Shanghai’s Retro-Futures: The Demise of Progress in a Progressive Age


Shanghai is a city hungry for the future. To get a taste, head to the heights of the financial district in Pudong’s Lujiazui. At dusk, the view from the ninety-first floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center is fantastically alien. Outside the enormous windows, the metropolis stretches out like an off-world fantasy; a film apparition of a science-fiction city.

– Anna Greenspan,   Shanghai Future

Reading Anna Greenspan’s Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade which is a great introduction not only to Shanghai, but to the underpinnings of our current malaise regarding the future itself (here she speaks of the old World Fairs of previous eras):

Today, in the developed world at least, this progressive optimism strikes many as archaic, absurd and shockingly naïve. It is not so much that GM’s vision of the 1960s is outmoded— after all the Futurama pavilion foreshadowed the immensely transformative US interstate highway system, which was built under Eisenhower in the mid-1950s, a couple of decades after it was first presented at the World Fair. Rather, it is the spirit of futurism itself that seems so remarkably out of date. The progressive presumptions embodied by Futurama induce— together with images of jetpacks and robot maids— a wistful, tragi-comic nostalgia for a future that never arrived. Autogyros, in particular, seem to taunt us as a broken promise. ‘Where are the flying cars?’ ask writers disappointed by the dreams left unfulfilled.  ‘A rich legacy of failed predictions has accumulated over a century (or more) of science fiction, futurology and popular expectations of progress, covering topics from space colonization, undersea cities, extravagant urban designs, advanced transportation systems, humanoid domestic robots and ray-guns, to jumpsuit clothing and meal pills,’  writes Nick Land in his blog on Shanghai time.  This apparent gap between what is and what we once thought might be has left us wracked with doubt about the world to come. ‘We don’t have the same relation to progress as we used to,’ claims author Michael Specter. ‘We talk about it ambivalently. We talk about it with ironic little quotes around it—“ progress”.’  In our cynical, postmodern age, ‘retro-futurism’ is the only form of futurism that survives.1

Greenspan will offer a reading of temporality as well: From Marxism ‘with its quasi-millenarian elements’, to the utopian visions of the City of Tomorrow, modernity, and the futurism it invokes, still largely expresses this same conception of time. Today, Pope Gregory’s calendric reforms have become the basis for an unchallenged time marker that has spread across the world and the Gregorian calendar is now considered to be the (almost) undisputed calendar of globalization. ‘It is an intriguing and ineluctable paradox of globalized modernity,’ continues Land in a blog post entitled ‘Calendric Dominion’, ‘that its approximation to universality remains fundamentally structured by ethno-geographical peculiarities of a distinctly pre-modern type’.  A culture’s rhythms, history and aspirations are rooted in their calendars. This is why calendars have always been so important to both rulers and revolutionary groups. Calendars are the surest means through which a culture can separate itself both from their immediate past and from their existing surroundings. Thus, calendric change has frequently been recognized as a culture’s first and most crucial step in establishing their autonomy and solidifying their traditions. As author William Burroughs noted, if you want to change a culture, you have to change its calendar. (pp. xv-xvi).

Western Civilization is bound to an eschatological time-consciousness, a progressive understanding of a time encoded with both a beginning and an end that has been enormously influential and its impact is still felt today. (p. xvi) When many liberals opined that history had come to an end after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989 this illusion of progressive time with its sense of an impending linear arrow reaching some limit point or zero absolute of closure surfaced. Yet, with all things this, too, passed, and time once again started up its inexorable engine of progress and moved onward as capitalism took on the imperial horizon of an even greater expansion and capture of the total surface of the planet for profit. As Greenspan reports it:

Western culture has thus been exceedingly effective at coding modern time with its own cultural narratives. It has been terrifically successful at branding modernity its own. Indeed, many of China’s most enthusiastic modernisers— from the intelligentsia of the May Fourth movement, through the Marxist revolutionaries, to the technocratic planners of today— have largely accepted this narrative, advocating that China rid itself of its backward traditions and adopt a forward-looking chronology. (p. xvi).

Yet, it is against this eschatology of history and time that China’s premier city of commerce and modernity, Shanghai that seems to waver on the horizon of another temporality, one more conducive to its own sense of destiny and possibility. As Greenspan tells us:

Shanghai futurism ultimately depends on breaking free from this now common assumption about the nature of time. It senses in contemporary Shanghai the possibility of an altogether different future that is not relative but rather real and absolute. This absolute futurism does not belong to linear history. It is not a temporal destination that can be defined relationally. Rather, the absolute future exists today precisely as it has existed before, as an atemporal presence, a virtual realm that ‘infuses the present retroactively with its effects’.  Viewed in this manner, Shanghai’s recollection of yesterday’s modernity is not being driven by a compulsion to repeat. Rather, the city is attempting to reanimate a lost futurism that is just as unpredictable today as it was in the past. What will ultimately emerge is impossible to predict, plan or project, since, by definition, it is utterly unforeseen. We do not yet know what China’s most future-oriented city will be like or what future this city will create. (pp. xvi-xvii).

