Featured in
Issue 235

Unraveling the World in the Polycrisis Era

On the occasion of his new book Catastrophe Time!, Gary Zhexi Zhang questions how we make sense of our era when history seems to speed by us

BY Gary Zhexi Zhang in Books , Opinion | 09 MAY 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 235, based on the theme 'Time Warp'

At the time of writing, it’s 24 January 2023. Not much happened today, but reality continues to slide. 50,000 tech workers have been laid off since New Year’s Day. Everyone’s asking Germany to send tanks to Ukraine. California is experiencing deadly floods and deadly droughts, at the same time.

What era are we in again? Our desire for chronolocation a grasp of historical orientation – is distinctly challenged as the scaffoldings of temporal stability seem to fall away, from the systemic to the everyday. Looking back, the span between the early 1990s and the COVID-19 pandemic now resembles a quaint, geopolitical time-bubble in which we LARPed the end of history.

Amongst my own (anglophone, globally privileged, millennial) peers, micro-generational identities across these past three decades can be divided into formative bursts of collective optimism and disillusionment: the anti-globalization movement, Web 2.0 and open-source culture, Occupy, the Arab Spring, anti-austerity, the transatlantic leftist movements of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, the crypto boom (and bust), climate activism. For many in the Global North, this scattershot of cultural mobilizations forms the coordinates of political and economic imagination in a world sliding into crisis, albeit open, networked and mobile.

Liz Lund, Patterns of mould beautifully digesting the elderly care facility left eerily vacant, Hurricane Ida, Houma, Louisiana, United States, 2021. Courtesy: the artist

This was the high time of globalization, with the unassailable political and economic dominance of the United States at its centre; and of trade liberalization, which spawned global supply chains that sustained the rich world with cheap imports from ‘emerging economies’, especially China. However unevenly, the world economy settled into a familiar habit. Low interest rates kept borrowing historically cheap, while global financial markets bubbled and boomed with the help of monetary institutions. Since the government bailouts of 2007–08, investors have effectively been paid to take risks, leading to the rise of trillion-dollar asset managers and speculative bubbles in tech start-ups and cryptocurrencies. Between 2009 and the crash of 2022, the S&P 500 stock market index saw the longest bull run in history, creating another generation of adults who had only ever known the market to rise.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought this world to a halt, resurfacing the totality of an anxious planet through its deep systemic fractures, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine further entrenched this return of the real through energy crises, geopolitical breakdown and genocidal warfare. And now, back to our regular, Cold War schedule?

For decades, citizens of the world’s most privileged nations remained relatively insulated from volatility, largely through the forces of financial and economic globalization. The breakdown of supply chains and the immobility of people – whether due to the pandemic, geopolitics or climate shocks – reterritorialized a planetary condition which could no longer be resolved at the whims of its creditors. These overlapping crises revealed a mundane yet counterintuitive reality (at least for economics): a world made not of fungible, homogenous units of exchange but a fragile choreography of heterogenous materials. As it turned out, there are many more prices than the price of money.

Liz Lund, Daylight in the bedroom: typical contemporary construction vs. 132 mph winds. Hurricane Irma, Duck Key, Florida, United States, 2017. Courtesy: the artist 

When the imaginary wholeness of a world begins to fray, one might wonder: what was it that held it together to begin with? Last year, in a series of blog posts, historian Adam Tooze popularized the term ‘polycrisis’ to frame this ensemble piece of interacting phenomena – war, pandemic, resource struggles  – which cannot be read through a single causal narrative, even as its constituent effects amplify one another in surprising ways. The emergent sprawl of this polycrisis could also be read as a refusal of easy synthesis and comprehension, in favour of a jarring kind of synchronization. If our time seems out of joint, it may be that our temporal sensibilities are deeply inadequate to the reality in which we live. In a 2022 interview for Noema, philosopher Achille Mbembe opined: ‘It may be that we must let go of the dream of reconcilability. The question then is: is it possible to build anything at all in the face of this agonism?’ As geopolitics collides with nature, as social-network effects join the flows of politics and finance, while atmospheric heating reshapes climate zones and ocean passages, the spatio-temporal fiction of the world is being rewritten by its externalities.

This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline ‘Bursting the Bubble’

Read more thematic columns here

Gary Zhexi Zhang's new book Catastrophe Time! will be published by Strange Attractor Press on 16 May

Main image: Liz Lund, Daylight in the bedroom: typical contemporary construction vs. 132 mph winds. Hurricane Irma, Duck Key, Florida, United States, 2017. Courtesy: the artist 

Gary Zhexi Zhang is an artist and writer based in New York, USA.