Adapted and retro-constructed transcript of a talk given at China Institute preceding to the collective performance.
Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Long Marchers,
I am delighted to offer my comments today as a member (by proxy of my works) of the Long March—the second Long March, as I was not yet born when the first one took place.
Some 3,000 miles into the 8,000 mile adventure the marchers came to realize that the whole second march should have been done backward—starting at the end. History cannot be repeated. The first half of the second Long March had to be undone by looking back, by untracing its path. Only the unraveling of the past would be the key to unlock the power of the Long March. It seemed the only way to go forward.
This seemingly simple approach—or reproach—that Lu Jie adapted for the Long March has unique cultural roots. When I visited Beijing in 2002 I saw an old woman walking backward in one of the city’s parks. To my eyes she seemed a little deranged. Later I learned that she was doing an exercise, a form of therapy—rewinding, undoing, resetting, turning back the clock. I had, until that point, associated this idea with used car dealers, who would attach drills to odometers and in a few hours, taking tens of thousands of miles off the reading. I had no idea that there were similar tricks in life, and that the Zen of used car dealing coincidentally shares a practice with Chinese therapeutical methods.
Here’s another “backward” practice: traditionally, Chinese is written from top to bottom and from right to left. This may sound like a hackneyed point, but it becomes interesting when you consider that Chinese people are quite capable of reading Chinese script backward and forward. There is an intrinsic ambidexterity right at the core of written communication.
This mindset encompasses a very different approach that goes beyond the seeming similarities between the Chinese concept of yin and yang and the Western notion of dialectics. Chinese cosmology is distinctly different from the post-Aristotelian monotheistic Western perspective. Cheng Chen-Yih, a USC physicist quotes fellow physicist and Nobel laureate Yukawa Hideki: “We … [in Asia] … have not been corrupted by Aristotle”.
Western thought assumes that space and time move along a single linear trajectory, the singularity of spacetime, where Chinese thought assumes a bi-directional symmetry and a complementary relationship between future and past. This issue impacts questions of free will and destiny, and debates that broach religious territory. Mostly, it affirms the reality of the future and assumes a bi-directional symmetry and complementarily between past and future.
This view finds support in contemporary physics in the concept of Backward Causality (also known as retrocausality), which suggests that sometimes an effect can occur before its cause and thus fundamentally questions the direction of time itself. Rather than using a mathematical supposition or quantum mechanics to understand the notion of going back, Chinese thought affirms the reality of the future implicitly.
We find history so compelling in part because the present intuitively feels improbable and unlikely, and yet so real. There was probably only a one in a trillion chance that the world would turn out to be exactly the way it is, but we believe in causality, so we try to explain the now out of the building blocks of the past. The present can both be seen as the contemporary future as much as a contemporary past. And as such it is always a construct. So how can we really access it? In The Decline of the West, written during World War One, Oswald Spengler undertook the monumental task of writing a morphology of history designed to allow us to understand and evaluate and even feel the present not as a future past, but in terms of its then-contemporary present.
Berlin-based art and media historian Siegfried Zielinski, who initiated a series of conferences and publications under the term “Variantology,” offers another exciting approach to explaining the present. Zielinski posits a reconstruction of a primordial perspective from which several speculative projections—rather than just one linear reconstruction—are made toward the present. This approach pleasantly erodes the veneer of the now being the only possible reality, or the “inevitable” mindset of historical authority.
To really understand the present, one must move backward while simultaneously looking forward. Few historians understand this, but it is quite logical, and made comprehensible through subjective corporeal experience—by actually walking backward. This approach opens the present up to choice. The present as one of several prospective scenarios that are more a matter of choice and vision than something to be stuck in or with. With choice comes preference and decision. It does away with the no-way out scenarios of global warming, wars, refugees and such. The forward-looking back-stepping asks of us—which present would we chose?