In this edition of LRCCS Spotlight Series, we sat down with LRCCS post-doctoral fellow Laurence Coderre from the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.
LRCCS: We’d like to start with your background. Where do you call home?
Dr. Coderre: Well, I grew up in Knowlton, Quebec, south of Montreal. When I was 14 I moved to Binghamton, New York, near Syracuse.
LRCCS: When did you start becoming interested in China?
Dr. Coderre: Not until after high school. I took a year off before college. When my dad’s company sent him to work in Hong Kong for three months, I tagged along with him. That was the beginning of everything.
I thought it was just the coolest place. The food, the energy… it was so NOT what I was used to. My initial plan was to take Cantonese in college, but that wasn’t an option, so I started with Mandarin.
LRCCS: So did you major in something like Asian Studies in college?
Dr. Coderre: I double majored in Music and East Asian Studies at Harvard. That’s when I started working on the model operas of the Cultural Revolution, specifically their use of Western instrumentation. It seemed like such a contradiction, since Maoist politics were supposed to be anti-Western.
LRCCS: What’s your favorite model opera?
Dr. Coderre: Wow, nobody’s ever asked me that before. The one I find the most compelling is probably The Red Lantern. But I find On the Docks incredibly bizarre and therefore quite intriguing. That’s the one I’m working on now. I wouldn’t actually recommend it to anyone to watch for entertainment purposes, though– it’s also incredibly boring.
LRCCS: What interests you in that world?
Dr. Coderre: I was first exposed to it as a sophomore in college, taking a Chinese cinema class. I thought it was just so incredibly weird, and I wanted to understand the kind of cultural environment that could naturalize that weirdness, the kind of work that goes into making it “normal” and therefore not weird at all.
Even after all these years, I still haven’t quite figured it out. I think that’s how it still holds my attention.
LRCCS: What’s your favorite weird thing from that period?
Dr. Coderre: There are so many! There’s something so wonderfully contradictory about the vinyl wallets from the Cultural Revolution with model opera characters on them. The porcelain statuettes are also pretty great – of Mao and revolutionary models. I have a collection in my office.
LRCCS: What are you working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
Dr. Coderre: Lots of things, too many things! My main focus is my book manuscript, which is a reworking of my dissertation. I’ve been thinking a lot about “newborn socialist things”—their promise as a way of thinking relationally and how we might approach Cultural Revolution material culture differently through them.
There are also some people I’ve invited for the noon lecture series – Yuming He is coming in March. Also Tani Barlow in March and Andrea Bachner in April. All three of them should give very interesting talks.
LRCCS: What draws you to your research? What makes it worth all the effort you’re putting into it?
Dr. Coderre: I think my work is important to our understanding of contemporary China and the ways in which the legacy of the Cultural Revolution is continuously reinvented and negotiated. Until we understand this historical period, we’re missing a big chunk of what’s going on in China right now.
To be honest though, what sustains me on a day-to-day basis is that I have fun playing around with ideas. Basically, I think the materials I work with are really cool, and I feel a responsibility to share that coolness with others.
LRCCS: Sounds very romantic!
Dr. Coderre: Yeah, I guess you caught me on an idealistic day. There’s some scholarship on these types of objects out there, but I feel like a lot of it doesn’t capture the richness of the material in a way that I’d like.
LRCCS: If you were able to get this richness across, how would the world be different?
Dr. Coderre: What I usually say is that my ultimate goal, and this may be blasphemous in some circles, is to push people to delve into whatever they’re passionate about in similar depth. It doesn’t have to be about China. What matters is developing different habits of mind.
LRCCS: For you, why do you think it’s important to get into different habits of mind?
Dr. Coderre: I’ve benefited as a human being from being able to think about my surroundings from different perspectives and through different lenses. I think it’s enriched my life. To me, worthwhile research doesn’t have to be about something huge or abstract. Just because something is quotidian doesn’t mean it has to be banal.
Thanks for reading the latest edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series! Stay tuned for more post-doc interviews coming up soon.