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 Rather, it is the spirit of futurism itself that seems so remarkably out of date.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?

The demise of the progressive world

When one thinks back on the idea of progress and progressivism one realizes we’ve all come to the still point of the turning world (Eliot), a place in which life is no longer progressing at all but is rather stuck in some strange revolving door of ineptitude and delirium in which both political and economic leadership seems bent on utter destruction. Saint Simon was one of the first who advocated of the progressive spirit and he considered the technical intelligentsia a class destined to play an increasingly important role in modern society by virtue of its indispensability.2 In America according to Bell, Thorstein Veblen was probably the most influential exponent of this view. Veblen distinguished between the “pecuniary” culture of the leisure class and the scientific, critical, and “iconoclastic” culture of the engineers. He ridiculed the idea that the workers, reduced to automata by the modern division of labor, knew enough to expropriate and operate the industrial plant, but he had more faith in professional and managerial personnel, who valued efficiency for its own sake and cared more about industrial growth and productivity than about profits. The engineers already exercised de facto control of the corporation, according to Veblen, but they were hobbled by the constraints imposed by a wasteful system of capitalist production. Once they came to understand their real interests, they would throw out the capitalists and operate the industrial system for the benefit of society as a whole. (ibid. pp. 509-510)

As Bruce McCall tells us retrofuturism is all about a “faux nostalgia” – the nostalgia for a future that never happened. We live in this rear-view mirror of cultural amnesia, one foot on the break, and one foot in the sink-hole in which we are all about to plunge head first. We ask ourselves why the future never happened? Where did it go? And, while we dream of these impossible futures that never were, we clutter our homes with retro-artifacts of a simulated thrill-ride of mechanical desires, a hyperrealism that absorbs our very life’s energy (Baudrillard). Nothing is real, everything is possible we told ourselves. But now we know better. The world capital built is imploding, the global engineering of society in meltdown, and the accelerating effects of financial capitalism seems to be bubbling up toward a complete burst again.  William Gibson in his story “The Gernsback Continuum” would define this strange amalgam of optimism and spurious futurism as “Raygun Gothic”: “Cohen introduced us and explained that Dialta [a noted pop-art historian] was the prime mover behind the latest Barris-Watford project, an illustrated history of what she called ‘American Streamlined Modern’. Cohen called it ‘raygun Gothic’. Their working title was The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.”3

As Lasch would point out at the center of this notion of the future as progress was a sense of hope (quoting J. Glenn Gray): “If optimism and pessimism have become increasingly irrelevant in our terrible dilemma [brought about by the ever-growing destructiveness of human technology], there is great reason nonetheless to practice the ancient virtue of hope. Though generally neglected in recent centuries, when optimism about progress was the rule, hope is that quality of character and virtue of mind which is directed toward the future in trust rather than in confidence.” (Lasch, p. 536) But in our day this sense of confidence has passed like many other illusions, all that is left is a world where austerity and the criminalization of the working class has become the norm. As Christopher Hayes will say the world is broken. We do not trust our institutions because they have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and the depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of a broad and devastating crisis of authority.4

We no longer trust our leaders, businessmen, or – and, I speak for myself: all those radical philosophers who have littered the world with book after book about how bad neoliberalism is, how its raped our planet, our children’s futures, our hope, etc. All these radical intellectuals have themselves become bankrupt and ineffectual, and have no real solutions to offer the populace, rather just more critical appraisal of a past that is now our doom. Most on the left offer nothing more than the “Courage of hopelessness.” Countries in the EU seem to be folding under the economic tyranny of bureaucrats that care only for the bottom line – the debt. Austerity for all, they say. Decades of debt to pay off, they say. You will all be our slaves till you pay every last cent. They sit their in their cold metal offices, anonymous smiles pasted to their faces like those of some mindless machine, spouting of legalisms, regulations, and rules that cannot be compromised: it’s just a matter of rules, a rational order that cannot be opposed. What Sheldon S. Wolin in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism termed an inverted totalitarianism hiding under the mask of democracy pervades the Western democracies like a rationalized agent of Cthulhu.5

