Re-Animator (Part 4)

What does the world make of Shanghai?

If the deepest traditions of the World Expo are those cemented into its origin, it would be incautious to over-hastily dismiss one prominent feature of its inaugural instance. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, held in London, in 1851, was staged in the effective capital of the world. In this case, at least, the defining internationalism of the Expo is difficult to disentangle from the indisputable historical fact that the entire world was rapidly becoming London’s business. In a gesture of reciprocity so perfect that it approached simple identity, London invited the world to itself exactly as – and because – it was inviting itself to the world.

The Great Exhibition made irresistible sense because it put the future of the world on display in the only place that could. To see the concentrated, realistically sifted, programmatically arranged destiny of the earth, it was necessary to visit London, since it was in London that everything came together.

Over its first two decades (and four episodes), World Expo alternated between London (1851, 1862) and Paris (1855, 1867), as if oscillating between the relative historical potencies of maritime and continental power. Yet this apparent hesitation actually compresses and conceals two distinct, complementary, and unambiguous trends. Britain was ascending inexorably to global hegemony, whilst disengaging from World Expo, whilst France was managing equally inexorable comparative decline, as it made World Expo – to a remarkable extent – its special preserve.

It is tempting to propose a theory of institutional consolation to account for this pattern. Long after Britain had abandoned all claim to Expo leadership, France continued to invest heavily in the event, chalking-up a record of Expo hospitality unmatched by any other country and setting the course to Expo institutionalization through the Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE). The BIE, established in 1928, has always been based in Paris, and remains a bastion of Anglo-French bilingualism.

French Expo-enthusiasm expresses a more general relationship to the world system of great importance. Having relinquished its (Napoleonic) role as a challenger to the world order in the early 19th century, France has maneuvered, with unique capability and determination, to remain an indispensable secondary power, or – more precisely – a balancer. Its relationship to the successive phases of Anglophone global hegemony has been guided by an extremely consistent deep policy of accommodation without acquiescence, characterized by imaginative and unrelenting, yet restrained rivalry. Close to the core, yet never quite part of it, France has been able to draw sustenance from the world order whilst contesting its cultural meaning (as English-speaking, protestant, and laissez-faire individualist).

World system challengers, it should be clearly noted, never host World Expos. The Expos held in Japan (Osaka 1970, Tsukuba 1985, Aichi 2005) and Germany (Hanover 2000) took place long after their armed resistance to the Anglo-American world order had been broken and both countries had been beaten into docility. Russia has never hosted one. Moscow of the USSR was offered the 1967 World Expo, but declined it (presumably judging it dangerously destabilizing to a closed society).

World Expo has thus acquired a secondary tradition, as a deliberately eccentric platform from which to contest the core future of the world system, and to propose a pluralized (or embryonically multicultural) alternative. Already in 1855 and 1867, and then in 1878, 1889, 1900, and 1937, World Expo staged the view from Paris, one that accepted the global reality of consolidated, revolutionary modernization, whilst systematically de-emphasizing its techno-commercial determinism and its convergence upon Anglophone cultural traits. Industrial globalization was reconfigured as a condition to be critically interrogated, rather than an opportunity to be vigorously promoted.

Between the primary and secondary impulses of the Expo, collision was inevitable. Predictably enough, the occasion was provided by the reconnection of Expo to the global core.

Even given this truncated and radically simplified schema of Expo history, which had been largely settled in its essentials by 1870, the significance of the two New York World Expos, staged in 1939-40 and 1964-5, comes clearly into focus. Mid-20th century New York, like every world systemic capital, represented the leading edge of modernization as a revolutionary global process — emergence and consolidation of a new world order and new age (novus ordo seclorum) – compared to which the authority of established international institutions counted for nothing.

Both New York Expos flagrantly violated BIE regulations in numerous respects, but even after the withdrawal of official sanction, they ahead anyway. These were, non-coincidentally, the first rogue Expos. They were also among the most memorable and influential in World Expo history.

