Suspended Animation (Part 4)

Playing for time

By the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium, the world had begun to adapt itself to a problem that had tortured it in the 1930s, and deformed it subsequently — that of sub-optimal equilibrium. The practical significance of this idea is difficult to exaggerate.

As a rigorous economist, Henry Hazlitt was theoretically entitled – and even compelled – to savagely deride the Keynesian model of ‘low-employment equilibrium’, and to painstakingly explain that it did not describe an equilibrium of any kind (in economic terms). Yet such attacks, like those of the Austrians more generally, have been of slight consequence, since Keynes was not in any strongly defensible sense an economist, but rather a political economist, in both of the obvious ways this expression can be understood. His bad equilibrium did not reflect the operation of market forces, but rather, the workings of the market under a specific conception of politically realistic circumstances, and the ‘analysis’ of the General Theory was less a technically rigorous description of events than a political prescription for action, keenly attentive to the opportunities and constraints affecting its application, or transition into policy.

Keynes defined the political spirit of the second half of the 20th century, first in the West, and later more widely, by normalizing the pre-eminence of the state in economic affairs, and by subordinating the idea of economic self-correction to political considerations. The role of the new political economy, now technocratically mainstreamed as economic policy, was to route around labor markets, which could never be expected to work efficiently, since downside corrections were judged politically unacceptable. Pure economics was ended, or at least utterly marginalized, by the recognition that labor could opt out of the game, kick over the table, and refuse to play the commodity. Market-clearing labor pricing became an abstract (and, for Keynesians, risible) conception, oblivious to the realities of popular democratic politics, and – in extremis – the potential for Marxian revolution.

Hence the consensus-building sympathy for the Keynesian approach on the establishment right, where it was interpreted as a bulwark against Marxist temptations, and also the deep antipathy it elicited on the anti-establishment right, where it was (no less realistically) understood as a pre-emptive concession to socialism. On the left, a comparable schism was evident, between those who embraced it as a curtailment of capitalism, and those who denounced it as an ersatz socialism, designed for conservative convenience. The Keynesian ‘middle’ has been the decisive political reality of the 20th century, and its multiple ideological meanings still organize every major axis of socio-economic controversy.

When labor markets are locked on the downside – through macroeconomic recognition and political petrification of their ‘stickiness’ – some kind of socio-economic ratchet mechanism is automatically produced. To an extent, capital can flee into informalization (for instance illegal immigrant labor), or international labor arbitrage, intensifying the trend to out-sourcing and globalization. More central, however, are the twin macro-tendencies Keynes focused upon: towards fiscal and monetary compensations, based on demand management and the exploitation of ‘money illusion’ (or attachment to nominal income). Fiscal stimulus can be undertaken in an attempt to elevate demand, until it reaches a point of artificial equilibrium commensurate with labor price levels (thus clearing unemployment). Alternatively, or in concert, money supply can be expanded – and currency degraded – to facilitate real wage decreases despite nominal stickiness.

Essentially, that’s it. There’s no other ammo in the macroeconomic arsenal. This is remarkable given the fact that both fiscal and monetary adjustments are mere tricks, and not even sophisticated tricks, but quite straightforward attempts at confidence manipulation that anybody with ‘rational expectations’ sees through immediately, thus neutralizing them. On the monetary side this is especially obvious — and well-attested historically. Once inflationary expectations have become entrenched, they become the staple topic of wage negotiations, as was seen in the 1970s. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that workers are indifferent to inflationary wage depreciation. ‘Money illusion’ – insofar as it exists at all – is basically a one-off scam, harvested in the brief period when a long-established reputation for responsible currency management is thrown in the trash. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice isn’t going to happen. Basing economic policy on this is the cheapest kind of street hustle (and few would any longer admit to trying it in public).

Stimulus isn’t much better. Real demand is ultimately exchange, and thus derivative from supply. Nobody can (economically) demand anything, without having something to offer in return – that’s Say’s Law, and it’s theoretically impregnable, because it’s elementary common sense. The only way to steer around it is conjuring, by extracting demand from one part of the economy invisibly, and re-inserting it conspicuously somewhere else. This kind of magic can get quite Byzantine, so it tends to reach exhaustion more slowly than monetary abuse, but its foundations in sustainable economic reality are no more secure. Once taxpayers acknowledge government debts as liabilities (future tax payments) that have already been virtually deducted from their spending power, the game is over. Since a plausible model for (expansive) fiscal policy exhaustion is sovereign debt crisis, it is not unreasonable to begin drawing the curtains already.

Given the exponential trend of social history, most of what has ever happened has taken place since the Great Depression began, and during this time the world has inhabited — more or less consciously — a deliberately constructed system of illusion, or confidence trick. Whether analyzed from the left or the right, the most striking feature of this situation has been inadequately apprehended, or even interrogated: how has it persisted? How can something that is transparently [insert epithet] unworkable last for over 80 [insert triple epithet] years?

Eighty years is a pretty good human life-span. Someone could easily expend their life within the Keynesian dream-palace, literally living a lie, with the implication that whatever importance ‘reality’ might have in theory, it need have almost nothing to do with us. We can miss it completely, caught up in a magic show that exceeds our longevity, half-hypnotized by illusions that no one really believes in, but which suffice to put things off, and off, and off, and … in the long run we are all dead. Who cares about a truth that never arrives? A magic trick that lasts your whole life is your life. Scarcely anybody alive today has known anything else.

And it’s all going to be over real soon … honestly …


Calendric Dominion (Part 6)


At the beginning of the 21st century, global cultural hegemony is on the move. For roughly 500 years, Western — and later more specifically Anglophone — societies and agencies have predominantly guided the development of the current world system. As their economic pre-eminence wanes, their cultural and political influence can be expected to undergo a comparable decline. In the early stages of the coming transition, however, the terminal form of active Western cultural hegemony – multicultural political correctness (MPC) – is well-positioned to manage the terms of the retreat. By reconfiguring basic Western religious and political themes as a systematic sensitization to unwarranted privilege, MPC is able to distance itself from its own heritage and to live on, in the resentment of ‘the other’, as if it were the neutral adjudicator of disputes it had no part in.

When MPC turns its attention to the Gregorian (or Western Christian) Calendar it is, of course, appalled. But it is also stuck. What could be more insensitive to cultural diversity than an ecumenical date-counting system, rooted in the ethnic peculiarities of Greek-phase Abrahamic religion, which unapologetically celebrates its triumph in the uncompromising words Anno Domini? Yet global convergence demands a standard, no alternative calendar has superior claims to neutrality, and, in any case, the inertial juggernaut of large-scale complex systems – ‘lock-in’ or ‘path-dependency’ – pose barriers to switching that seem effectively insuperable. The solution proposed by MPC to this conundrum is so feeble that it amounts to the completion of Gregorian Calendric Dominion, which is to be simultaneously rephrased (politely) and acknowledged in its irresistible universality as the articulation of a ‘Common Era’.

MPC supplants problems of cultural power with obfuscatory etiquette, and in absolute terms, its smug dishonesty is difficult to like. As a relative phenomenon, however, its appeal is more obvious, since radical ‘solutions’ to Gregorian Calendric Dominion, re-beginning at Year Zero, have generally reverted to mass murder. Lacking persuasive claims to a new, fundamental, and universally acknowledged historical break, they have substituted terror for true global singularity, as if fate could be blotted out in blood.

Since resentment gets nowhere, whether in its mild (MPC) or harsh (killing fields) variants, it is worth entertaining alternative possibilities. These begin with attention to real cultural differences, rather than mere ‘cultural diversity’ as it presents itself to the vacuously MPC-processed mind. Soon after Shanghai had been selected as host city for World Expo 2010 (in December 2002), countdowns started. For Westerners, these probably had space-age associations, triggering memories of the countdowns to ‘blast off’ that were popularized by the Apollo Program, and subsequent science fiction media. It is far from impossible that Chinese shared in these evocations, although they were also able to access a far deeper – which is to say civilizationally fundamental – reservoir of reference. That is because Chinese time typically counts down, modeled, as it is, on the workings of water clocks. The Chinese language systematically describes previous as ‘above’ (shang) and next as ‘beneath’ (xia), conforming to an intuition of time as descent. Time is counted down as it runs out, from an elevated hydraulic body into the sunken future that receives it.