August Derleth once described the Elder ones (Lovecraft) … the Old or Ancient Ones, the Elder Gods, of cosmic evil, bearing many names, and themselves of different groups, as if associated with the elements and yet transcending them: for there are the Water Beings, hidden in the depths; those of Air that are the primal lurkers beyond time; those of Earth, horrible animate survivors of distant eons. Is this not the elite, our 1% Oligarchs today? Those upper tier Financiers, Bankers, and CEO’s of the Western World’s Corporations – the Culture of Necrophilia for whom the masses, the sea of zombies lives in half-death bound to an eternal debt? Acting like ice-cold dragons without any sense of humanity, emotion, or feeling: feeding on nothing but their virtual money, their fiat money; and the blood of the nations? Like the living dead they suck the living surplus of the nations till there is nothing left, nothing to give even them sustenance. This is the West today. A world of death, war, and famine.

Neoliberalism across the planet has created a steady remilitarization of power, especially as control shifted away from ministries, many of which were now run by technocrats, to provincial governors, most of whom were still appointed from the high ranks of the military. It included the systematic use of torture against those detained in police stations and the offices of the State Security Intelligence, including electric shocks, beatings, suspension by the wrists or ankles, and threats of death or sexual abuse of the detainee or a female relative.6 A brave new world of total surveillance has arisen since 9/11. As Tom Engelhardt in Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World states it: The goal of the US surveillance state is to make sure that there is no such thing as actual human privacy, not just in the United States but in the world. That’s its intent. It does that by design. What we are really talking about is a globalized system that prevents any form of electronic communication from taking place without being stored and monitored by the National Security Agency. It’s not just journalists but also dissident groups and Muslim communities that have been infiltrated and monitored. The government is deliberately working to create a climate of fear in exactly those communities that are most important in checking those in power.7

In their expose on America’s multi-billion dollar Top Secret world William Arkin and Dana Priest tell us Top Secret America’s obsessive reliance on secrecy has made the United States vulnerable, too. In its most benign form, too much secret information gums up the very system it was created to serve. In its most dangerous form, secrecy is allowing the people in the know, those with security clearances, to hide their own malfeasance, or to unintentionally chip away at democracy— the very system Top Secret America is there to protect, one built on individual privacy and rights.8

Ten years after the attacks of 9/ 11, more secret projects, more secret organizations, more secret authorities, more secret decision making, more watchlists, and more databases are not the answer to every problem. In fact, more has become too much. The number of secrets has become so enormous that the people in charge of keeping them can’t possibly succeed. (Priest and Arkin, p. 267)

Another Future: The East

Yet, in the midst of the decay of the West, and this truly is what is going on across the planet as the American Empire slowly crumbles into chaos and tyranny, an Orwellian nightmare world of total surveillance and policing, we are seeing another world rising up in the East. China. A realm that thrives on the cyclic shifts of instability and transition. As Greenspan will tell us of this outrider city of the future, Shanghai:

Everything new in Shanghai was produced in the past two decades. Residents have been forced to adapt to massive, high-speed urban change. In my own time here, since 2002, I have witnessed, in addition to the frequent churn of shops, restaurants and bars, the emergence of parks, skyscrapers, and multiple subway lines— all this in my neighborhood alone. The long-standing joke that the construction crane is the national ‘bird’ of China arises out of the enormous mutations that have been occurring in the urban landscape of Shanghai. ‘The speed and efficiency with which the Communist authorities would move Shanghai from mothballed relic of the past to stunning vision of the future would rattle the world,’ writes Daniel Brook, author of A History of Future Cities. ‘In just 20 years, the city’s people would go from commuting to run-down factories by bicycle to riding to the city’s new international airport on the fastest train on earth. Makeshift huts would be replaced by a high-rise cityscape boasting more skyscrapers than Manhattan.”  Shanghai, remarks designer Greg Yager, ‘is the greatest transformation of a piece of earth in history’.(p. xiii).

