As the global order mutates and the East rises to a position of power, a new series explores the cultural effects of this shift, proposing a story-telling from a different time zone.
Growing up in Hong Kong at the prime of its horror movies, I had a childhood in which every shadow could be a spooky puddle where Qing-costumed vampires and ghosts with long hair bounced out from the dark dimensions. My worldview, propped up by uncanny supernatural undercurrents, was balanced by science fiction. In China, before Liu Cixin (author of Three-Body-Problems) and Hao Jingfang (author of Folding Beijing) were awarded the Hugo Prize, the literary genre had been underrated and regarded as young adult literature, its glorious origin in the late Qing dynasty faded in oblivion. Back in those days, when imported technology kindled the imagination for a national savior in the death bed of dynasty, Lu Xun, the writer and scholar who led the New Cultural Movement, translated De la Terre à la Lune (“From the Earth to the Moon”) and Voyage au centre de la Terre (“Journey to the Center of the Earth”) by Jules Gabriel Verne to Chinese. Borrowing the form of zhanghui xiaoshuo, Chinese episodic novels with chapters commenced by summarizing poetry, the translation spearheaded a national craze for Verne. Liang Qichao, the intellectual who started the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898, wrote a novel entitled Xin Zhong Guo Wei Lai Ji (“The Future of New China”) in 1902, imagining China as a world power in 2062—an premise that recalled Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887, which had been translated to Chinese in 1891.
The return of science fiction marks a moment when China has to position itself into the world’s globalized future.
The rise of science fiction was a quench to the thirst of reform. Anchored in themes of travel and colonization, with hot balloons as a common imagery, “sci-fi” in the Qing dynasty adopted an expansion of time and space to rethink the country’s relationship with the world. The literary works were a placebo, initiating an extraterritoriality in unknown lands at a time when China was being partitioned by other world powers. The recent return of Chinese science fiction marks a moment when China has to position itself into the world’s globalized future—one seen through the aerial views of satellites’ mechanic gazes—and is probably a response to the symbolic binding of the nation’s “rising” to power and its spaceflight development. With China’s applause for Three-Body-Problem’s success and Chinese actor Jiang Wen’s participation in Rouge One, however, another virtual future of humanity’s afterlife is being repressed. For the past few years, ghosts have been banished by Guangdian Zongju (The State Administration of Press, Publication, Film, Radio and Television of the People’s Republic of China), and although the market’s hunger for horror movies has not diminished, even with this governmental measure, the outcome has been mediocre, “spooky” films in which phantomic suspense is killed by rationalization, the ghosts merely hallucinations brought on by mental illness or conspiracies. Animist spirits born before the establishment of PRC—e.g., the fox apparition in Pu Songling’s Liaozhai Zhiyi (“Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”)—survive the censorship for being ideal didactic vessels. The (bio)political management of the afterlife in China is not only manifest in the interdiction of phantoms, but also in its Order No. 5, issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs to manipulate the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism since 2007. Karl Marx may be a cultural relic of the Red era, but his spectre haunts China in the name of atheism. The governmental gaze of omnipresent surveillance (echoing the Qing dynasty’s sci-fi obsession with aerial views of unknown lands) visualizes the world to be an overexposed crystal ball where the ghostly shadows are exiled, a globe defined by the perimeter of a monopolized narrative.
The temporalities of ghost stories and science fiction border on each other. The present absence of spirits, for instance, can be imagined through Kader Attia’s Ghost (2009), an installation described by The Telegraph as featuring “what look like large lumps of crumpled aluminum foil.” The lumps in question are in fact representations of Middle Eastern women cloaked in lightweight silver chador; female figures in the form of voids, these ghosts are simultaneously there and not there, their asynchrony described by Jacques Derrida’s Hamlet quote, “The time is out of joint.” As the corporeal dislocation of a human creates a shell, so do a ghost’s actions become nonlocal. In Ghost in the Shell, set in 2030s Japan, the “ghosts” are consciousness circulated among endless Gitai, artificial bodies where information can be duplicated and transmitted via electric networks. The fragmented torsos in the manga by Masamune Shirow (and the film by Mamoru Oshii) frame a broken time that is “out of joint,”uone that may wake people up from the omnipresence of capitalism, the sleepless, homogenous temporal-spatial configuration described in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7. We are at the end of history, movement in cosmological time now accelerated towards the perpetual sunshine of production and consumption. The recently passed and much beloved writer Mark Fisher described the cancellation of the future as an “erosion of spatiality” in which even spatiality to time is weathered down. The remake of Ghost in the Shell chose Scarlett Johansson to play the role of Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg with full-body prosthesis who serves as the field commander of Public Security Section 9. Predictably, the decision to have a white woman play the role of an Asian exsparked controversy, as Asian actors remain underexposed in Hollywood’s non-Orientalist gaze, but Ghost in the Shell’s bodies deserve defending, as bodies (or “shells”) are interchangeable in the original work. Johansson is the shell of the archeology of a future dating back to the ‘80s. We are the actual shells of the spirits of the past, a production line of historicism where nothing new happens.
We are at the end of history, accelerating towards the perpetual sunshine of production and consumption.
No Ghost Just a Shell (1999-present) is a collaboration between Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe. The two French artists obtained the copyright of a virtual image named AnnLee, a girl with long hair and little facial expression. The product of a Japanese manga agency and sold at a cheap price for lacking complexity and “characteristics,” AnnLee is a shell to be filled with narratives and content. She is a spectre returning to life through the Surrealist tradition of exquisite corpse, with the participation of other artists like Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, François Curlet, Melik Ohanian and Rirkrit Tiravanija producing new values within the ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) market, where particular stereotypical traits (e.g., Onē, mature women with curvy figures and maternal instincts) are hard currencies. Such categories are not unfamilar to Japanese culture. Meticulous classification of ghosts in Japan started in Heian period: Zashiki-Warashi are mischievous, childlike spirits bringing wealth to households; Ubume are the ghosts of dead pregnant women who ask passersby to hold their babies (which usually turn into heavy boulders); Goryō are vindictive ghosts from the aristocratic class. The spirits are defined by their physical and social conditions before their death; just like the ACG stereotypes, they are not just neutral shells. Arthur Koestler’s Ghost in the Machine (1967), an inspiration of Ghost in the Shell, is in accordance with this idea, opposing to the Cartesian clean-cut dualism of body and mind.
Hauntology, Fisher wrote, is defined by the “failure of future.” When the Hegelian “world spirit” dies with the gravitational collapse of capitalism, our imaging of “what’s next” shifts to the contemplation of afterlife, expanding the underworld.
Venus Lau is a curator and writer based in Beijing and Shenzhen, where she is artistic director of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal. Upcoming projects at OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Shenzhen, include a solo exhibition of Simon Denny in March.