Saying Goodbye to all That: Progress, Engineers, and Modernity

In his path-breaking short story The Gernsback Continuum, William Gibson dubs this style ‘Raygun Gothic’, explicitly marking its time-complexity. He thus coaxes it into the wider cultural genre of retro-futurism, which applies to everything that evokes an out-dated future, and thereby transforms modernity into a counter-factual commentary on the present. This genre finds an especially rich hunting ground in Shanghai.

—Nick Land, A Time-Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai 

Cities are not homogeneous blocks of consistent identity, rather spaces of continuous negotiation between differences, temporal zones that mesh or collide, disperse or penetrate. Cities are fluid and dynamic processes that arise out of the creative vectors of unimagined intensities. The city breaks the barriers, undoes the boundaries of time, allowing all times: past, present, future to co-exist in a space of differences that make a difference. The City is a Time-Machine.

A hundred years ago Patrick Geddes speaking to a friend about the mutation and transformation of the old Roman gridiron format of cities would offer surgery and re-adaptation to regionalism as the modern way:

City Planning is not mere place-planning, nor even work planning. If it is to be successful it must be folk planning. This means that its task is not to coerce people into new places against their associations, wishes, and interest, as we find bad schemes trying to do. Instead its task is to find the right places for each sort of people; place where they will really flourish. To give people in fact the same care that we give when transplanting flowers, instead of harsh evictions and arbitrary instructions to ‘move on’, delivered in the manner of an officious policeman.1

He would also typify the architect as the Chief Workman and Regional Engineer: “As the former period may be characterized by the predominance of the relatively unskilled workman and the skilled, so this next incipient age by the development of the chief workman proper, the literal architektos or architect; and by his companion, the rustic improver, gardener, and forester, farmer, irrigator, and their correspondingly evolved types of civil engineer.”2

Architect as Engineer: Progress and the City

Yet, it is Le Corbusier in his The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning who would bring the Engineering workman metaphor to its modern and penultimate perfection, saying,

The great city determines everything : war, peace and toil. Great cities are the spiritual workshops in which the work of the world is done. The anachronistic persistence of the original skeleton of the city paralyzes its growth. Industrial and commercial life will be stifled in towns which do not develop. The conservative forces at work in great cities obstruct the development of transport, congest and devitalize activity, kill progress and discourage initiative. The decayed state of these old towns and the intensity of modern toil lead to physical and nervous sickness. Modern life requires the recuperation of the forces which are used up in pursuit of it. Hygiene and moral health depend on the lay-out of cities. Without hygiene and moral health, the social cell becomes atrophied. A country’s worth can be measured by the vigour of its inhabitants. The cities of to-day cannot respond to the demands of the life of to-day unless they are adapted to the new conditions. The great cities determine the life of a country. If the great city is stifled, the country goes under. In order to transform our cities we must discover the fundamental principles of modern town planning.

—Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning

This sense of the architect as the planner, of the engineer modeling and computing, calculating and adapting form and content from the Outside. For Le Corbusier modernity is above all progress, improvement, adaptation to the new and out with the old and musty, dark and medieval. “Now that the machine age has let loose the consequences attaching to it, progress has seized on a new set of implements with which to quicken its rhythm; this it has done with such an intensification of speed and output that events have moved beyond our capacity to appreciate them; and whereas mind has hitherto generally been in advance of accomplished fact, it is now, on the contrary, left behind by new facts whose acceleration continues without cease ; only similes can adequately describe the situation ; submersion, cataclysm, invasion. This rhythm has been accelerated to such a point that man—(who has after all created it with his small individual inventions, just as an immense conflagration can be started with a few pints of petrol and one little match)—man lives in a perpetual state of instability, insecurity, fatigue and accumulating delusions. Our physical and nervous organization is brutalized and battered by this torrent; it makes its protest, of course, but it will soon give way unless some energetic decision, far-sighted and not too long delayed, brings order once more to a situation which is rapidly getting out of hand.”3

The notion of the Architect as Chief Engineer and Workman who will put his stamp upon chaos and bring out of it order, one who has seen modernity as a temporal time-machine in which the forces of capitalism and progress have moved at such an accelerating pace that the life of cities and regions has begun melting down under the pressure of its unformed relations.

