The manuscript of my book Modernity 2.0: Shanghai’s Reemergence in the 21st Century is now with the publishers, so the time has come to move online.
My intent is that this blog function both as a platform in which to discuss some of the issues I wrote about in the book and also as a zone of consolidation for a number of spin-off topics that are currently in the process of growing and mutating. At the moment my thoughts are spiraling around 4 central themes:
Urbanism: We first came to Shanghai in 2002 and it didn’t take long for the city to become an obsession. Ten years on China’s biggest, richest and IMHO most fascinating metropolis remains one of the best places on the planet to explore the fastest and most intense wave of urbanization the world has ever seen.
Markets. Shanghai has a long history as a trade port and commerce is an immersive part of everyday life (for more on this see, especially, the work of Hanchao Lu). The course I teach for NYU, Shanghai: Global Connections has a large section on Marx and also includes, for the first time this term, a trip to Bao Steel one of Shanghai’s biggest SOEs. These classroom sessions will no doubt inspire some posts on “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”. What interests me most, however, are the grey markets of the informal economy. China’s ‘state capitalism’ is continuously offset and disrupted by the all-pervasive economic underground (evident in everything from street food to back street banking). In China and beyond, the ongoing power and ubiquity of global shadow markets is deeply unsettling to all familiar narratives of economic advance.
Cyberculture. The most intriguing and potentially revolutionary zone of China’s informal economy is occurring in the realm of technology. Shanzhai ji (or bandit phones) have spread to even the remotest corners of the developing world (the black market in shanzhai goods flourishing in the border towns of North Korea is particularly gripping). Through the spread of cheap high-tech, China is fundamentally transforming the cutting edge of the global technium (to use Kevin Kelly’s phrase). I am planning a workshop in the spring on shanzhai and maker culture, which will include a trip to Shenzhen to visit the hacker space there and check out the haxlr8r event. My hope is that this research into shanzhai will enable an engagement with abstract questions in the philosophy of digital technology and of Chinese cyberculture more generally. Since, as all China watchers know, cyberspace is the zone in which the country’s most convulsive contradictions are being played out with the greatest intensity.
Time. What ties these themes together is an interest in the future, which, ultimately, is what my new book is about. Shanghai’s ‘neomodernity’ – its stubborn insistence on a future orientation, which so many in the West see as inherently passé, cannot simply be explained through ideas of repetition and nostalgia. The industrialization, urbanization and globalization of contemporary Shanghai is not merely repeating a past from elsewhere but involves, instead, the production of a futurism that is unfamiliar and unknown. The reemergence of Shanghai in the 21st century thus compels us to rethink not only what will happen in the future, but also the time within which the future is conceived. Pushing this idea further involves an exploration of China’s own temporal traditions and anomalies including of course, the Yijing, China’s great treatise on time, as well as the temporal complexities of Buddhism, Taoist time rituals , and the time spirals embedded in Shanghai’s own modernity (for more on this see Nick Land’s A Time Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai here, here and here).