become Manhattan is both complicit with the Republic’s racist, settler-colonial violence, and a vista onto some of the discord and alter-currents vying for discursive, philosophical, and political space in the shadows of the ‘golden age.’ With a keen and careful ethic of close reading with and against the colonial discourse Paijmans cautiously draws out the influence of Spinoza’s concept of potentia on this unsettled form of sovereignty animating the New Amstel project. Paijmans’ analysis, however, stays with the colonial complicity, opting to unfold the ambivalence of the case study, to stay with what proves not fully satisfying to the necessarily anti-colonial doxa of cultural analysis today. The object here does not say what we might want it to say, raising questions about how to read the colonial archive; how to listen for alter-currents from within its own logic; and how to position those currents in the urgent efforts to decolonize a university and state built on enslaved labour, land dispossession, and massacre.
The ASCA Awards committee presents this year’s book award to Emily Ng’s A Time of Lost Gods: Mediumship, Madness, and the Ghost After Mao. A Time of Lost Gods, published by the University of California Press, is a deeply inventive and theoretically intricate work, marked by writing that is as academically rigorous as it is evocative. In A Time of Lost Gods, Ng guides the reader through China’s county of Hexian, a rural area that was once figured as the center of Chinese civilization, but that is now associated with outmigration and obsolescence. Dwelling amongst those who have been left behind – spirit mediums, villagers, psychiatric patients – Ng finds a different story than the one we are usually told about post-Mao China. For her interlocutors, “the time when Chairman Mao reigned” was, despite its hardships, a time of divine unity, and the present comprises but a hollow residual haunted by malevolent ghosts and gods, broken promises and the spiritually debilitating influence of market reforms and material desires. Approaching Hexian through its hauntings, its disjointed temporalities and the many spirit mediums who offer their bodies to cosmic forces, Ng asks what it means to live in the aftermath of what her interlocutors perceive as a truncated revolution. With this approach, Ng deftly transforms the concepts she works with, opening up new and unexpected ways of mobilizing notions of spectrality, madness and rurality. Her work, moreover, stages a crucial intervention into the many urban-focused accounts of contemporary China that perceive only a singular, progress-oriented temporality. Ng’s work, conversely, shows that the reality of living with Mao’s ghost is much more multifaceted. Through its detailed analyses of cultural expressions – constantly untangling complex webs of glorified pasts, stunted presents and revolutionary futures – and its highly inventive theoretical approach, A Time of Lost Gods exemplifies the best kind of ethnography and demonstrates a profound commitment to ASCA’s core principles.
The ASCA Awards committee would like to make a strong honorable mention in the best article category. Daniël de Zeeuw and Marc Tuters, in “Teh Internet is Serious Business: On the Deep Vernacular Web and its Discontents,” (published in Cultural Politics) is a troubling and immersive reading of a structuring (though largely undertheorized) opposition between “mask” and “face culture” animating online discourse today. Taking these forums and platforms seriously as performative practices demanding novel interpretive strategies, de Zeeuw and Tuters offer a compelling and expertly written analysis that can be taken up by scholars across ASCA for years to come.