Le Corbusier once said, in a statement usually turned against him, “You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.” This was not a confession of error. It was the recognition of the validity of process over the sanctity of ideology. Few architects are capable of making that observation, because it speaks not to some fixed ideal, but to the complexity and incompleteness of architecture, to how life and art accommodate each other. (Huxtable 163) The modern movement is a story of high hopes, boundless optimism, (not so) innocent social idealism, and considerable hubris in which the artists, architects, and artisans of the world would make it a better place through a radical new kind of design. Change was necessary to reinvigorate a corrupt, exhausted, and war-weary society. “Architecture or revolution!” Le Corbusier proclaimed, not surprisingly settling for architecture to improve people’s lives. The machine was to be the symbol and instrument of salvation; mechanization and standardization would serve humanity through progressive political systems. Everything would be stripped down to its functional essence and reinvented, and this would lead to an aesthetic as modern as the message was messianic. Clear out the mess. Banish the past. Design for the future. Modernism was the original extreme makeover. Painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture, tableware, interiors, graphics, photography and film, theater, costumes, and clothing are all here to prove it. There are familiar icons and the unexpected from Paris, Berlin, Moscow, the Netherlands, the United States, and eastern Europe. These are the masterworks of modernism by Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Kasimir Malevich, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Naum Gabo, and Hans Arp, with buildings and furniture by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, Erich Mendelsohn, and Gerritt Rietvelt, and photography and film by El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Man Ray.

Le Corbusier sought something specific, geometric precision and a simplification of measure: – a universality that he could apply as engineering and architecture. So  he devised a workable unit of measurement, which he called the Modulor, or Golden Section. It was based on the height of a man with his arm upraised, and according to Le Corbusier, any structure based on multiples of this unit of measure would be beautiful and have a human scale. His own use of the Modulor, however, proved to be as personal as everything else he did. (Huxtable 56) Le Corbusier described it as a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things.”

Turning to the progenitor of phenomenology in its modernist form under the work of Edmund Husserl who would affirm this transformation from the older forms of geometry and its reception to the new world of modernity, saying, in The Origin of Geometry:

THE INTEREST THAT propels us in this work makes it necessary to engage first of all in reflections which surely never occurred to Galileo. We must focus our gaze not merely upon the ready-made, handeddown geometry and upon the manner of being which its meaning had in his thinking; it was no different in his thinking from what it was in that of all the late inheritors of the older geometric wisdom, whenever they were at work, either as pure geometers or as making practical applications of geometry. Rather, indeed above all, we must also inquire back into the original meaning of the handed-down geometry, which continued to be valid with this very same meaning-continued and at the same time was developed further, remaining simply “geometry” in all its new forms. Our considerations will necessarily lead to the deepest problems of meaning, problems of science and of the history of science in general, and indeed in the end to problems of a universal history in general; so that our problems and expositions concerning Galilean geometry take on an exemplary significance.4

Both in architecture and in philosophy it is both progress and universality which would come to the fore under a new and intensified abstractionism based on a transformation of the wisdom of the geometers in that age.

“On or about 1910,” just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life and Einstein’s ideas were transforming our perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavor. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the most influential banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture. Artists of every stripe and persuasion would suddenly move away from figuration and representation into a realm of pure abstraction. A handful of artists—Vasily Kandinsky, František Kupka, Francis Picabia, Robert Delaunay, Arthur Dove—presented paintings that differed from almost all of those that had preceded them in the long history of the medium in the Western tradition: shunning the depiction of objects in the world, they displayed works with no discernible subject matter. As Vasily Kandinsky would ask “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?“. Observers of these new forms of art spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory, where comparison with the past was impossible. This evacuation of the object world was, to be sure, hardly a silent disappearance, but rather was accompanied by a shower of celebratory manifestos, lectures, and criticism, a flood of words flung forth perhaps in compensation for their makers’ worry about how the meaning of these pictures might be established.5

