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end notes to lean times Posts

Notes from the Underpass

Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2015 on SmartBeijing.com.* It has been republished here with permission. Re-upping this article in particular to share in my & Krish Raghav’s biweekly newsletter Open All the Buddha Boxes — sign up for that here!

Last Tuesday was one of those classic Beijing September nights, where the city seems to be slowly preparing for hibernation, but still moving briskly enough to enjoy the sliver of fine autumn weather we get before the freeze. Around 9:30pm, a small crew of guerilla noise fans begins to gather at a seemingly random underground tunnel connecting the access road running along the Airport Expressway and a small median park buffering the highway and the adjacent Xiangheyuan thoroughfare. Zhu Wenbo, organizer of erstwhile weekly experimental music series Zoomin’ Night, waits with his typical forbearance for a group of retirees to finish their impromptu, public hong ge choir rehearsal. He’d booked the later slot.

Zhu Wenbo performing as CT-808

Up until this summer, Wenbo had organized a showcase of Beijing’s least classifiable, furthest-left-field experimental music every Tuesday night for nearly six years. Zoomin’ Night was born at storied Wudaokou rock venue D-22, and migrated along with the rest of that club’s regulars to XP, which closed this past July. “Honestly, it was really tiring,” he says. “I wanted to give myself a break, enjoy life a bit. I’d thought about it a lot, what it would be like if Zoomin’ Night stopped, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The closing of XP was a natural stopping point.”

Since 2011, Zhu Wenbo had been encouraged to start his own label by Michael Pettis, the founder of D-22, XP, and veteran indie label Maybe Mars. After nixing his weekly, Wenbo decided to do just that. Transforming Zoomin’ Night from a live showcase to a cassette label, Wenbo has been monthly issuing concrete documents from the ephemeral cast of misfit noisers he’s attracted over the years. When he’d put the finishing touches on “Essay”, a solo release for Zoomin’ Night regular John Wilton, he sought out a proper space for a post-XP release event.

“Last year, when I was moving into an apartment behind Sanyuanqiao, I accidentally found this place. Beijing has many underpasses like it, but this one’s a bit different. There’s a park next to it, and the steps leading up to it resemble the step-seating of an amphitheater. It’s not that far from the city center, but it’s just far enough removed from residential buildings to avoid noise complaints.”

Most importantly: the acoustics are right. After testing the natural amplification with a few solo busks on clarinet and saxophone, Wenbo began inviting friends to his newly discovered haven, eventually reifying this public space into a guerilla performance theater.

The scene last Tuesday was the best-attended of the three underpass shows Zhu Wenbo has put together so far. It opened with a short set from visiting New Delhi songwriter Lifafa, who’d just finished a string of more stage-oriented performances at Dada and DDC, and relished the opportunity for a less structured public serenade.

What followed was a thoroughly Zoomin’, hour-long set by a loose assembly of 20-something Beijing transplants who’ve found each other through Wenbo’s steadfast curatorship. The organizer himself played on a circuit-bent toy keyboard; his wife, Zhao Cong, roamed the length of the tunnel, alternately blowing into a sax reed attached to a piece of vacuum tubing and shuttling an abused cowbell along the floor in a solo game of kick the can; Chui Wan frontman Yan Yulong played a violin duet along with A Ke, making her first public concert; and Zoomin’ Night newcomers Li Song and Li Bingyu added errant strains of clarinet and sax, respectively, to the amorphous mix.

Zhao Cong
Abing (left) and A Ke

Aside from the scattered cognoscenti who’d come explicitly for this experience, the “audience” was made up of random citizens on foot from points A to B, whose reactions ranged from bemused attention to complete disinterest. Some enthusiastically took part in the spectacle, voguing for the cameras on their way through the tunnel. (There were many cameras.) “Luckily, the police still haven’t discovered us,” Wenbo tells me a week later. “Actually, there aren’t many people coming and going in this underpass. The people who do come don’t react much differently from people who would randomly wander in to XP on a Tuesday night.”

