“Usefulness without Use”, or, the Power of the Virtual: Lu Xun, Biopolitics, and the Efficacy of Literature

Conference: The Paris Conference on Arts & Humanities (PCAH2022)
Title: “Usefulness without Use”, or, the Power of the Virtual: Lu Xun, Biopolitics, and the Efficacy of Literature
Stream: Literature/Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Wenjin Cui, University of New Hampshire, United States


This paper examines Lu Xun’s distinct view on the biopolitical efficacy of literature, which is crystallized in his well-known conception of literature’s "usefulness without use". Focusing on his two major articulations of this notion, I demonstrate how Lu Xun upheld the political value of aesthetic experience on the basis of its free play of the spirit, and how he affirmed the virtual power of literature as an embodiment of the self-transcending momentum of life. Lu Xun first laid out the idea of literature’s "usefulness without use" in his 1907 essay "On the Power of Mara Poetry". His formulation is modeled after the Kantian notion of "purposiveness without purpose", which upholds the sovereign power of aesthetic judgment as a sensuous, disinterested realm of spiritual activity. Meanwhile, he gives the idea a biopolitical twist in following Nietzsche’s lead to break away from the rationalist tradition, and to shift the ground of discussion to the question of the biological power of life. The second crucial moment when Lu Xun re-affirmed the biopolitical value of literature occurred at the historical juncture of the National Revolution in 1926–27. While maintaining a fundamental accordance with his earlier conception, his second formulation is informed by a strong sense of the temporal discontinuity of historical experience. Instead of envisioning an immediate flow of power from poetry to politics, as in his youthful years, he now underscores the tension between the actual force that politics possesses in the present and the virtual power that literature holds for the future.

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