Abstraction: Networks, Rhizomes, and Mutants

Abstraction’s network was fostered in the years immediately before World War I by a new modern culture of connectivity. It was the rise and transformation of capitalism out of its factory model in the old Fordist systems into a new slicker world of global markets, connectionism, and networks of telecommunications that would usher in the Abstract Age of Modernism. In trains, automobiles, and steamships, people were travelling internationally in numbers far greater than ever before. National boundaries became porous as people crossed them with new ease—and until the outbreak of World War I, most European countries had minimal passport requirements. Telegraphs, telephones, and radio relayed news of events quickly across the globe. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912, thanks to wireless telegraphy, was not only followed achingly by those on ships just out of reach of the ocean liner but was also one of the first news stories to be reported virtually simultaneously with the event. These same communication technologies allowed for the synchronization of times and clocks across distance, which facilitated the establishment of coordinated international markets and set the stage for the vertiginous growth of a modern speculative economy and commodity culture. In Paris in 1912, Henri Poincaré hosted an international conference that established a method for transmitting accurate radio time signals around the world, and on July 1, 1913, the first time signal to be broadcast globally was sent from the Eiffel Tower, a key step in adopting a universal standard time. All of this fed a more international, global sense of one’s world. The network of sociability built by transit pathways, the proliferation of print media, and new forms of communication allowed for the movement of ideas and images across a broad terrain, a development crucial in abstraction’s incubation.

Alberto Toscano citing  Italian Marxist phenomenologist Enzo Paci tells us that: “The fundamental character of capitalism … is revealed in the tendency to make abstract categories live as though they were concrete. Categories become subjects, or rather, even persons, though we must here speak of person in the Latin sense, that is, of masks. … “Capitalist” means a man transformed into a mask, into the person of capital: in him acts capital producing capital. … The abstract, in capitalist society, functions concretely’ (Paci, 1979: 160-1, 153).6

In his Abstraction and Empathy A Contribution to the Psychology of Style  (1908) Wilhelm Worringer would describe the modern movement toward abstraction:

We regard as this counter-pole an aesthetics which proceeds not from man’s urge to empathy, but from his urge to abstraction. Just as the urge to empathy as a pre-assumption of aesthetic experience finds its gratification in the beauty of the organic, so the urge to abstraction finds its beauty in the life-denying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract law and necessity.7

Abstraction as the perfection of the artificial and anti-life forces of the anorganic: the crystalline perfection of law and necessity.  Deleuze and Guattari would speak of Abstract machines. The Abstract Machine is a universal concept introduced so as to ground a manifold ontology: ‘The plane of consistency of Nature is like an immense Abstract Machine, abstract yet real and individual; its pieces are the various assemblages and individuals, each of which groups together an infinity of particles entering into an infinity of more or less interconnected relations’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1980, 254). The notion of the network, the rhizome, the infinite seething sea of connections within a labyrinthine assemblage, all this would situate the movement of abstraction into a non-figural or asemiotic field where society, culture, and its agents – organic or anorganic would all mesh in a realm at once virtual and actual, real and abstract.

Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium would describe this movement between the crystal and the flame:

Crystal and flame: two forms of perfect beauty that we cannot tear our eyes away from, two modes of growth in time, of expenditure of the matter surrounding them, two moral symbols, two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings. A short while ago I suggested a “Party of the Crystal” in twentieth-century literature, and I think one could draw up a similar list for a “Party of the Flame.” I have always considered myself a partisan of the crystal…

The crystal, with its precise faceting and its ability to refract light, is the model of perfection that I have always cherished as an emblem, and this predilection has become even more meaningful since we have learned that certain properties of the birth and growth of crystals resemble those of the most rudimentary biological creatures, forming a kind of bridge between the mineral world and living matter. (SM: 15)

Among the scientific books into which I poke my nose in search of stimulus for the imagination, I recently happened to read that the models for the process of formation of living beings “are best visualized by the crystal on one side (invariance of specific structures) and the flame on the other (constancy of external forms in spite of relentless internal agitation).” The contrasting images of flame and crystal are used to make visible the alternatives offered to biology, and from this pass on to theories of language and the ability to learn. One will even find in the implications for the philosophy of science embodied in the positions stated by Piaget, who is for the principle of “order out of noise”—the flame—and Chomsky, who is for the “self-organizing system,” the crystal. (SM: 15)