Duration not only flows, it drips. Perhaps, then, an ‘orientalization’ of calendric perception and organization is something that significantly exceeds a simple (or even exceedingly difficult) renegotiation of beginnings. Re-beginning might be considered largely irrelevant to the problem, at least when compared to the re-orientation from an original to a terminal Year Zero. Whilst not exactly a transition in the direction of time, such a change would involve a transition in the direction of time intuition, simultaneously surpassing the wildest ambitions of calendrical re-origination and subtly organizing itself ‘within the pores’ of the established order of time. As modeled by the 2010 Expo, and previously by Y2K, the switch to countdown time does not frontally challenge, or seek to straightforwardly replace, the calendric order in being. Rather than counting in the same way, from a different place, it counts in a different way, within the framework of time already in place. It is a revolution with ‘Chinese characteristics’, which is to say: a surreptitious insurgency, changing what something already was, rather than replacing it with something else.

Both the 2010 Expo and Y2K also reveal the extreme difficulty of any such transition, since a futural Year Zero, or countdown calendar, must navigate the arrow of time and its cognitive asymmetry (between knowledge of the past and of the future), presupposing exact, confident, and consensual prediction.

That is why it approximates so closely to conservative acceptance. If the countdown is to be sure of arriving at the scheduled terminus, the destination ‘event’ must already be a date (rather than an empirical ‘happening’). Nothing will suffice except a strictly arithmetical, rigorously certain inevitability, as inescapably pre-destined as the year 2000, or 2010, which cannot but come. From the perspective of the countdown calendar, that is what (Gregorian) Calendric Dominion will have been for. It is an opportunity to program an inevitable arrival.

But when? The sheer passage (fall) of time has assured that the opportunity for calendric revolution presented by the Y2K ‘millennium bug’ has been irretrievably missed (so that AD 1900 ≠ 0). The same is true of World Expo 2010, an event without pretense to be anything beyond a miniature ‘practice’ model of global-temporal singularity. As for the real (techno-commercial) Singularity – that is an imprecise historical prediction, at once controversial and incapable of supporting exact prediction.

A more appropriate prospect is suggested by the science fiction writer Greg Bear, in his novel Queen of Angels, set in anticipation of the mid-21st century ‘binary millennium’ (2048 = 2¹¹). This is a formally suitable, purely calendric ‘event’, deriving its significance from arithmetic rather than ideology or uncertain prophecy. He even envisages it as a moment of insurgent revolution, when artificial intelligence arises surreptitiously, and unnoticed. Yet arbitrariness impairs this date (why the 11th power of 2?), and no serious attempt is made to explain its rise to exceptional cultural prominence.

If an adjusted global culture is to converge upon a countdown date, it must be obvious, intrinsically compelling, and ideologically uncontroversial, in other words, spontaneously plausible. The target that World Expo 2010 suggests (anagrammatically) is AD 2100, a date that performs the final stages of a countdown (2, 1, 0 …). Reinforcing this indication, the Y2K ‘millennium bug’ threatened to re-set the date of AD 2000 to AD 1900, which would have tacitly reiterated itself at the exact end of the 21st century. If it continues to chatter about the calendar, perhaps this is how.

The impending Mayan Apocalypse, scheduled for 21 / 12 / 2012, offers a preliminary chance to indulge in a festival of countdown numbers – like 2010, it looks a lot like another digital singularity simulation. If the morning of December 22nd, 2012, leaves the world with nothing worse than a hangover, it could gradually settle into a new sense of the Years Remaining (to the end of all the time that counts, or the 21st century).

AD 2100 = 0 YR

AD 2099 = 1 YR

AD 2098 = 2 YR

AD 2096 = 4 YR

AD 2092 = 8 YR

AD 2084 = 16 YR

AD 2068 = 32 YR

AD 2036 = 64 YR

AD 1972 = 128 YR

AD 1844 = 256 YR

AD 1588 = 512 YR

AD 1076 = 1024 YR

AD 52 = 2048 YR

It’s difficult to anticipate what it looks like from the other side.

[No actual tomb, but retrieved from this]

Calendric Dominion (Part 4)

A Digression into the Reality Principle

Between the world we would like to inhabit, and the world that exists, there’s a gap that tests us. Even the simplest description of this gap already calls for a decision. ‘Ideologies’ in the broadest, and culturally almost all-consuming sense, serve primarily to soften it. Sense, and even compassion, is attributed to the side of reality, promising ultimate reconciliation between human hopes and desires and the ‘objective’ nature of things. Science, a typically despised and misanthropic discipline, tends to the opposite assumption, emphasizing the harsh indifference of reality to human interests and expectations, with the implication that the lessons it teaches us can be administered with unlimited brutality. We can dash ourselves against reality if we insist, but we cannot realistically anticipate some merciful moderation of the consequences. Nature does not scold or punish, it merely breaks us, coldly, upon the rack of our untruths.

Like other cultural institutions, calendars are saturated with ideologies, and tested to destruction against implacable reality. Their collision with nature is especially informative, because they express obstinate human desires as favored numbers (selected from among small positive integers), and they register the gulf of the real in a strictly quantitative form. Any surviving calendar relates the story of an adaptation to reality, or cultural deference to (and deformation by) nature, as numerical preferences have been compromised through their encounter with quantitative facts.

Pure ideology in the calendrical sphere is represented in its perfection by the fantasy year of the ancient Mesopotamians, 360 days in length, and harmonized to the sexagesimal (modulus-60) arithmetic of the Sumerians. Its influence has persisted in the 360 degrees of the geometric circle, and in the related sexagesimal division into minutes and seconds (of time and arc). The archaic calendars of Meso-America and East Asia, as well as those of the Middle East, seem to have been attracted to the 360-day year, as though to an ideal model. If the Great Architect of the Universe had been an anthropomorphic geometer, this is the calendar that would work.

Of course, it doesn’t (with all due respect to the engrossing Biblical counter-argument outlined here). Instead, in the mainstream world calendric tradition – as determined by the eventual global outcome – a first level adaptation systematized the year at 365 days – the Egyptian year. Unlike the 360-day archetypal year, which has all of the first three primes as factors, and thus divides conveniently into ‘months’ or other component periods, the 365-day year represents a reluctant concession to quantitative fact. The number 365 has only two factors (both primes, 5 and 73), but neither seems to have acquired any discernible calendrical valency, perhaps because of their obvious unsuitability to even approximate description of lunar periods. The Egyptians turned instead to an awkward but influential innovation: the intercalation. A five-day appendix was added to the year, as a sheer correction or supplementary commensuration, and an annual reminder of the gap between numerical elegance and astronomical reality. Whilst intercalations were invested with mytho-religious significance, this was essentially compensatory – a crudely obscured testament to the weakness of ideality (and thus of systematic priest-craft as a mode of reality apprehension, or efficient social purpose). If intercalations were necessary, then nature was not spell-bound, and the priest-masters of calendric time were exposed, tacitly, as purveyors of mystification, whose limits were drawn by the horizon of social credulity. Astronomical time mocked the meanings of men.

Over time, the real (‘tropical’) year discredits its calendrical idealizations by unmooring dates from the seasons, in a process of time drift that exposes discrepancy, and drives calendar reform. Inaccurate calendars are gradually rendered meaningless, as the seasonal associations of its time terms are eroded to utter randomness – by frigid ‘summer’ months and scorching ‘winter’ ones. Clearly, no priesthood can survive in a climate that derides the established order of the year, and in which farmers that listen to the holy words (of time) are assured inevitable starvation. Unless tracked within a tolerable margin of accuracy by a calendar that ‘keeps’ the time, the year reverts to an alien and unintelligible thing, entirely exterior to cultural comprehension, whilst society’s reigning symbols appear as a risible, senseless babble, drowned out by the howling chaos of the real.

With the introduction of the Julian Calendar, coinciding with the (non-event) of year zero, comes the recognition that the tropical year is incommensurable with any integer, and that a larger cycle of intercalation is required to track it. A kind of modernity, or structural demystification, is born with the relinquishment of the ideal year, and everything it symbolizes in terms of cosmic design or celestial harmony. The devil’s appendix is attached, irremovably.

Numeracy and time measurement divorce at the origin of caesarean Calendric Dominion, but it is easy to mistake accidents on this path for essential concessions to reality. Even allowing for the inescapable function of intercalations, there was nothing inevitable – at least absolutely or cosmically inevitable – about the utter ruination of numerical coherence that the Julian Calendar incarnated, and passed on.

To explore this (admittedly arcane) topic further requires a digression to the second power, into the relations between numbers and anthropomorphic desire. The obvious starting point is the 360-day calendar of ancient Sumer, and the question: What made this number appealing? Whether examining 360, or its sexagesimal root (60), an arithmetically-conventional attention to prime factors (2, 3, and 5), is initially misleading — although ultimately indispensable. A more illuminating introduction begins with the compound factors 10 and 12, the latter relevant primarily to the lunar cycle (and the archaic dream of an astronomically – or rather astrologically — consistent 12-month year), and the former reflecting the primordial anthropomorphism in matters numeric: decimalism. The 360-day calendar is an object of human desire because it is an anthropo-lunar (or menstrual-lycanthropic?) hybrid, speaking intrinsically to the cycles of human fertility, and to the ‘digital’ patterns instantiated in mammalian body-plans. A 360-day year would be ours (even if alien things are hidden in it).

