Zones of Indeterminacy: An interview with Peng Yu

In ‘Zones of Indeterminacy: Art, Body and Politics in Daoist Thought’, Peng Yu foregrounds the concept of Xu from Zhuangzi’s philosophical writings, and relates this to questions about the political body. Xu refers to a Daoist notion of ambiguity, though it remains ambiguous as to how to fully define the term. The article explores its meaning through reference to debates of the body, but also liubai painting, which refers to the idea of ‘leaving blankness,’ associated with Chinese ink painting. For Peng Yu, the notion of Xu can help us to consider a ‘politics of indeterminacy’; a means of redefining the status of subject within power structures, or rather a radical re-articulation of how we refer to power relations in the first place. In this interview, with Sunil Manghani and Cheng-Chu Weng, Peng Yu outlines and elaborates upon the main themes of the article.

Guo Xi, Early_Spring 早春圖 [Zaochun Tu], 1072.
Guo Xi, Early_Spring 早春圖 [Zaochun Tu], 1072.


Sunil Manghani: Your article offers a reading of Zhuangzi’s philosophical writings, in particular drawing on the concept of Xu, which you use to consider a ‘politics of indeterminacy’. Can you outline some of the key ideas and connections you had in mind in coming to write the article?

Peng Yu: Zhuangzi is rarely considered a political writer in the history of the Chinese philosophy. Many people take him to be a skeptic, anarchist, or nihilist and read his writing as apolitical. I think this is a deep misunderstanding of Zhuangzi. Instead of bypassing politics, his work is full of ideas and thoughts that are politically interesting. In reading Zhuangzi, I find his idea of xu particularly interesting. In Zhuangzi’s writing, xu can be interpreted as a different mode of relation, through which “the ten thousand things” (wanwu) of the universe are closely interrelated with each other in a dynamic and holistic way. I was fascinated by this concept and decided to further explore it to examine its implications for politics. I find liubai and body very good examples in illustrating the core ideas of xu. Literally meaning “leaving blankness” in traditional Chinese ink painting, liubai is illustrative of xu through its meaningfully created blankness in envisioning a particular kind of political ecology. The blandness of body also speaks of an important aspect of xu—one that is ultimately concerned with the fragility, volatility and fluidity of body. Both liubai and body point to the idea of ambiguity as the core of xu. This ambiguity generates a particular mode of politics in Zhuangzi’s writing—the politics of indeterminacy where politics is understood as a result of persistent power contestation with unsettled power structure.

Cheng-Chu Weng: Xu is obviously a difficult term to define. It effectively embodies the very ambiguity it describes. Xu (虛) might simply mean emptiness, but obviously the meaning of the term can change depending on its context and usage. So for example, Xuni (虛擬) refers to fictitiousness, that which is invented, or virtual. While Xuhuan (虛幻) relates to mirage, or illusion. Both these terms will have different nuances and connotations. How have you tried to interpret xu and how close do you feel you remain to Zhuangzi’s usage?

PY: Xu truly is a very difficult idea to explain. The difficulty of this term mainly comes from its changing connotations in different contexts. In Zhuangzi’s writing, this idea of xu is particularly vague and hard to define. I think these indeterminate meanings are the most fascinating components of the term as they allow us to examine the dynamics of power relation in very nuanced ways, which is what politics is all about. I think in using the term xu Zhuangzi is trying to evoke a sense of uncertainty in which all things are elusively intertwined together without predetermined boundaries or structures whatsoever. The project of xu, for Zhuangzi, refers to the composing of a morphing and flowing oneness. However chaotic this oneness might be, it is nonetheless deplete with fixity. Xu in Zhuangzi’s writing is all about indeterminate relational processes which reject absolutist reductionism. Xu is a generative, transformative and relational idea whose richness lies in its inexhaustible production of blended ambiguity that animates the engendering of new relations. For Zhuangzi, xu mainly consists of two major parts—lack of substance and blandness. The former involves discreteness from self-centered actualization and refers to a process of mutual-engendering. It permeates across the boundary of dualism and renders things interchangeable. The latter suggests a detachment from intensification. The blandness of xu means indifference and inertia; it is always about the inception that renders completion porous to change and becoming. Most importantly, I think both aspects of xu are responsive to Zhuangzi’s central point that the cosmos is far from completed as it has been undergoing constant constitutions and reconstitutions endlessly.