For the first time since the mid-19th century, Expo had found its way back to the capital of the world, in order to provide an uncompromised and unambiguous foretaste of the World of Tomorrow in the place that was orchestrating it. BIE opinion mattered little, because Expo was not being hosted in New York so much as re-invented, echoing the originality of 1851. This was where the future would come from, and everyone knew it. All that was necessary was to tease the city into anticipating itself, and what resulted was a Futurama.

There was an additional message, easily overlooked due to the scarcity of data-points: hosting World Expo is one of the things the world capital has to do — as a kind of ritual responsibility, or a coming-out party. Shanghai has done that now. Precedent suggests that one additional Expo would be appropriate (perhaps in 2025, or 2030), although it might have to be unsanctioned next time.

Of course, Shanghai is not yet the capital of the world, but it is heading there. From the late-1970s, after centuries of exile and denigration, the offshore, diasporic-maritime, capitalistic China of the tianchao qimin — those ‘abandoned by the Celestial Empire’ – has been steadily, and rapidly, re-integrated with the continental mainland and its ‘market socialist’ structures. Floodgates of talent and investment have been opened, and as this scattered, sea-salt scented population has reconnected with the motherland, the ‘Chinese miracle’ of recent decades has taken place. Shanghai is the main-circuit socket that links this other China — oriented to oceanic trade, entrepreneurial opportunity, capital accumulation, international mobility, and a society of flexible networks — to the vast potentialities of the country (and flexible Sino-Marxist state) lying up the Yangzi, and beyond. If the process of reconnection is not interrupted, the next phase of modernity will be centered in this city, where China meets the sea.

Despite its self-identification as the ‘central country’ (or ‘middle kingdom’ – Zhongguo), China has not been at the core of the world process for centuries. Instead it has been a complacently declining legacy power and a badly-treated outsider, then successively a second-tier affiliate, a truculent challenger, and a cautious balancer, until its prospective status as core inheritor (or virtual hegemon) began to percolate into global popular awareness over the final decades of the 20th century. Very little of this is a matter of motivation, or strategic assertion. Quasi-Marxist assumptions of economic inevitability and directional base-superstructure causation come into their own in this respect. Global leadership is nominated by industrial reality, not political will, and hegemony can neither be perpetuated beyond the endurance of its economic foundations, nor long disdained once such foundations have been laid. Eventually a reality check becomes unavoidable, and policy is hammered into compliance with the demands of world system equilibrium. Core-periphery relations are decided by trade and capital flows, not by political declarations. Since comparative success and failure show no sign at all of disappearing, it can confidently be expected that hierarchical geography – however re-arranged – will not be withering away any time soon. Realists will follow the money.

There will be a new world capital (you can count on it), but will it be Shanghai? It would be reckless to presume so. The world system tradition, in its eagerness to anoint Tokyo as the successor to New York (during the 1980s), provides a cautionary lesson. There was no Tokyo World Expo, and it turns out that there was not an urgent or essential need for one.

So, is Shanghai next? That should have been the animating question of Expo 2010, and perhaps it will have been in the future. The whole world has a stake in it, because it tells us what is coming, and that is what World Expo was designed to do. For an emerging world capital to mask itself as a generic city passes beyond modesty into a species of accidental deception, but tact can easily be confused with pretence – especially by those on unfamiliar cultural terrain. It might be that Shanghai said everything that was necessary in 2010, and that what it said will eventually be heard, and understood.

Expo begins again in each new world capital, in 1851, in 1939, and – far more problematically – in 2010 (?). In Shanghai’s case, we are still too close to the event, and too entangled in the current revolution of modernity, to know for sure. What Expo 2010 will have been depends upon what the world becomes, how its center of economic gravity shifts, how its new center condenses, and what it makes of Shanghai.

(final lurch into this fog-bank coming next (yippee!))

[Tomb]
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Re-Animator (Part 3)

What makes a great city?

By far the most interesting element of World Expo 2010: Shanghai, was Shanghai. Whilst deeply-rooted regional traditions of courtesy sustained the fiction that this World Fair was about the world, it really wasn’t. Whatever the diplomatic benefits of the almost universally convenient internationalist pretense, to China and Expo’s foreign participants alike, Expo 2010 was about Shanghai, and for Shanghai. The Expo was global because Shanghai is, it was about China because Shanghai is China’s gateway to the world, it was about cities in order to be even more about Shanghai, nobody uninterested in Shanghai paid it the slightest attention, and Shanghai used it to restructure, intensify, and promote itself.