So that while the rest of the planet seems to be slowly devolving into ruins, Shanghai has been reconstructing itself out of its past into something utterly new. A modernism remaking itself right before our eyes. I have to admit that I’ve looked for signs of vitality in both the Americas and Old Europe but have seen nothing but a realm of decay and utter abjection, bankruptcy and inaction. A desperation is in the air here in my homeland. Yet, as one turns one’s gaze toward the East one sees something different, a sign of real change, of thriving chaos full of hope. Why? These lands have only recently begun to enter the realms of capitalism. Why are they thriving and we are sinking? In the next few months I’m going to begin studying various aspects of China, Japan, and other Eastern countries to see why they are thriving in the midst of this ocean of decay. Sure China recently had a readjustment in its stock market, but has survived and actually benefited from it. Western prognosticators seem to hope they, too will fall as low as themselves. Will they? Are or we seeing something else here? This I hope to find out. As Greenspan tells us in Shanghai we’re seeing a new form of time-consciousness:

Shanghai’s ambition— to emerge as the great metropolis of the twenty-first century— requires not only that it impact what is in the future but also, more fundamentally, that it transform the very idea of what the future might mean. (p. xv).

Yet, Shanghai is not the only city to undergo a great transition. Plans have been revealed that could see Beijing merge with nearby cities, which would turn the capital into a super-megacity. The new metropolitan area will be called Jing-Jin-Ji after the three districts it will include (Jing for Beijing, Jin for the city of Tianjin and Ji for the name for the Hebei Province). As the New York Time reports:

Beijing will undertake a major restructuring of the capital government as part of a broader plan to create a giant urban corridor in northern China, officials said Saturday.

At the end of a Communist Party meeting, city officials said on the evening news that hospitals, wholesale markets and some of the city’s administrative offices would move outside the city center. Beijing is to limit its population to 23 million, slightly more than its current estimated population of 22 million, and reduce the population of its six core districts by 15 percent. Many important services will move to suburbs or neighboring Hebei Province, officials said.

Other cities such as Zhenjiang a historic Yangtze River city near Suzhou the notion of the intelligent city is making headway: the central government has made development of smart city technology and projects a key national policy, and it’s now difficult to find a Chinese city of any size that does not have aspirations to be “smart.” With millions of rural migrants arriving every year and environmental and economic pressures mounting, Chinese cities can surely use all the smart they can get. (China Business Review)

At Map-D and Smart Cities: An interview at China Smart Cities Forum one discovers a major thrust in these initiatives across China. As Dorsey reports:

China has recently bolstered its “smart city” program by unveiling development plans for 103 smart cities, districts and towns. An announcement from the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (“MOHURD”) has confirmed China’s intention to harness the benefits of innovation in its urban development initiatives. The use of advanced technology at all stages of the building and infrastructure life cycles helps to create more economical, liveable and less environmentally harmful urban developments.

At a recent meeting in Barcelona, Spain the vice-mayor of Wuhan, capital of Central China’s Hubei province, said that it aims to become a leading city in terms of applying technology to improve the lives of its citizens.

China is investing in infrastructure, high-speed rail systems, too. China’s high-speed rail plans are ambitious, planning to invest $300 billion to construct the largest, fastest, and most technologically advanced high-speed railway system in the world by 2020. It is predicted that the HSR (High-Speed Railway) network will reach 30,000 kilometers when the major rail lines are completed. China’s high-speed railway network is made up of four components: upgraded pre-existing rail lines that can accommodate high-speed trains, a national grid of mostly passenger dedicated HSR lines (PDLs), certain regional intercity HSR lines, and the Maglev High-Speed Line. (China Highlights) As McKinsey reports China’s leadership has charted equally ambitious plans for the future. Its goal is to bring the entire nation’s urban infrastructure up to the level of infrastructure in a middle-income country, while using increasingly efficient transport logistics to tie the country together. What follows is a by-the-numbers portrait of this dynamic sector.