It’s 45 minutes into the underpass drone, a deep, hypnotic zone, and I need to micturate. I head up the amphitheater steps, into the park, and immediately I’m back in a more familiar Beijing. There’s the car noise; there’s someone, maybe a prostitute, maybe a ghost, lobbing a jumbled English proposition in my direction. Reliably I find a pile of garbage, relieve, and get lost on my way back, the only landmark being the city’s incessant rush of flying headlights. Of course, I remember, all that’s solid here melts into air. I rely on my ears instead, and am soon guided back by phantom notes from the underpass.

*My writing career began at SmartBeijing, where in addition to events/listings-based coverage I wrote about 60 features on various topics, mostly related to music and art. SmartBeijing went down earlier this year for a scheduled server upgrade and never came back; the site’s parent company has told me they have no plans to extract the database, so the first three years of my writing career are basically consigned to vapor. There’s another post to be written about the precarity of writing for the internet etc etc, but for now I’m more interested in pulling what I can from the Internet Archive so that at least some of what I wrote for SmartBeijing isn’t permanently memoryholed. My impetus for doing this is largely to reevaluate old interviews as source material for a book on Beijing underground music 1999-2019 that I am co-authoring with Krish Raghav; learn more about that (and sign up for our biweekly newsletter!) here. I maintain a spreadsheet including all of my published articles (and links) which is publicly viewable here; if you’re a freelance writer, I highly encourage you to maintain a similar list. Without these dead SmartBeijing URL’s I’d have no way to access all of these old article!

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通俗歌曲 article about me from May 2014

This is a feature spread about me in Chinese-language rock mag 通俗歌曲 (roughly translates to Everyday Songs). Posting it here since it doesn’t seem to exist online, they’re an old-school print magazine without a web footprint.

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George R. R. Martin in The Comic World News, 1963-64

On a recent trip home, I learned a pretty crazy fact about my dad’s past that I want to share. My dad retired a few years ago after nearly 40 years as a special education department coordinator for a public middle school in San Antonio, TX. Aside from teaching, he had (and has) a few esoteric hobbies and collections: slot machines, pinball machines, arcade games, basketball and baseball cards, and a comic book collection that he started when he was a kid. In the early 1960s, as a teenager, he also self-published a comics zine called The Comic World News, which had a small but national readership of like-minded comic geeks. (There is a sketchy bibliography of The Comic World News‘s nine issues here; my dad is Paul Feola.)

A big chunk of my dad’s time post-retirement has been spent organizing and cataloguing the vast archive of stuff he’s accumulated over the years. In the process of rifling through back issues of The Comic World News, he recently realized that one of his readers and regular interlocutors at the time was none other than George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novel series, the source material for HBO’s Game of Thrones. My dad hasn’t seen the TV show nor read the books, but he eventually connected the dots from the George R. R. Martin of Bayonne, New Jersey whose letters to the editor appeared in almost every issue of The Comic World News, to the George R. R. Martin who penned the titanic pop-cultural phenomenon that GoT has become. Crazy.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a market for GRRM ephemera, including the pages that my dad mimeographed at his aunt’s house from 1963-64. On his fan site, Martin lists all of his contributions to ’60s comics zines, including his appearances in The Comic World News. In addition to several “letters of comment” (precocious teen-to-teen commentaries on previous articles published in TCWN), he also had a semi-regular non-fiction column called “Can This Hero Be Saved?”, and even contributed the cover art for The Comic World News #6, published in December 1963.

(This appears to be GRRM’s only published artwork, and is a hot commodity: a copy of TCWN #6 recently went for over $1,000 on eBay.)

Anyway, I was shocked and thrilled when my dad told me this story, since I did my own photocopied punk fanzine in high school, and kind of still do that for a living to this day. (I had two articles in the Dec 2016 issue of b&w punk rag Maximum Rocknroll, for example.) Below is a photo of my dad’s copy of TCWN #6, with GRRM’s cover art, and below that is one of GRRM’s “Can This Hero Be Saved?” columns, published in TCWN #9, March 1964. I’ll repeat the caveat that George R. R. Martin puts on his fan site about the latter: “if by some mischance you should actually manage to stumble on some of these long-forgotten publications, please do remember that I was still in high school when I wrote most of this stuff.”

