Catherine and the Sinoplasmic Instincts –
A Speculative Treatise on the Trans-Pacific Nexus
by Zegreus Moole
In October 2007, Catherine rode a bus out to a suburb of Guangzhou, the temporary residence of itinerant technocrats. She daydreamed about translating phenomenology into Chinese – could le non-caché could be written 非隱者? That seemed quaintly classical, and more pleasant than “the unconcealed”. English was too practical for delicate speculation, as though it were designed by bankers to maximize quick turnovers. She routinely worked with banker and brokers, though she herself was merely an anthropologist conducting market research. The economic crises had discredited conventional analysis, and forward-thinking funds were turning to liberal humanist scholars. They wanted to capitalize on long demographic and cultural trends that developed between the great civilizations, and on the emergence of distinctly transpacific commodities. Catherine was a sought-after researcher due to her discovery of sinoplasmic instincts, which were organic drives that reiterated over millennia and were taking on new pervasive forms with the sinicization of world markets. Hedge funds contracted her to map out investment environments in the unfolding of transpacific hybrid civilization. She gained notoriety from her paper at the 2003 Singapore ASEAN meeting, “Aleithea the Wandering Shelter”, which sketched a broad geohistory of finance.
Catherine’s research teetered along the breaking-point where emerging markets were disrupting the global credit system. Until November 2008, the price of iron ore was set annually by a cartel of Anglo-mining companies (Rio Tinto, Anglo-American…), but Chinese purchasers had destroyed the cartel by insisting on lower prices. Ensuing price uncertainty led to the first markets in iron ore futures, since manufacturing and construction companies were suddenly willing to pay for guarantees on future prices. The power of Chinese purchasers had broken the grip of the industrial old-guard on their most intimate mineral. That winter the Chinese government bought-out resource companies around the world, and arrested Australian mining executives on corruption charges. The commodities markets were shifting from Chicago to Guangzhou, a transition rife with metaphysical niceties and speculative opportunities. Guangzhou was an experimental site for encounters with capital and machinery, a theatre for the high intensity genesis of new life-forms, where new elbows and knees are broken. Financial firms needed ethnographers to investigate these branding systems which are so consequential for investments.
The study of sinoplasm led her from cinema to real estate, but all her far-flung research was organized according to a positive principle she called Taiwanese Luck. This was another kind of idealism, based not in politics or religion, but in a logic of conflicted instincts. She had adopted Taiwan as a model for an object that oriental life sought instinctually. Sometimes she referred to this object as the New Jerusalem which she conceived in the bold metaphysical terms of German Idealism as Gestalt and Sittlichkeit. The Taiwanese had found suitable commodities, but only once they were stripped bare as the whores of capital. They submitted to financiers who converted their island into cheap crap. It was the cynical generosity of Chinese technocrats in California who set up those magical “science parks” that brought the Taiwanese into world finance, and into the stockings of the North American middle class. The factors which combined for Taiwanese success are well-known: the early Japanese industrial base, the plundering of China by the nationalists, and the US cold war strategy which opposed communism by developing markets in allied territories.
Sinoplasmic instincts repeat old patterns of commerce, and this led her to studies in Chinese theatre and folklore, such as MuLian (目連) and the local place god TuDi Gong (土地公). It’s said that TuDi temples emerged along the Spice Route among monks who operated hostels for pilgrims. He’s a source of protection against droughts or floods, he keeps snakes away, and promotes prosperity among whoever stays in that place. He represents the locale for both permanent residents and travellers so that everyone can pay homage to the place through him. He is a humble bureaucrat with simple earthy temples, and not a powerful god of the skies. Of all the Chinese deities he is closest to the common people, and this makes the celestial powers suspicious of his egalitarianism. Once the Jade emperor found TuDi was too generous, not collecting enough taxes, and allowing the peasants to enrich themselves excessively. At that time there was a mix-up where a woman as falsely accused, and since her reputation as tarnished the emperor assigned her to TuDi as a wife. She was instructed to restrain his generosity. So if not for that wife, then the peasants would certainly benefit more from his prodigality. Catherine found TuDi remarkable for his proximity to terrestrial forces and spatial instincts, and considered him a proxy for a somnambulant localism, and for agrarian sympathies and liberties.