Anthropomorphic decimalism suggests how certain numerical opportunities went missing, along with zero. ‘Apprehension’ and ‘comprehension’ refer understanding to the prehensile organs of a specific organism, whose bilateral symmetry combines five-fingered hands to produce a count reaching ten, across an interval that belongs to an alien, intractable, third. Triadic beings are monsters, and decimally ungraspable. The bino-decimal structure of the Yi Jing exhibits this with total clarity, through its six-stage time-cycle that counts in the recurrent sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 7, 5 … Each power of three (within the decimal numerals) is expelled along with zero from the order of apprehensible time. There is no way that a ternary calendric numeracy could ever have been anthropomorphically acceptable – the very thought is (almost definitionally) abominable.

Yet astronomy seems hideously complicit with abomination, at least, if the years are twinned. The sixth power of three (3^6) approximates to the length of two tropical years with a discrepancy of just ~1.48438 days, or less than one day a year. An intercalation of three days every four years (or two twin-year cycles) brings it to the accuracy of the Julian Calendar, and a reduction of this intercalation by one day every 128 years (or 64 (2^6) twin-year cycles) exceeds the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar.

It might be necessary to be slightly unbalanced to fully appreciate this extraordinary conjunction of numerical elegance and astronomical fact. A system of calendric computation that counts only in twos and threes, and which maintains a perfectly triadic order of time-division up to the duration of a two-year period, is able to quite easily exceed the performance of the dominant international calendar (reaching a level of accuracy that disappears into the inherent instability of the tropical year, and is thus strictly speaking unimprovable).

How many days are there in a year? ((3 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3) / 2) + ~0.74219

The horror, the horror …


Calendric Dominion (Part 3)

In Search of Year Zero

A Year Zero signifies a radical re-beginning, making universal claims. In modern, especially recent modern times, it is associated above all with ultra-modernist visions of total politics, at is maximum point of utopian and apocalyptic extremity. The existing order of the world is reduced to nothing, from which a new history is initiated, fundamentally disconnected from anything that occurred before, and morally indebted only to itself. Predictably enough, among conservative commentators (in the widest sense), such visions are broadly indistinguishable from the corpse-strewn landscapes of social catastrophe, haunted by the ghosts of unrealizable dreams.

Christianity’s global Calendric Dominion is paradoxical — perhaps even ‘dialectical’ — in this regard. It provides the governing model of historical rupture and unlimited ecumenical extension, and thus of total revolution, whilst at the same time representing the conservative order antagonized by modernistic ambition. Its example incites the lurch to Year Zero, even as it has no year zero of its own. Ultimately, its dialectical provocation tends towards Satanic temptation: the promise of Anti-Christian Apocalypse, or absolute news to a second power. (“If the Christians could do it, why couldn’t we?” Cue body-counts scaling up towards infinity.)

This tension exists not only between an established Christian order and its pseudo-secular revolutionary after-image, but also within Christianity itself, which is split internally by the apparent unity and real dissociation of ‘messianic time’. The process of Christian calendric consolidation was immensely protracted. A distance of greater than half a millennium separated the clear formulation of the year count from the moment commemorated, with further centuries required to fully integrate historical recording on this basis, digesting prior Jewish, Roman, and local date registries, and laying the foundation for a universalized Christian articulation of time. By the time the revolutionary ‘good news’ had been coherently formalized into a recognizable prototype of the hegemonic Western calendar, it had undergone a long transition from historical break to established tradition, with impeccable conservative credentials.

Simultaneously, however, the process of calendric consolidation sustained, and even sharpened, the messianic expectation of punctual, and truly contemporary rupture, projected forwards as duplication, or ‘second coming’ of the initial division. Even if the moment in which history had been sundered into two parts — before and after, BC and AD — now lay in quite distant antiquity, its example remained urgent, and promissory. Messianic hope was thus torn and compacted by an intrinsic historical doubling, which stretched it between a vastly retrospective, gradually recognized beginning, and a prospect of sudden completion, whose credibility was assured by its status as repetition. What had been would be again, transforming the AD count into a completed sequence that was confirmed in the same way it was terminated (through Messianic intervention).

Unsurprisingly, the substantial history of Western calendric establishment is twinned with the rise of millenarianism, through phases that trend to increasingly social-revolutionary forms, and eventually make way for self-consciously anti-religious, although decidedly eschatological, varieties of modernistic total politics. Because whatever has happened must — at least — be possible, the very existence of the calendar supports anticipations of absolute historical rupture. Its count, simply by beginning, prefigures an end. What starts can re-start, or conclude.

Zero, however, intrudes diagonally. It even introduces a comic aspect, since whatever the importance of the Christian revelation to the salvation of our souls, it is blatantly obvious that it failed to deliver a satisfactory arithmetical notation. For that, Christian Europe had to await the arrival of the decimal numerals from India, via the Moslem Middle East, and the ensuing revolution of calculation and book-keeping that coincided with the Renaissance, along with the birth of mercantile capitalism in the city states of northern Italy.

Indeed, for anybody seeking a truly modern calendar, the Arrival of Zero would mark an excellent occasion for a new year zero (AZ 0?), around AD 1500. Although this would plausibly date the origin of modernity, the historical imprecision of the event counts against it, however. In addition, the assimilation of zero by germinal European (and thus global) capitalism was evidently gradual — if comparatively rapid — rather than a punctual ‘revolutionary’ transition of the kind commerorative calendric zero is optimally appropriate to. (If Year Zero is thus barred from the designation of its own world-historic operationalization, it is perhaps structurally doomed to misapplication and the production of disillusionment.)

The conspicuous absence of zero from the Western calendar (count), exposed in its abrupt jolt from 1 BC to AD 1, is an intolerable and irreparable stigma that brings its world irony to a zenith. In the very operation of integrating world history, in preparation for planetary modernity, it remarks its own debilitating antiquity and particularity, in the most condescending modern sense of the limited and the primitive — crude, defective and underdeveloped.

How could a moment of self-evident calculative incompetence provide a convincing origin-point for subsequent historical calculation? Year Zero escaped all possibility of conceptual apprehension at the moment in the time-count where it is now seen to belong, and infinity (the reciprocal of zero) proves no less elusive. Infinity was inserted into a time when (and place where) it demonstrably made no sense, and the extraordinary world-historical impression that it made did nothing — not even nothing– to change that situation. Is this not a worthy puzzle for theologians? Omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, yet hopeless at maths — these are not the characteristics of a revelation designed to impress technologists or accountants. All the more reason, then, to take this comedy seriously, in all its ambivalence — since the emerging world of technologists and accountants, the techno-commercial (runway-industrial, or capitalist) world that would globalize the earth, was weaned within the playpen of this calendar, and no other. Modernity had selected to date itself in a way that its own kindergarten students would scorn.


Calendric Dominion (Part 2)

Caesar with the soul of Christ

Political Correctness has tacitly legislated against the still-prevailing acronyms that define the hegemonic international calendar (BC-AD), and proposed clear alternatives (BCE-CE). Both the criticism and the suggestion are entirely consistent with its principles. In accordance with the tenets of multiculturalism (a more recent and also more active hegemony), it extends the liberal assumption of formal equality from individuals to ‘cultures’, allocating group rights, and identifying – whilst immediately denouncing – discrimination and privilege. As might be expected from an ideology that is exceptionally concentrated among intellectual elites, the proposed remedy is purely symbolic, taking the form of a rectification of signs. The ‘problem’ is diagnosed as a failure of consciousness, or sensitivity, requiring only a raising of awareness (to be effected, one can safely assume, by properly credentialed and compensated professionals).

Even considered in its own terms, however, the rectification that is suggested amounts to nothing more than an empty gesture of refusal, accompanying fundamental compliance. Whilst the symbolic ‘left’ draw comfort from the insistence upon inconsequential change, with its intrinsic offense against conservative presumptions, reinforced by an implied moral critique of tradition, the counter-balancing indignation of the ‘right’ fixes the entire dispute within the immobilized trenches of the Anglo-American ‘culture war’. The deep structure of calendric signs persists unaffected. Between Christian dominion (invoking ‘Our Lord’) and a ‘common era’ that is obediently framed by the dating of Christian revelation, there is no difference that matters. It is the count that counts.

