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.
Despite its pretence at universality, however, the Gregorian calendar encodes a particular understanding of time, one that is intrinsically eschatological or apocalyptic in nature. Modern time is embedded from the start with both a beginning and an end.
In his book Chaos, Cosmos and The World to Come, Norman Cohn explains the origins of eschatological time, first by distinguishing it from the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Vedic Indians. In different ways, these cultures, posited a world locked in a timeless equilibrium between the forces of chaos and order. For these ancient traditions the ordered cosmos and the chaos monsters that threatened it were – and always would be – in tension.
According to Cohn this changed drastically in 1500 to 1200 BC with the Zoroastrian revolution. Zoroaster envisioned a world governed by two spirits: Ahura Mazda, the divine creator, and his evil twin, the destructive Angra Mainyu. Crucially, for Zoroaster, the battle between these twinned cosmic forces would not endure forever, but was instead moving forward and would – one day -come to an end. At the culmination of this cosmic war lay a final, eternal victory in which God’s authority is undisturbed and all imperfections have ceased. Zoroaster called this the ‘great wonderful’ and prophesied that with it, time itself will come to an end. This conception, of an intrinsic temporal momentum produces not only the future, but the present and the past as well. It is generative of the very idea of history.
The time-consciousness invented by Zoroaster was taken up and intensified by the monotheistic traditions. Its apocalyptic tendencies are still very much apparent, from the contemporary popularity of the book of Revelations to the socialist utopia of Marxist/Leninist ideology.
Chinese modernity has adopted the notion that time moves forward according to a progressive momentum, but this sense of temporality is not its own. Evidence of another time-consciousness is evident in everyday language, in the philosophies of Buddhism, in the great treatise of time the Yijing. Shanghai’s creation of a new modernity – that is to say, a future that is its own – involves the excavation – and re-invention – of these other, alternative, cultures of time.