It’s an established pattern for Chinese officials to voice support for farmers whenever they have the chance. This is associated with Maoism, but also dates to the earliest artifacts of Chinese civilization. On May 6th 2010, the ChongQing Evening News reported on a meeting between Party Secretary Bo and some university students with placements as village-level administrators. There were complaints that the students had blundered their roles in public life, and it was said they had only gradually learned that “lack of true feelings for the people caused all problems”. During the meeting the secretary remarked that “farmers have the sincerest emotions” and that “the average people are the true materialists, if you work wholeheartedly, you will be recognized by the farmer brothers.” The secretary went on to say that education systems should include farmers. Some of Catherine’s cynical banker colleagues pointed out that Bo’s policies were essentially Thatcherist. However, she used the opportunity to recall Marx’s ’18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, where French Royalists were shown leading the bourgeois revolution despite themselves.
Catherine believed an emerging short-circuit between agriculture and academia was destined to recoil violently around the Earth, and she called this the Great Ancestral Exchange. This process was revealed through her studies of the pedagogue Tao ZhiXing (陶知行), who completed an education thesis with John Dewey at Colombia in 1913-16. After returning home from his studies, Tao underwent a ruralist conversion, and went on to develop educational infrastructure oriented around the peasantry. Tao’s given name means “knowledge action” and comes from a precept of the famous Ming general Wang YangMing, whose ideas are compared with American Pragmatism. In a program Tao implemented in 1923, elementary school students were instructed to teach evening calligraphy to their families at home. John Dewey went to China to promote Wilsonian liberalism after the victory in World War One, and lectured in 21 cities over two years during the Warlord Era. His discipline, the diplomat HuShi, translated the lectures live sentence-by-sentence. The Qing Dynasty had attempted to reconstitute itself under the name of the Republic of China, with the General Yuan ShiKai as president. But after Yuan’s death in 1916 the state disintegrated into warring factions led by characters with names like the Jade Marshall, the Mukden Tiger, and the Dogmeat General. It was in that dissolved political environment, at a warlord’s banquet in HuBei that Dewey met Bertrand Russel for the first time. Russell’s lectures were attracting more radical crowds, though his audience was disappointed when he sited pacifistic Chinese thinkers like LaoZi.
Dewey had a profound sense of what he was doing in China, although it’s not clear exactly what that was. The author of one manuscript (‘The Dewey Experiment in China’, Harvard Press, 1978) says he “saw himself taking part in the completion of a cycle of world cultural exchange going back to the ancient Mid-East. The US had received the development of that early culture, and he was now transporting it back, in modern democratic form, to its homeland in Asia.” Dewey taught that going to school was a child’s first contact with an environment beyond the family, and so education was an expansion of the child’s life-world. He connected this environmental expansion with an international cosmopolitanism, so that it was the task of the educator to create a world where international communication was possible. But Dewey’s idealism seems ironically misplaced in the Warlord Era. The student riots began when it was announced that the Chinese were shut-out of the Versailles negotiations, and that the German-controlled territories in Shandong would be ceded to Japan. The riots recurred throughout the following decade.
Chinese revolt is a limit under which the entire world economy operates, a dangerous possibility which conditions the world markets. To know the conditions of this system one must know the fears of the Chinese elite, their worries for the weaknesses of their engineering state, and their hatred for unruly Uyghurs and transportation workers. Reports circulated of a nun in southern China who claimed to have discovered a legendary flower known as youtan poluo (优昙婆罗) growing beneath her washing machine. Ancient scriptures describe how this plant grows every three hundred years, when it announces the coming of a Buddha. Chinese state news countered these reports with scientific claims that the flower was in fact worm eggs. But continued rumblings led officials to issue a censorship decree specifying that this kind of flower not be discussed in the news. This is no surprise if we consider how messianic Buddhist legends have accompanied social upheaval in China at least since the White Lotus rebellions at the origins of the Ming Dynasty. The centuries since are scattered with tales of Triadic sects subverting the empire with cultish uprisings. The millennial tax-revolt is a shadowy tradition that connects events across the Pacific, and points to a somnambulent life where capitalism and religion interweave in a regional aesthetics. Well-known instances from this dimension include the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong, who are participants in a sleeping trans-pacific economy where religion regulates the dynamics of capital.
The strange tales of Charlie Soong (宋嘉樹) are classics of this neglected genre. His family were Hakkan sailing merchants from the southern island of Hainan, and as a teenager he circled the seven seas on trading ships. A voyage gone astray landed him in South Carolina, where a Durham Tobacco-man paid his tuition to a baptist seminary. After graduating in the 1870’s he moved to Shanghai to work as a missionary. But proving insubordinate for that vocation, he opened a printing press, and made fortunes selling Chinese bibles. He married into a wealthy Christian Shanghai family whose ancestors were converted by Mateo Ricci. Besides all the bibles, Soong’s company printed pamphlets of anti-imperial and religious literature that circulated through secret Triadic sects. This bizarre genre mixed Taoist and Christian accounts of the apocalypse, along with various political accounts of revolution, including American Republicanism and French socialism.
