CITIES, poetics of life

On iPhones and belonging

I never quite realised that getting an iPhone would mean not so much getting a new phone, as getting an entire new life; the normal-phoned Jana has sort of handed the torched to iPhoned Jana – an entirely new person who sends emails from cafes, tweets overheard oddities, and can find out that elusive address whilst on her way (the previous strategy involved calling friends with smart phones). The new Jana is self-sufficient to an unprecedented degree. A kind of cyborg, really, in the most literal sense. I have weather reports, stock markets and international contacts at my fingertips. But that’s not all.

After ten years of having the oldest possible phones, I am suddenly up with the trends. I can participate in collective behavioural fads – play those games that people (in the sense of ‘society’) play. Then also: people (in the sense of ‘society’) make software (‘apps’) for people like me. Whatever service I have thought of so far (lyrics to songs, wardrobe organisers, on-the-go radio), it all exists. I say ‘uhm’, and they give it to me. Someone anticipates my needs.

This is actually quite interesting, because it’s very unusual for me. And it’s unusual, I think, because I’m so used to being a minority. And being a minority, I realise, it’s an experience largely defined by the frustration of seeing your needs not being taken into account. Or met, but that comes without saying. And, since even before being an immigrant of non-English-speaking background (an outsider’s outsider) in Australia, I was already female, poor and left-handed, I think being a minority really shaped my rapport with the world.

I can be literal and explain, since it so far may sound like whining. Left-handedness is pretty straight-forward: whenever an item has been designed with a modicum of thought (as opposed to just put out there, like a pole or a pinboard, exempli gratia), chances are it is not suited for a left-handed person. Typical and well-known examples: can openers, knives, male clothing (female clothing buttons up left-hand-friendly by a historical accident: it is not meant to be self-buttoned at all, but done by a maid), computer mice. Lesser-known examples: pasta makers, coffee machines, cars in most countries, entire writing systems (try doing Japanese caligraphy with a left hand!), most instruments (even supposedly balanced ones, like piano, are more difficult), every set of knitting instructions in the world. Being left-handed means constantly translating activities into something you can do.

But then take poverty – poverty not in its absolute, global sense, but in the relative sense of earning significantly less than the median income. This is poverty that registers in one’s experience as a feeling (of being poor), and that is by definition a state of minority (being relatively poor means deviating from the average, defined by the majority). In one’s experience, being poor registers as the perpetual state of not having access to the solution which has been provided to your problem, because you can’t afford it. It means not being able to get somewhere, because the only means of transport is too expensive. It means forgoing medical treatments, because you can’t afford them. It means having to do things the long way, because the short way isn’t your short way.

And then being a woman – this is a whole other story, involving, for example, the medical treatment of childbirth, maternity leave provisions, and is a long and tiresome story that plenty of literature has covered already. But there it is again – everyone’s short way isn’t your short way. This notion of the problem being one of provision, but also navigation, was repeated very nicely early this year in an interview German Labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen, gave in regards to the need to have business quotas for women:

I understand the position of young woman [sic] who say that we don’t need quotas. Many of these women have had the experience that they have no trouble in school, at the university and early in their careers. They haven’t yet learned that there are two career paths: the one for men with well-marked streets; and the one for women on unpaved roads that not even the navigation device knows. Most of the women who’ve made it into top management positions say that although they also used to be against quotas themselves, they now believe that women can’t get by without them. I was the same. I used to sing the praises of the right to choose. But I’ve now learned that you sometimes need a law as a catalyst for change. For decades, there was absolutely no change in the number of men taking paternity leave. But within two years of making men eligible to receive state funds while taking paternity leave, the figure has increased six fold.

Navigation, of course, is very easy with a smart phone. But my accidental discovery here is that one kind of empowerment negates another kind of disempowerment. Having an iPhone (which puts me, simply, into the category of ‘majority consumer’, as opposed to a sub-culture, a minority lifestyle which favours old phones) mitigates against being left-handed. Having money mitigates against being a woman. And so on.

To return to the notion of people (in the sense of ‘society’): what’s interesting is that, although one principle of exclusion (of me, from society) may be as functioning as ever, I can beat it with another principle that I do conform to. Hell, it even makes it much sweeter: I’m enjoying my iPhone like the world will end when I stop. But, of course, this is exactly the same principle that drives the poor to side with white supremacism, drives men to dispute women’s rights to things, and even, I would cautiously suggest, drives women to excel at school and then go into humanities. I reckon one gets just as great a sense of belonging to people (in the sense of ‘society’) from being one among a million players of Angry Birds, as one gets from making Shakespeare in-jokes. In a certain sense, both are diametrically opposed to hysteria.