Political Correctness fails here in the same way it always does, due to its disconnection of ‘correctness’ from any rigorous principle of calculation, and its disengagement of ‘sensitivity’ from realistic perception. A calendar is a profound cultural edifice, orchestrating the apprehension of historical time. As such, it is invulnerable to the gnat-bites of ideological irritability (and dominance is not reducible to impoliteness).

The problem of Western Calendric Dominion is not one of supremacism (etiquette) but of supremacy (historical fatality). It might be posed: How did modernistic globalization come to be expressed as Christian Oecumenon? In large measure, this is Max Weber’s question, and Walter Russell Mead’s, but it overflows the investigations of both, in the direction of European and Middle Eastern antiquity. Initial stimulation for this inquiry is provided by a strange – even fantastic — coincidence.

In his notebooks, Friedrich Nietzsche imagined the overman (Übermensch) as a “Caesar with the soul of Christ,” a chimerical being whose tensions echo those of the Church of Rome, Latinized Christian liturgy, and the Western calendar. This hybridity is expressed by a multitude of calendric features, following a broad division of labor between a Roman structuring of the year (within which with superficially-Christianized pagan festivals are scattered unsystematically), and a Christian year count, but it also points towards a cryptic — even radically unintelligible — plane of fusion.

In the Year Zero, which never took place, a mysterious synchronization occurred, imperceptibly and unremarked, founding the new theopolitical calendric order. For the Christians, who would not assimilate the Empire until the reign of Constantine in the early-4th century AD, God was incarnated as man, in the embryo of Jesus Christ. Simultaneously, in a Rome that was perfectly oblivious to the conception of the Messiah, the Julian calendar became operational. Julius Caesar’s calendric reform had begun 45 years earlier, following the Years of Confusion, but incompetent execution in subsequent decades had systematically mis-timed the leap year, intercalating a day every three years, rather than every four. The anomalous triennial cycle was abandoned and “the Roman calendar was finally aligned to the Julian calendar in 1 BC (with AD 1 the first full year of alignment),” although no special significance would be assigned to these years until Dionysius Exiguus integrated Christian history in AD 525.

Given the astounding neglect of this twin event, some additional emphasis is appropriate: The Julian calendar, which would persist, unmodified, for almost 1,600 years, and which still dominates colloquial understanding of the year’s length (at 365.25 days), was born – by sheer and outrageous ‘chance’ – at the precise origin of the Christian Era, as registered by the Western, and now international, numbering of historical time. The year count thus exactly simulates a commemoration of the calendar itself – or at least of its prototype – even though the birth of this calendar, whether understood in the terms of secular reason or divine providence, has absolutely no connection to the counted beginning. This is a coincidence – which is to say, a destiny perceived without comprehension – that neither Roman authority nor Christian revelation has been able to account for, even as it surreptitiously shapes Western (and then Global) history. As the world’s dominant calendar counts the years under what appears to be a particular religious inspiration, it refers secretly to its own initiation, alluding to mysteries of time that are alien to any faith. That much is simple fact.

Unlike the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was determined under Christian auspices, or at least formal Christian authority (that of Pope Gregory XIII), and promulgated by papal bull in 1582. Yet a glance suffices to reveal the continuation of Julian calendric dominion, since the Gregorian reform effects transformations that remain strictly compliant with the Julian pattern, modified only by elementary operations of decimal re-scaling and inversion. Where the Julian calendar took four years as its base cyclical unit, the Gregorian takes four centuries, and where the Julian adds one leap day in four years, the Gregorian leaves one and subtracts three in 400. The result was an improved approximation to the tropical year (averaging ~365.24219 days), from the Julian 365.25 year, to the Gregorian 365.2425, a better than 20-fold reduction in discrepancy from an average ~0.00781 days per year (drifting off the seasons by one day every 128 years) to ~0.00031 (drifting one day every 3,226 years).

The combination of architectonic fidelity with technical adjustment defines conservative reform. It is clearly evident in this case. A neo-Julian calendar, structured in its essentials at its origin in AD 1 minus 1, but technically modified at the margin in the interest of improved accuracy, armed the West with the world’s most efficient large-scale time-keeping system by the early modern period. In China, where the Confucian literati staged competitions to test various calendars from around the world against the prediction of eclipses, Jesuits equipped with the Gregorian calendar prevailed against all alternatives, ensuring the inexorable trend towards Western calendric conventions, or, at least, the firm identification of Western methods with modernistic efficiency. Given only an edge, in China and elsewhere, the dynamics of complex systems took over, as ‘network effects’ locked-in the predominant standard, whilst systematically marginalizing its competitors. Even though Year Zero was still missing, it was, ever increasingly, missing at the same time for everyone. “Caeser with the soul of Christ” – the master of Quadrennium and eclipse — had installed itself as the implicit meaning of world history.


(Still to come – in Part 4? – Counter-Calendars, but we probably need an excursion through zero first)


Calendric Dominion

How hegemony still counts

Modernity and hegemony are Urban Future obsessions, which might (at least in part) excuse a link to this article in Britain’s Daily Mail, on the topic of Christianity, the calendar, and political correctness. It addresses itself to the international dominion of the Gregorian, Western Christian calendar, and the sensitivities of those who, whilst perhaps reconciled to the inevitability of counting in Jesus-years, remain determined to dis-evangelize the accompanying acronymics. More particularly, it focuses upon the BBC, and its attempt to sensitize on other people’s behalf (pass the popcorn).

The BBC’s religious and ethics department says the changes are necessary to avoid offending non-Christians.

It states: ‘As the BBC is committed to impartiality it is appropriate that we use terms that do not offend or alienate non-Christians.

In line with modern practice, BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era) are used as a religiously neutral alternative to BC/AD.’

But the move has angered Christians …

Cue Ann Widdecombe, the Catholic former Tory Minister, who said: ‘I think what the BBC is doing is offensive to Christians. They are discarding terms that have been around for centuries and are well understood by everyone.

‘What are they going to do next? Get rid of the entire calendar on the basis that it has its roots in Christianity?’

It’s an interesting question, and the attempt to hold it open, as provocatively as possible, might be the best reason to avoid glib, politically correct remedies to the ‘problem’, however that is understood. Anno Domini reminds us of dominion, which is a far better guideline into historical reality than kumbaya gestures towards a ‘Common Era’, as if hegemony had no content beyond togetherness. Since dominion has not been achieved primarily by impoliteness or insensitivity, politically correct multiculturalism is an irrelevant (and dishonest) response to it.

Regardless of whether Jesus is your Lord, or not, the Christian calendar dominates, or at least predominates, and the traditional acronymic accurately registers that fact. AD bitchez, as the commentators of Zerohedge might say.

It is an intriguing and ineluctable paradox of globalized modernity that its approximation to universality remains fundamentally structured by ethno-geographical peculiarities of a distinctly pre-modern type. The world was not integrated by togetherness, but by a succession of particular powers, with their characteristic traits, legacies, and parochialisms. For better or for worse, these peculiar features have been deeply installed in the governing order of the world. Their signs should be meticulously conserved and studied rather than clumsily effaced, because they are critical clues to the real nature of fate.

Without exception, calendars are treasure troves of intricately-sedimented ethno-historical information. They attempt to solve an ultimately insoluble problem, by arithmetically rationalizing irrational astronomical quantities, most obviously the incommensurable cycles of the terrestrial orbit (solar year), lunar orbit (month), and terrestrial rotation (day). No coherent arithmetical construct can ever reconcile these periods, and even a repulsively inelegant calendar can only do so to a tolerable margin or error. The consequent ramshackle compromise, typically deformed by a torturous series of adjustments, reshufflings, and intercalations, tells an elaborate story of fixed and variable cultural priorities, regime changes, legacy constraints, alien influences, conceptual capabilities, and observational refinements, further complicated by processes of drift, adoption, and innovation that ripple through numerical and linguistic signs.

The hegemonic (Gregorian) calendar, for instance, is a jagged time-crash of incommensurable periods, in which multiple varieties of disunity jostle together. Weeks don’t fit into solar and lunar months, or years, but cut through them quasi-randomly, so that days and dates slide drunkenly across each other. The length of the week is biblical, but the names of the days combine ancient astrology (Saturday-Monday) with the gods of Norse mythology (Tuesday-Friday). Although the Nordic-linguistic aspect of the week has not been strongly globalized, its Judaeo-numerical aspect has. The months are a ghastly mess, awkwardly mismatched with each other, with the lunar cycle, and with the succession of weeks, and testifying to the confused, erratic astro-politics of the Roman Empire in their linguistic mixture of deities (January, March, April?, May, June), festivals (February), emperors (July, August), and numbers (September-December). There is no need to excavate into this luxuriant dung-hill here, except to note that the ‘Christianity’ of the Western calendar rests upon chaos-rotted pagan and poly-numeric foundations.