By the way, Mr. Martin, if you’re reading this, Paul Feola would love to reconnect, 50+ years after your last correspondence. DM me here if you’re interested in dropping him a line! (Also, I’m a big ASOIAF fan, for whatever it’s worth.)

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Pieces I was Proud of in 2016

Here are some pieces of mine published in 2016 that I’m proud of:

– Long-form interview with Beijing poet, freestyle rapper, scene gadfly and former high-level competitive martial artist, Dawei: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (pangbianr)

“The Underground Sound Rising Up From China’s Cities”: a piece that existed for a long time in my head with the working title “Megacity Sound”, an attempt to succinctly trace how the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Dalian shaped recent (2015/2016) albums from rock bands Chui Wan, Duck Fight Goose, and DOC, respectively. (Sixth Tone)

– Li Daiguo: I was completely blown away by Daiguo’s 2016 solo pipa album Li Shurui, and profiled it/him briefly in the August 2016 issue of The Wire (pdf of my Bites feature here). Also added a few thoughts in a recent entry to my weekly Douban Music column, here.

– In My Ears (入耳): On that note, I’m quite happy to have a weekly, bilingual column aimed at Douban Music’s audience, which is predominately young Chinese indie music nerds. Personal highlights so far: Li Jianhong’s 1969, Yang Fan’s What Happened After 1,001 Nights?, Snapline’s Two She’s, Carl Stone’s Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties

Sinogrime Primer: Parsing a non-genre that nevertheless signifies some sociocultural baggage present in the current alt-club zeitgeist. I wrote it ahead of Kode9’s latest China appearance, at which he told me that this is “the best thing that’s been written about Sinogrime”, for whatever that’s worth. (Time Out)

Gulou View: My monthly column with Michael Pettis for the New York Observer. Prouder of some entries than others, but I do stand by two two-parters in particular: On hutong gentrification (1, 2); On weirder strains of 21st century Chinese fiction (1, 2)

Beijing Sound As Art: A primer on several projects that treat the sound of Beijing as a medium in itself, with an obvious focus on field recording and sound art. (Time Out)

MRR China issue: I had two substantive, history-oriented interviews (with SUBS and Demerit) in the December 2016 “All China” issue of Maximum Rock’n’Roll. Giving back to the punk rag that educated my youth. Download pdf here.

– Interviews and profiles: My bread and butter. I can safely say that I interviewed or profiled more than 100 artists, musicians, producers, label-runners, film directors, et al in 2016, here are some of my personal favorites: Yang Mingming (director, Female Directors), Daniel Miller (Mute Records), Holly Herndon, Andrew Savage (Parquet Courts), Alison Knowles (Fluxus co-founder), Sergey Saburov (Hyperboloid Records, Moscow), Ivan Zoloto (Full of Nothing/Love Cult), Baudouin Mouanda (photographer of the Congolese sapeurs), Howie Lee (Do Hits), Negro Leo (musician, Rio de Janeiro)

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LeEco Goes East

LeEco seems to have bottomless pockets at the moment. In August the company announced plans to build a $3bn eco-park/driverless car manufacturing plant in Zhejiang, and now it looks like Le will start pushing its TVs, phones, bikes, cars and VR headsets in the US. From Variety (via):

LeEco has done some considerable spending to enter the U.S. market: The company has opened an office in San Jose and hired key talent from competitors; some of its high-profile hires include Samsung’s former SVP of HR Shawn Williams, Samsung’s former COO Danny Bowman and Samsung’s former Chief Marketing Officer Todd Pendleton. Earlier this week, LeEco also announced the hire of former Qualcomm exec Rob Chandhok as its new head of R&D.

LeEco is also a major content producer in China. Within my wheelhouse, they put on huge, live-streamed events at their 3,000-capacity music venue and 18,000-capacity sports arena in Beijing. They’re also the official streaming partner of Boiler Room China, which just hosted Skrillex’s BR debut. That probably cost some bandwidth.

Le also has a film production subsidiary that financed forthcoming Zhang Yimou blockbuster The Great Wall, which stars Matt Damon in a lead role (thoughtful piece on differing attitudes toward whitewashing in China vs US here), and will probably smash some kind of box office/co-pro record.