In his book The Ego Tunnel, Thomas Metzinger has framed the so-called psychopathologies of the digital age with these words:

The Internet has already become a part of our self-model. We use it for external memory storage, as a cognitive prosthesis, and for emotional autoregulation… Clearly, the integration of hundreds of millions of human brains… into ever new medial environments has already begun to change the structure of conscious experience itself… Today, the advertisement and entertainment industries are attacking the very foundations of our capacity for experience, drawing us into the vast and confusing media jungle… We can see the probable result in the epidemic of attention-deficit disorder in children and young adults, in midlife burnout, in rising levels of anxiety in large parts of the population… New medial environments may create a new form of waking consciousness that resembles weakly subjective states—a mixture of dreaming, dementia, intoxication, and infantilization. (Metzinger 2009: 234)

Geotrauma: Psychopathology and Inhumanism

This sense that for two hundred years of modernism we’ve been undergoing a plastic change in consciousness, rewiring our natural brains under the acceleration and transitional phase shift of a total artificialization (abstract machines) of organic into anorganic perfection has barely begun to register on the human animal and its environs. Nick Land would coin the term geotraumatics to intensify Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of schizoanalyis:

Geotraumatics radicalises Deleuze-Guattari’s insistence that schizoanalysis should extend further than the terrain of personal or familial drama, to invest the social and political realms, and pushes beyond history and biology to incorporate the geological and the cosmological within the purview of the transcendental unconscious.8

Speaking of this transcendental unconscious Land remarks “Non-agentic, lacking the intentional intelligibility of Kant’s ‘will’, and with no regard for architectonic order, this transcendental unconscious is an insurgent field of forces for whose cunning – as Nietzsche would discover – even ‘reason’ itself is but an instrument. Anticipating the psychoanalytical conception of ‘desire’, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche consummate the collapse of intentional transparency into the opacity of a contingent and unknown ‘will’, a ‘purposiveness without purpose’ whose unmasterable irruptions are in fact dissipations – pathological by definition – of energy excessive to that required for (absorbed by) the ‘work’ of being human. At once underlying and overflowing the ‘torture chamber of organic specificity’, or ‘Human Security System’, this inundation creates ‘useless’ new labyrinths, unemployable new fictions that exceed any attempt to systematise knowledge or culture.” (FN)

This is the realm of impersonal and indifferent, almost demiurgic blind creativity and innovation arising out of Spinoza’s God or Nature. Matter (Mother) as intelligent and intelligence itself. This is not your old materialism of the passive inert stuff of a dead world of matter, but rather of an energetic world of forces and powers at once daemonic and demonic arising unbidden into the universe out of the voids of dark energy and dark matter creating the visible light spectrum of our universes seemingly ordered systems of modern physics. A realm of pure abstraction and artificiality, virtual becoming in an endless oceanic realm of entropy and negentropic movements. As Land continues,

The transcendental unconscious is the auto-construction of the Real, the production of production, so that for schizoanalysis there is the Real exactly in so far as it is built. Production is production of the Real, not merely of representation, and unlike Kantian production, the desiring-production of Deleuze-Guattari is not qualified by humanity (it is not a matter of what things are like for us) . Within the framework of social history the empirical subject of production is man, but its transcendental subject is the machinic unconscious, and the empirical subject is produced at the edge of production, as an element in the reproduction of production, a machine part, and ‘a part made up of parts. (FN: 321-322)

In this sense we have always been artificial products of a machinic unconscious, parts of an infinite abstract machine or assemblage. For Land Kant’s correlational circle of the for-itself bounded by the epistemic house of for-us is overcome through the power of this putting intelligence and thought back into the things themselves. Nothing is for-us, rather we are mere appendages and parts of some vaster anorganic process of creativity and innovation that may or may not even be aware of us in its blind becoming, impersonal and indifferent, intelligence. Matter thinks itself without a Subject. This is not vitalism either. As Brassier and Mackay say in their intro to Land’s Fanged Noumena:

Fuelled by disgust at the more stupefying inanities of academic orthodoxy and looking to expectorate the vestigial theological superstitions afflicting mainstream post-Kantianism, Land seized upon Deleuze-Guattari’s transcendental materialism – years before its predictable institutional neutering – and subjected it to ruthless cybernetic streamlining, excising all vestiges of Bergsonian vitalism to reveal a deviant and explicitly thanatropic machinism. The results of this reconstructive surgery provide the most illuminating but perhaps also the most disturbing distillation of what Deleuze called ‘transcendental empiricism’. In Land’s work, this becomes the watchword for an experimental praxis oriented entirely towards contact with the unknown. Land sought out this exteriority, the impersonal and anonymous chaos of absolute time, as fervently as he believed Kantianism and Hegelianism, along with their contemporary heirs, deconstruction and critical theory, were striving to keep it out. (FN: 5)

This notion of the absolute Outside as Time, as the realm of thermospasm, where the thanatropic machinism of an massive energetic unconscious powers the forces that arise in our universe is at the core of Land’s cosmology. As Land would describe it in A Thirst for Annilhilation, the thermospasm is reality as undilute chaos. It is where we all came from. The deathdrive is the longing to return there (‘it’ itself), just as salmon would return upstream to perish at the origin. Thermospasm is howl, annihilating intensity, a peak of improbability. Energetic matter has a tendency, a Todestrieb. The current scientific sense of this movement is a perpetual degradation of energy or dissipation of difference. Upstream is the reservoir of negentropy, uneven distribution, thermic disequilibrium. Downstream is Tohu Bohu, statistical disorder, indifference, Wärmetod. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that disorder must increase, that regional increases in negentropy still imply an aggregate increase in entropy. Life is able to deviate from death only because it also propagates it, and the propagation of disorder is always more successful than the deviation. Degradation ‘profits’ out of life. Any process of organization is necessarily aberrational within the general economy, a mere complexity or detour in the inexorable death-flow, a current in the informational motor, energy cascading downstream, dissipation. There are no closed systems, no stable codes, no recuperable origins. There is only the thermospasmic shock wave, tendential energy flux, degradation of energy. A receipt of information—of intensity—carried downstream.9  (TA: 30)

In this life produces anti-life, entropy, decay. We are all producers of death and waste. As we heat up, swarm, enter into network algorithmic necessity and energetic participation, accelerate the processes of hyperintelligence we are accelerating the expulsion and entropic waste of the earth and sun. We make a sacrifice of life and the organic substance of the earth, animals and plants, so that we can produce death as a commodity in a universal order of intelligence.

Technics and Technology: Enframing the World

In the Question of Technology as Steven Shaviro tells us Heidegger warns us against the danger of technological “enframing,” with its reduction of nature to the status of a “standing reserve.” He demonizes science, in a manner so sweeping and absolute as to be the mirror image of science’s own claims to unique authority. But you can’t undo what Whitehead calls the “bifurcation of nature” by simply dismissing one side of the dichotomy. Whitehead’s account of science and technology is far subtler than Heidegger’s, in part because he actually understands modern science, as Heidegger clearly does not. For Whitehead, scientific and technical rationality is one kind of “abstraction.” This, in itself, is not anything bad. An abstraction is a simplification, a reduction, made in the service of some particular interest. As such, it is indispensable. We cannot live without abstractions; they alone make thought and action possible. We only get into trouble when we extend these abstractions beyond their limits, pushing them into realms where they no longer apply. This is what Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” and it’s one to which modern science and technology have been especially prone. But all our other abstractions—notably including the abstraction we call language—need to be approached in the same spirit of caution. Indeed, Whitehead’s reservations about science run entirely parallel to his reservations about language. 10

