The Decopunk Delta

As this blog spirals around to its re-starting point, it fetches back the tasks it has yet to advance upon, including the most basic (announced in its sub-title). Why the ‘Decopunk Delta’? Mostly because that’s where time frays.

+ Golden Age Shanghai is unsettled business, and as things surge forward, they turn back.
+ Art Deco is the world’s lost modernity, as everyone senses, without quite knowing how.
+ Art Deco escaped its time, at the time. It is the pre-eminent time-travel relic of the earth.
+ What Art Deco communicates is vivid, yet still unverbalized.
+ Art Deco fascinates again, today, because it is obscurely recognized as the key to the encrypted meaning of world history, and nowhere is this more insistently hinted than in re-opened Shanghai.

– The ‘-punk’ suffix is pulp-code for any cultural time-travel tool undergoing contemporary development.

The two halves of the term ‘Decopunk’ bond through a peculiar quasi-symmetry. Each is time-locked into an identifiable ‘vogue’, while simultaneously making a problem of time, and a topic of history. Art Deco is at once the most evocative characteristic of an epoch — that of high-modernity / capitalism — and a super-historical exploration, extending from the archaic remnants of lost civilizations to flights of science-fictional speculation, drawing the entire cosmos of aesthetic and architectural possibility into itself. The still-proliferating ‘-punk’ suffix, similarly, designates both an eruption of near-contemporary pulp-literary genres, and a method of time pillage, ranging widely across past and future on searches for extractable sets, or techno-cultural styles. Something like an abstract epochality, or historical re-use value, is hunted on each side. When the two connect, original occurrence is swirled into a twin-process recycling machine.

If Decopunk describes a precision-engineered inter-meshing across time, it also marks a tension, or gradient, from the historical to the contemporary, from opulence to squalor, from optimism to pessimism, and from the tangible to the digital. What the past’s virtual present tends to over-estimate, the present’s virtual past tends to undermine, and it is only in the unstable circuit of oscillating valuation that either pole finds its real currency (which is equally that of the other). A euphoric cynicism, honed through spiral detachment from the partial and the actual, melds poly-fractional Decopunk into a single, investigable thing.


The conceptual content of the alternative history ‘-punk’ was a central consideration of the (UF1.1) series A Time-Traveler’s Guide to Shanghai (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). The grungier and more popular — although for our purposes far less exact — term ‘Dieselpunk’ was employed in these pieces, as a place-holder for the emerging problem of time dislocation.

Some of the most prominent cultural-historical questions raised by Shanghai’s Art Deco legacy were briefly indicated in the Urbanatomy guide to the 2010 World Expo, in a short section repeated here:

Tropical Modernity

Cosmopolitanism is an essential trait for any city with aspirations to global status. In itself, however, the cosmopolitan idea is too abstract and empty, or at least indeterminate, to provide adequate guidance into Shanghai’s dominant cultural traditions.

The economic and communicative shrinkage of the world makes modernity, no less than urbanism, inherently cosmopolitan. Since the 1960s, postmodern critics have reconstructed (and ‘deconstructed’) a model of cosmopolitan modernism that conforms to the vision of its most verbally articulate architectural proponents. This vision identified itself with the ‘International Style’, characterized by austerely functional, geometrically pure designs. By eliminating every element with discernible historical or cultural reference, such designs aspired to universal validity and relevance. The result was a negative cosmopolitanism, conceived as an escape from the trap of native peculiarity. This claim to cultural neutrality and universal authority has been the basic object of postmodernist disparagement, and the widespread social disaster associated with this philosophy of urban construction in Western countries (‘the projects’) did much to legitimate the postmodern case. In elite and popular opinion alike, high modernism, as represented by its supposedly mainstream traditions in urban planning and architecture, became associated with an arrogant insensitivity to local realities, and a self-deluding confidence in its own objective inevitability.

The importance of Shanghai to this discussion, is that it entirely disdained the modernism of the International, at least until very recent times (following the opening of Pudong). Its high modernity was constructed in the more luxuriant or tropical styles that are today grouped together under the label ‘Art Deco’, in retrospective reference to the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs of 1925. Where the International Style rejected every kind of superfluity, Art Deco reveled in cultural complexity, arcane symbolism and opulence of reference, borrowing freely from the temples of ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, ballistic technology, science fiction objects, hermetic glyphs and alien dreams. Fusing streamline design trends with fractionated, cubist forms and the findings of comparative ethnography, it created a luscious cosmopolitan style, perfectly adapted to the Shanghai of the early 20th century.

Shanghai has been as thoroughly saturated with Art Deco heritage and influence as any city in the world. Examples include such treasures as the Capitol Building (146 Huqiu Lu, CH Gonda, 1928), the Grand Theater (now Grand Cinema, 216 Nanjing W, Rd, Hudec, 1928), the Peace Hotel (Bund 19-20, Palmer & Turner, 1929) and the Paramount Ballroom (Yang Ximiao, 218 Yuyuan Rd, 1932). An especially stunning Art Deco cluster can be found at the ‘Municipal Square’ intersection of Jiangxi Middle Road and Fuzhou Road, dominated by Hamilton House (Palmer & Turner,1931), the Metropole Hotel (Palmer & Turner,1934) and the Commercial Bank of China (Davies, Brooke and Gran, 1936). Much of this fabulous architectural legacy has been documented in the work of local photographer Deke Erh.