This from a company that basically started as one of several Chinese Youtube ripoffs. Tencent’s WeChat is getting all the hype lately as the China tech marvel (I was entertained by this recent LA Times article on how it’s being used to facilitate Southern California’s black market 小吃 trade), but LeEco’s moves seem much more grandiose to me. Lately I’ve been interested in trans-Pacific cultural flows, of both tech (China-Silicon Valley) and film/entertainment (China-Hollywood). Le is dipping its beak in both.

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“Embodied instrument”: Holly Herndon interview

This is one of a few recent interviews I’ve conducted for Douban Music with artists from one of the Beggars labels, arranged by Beggars China (贝阁中国). Since most of the artists I’ve been interviewing for Douban don’t have any immediate plans to come to China, it doesn’t make sense to put these on pangbianr. But some are quite interesting, and I want the English versions to exist somewhere. (I posted an interview with Parquet Courts vocalist Andrew Savage here; another with Merrill Garbus will turn up eventually.)

This interview with Holly Herndon was done over email in April 2016 and first published by Douban in Chinese. Today I was reading a Reza Negarestani essay on “sapience” and it reminded me of this interview, because Herndon collaborated with Negarestani in the past and I asked her about it. She didn’t elaborate much on that particular project but does have some interesting things to say about art, music, technology, critical theory, and, I guess, sapience. She’s well known for blurring the lines between these, but seems now closer than ever to achieving some kind of personal apotheosis as she finishes her PhD work at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), and her intellectual and creative pursuits “fus[e] into one coherent output”:


I want to first ask about your early release “Car”, a cassette created specifically for car stereos. Did the final format influence that actual compositional process, or just the subsequent recording and production? How important has the final music format been in your subsequent recordings?

I was asked to make a tape for the now defunct label ThirdSex in Chicago. I was thinking about format, and format fetishization, so I asked the label to find out where their customers listen to tapes. Most people responded that they listen in their car; which was honestly a surprise. So, I figured if most people are listening to tapes in their cars, then I should make something specifically for this venue. It’s also an interesting time stamp, in that these cars will likely not be allowed on the road much longer — so it’s fleeting.

This was a really early experiment in format and distribution for me, but this is an ongoing theme and concern. If you look at the “Interference” video by Metahaven and Mat Dryhurst, you will see that there are advertising banners built into the frame. I see this as a continuation of that theme: how do we consume art work? Who determines the format? What control does the artist have and what must they concede? And more interestingly perhaps: how do we want to listen to/watch art?

You spent some formative early years in Berlin. What aspects — musical/sonic, physical, cultural, etc — of the Berlin club setting have been most influential to you over time?

Berlin is a wonderful place to listen to electronic music bc there is huge variety, and most places are casual. I always found club music/experiences in the US to be stressful, often with a lot of posturing, age limits, and a 2am closing time. So, being able to experience a lot of different sounds and environmentsrob made me fall in love with electronic music and become very involved in the culture around it. I also found wonderful communities in Oakland as well, at a smaller scale.

You’re one of few artists (Robert Henke comes to mind as well) that can balance a practice encompassing club-ready dance music, academic composition and technical invention or fine-tuning of virtual instruments. How do you split your time among, say, preparing an album, a Boiler Room set, and working on your PhD?

I set aside chunks of time for different projects. I struggle when I try to do everything at once. For example, I developed a new course for CCRMA last year with another student, and during that time I was writing very little music. I was researching and preparing and enjoying the course, but I struggled to have any significant output during those 3 months. Right now I’m writing again, so sometimes it takes a while to switch gears and remember how to do certain things. I also try to read and write critically in between. It’s important to try to flex those muscles, so they don’t get out of shape.

What does your doctoral work focus on? Is it a composition, an instrument, a performance, a thesis, a combination of several of those?

It’s a collection of pieces with a written accompaniment. We can talk about it once it’s finished 🙂

How have Oakland/San Francisco shaped your working process? Are you actively performing and collaborating in the local scene there, or are you more holed away working by yourself when you’re at home?

