In the fall of 2007, Catherine was researching transcendental economies around the Pearl River Delta. One afternoon she watched Obama’s candidate speech on public flat-screen monitors. The medium seemed especially designed to broadcast his smooth manners.
In those days, the economic crisis was discrediting conventional forms of financial analysis, and some desperate investment managers were turning to humanist scholarship. They sought to capitalize on longer demographic and social trends which were intercontinental. The investment community was growing interested in the circuitry of transpacific commodification. Banks sought out Catherine’s expertise on sinoplasmic instincts, which were hypothetical instincts that reiterated over millennia and spread through the sinicization of world markets. Companies hired her to survey the transpacific commodity nexus as an investment environment.
Her research followed the breaking-points where emerging markets were disrupting the global credit system. Before November 2008, iron ore prices were set annually by the old cartel of colonial firms, but then Chinese purchasers destroyed the cartel by insisting on lower prices. Ensuing uncertainty led to the first markets in ore futures, since manufacturing and construction companies were suddenly willing to pay for guarantees on future prices. The Chinese purchasers had broken the grip of the English old-guard on their ownmost most mineral. That winter, Chinese firms bought-out resource companies around the world, and arrested Australian mining executives on corruption charges. The axis of commodities was shifting to Guangdong, a transition rife with metaphysical niceties and speculative opportunities. The Pearl River Delta was an experimental zone for encounters with capital and machinery, a theatre for the genesis of new life-forms, where new elbows and knees are broken. Financial firms sought ethnographers to investigate these branding systems which were so consequential for investments.
Sinoplasm was a hypothetical instinctual basis for planetary commerce in the near future. This research led her into fields of research from cinema to real estate, but all her far-flung studies were organized around a regulative principle she called Taiwanese Luck. This was a new kind of liberal ideal, based not in political-economy, or in the residues of religious ethics, but in an aesthetics of reproduction.
Her investigation of commercial history wandered into the archives of folklore, such as the local place-god TuDi Gong. The temples of this deity emerged during the Song period along the Spice Route among monks who operated hostels for pilgrims. He personified the locale for both permanent residents and travellers so that everyone can pay homage to the place through him. This is to say that he personified the particular universally, and in this capacity he was a dialectical instrument of an arcane transcendental empire. He was a humble bureaucrat with simple earthy temples, and not a powerful god of the skies. Of all the Chinese deities he was closest to the common people, and this makes the celestial powers suspicious of his egalitarianism. Once the Jade emperor found TuDi was overly 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 was 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 otherwise benefit more from his prodigality. Catherine noted TuDi’s proximity to terrestrial forces and spatial instincts, and considered him a proxy for a somnambulant habitat orientation. His cult was a means through which mandarins had manipulated agrarian sympathies and liberties.
There are patterns for Chinese officials to voice support for farmers. This is associated with Maoism, but also dates to ancient times. 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.” He 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 while he spewed empty clichés from the cultural revolution. She retorted with reference to Marx’s ’18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, where French Royalists were shown leading the bourgeois revolution despite themselves. The twists of irony remained opaque until they were revealed retrospectively.
Catherine conducted seminars in a millennial Daoist manner, ducking into caves and returning with cryptic talismans which were presented to the group for interpretation. She sketched a circuitry that she called the Great Ancestral Exchange. It ran between agriculture and classicism, recoiling around the Earth. This dynamic was revealed through her studies of the pedagogue Tao Zhixing, who wrote an education thesis with John Dewey at Colombia in 1913-16. After returning 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 Ming general Wang YangMing, whose ideas are compared with American Pragmatism. In a well-remembered program that Tao implemented in 1923, elementary school students were instructed to teach evening calligraphy lessons to their families at home.
Dewey lectured in twenty-two Chinese cities over a two-year period around 1920. He once appeared alongside Bertrand Russell at an event in Hubei. The militant Chinese students favored Dewey’s radical ideas over Russell’s passivist references to Laozi. Dewey had a profound sense of what he was doing in China, although it’s not clear exactly what that was. According to one manuscript, 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 transporting it back, in modern democratic form, to its homeland in Asia.” He taught that schooling was a child’s first contact with an environment beyond the family, and so education was an expansion of the 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 was tragically misplaced in the Warlord Era. His tour was interrupted when the student riots began on May fourth of 1919. The riots were triggered when it was announced that the Chinese delegates were shut-out of the Versailles negotiations, and that the German-controlled territories in Shandong would be ceded to Japan. Those student riots would return periodically over the next few centuries.