Expo as an institution was in decline before 2010, and continues to decline. Shanghai was rising before 2010, and continues to rise, but now infrastructurally upgraded, thoroughly renovated, and decorated with the historical merit-badge of Expo hospitality. Better City, Better Life, a typically airy and aspirational Expo theme, is a cold-sober description of the Expo-effect in Shanghai.

Cities are, in certain important respects, generic. There is such a thing as ‘the city in general’ as the work of Geoffrey West, in particular, has demonstrated. We know, thanks to West, that cities are negative organisms, with consistent scaling characteristics that structurally differentiate them from animals and corporations. As they grow they accelerate and intensify at a quantifiable and predictable rate, exhibiting increasing returns to scale (in sharp contrast to animals and businesses, which slow down in proportion to their size). Organisms and firms die normally and by necessity, cities only rarely and by accident.

Cities belong to a real genre, but they are also singularities, undergoing spontaneous individuation. In fact, they are generically singular – singular without exception – like black holes. It is not only that no city is like another, no city can be like another, and this is a feature that all cities share, arguably more than any other.

Beyond such generic singularity, there is an additional level of enhanced differentiation that emerges from the position cities occupy within larger systems. These systems are not only internally specialized, but also hierarchical, dividing core from periphery, and distributing influence unevenly between them. Ultimately, within the fully global incarnation of the ‘world system’, cities acquire secondary metropolitan characteristics, to very different degrees, in accordance with their geographical and functional proximity to the center of the world. They transcend their local histories, to become hubs or nodes in a global network that re-characterizes them as parts of a whole rather than wholes made of parts, as metropolis-versus-periphery rather than (or on top of) metropolis-versus-town.

The geographical structure and historical instability of modernity’s core-periphery architecture has been the focus of the ‘world system theory’ developed from the Annales School of Fernand Braudel (1902-85) by Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-) and – most impressively — Giovanni Arrighi (1937-2009). According to the world system theorists, the revolutions that matter most are not national regime changes, such as those in France (1789) and Russia (1917), but rather global re-organizations that mark out the basic phases of modern history, jolting the world into new core-periphery structures. Modernity has undergone four of these shifts up to the present, with each phase lasting for a ‘long century’, introducing a new core state, or hegemon, with enhanced capabilities, and a new urban center – successively, Venice, Amsterdam, London, and New York – that operate as an effective capital of the world.

As the example of New York attests, this status is not primarily political. Nor does prominence in manufacturing seem to be a relevant factor (the ‘world capital’ has never been the dominant industrial center of its respective region or state). Over the course of modern history to date, the crucial features of the world capital seem to be that it is the largest urban agglomeration in the leading (‘hegemonic’) region or state; that it is an established financial center that quite rapidly attains a position of global pre-eminence in this respect; that it is an open port city with clear maritime orientation; and that it has an exceptionally internationalized demographic profile, with a large segment of internationally-mobile, opportunistic residents. A significant period of leadership in the creative arts might plausibly be added to this list. Functionally, the world capital serves as the supreme nerve-center of the global economy, specialized nationally, and then super-specialized internationally, as the financial, logistics, and business services hub of a system whose global integrity is reflected in the city’s privileged singularity.

The exceptional drama of our age lies in its nature as a time of transition between phases of modernity, somewhere in the winter of a long century, when an epoch of hegemony is exhausted. More specifically, the walls are closing in on the American Age, as commentators of almost every intellectual and ideological stripe are increasingly aware. Overstretched, essentially bankrupted, politically paralyzed and disillusioned, America sinks into self-conscious crisis, its mood dark and clouded. It would be a mistake to limit attention to America, however, because the crisis is world-systemic, heralding the end of an international order that arose among the chaos of the world wars and achieved definition in the post-WWII United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, World Bank, and the descendent of GATT, now the WTO). It affects not only the role of the US dollar as international reserve currency, an Atlantic-centered NATO and an Occidentally-skewed UN apparatus, but also the European Union, the post-colonial Middle Eastern state-system and (very) much else besides.

