TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

出路: Leaving Town

In this series of entries, Jacob Dreyer investigates the spatial forms of modernity in China, notably that of the Metropolis (e.g., Shanghai) and the Wasteland (e.g., Heilongjiang). In a previous piece, he discussed the formation of a metropolitan identity; here, he discusses the reasons why Manchuria’s empty landscapes captivated the Japanese intellectuals of the early twentieth century. His next piece will discuss the interlocking histories of revolution, crime, and reaction among the Chinese post-revolutionary generation.

For the outsider, the metropolis—a visual, tangible representation of the economic activities that it sites—appears to be endlessly seductive, complicated, and enthralling. And yet, for the urbanites themselves, both the skyline and the economy that it harbors inspire tedium; when will these games terminate, these spectacles that bring us no closer to a utopian community but merely run down the clock prior to the moment of judgment? What appears superficially to be busyness (e.g., business) is in fact a gigantic conspiracy for the wasting of everybody’s time, resources, and cognitive ability. At least, that is the way that it appeared to the revolutionary urban intellectuals of East Asia’s 1930s, both those from Tokyo as well as those from Shanghai; the former group, motivated by a critique of capitalism, would be involved in the creation of much of the built structure of an East Asian modern, while the latter became architects of the Chinese Communist Revolution. The revolutionary impulse of the Japanese progressives in Manchuria was realized as technocracy; however, deeper insecurities about the nature of capitalist modernity haunted the thoughts and work of the men who, while articulating a system of modern infrastructure across the Great Northern Wasteland, simultaneously brooded upon the limited and constricting nature of the society within which they existed.

Nishida Kitaro, the primary philosopher of the Kyoto School (a group of philosophers associated with the project of creating an independent Japanese modernity, one that was not derivative of Western models, in the early twentieth century) saw emptiness in Manchuria—a beautiful emptiness, the emptiness of Zen Buddhism.[1] The frozen, barren “Great Northern Wasteland” was for him a profoundly spiritual place, one that challenged the individual ethos of the West (and capitalist interiors like Shanghai or Tokyo). If the capitalist metropolis tended to atomize humans and class them on the basis of their work, Manchuria was a pure land[2], untainted and untaintable by the machinations of capital. The colonization of Manchuria was an experience that a generation of Japanese intellectuals reflected upon profoundly, the axial point in the lifework of Takeuchi Yoshimi,[3] the project of “overcoming modernity.” The superficial forms of knowledge bred by the modern metropolis faltered and became silent in the face of the Great Northern Wasteland, sparkling with ice, inhabited by shamans and bandits skulking through impenetrable forests.

The point is that Manchuria (and its population) was silent, endless, un-nameable; even as the Japanese colonial project sought to order it, to turn on the lights, to build and order (as in the construction of the modernist capital Xinjing—modern day Changchun[4]), a generation of Japanese philosophers and literati, from Soseki to Kitaro to Yoshimi, found the encounter with this frozen terrain, this modernist wasteland, to be a limit experience, shattering their ideas of the world, of the self; this was the staging point for the overcoming of modernity. Those metropolitans, whether arriving from Moscow, Tokyo, or later, Shanghai and Beijing, who chanced to voyage into the “Great Northern Wasteland,” found that the encounter forever transformed their understanding of the human, of nature, and of the modern world. The Russian, then Japanese, and finally Chinese attempts to tame and conquer this region, to render it serviceable to the modernist dream of order and logic, met with a turning point in Manchuria, in which the confident description and prognostication of the urbanite stuttered and then finally, trailed off into silence.

A Manchurian Modern

For [Japanese] architects of the yen bloc and the controlled economy, the status quo that needed changing was capitalism; hence they imagined renovating its structures of finance, industry, and commerce. The social dreams of the technocrats, artists, and Sinologists conjured up alternatives to a different catalog of grievances with the status quo, including outmoded cityscapes, the inconveniences of daily life, and the misery and exploitation of the laboring class.[5]

There were, of course, material reasons for Japanese intellectuals such as Kitaro, Soseki, and Yoshimi to be experiencing these utopian daydreams. By the 1930s, the pressure put on Japanese left-wing intellectuals inside Japan by an increasingly reactionary and militaristic establishment reached a boiling point; at the same time, the opportunities for scholars, architects, and philosophers in Manchuria were great. Mantetsu, the Japanese railway corporation in charge of exploring, mapping, and colonizing Manchukuo, offered a haven to the Japanese radical intellectuals of the era at a time when Japan’s universities became increasingly inhospitable to radical thought. The nothingness that the philosophers found so captivating was a momentary illusion, one that would be soon replaced by the fruits of their own labors; cityscapes, railroads, pleasure parks, dust, nightclubs, as the banal landscape of the metropolis replicated itself in the most unlikely of all locations, the Great Northern Wasteland, last preserve of the unknowable. The observation of this unknowable emptiness had the paradoxical effect of filling it, commencing a discourse that would soon become just as tedious as the hubbub of the great cities.

