I’m often pestered by students asking questions about my ‘free time’… they want to become involved in my life, so I can be their foreign friend. This fantasy is suggestive of how free time is coded economically. Obviously, leisure and entertainment are purportedly non-economic zones which are colonized for economic purposes. And those purposes obviously involve commerce and consumption and consumerism, and community, but I’m especially interested in that old term ‘recreation’. This is what I am attempting to offer my customers, whether they want it or not. It’s such a beautiful term from the old industrial societies that we don’t hear very often anymore.
Many Chinese are desperate for another interpolation. Where workers become desperate, they get worn out, or become obsolete, or can’t find vocations, then they may need to take a sabbatical where they get… recreated. They need to become someone else. Interpolated otherwise. It hasn’t been well appreciated that something so radical as becoming could be a function of industrial society.
Sometimes they go rummaging at night around bookstores and drinking coffees, and they say they are “recharging their batteries” (充电). But in my private China, that innocent industrial metaphor is only a disguise, and if they were honest they would admit that they were 消遣, which would be a free-play of the faculties in aesthetic reverie. But, of course they can’t admit that, because 消遣 is denounced as a sin in the official propaganda, the wrong kind of leisure, like billiards and karaoke, or getting tattoos, and so people are unlikely to use that term.
This zone of leisurely self-education is ideologically critical for the course of industrial development. The workers need to have their batteries recharged, they need to update their knowledge, and this inevitably involves some independent muddling-through. The official ideology assumes that there are good and bad forms of leisure, where this distinction is made according to systemic biosocial criteria. Recreation gets circumscribed as the reproduction of an old vitality. But the issue concerns how that old vitality is determined. If leisure is instrumentalized according to some pre-given plan for development, then there is no becoming. Becoming begins where development is set adrift.
This recreational becoming is a line of business that must be pursued with a certain discretion. The social ideology has elaborate means for arresting becoming. One must appreciate how this unhinged recreation gets represented and recaptured into ideology. This absolute drift falls into danger where it appears exceptional, or as what psychoanalysts call non-castrated. This is because non-castrated positions are so hotly contested in society. The ambitious wage these aggressive rivalries over the coveted non-castrated status. Executive managers take their exclusive company retreats, which are insinuated to be aesthetic events where the subjects undergo symbolic transformations. But if someone truly ‘goes out of their comfort zone’ as they say, would they ever return to work?
This means that the bourgeoisie have learned to begin reading Kant from the Critique of Judgement. This is how capitalism swallows Holderlin, and develops a taste for exceptional Theban blood. Diurnal office work is then a tedious dialectic of pure verses practical reason, the official business of reconciling freedom and necessity for purposes of maintaining a semblance of sanity. While in the nocturnal desouvrement of the sabbatical, the subject is recommissioned otherwise. There the battery – the drive – wouldn’t get replaced but rather displaced onto new symbolic coordinates in the office matrix. Maybe someone returns from the break with a new hairstyle or maybe they got a tan, and maybe this is supposed to suggest that the topology of the object shifted. Or maybe someone got a new tattoo to compensate for how the topology didn’t shift.
So, the social simulacra gets assembled and disassembled around the representation of castration and non-castration. Castrated workers are resigned to the impossibility of becoming, and accept that they are anchored into the symbolic matrix in a certain way. Of course, they are encouraged to progress and develop their technical skills, but only according to the terms of the pre-given program of a five-year plan. But then the executive, non-castrated subjects are supposed to possess this genius of original creativity that can re-write the rules of the program. The ideology of capital would capture populations as it brings them under the spell of the necessity of castration, subjecting them to the genius of the executives and creative designers.
It is important to understand that this description of a romantic capitalism is produced from a distinctly Chinese milieu. And in order that I might continue telling this tale, it is critical to regard the integrity of this condition. For in these days of frantic exchange, situated geographical composition is a tenuous factor. So, at pain of being dismissed as an obsessive Sinophile, I feel it necessary to entrench myself in some arguments for why capitalism should be narrated from this ‘foreigner in China’ perspective.
For several decades, there have been discussions about ‘alternate modernities’, though that topic has never seemed particularly interesting. There is some hypocrisy if we discuss supposed singularities, or regional differences, only to translate them back into universal terms so they can be exchanged as exotic experiences or studied at universities. This is a naïve celebration of differences that ends up back in multiculturalism. Please understand that the story I am telling can be easily distinguished from any of that.
The conditions in China offer unique portals to the future. The historical experience here has exposed the workings of modern ideology in ways that can shift the symbolic matrix of commodity exchange. So, we are embarking on a sinofuturist expedition, not on the premise that the future will be Chinese (who knows?), but rather with the understanding that this archive offers a portal through which other futures are available.
The present situation in China is only of limited interest on this expedition, where the main concern is the historical cycle that begins with the first Opium war in 1836 and ends with the outbreak of the civil war in 1928. That archive is the blood of Chinese literature, and the present conditions are only interesting where it recirculates.
Admittedly, the archive in question has parallels elsewhere, and so this Chinese experience is not totally unique. But this case is singular because of how China is presently the vanguard of global capitalism, which is perhaps not such a coincidence, but more like a destiny, since this country has had the greatest economy for most of history. So, in other words, China is interesting for basically the same reason that Marx was interested in England, that it was this singular limit where a new situation was emerging. But since time is so disjointed, this new situation only becomes visible if projected through this particular historical background.
This story would probably begin in the brothels of Shanghai at the end of the Qing Dynasty. A certain form of recreation takes place there, and it is like an opiate which the Chinese today are hoping to score from us foreigners. The mark of exceptionality or non-castration in traditional Chinese society was always polygamy, and the end of their distinct way of life coincides precisely with the termination of that institution. Only a small fraction of the elite men could ever support multiple wives, and as the empire declined it became harder for the literati aristocrats to do so. Not just because their material resources were getting exhausted, but more importantly because liberalism was eroding the ethos of that institution. So, the brothel became a refuge where the vulnerable polygamist could bask in the magic of the waning civilization. They were exchanging poetry, showing off their calligraphy, and the girls would play the guxian.
The Shanghai brothel of the late Qing is a magical portal through which we can exit from the present phase of capitalism. It exemplifies a zeitgeist that was not limited to China. That was of course a time of several waning empires, and for which reason it is sometimes known as the fin-de-siècle. As those great institutional orders – Austro-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman, and let’s not forget the Moghuls – were coming to an end, there was this time of reverie that took flight from modernity into intimate recreation. As the capitalist nations invaded, the cultured souls of the closing age retreated into enclaves, which were not so much tombs, as rather cocoons, where some larva passively incubated. The subsequent development of capitalism can be interpreted as a quest for those larvae of antique culture, which modern societies have pursued as their sacred commodity. And the end of capitalism – which I believe can now be narrated – is where those larvae finally hatch.
Now, if someone says that I have been reading too many fairy tales, then they would not be mistaken. But they should understand that the modernization of the tale as a genre is closely connected with Chinese literature, and also, more specifically, with Shanghai brothels. This is not to say that Kafka and Borges were ‘Chinese’, but rather that Taoist phantasmagoria has been a line of flight for European literature since the Baroque. And there is a brewing debate over the politics of this genre, which offers an alternative to the tragic Stimmung which had such prestige in Romanticism. During the second world war, the realist philosopher Georg Lukacs – the founder of ‘cultural Marxism’ – had a break with his close correspondent, the Jewish-German-Hungarian writer of Chinese fairy tales named Bela Belazs. That split provides a topos for the departure of a revolutionary sinofuturism from western politics.