Over the next two decades, under the impact of economic forces of extreme profundity (far exceeding the responsive capacity of existing institutions), a revolutionary re-ordering of the world can be expected to unfold. If America succeeds in maintaining its position of leadership within the global system for a period that significantly exceeds the long 20th century (which began no earlier than 1914, and thus might be expected to persist for some additional years), it will have broken a pattern that has remained consistent throughout a half-millennium of history. Whilst not strictly impossible, perpetuation of the present hegemonic order would be, quite literally, a stretch.

Another vision of a break from historical precedent, this time transparently utopian, envisages – rather than the continuation of US pre-eminence — the obsolescence of the core-periphery global structure in its entirety, ending hierarchical geography and hegemony in general. Even If such a vision truly rises to the level of a definite expectation (rather than a nebulous exercise in wishful thinking), it remains ungrounded in reliable historical and theoretical foundations. Altruistic political intentions – were such ever credible – would still be quite insufficient to overcome the spontaneous, dynamic trend to approximate world systemic equilibrium, in which a core zone, and its metropolitan capital, are automatically nominated, by diffuse economic currents searching for a central clearing house.

Whilst no doubt deeply disappointing to utopian eschatology, and to all dreams of historical conclusion (or passage to the promised land), phase-shifts in the world-system are less ominous than they are often depicted as being. Among Arrighi’s most important insights is the reminder that whenever an attempted reconstruction of the world order has been based upon a frontal military and geo-strategic challenge to the hegemon, it has failed. This is exemplified, above all, by the German and Russian histories of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which repeated direct confrontations with the established Anglophone-dominated international system led only to frustration, regime collapse, and subaltern re-integration.

Perhaps ironically, a marked subjective aversion to hard power assertion and the assumption of hegemony can be quite reliably taken as a positive indicator for the objective emergence of hegemonic status. Holland, Great Britain, and the United States of America were all, in certain crucial respects, accidental imperialists, whose successive ascents to world dominance shared a prioritization of commercial motives, retarded state involvement, strong ‘isolationist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ cultural currents, and a determined avoidance of ‘Clauswitzean’ decisive collision (especially with the prior hegemon). The British and American ways of war, in particular, are notable for their common emphasis upon hedging and triangulation, such as the exploitation of offshore position and maritime supremacy to avoid premature entanglement in high intensity ‘continental’ conflicts, the usage of financial and logistic capability to manipulate conflicts at a distance, and the diplomatic inclusion of defeated adversaries in reconstructed, poly-centric, ‘balanced’ systems of power. Hegemony was, in each case, peacefully inherited, even when it was cemented by war (in partnership with the previous hegemon) and later gave rise to opportunities for increasingly aggressive imperialistic adventurism.

Given this broadly uncontroversial historical pattern, it is all the more surprising that the German example is so widely invoked in discussions of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. In fact, China’s ascent has stuck far closer to the model of hegemonic hand-overs than to that of confrontational challenges, as indicated by the prioritization of commercial development, the highly cooperative (even synergistic or ‘Chimerican’) relationship with the prevailing hegemon, the gradual accumulation of financial power by way of spontaneous, systemic re-distribution, and the equally gradual consolidation of maritime interests, emerging out of the global trading system, which draw the focus of government strategic policy – perhaps reluctantly – from domestic concerns out into the high-seas.

Historically, China has been far more a continental than a maritime power, and this fact provides the single most persuasive objection to the assumption of an impending Chinese (Long) Century. The emergence of a continental world system core would be as decisive a departure from precedent as any yet discussed, and if such a possibility is entertained, disciplined prediction falters. If inverted, however, this problem becomes a forecast in itself: the trajectory of China’s rise necessarily implies its transformation into a maritime power (an insight already tacit in the controversial 1988 Chinese TV series River Elegy).