Art Deco styling became so deeply infused into the fabric of the city that its patterning and distinctive motifs (such as sunbursts, zig-zags and mystical signs) can be seen on innumerable lilong gateways from the 1920-40s. At another extreme, the city’s ultramodern Jin Mao Tower in Lujiazui (88 Century Avenue) synthesizes crystalline forms, pagoda segmentation, and patterns derived from traditional Chinese numerology, under the guidance of unmistakable Art Deco influences. An even more pronounced example of contemporary Art Deco construction and decoration is provided by the new Peninsula Hotel, which has been meticulously designed as a conscious tribute to (and revivification of) Shanghai’s high modernist style.

In contrast to the austerity of the International Style, the tropical abundance of Art Deco produces a positive cosmopolitanism, advancing to the universal by way of comprehension and synthesis, rather than exclusive purification. It makes itself global by drawing everything foreign into itself, rather than by divesting itself of native traits. From this difference, much follows.

In the West, a generalized disillusionment with modernism, resulting from harsh historical experiences, civilizational guilt, and relative geostrategic decline, found articulate expression in postmodern arguments and, more popularly, attitudes. These stances achieved a measure of coherence through a critical construction of modernism, modeled on the International Style. Postwar trends in urban development, based on rigid zoning, geometrical rationalization of the cityscape, and blandly uniform mass residential highrise blocks, seemed to exemplify an archetypal modernist mentality. Urban modernity was construed as something that had been tried, seen, understood, judged, and rejected. The postmodern cultural episode ensued.

Art Deco, however, eluded this entire dismal progression. An assertively modern, comprehensive style that had embraced the machine age and a communicatively interconnected world, it remained wholly untainted by the minimalism and master-planning of the International Stylists. The thunderous culture clash between ‘modernists’ and postmodernists that resounded through the Western world in the late 20th century bypassed it completely. Art Deco thus represents an unprocessed or undigested modernity, still pulsing with historical enigma and non-exhausted potentialities. The continuing vibrancy of Art Deco is misapprehended by notions of anachronism or nostalgia, since it is a style that has never been concluded, delimited, surpassed, or adequately evaluated. It is the almost infinitely complex symbol of a prematurely discarded modern spirit, re-animated spontaneously by the renewal of modernity itself. Art Deco’s persistent and compelling claim upon aesthetic, intellectual, and even political attention are nowhere more obvious than in contemporary Shanghai.

9 thoughts on “The Decopunk Delta

  1. All of which begs the question, is China poised to complete the modernist project that Western post-modernism and cultural disillusion put on hold? Given your readings of Mou Zongsan and his thoughts on the capacity of Chinese thought to provide the dialectical realization of Enlightenment Western philosophy, it would follow that Chinese culture (considered as a unified system) would possess within itself the ability to revive a coherent movement of trans-historical civilization aspiration free from the endless self-correction and cultural questioning which marked the dismantling of the Western modernist project.

    Whether the will for such a movement, at least in aesthetic terms, exists among the Chinese populace is something to consider. Both of your examples of contemporary Chinese art deco architecture are in fact the products of Western architectural teams (presumably given free reign by their clients to throw off the constrains of the international style). What a truly Chinese (post-post-)modernism would look like is still taking shape.

    • “… free from the endless self-correction and cultural questioning which marked the dismantling of the Western modernist project.”
      — I need quite a bit more to be persuaded by this. Can ‘self-correction’ really lead to catastrophe? Mou Zongsan certainly seems to be engaged in something like a self-correction of the Confucian tradition (along with an explicit openness to Western technical influences).

      Where I definitely agree is that the technical contribution of the West is still crucial, and that the potential of Chinese civilizational revival remains cryptic.

  2. Hip, hip, hooray! Let the band strike up a few cords of hyperbole for Art Deco! I couldn’t agree more… the hidden vitality of the earth bloomed in the oddities of Asia. J.G. Ballard would have earmarked this as broken dream of another Time awakening in us now. A Modernity that never happened because it was always NOW, PRESENT, FOUND in the interstices of history’s ante-chambers. Nietzsche’s ‘laughter of the gods’ rings out of this paeon to the NEW always begetting tropical effusions.

    Looks like you’ve hit a marker, a edge thought that will take us over the brink and into the timeless ville of Modernity’s home.

    • Apologies for my ignorance on this, but have you ever written about Art Deco? Seems like something you might have an angle on.

      • Not recently…. but, sure, in earlier years for specific studies I was pursuing at the time. Art Deco was the last great refinement of the central insight of 19th Century art forms. The ‘Aesthetic’ if you will… Pater exemplified it to the nth degree, Wilde lived it, and Joyce in his baroque decadence turned it inside out in his etym smasher black book of puns. The combination of sexual ambiguity and high aesthetic stylization fused all the great and darker contours of western traditions. From the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, the Symbolistes, to Art Deco and Erte… you have the refinement of the beautiful in the modernist. That all of this was deeply connected to certain revivals of a certain conservative mind set is without doubt. That I can cede you. For whatever reason the 2nd Great War dissolved this form into chaos…. too bad!

        • “For whatever reason the 2nd Great War dissolved this form into chaos…. too bad!” — In this respect, as in many others, it serves as the greatest index of modernity (perfectly tracking the ‘postmodern’ eclipse). Yet, defeated in actuality, it seems peculiarly resilient as an occulted counter-point to the forward march of events — whether in science fiction aesthetics, or those of alternative-history chrono-punked narratives.

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