The Shape of Time (Part 1)

Upon learning that America has an Arch-Druid, it would be only natural to make some assumptions about his beliefs, and cautious guesses would probably be right. The commitments of a religion that avoid appeal to the supernatural, one might expect, would be characteristically down-to-earth, ecological, conservative (in the determinedly lower-case and old-fashioned sense), practical, and empirical. At its most intellectually abstract, and also most (quietly) mystical, druidism would accept the ultimate complicity of all reality with a pattern of change that is at once sensible and insurmountable, multi-leveled, subtle, and all-enveloping: the cycle.

John Michael Greer, author of the Arch-Druid Report, eschews spiritual obscurity, at least in public. His persona as a blogger is that of a calm, lucid, and exceptionally insightful cycle theorist. In the strongest and most ineluctable sense, cyclicity is the norm, from which nothing truly, or sustainably, departs. A cultural formation that loses this druidic grounding, by attaching itself to a setting which would break the cycle, thereby destines itself to a fall, or reversal of fortune – expressing the inevitable reversion to sustainability within a greater wheel of nature and history. Balance is less a moral imperative than a cosmic necessity, and since sustainability cannot be avoided, it can only also be advised.

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A Lesson from Detroit

At Project Syndicate, Sanjeev Sanyal argues that the collapse of Detroit has something to teach emerging economies — especially China. The “post-industrial urban model … strongly favors generalist cities that can cluster different kinds of soft and hard amenities and human capital,” he proposes. This has striking implications for the prospects of urban development.

As it transformed itself into the “factory of the world,” the share of China’s urban population jumped from 26.4% in 1990 to around 53% today. The big, cosmopolitan cities of Beijing and Shanghai have grown dramatically, but the bulk of the urban migration has been to cookie-cutter small and medium-size industrial towns that have mushroomed over the last decade. By clustering industrial infrastructure and using the hukou system of city-specific residency permits, the authorities have been able to control the process surprisingly well.

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China Online

The BBC has publicized a summary of China Internet statistics, drawn from the data trove of the CINIC. According to the BBC summary:

China now has 591 million internet users, according to the latest official figures from the country. The China Internet Network Information Centre added that 464 million citizens accessed the net via smartphones or other wireless devices.

Its online population is by far the largest in the world, well over twice as large as America’s (the world’s second largest, at 254 million, with India third at 154 million).

The CINIC’s detailed Statistical Report on Internet Development in China (January 2013), available online here, shows that China added over 50 million Internet users in the year to end 2012. Over the half-decade from 2007-2012, the number of Chinese accessing the Internet via mobile phone rose from just over 50 million to almost 420 million. The latest figure of 464 million represents rapidly accelerating growth, and accounts for a significant majority of the country’s Internet users.

Nationwide, Internet penetration rates by December 2012 averaged a little over 42%. They were highest in Beijing (72.2%), Shanghai (68.4%), Guangdong (63.1%), and Fujian (61.3%), and above 50% in Zhejiang, Tianjin, Liaoning, and Jiangsu.

Views from the Shanghai Tower

Some stunning images from local photographer Blackhaven have been selected by James Griffiths at Shanghaiist, presenting Lujiazui as it has never been seen before. Super-tall towers are objects and platforms of spectacle. It’s probably futile to argue about which aspect of urban visual reconstruction matters more.

ADDED: From Jacob Rubin’s excellent essay on the Burj Khalifa:

Still, a building like the Burj exerts a magnetic pull, much of which derives from the prospect of its view. Such is the question posed by a tower: is it made to be looked at or out of? “Vista,” as a word, has come to have it both ways, denoting not just the view itself but the perch that affords it, as if the latter attained the status of lookout simply by purveying one. When one gazes upon the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, this is literally what one is looking at: a view of a view, a vision of a vision, and that distinct, dread-soaked awe known to any passerby must derive, at least in part, from imagining the view from up there. Like the face of a visionary, these buildings draw much of their power from what they look upon.

Quotable (#2)

Jeffrey Wasserstrom in Time:

When dictators began to fall in North Africa and the Middle East, Chinese official news organs were determined to frame the issue of what was happening in the region less in terms of whether democracy would come to formerly authoritarian lands, than in terms of whether once stable nations would descend into chaos. Recent events in Cairo have, alas, given the Chinese authorities just the sorts of images they need to support the notion that this was at least one, if not necessarily the most important or only, question to ask.

An Introduction to Urbanomy

However irritating neologisms can be, they are sometimes near-compulsory. When a compact, comparatively simple thought is forced to route itself, repeatedly, through crudely-stitched terminological tangles, the missing adequate word fosters the linguistic equivalent of a nagging hunger. Word invention becomes a simple prerequisite of smooth cognitive function.

Urban development of the individual city, or the typical process of urban maturation, is a quite basic but linguistically underserved concept of exactly this kind. The absence is aggravated by the presence of another word — one that sounds superficially suitable, but which actually designates an entirely separate idea.