Anti-Modern Modernity

However, we may be getting ahead of ourselves. What, precisely, was the problem that Takeuchi (and Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche, and the entire tradition of “anti-modern modernity”) have with the modern, with our charming and delightful metropolitan life? Why, Eileen Chang must have wondered from Hong Kong and then Los Angeles, did these savages have to destroy the enchanting, mysterious life of pre-revolutionary Shanghai? Parisians have asked this question, Muscovites have, Berliners, New Yorkers . . . all of the great metropoli have indigenous traditions of mourning for times past. It is a question that remains current among contemporary Chinese urbanites in Shanghai and Beijing, many of whom feel ongoing bitterness at the expropriation of the possessions of their ancestors, at the sense of a wrong turn, at the sense of watching barbarians (i.e., the people) vulgarly marching in triumph through their beautiful home garden.

The modernity whose prototypical form is the metropolis creates an interior which cannot be universalized; the city wishes to digest all, putting all within a system of resource extraction and exchange, as well as population transfer, but is structurally impossible to place everybody at the center. Therefore, the possibility of a universal interior is logically impossible to realize: as a dialectical division, an interior requires an exterior.[6] The time of work requires time of leisure; an elite requires an underclass; a global city requires a deprived hinterland. The most devastating critique that could be made of Shanghai’s mansions was made in 1949, when the Chinese common people regained possession of that which they regarded as rightfully theirs: the homeland. As Mao Zedong said, a system in which the majority of humans are treated like livestock is a barbaric system;[7] in Manchuria, “they could build the fastest train or the greenest city because they held at their disposal the power to seize land at will, to appropriate resources, and to silence dissenting voices; their modernist utopia rested on the foundation of the absolute power of the colonial state.”[8] The repressed voices of those transformed into slaves for the purpose of realizing utopia are in fact the voices of the people, which we hear hoarsely laughing as we stroll through working-class neighborhoods after dusk. The city can never become a utopia; the emptiness and loneliness that we feel in the heart of the city is a whispering sense: here will never be the site of love, equality can never happen here. The metropolis is a monument to inequalities, to contradictions and differences, those which are intrinsic to capitalism: as we have seen in Shanghai, socialism doesn’t quite know what to do with metropoli, and typically abandons them to become dusty museums explaining how awful the bad old days were.[9]

Today, downtown Shanghai is a lovely and sterile soap bubble without any profound ability to provide a permanent home; we float through, and finally discover that there is nothing there. Inside the interior it is tedious, stale air puffs about, nothing but recycled discourse and ‘inside’ jokes can be made, building on the existent structure of shared reality. Outside is a nothingness, a frozen prairie, one which in its startling emptiness shocks us to our core- for it forces us to confront the sheer triviality of our interior, our bourgeois spectacles. The transcendence of a bourgeois interior requires “going outside”; and yet, it appears impossible to inhabit a form of identity that blends the outside and inside; rather, the intrepid explorer of the outside inevitably finds only his own image repeated endlessly; the mere act of exiting the metropolis and exploring the “outside” cannot dispel the impression of emptiness and nothingness; it merely scatters the detritus of the city on this grand, frozen plain, dirtying it at the same time as leaving the traveler with a sense of his own smallness. The legacy of the Japanese intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s, locked in conflict with the constantly pounding tidal waves of the economy, was to fix certain experiences- experiences which initially were experiences of the economy- and create ownership by narration and memory, extracting them from the realm of economic transaction. To take a moment “out of time,” for time always flows. Against the monotonous, repetitive pulsing speed of the modern metropolis, the anti-modern moderns sought to capture what was most evanescent- the internal experience of the subject- removing these thoughts from the superficial flickerings of the economy, and placing them out of time, out of space, out of the body, out of the city, in a zone of total isolation and ice: a library, an archive, in a Northern Wasteland.


1. “According to Nishida, the place of nothingness could not be seen by any, but it could ‘see all’. It could not be derived from anything, yet could be the origin of anything. It could not take an action, but actions of all sorts could only take place in the “place.” The philosophy of place and nothingness could provide a language that could put words into describing the inexpressible desire of representing a universal spirit. Actions in the origin of civilization paralleled the sense of “coming from the place of nothingness.” See Chih-Yu Shih, “Bridging Civilizations through Nothingness: From Rabindramath Tagore to Nishida Kitaro’s ‘Place’ in Manchuria.”

2. In Chinese Buddhism, this is called 净土, pure land.

3. Yoshimi’s work will be discussed in more detail shortly. For a description of how the Manchurian experience, as well as the collapse of the utopian dreams it represented, impacted Japanese architecture, refer to Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulbrich Obrist, Project Japan: Metabolism Talks (New York: Taschen, 2011).

4. “The march of progress in the empire promised the reordering of the colonial landscape into the rational lines of urban modernism.” Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1999).

5. Ibid., p. 242 (my emphasis).

6. This idea is developed by Peter Sloterdijk in his In The World Interior of Capital, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2013).

7. Mao Zedong, Collected Writings, vol. 3, Mao’s Road to Power, ed. Stuart Schramm (Armonk, NY, and London: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 1992–2007), p. 296.

8. Young, Japan’s Total Empire, p. 249.

9. Antonioni’s film Chung Kuo shows the eerie emptiness of downtown Shanghai during the high tide of socialism. At that time, Shanghai was properly post-apocalyptic in the sense that the meaning which sustained and sustains the city had been extinguished.

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