Through these subversive networks, Charlie came into acquaintance with a certain Dr. Sun Yetsen, a rising figure on the Triadic underground. Triads like Charlie Soong and Dr. Sun were sworn brothers, committed to the promise of a messianic religious regime. Soong quickly recognized Dr. Sun as a capable leader, and offered financial support for his politico-religious subversions. In the 1880’s he paid for Dr. Sun to travel to America and England drumming up support for an uprising against the Qing. In London, Sun was kidnapped by Qing diplomats who locked him up in the back of their embassy. Word of his arrest somehow reached the Scotland Yard, and when the British elites figured out who he was, they saw an opportunity. Officers marched down to the Qing embassy with a media crew, and demanded the immediate release of the Christian and Lincolnian modernizer. Dr Sun stepped out to fanfare and instant celebrity in Victorian England as a Chinaman who’d seen the light, and who was standing up for liberal Western values against the arcane Asiatic empire. When news of this event got back to the bible-man Charlie Soong in Shanghai, that the English government had sided with his subversive comrade against the imperial overlords, he broke into a publication frenzy. Accounts of the event were pumped through the underground channels, announcing the crumbling of the empire and the dawn of a mystical heavenly kingdom. Dr. Sun was revered for this event, and it generated international and domestic support that empowered him to found the Republic which ended dynastic Chinese history in 1911.
Catherine investigated how bio-social signals stir up revolutionary energy, and bring populations under the spell of apocalyptic events and the promise of a new life. Regimes manipulate these signals for purposes of statecraft – for inspiring state-worship, defeating subversion, or attracting consumers. When Obama and the Dalai Lama are photographed together, that sends a signal which upsets Chinese authorities, and that disruption is similar to where Dr. Sun appeared released by the Scotland Yard, an image that helped dissolve the Qing dynasty. This is a semiotics of exchange where democracy and religion have woven together with capitalism which paradoxically has the power to purify and bless them. There are orders of monks who embrace capitalism aggressively, such as the venerable robes of FoGuanShan monastery (佛光山) who host meetings of the WTO where they give flattering introductions to important Party members.
The conclusions of Catherine’s research were embarrassing for North Americans who are isolated by their poorly developed ancestral ethics. The liberal mentality is flimsy and irreverent because it underestimates the density of time, and obstructs essential translations. Knowing the severity of neither war nor religion, North Americans are bereft of the relations which position a creature in its environment. This is a general non-rapport with material conditions which leaves populations without nuanced affects as their feelings are conflated into the muck of anxiety. Catherine addressed North America with a Hesiodic rhapsody pleading for the evolution of liberal culture, and she believed that restoring civilization would require raising science from the dead.
She pointed out how the predominant Anglo-Celtic discourse (utilitarianism) becomes increasingly ridiculous as it grows candidly self-renouncing, like when the IMF publishes reports recommending the closure of the IMF, or when bond rating agencies engage in downgrade-wars: “Moody’s downgraded Fitch this morning, and this afternoon Fitch responded by downgrading Moody’s”. The great economic problem (which Catherine called the Swooning of Sense) is that, after centuries of improving the economy, the power of machines simply becomes exorbitant. This achievement was celebrated, and people have even dreamed of the day without work. But the prospect of not working is more disturbing than anything else. Much of people’s identity and esteem comes from their work – without work the distinction of individuals would crumble. So the power of machines becomes terrifying – what if things work too well? The dominant economic trend of our age is the anti-production which slows progress to avoid potentially dangerous transformations that might occur at higher efficiency. If educators improved the schools, then students might advance too quickly and become unmanageable. So the fear of progress can throw education into reverse – students who have gone too far must be returned to the fold. This situation is often experienced by teachers. Any institutions that work too well are in danger of putting themselves out of business, or spawning other institutions which escape the grasp of present management. If police eliminated crime they might end up unemployed, and the prejudices against preventative medicine are well known. The fear of effective work generates all manner of anti-production – “slack in the system”, the resistance to evolution. Environmental fears are routinely conjured to dispel limitlessness. Slack in the system is a pervasive narcolepsy with far-reaching implications for physiology and religion. One key form of anti-production is seigniorage or monetary expansion. Prices were predicted to rise after the expansions in the fall of 2008, but instead there was destabilization – the amorphous slack of liquidity makes prices erratic. Price destabilization has effects which ripple through populations, throwing anyone with narrow margins into panic. The expansion of credit causes recklessness in all sectors, from real estate to education. When students receive unlimited loans they fail to notice the horrific deal they are getting, and they are also more likely to default. Excess credit makes customers swoon when they enter the market, leaving them unscrupulous and easily taken.