A vague intuition, partially but elusively crystallized by Expo 2010, is now precipitated by sheer historical pattern-recognition into the form of an explicit question:

Is Shanghai destined to become the capital of the world?
(Part 4 to come)

[Tomb]

Re-Animator (Part 2)

Expo transformers – the uninvited guests

What was inside the UK national pavilion at Expo 2010? Did anyone get in there? Maybe they could pass on the inside dope? Because one thing is for sure, if ‘Anglosphere’ cultural resonances mean anything, expectations can be pitched down to sub-basement levels. Like the UK, Australia did a good — even excellent job – with the outside of its pavilion, but its exhibition was, to be brutally frank, a disgrace. Vacuous, patronizing, revoltingly sentimental, and despicably cowardly – details would be nice, of course, but actually there weren’t any — it served to perfectly illustrate the collapse of Expo, from a festival of dynamic modernization to a whining indulgence in modernity’s most destructive cultural pathologies. Where once an exhibition, whether corporate or national, boldly declared: “This is what we’re doing (isn’t it magnificent?),” now they exhaust their attenuated energies exploring new, although consistently unimaginative, ways of saying “sorry.” Narcissistic guilt flaps pointlessly about the exhibition space like a shoal of stranded fish, dying on a beach.

Incredibly, the USA pavilion was even worse. Not only was the pavilion itself a prefabricated strip-mall insult, unworthy of comparison with a second-tier Wallmart, but the exhibition inside took the obsequious pandering of the Australians to a whole new level. We wanted a space shuttle or a predator drone and they gave us Hillary Clinton saying “ni hao” plus some nonsense about planting flower-beds in the ghetto. Anyone who left this pavilion without deep and abiding detestation for everything America represented itself as being probably thinks Barney is a pretty cool guy. This was the society once capable of staging the Chicago Expo of 1893, the New York Expos of 1939-40 and 1964-5, of making incredible things and exhibiting them, of depicting a compelling vision of the future, and now … morbid Spenglerian reflections were inescapable.

Wandering amongst these monuments to misdirection, bland meaninglessness, sugary PR, and piteous ‘please-don’t-hate-me’ concessions to the strident anti-modernist moralism of the age – which is to say, to sheer, ruinous decadence — consciousness pixilated out into semi-random dot-pattern, swirled kaleidoscopically by a storm of frustration that could only be relieved by barking out at the local Expo authorities, and beyond them at the city, country, and region that was hosting this event “Could you please stop being so danged polite!”

The West is obviously spiraling down the drain, and what it needs, above anything, is some inspiring competition. In particular, and in 2010, it needed a western Pacific Rim, full-throttle development, blazing-a-path-to-the-future Expo that – purely by inevitable implication – maximized the humiliation of the senescent ‘developed’ world and jolted it with the roughest imaginable type of tough love from its path of decline. (Of course, the societies most in need of this shock therapy are too lost in the enthralling minutiae of their own degeneration to have noticed it, but still …) Instead, Expo 2010 remained scrupulously courteous, deferential to deeply decayed Expo traditions, and respectful of the multicultural piety that even the most wretched examples of systematic social failure have a dignity of their own. What it lacked was a massive injection of pure, unselfconscious, ethno-historical arrogance, based on unmoderated confidence in what was being achieved.

Perhaps this can be stated even more offensively: modernization should make people feel bad. Its most altruistic or epidemic function is to so thoroughly deride and humiliate all of those who are failing to modernize that eventually, after every excuse and projection has been attempted and exhausted, behavior is changed. Backwardness is made shameful, and thus corrected. That’s how history works. It began that way among the jig-saw principalities of Renaissance Europe, it worked that way in Japan (bringing modernization with the Meiji restoration), in China, long denigrated for its ‘stagnant Confucianism’, now big mummy of the Dragon economies, in India, finally lashed psychologically out of its absurd ‘Hindu rate of growth’ by the China model, and everywhere else that has ever climbed out of complacent sloth onto the developmental fast track. It’s long overdue to start happening in the West, because what has been happening there — for the best part of a century now — simply isn’t working, and this chronic social failure is nowhere near clear, painful, or embarrassing enough to the populations concerned.

