Gothic Futurism: Decopunk, Templexity, and the Shadowlands of Modernity

The strongest counter current in Europe to modernity’s embrace of light, linearity and evolutionary advance was the Gothic Revival. The movement began in England at the heart of the industrial age. Its emergence and subsequent spread posed a dramatic challenge to the ideology of reason and progress that seemed so married to the machine age. The Gothic expressed the dark side of reason, the anti-enlightenment, the unconscious of modernity.

—Anna Greenspan,  Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade

Cities of the future are shaped by intense competition, because tomorrow is a tight, fiercely contested niche.

—Nick Land, Templexity

Michael Lewis cited by Anna Greenspan in her book Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade noting the emergence of Gothic style, says: ‘During its years of greatest influence, it subjected every aspect of art, belief, society and labour to intense intellectual scrutiny, using the Middle Ages as a platform from which to judge the modern world … In the broadest view, [the Gothic Revival] is the story of Western civilisation’s confrontation with modernity.’1

She speaks of Horace Walpole and his gothic novel The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story which emerged from his fright at his own life lived in the haunts of his monstrous gothic mansion, its ‘vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends’ (SF: 75). As the foundational novel of the weird this emergence of the past in the present with its return of the daemonic and unconscious elements of former epochs would impact the shadows of modernity, and as Greenspan remarks that the Gothic revival with its nostalgic recollection of the past, would like modernity itself, immerse itself not in some return of tradition but seek its identity through a futurist orientation. (SF: 75)

Gothic futurism would discover itself in verticality, and in its “desire to build ever upwards compelled it to find ways to stretch material to its vertical limit. The modern skyscraper— as the Tribune Tower, the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building and many other high-rises make clear— has been the direct inheritor of this Gothic obsession with buildings that reach up to the sky” (SF: 75). But the guiding leitmotif of this architecture was a dark sense combined with a “looming sense of a world governed by shadowy forces” (SF: 75). As Greenspan will note,

Gothic futurism creates its own particular vision of the ‘metropolis of tomorrow’. It imagines an urban landscape of vast elevations and dark caverns, most alive at night, which operates as a radical alternative to the radiant future promised by a modernity governed by the straight line of time. (SF: 75)

Against the International Style gothic futurism is reanimated for today’s audience through the popular genres of cyberpunk and manga. In stories and films like Neuromancer, Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, spectral entities unleashed by the modern machine haunt dark cities teeming with nocturnal life. The future they evoke is obscure and unknown, totally unlike the well-illuminated destinies guaranteed by the predictable march of progress. (SF: 76)

Against the classical humanist traditions which stemmed from the Greek heritage of a well-ordered cosmos defined and measured to the human form, Gothicism offered an alternative dispensation, instead of the organic representation of nature, the gothic ‘will to form’ exalts in the expression of abstraction. This abstract tendency began with ornamentation and reached its apex in the complex brickwork of Gothic architecture. (SF: 78)

This sense of ornamentation as the ruling principle underlying the gothic futurism of verticality is the emergence of Art Deco. In our own time as Nick Land reminds us this version of the retro-futurist Gothicism found its retun in ‘Decopunk’:

‘Decopunk’ is the sign of a return. Its complexity can seem overwhelming. It folds back, exorbitantly, into that which had already folded into itself. Nothing expresses the cultural tendency of positive cosmopolitanism more completely, more cryptically, or more surreptitiously than the Deco modernist matrix thus re-activated. Its mode of abstraction is inextricable from an ultimate extravagance, intractable to linguistic condensation, and making of decoration a speechless communication, or ecstatic alienation, through which interiority is subtracted. Emerging from the fusion of streamline design trends with fractionated, cubist forms and the findings of comparative ethnography, it exults in cultural variety, arcane symbolism and opulence of reference – concrete colonial epistemology and metropolitan techno-science are equally its inspirations – as it trawls for design motifs among the ancient ruins of Egypt and Mesoamerica, Chinese temples, recursive structures, sphinxes, spirals, ballistic machine-forms, science fiction objects, hermetic glyphs and alien dreams. It is neither language nor anti-language, but rather supplementary, ancillary, or excess code, semiotically-saturated or over-informative, hyper-sensible, deviously circuitous, volubly speechless, muted by its own delirious fluency. It has no specific ideology, but only every ideology. If it ever existed, it always has.2

As Greenspan will explicate as if in contrapuntal agreement the Gothic counters the dominant forms of modernity not through a direct or straightforward critique but rather through a sensibility that is intrinsically alien. The ‘nomadic line invested with abstraction’— to use the name given to it by philosophers Deleuze and Guattari— is both unnatural and non-organic but nevertheless expressive of an intense vitality. The Gothic line is inorganic but alive. Or, to borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase it is ‘all the more alive for being inorganic… This streaming, spiraling, zigzagging, snaking, feverish line of variation liberates a power of life.’ (SF: 78-79)

Land seeing in the various layers of Shanghai’s temporal zones the signs of Decopunk and templexity will tell us that Shanghai decopunk modernity is instantiated as, or at least alongside, a non-verbal philosophical reflex, which seizes the urban time-structure as a self-referential object. It is this silent self-commentary (through which modernity becomes modernist) that connects Deco to the infinite – as unbounded recursive potential – and thus initiates the forward time-loop of Shanghai’s peculiar destiny. Whatever happens henceforth, its return has been anticipated, with mute lucidity, and intricately encrypted within the signs of the city’s high-modern futurism. An ultimate epoch is reached, and scrambled within a retro-silted code. (T: 12)

This sense of antagonism against the organicist Romanticism of the Nineteenth Century is foremost in the gothic futurism of the decopunk revival. “Cyberpunk theorists Bruce Sterling and William Gibson call it ‘atemporal’, since the modern countercurrent it summons is not of a past era but of another type of time. For the Gothic Futurist, then, it is not only the straight line of evolutionary history that produces the City of Tomorrow. An alternate temporality is also at work, forming the modern metropolis.” (SF: 79)

It’s this infusion and tension between two modernities that awakens for us the deepest problems, conflicts, and tendencies  we face in our own era. On the one hand is the progressive time of the liberal democratic order of globalism, with its humanistic traditions and capitalist appeal to enlightenment and reason guiding the world to light worlds of justice and spiritual sweetness. On the other hand is the shadow worlds of a gothic futurism that brings with it a non-linear and non-progressive distanciation of a spectral cosmos of daemonic power and splendor, one that undermines the humanistic organicism and idealism that has sought since the Enlightenment to universalize democracy across the globe.

In linking these ancient patterns with the imagery of the machine age, it generated a highly abstract mode of expression that seemed to unlock a futurism from long ago. Art Deco creates the uncanny suggestion that the cultures of antiquity were already in contact with a far distant time. With ‘the deeply encrypted “language of Art Deco”’, writes Land ‘prophetic traditions inter-mesh with commemorative innovations, automatically hunting the point of fusion in which they become interchangeable, closing the circuit of time. The past was something other than it once seemed, as the present demonstrates, and the present is something other than it might seem, as the past attests.’ (SF: 85)

  1. Greenspan, Anna. Shanghai Future: Modernity Remade (p. 74). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Land, Nick. Templexity: Disordered Loops through Shanghai Time. Urbanatomy Electronic (November 5, 2014)

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