I’m back in Berlin now actually. But I was traveling quite a bit before that. The last few years SF has been more of a landing pad, and a work space, but before I started studying, I was quite active, going out to shows and playing shows regularly. I ran out of energy.

Among your collaborators, I’m personally very interested in the philosophy of Reza Negarasteni and the critical design work of Metahaven. Both of these, in different ways, work with the co-evolution or devolution of humans and technology, a theme that’s also front and center in your work. How has your attitude toward technology, or more specifically the laptop, your primary instrument, changed over time?

I’ve already spoken at length about this, but will try to recap swiftly. I was trying to come to terms with the computer as an embodied instrument, both philosophically and practically. This led to “Movement”. Then as that relationship blossomed, and I started working closely with Metahaven and Mathew Dryhurst, I began thinking of embodiment politically (the personal is political, or the personal is geopolitical as Metahaven often say). I’ve been thinking and making work about digital rights, the complicated relationship that we have to/through our machines, and how this impacts society.

I read that “Lonely at the Top” off your latest album is designed to trigger ASMR, a nervous-system-based euphoric sensation. Do you think there are different euphorias that can be triggered by music? I.e., a euphoria of dancing to monotonous techno for hours at a time vs a euphoria brought on by sustained deep listening? How do you try to touch this part of the brain with your music?

Certainly different music stimulates the brain in different ways, as well as different listening environments and activities. I’m interested in ecstatic performance as a way for the audience to emote together in public, while also dealing with what it means to live in the present. Often ecstasy can be escapist, but I’m more interested in alternatives, or an exit strategy, than a moment of escape. Last year Mat Dryhurst and I did at installation at Kunstverein Hamburg where we infused political slogans from an imaginary subculture with ASMR triggers. We were curious if statements were paired with the physical sensations that ASMR triggers, if they would be perceived in a different way.

You’re a composer, performer, artist, soon to be Doctor. What are the most interesting projects you’re working on now or plan to pick up in the near future? Where do you see your work or your career headed over the next 10 years?

Finally it is all fusing into one coherent output. I think I tried to separate these interests for a long time and the work suffered. I’m not sure what the future holds. I plan on continuing to try different things and see where they take me.

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Future Shock and Fast Trains

Here is a thoughtful obituary from NYT for a man and an idea: Alvin Toffler and his 1971 book, Future Shock. I say it’s an obituary for the idea as much as the man (Toffler died on June 27), because the shock’s worn off, and lately I’m feeling all we can do is strap in for interminable future nausea.

Speaking of nausea, the opening montage of this 1972 Future Shock documentary — narrated by Orson Welles — features some truly guttural synthesizers and provocative jump cuts between violence and riots. It would feel quaintly dystopian if we didn’t live in a time when snuff films widely circulated on mainstream US media lead to armed revolt against the police.

Anyway, the NYT profile neatly illustrates how Futurist forecasting, which was both a key propaganda tool and a useful legislative function during the Cold War, has been largely subsumed within the commodification of “innovation” best represented by Silicon Valley and its separatist, post-national world order. The brightest futurist minds in the West these days seem mainly preoccupied with building AI and imposing some stopgap ethical rules on its ascendance. Politically speaking, the problem of the future has been steadily exorcised from both sides of the US Federal government’s partisan agenda since the ’80s:

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the American government began to spend huge sums in the Cold War, futurists became the high priests of the coming age. Forecasting became institutionalized; research institutes like RAND, SRI and MITRE worked on long-range projections about technology, global politics and weaponry, and world leaders and businesses took their forecasts as seriously as news of the present day.

In 1972, the federal government even blessed the emerging field of futurism with a new research agency, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which reviewed proposed legislation for its long-term effects. Futurists were optimistic about lawmakers’ new interest in the long term.

[…]

Newt Gingrich has long been enamored of science fiction — he wants to build a moon base. But when Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, became speaker of the House in 1995, he quickly shut down the Office of Technology Assessment. The government no longer had any place for futurists, and every decision about the future was viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics.