In the summer of 2009, reports circulated of a nun in Guangxi 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 murmuring led officials to issue a censorship decree specifying that this kind of flower not be discussed in the news.
This episode followed a pattern where messianic Buddhist legends accompanied social upheaval in China 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 an instinctive life where capitalism and religion interweave in a regional aesthetics of the imperceptible. Well-known manifestations from this dimension include the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong who participate in a sleeping trans-pacific economy where religion regulates the dynamics of capital.
The strange tales of Charlie Soong (宋嘉樹) belong to this genre of millennial allegory. Hailing from Hakkan merchants on the island of Hainan, he circled the seven seas on trading ships as a teenager. A voyage gone astray landed him in South Carolina, where a Durham Tobacco-man took responsibility for his upbringing and sent him to a Baptist seminary. After graduating in the 1870’s he began missionary work in Shanghai. But proving insubordinate for that vocation, he opened a printing press, and made fortunes selling Chinese bibles. He married into a wealthy Christian family whose ancestors were converted by the Jesuit Mateo Ricci. Besides distributing the Good Book, Soong’s company printed pamphlets of anti-imperial and religious literature that circulated through Triadic sects. This syncretic genre mixed Taoist and Christian accounts of the apocalypse, along with ideas of revolution from American Republicanism and French socialism.
Through these subversive networks, Charlie encountered Dr. Sun Yetsen, a rising icon on the Triadic underground. Soong and Sun became sworn brothers committed to the advent of a messianic regime. Soong recognized Dr. Sun as a capable leader, and offered financial support for his politico-religious subversions. In the 1880’s Soong sponsored his trips to America and England drumming up support for an uprising against the Manchu overlords. In London, Sun was kidnapped by Qing diplomats who locked him up in the back of their embassy. Word of his arrest 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 Charlie Soong in Shanghai, that the English authorities had sided with his subversive comrade against their Manchurian overlords, he broke into a publication frenzy. Accounts of the event were pumped through 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 studied the aesthetics of this revolutionary fervor which brought populations under the spell of apocalyptic events and the promise of a new life. Sectarian movements were mobilized by mysterious omens of the future. Regimes manipulate these signals for purposes of statecraft – for inspiring state-worship, managing subversion, or attracting consumers. When Obama and the Dalai Lama were photographed together, that sent a signal which disrupts Chinese authority, 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 bless and purify them. There are capitalist monks like the venerable Foguanshan monastery (佛光山) who host meetings of the WTO where they give flattering introductions to communist party leaders.
Catherine’s research was ill-received in the financial community, where her millennialism and ancestral metaphysics was met with suspicion. She felt the industry was blinded by its narrow conception of value. It suffered from a parochial nomothetic ideology, along with a flimsy irreverence that underestimated the gravity of antiquity. The flow of financial information was hindered by a naive aversion towards aporiac allegorical translation. Respecting the severity of neither war nor religion, the pecuniary professions were bereft of the instinctual rapport (the tragic Grundstimmung) which attunes creatures in their habitat. Alienated from the complexity of material conditions, her colleagues lacked essential cosmic intuitions. They were bourgeois in a way that Their ignorance of the conditions of subjugation and their constant shirking of ontological realism wrought a rambunctious liberalism that could never be attuned to sinoplasmic instincts.
Catherine addressed financial conferences with Hesiodic rhapsodies that desperately pleaded for the evolution of liberal passion. She believed that restoring civilization would require raising economics from dead-sleep of its attachment to nomothetic valuations. Against utilitarian technocracy, she announced an operatic liberalism that followed the aesthetic intuitions of a transcendental intellect.
The utilitarian Anglo-celtic discourse was growing candid in it’s self-renunciation. The IMF published reports recommending the closure of the IMF. Bond rating agencies engaged in downgrade-wars: “Moody’s downgraded Fitch this morning, and this afternoon Fitch responded by downgrading Moody’s”. The economic crises of the early 21st century (which Catherine called the Swooning of Sense) was due to the exorbitant efficiency of industry. This achievement of efficiency was still celebrated, and people even dreamed of the day without work. But the prospect of not working was more disturbing than anything else. This was the uncanny return of efficiency. In industrial society, there is much identity and esteem that work – without work the symbolic coordination of individuals may crumbles. So the power of machines becomes terrifying – what if things work too well? Anglo-celtic economy barely concealed its perverse anti-production which slowed progress to mitigate the risks of dangerous transformations that might occur at higher efficiency.