Nothing would be better for the West than to have its nose rubbed in its own decay, the more abusively and insensitively the better. In order to accelerate the process, the entire treasure chest of colonial condescension should be re-opened and rummaged through, searching for whatever will best aggravate, provoke, and catalyze transformation, perhaps with strong insinuations of racial and cultural inferiority thrown in for spice. The lesson of history is that the human species is comfortable with inertia, and generally more than happy to gradually degenerate. One of the few things that ever stops people, and turns them around, is the transparent contempt trickling down from other, more dynamic societies. If Expo needs a ‘social dimension’, that’s it.

No doubt 2010 is still too recent for alternative or counter-factual history, for an Expo-punk (or X-punk) genre, searching out everything that might have been re-animated through the event — but the venture is irresistible. Call it Asia Unleashed 2010, an utterly impolite assertion of new socio-geographical realities that expresses, in raw and overwhelming style, the central truth of the age: the simultaneous de-westernization and radical re-invigoration of modernity.

Asia Unleashed could have borrowed heavily from the actual Expo 2010, adopting almost everything that was created by the host, in fact, and much else beside. The China Pavilion, Theme Pavilions, Urban Best Practices Area, Expo Cultural Center, Expo Center, Expo Boulevard, Expo Museum, and site landscaping, as well as the Shipping Pavilion, GM/SAIC Pavilion and exhibition, Telecoms Pavilion, Oil Pavilion, Shanghai Corporate Pavilion with all its stuff, Coca Cola Pavilion, plenty of the international pavilion designs, and even a few of the internal exhibitions … all keepers. What gets laughed out are the schmaltzy public relations videos, the sorry, sorry, really truly sorry song and dance act, the weren’t we awful performance, the Kumbaya Pavilion, the Environmental Hypersensitivity Pavilion, the Victimological Grievance Pavilion, the Beyond Growth Pavilion, the There Must Be A Gentler Way Pavilion, any national or corporate pavilion without exhibition objects (roughly half), almost everything bearing the imprint of tourist boards, media studies graduates, or diplomatic services, and every usage of solar panels that isn’t strictly tailored to commercial exploitation on a massive scale. In addition, any national pavilion based entirely on ethnic kitsch gets grouped together with others of its kind in an exotic tourism area, because it’s admitting to a complete absence of creative capability and needs to be mocked. No robots, no platform: that’s the rule.

Asia Unleashed also needs a lot of things brought in, most of all machines. Expo is all about machines, even though every Expo over the last half-century has been pitifully deficient in this regard. It scarcely needs mentioning that the entire Expo site should be pulsing, crawling, and twitching with robots of every type and scale, from industrial goliaths, automated submarines and space vehicles, through charismatic androids, to intelligent household appliances, Go players, robopets, and insectiform mechanisms. To push the process along, those countries and corporations with the laziest robot exhibits can be publicly ridiculed over the PA system.

Expo is an exhibition, and its historical sickness is perfectly tracked by the degeneration of this elementary conception into PR. Organizers at all levels, from the pinnacle of the international Expo bureaucracy (BIE) downwards, clearly need to be forcefully reminded of the difference. For instance, video technology is an entirely suitable object for Expo display, and videos themselves can quite appropriately play a supportive, informative role. To center an ‘exhibition’ upon videos, however, especially when they have been put together, using state-of-the-art advertising techniques, with the entire purpose of selling a national or corporate brand through image associations and spin, is a complete abnegation of responsibility and should straightforwardly be banned, or at least boycotted, derided, and rendered ineffective through inundating contempt. The only acceptable center of an Expo display is an object, preferably astonishing, fetched from the outer edge of industrial capability in order to concretely represent the trajectory of material progress. Displaying such objects – and thereby respecting audiences sufficiently to evaluate them for themselves – is the non-negotiable, basic function of Expo as an institution. If it can no longer accept this task, it should be terminated (by a giant robot, if possible).