What matters to the AD-BC (vs CE-BCE) debate is not the multitudinously-muttering inner disorder of the Western calendar, but its estimation of the years, or ‘era’. In this regard, it has clear competitors, and thus arouses definite resentments, since its closest cousins assert eras of their own. The era of the Hebrew calendar dates back to the tohu (chaos) of the year before creation, and records the years of the world (Latinized as Anno Mundi), to the present 5772 AM. The Islamic calendar, which begins from the Hejira of Mohammed, from Mecca to Medina, reached 1432 AH in AD 2011.

The Christian calendar, first systematized in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Runt), counts the first Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi as the birth year of Jesus Ben Joseph, a false messiah to the Jews, the Christ and Redeemer for the Christians, a prophet to the Moslems, the Nazarene oppressor to Satanists, and something else, or nothing much, to everybody else. Regardless of the accuracy of its chronology or tacit theology, however, this is the year count that has been globally inherited from the real process of modernity, and recognized as a world standard by the United Nations, among other international organizations.

Compared to the Abrahamic calendars, those of Asia’s demographic giants generally lacked tight doctrinal and didactic focus. India can usually be relied upon to inundate any topic whatsoever in delirious multiplicity, and the calendar is no exception. Bengali, Malayalam, and Tamil calendars are all widely used in their respective regions, the Indian National Calendar counts from AD 78 = 0, which, in ominous keeping with current events, places us in 1933, and the most widely accepted Hindu religious calendar total the years since the birth of Krishna, reaching 5112 in AD 2011.

The fabulous complexity of China’s traditional calendar makes it a paradise for nerds. Most commonly, it counts the years of each imperial reign, and is thus integrated by a literary narrative of dynastic history, rather than an arithmetical continuum. (The obstacle this presented to modernistic universalization is brutally obvious.) Alternatively, however, it groups historical time into sixty-year cycles, beginning from 2637 BC (which places us in the 28th year of cycle-78). Most Chinese today seem to have an extremely tenuous connection to this dimension of their calendrical heritage, which scarcely survives outside academic departments of ancient history, and in Daoist temples. Whilst the internal structure of the traditional year survives undamaged, as attested by the annual cycle of festivities, Chinese surrender to the Gregorian year count seems absolute.

Christian conservatives are surely right to argue that it is the year count – the number and the era – that matters. The acronyms are merely explanatory, and even essentially tautological. Once it has been decided that history is measured from and divided by the birth of Jesus, it is far too late to quibble over the attribution of dominance. AD bitchez. That argument is over.
(Coming next, in Part 2 – Counter-calendars)


Reign of the Tripod

China’s rise and the future of threedom

According to Arvind Subramanian, even conservative projections of comparative growth trends place China in a global position, by 2030, that is strikingly similar to that of Britain and of America at their respective moments of economic predominance, accounting for a share of the world economy roughly 150% the size of its closest rival. If this were to come to pass, such leadership would invoke ‘hegemony’ as a matter of sheer quantitative fact – quite irrespective of explicit intentions. The ‘Chinese model’ would promote itself, even in the complete absence of political and diplomatic reinforcement, and the magnetic power of Chinese culture would continue to strengthen in approximate proportion to its commercial influence. China would become the object of irresistible attraction – counterbalanced, no doubt, by resentments – and its example would burn incandescent, even in the offended eyes of its detractors. So what is this ‘example’?

In exploring this question, one place to begin is the history of economic hegemony, and in particular that instantiated by the Anglo-American powers over their two ‘long centuries’ of global supremacy. This is a topic pursued with exceptional insight by Walter Russell Mead, most remarkably in his work God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Mead locates the key to ‘Anglosphere’ hegemony in the ‘Golden Meme’ of the invisible hand, originating in the religious idea of providence, and modernized in Newtonian celestial mechanics, Smithian political economy, and Darwinian evolutionary biology. At its most abstract, this idea is both an affirmation and a renunciation, with its potency and suppleness stemming from both. To acknowledge the invisible hand is to foster a special kind of positive fatalism, trusting in the spontaneous trend of history, which is embraced as a covenant, and an overt or implicit election (in the theological sense). Such themes are undisguisedly religious, and Mead does nothing to obscure their roots in the Abrahamic tradition, or meta-tradition, which lays out a providential vision of history as finite, progressive, and inevitable, tending inexorably to eschatological completion, structured by superhuman law, and (through its divine predestination) facilitating the function of prophecy.

The deep culture of the Anglosphere is not only generically Abrahamic, however, it is also specifically pluralistic. The invisible hand takes center stage because the center is otherwise vacated, or distributed. Esoteric providence supplants exoteric sovereignty because an inability to reach agreement is eventually institutionalized – or at least informally stabilized — in a triangular balance of power.

What the British ultimately did was to rely on what Burke called “convention.” Scripture, tradition, and reason – each had its place and each had its devotees. But all of them went wrong if you pressed them too far. You should respect the scriptures and defer to them but not interpret the scriptures in a way that led you into some weird millenarian sect or into absurd social behavior. You honored tradition but did not press it so far that it led you into the arms of royal absolutism or papal power. You can and should employ the critique of reason against the excesses of both scripture and tradition, but not press reason to the point where you ranted against all existing institutions., ate roots and bark for your health, or, worse, undermined the rights of property and the established church. One can picture John Bull scratching his head and slowly concluding that one must accept that in society there will be bible nuts, tradition nuts, and reason nuts – fundamentalists, papists, and radicals. This is not necessarily the end of the world. To some degree they cancel each other out – the fundamentalist zealots will keep the papists down and vice versa, and the religious will keep the radicals in their place – but the competition among sects will also prevent the established church from pressing its advantage too far and from forming too exalted an idea about the proper stature, prestige, and emoluments of the clergy. [p223]

Cultural hegemony follows from a semi-deliberate fatalization, as the sovereign center is displaced by a substantially automated social process, which no social agent is able to master or entirely impede. Each major faction steps back into its position in the triangle, from which it can strategically engage the others, but never fully dominate or eradicate them. The triangle as a whole constitutes a social and historical motor, without adequate representation at any identifiable point.

Pluralism, even at the cost of rational consistency, is necessary in a world of change. Countervailing forces and values must contend. Reason, scripture, tradition: they all have their uses, but any one of them, unchecked, will go too far. Moreover, without constant disputes, constant controversy, constant competition between rival ideas about how society should look and what is should do, the pace of innovation and change is likely to slow as forces of conservative inertia grow smug and unchallenged. [p231-2]

This blog has previously touched upon the Singlosphere, where aspects of Anglophone and Chinese culture converge in Manchester Liberal / Daoist acceptance of spontaneous order, or laissez-faire. Does this convergence extend to triadic pluralism, and apply to the Sinosphere core of the Chinese mainland? Mead’s analysis is highly suggestive in both respects.

In the first place, it encourages considerable equanimity in regards to the prospective global transition, even when attention is focused upon the political and ideological heartland of contemporary China. It might seem, superficially, that the passage from a leading world culture dominated by tacit Christian attitudes to one in which unfamiliar Sino-Marxist ideas rise to unprecedented international prominence must be characterized by an immense – even near-absolute – discontinuity. Can such a leap take place without succumbing to catastrophic culture-shock and unmanageable friction? When examined from a broader perspective, however, such alarmism is far less than fully warranted.

For better or for worse, the over-arching cultural continuity of the coming shift is ensured by the profound kinship tying Marxism into the broad family of Abrahamic belief systems. Theologically rooted in the dialectical engagement with Judeo-Christian spirituality, initiated by Hegel and Feuerbach, the basic framework of Marxist thinking only trivially perturbs the structure of prophetic, eschatological, redemptive, and providential history. Its millenarian expectations are no more terrifying than those of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism before it, its prophetic certainties no more irrational, its submission to the iron laws of history no more constraining, and its moral enthusiasm no more zealous or impractical.

The specter of a totalitarian Marxist resurgence in China is as realistic as the fear of a theocratic putsch in the United States of America, which is to say, it has no reality at all. In both cases, maturity, pluralism, and established traditions protect against the domination of society by any particular intolerant faction. It is unnecessary to be either Christian or Marxist to recognize the continuing world-historical momentum of a broad Abrahamic meta-narrative, or to accept the consistency of such large-scale social storytelling with the perpetual regeneration of practical impetus, or to see a settled, spontaneously improvised social solution – and incarnation of dynamic conservatism – in the enduring triangular stand-off between Marxist scriptures, Communist Party institutional traditions, and market radicalism in today’s China. As with Mead’s Anglospherean pluralism, the reciprocal limitations that each of these factions imposes on the others will inevitably disappoint many, but there is no reason for them to horrify anybody.