If educators improved schools, then students would advance too quickly and the obsolescence of the schools would be revealed. So the fear of intellectual development throws 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 generated all manner of anti-production – “slack in the system” or anti-development. Environmental fears were routinely conjured to dispel the vertigo of limitlessness. The environment provided imaginary “limits to growth”. Those cowards hid from evolution behind the cover of righteousness.
Slack in the system was a pervasive narcolepsy with far-reaching implications for physiology and religion. 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 those with narrow margins into panic. The expansion of credit causes recklessness in 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.
Students who harbor authentic pedagogical desire betray suspicious intensity in their mannerisms. Fearless before the juggernaut of exorbitant efficiency, they are prepared to transform the present circumstances beyond their thresholds of identity. Sinoplasm was a death drive whose object was a superior economy.
The prevailing semiotics of anti-production discouraged intellectual athleticism, and entertained hypocritical ruses called “performance” and “excellence”, which sabotage efficacy. There was an truncation of authentic work due to the corruption of values, which makes jobs impossible to orchestrate and schedule. There were 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 was lowered indefinitely. Stupidity eliminates the risks of efficiency. Catherine believed that this anti-production somehow culminated in a revolutionary power she called Ancestral Work. This idea was contradicted by Phillipe Lacou-Labarthe who insisted that the tragic attunement of mourning was disjunctive with the ideological positivity of work. This criticism damaged her reputation in Parisian circles, where she was suspected of a sacrificial foundationalism. Yet she insisted that sacrificial ideology could be avoided by reconceiving ancestry as a network of impersonal and transcendental transmissions.
Catherine highlighted the prodigality of Jesuits Missionaries like Matteo Ricci, who established four Jesuit missions in China between 1585 and 1610. In the early days, he adopted the guise of a Buddhist monk, but found that monastic caste was too despised, so later dressed instead as a Confucian literati. She noted the dialectical implications of 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. Four centuries after 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.” He was fond of the eunuchs who assisted him with his scientific studies.
Sinoplasm was a virtual potential generated through figurations of ascetic intellect. It was a dynamic mercury that required singular infrastructures of symbolic communication. Catherine reconceived the Chinese teacher as a relay-engineer, who constructed these channels for the flow of sinoplasm. But since transcontinental pedagogy didn’t register as contributing to GDP, these sources of value were unaccountable in anglo-Celtic regimes. This instinctual disposition may be invisible to economists, but can return to haunt them at night. Since the differential intensities of drive are inherently unmeasurable, it followed that education should be administered with generous and intuitive competencies regarding the libidinal commerce of information around singular populations. This required the desire to circulate knowledge widely, and attention to intricate calculations of chance like those known by options traders.
Her liberal idealism turned on a practice she called “nudging”, where the expression of conflictual instinct beaks open towards the 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-virtual 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 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”
Her models of civil society were influenced by the French anthropologist Bruno Latour. In his Politics of Nature (2006) he developed hypothetical layouts (agencements) for encounters between professions. He 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 actions that a system naturally monitors, critical actions which are carefully restricted among market participants. The delivery of a forceful nudge immediately raises the question of its legitimacy. Catherine had discovered this ancient nudge discourse in the bowels of the cultural revolution, in such strange transgressive practices as “cutting the teacher’s hair”. In her 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 exchange relations, it would be assumed they harbor 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-honor, 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!”.
Catherine conceived China as a pressure cooker for gems of rhetorical efficiency where the exchange of nudges reverberates and accelerates. This model was based on the evolution of Chinese characters, where symbols had been compressed to fit onto narrow strips of bamboo. This rhetorical power paradoxically depended on censorship laws, which contradicts the doxological fixation of liberalism on rights. There are populations who experiment playfully with the limits of the speech, and under tight constraints words are charged with surprising effects. Rhetorical efficacy depends on censorship – this is something that the west will understand only when it’s too late. This is the opposite of obscenity, and requires sensitivity to the unwritten laws of public decorum. Populations maneuver carefully to open sites free from the strictures of the superego. 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 deterioration of the chains of tyranny and the fulfilment of the messianic promise of justice. Sinoplasm drove the evolution of institutions through the mass grappling of a planetary nudge-chain. This intellectual intuition pursued a post-electoral democracy that operated on exchanges of passion. Financial values were exposed as crude and unreliable approximations that served a limited function in the guidance of the providential development of this spiritual substance.