CW: You note specifically that ‘[o]ne of the key components of Xu is lack of substance’. But you also go onto use the term qi [氣], which refers to a concept of energy. You state that qi ‘is by no means an abstracted ontological being. Rather, it is an enlivening and nurturing force that holds together the formlessness of nature’. How do you understand the relationship between xu and qi, and how does this relate to your interest in the political body?

PY: As I mentioned earlier, one important aspect of xu is lack of substance. To approach xu as lack of substance necessarily requires the understanding that in Zhuangzi’s cosmology, “the ten thousand things” are made up of flowing energies (qi) rather than fixed substance. In Zhuangzi’s Daoism, qi is understood as the ‘matter energy’ or ‘vital energy’ that invigorates the constitution and reconstitution of the cosmos. It is fluid and amorphous in running through and composing all elements of the universe. Thanks to qi, constitution and reconstitution take place as they transpose between there-is and there-is-not, making things mutate, morph and become without being self-independent and self-sufficient. The significance of it is that qi makes it possible for xu to be generative and transformative. Its meaning for a political body lies in the fact that a body conceived this way (as composed by qi) is full of potentials in making the political. Body’s political potential hinges on its blandness—indeterminate bodily space to become and transform through its encountering with others. In this sense, a qi-composed body is self-alienated from a particular center. It is incomplete, tenuous and even crippled, in other words, devoid of intensified sensations of any kind and alien to hierarchization. Such a political body is capable of re-inventing numerous new power relations that may be blocked through the rectifications of the normative.

SM: In the middle section of the article you turn to examples of Chinese landscape ink paintings, and in particular the compositional approach known as liubai. These paintings might be viewed as a form of escapism from political structures, in a similar way we think of Japanese ukiyo-ye (‘pictures of the floating world’); though of course even escapism is political. However, you are interested in these works for how they might help us visualise the idea of ambiguity inherent in the term xu. You explain how washed ink is immersed in blankness, so, for example, liubai paintings intermingle trees with mountains, mountains with mists. You characterise this emptiness as ‘an undirectional fluidity of relations’ and suggest that the ‘nothingness of liubai is both the producer and catalyst of relations’. Can explain this idea further?

PY: I think the most important function of liubai is its constant production of interrelations among all natural entities portrayed in the ink paintings. The ways in which liubai structures the space in the paintings speak of its importance in mediating the interrelations among the trees, the mountains, the mist, and the rivers. Therefore, the nothingness of liubai by no means refers to no-thingness. Rather, it entails an emptiness that enables the transformation between there-is and there-is-not. What should also be noted is the fact that the interrelations are not predetermined as such; they are far from being stabled as a function of the flowing energy of formless qi. What is at stake here is that the fluidity of qi enables liubai to diffuse the boundary of all natural things such that they become intermingled with each other. Due to the indeterminacy of liubai, nature has thus become perpetually unknowable and impenetrable to human knowledge.

CW: You develop this reading of liubai through a contrast with the works of Cézanne. You write, for example, that ‘if Cézanne’s obscurity is identified with an isolationism-based vibrancy through the fullness of pulsating color, the ambiguity of liubai is characterized by its dynamic interrelationism through vacuity’. My understanding of this is that in both cases there is a ‘oneness’ that comes from the totality of the painting, but in Cézanne’s case it is made up of distinctions of colours, whereas in monochromatic liubai paintings the works are brought together through the ‘nothingness’ or ‘no-thingness’, as you put it, of the spaces between and across elements. This makes for  an important difference in your view. Perhaps you could elaborate. I’m also interested to ask how you think your reading might relate to a painter such as J.M.W. Turner. His well-known painting Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), for example, could be said to show similarities with the use of mist in liubai paintings, yet here arguably it is a painterly use of colour that allows for an ‘interrelationism through vacuity’, or spacing and ambiguity.

PY: I think you are right that to a certain extent, Cézanne’s works also evoke a sense of oneness through the distinctions of colors. The use of color is particularly important for Cézanne as he tries to highlight objects’ interior vitality from within. Through the unique use of color, Cézanne attempts to present an object that is full of depth and reserve. Cézanne’s objects are encircled by contours that allow a painted object to spread out inexhaustibly from within. Cézanne abandons himself to the instantaneity of permeating color to achieve the intrinsic energy of objects in nature. This can be perceived as a particular mode of unity in which the distinctions of color make up of a wholeness whose vitality is located in the discreteness of colors. Cézanne’s purpose is to introduce a knowing vision: an epistemic sensation capable of acquiring and producing knowledge. Yet, Zhuangzi’s approach is radically different. The blankness of liubai is suffused into the space of the paintings and animates the painted natural objects through the creation of an oneness of xu. The use of non-color, in the form of the emptiness and washed ink, enacts the transformation between there-is and there-is-not. Unlike Cézanne’s color, the monochromatic emptiness of liubai pervades through nature’s whole body and renders all natural objects in relation to one another. Unlike Cézanne, Zhuangzi proposes to blur our vision to marginalize human agency. For Zhuangzi, nature is not seen; it is conceived and imagined as such. I think for this reason, the Chinese ink painting can also be distinguished from the works of other western painters such as J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844). While Turner’s work still relies on color to achieve its ambiguity, the Chinese paintings choose to create an ambiguous vacuity through non-color.

Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed
J.M.W.Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844. (public domain)

SM: Reading your account of painting I was reminded of Norman Bryson’s article ‘The Gaze in the Expanded Field’ (in Hal Foster’s edited volume Vision and Visuality, 1988). Bryson begins by recounting Sartre and Lacan’s accounts of the gaze, which both offer a critique of the Cartesian self-enclosure of the subject and break the rigidity of subject/object. Yet, these accounts still lack the more radical field of vision that your interest in xu represents. Bryson notes how for Sartre the subject-object relationship remains in ‘a kind of tunnel vision in which all of the surrounding field is screened out’. Lacan’s account of the gaze is perhaps closer. His reference to the anamorphic imagery of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) is emblematic of his interest in an expanded field of vision. Despite this ‘wider’ view, however, Bryson queries why Lacan provides ‘only one model of vision and of painting, that of a regime or terrorizing gaze’. Bryson turns instead to the writings of Kitarō Nishitani, and in particular his use of the concept śūnyatā, which can be translated as ‘emptiness’, ‘radical impermanence’, ‘blankness’ and ‘nihility’. It would seem there are similarities with your account of xu, particularly as Bryson refers to painting as a means to develop his account. Specifically he refers to the Japanese ink painting technique of ‘flung ink’ as a way to describe a more omnidirectional field of vision. Bryson equates this to an undoing of the divisions between subject and object; a taking away of any sense of a ‘frame’. It is referred to as ‘radical impermanence’: ‘It cannot be said to occupy a single location, since its locus is always the universal field of transformations: it cannot achieve separation from that field or acquire any kind of bounded outline’. Bryson claims that what is at stake is ‘the discovery of a politics of vision’. He suggests, away from the ‘terrorising gaze’ of Lacan, we can consider ‘visuality as something built cooperatively, over time’. I wonder how you might consider your account of xu and ‘zones of indeterminacy’ to relate to Bryson’s interest in a ‘politics of vision’.

PY: First, I think there is substantial similarity shared by both Zhuangzi’s idea of xu and Nishitani’s concept of śūnyatā. Zhuangzi would very much agree with Nishitani in terms of the creation of the space of randomness in which the “tunnel vision” gets dissolved. To both Zhuangzi and Nishitani, this space must be formless to cast off the rigid frame created through the tunnel vision in embracing a universal field. For the latter, the universal field is by flinging ink onto the paper to bring in the force from outside to dissolve the zoning of the inside. For the former, the field of randomness is immersed in the permeating emptiness that defies the fixity of structure. What is at stake for both xu and śūnyatā is the composing of zones of indeterminacy where relations can break free from the subject who wants to exercise control over them. In this sense, there is no contradiction between the two. Relations are indeterminate in the fields of xu and “radical impermanence” because they are free from prescribed structures. However, while Zhuangzi may agree with Bryson’s rendition of Nishitani regarding the “visuality that is built cooperatively over time,” he is deeply suspicious of vision (and any kind of bodily sensation in general). For Zhuangzi, the stake of the “politics of vision” does not merely lie in the purpose of de-powering or decentering of the subject (the making of a frustrated subject). Rather, it rests on the collapsing of the subject as well as the entailed knowledge possessed by the subject (the making of no subject). In other words, Zhuangzi’s politics of indeterminacy is ultimately concerned with a transcending force-field through which “the ten thousand things” transform themselves through ceaselessly changing power relations.