[…]

“It is ridiculous that the United States is one of the only nations of our size and scope in the world that no longer has an office that is dedicated to rigorous, nonpartisan research about the future,” Ms. Webb said. “The fact that we don’t do that is insane.” Or, as Mr. Toffler put it in “Future Shock,” “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”

Yes, it is insane. Even on a cultural level, it seems we Americans are grotesquely unprepared to face the future, and will be at least until the weeping wounds of the past are addressed. We can’t escape from them into VR, and a real civil war would “disrupt” technological progress in a way not even the most hardcore Valley evangelist would find useful.

Pivoting to China, which has its own set of political problems vis-a-vis future shock (“historical nihilism”, “digital sovereignty”, et al), here are two things I read recently that demonstrate how much more prepared it is to mitigate some of the more potentially catastrophic future shockwaves.

One is this detailed, data-rich analysis of how China’s high-speed rail (HSR) system is working. (TLDR: very well.) According to one estimate, per-passenger greenhouse gas emissions from HSR travel are “13 times less than a bus (30g), 50 times less than a car (115g) and 70 times less than a plane (153g)”:

As far as I know, the only HSR currently under construction in the US is the California High-Speed Rail, which began formal planning in 1996 and broke ground… last year. They plan to have the first stations open by 2025.

The Chinese Ministry of Railways, meanwhile, began shopping around for the prototype of what would become its current standard gaotie (高铁) bullet train in 2003, started technology transfer in 2006, and had the first line operational by 2007. Now China’s HSR network looks like this:

China plans to use “railway diplomacy” to additionally construct HSR lines connecting out to Seoul (by 2030), Singapore, and Moscow. The US will at best have a line connecting Northern to Southern California in that timeframe. The idea of the Federal government coordinating a nationwide HSR system seems pretty far-future, even though Obama outlined a national HSR initiative in 2009:

Already, $8 billion from the stimulus plan has been dedicated to this initiative and the president has requested another $5 billion over the next five years. The Department of Transportation will begin distributing funds to projects before the end of this summer.

I’m curious where that money has gone. Certainly not into building trains. Obviously there are bigger fish to fry now, and we’re not likely to hear Trump or Clinton talk about high-speed rail at a time when identity politics and asymmetric war dominate the national conversation.

The other thing I read recently was this: China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% cheered by climate campaigners

Also doesn’t seem like a conversation we’re anywhere near having in the US.

Of course China has the advantage of leveraging a technocratic autocracy to address these problems of future, and I’m not sure where Americans might find a balance between our democratic principles — which are kind of loudly and lethally self-detonating right now — and the radical, top-level reorganization we’ll need to get ourselves on track.

That’s a train pun. Incidentally, a ride on a Chinese fast-train is very smooth.

Sorry if this long trip into HSR-worship seems like a digression. It’s not. Global Times, one of the Chinese government’s preferred propaganda blasters, has a warm obit for Alvin Toffler, “China’s favorite futurist”:

Named “one of the top 50 foreigners who have had the greatest influence on China in recent centuries” by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, Toffler’s influence in the country began in 1983, when he and his wife Heidi gave lectures on [Future Shock sequel] The Third Wave at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Shortly after, Toffler’s The Third Wave was translated into Chinese.

[…]

“We were in China about two years ago. People came up to us and told us that they can still remember bicycling 10 miles to watch The Third Wave television program,” Toffler said in an interview with en.people.cn in 2006.

NYT’s official obituary for Toffler adds:

Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.

I doubt The Third Wave or Future Shock were as influential among the US political elite in the ’80s. Maybe that’s why I feel so sick today.

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Orwell and Brexit

I recently read All Art is Propaganda, an edition of George Orwell’s critical and political essays from a bit before to just after WWII. The moral crisis he experienced as a British writer at that time yields endless lessons to someone like me, writing as an American today. Speaking of today, I felt an acute need to skim the highlights I archived while reading the book. Its title is an aphorism that Orwell repeated, but I think he said it best in his essay on Dickens:

All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.