In Absolute Recoil Slavoj Zizek would comment on “enframing” saying, In this precise sense, Heidegger is the ultimate transcendental philosopher: his achievement is to historicize the transcendental dimension. For Heidegger, an Event has nothing to do with ontic processes; it designates the “event” of a new epochal disclosure of Being, the emergence of a new “world” (as the horizon of meaning within which all entities appear). Catastrophe thus occurs before the (f) act: the catastrophe is not the nuclear self-destruction of humanity, but that ontological relation to nature which reduces it to techno-scientific exploitation. The catastrophe is not our ecological ruin, but the loss of our home-roots, thus making possible the ruthless exploitation of the earth.  The catastrophe is not that we are reduced to automata manipulable by biogenetics, but the very ontological approach that renders this prospect possible. Even in the case of total self-destruction, ontology maintains its priority over the ontic: the possibility of total self-destruction is just an ontic consequence of our relating to nature as a collection of objects for technological exploitation— the catastrophe occurs when nature appears to us within the frame of technology. Gestell, Heidegger’s name for the essence of technology, is usually translated into English as “enframing.” At its most radical, technology designates not the complex network of machines and activities, but the attitude towards reality that we assume when we engage in such activities: technology is the way reality discloses itself to us in modern times, when reality has become a “standing-reserve”:

Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.

Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.  The paradox of technology as the concluding moment of Western metaphysics is that it is a mode of enframing which poses a danger to enframing itself: the human being reduced to an object of technological manipulation is no longer properly human, it loses the very feature of being ecstatically open to reality. However, this danger also contains the potential for salvation: the moment we become aware of and fully embrace the fact that technology itself is, in its essence, a mode of enframing, we overcome it … Giving such priority to the ontological over the ontic dimension leads Heidegger to dismiss gigantic human catastrophes (like the Holocaust) as mere “ontic” events; it leads him to dismiss the differences between, say, democracy and fascism as secondary and ontologically irrelevant (and some critics have hastened to add that this obliteration of ontic differences is not only the consequence but also the hidden cause of his emphasis on the ontological dimension— his own Nazi involvement thus becomes an insignificant error, etc.).11

The realization that we are both products and producers enframed within an ontological organization of transcendental forces of an energetic unconscious that is at once technics and technology is both a catastrophe and a creation.  As Slavoj will continue: “In our most elementary phenomenological experience, the reality we see through a window (our bodies: senses) is always minimally spectral, not as fully real as the enclosed space we inhabit while looking out. The reality outside is perceived in a weirdly de-realized state, as if we were watching a performance on screen. When we open the window, the direct impact of the external reality causes a minimal shock, as we are overwhelmed by its proximity. This is also why we can be surprised when entering the enclosed space of a house: it seems as if the space inside is larger than the outside frame, as if the house is bigger on the inside than the outside. A similar frame, conceived as a window onto another world, appears in Roland Emmerich’s 1994 film, Stargate. The “stargate” is a large ring-shaped device that functions as a wormhole enabling people to teleport to complementary devices located cosmic distances away. No wonder the world they enter through the stargate resembles Ancient Egypt— itself a kind of “stargate culture” in which the pharaohs organized gigantic public works to secure their passage through the stargate to Orion after their death. And, in science itself, is not the ultimate stargate the idea of a black hole, conceived as the passage into an alternative universe?” (AR)

Shanghai Futures: Temporal Invasions from the Future

The game Shanghai plays, or the story it tells, is endlessly re-started in the dieselpunk cityscape of the 1920s and ‘30s, where everything that anybody could want exists in dense, unexpressed potentiality – global fortunes, gangster territories, proletarian uprisings, revolutionary discoveries, literary glory, sensory intoxication, as well as every permutation of modest urbanite thriving. It is a city where anything can happen, and somewhere, at some time, everything does.

—Nick Land, Shanghai Times

Anna Greenspan in her book Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade tells us that “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.”12 Nick Land in A Time Travelers Guide to Shanghai will remind us that if “the modern defines itself through the present, conceived as a break from the past and a projection into the future, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower unquestionably installs itself in modernity, but only by way of an elaborate path. It reverts to the present from a discarded future, whilst excavating an unused future from the past.”13 Greenspan will add that Shanghai is not so much modern as a future without a past, a realm where the old progressive ideologies no longer hold and something else ill-defined has enframed itself in a new world,

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 colonisation, 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. (SF)