Asia Unleashed is dedicated to the latest and impending phases of global industrial civilization, which should be more-or-less implicit in the fact that it is a World Expo, although sadly, it isn’t. There’s plenty of room for artworks and other singular cultural creations, but the emphasis is edgily modernistic. Green technology gets in because it’s technology, and the tourism industry gets in because it’s an industry, but in both cases the spin-meisters have been reined back hard, and the preliminary question insistently raised: “What, really, are you exhibiting here?” The only organizers who get to avoid such suspicious interrogations are the ones overseeing the erection of some fabulous structure that looks as if it comes from the set of a science fiction movie, or unloading partially-animated assemblages of glistening metal from mountainous stacks of shipping containers, because – clearly – they understand what an Expo is all about. The cyclopean space elevator anchor station, taking shape in the Extraterrestrial Resources Exploitation Zone, serves as a model for the guiding spirit of the festival. The machinery in the 3D printing pavilion printed the pavilion.

The mining industry employs monster trucks weighing 203 tonnes, with a capacity to carry 360 tonnes, they cost US$3 million each, their tires are four-meters in diameter, and driving one is like “driving a house” – why on earth didn’t Expo 2010 have one? Asia Unleashed most certainly would. For developed countries with the resources to put on an impressive show at Expo there needs to be something like a price for admission, and an awe-inspiring piece of industrial machinery fits the bill exactly. The Canadian tar sands are being criss-crossed by these monster trucks, and the Canada national pavilion should have been strongly advised to bring one over. Instead they brought … (hands up if anyone remembers).

All the imagination that has been squandered over decades in utopian speculations of the “another world is possible” type has been far more productively employed at Asia Unleashed, counter-balancing the tendency of advanced industrial capabilities to flee from the arena of spectacle. The monumental achievements and consequences of intensely miniaturized and softened technologies demand exhibition, from silicon chip fabrication, gene sequencing, and rudimentary nanotechnology, to cryptosystems, social networks, digital microfinance, and virtual architecture, even as they slip through their inner inexorable logic into invisibility. To present these frontiers of industrial capability rapidly, dramatically, and memorably to a highly-diverse, transient Expo audience requires the application of creative intelligence on a massive scale. The growing challenges of this task are worthy of the rising computer-augmented talents brought to bear upon it.

Asia Unleashed never happened, of course, partly because the international Expo institutional apparatus is locked into the Occidental death-slide, but mostly because it would have been impolite. Ultimately, postmodernist multicultural political correctness – today’s hegemonic globalist ideology — is an elaborate etiquette, designed to prevent the ‘insensitive’ identification and diagnosis of failure, and to elude, indefinitely, the blunt statement: “What you’re doing doesn’t work.” No Expo that remained true to its deep institutional traditions could avoid such a statement arising, implicitly, through contrast. Hence, Expo has been condemned to die, by inertial forces too profound for Expo 2010 to fully arrest, let alone reverse: Better decayed than rude.

From the wreckage of the Expo institution, however, Expo 2010 was able to extract, polish, and resuscitate a crucial modernist topic: the city as engine of progress. More on that in Part 3.

[Tomb]

Re-Animator (Part 1)

Can Expo live again?

Different truths are ‘harsh’ to different people. For Chinese, one truth so harsh that it escaped public recognition at the moment where it most mattered is that almost nobody, outside the country, cared very much about the 2010 World Expo. By the time China eagerly but belatedly seized its chance to take up the torch for this global festival of modern civilization, Expo’s epoch of radiant significance had passed. Harsher still: this was the basic fact, and principal conditioning reality of the event, rippling with ominous implications for the future of modernity and the international response to China’s re-awakening. Ameliorating it are more shadowy, contrary truths – first among them that Shanghai had already discounted a tired world’s Expo indifference, and worked around it, in order to make the event into an opportunity for something else, and for itself.

The history of World Expo, from London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, is too abundantly documented to rehearse here. The basic pattern, however, is not difficult to outline, since it conforms to a relatively smooth curve from meteoric rise (1851-1940) into gradual decay (1958 onwards), almost perfectly tracking the trajectory of modernist optimism, from its ignition in the promethean forge of industrial revolution through to its expiry in postmodern / postcolonial cynicism, elite masochism, and apologia.