Orwell in Spain

After the skimming this one stuck out, from Wells, Hitler and the World State. In it Orwell criticizes a newspaper column by Victorian sci-fi master H.G. Wells that laughs off the idea of the Nazis ever gaining any real ground against Britain. Orwell says that we shouldn’t underestimate the old powers of ethnic nationalism and fascism, because they can sweep the world before we realize they’re there. I don’t really know what I mean by “we”, probably something like “educated liberals.” But that’s the point:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action. The people who say that Hitler is Antichrist, or alternatively, the Holy Ghost, are nearer an understanding of the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera, not worth taking seriously.

Hmm. Well that tragicomedy has set deep roots in UK and US politics as of this writing. I fear I might be doing a disservice to Orwell’s love of brevity here, but I need to include this excerpt from his essay Writers and Leviathan, because it reminds us that before criticizing anything, we need to sacrifice at least half our pay:

A modern literary intellectual lives and writes in constant dread — not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group. As a rule, luckily, there is more than one group. But also at any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and sometimes means cutting one’s income in half for years on end. Obviously, for about fifteen years past, the dominant orthodoxy, especially among the young, has been ‘left’. The key words are ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’ and ‘revolutionary’. While the labels which you must at all costs avoid having gummed upon you are ‘bourgeois’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘Fascist’. Almost everyone nowadays, even the majority of Catholics and Conservatives, is ‘progressive’. Or at least wishes to be thought so. No one, so far as I know, ever describes himself as a ‘bourgeois’. Just as no one literate enough to have heard the word ever admits to being guilty of anti-Semitism. We are all of us good democrats, anti-Fascist, anti-imperialist, contemptuous of class distinctions, impervious to colour prejudice, and so on and so forth. Nor is there much doubt that the present-day ‘left’ orthodoxy is better than the rather snobbish, pietistic Conservative orthodoxy which prevailed twenty years ago, when the Criterion and (on a lower level) the London Mercury were the dominant literary magazines. For at the least its implied objective is a viable form of society which large numbers of people actually want. But it also has its own falsities which, because they cannot be admitted, make it impossible for certain questions to be seriously discussed.

(Emphasis mine.)

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Politics of Geography

This is kind of cool, kind of terrifying:

It is billions of people’s maps, according to Google, but it is also Google’s map, and as the company’s Geospatial Technologist, Parsons’s job is meant to make users and governments feel comfortable with Google’s control of it. As it seeks to maintain growth, Alphabet Inc. has bet big on personalizing Google’s flagship products—search, maps, and mail—which means capitalizing upon ever more sensitive information about where users go, and what they do there.

Geopolitics today is still largely the geopolitics of yesterday: land vs sea power (though the sphere of ocean action has shifted to the Pacific), superpowers arming each other’s neighbors, “New Silk Roads”, etc, etc. But geopolitics today is also the actual politics of geography, from the global to the personal level, and is no longer practiced exclusively by nation-states.

Google’s brand of cultural imperialism is maybe more pernicious than any one country’s, since its ultimate goal is absolute, unquestioned ubiquity:

“That is my job, to be that kind of lightning conductor, good and bad,” [Parsons] says. “My job is about evangelism, trying to get people to see the world the way that we see the world.” […]

To compete with a range of tech titans — besides Apple, companies like Nokia, TomTom, and Microsoft have invested heavily in mapping technologies — Google is focusing on personalization. Parsons’s hope is that using an increasingly personalized Google Maps—and syncing one’s location with surrounding devices, from your cell phone to your garage, heater, and car—will pass what Google calls “the toothbrush test.”

“Is the technology so valuable, so familiar, that you use it every day, that you don’t really think about it?” Parsons asks. “To get that level of trust, we need people to understand and be completely confident with it. You only use your toothbrush every day because you’re completely confident that it’s not poisoning you, it’s not going to make your teeth fall out.”

It’s the tech lords’ world grid, we’re just living on it. The article coins the fun phrase “surveillance as cartography” — I think it’s the other way around, though.

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Disney in China

NYT sheds light on the backroom deals behind Shanghai Disneyland, which had already hosted a million people before officially opening three days ago:

The Shanghai park… has become mission critical for Disney as it faces business pressures in other areas like cable. It is designed to be a machine in China for the Disney brand, with a manicured Magic Kingdom-style park, “Toy Story”-themed hotel and Mickey Avenue shopping arcade. More than 330 million people live within a three-hour drive or train ride, and Disney is bent on turning them into lifelong consumers.