SM: Perhaps we can develop this a little further. In the final section of the article you bring everything together to think about how a ‘Xu-inspired body may be political’. You refer to ‘haptic visuality’ and Jacques Rancière’s account of the ‘distribution and redistribution of the sensible’, as well as Elizabeth Grosz’s interest in sensation as a means to understand a political aesthetic (or the political-aesthetic). Zhuangzi’s account, however, in your view, is more ambitious in its thinking. You write, for example, that what matters ‘is not a simple question of subject/object interchange: it goes beyond identity and subjectivity – it is about freeing up our bodies to encounter, experience and become part of each other’. Your preceding commentary relates to dreaming about becoming a butterfly as metaphor for thinking more radically about the notion of subjectivity. I wondered, however, if in part this account can be told in terms of empathy. Empathy is a heightened skill or state of awareness, also, more generally, the ‘politics of indeterminacy’ you refer to would seem a difficult state of affairs to enter into and certainly to maintain. This led me to wonder if what you are referring to is more an ethics of indeterminacy than a politics.

PY: I think it is certainly important for Zhuangzi to cultivate a heightened state of awareness through empathy in recognizing and experiencing otherness. Empathy, to large extent, is a necessary and inevitable process of internalization through which one incorporates and integrates the outside environment into his consciousness by sharing and living the experiences of others. However, I think Zhuangzi is even more ambitious in this regard. Zhuangzi is proposing that while empathy is certainly needed, it is not sufficient in helping us realize our bodily potentials, as it is perhaps still not radical enough in surpassing pre-structured dualism. Becoming butterfly, for Zhuangzi, is a medium through which the body becomes imperceptible, no matter how fragmenting, fleeting and provisional the moment might be. To Zhuangzi, what is vital is a bland body that is incapable of subjective judgment and devoid of sensory sensitivity by integrating itself into the world without presupposition. The abandonment of hearing and seeing constitute the important process of unlearn/unperceive, which is a crucial step for Zhuangzi’s body to experience self-transformation. Unlearning prepares our body not for the purpose of perceiving but for the end to become and transform. Thus, body has become ambiguously impervious and indeterminate. To answer your second question, I think the politics of indeterminacy can also be understood as a critical approach in the sense that it challenges our traditional politics which underlines dualist categorizations. So, instead of consolidating normative lines between us and them, friend and enemy, center and periphery, Zhuangzi’s work would suggest that politics should be about the blurring of those deeply entrenched boundaries. Indeterminacy, in this sense, is not just about ethics. It is also a particular mode of politics where power contestation is never settled.

CW: In the closing paragraph of your article you bring in the term shi, noting that since ‘shi is concerned more with efficacy than telos precisely speaks of the essence of the Zhuangzian body. It is animating force that makes Zhuangzi’s politics of indeterminacy come into being.’ I was wondering if here you are referring to xiao (效), effect? Perhaps you can elaborate a little more on your closing remarks, to describe further what you mean by a ‘Xu-ed politics’?

PY: Yes. I think the idea of shi has a lot to do with the flow of energy (qi). It is a force-field in which the energies of qi flow and merge into each other constituting and re-constituting “the ten thousand things.” Here, the efficacy of shi refers to the dynamic process of in-betweenness. It is not only concerned with the effect of qi but more importantly the propensity and trajectory of qi, which create things out of interrelations. In the article I draw on the work of François Julien, who suggests, in dealing with the efficacy of shi, one should be more attentive to the organic evolution of qi rather than “project values and desires on them.” This is also the core of xu—fluid interrelations that make the fixity of substance impossible to achieve. Therefore, xu-ed politics exactly means an indeterminate politics whose foundation is based on changing power relations such that politics is no longer walled by pre-determined power structures. Politics, for Zhuangzi, is thus an ambiguous myth to be explored and experimented, and it can never be dominated and ruled. It is an open process that concerns not so much about the construction of the center as the expansion of the horizon. Put it another way, xu-ed politics means politics should be horizontally conceived to include more relations and participants rather than hierarchically determined as self-enclosure.

Sunil Manghani is Reader in Critical and Cultural Theory and Deputy Director of Doctoral Research at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK. He has written and edited several books on the theory and practice of the image and visual culture.

Cheng-Chu Weng is a PhD candidate at Winchester School of Art, undertaking studio-based research concerned with shadows, the body and space. She was also formerly a visiting lecturer in digital art practice at Shu-Te University, Taiwan; and a visiting lecturer in oil painting and aesthetics at Tzu Chi University,Taiwan.

Peng Yu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, Earlham College, USA. His research interests include Chinese politics and Chinese political thought with a particular emphasis on Zhuangzi and Daoism.


To find out more about the topic discussed in this interview read:

Peng Yu (2015) ‘Zones of Indeterminacy: Art, Body and Politics in Daoist Thought,’ Theory, Culture & Society0263276414559607, first published on January 8, 2015

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