The student who sincerely desires education carries within them an uneasy tension which makes them suspect: it indicates that they are not afraid of efficiency, and are prepared to work hard enough to transform the present circumstances. Sinoplasm is a death drive which aims at superior markets. The prevailing semiotics of anti-production discourages athleticism in work, and exhibits ruses called “performance” and “excellence” which are forms sabotage. There is an indeterminacy of work due to the corruption of values, which makes needed jobs impossible to orchestrate and schedule. There are never suitable credentials to qualify someone for the required job, and that leaves the job bouncing back and forth between whoever has the highest credentials, never getting done and keeping them eternally employed. By suspending intellectual work productivity can be lowered indefinitely. Stupidity eliminates the risks of efficiency. Catherine believed that this spreading of anti-production provoked an instinctual counter-response which she called Ancestral Work.
Catherine was intrigued with Matteo Ricci, who established four Jesuit missions in China between 1585 and 1610. The Ming scholar Shen DuFu (沈荳腐) wrote in his memoirs “because Ricci did not practice usury, yet seemed to have everything he needed in abundance, people suspected that he must have mastered the arts of the forge and the fire.” There is much evidence that he was suspected of practising alchemy. When Ricci’s mission in Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province was closed down in 1589, the official reason was that they had refused to yield up secrets for making silver from mercury. Strangely, there were abandoned silver mines not far from the mission where bandits and vagrants were known to stay. Where copper was the peasants’ currency, silver was used by Chinese elites, and the production of silver was somehow connected with illegality and foreignness. Note that Jesuits at Goa were using mercury for refining silver at that time. Ricci’s scientific apparatuses may have also appeared conspicuous, or perhaps he attracted attention when he sold his “elaborate and adjustable sundials”.
In the early days, Ricci adopted the guise of a Buddhist monk, but found that monastic caste was too despised, so later dressed instead as a Confucian literati. Many times he requested specific objects from the Vatican to support his endeavours Once he asked the Pope for “a clock of metal, a palm high, which has the counterweights inside, since those that have them outside are less pleasing to these gentlemen here”. Since he could never get enough clocks, eventually a metallurgist and clock-maker was sent to accompany him full time. When Ricci petitioned the Ming court for the right to open a Peking mission in January 1601, his gifts were brought into the city on eight pack horses and over thirty porters. He was granted his mission in addition to various privileges: he was given the right to purchase land, a monthly government allowance from the Board of Rites which was enough for five people to live on including meat, salt, vegetables, wine and firewood, and one full-time servant. The court also gave him a monthly stipend of eight silver ducats. Through setting up the four missions in China, Ricci learned to negotiate over Chinese real estate. He found it best to purchase land the Chinese believed was haunted, and was able to avoid all property taxes by winning special exemptions.
Catherine noted Ricci’s hostility towards Buddhists. After a well-liked Buddhist scholar was publicly tortured and executed, Ricci wrote cruelly “he was wont to boast of caring nothing for things pertaining to his body… while being beaten he cried out like any other profane mortal.” Christian priests were mocked at Peking market plays and on prints that circulated portraying them as sodomites and pedophiles. Ricci resented that mocking, and he made the same claims about Chinese. Burial rites were of particular importance for the Jesuit missions in China. The Christian iconography in emperor Wanli’s (1563-1620) tomb is due to Jesuit influences, and Chinese peasants sought baptism because they believed it would guarantee them a burial in a marked grave. The Vatican began beautifying Ricci in 1984, and there is speculation that he may be on track for sainthood. Marking the 400th anniversary of Ricci’s death, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that he was “a model of dialogue and respect for the beliefs of others, and made friendship the style of his apostolate during his twenty-eight years in China.” In Peking court eunuchs accompanied Ricci in his scientific studies, and he was fond of some of them.
Sinoplasmic wealth is created through ongoing flows of information between participants, and so multiplying the flows multiplies the wealth. For the declining Anglo-Celtic establishment, robust wealth creation (i.e. transcontinental pedagogy) did not register directly as GDP, and so the true sources of growth were dismissed as unaccountable. This oversight ensured the decisive triumph of sinoplasmic instincts. Though these forces may be invisible to economists, these forces return to haunt them at night. Since all drives are inherently uncertain (they are intensive quantities, and therefore unmeasurable) it follows that education must be administered with generous and intuitive competencies regarding the movement of information around singular populations. This requires the desire to circulate knowledge widely, and attention to the intricate calculations of chance known by options traders like Catherine’s friend Nassim Taleb, author of the books Black Swan (1998), and Fooled by Randomness (2010).
