the wizard of sz

Participants in the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennial will

Explore the possibility of large-scale effective social mobilization in a time that lacks centralized force, spiritual solidarity and practical organization – Ou Ning, Biennial Curator.

In the context of Shenzhen’s thirty year history, the word “mobilization” resonates ironically. In 1966, Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution by mobilizing Chinese youth to prevent the restoration of capitalism through ongoing class struggle. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping initiated Reform and Opening by mobilizing the national engineering corps, architects, and reform-mind cadres to plan and build a Special Economic Zone, where elements of capitalism would be deployed to finance modernization projects throughout China. In other words, the construction of Shenzhen was a countermeasure to large-scale social mobilization during the Cultural Revolution and the city itself is the product of effective social mobilization under the auspices of modernization. Juxtaposed with the stated aims of the Biennial, Shenzhen’s history thus begs the question, “Why mobilization? Why now?”

With respect to the history of Shenzhen, I believe that Biennial organizers’ call for mobilization is a call for shared symbols and myths – spiritual solidarity, rather than a call for either centralized force or practical action. After all, Shenzhen’s success is direct result of the city’s capacity to organize an estimated 12-14 million people into hierarchically related networks of production, trade, and consumption. This level of sustained economic productivity speaks to the presence of highly effective means of large-scale social mobilization. In contrast, what Shenzhen residents lack – and I would argue yearn for – is a shared story of what it means to inhabit and belong to the city. Over the past thirty years, unprecedented migration has transformed the population, so that Shenzheners have limited experience of membership in shared social networks. Land reclamation and leveling projects have reshaped the landscape, so that residents have few experiences of sharing common space. Moreover, massive construction has repeatedly leveled old landmarks, such that even long-term Shenzhen residents have difficulty revisiting once meaningful places.

The call for spiritual solidarity is a call for an antidote to the effects of the scale and scope of social transformation that has defined urbanization not just in Shenzhen, but also in other cities, in other times. Early modern sociologists like Max Weber and Emile Durkheim have shown how industrialization and rural migration not only re-created European cities, but also disrupted traditional social networks, common spaces, and familiar landmarks. These old school scholars may have used unfamiliar jargon such as secularization, disenchantment, and ennui to describe the social effects of industrial urbanization, but their research points to a common experience – the loss of meaning that accompanies large-scale social transformation. Human beings use shared symbols and places and histories in order to orient ourselves to one another. Members of traditional societies enjoy spiritual solidarity precisely because they share ways of thinking, acting, and day-to-day living. When we leave those worlds – migrating to the city from rural villages, for example – we loose our sense of self to the extent that we cannot use traditional symbols either to orient or to describe our experience. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, migrants to Shenzhen aren’t in Kansas anymore. They’ve ridden a tornado of change to a whole new world and are looking for a way home.

Shenzhen residents are trying to create new forms of spiritual solidarity because they find themselves in unfamiliar territory. Like earlier migrants to fin-de-siecle Berlin and Paris that Weber and Durkheim studied one hundred years ago, Shenzhen migrants are transforming traditional values, places, and lifeways both to meet and to create unprecedented social situations. However, contemporary Chinese society is changing faster and bigger than did turn-of-the-century German and French societies. Moreover, Shenzhen has erupted in the context of globalization, which is itself a new kind of momentous social change. Contemporary urbanization is not simply a question of rural migration and concomitant industrialization, but also the manifestation of massive social restructuring on a global scale. Shenzhen resembles contemporary cities worldwide in that the new migrants come from an array of social backgrounds and cultures, with different educations, cultures, and even national histories. Those of us who didn’t ride the tornado aren’t in Kansas anymore either; Oz has come to us and we can’t go home because we’re already here.

The Biennial provides an opportunity for cross-cultural discussion of how cities – like Shenzhen and not – might become sites for and the objects of spiritual solidarity. It is a difficult discussion because we must negotiate different histories and cultures in very different languages. Architecture provides a common point of departure for these conversations because most of us live in (or against) a city. Neon and teles and cars (oh my!) provide common, if abstract, landmarks. However, as Ou Ning indicates, this is just the beginning. It is not enough to move people from place to place, or even enough to build new places with each move. Instead, we must figure out how to ride the maelstrom because even if we were once at home in Shenzhen, we’re not there anymore either.

This commentary was first published in that’s prd.

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