Friday, 1 July 2011

Critique – 1 Monotheists, outsiders and proclamations of doom.

Time for a confession. I am a recovering cultural studies junkie. Do not let the lack of capitalisation fool you with regards to my seriousness, there are times when I relapse. An article, an argument, a picture, a person. That is all it takes to send me back into the spiral of contemplating power relations, self-reflexivity (and its absence), creative, pragmatic applications of theory and scholarly excellence. Confession completed before turning toward the issue at stake, some contextualisation is required.

Currently I live in Japan. I have done so for a total of about eight years. I have both weathered and inflicted culture shock. I have reflected on belonging and being foreign. I have learned to send out tender green shoots into the earth, to begin to be of this place. I have turned my expectations inside-out, rejected assumptions both explicit and implicit and to some degree started to turn Japanese. Almost the whole of my context is linguistically dominated by Japanese, from the moment I wake up, through to my place of employment, and most importantly the realm of love. That said, I am certainly no expert on Japan, I am hardly even an expert on myself (though age has proven to be of some help in that regard).

To be an expert on a place, a people, a complex living context of incredible diversity, seems to me, at this stage in the game at the very least bordering on contemptible arrogance. Sure, I do believe that one can be an expert on existing knowledges, social, economic, religious and so on. Such expertise is valuable, the problem arises when such knowledge is applied unreflexively, thus compounding and enforcing existing hegemonies, conceptual prisons and ignorance. This kind of so-called scholarship persists even to this day, legitimated by countless institutions committed to knowledge production as their reason for existence. This is unfortunate because to me, scholarship should ultimately be about liberation: acquisition of knowledge for understanding and reflection on such knowledge for creativity.

So it is with great interest and curiosity that I engage with scholarship on Japan. I am always looking to increase the depth of my knowledge so that my understanding can become more subtle, refined and respectful of the complexity inherent in culture and society. A recent posting of a scholarly article by scholar on Japan, MG Shetfall on Debitos civic activist website caught my eye.

This article, a meditation on the loss of a Japanese cosmology in the post-Meiji, post-Pacific War Japan is rather engaging, the field work with kamikaze survivors, while not explicitly included, deeply informs his analysis. However, there are a number of tired tropes wheeled out throughout the article based on a specific kind of scholarship on Japan, a kind of scholarship that has persisted since the bubble. This includes an over-reliance on English language scholarship and especially North American-centric engagement with Japan. This is to be expected, the author is/was after all an American. We all write where we are from all of the time. From yakuza to pachinko, right-wing black trucks to the apparently problematic entrenched, unreconstructed sexism, and mindless consumerism to emperor worship. It is all present. While this in itself is worthy of rebuff (in addition to his overly positive, incongruous conclusion) there are two other profoundly interrelated issues which trouble this scholarly teetotaller.

The first is the lack of contextual reflexivity. The shattering of cosmology he describes with regard to Japan could easily apply his birthplace. Around the world, we stand witness to the death of the American dream, the wholesale plunge into income discrepancy, increasing poverty and political/religious extremism in the modern United States. Even as things have fallen apart as gods, icons and saints have been shattered at home, Shetfall fails to acknowledge this global phenomenon in his analysis. From China to post-apartheid South Africa to most of Europe, historically important drivers of activity, sources of community and reasons for progress give way to apathy, technological change, redistribution of wealth and the questioning of self and national identities within such a context. Certainly if one is to comment on the phenomenon in Japan that it would do well to acknowledge its broader context. Is this just an unreflexive, self-policing adoption of disciplinary borderlands? Or is it something else, is it yet another foreigner looking in fetishisation of a culture that takes place within a longer history of outdated anthropological study?

The second issue for me is one commonly found in the sociology/anthropology literature on Japan from the West: an unquestioned belief in the alliance between monotheism and Freud. Although I do not have the space for a full detailing of my arguments against monotheism I will give a brief overview. The unreconstructed, unreflexive monotheist thinker is limited binary violence. S/he always proceeds from the point of rigid, presumed, enforceable totality. Everything which is good must fit within the framework. Any thought which contradicts of falls outside of the monotheist worldview is relegated as less than. However, when applied to cultural contexts with Buddhist histories (note the plurals?) monotheism starts to look not only shaky but somewhat primitive, unrefined and limited. This is not to say that monotheist believers are those things, indeed, first and foremost I believe as humans we are capable of extraordinary subtlety and clarity both in spite of and because of our overarching intellectual developmental contexts. People are people. Nevertheless when the monotheist encounters a poly-, a- or non-theist context the exchange always begins with the imposition of authority. Meanwhile, if we take the previously mentioned Buddhism as the starting point we arrive at a brilliant piece of classically Zen paradox. For the Buddhist has no problem with recognising monotheism, as monotheism is simply an expression of human action. It is not and can not be a totality. Even though it has become so. But in the end, it is merely human thought. Buddhism can acknowledge both the sincerity and artifice of monotheism simultaneously. What might cultural studies, sociology or anthropology informed by Buddhism look like? Perhaps when I experience a full relapse, I will let you know.

Further to this second point is the reliance of Freud. Long time readers (I know you are out there) will know that I have an affinity for Deleuze. To read Deleuze, to dig in deep and to meditate on his thought brings one to an interesting destination. That Freudian thought is unmistakably violence, perhaps second only to Christianity in the mind rapes conducted upon the human species. Freudian desire is trapped within a peculiar Germanic Christian mode of expression which has been legitimated through scholarship for a century. Deleuze is like a little trickster here, he says that while a certain desire, pathos or fetish may exist (although it may not and it may altogether be something else) it is forced into being a specific mode under Freud. For Deleuze, desire is multiple, it arises in response to myriad contexts and it is not necessarily wrong or destructive.

In other words, Shetfalls letting off steam metaphor with regard to Japanese development is incredibly limited and demonstrates perhaps more the authors age, alien-ness in context and disjunct from the complex, optimistic, micro-level inspiration occurring all over Japan than it does any kind of objective reality. Shetfalls reality, I contend, is confined to a particular set of Anglo-American-Japanese disciplinary coordinates. This is not to say his reflection is wholly incorrect. Indeed although his tropes may be worn, stereotypes often have their origins in some kind of reality, even if removed from and not created by those they are meant to represent. His Japan certainly does exist but it does not necessarily ring true with my experience and therefore likely several... million... others.

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