Shanghai Disneyland (via SCMP)

The article tracks Disney’s history of doing business in China, from post-Reform “Sunday evening placement for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons on the country’s biggest state-run broadcaster”, to mounting success at the cinema in the ’90s (The Lion King killed here), to a blanket ban after the 1997 Disney release of Scorsese’s Kundun. Then-CEO Michael Eisner hired a stone-cold mercenary to smooth out negotiations after that gaffe:

Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr. Eisner said during the meeting. (“Kundun” bombed, taking in just $5.7 million against a production budget of about $30 million.)

Ouch. The article then goes on to itemize the unprecedented lengths to which current Disney CEO Robert A. Iger has gone to make Shanghai Disneyland a reality, including courting a personal relationship with Xi Jinping:

After Mr. Iger learned that Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary leader, had visited Disneyland in 1980, he pressed his staff to find a photograph. A color photograph shows the president’s father, who died in 2002, wearing a Mao suit, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Mr. Iger presented it to the Chinese leader as a gift and a symbol of their partnership.

More interesting are the rights and profits that Disney has ceded to China in hammering out the deal. In short, this really is Disneyland with Chinese characteristics, or, in the motto coined by Iger, “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”: no rides or attractions are repeated from previous parks, and the grounds are adorned with “indigenous trees from all around China, including a 59-foot chestnut oak from Zhejiang province”. The park itself will be surrounded by the “distinctly Chinese” feature of dense, redundant high-end shopping malls and luxury hotels, since the adjoining land is controlled by Shendi Group, a consortium of four State-owned enterprises including a property developer.

In other locales, Disney has typically maintained a firm grip on the immediately adjacent real estate. Shendi wants to use such land for hotels, spas and retail, like its new Shanghai Village, a 590,000-square-foot outlet mall, with luxury shops selling Armani, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture and other brands.


Disney against Commies

The NYT article does not mention, because it’s obvious or irrelevant or both, that Walt Disney, probably America’s greatest 20th century propagandist, considered Communism a dire ideological threat. From his wiki:

In 1946 he was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization who stated they “believ[ed] in, and like, the American Way of Life … we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of Communism, Fascism and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. In 1947, during the Second Red Scare, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators; Disney stated that the 1941 strike led by them was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.

Communism’s certainly traveled a long way, from ideological arch-enemy to “sharing the keys to the Magic Kingdom” in a short 70 years.

The NYT article does say that “Shanghai Disneyland is triggering concerns about American cultural imperialism”. Curious to see how that works out. To me it seems more like the latest spike in a long-term trend of cultural imperialism in reverse, as China continues to buy the Hollywood machine piecemeal and subtly tailor its content from within (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). But that’s a topic worth more thought than I want to give it right now.


Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, 1985 (photo: Thomas Buehler)

I had a few private laughs when reading this article, comparing it with an anecdote that came out of a recent interview I did with Chinese artist Li Xinjian. Li worked closely with Robert Rauschenberg when the American artist visited China for exhibits in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985, as part of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project. I interviewed Li for an article (forthcoming in the July issue of Time Out Beijing) about Rauschenberg in China, which opened at UCCA in Beijing last weekend. He describes this incident after the December 1985 opening of ROCI Tibet:

He had over 60 works in the exhibition, plus five or six installations and 10 video works. There were not many TVs in Tibet back then. Local people were really delighted to see TVs. The video works had some Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck footage, the Tibetans thought it was fun. So they stared at the TV. How could they ever understand those installations and silk-screen paintings? If we understand Rauschenberg as trying to sell American culture, then maybe he really wanted normal people, ordinary people to understand his work, his art concept. But when he saw the Tibetans turning the scripture wheel, then happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not willing to leave, he got angry. He told us to turn off all of the TVs except for the two playing his documentaries.

Seems Mickey and Donald work like capitalism itself, coldly indifferent to the intentions of maker and critic alike.

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