And, yet, as Land will remind us we are still bound by Modernity’s duration, its calendric dominion (cited in Anna’s book):

‘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 recognised 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. (SF: xv-xvi)

In Shanghai Times Land comments: ‘Modernity’ describes an unprecedented cultural enterprise, which is that of leaving the nursery of eternal recurrence, propelling history onto an inconclusive path between cyclical and progressive time. The conceptual step taken here is a modest one. It directs little attention to the crucial possibility that modernity is something that happens to time (and not only within it), and still less to the guiding figure of the spiral, which cyclicity and progression compose together. In a later short essay (‘ Moore and More’, May 2011), this last element is explicitly indicated:

The trend of modern time to Cycles cannot be dismissed from futuristic speculation (they always come back), but they no longer define it. Since the beginning of the electronic era, their contribution to the shape of the future has been progressively marginalized. […] Whilst crystallizing (in silico) the inherent acceleration of neo-modern, linear time, Moore’s Law is intrinsically nonlinear, for at least two reasons. Firstly, and most straightforwardly, it expresses the positive feedback dynamics of technological industrialism, in which rapidly-advancing electronic machines continuously revolutionize their own manufacturing infrastructure. Better chips make better robots make better chips, in a spiraling acceleration. Secondly, Moore’s Law is at once an observation, and a program [which is to say, a self-fulfilling prophecy].14

Ultimately Shanghai is unbound from the temporal philosophy and pragmatic intrumentalism of the West. As Greenspan maintains Shanghai is situated in an absolute future:

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. (SF: xvi-svii)

So against the planned and controlled cities of Le Courbsier or Geddes and their progeny in the modern architecture of cities we are moving into an absolute time where the future is always now and compressed, an energetic and unconscious realm of creativity and negentropic forces in movement. A realm where the virtual and actual intermingle in an ongoing simulated modeling process without end. Welcome to the pure city as abstraction.

The Street View: Cities on the Move

As Anna relates it in 1961 the self-taught urbanist Jane Jacobs published her most famous work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which presented itself as a critique of the thinking surrounding modern cities. (SF: 37) According to the high modernist tradition, urban development needs to be mastered through the implementation of top-down plans. Jacobs’ critique rested on the counterargument; cities are too complex to be comprehended from on high. She railed against the arrogance— and impossibility— of imposing a single abstract ideal on the diverse multiplicity that was essential to urban innovation and growth. The cities’ complexity meant that unforeseen consequences would always, invariably, upset the plan. Tear down slums and build new public housing and what you ultimately end up with are projects so derelict and dangerous that the only solution is to blow them up. Build more roads and, rather than solving the problem of congestion, all you do is attract more traffic. These unfortunate consequences are not accidental. Plans go wrong because planners do not think on a neighbourhood scale. Instead, they view the city as a whole, try to comprehend it from on high and seek to impose order from above. Jacobs, who was attentive to and immersed in the micro-rhythms of daily life, argued for bottom-up emergence, or order from below. Cities are built from the emergent order of individuals not the oversight of all-powerful planners. They work, not because they adhere to the neat lines of a well-ordered plan, but rather due to the vital everyday entrepreneurialism of the street. (Sf: 38-39)

In fact as Anna surmise there has always been the open conflict in cities between the old sedentary rootedness of the agricultural civilizations against the nomadic lifestyle of the uprooted and mobile horse cultures of the Steppes. All culminating in the conflict of Gothic and Classic styles which would intermingle in the modern era. “One explanation for the difference between the Gothic and Classical style is that the Gothic has a Northern nomadic heritage while the Classical Age has sedentary roots. The Northern, or nomadic world, which lacked comfort in an organic nature, did not treat the cosmos as something that could be known, mastered or contained by the limited realm of human beings. On the contrary, it perceived a universe filled with ‘gods and ghosts, spectres and spooks’, in which ‘everything becomes weird and fantastic’.  The Gothic, writes Worringer, was ‘distressed by actuality, debarred from naturalness’.  This drew it to the transcendental possibilities of the abstract line. It is through the expression of this transcendental abstraction that the Gothic ties together the intricacies of its architecture with the terror of its tales. (Sf: 78)