When a city grows, it does not ‘urbanize’ (only a wider social system can do that). Urbanization applies to a society that becomes proportionately more urban, as rural people move into cities, but when an individual city develops – and in fact individuates – it undergoes urbanomy (on the model of ‘teleonomy’). Urbanomy – urban self-organization — is far more critical to this blog than urbanization is. Coining the term is a declaration of theoretical commitment to urban individuation as a structured – and thus cognitively-tractable – social, historical, and ultimately cosmic reality.

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Quotable (#1)

From Jing Wang’s highly-engaging High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China (1996):

… the theoretical proposal about modernity’s critique of tradition—which amounts to a self-critique of tradition—should not be taken at face value. Advocates of the “neo-Confucianism of the third stage” were obviously more concerned with the capacity of tradition to withstand the furious pace of modernity and all the problems that would accompany it. Although Tu Weiming insisted that a neo-Confucian renaissance is based on the concept of “creative transformation” rather than equated with a conservative return to the Great Learning, the neo-Confucianists did not adequately address the intriguing theoretical question of how one can critique but at the same time inherit tradition. On the other hand, tradition’s critique of modernity cannot be genuinely executed either. With the rise of the myth of “Four Asian Dragons,” the 1980s saw the possibility of collaboration rather than confrontation between the two seemingly antithetical terms of tradition and modernity. Overseas neo-Confucian scholars like Tu Weiming and Yu Yingshi played an important role in driving home the dramatic message. Their ideological interventions from abroad strengthened the belief that Confucian tradition not only does not jeopardize, but on the contrary, facilitates the modernization process. Tu cited examples of Taiwan, Singapore, and other prosperous East Asian countries, and Yu traced the positive influence of Confucian culture on mercantilism back to the Ming and Qing period. The timely entry into the Cultural Discussion of overseas discourses on neo-Confucianism helped shape the central thesis of the Chinese debate over traditional culture and modernization. The thesis that both Tu and Yu foregrounded derived its ultimate reference from Max Weber’s theoretical framework laid out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: Can Confucianism be creatively transformed into a new ethos and ethics that could serve as the ideological foundation for Chinese modernization?

The implicit reference to Weber was well taken in China because it corresponded to the series of Weberian inquiries that Chinese intellectuals themselves had undertaken even before the “Weber fever” reached its peak toward the second half of 1986 with the appearance of the Chinese translation of The Protestant Ethic. If, as Weber implied, modern Western capitalism is supported by the spiritual culture of Protestantism (characterized as a model of rationality based on a synthetic vision of “other-worldly” quest and “inner-worldly asceticism”), then did not the successful experiment of East Asian countries with capitalism indicate that neo-Confucianism can serve East Asia as Protestantism served the modern West?


Yi Xiang

Paradox prompts thought. Arriving at the unthinkable after proceeding, step-by-step, along the path of reason, unsettles comfortable mental routines and points – obscurely – towards something new. Nothing twists this prompt more intensely than time-paradox, which grates thought open upon the basic tangles of reality.

The main creative current of Shanghai visual arts grasps this instinctively. Whilst predictably multidimensional (and in other respects unpredictable), the work revealed by Shanghai artists and art spaces gravitates distinctively towards themes and techniques that can be plausibly described as neo-traditionalist. This inherently paradoxical inclination is itself a deep tradition, with relevance far beyond the visual arts and knotted roots that can be traced back to the Song Dynasty.

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Open Door Products

A Taste of Shanghai

Not exactly a free lunch, but it’s free, and food-oriented. The culture-rich food section of the Open Door Guide to Shanghai, written by Shelly Bryant and Sun Li, has been torn out and digitized, to be dished out as a promotional vehicle.

Anybody with an iPad can pick it up from the App store here. (Let us know what you think.)

[Seriously folks — it’s FREE. If you have an iPad and you haven’t downloaded this yet, you might as well complete the abuse by dropping into the office and beating me into a coma with a spiked baseball bat.]

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Urbanization in Focus

Might urbanization be the leading theme of China’s 5th generation CCP administration? The background to this question is the process of Chinese urbanization itself. Over the three decades of Reform and Opening, China’s urban population rose from 20% to 53% of the (rising) total, resulting in over half a billion new urbanites. The economic and geostrategic consequences of this transformation have profoundly re-structured the world. (It is the central fact of the Pacific-centered Modernity 2.0.)

In the Atlantic, Matt Schiavenza communicates the basics:

In China, economic growth and urbanization have gone hand in hand. When Deng Xiaoping initiated Reform and Opening in 1978, the vast majority of the population lived and worked in the countryside — just as Chinese people had for centuries. But over the past three and a half decades, as special economic zones churned out exports and China modernized its cities, hundreds of millions of people migrated to urban areas seeking work in the manufacturing and service sectors. This … has made China — and the Chinese — much wealthier.

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