Insofar as Mead is correct in identifying Anglosphere hegemony with the reign of the tripod, or the socio-cultural realization of pluralism (as triangular dynamic stability), the disruptive potential of emerging Chinese leadership should be considered as massively discounted, because the tripod is a Chinese native. Every temple in the country is equipped with a three-footed incense burner, every museum bronze collection is dominated by three-legged cauldrons, and each of these tripods has definite, explicitly conceptual cultural meaning. This is not only based upon the obvious practical and intuitive truth that the simplest model of stability comes from the tripod, but also from a recognition that triangular stand-off exemplifies sustainable dynamism in its elementary form, disintegrating the universe into strategic possibility.

For literary elaboration of this theme, one need only turn to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, perhaps the most widely read of China’s four great classical novels. Its most conspicuous instantiation as popular entertainment is seen in the game of paper, scissors, stone, which dates back (at least) to the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), when it was known as shoushiling.

The ultimate expression of triangular dynamic stability, not only in China, but worldwide, is undoubtedly presented by the Classic of Change, the Yi Jing, or Zhouyi. It is upon this work of singular, inhuman genius, in which sheer arithmetic speaks more purely than it has ever done before or since, that all of China’s ceremonial bronzes, literary flights, and childhood games converge.

In the numerical system of the Yi Jing, the tripod finds a source more basic than the Abrahamic meta-tradition can provide, regardless of how Trinitarian this latter has become. That is because, in this Chinese cultural ur-stratum, unity does not figure as an original unity, subsequently disintegrated into a theological, dialectical, or sociopolitical triangle but is, on the contrary, derived. As the Confucian commentary explains: “The number 3 was assigned to heaven, 2 to earth, and from these came the (other) numbers.” In the beginning were numbers – primordial dispersion.

The ‘language’ of the tripod finds its most convenient expression in the trigram, whose three lines constitute an elementary unit. To grasp the Yi Jing as a complete arithmetical model of the dynamic triad, however, it is necessary to proceed immediately to the structure of the hexagram.

Grasped in operation, the Yi Jing is not only a binary arithmetical system (as Leibniz interpreted it), but a bino-decimal conjunction. This is demonstrated by the fact that it systematically rewards the application of decimal digital reduction, and reveals its dynamic pattern only under these conditions. (This might, quite reasonably, be considered a highly surprising suggestion, since digital reduction – as it arose within the history of Western Qabbalism – seems to have been generated, automatically, from the interference of the decimal Hindu numerals with older alphabetical number systems, or ‘gematrias’, that attached cardinal values to specific letters, without use of place value. It is immediately obvious that this historical account cannot be translated into a Chinese context, where alphabets have no traditional root.)

Digital reduction is an extremely simple numerical technique, involving nothing besides single-digit additions and neglect of decimal magnitude. A multi-digit number is treated as a string of single digit additions, and the process is reiterated in the case of a multi-digit result.

Expressing the series of binary powers in decimal notation yields the familiar sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192 … When this series is compressed to a string of single digits by reduction, it proceeds: 1, 2, 4, 8, (1 + 6 =) 7, (3 + 2 =) 5, (6 + 4 =) 1, (1 + 2 + 8 = 11 = 1 + 1 =) 2, (2 + 5 + 6 = 13 = 1 + 3 =) 4, (5 + 1 + 2 =) 8, (1 + 0 + 2 + 4 =) 7, (2 + 0 + 4 + 8 = 14 = 1 + 4 =) 5, and repeatedly, through the 6-step cycle 1, 2, 4, 8, 7, 5. This process exposes the arithmetical necessity of the Yi Jing hexagram, as an archetypal exhaustion of the phases of time.

To excavate the triadic or tripodic, it is helpful to turn to the classical (and now integral) Confucian commentary, the ‘Ten Wings’ (Shi Yi), which explore the structure of the trigrams and hexagrams in various ways. These include an explicit formula for folding the six lines of the hexagram back into a triad, by coupling the lines: first and fourth; second and fifth; third and sixth. These dyads have a consistent arithmetical order, when calculated in accordance with the reduced bino-decimal values generated above: 1 + 8 = 9; 2 + 7 = 9; 4 + 5 = 9. “What these six lines show is simply this, the way of the three Powers.”

Summation to nine regularly serves as a confirmation within the Shi Yi. For instance, in the section translated by Legge as ‘The Great Appendix’:

52. The numbers (required) for Khien (or the undivided line) amount to 216; those for Khwan (or the divided line), to 144. Together they are 360, corresponding to the days of the year.
53. The number produced by the lines in the two parts (of the Yî) amount to 11,520, corresponding to the number of all things.
54. Therefore by means of the four operations is the Yî completed. It takes 18 changes to form a hexagram.

144 = 1 + 4 + 4 = 9

216 = 2 + 1 + 6 = 9

360 = 3 + 6 + 0 = 9

11,520 = 1 + 1 + 5 + 2 + 0 = 9

18 = 1 + 8 = 9

There is much more to say on the importance of the number nine in traditional Chinese culture, and beyond, but this is not the time. For now, it suffices to note that nine, or ‘Old Yang’, represents the extreme point of maturity or positive accumulation in the Yi Jing, and thus incipient transition. It thus echoes the function of the same numeral within a zero-based decimal place-value system, strongly reinforcing the impression that the Yi Jing assumes cultural familiarity with such numeracy, and thus indicating its extreme antiquity within China.

The six-phase cycle collapses into a triadic dynamic, whose stages are the dyads 1&8, 2&7, 4&5. It is thus exactly isomorphic with the paper, scissors, stone circuit, or rather, this latter can be seen as a simplification of the Yi Jing dynamic tripod, treating each stage as simple, rather than twinned. Where the bagua, or set of trigrams, merely enumerates the set of 3-bit variants in static fashion, the system of hexagrams rigorously constructs a triangular dynamic, which is presented as a model of time.

If this is the ‘Chinese example’ at its most quintessential, then it is exactly the Anglosphere example, as determined by Mead, except carried to a far more exalted level of abstraction, or proto-conceptual purity. Dynamic pluralism is under no threat from a Chinese future, insofar as deep-cultural evidence counts for anything. The reign of the tripod has scarcely begun.


A Time-Travelers Guide to Shanghai (Part 3)

Dieselpunk with Chinese characteristics

Wikipedia attributes the earliest use of the term ‘retrofuturism’ to Lloyd John Dunn (in 1983). Together with fellow ‘Tape-beatles’ John Heck, Ralph Johnson, and Paul Neff, Dunn was editor of the ‘submagazine’ Retrofuturism, which ran across the bottom of the pages of Photostatic magazine over the period 1988-93. The agenda of the Tape-beatles was artistic, and retrofurism was “defined as the act or tendency of an artist to progress by moving backwards,” testing the boundaries between copying and creativity through systematic plagiarism and experimental engagement with the technologies of reproduction. Whatever the achievements of this ‘original’ retrofuturist movement, they were soon outgrown by the term itself.

A more recent and comparatively mainstream understanding of retro-futurism is represented by the websites of Matt Novak (from 2007) and Eric Lefcowitz (from 2009), devoted to a cultural history of the future. Specializing in a comedy of disillusionment (thoroughly spiced with nerd kitsch), these sites explore the humorous incongruity between the present as once imagined and its actual realization. Content is dominated by the rich legacy of failed predictions that has accumulated over a century (or more) of science fiction, futurology, and popular expectations of progress, covering topics from space colonization, undersea cities, extravagant urban designs, advanced transportation systems, humanoid domestic robots, and ray-guns, to jumpsuit clothing and meal pills. This genre of retro-futurism is near-perfectly epitomized by Daniel H. Wilson’s 2007 book Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. The sentiment of the genre is highly consistent and quite readily summarized: disappointment with the underperformance of the present is redeemed by amusement at the extravagant – even absurd — promise of the past.

Retro-futurism in the missing jetpack mode can have broad historical horizons. It is only limited by the existence of adequately-specified predictions, optimally of the concrete, technologically-defined kind most suited to parodic recollection. Matt Novak’s paleofuture or “past visions of the future” index spans 130 years (from the 1870s through to the 1990s). Nevertheless, the essential characteristics of the genre disproportionately attract it to the ‘Golden Age’ of (American) science fiction, centered on the 1940s-50s, when technological optimism reached its apogee.

