All posts for the month February, 2013

Notes from a talk organized by Mathieu Borysevicz and Sophie Huang of the MAB Society, held on December 10th, 2012, at the Minsheng Museum in conjunction with the exhibition Just What is it about the end of the world that makes it so appealing?

What follows is part of a larger project, concerned with reimagining contemporary modernity as it is emerging in Shanghai. The focus, in particular, is on the temporality of this new modernity  (modernity 2.0), and its distinctiveness from the construction of modern time as it has developed in the West, with its stories of progress and eschatology.

Modern time is produced through a synthesis of clock and calendar. The mechanical clock was first invented in China at least as early as the Song dynasty. Its revolutionary potential, however, was not felt until it was rediscovered in Europe over five centuries later. As clocks spread from monasteries to cities, the new technology unhinged time from space. No longer tied to the revolutions of the planets, clocks created an autonomous, abstract and empty mode of time that was secular, homogenous, and quantitative and therefore opposed to the historical, astronomical and qualitative time of the calendar.

Clocks govern the hours and minutes of the day, they can not however, provide a past, present, or a future. A culture’s rhythms, history and aspirations are rooted instead in their calendars. This is why calendars have always been so important to both rulers and revolutionary groups. Calendars are the surest means through which a culture can separate itself both from their immediate past and from their existing surroundings. Thus, calendric change has always been recognized as a cultures first and most crucial step in establishing their autonomy and solidifying their traditions. As William Burroughs noted — if you want to change a culture, you have to change its calendar.

Modernity, as it has so far been constructed, strictly conforms to the rhythms of the Gregorian calendar, which came into being in 1582, at the dawn of capitalism, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced modifications into the Julian calendar. The Gregorian calendar was adopted by the protestant German states in 1699, England and its colonies in 1752, Sweden in 1873, Japan in 1873, and China in 1912. It is now considered to be the (almost) undisputed calendar of globalization.

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urlThe above graph provides a dramatic visualization of income inequality over approximately the past 100 years. It maps vast inequality in the early decades of the century (peaking in the late 1920s). The wave crests in the early 1940s and stays flat for the next 3 decades, which coincides with the mass creation of the middle class. By the 1980s the wealth gap starts to widen and the graph begins its second sharp ascent. When Saskia Sassen presented this information in her talk on the Global City, I was struck by a sudden and disturbing thought, which eclipsed the typical, familiar, and intended reaction; that is outrage over the 1%. The decades of sharpest inequality appear to coincide with the most intense flourishing of urban life (think, especially of New York and Shanghai in the 1920s and now). Could it be, then, that income inequality is actually good for cities?

At some level this must be right. The greatest and most lasting achievement of the middle class is the creation of suburbia. “The true center of any bourgeois society, is the middle class house, ” writes the great urban historian Robert Fishman. “If you seek the monuments of the bourgeoisie, go to the suburbs and look around.” Fishman’s book Bourgeois Utopia tells, in fascinating detail, the social, cultural, and political history of how the middle class made the suburbs their home. Part of this story, of course, is the car (the most anti-urban of all technological inventions). The cost of a car, which has its own singular price point that lies between a house and any other appliance or piece of high-tech, is evidence of the fact that the automobile alone is the choice consumer good of the middle class. Once you own a car downtown becomes a place that is best to avoid.

The enormous commercial variety commonly available in a large metropolis seems designed to accentuate the wealth gap. My neighborhood in Shanghai has both ultra-hip fine dining where it is easy to drop hundreds of dollars. These exist alongside an abundance of street snacks available for under a buck. In small town suburbia, on the other hand, this diversity simply doesn’t exist. Lunch or dinner wherever you go costs basically the same. In his famous article on the divisions between red and blue America David Brooks tells of desperately trying, and ultimately failing, to spend more than 20 bucks on a meal in a small middle class town. In megacities during their most dynamic phases -as Shanghai is today – rich and poor live in very close proximity. The best Sci-Fi visions always pay homage to the intensity of this juxtaposition (think Blade Runner’s spectacular skyscrapers jutting up from dark alleys stuffed with noodle stands). The reason, no doubt, is simple — both rich and poor are attracted to the increased prosperity that only the city can offer.

And yet, and I know this contradicts all that is above, head to Ikea in Xujiahui on a Sunday and it seems certain that Shanghai is a city of a growing middle class.

In the late 1990s a friend who had just completed her PhD in philosophy told me that her next project would focus on cities. I remember being intrigued but confused. More than a decade later, having been captured by a love of Shanghai, and now steeped in urban thought, the question still seems open. How can one treat the metropolis as an entity for philosophic inquiry? What is it to think the city philosophically?

Ananya Roy, in her presentation for the Forum on the Future of the City argued that our current era of planetary urbanism demands a conceptual revolution. Our theories about the nature of cities require a new geographical orientation, one that is rooted in the growing megacities of the developing world.

Rupali Gupte’s talk on Megacity Mumbai stemmed from precisely this kind of conceptual re-alignment. Our models of the city, Gupte argued, are based on the Western experience, which, for the past few decades, has been dominated by stories of postindustrial decay. The contemporary focus of urbanism, therefore, has been on dying centers in need of rejuvenation and renewal.  Yet, during the past 20 years, while many cities in the West have spun into decline, the Asian metropolis has been on a takeoff trajectory that has made them more vital than ever before. In the case of Mumbai at least, the transformation from city to megacity cannot be explained by population growth. In fact, according to Gupte, Mumbai’s population has remained surprisingly stable. What has changed is the nature of work. This mutation, according to Gupte, is less about density than intensity.

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The recent Princeton Forum on the Future of the City had one overarching theme: We are in the midst of an urban age. Numerous speakers quoted the oft-cited statistic that 2007 marked the year that more than 50% of the world’s population was living in cities. Digital technology, which was supposed to mark the ‘death of distance’ and make it possible to work from anywhere, is, in fact, proliferating in conjunction with an unprecedented urban concentration. “Instead of spreading out” stated urban economist Edward Glaeser “people are clustering in.”

One of the main reasons cities have become increasingly important is the productivity gains that come with tight proximity. When people share the same space, they tend to share knowledge as well. (This is why, as Glaeser pointed out, trading floors are so crowded. Though they are filled with people wealthy enough to afford large offices, what traders value most is the information that seeps through in high frequency face to face encounters). In addition to their, by now well reported, economic advantages, cities are better for one’s health  (the massive urban/rural health gap extends far beyond China) and, paradoxically, ultimately, provide a ‘greener’ way of life (“if you love nature,” said Glaeser echoing an argument by David Owen, “it is best to stay away”).

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