This sense of an absolute time, absolute future: a timeless present that ‘infuses the present retroactively with its effects’ sounds much like Zizek’s concept of absolute recoil: ” … there is another more subtle retroactivity involved here: an act is abyssal not in the sense that it is not grounded in reasons, but in the circular sense that it retroactively posits its reasons. A truly autonomous symbolic act or intervention never occurs as the result of strategic calculation, as I go through all possible reasons and then choose the most appropriate course of action. An act is autonomous not when it applies a preexisting norm but when it creates a norm in the very act of applying it.”9 This is to situate time outside the arrow of linear equations, outside the capitalist mode of progress, and seek a sense of time as virtual potential, as possibility to be retroactively posited not by some recursion to a Platonic Ideal or Idea, but as the movement of something that does not pre-exist its advent: a new event or act that realizes itself in the very movement of its emergence in the present as part of the contradictory manifest world of conflict and happening. A future as open possibility that never recedes into the abyss of linear bookkeeping.

Maybe it’s this retroactive act of temporal realignment, a potential virtual movement that brings with it the lost future out of the unpredictable real of the past: an impossible that can not be predicated nor planned, but is that strange beast of time – something utterly new and open, the actual future itself as possibility. Is this something at last that we can hope in? An event that opens up the possibility of time and the future as retroactive act? A future that is always emerging out of its on virtual potential of absolute possibility, a present that is both in and out of time – a ‘time out of joint’ (PK Dick) that presents us with that monstrosity of life itself as newness? May we say with Nietzsche that this time of no-time, atemporal movement is Dionysian time – a time that is at once present and untimely? A bubbling spring that continually renews itself out of its own virtual sea of potentiality? Time as absolute acceleration, a time that as Guattari and Deleuze would have affirmed as – total deterritorialization of the pure limit of time itself?  Is this not the true break out, the break through of schiz-time out of the eschatological circle of Western time as Progress? The End of Progress and the Progressive world-view that has held us in its hypnotic gaze for two-hundred years?

Shall we construct a new Calendar together? Absolve ourselves of Western time, of Gregorian time as linear progress, as an arrow going toward some eschatological infinity? Shall we finally free ourselves of that theological and Platonic terminus of Time?

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Predator Nation: American Exceptionalism and the Global Imperium


In recent years, the United States has pioneered the development of the most advanced killing machines on the planet. In the process, we have turned much of the rest of the planet into what can only be considered an American free-fire zone. We have, in short, established a remarkably expansive set of drone-war rules for the global future.

Naturally, we trust ourselves with such rules, but there is a fly in the ointment, even as the droniacs see it. Others far less sagacious, kindly, lawful, and good than we are do exist on this planet and they may soon have their own fleets of drones. At the time of Brennan’s speech, about fifty countries were already buying or developing such robotic aircraft, including Russia, China, and Iran. And who knows what terror groups are looking into suicide drones?

As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius put it in a column about that speech: “What if the Chinese deployed drones to protect their workers in southern Sudan against rebels who have killed them in past attacks? What if Iran used them against Kurdish separatists they regard as terrorists? What if Russia used them over Chechnya? What position would the United States take, and wouldn’t it be hypocritical if it opposed drone attacks by other nations that face ‘imminent’ or ‘significant’ threats?” This is Washington’s global drone conundrum as seen from inside the Beltway. These are the nightmarish scenarios even our leaders can imagine others producing with their own drones and our rules.

A deeply embedded sense of American exceptionalism, a powerful belief in their own special, self-evident goodness, however, conveniently blinds them to what they are doing right now. Looking in the mirror, they are incapable of seeing a mask of death. And yet our proudest export at present may be a stone-cold robotic killer with a name straight out of a horror movie. The “shining drones” launched on campaigns of assassination and slaughter are increasingly the “face” that we choose to present to the world, even as the president, with his “kill list” and his meetings to pick those who are to die, has quite literally become the country’s assassin in chief. And yet it’s beyond us why such a reality might not shine for others. In fact, what we increasingly look like to those others is a Predator nation. And not just to the parents and relatives of the more than 160 children the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented as having died in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

War is now the only game in town. As for peace, to the managers of our national security state, it’s neither a word worth mentioning nor an imaginable condition. In truth, our leaders should be in mourning for whatever peaceful dreams we ever had. But mention drones and they light up. They’re having a love affair with those machines. They just can’t get enough of them or imagine their world or ours without them. What they can’t see in the haze of exceptional self-congratulation is this: they are transforming the promise of America into a promise of death. And death, visited from the skies, isn’t precise. It isn’t glorious. It isn’t judicious. It certainly isn’t a shining vision. It’s hell. And it’s a global future for which, someday, no one will thank us.1

1. Engelhardt, Tom (2014-09-15). Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Kindle Locations 2103-2127). Haymarket Books. Kindle Edition.