Dated back to the July 1939 issue of pulp SF magazine Astounding Science Fiction (edited by John W. Campbell and containing stories by Isaac Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt), or to the April 1939 opening of the dizzily futurist New York World Fair, the Golden Age might have been pre-programmed for retro-futurist ridicule. Its optimism was entirely lacking in self-doubt; its imagination was graphically clarified by the emerging marking tools of modern advertising, PR, and global ideological politics; its favored gadgetry was lusciously visualized, large-scaled, and anthropomorphically meaningful; and an emerging consumer culture, of previously unconceived scale and sophistication, served both to package the future into a series of discrete, tangible products, and to promote aspirations of individual (or nuclear family) empowerment-through-consumption that would later be targeted for derision. Implausibly marrying social conservatism to techno-consumerist utopianism, every family with its own flying car is a vision that, from the start, hurtles towards retro-futurist hilarity. By the time The Jetsons first aired in 1962, the Golden Age had ended, and the laughter had begun.

If William Gibson’s The Gernsback Continuum (1981) antedated the term ‘retro-futurism’, it indisputably consolidated the concept, investing it with a cultural potential that far exceeded anything the light-hearted sallies of the oughties would match. Instead of picking among the detritus of Golden Age speculation for objects of amused condescension, Gibson back-tracks its themes to the ‘Raygun Gothic’ or ‘American Streamlined Modern’ of the interbellum period, and then projects this derelicted culture forwards, as a continuous alternative history (dominated by quasi-fascist utopianism). The Gernsback Continuum is no mere collection of oddities, but rather a path not taken, and one that continued to haunt the science fiction imagination. Cyberpunk would be its exorcism.

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), commemorated by the ‘Hugo’ science fiction awards, was a futuristic fiction enthusiast and (shady) publishing entrepreneur who, more than any other identifiable individual, catalyzed the emergence of science fiction as a self-conscious genre, promoted through cheaply-printed, luridly popular ‘pulp’ magazines. In the first issue of Amazing Stories, which he founded in 1926, Gernsback defined ‘scientifiction’ as “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Whilst commonly detested by his abused writers, due to his sharp business practices, Gernsback’s politics seem to have been unremarkable. The ominous Aryan technocracy portrayed in The Gernsback Continuum probably owes more to the reputation of his successor at Amazing Stories, John W. Campbell (1910-1971), and the broader cultural tendencies he represented.

The re- (or pre-) direction of retro-futurism, from abandoned dreams to alternative histories, triggered a cascade of avalanches. Often, these have been marked by the wanderings of the ‘-punk’ suffix. Initially indicative of an anti-utopian (if not necessarily positively dystopian) impulse, whose ‘dirty’ futurism embraces social and psychological disorder, chaotic causality, uneven development, and collapsed horizons, it increasingly adopted an additional, and previously unpredictable sense. The history of science fiction – and perhaps history more broadly – was ‘punked’ by the emergence of literary and cultural sub-genres that carried it down lines of unrealized potential. Cyberpunk belonged recognizably to our electronically re-engineered time-line, but steampunk, clockpunk, dieselpunk (or ‘decopunk’), and atompunk – to list them in rough order of their appearance — extrapolated techno-social systems that had already been bypassed. If these were ‘futures’ at all, they lay not up ahead, but along branch-tracks, off to the side.

These various ‘retro-punk’ micro-genres could be understood in numerous ways. When conceived primarily as literature, they can be envisaged as re-animations of period features from the history of science fiction, or, more incisively, as liberations of dated futures from the dominion of subsequent time. For instance, the Victorian future of the steampunks was more than just a hazily anticipated Edwardian present, it was something else entirely, propelled in part by the real but unactualized potential of mechanical computation (as concretized in the Difference and Analytical Engines of Babbage and Lovelace).

Apprehended more theoretically, retro-punk genres echo significant debates. In particular, axial arguments on both the left and the right melt into discussions of alternative history, especially in the dieselpunk dark-heartland of the 1920s-‘30s. For over half a century, European Marxism has been inextricable from counter-factual explorations of the Soviet experience, focused on the period of maximum Proletkult innovation between the end of the post-civil war and the social realist clampdown presaging the Stalinist regime. The figure of Leon Trotsky as alternative history (dieselpunk) socialist hero makes no sense in any other context. On the right, American conservatism has become ever more focused on counter-factual interrogation of the Hoover/FDR-Keynesian response to the Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, understood as the moment when republican laissez-faire capitalism was supplanted by New Deal social democracy (Coolidge / Mellon ’28 tee-shirts might still be thin on the ground, but their day might come).

Whilst Shanghai is uploading itself into a cyberpunk tomorrow as fast as any city on earth, it has few obvious time-gates opening into clockpunk, atompunk, or (more disputably) steampunk futures. With dieselpunk, however, this series of dismissals grinds immediately to a halt. If some crazed dieselpunk demigod had leased the world to use as a laboratory, the outcome would have been – to a tolerable degree of approximation – indistinguishable from Shanghai. Xin haipai is dieselpunk with Chinese characteristics.

Shanghai’s greatest dieselpunk counter-factual is inescapably: what if Japanese invasion had not interrupted the city’s high-modernity in 1937? What was the city turning into? Beneath that enveloping question, however, and further back, a teeming mass of alternatives clamor for attention. What if the White Terror of 1927 had not crushed the urban workers’ movement? What if the CCP had succeeded, as Song Qingling dreamed, of transforming China’s republican government from within? What if the international politics of silver had not combined with Guomindang kleptocracy to destroy the independent financial system? What if Du Yuesheng had extended his ambitions into national politics? What if the city’s de-colonization had proceeded under peace-time conditions? What if the subsequent social and economic evolution of Hong Kong had been able to occur where it was germinated, in Shanghai?

The 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party was an occasion for the whole country to lose itself in the dark raptures of Shanghai dieselpunk. It was time to return to the 1920s, to revisit history as an adventure in contingency, before long-established actualities had been sifted from the intensity of raw potential, and to re-animate the indeterminism implicit in dramatic tension. It is improbable that the celebratory movie devoted to the establishment of the CCP, Beginning of the Great Revival, was deliberately formulated in the dieselpunk genre, but the nation’s microbloggers recognized it for what it was, and swarmed the opportunity presented by this re-opening of the past.

The thickening of cyberspace transforms history into a playground of potentials, where things can be re-loaded, and tried in different ways. Electronic infrastructures spread and sophisticate, running actualities as multiple and variable scenarios, with increasing intolerance for rigid outcomes or frozen legacies. As the dominion of settled actuality is eroded by currents of experimentation, the past re-animates. Nothing is ever over.

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.


A Time-Travelers Guide to Shanghai (Part 2)

Dark intimations of the time-rift

Shanghai’s eclectic cityscape explores a variety of modernities simultaneously. The sheer scale of the city, exponentiated by its relentless dynamism, overflows the time-line.

During Shanghai’s early- to mid-20th century high modernist epoch, for instance, the city’s consolidating haipai culture was distinguished by the absence of a single core. It emerged, instead, as the outcome of loosely inter-articulated plural or parallel developments, including (but by no means limited to) the urban mores of a rising indigenous ‘bourgeoisie’, whose aspirational tributaries reached deep into the warrens of the lilongs; the hard accelerationism of the International Settlement business culture, dominated by near-limitless Shanghailander confidence in the city’s global significance and potential; and the left-slanted literary and political trends fostered in the coffee shop salons of the French Concession, where avant garde ideas cross-pollinated promiscuously. This heterogeneous, fertile chaos found its architectural echoes in the juxtaposition of building styles, quantitatively dominated by Shanghai’s native experiment in urban construction (the lilong block), but overawed in patches by Western neo-classical colonial edifices; Manhattanite cosmopolitan high-rises and Art Deco structures; bold adventures in Chinese modern designs (most prominently in Jiangwan); examples of proto-brutalist industrial and residential functionalism; and villas in a variety of international, hybrid, and advanced styles.

Since re-opening, in the early 1990s, Shanghai has added new ingredients to the mix, including its first major examples of construction indebted to the austere tenets of the International Style (although large rectilinear structures are still, thankfully, a rarity); neo-traditional and ethno-exotic kitsch (especially in the Old City and the peripheral ‘nine-towns’ respectively); neomodernist re-animations of derelicted structures; and ‘Googie’ evocations of imagined futures.