Catherine produced a sinoplasmic model of education, a conceptual tool designed to mediate the emergence of competent and loyal networks of market agency by disseminating an ethics of regional technology. Students were selected for their sinoplasmic potential to function as knowledge-relays, and this would meant targeting the most diligent populations prepared to attain whatever standards a system demands. The global economy works on relations of trust which translate into GDP over the long-term, so the challenge is to make connections between regional markets that last generations. Her global idealism focused on a practice which she called “nudging”, where the expression of sinoplasmic instincts becomes democratic and cosmopolitan. This nudging is an abstract notion which includes typical actions of authorities, but also casual gestures that could be made by anyone. Sometimes it’s even an act of desperation, like how beggars distribute themselves on the sidewalk. Spouses, friends and siblings often nudge to bring each other into line, or to eliminate embarrassing phenomena they don’t want to be associated with. There are asymmetrical nudge-systems in effect between parents and children, teachers and students, bosses and workers. And while nudging may be an instrumental violence, it can also appear senseless and equivocal. A teacher might nudge the student simply to demonstrate who is the sovereign, just as the student could nudge back to show they won’t be easily manipulated. This is phatic communication which manifests and positions participants through mise-en-scene. It is nudging that says “I am here and you are there, so we are going to interact like this…”. This includes any noises made to arouse others attention, to establish a proxy for future expression, like where a speaker clears their throat to get the audience’s attention. This is where she located the genesis of a new market system – “We’re here!”
Catherine’s theoretical work culminated in her general models of civil society, which were inspired by the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. In his Politics of Nature (2006) he developed hypothetical layouts (agencement) for encounters between professions, and theorized an abstract mechanism which escorts barbarians “beyond the gates” where they can apply for re-entry. Among other things, Latour’s “barbarian” might be someone whose nudges transgress to the point that they are no longer nudges but something else, like striking, blackmailing, sabotaging etc. Nudges are borderline activity that a system naturally monitors, the limit of what is permissible for market participants. The delivery of a forceful nudge immediately raises the question of its legitimate. She had discovered this ancient nudge discourse in the bowels of the cultural revolution. In Catherine’s re-synthesis of Latour’s work, political economies were modelled as systems of nudge registration which have their efficacy in their sensitivity to subtle variations in nudges, in the resolution at which they differentiate similar gestures. When parties enter into exchanges, it would be assumed they harbour nameless violence, and it is always the business of the market’s infrastructural intelligence to gauge and manage that brute physiological force. Political courtesies, or codes-of-honour, channel violence into communication, sublimating attacks into doves’ footsteps.
The governor of Hubei province, Li Hongzhong, was exiting a press conference when a young female journalist approached. She inquired about a high-profile court case where a hotel worker had been charged with murdering an official who she accused of rape. Governor Li grabbed her Sony pen recorder, and uttered some words that reverberated around the Chinese media: “Are you really from the People’s Daily? And you ask such a question? What kind of Party mouthpiece are you? Is this how you guide public opinion? What’s your name? I’m going to find your boss.” With so many pen-recorders running in the room his message echoed over social-media and incited mass hysteria when someone proposed an advertisement for Sony: “the recorder even Chinese governors want to grab!”.
China is a pressure cooker for gems of rhetorical efficiency where the exchange of nudges accelerates. The power of rhetoric paradoxically depends on censorship laws, and its most essential to understand how this contradicts the praxis of liberalism. There are populations who experiment playfully with the limits of the sayable, and under intense conditions words are charged with surprising effects. This is the opposite of obscenity, and requires great sensitivity to the unwritten laws of public decorum. Populations manoeuvre carefully to open sites free from the strictures of oppression. This is a natural anarchism and a verbal twister of the masses. It’s often noted how authorities clamping down everywhere, shutting down more internet sites than ever before, can coincide with a thaw where its suddenly possible to say more. The authorities clamp-down because they are losing control, so the clamping-down naturally becomes a sign of new liberty. This is not perversion, but rather the graceful disintegration of tyranny counter-actualized, and the fulfilment of the promise of economic justice. Sinoplasm forces the evolution of institutions through a mass grappling between coercive gestures, a transpacific nudge-chain. The object of sinoplasmic instinct was a post-electoral democracy that would operate through mass exchanges of coercive frustration.