Importantly, this has remained an essentially Western story, despite the consistent globalism of its cultural ambitions. The ascent of Western, globalizing, industrial capitalism, in its European and American waves, was reflected in World Exhibitions of heart-stopping glory. The crisis and decline of the West – both relative and absolute — has thrown the event into marginality, neglect, and self-doubt, clasped in the death-grip of an embittered and self-mortifying anti-modernism. Most crucially — and astoundingly — the long-evident dawning of the historical revitalizing and frenetically modernizing ‘Asian Century’ seems to have had a negligible impact upon the declinist ‘Grand Narrative’ incarnated in World Expo, which has plunged ever deeper into twitchily gesticulating, hypersensitive panic at the supposed social and environmental calamity of modernistic growth.

The irony of this situation merits explicit emphasis. Precisely when globalization shifted from questionable aspiration and ideology to definite historical fact, with the emergence of robust, non-Western economic development cores, first in Pacific East Asia, then South Asia, and beyond, the project of cosmopolitan modernization underwent a seemingly irremediable delegitimation in the court of approved ‘world’ opinion. Apparently, if the West cannot any longer strut across the world stage with invincible and unchallenged confidence, the only acceptable alternative option is hair-shirts for all. If this epitome of triumphant dog-in-the-manger resentment does not exemplify ‘cultural hegemony’ at its most potent and most toxic, it is hard to imagine what might.

An overwhelming abundance of public evidence attests to the implacable momentum of Expo degeneration, although most of this data resists tidy quantification. Since the end of World War II, the original purpose of the event, which was to promote industrial modernization worldwide through a comprehensive public exhibition of advanced productive technologies, structural engineering, manufactures, and commodities, has been progressively phased-out, to be replaced by an agenda that reflects the concerns of inter-governmental bureaucracies, national diplomatic services, and tourism boards. Public relations displays have been systematically substituted for technological exhibitions, and the number of significant mechanical and product innovations achieving popular exposure through Expo – once substantial — has fallen to near-zero. Expo themes have been steadily stripped of their associations with accumulative materialism and refashioned into earnest exhortations for moral and social transformation, as an event that was initially designed to celebrate modernity has increasingly come to apologize for it. Predictably enough, this bureaucratically-alchemized transmutation of a festival into lament has been accompanied by a precipitous collapse of popular interest and engagement. Audiences that once flooded in to catch a vision of the future, now avoid an event that musters all the allure of a United Nations teach-in.

In the West, this is all tediously familiar. Scarcely anyone pays attention to Expo anymore, or cares much about it. Perhaps most, if jolted into an opinion on the matter, would vaguely approve of the politically correct course the event has taken, although not sufficiently, of course, to ever entertain the prospect of attending one. After all, few Westerners believe in modernity anymore, world trends distress them, and Expo seems roughly as relevant to their anxieties as the prospect of Mars colonization.

In the East, things are more puzzling. Societies undergoing rapid modernistic development make natural Expo hosts, as demonstrated consistently throughout the history of the event. There has never been a great World Expo that has not broadly corresponded to a moment of exceptional national and urban flourishing. Why, then, has Expo not undergone a profound Asiatic revitalization, restoring it to former glories? Why has the western Pacific Rim not captured Expo, re-tooling it into a promotional vehicle for its own developmental prospects, as America did in the early 20th century?

Weighed by sheer visitor numbers, the two largest World Expos in history have been East Asian. Yet the moribund, guilt-wracked pathos of Occidental decline continues to dominate the event. Japan spent its Expo 1970 attempting to prove that it could out-do even the West in growth-sapping sanctimoniousness (as its economy would later demonstrate), whilst the mood in post-Expo 2010 Shanghai seems remarkably devoid of any euphoric sense of accomplishment, and more akin to that which might be expected from a group of schoolchildren freshly escaped from an abnormally-uninspired six-month lecture on ethically-guided behavioral rectification, delivered by an international Mandarinate. Having just executed the largest discrete event in human history, the predominant feelings are dutiful relief and anticlimax, numbed by something like deliberate amnesia. In any case, there’s Shanghai to get on with, so why waste time remembering Expo? Doesn’t that just stink up the joint with the odor of Western death?

(Some suggestions, tentative answers, still more downside, and a lot more upside, to come.)

[Tomb]