Whilst the city’s modernization has attained unprecedented velocity, however, its native modernism remains comparatively retarded. As an urban center in China, Shanghai’s distinctiveness is far less marked than it was in the early 20th century. Once occupying an overwhelmingly commanding cultural position as the engine-room and icon of Chinese modernity, today it participates in a far more generalized process of Chinese development. Its internationalism, commercial prowess, and technology absorption are no longer obviously peerless within China, its domination of the publishing and movie industries has passed, its retail giants and innovative advertising have surrendered their uniqueness, and its intellectual bohemia is matched, or surpassed, in a number of other urban centers. Whilst haipai tenuously persists, its dynamism has diffused and its confidence attenuated.

If Shanghai has a specific and coherent urban cultural identity today, emerging out of its sprawling multiplicity, and counterbalancing the vastly strengthened sense of national identity consolidated since the foundation of the PRC, it cannot – like haipai before it – be derived from the continuity of the city’s developmental trend, or from an urban exceptionalism, feeding on the contrast with a conservative, stagnant, or regressive national hinterland. A thoroughly renovated Shanghainese culture, or xin haipai, is inextricably entangled with the city’s historical discontinuity, or interruption, and with a broader Chinese national (or even civilizational) modernization that was anticipated by the ‘Old Shanghai’ and revives today as a futuristic memory.

The future that had seemed inevitable to the globalizing, technophilic, piratical capitalist Shanghai of the 1920s-‘30s went missing, as the momentum accumulated over a century of accelerating modernization was untracked by aerial destruction, invasion, revolution, and agrarian-oriented national integration. As the city trod water during the command economy era, the virtual future inherent in its ‘Golden Age’ continued to haunt it, surviving spectrally as an obscure intuition of urban destiny. Upon re-opening, in the early 1990s, this alternative fate flooded back. Under these circumstances, futurism is immediately retro-futurism, since urban innovation is what was happening before, and invention is bound to a process of re-discovery. ‘Renaissance’ always means something of this kind (and cannot, of course, be reduced to restoration).

This retro-futurist tendency, intrinsic to Shanghai’s revival of urban self-consciousness in the new millennium, creates a standing time-loop between two epochs of highly-accelerated modernistic advance. As it steadily adjusts itself into phase, heritage and development densely cross-reference each other, releasing streams of chatter in anachronistic, cybergothic codes, such as the deeply encrypted ‘language’ of Art Deco. 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.

The most accessible examples of Shanghai’s signature time-looping are spatially concentrated. At the limit, neo-modern renovation projects connect the city’s great waves of modernization within a single structure, making a retro-futural theme intrinsic to a current development, such as those at M50, Redtown, Bridge8, 1933, or the Hotel Waterhouse (among innumerable cases). Slightly wider and more thematically elaborate loops link new buildings to overt exhibitions of modernist history. Among the most conspicuous of these are the pairing of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower with the Shanghai History Museum (in its pedestal), and the Old Shanghai street-life diorama to be found beneath the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

Such examples can be misleading, however, if they distract from the fact that the retro-futurist principle of the new Shanghai culture is ambient. From ordinary residential restoration projects, to commercial signage, restaurant themes, hotel décor and home furnishings, the insistent message is re-emergence, an advance through the past. The latest and most stylish thing is typically that which re-attaches itself to the city’s modern heritage with maximum intensity. Reaching out beyond the city does nothing to break the pattern, because that’s precisely what the ‘Old Shanghai’ used to do. Cosmopolitan change is its native tradition.

Retro-futural couplings can be spatially dispersed. One especially prominent time loop lashes together two of the city’s most celebrated high-rises – the Park Hotel and the Jin Mao Tower – binding the Puxi of Old Shanghai with the Pudong New Area. Each was the tallest Shanghai building of its age (judged by highest occupied floor), the Park Hotel for five decades, the Jin Mao Tower for just nine years. This discrepancy masks a deeper time-symmetry in the completion dates of the two buildings: the Park Hotel seven years prior to the closing of the city (with the Japanese occupation of the International Settlement in 1941), the Jin Mao Tower seven years after the city’s formal re-opening (as the culmination of Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, in 1992).

It takes only a glance (or two) to recognize these buildings as non-identical time twins, or mutant clones, communicating with each other darkly across the rift, in Art Decode. Reciprocally attracted by their structural and tonal resonances, the two buildings extract each other from their respective period identities and rush together into an alternative, occulted time, obscurely defined through contact with an absolute future, now partially recalled.

Both of these beautifully sinister buildings are at home in the Yin World, comfortable with secrets, and with night. Among the first of these secrets, shared in their stylistic communion, is darkness itself. Nothing could be further removed from the spirit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant City than the brooding opulence of these towers, glittering on the edge of an unfathomable nocturnal gulf, as if intoxicated by the abyss. They remind us that ‘Art Deco’ is a (retrospective) label patched crudely over mystery, that it never had a manifesto, or a master plan, and that – due to its inarticulate self-organization – it has eluded historical comprehension.

This is the sense, at least in part, of Art Deco’s pact with night and darkness. Beneath and beyond all ideologies and centralized schemes, the spontaneous culture of high-modernism that climaxed in the interbellum period remains deeply encrypted. As the new Shanghai excavates the old, it is an enigma that becomes ever more pressing.
(Coming next in the Time Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai: The Dieselpunk Plateau)


A Time-Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai (Part 1)

When did it all change?

There is a strange, time-fractured moment in the biopic Deng Xiaoping (2002, directed by Yinnan Ding). For most of its length, the film is sober, cautious, and respectful, exemplifying a didactic realism. It strictly conforms to the approved story of Deng’s leadership and its meaning (exactly as it is found today in the nation’s school textbooks). Beginning with Deng’s ascent to power in the ruined China of the late-1970s, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, it follows the path of his decision-making, through the restoration (de-collectivization) of the rural economy, the re-habilitation of persecuted experts and intellectuals, and the beginning of the open-door policy, in Shenzhen, to the extension of market-oriented reform throughout the country, as symbolized by the opening of Shanghai.

Whilst clearly something of a carefully edited and precision- manufactured legend, this basic narrative of national regeneration, emancipation and growth – salvaged from the ashes of dead-end fanaticism and civilizational regression – is honest enough to inform, and even to inspire. It leaves no doubt that the ‘meaning’ of Deng Xiaoping is openness and renaissance (at least ’70/30′), a judgment that is both popularly endorsed in China, and historically attested universally.

As the movie approaches its conclusion, however, pedestrian realism is suddenly supplanted by something entirely different, whether due to the ‘deeper’ realism of budgetary constraint, or the ‘higher’ realism of artistic serendipity. Deng Xiaoping, from the vantage point of a ‘yet’ (in 1992) inexistent bridge, gestures towards Pudong and announces the green-light for its developmental liberation. Yet, in the background of the scene, the deliriously developed Lujiazui of 2002 already soars, as if the skyline had been condensed from a pre-emptive vision, drawing its substance from the historical implication of his words. The future couldn’t wait.

Perhaps the speed of Shanghai’s Reform-era urban development has led everything to get ahead of itself, disordering the structure of time. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower – first architectural statement of the new Shanghai and still the most iconic – certainly suggests so. Retro-deposited into the Pudong of 1992 by the Deng Xiaoping movie, historically completed in 1994, symbolically heralding the promised Shanghai of the third millennium, architecturally side-stepping into a science fiction fantasy of the 1950s, alluding to poetic imagery from the Tang Dynasty, and containing a museum devoted to the city’s modern history in its pedestal, when, exactly, does this structure belong? It’s hard to know where to begin.

The Emporis profile of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower describes its architectural style as simply ‘modernism’, which is unobjectionable, but extraordinarily under-determining. 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.

Buildings that arrive in the present in this way are, strictly speaking, ‘fabulous’, and for this reason, they are considered disreputable by the dominant traditions of international architecture. The fables they feed upon belong to the popular culture of science fiction, which makes them over-expressive, vulgarly communicative, and rapidly dated. Insofar as their style is recognized generically, it is tagged by ugly and dismissive labels such as Googie, Populuxe, and Doo-Wop. By reaching out too eagerly for the future, it is tacitly suggested, one quickly comes to look ridiculous (although, today, neomodernists such as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas are recuperating certain elements of this style more sympathetically).

Shanghai’s Radisson Hotel, set back from the north of People’s Square, is a quintessentially ‘Googie’ structure. It’s space-ship top participates exuberantly in a Shanghai tradition of weird roof-elaborations, and echoes a formally-comparable — though far smaller — classical modern structure to the east, down Nanjing Lu. The idea of high-rise rooftops as landing sites for flying vehicles, within a dynamic system of three-dimensional traffic, is a staple of ultramodernist speculation, whilst an alien arrival from a distant future is a transparent Shanghai fantasy.

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.

(This is the first post in a connected series on Shanghai’s retro-future, departing from the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. An outline examination of retro-futurism itself comes next …)