This movement from natural to unnatural, organic to anorganic, human to artificial has been a part of the  inner life of cities from the beginning. Greenspan will mention the steampunk work of Neal Stephanson’s The Diamand Age which “contains one of the most fully elaborated portrayals of Shanghai futurism” (SF: 155). She goes on to tell us that the book is set in the twenty-first century and depicts a world entirely transformed by a revolution in nanotechnology. The colossal technological mutation has caused a radical transformation in the socioeconomic landscape. Nation States have disappeared. The only territories left that matter are hyper-dense urban concentrations. At the centre of the novel is Shanghai. In Stephenson’s vision, the city has been virtually cut off from the rest of China, which is being ravaged by a Boxer-like rebellion led by a group called ‘the Fists’, whose deeply regressive aim is to search out and destroy the ‘nanotech feeds’. Shanghai’s Old City has undergone a cultural implosion and now forms its own separate district, which is exclusively Chinese and is ruled by strict adherence to Confucian law.(SF: 155-156)

Outside these borders, however, Shanghai has continued on its trajectory as a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis. The city forms part of a new entity called the ‘Chinese Coastal Republic’ and is oriented ever more outwards, towards the sea. With The Diamond Age, Stephenson thus allows, at least virtually, for Shanghai to finally fulfil its (not so) unconscious desire and follow the SARs of Hong Kong and Macau in unleashing itself from the country and becoming its own autonomous entity that plugs directly into the rest of the world. The story is set in a nanotech landscape, in which a ‘causeway’ links Shanghai to a cluster of artificial islands that hovers just offshore. These belong exclusively to certain tribes— or phyles— the groups that form the basis of the new social order. Instead of being brought together by a shared ethnicity or a loyalty to the state, people gather according to a shared culture. It was realised, reflects one of the main protagonists, describing the evolution of the new socio-political arrangement, that ‘while people were not genetically different they were culturally as different as they could possibly be’. (SF: 155-156)

Autonomy from the natural environment, an intelligent entity, a City that thinks… we’ve come a long way from those early cities of the great river complexes in the Middle-East where the security of a thriving agricultural world were first beginning to arise. The movement from natural to artificial, virtual to actual and back again, and the movement of abstraction into the Real has taken us on a long journey that has of yet no end in sight. Where too? For Land the drift is clear the retrofuture is Shanghai a realm that “escalates the topic of historical nonlinearity towards its culmination, in which massively-accelerated urban process crosses over into a systematic scrambling of the time-line. At an escape threshold of cybernetic intensity, feedback circuitry produces such extreme causal torsion that it unsettles the historical order of connections. Past and future are twisted from succession to the brink of interactivity, with explosive cultural consequences. The city operates as the analog of an elaborate time-travel scenario, in which an obscure labyrinth of fate is taking shape, and has always been taking shape.” (ST)

(Already too long… I’ll take this up in tomorrow’s post on the Intelligent cities, swarms, diesel punk, retro-futurism, and Time-Machines…)

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  2. Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. Harcout, Brace, Jovanavich 1938
  3. Corbusier, Le. The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (Dover Architecture) (Kindle Locations 1146-1154). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.
  4. Derrida, Jacques. Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction. University of Nebraska, 1962
  5. Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art. Hanjin Shipping, 1992
  6. Toscano, Alberto.  Real Abstraction Revisited Of coins, commodities, and cognitive capitalism. Scribd: here.
  7. Wilhelm Worringer. Abstraction and Empathy A Contribution to the Psychology of Style Elephant Paperbacks (Kindle Locations 231-234). Kindle Edition.
  8. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007 (Urbonomic, 2011) (FN)
  9. Land, Nick. A Thirst For Annihilation. (Routledge, 1992)
  10. Shaviro, Steven. Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Technologies of Lived Abstraction) . The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  11. Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 93-94). Verso Books. Kindle Edition. (AR)
  12. Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (p. 1). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (SF)
  13. Land, Nick. A Time-Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai (Part 1) July, 22, 2011
  14. Land, Nick. Shanghai Times (Kindle Locations 30-41). Urbanatomy Electronic. Kindle Edition. (ST)