What we’re seeing is the slow but methodical modernization of China across its vast territories, uniting the distant parts of its landscapes through high-speed logistical and infrastructural investment. While in most of the other First-world countries infrastructure and investment in transportation, cities, business, etc. is not only on decline it is effectively at a stand-still. Obviously it’s not all cream and peaches, people have been displaced, ancient rivers dammed up and systems depleted, underground oil frakking causing massive earthquakes, urban issues of the poor and disposable causing many young and old into desperation. Corruption in the political and business spectrum. Seems humans still have much to learn and relearn. Yet, there is at least something positive happening, new worlds being shaped and built, places with hope for a better future. Is this the old progress? I doubt it.

China’s been around for thousands of years. I expect this is just a slow incorporation into the dragon of a new material need being realized. The acceptance that China must finally open itself to the planetary civilization around it. Yet, it will do it on its on terms not the West’s. It’s time and temporal vision is at odds with the eschatological world of Christian and Secular apologetics. It’s temporality is another path of modernity than our own. A virtual path that seeks in the atemporal present an absolute future, a retroactive alignment of past and present need, an opening to possibility rather than closure.

It knows very well that the American Empire is trying to enclose the commons for its own benefit, and knows as well that America is in decay and fraying around the edges. All America has is its paranoia and its global militarized systems of total surveillance, Naval-Army-Air Force, secret black ops, UN Cops, World Courts, and Corporatism shadowing everything. Economically China is on the rise, while America is falling into its own nightmare horror show: a future without nostalgia, a land where the only retro-futures of progress are those that live on zombie labor and fears, dreams of former glory that never was but has become the dream of an inverted and perverted exceptionalism that seeks nothing more than the control of the planet and its resources.

China and its city of dreams, Shanghai have other paths, other times, other modernity’s than those of the West.


Just discovered Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen’s procedurals that seem chock full of the kind of local flavor sociology and history of Shanghai that good detective fiction across the world is known for. Started reading his first novel in the series Death of a Red Heroine which has already pulled me into its story. I’ve been reading Charles McCarry’s last work – not one of his best spy novels which describes the culture from an outsider’s perspective, The Shanghai Factor. So I’m looking forward to reading an author who lived through many of the sequences he will describe rather than that of an American like McCarry who sees it as an outsider. Although its interesting to see both views as an anecdote along with the non-fiction works like Nick Land’s Shanghai Basics and Anna Greenspan’s Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade.

1. Greenspan, Anna (2014-10-15). Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (Kindle Locations 96-110). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Lasch, Christopher (1991-09-17). The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (p. 509). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
3. The Gernsback Continuum” in Gibson, William (1986). Burning Chrome. New York: Arbor House.
4. Hayes, Christopher (2012-06-12). Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (pp. 12-13). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

5. Wolin, Sheldon S. (2009-01-15). Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Kindle Locations 1168-1172). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
6.   (2011-07-16). Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (Kindle Locations 761-765). New Press, The. Kindle Edition.
7. Engelhardt, Tom (2014-09-15). Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Kindle Locations 192-196). Haymarket Books. Kindle Edition.
8. Priest, Dana; Arkin, William M. (2011-09-06). Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (p. 267). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
9. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 21). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

10 thoughts on “Shanghai’s Retro-Futures: The Demise of Progress in a Progressive Age

    • Yea, got to figure Hedge Funds were manipulating it:

      The China Securities Regulatory Commission, which has in recent weeks pledged to crack down on “malicious” short-sellers and market manipulators, appears to be expanding its scrutiny to other types of trading.

      On Friday, the commission said it would strengthen its supervision of so-called program trading, which can include high speed, algorithmic or other computer-driven trading strategies. It said 24 such trading accounts on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges had been suspended on suspicion of harming the market with rapid-fire share purchase or sale orders that were canceled before they could be fulfilled, a strategy known as spoofing.


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