In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably argued that without political community the life of man would be ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. However, in truth, even long after Hobbes’s time the experience of most ordinary people remained characterised by disease, crime, poverty, and conflict. Until very recently the possibility of utopia came not in life from increasingly powerful national governments, but came after death from spiritual belief. The modernity of which Hobbes’s declaration was a part was at least partly underwritten by the promise of realising some of the hopes of heaven in the here and now. Rationality in science, management, and indeed even in politics, would at last allow us to build a shining city on the hill in this world, and save us the uncertain wait for the hereafter.
Our today is the future that was dreamt of yesterday, and we have indeed achieved some of the great aspirations promised by the seers of modernity. We have realised still other things that were unimagined and unimaginable then, and which still at times seem hard to fully understand for us even as we live these feats today. But this progress has also proven itself to be something of a zero-sum game, and for all the successes, our world is a landscape littered with many failed utopias. The city on the hill has turned out to be a haunted house, built on the twisted remains of ideals only half realised, stalked by the ghosts of those who prophesied their coming, and littered with the bodies of those sacrificed (and lest we forget, still being sacrificed) on the altar of progress.
This is the world I see in Mårten Lange’s Ghost Witness, a new book of photographs made during a three-month residency in Shanghai and depicting that city along with five of China’s other largest metropoles. Utopian ideals are invariably justified in terms of helping people live better lives, but actual humans are noticeably absent in Lange’s images. The few faces we see are those appropriated into billboard advertising, and where actual people appear it is almost always as alienatingly distant office workers or anonymous construction people hanging precariously from the edges of massive building sites. The city’s inhabitants are occasionally seen from on high crossing sparse public spaces, again anonymized by distance, and reminiscent of Harry Lime’s Viennese dots (‘free of income tax, old man’). These are hardly either the staunch workers of socialist realism, nor the liberated consumers of free market capitalism.
At least part of the failure of so many of modernity’s projects was that better living for the masses was often subsumed utterly by the pursuit of abstract ideas. To paraphrase the historian and urbanist Lewis Mumford, life was too often measured by its ability to minister to progress, but progress was rarely measured by how well it ministered to life. The real heroes of Lange’s visual narrative then are not the people who occupy the city, but the vast skyscrapers that shimmer in the sun, and disappear into rain and mist. His photographs are unbelievable Borgesian visions of cities where scale and growth are literally inhuman, but which in their hyper virility also reveal a modernity built on contingent and unstable foundations, and which in ideological terms parallel the economist Andrew Lawrence’s observation that urban hyper development often coincide with economic stagnation.
The real heroes of Lange’s visual narrative are not the people who occupy the city, but the vast skyscrapers that shimmer in the sun, and disappear into rain and mist.
In their post-post-modern features these structures appear intent on throwing off the shackles of the past, becoming ahistorical and unplaceable. But in these attempts, they really only draw to mind more strongly the pasts that they attempt to forget, in particular the China that preceded them. The concrete superstructure of one building under construction evokes a twisted and nightmarish pagoda, and creates a ghostly mental image of the villages and towns swallowed and consumed by these expanding cities. These cities, in other words, reflect some of the deep contradictions of modern China, of a country where tradition and history rub up against high technology, and where opaque one-party communism holds power through a globalised ‘free’ market economy and high-tech neo-nationalism.
Karl Marx, ever the jobbing journalist cognisant of a good turn of phrase, opened his 1848 communist manifesto with the bewitching description of a spectre haunting the continent of Europe, but today utopian ideals like communism are spectral in a way that Marx could not have imagined. However strongly neoliberal capitalism might believe it has vanquished socialism’s claim to the throne, it has clearly not been successful in exorcising its restless and disruptive spirit. Even as we clearly cannot go back and rebuild these failed utopias as their prophets originally imagined, it also seems we cannot free ourselves completely of them. Instead, as we continue our long march into the future, we remain haunted and pursued by them.