CITIES, poetics of life

problems with cultural studies…

[Nigel Thrift’s] theoretical propositions suggest at least three crucial elements that any accounts of everyday life must contain if they are to be plausible and interesting. First, they must be respectful of the social practices through which the everyday unfolds. They must recognise that much social practice is different (but certainly not inferior) to more contemplative academic modes of being in the world – embedded as they are in the noncognitive, preintentional and commonsensical. Second, they must contain a sense that practices (and thus the subjectivities and agencies of which they are a part) are shot through with creativity and possibility (even though these are ‘constrained’ and limited by existing networks of association). Third, the everyday should not be viewed as a world apart from more rationally grounded realms of social action such as ‘the state’, ‘the economic’, ‘the political’, or whatever. Rather, what needs to be recognised is how all elements of social life, all institutions, all forms of practice are in fact tied together with the work of getting on from day-to-day.

Seen through the filter of these criteria we can begin to make more sense of the substance source of Thrift’s unease with human geographic work about the everyday. Cultural [turn] was largely built upon a commitment to a particular politics of representation, and it remains obsessively focused on representation. This obsession not only implicitly downgrades the importance of practice, stressing as it does the symbolic over the expressive, “responsive and rhetorical” dimensions of language. It also has an alarming tendency to a slip into simplistic (and often exaggerated) narratives based on highly romantic stereotypes of both politics and persons. Thus, to take an example close to the concerns of this paper, white professionals living in an ethnically diverse area of North London, and eating out at its ethnic restaurants, are not reaching out towards some kind of engagement with the existing community (ambiguous, limited, and inadequate though that may be). No! They are ‘eating the Other’, and are implicated, despite their protestations, in a process of cultural imperialism intricately bound within a complex historical geography of racisms!

Alan Latham, 2003, ‘Research, performance, and doing human geography’, Environment and Planning A, vol.35, pp.1993-2017.

CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

Vertical multiculturalism

You have to be the most humourless disco sceptic not to like this Turkish gem:


Clã – Competência Para Amar:


Against horizontal multiculturalism – by which we intend a socio-cultural activity oriented towards minorities, or a decorative employment of mainly non-European expressive cultures (Brook, Barba, Mnouchkine), a moussaka which tries to convince us, with a bit of Indian make-up, majestic Japanese costumes and roars of two to three dark-skinned actors, that it is engaging with the rest of the world. But the methods of composition and employment of these piled up sensations/sensationalisms are still intact in their Westernness. In contrast to this – let’s say it calmly – colonial approach, artists of the so-called vertical multiculturalism, working on the transects of different cultures, struggling to break through the simultaneity of different cultural identities with a sort of schizoanalytical approach, are building a unique, innovative art. Such an actor manages to hold, within his mental habitus, multiple different archaic combinations and ways of being while his body emanates the gestic essence of modern theatre, which gives a vertiginous dimension to the internal, ritual element. The same can be said for the above-described directorial interventions.

–Gordana Vnuk, Pogled iznutra

CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

RW: Attract/Repel

The more I wanted to write this review quickly, the more I wanted it out and about, succint, streamlined and brilliant, the more I was tripping over my own inarticulation. The enthusiasm I had for writing seemed to derive from not knowing what it was I had to say, nor how. Why such caution before a very positive review? Because the praise I had to offer for Attract/Repel came from an unusual place; because of an avoidance of reviewing the previous show by Melbourne Town Players. Because the material does not easily lend itself to a watertight argument that can neatly encapsulate all that it does as a show. Finally because this review immediately follows a fascinating, if at times painful dialogue that grew out of a condemnatory critique of En Trance, a show that made artistic and dramaturgical choices that failed precisely where A/R succeeds.

If the foyer chatter on the opening night was anything to go by, we were in a minefield of opinions, impossible to exhaust in a 1,000-word review, no matter how well-chosen the thousand. I was midway through my annual contemplation of multiculturalism, having just found the perfect interlocutor. That, about 100 hours into the discussion, I discovered the interlocutor was more precisely the sensei, having written the text which seminally, famously, taught me all my thoughts on multiculturalism back in 2006, did not help. I was arguing with my spiritual uncle, if not exactly father, it turned out, and he was more than happy to keep challenging my hasty (but oh so quotable!) conclusions.

Terry Yeboah and Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

“Seeing a work that deals with topics I’ve spent solid three years thinking about”, I complained to Neandellus soon after, “makes it harder, not easier to write about. I have too many half-formed, unquotable thoughts.”

“Make your sensei write it”, was his suggestion. If only! Sensei (whom we’ll call ‘Ian’) declared he knew nothing about theatre, and was happy with correcting me. So I started:

Amidst the uneven, but fulsome praise for Attract/Repel circulating the foyer on opening night, it was apparent that this show’s merit arises in its slipping almost un-noticed across a series of borders that themselves are rarely ever acknowledged as such.

But ‘Ian’ was already slapping me on the wrist: “What you mean to add is: Borders which some have named the borders of whiteness, with quiet encroachments of the real into everyday fantasies of white supremacy in multicultural Australia.”

He continued: “The truths enacted through the show operated on an inversion of the assumptions presumed normal to a functional society, a logic more dependent on the potential for misunderstanding, misrecognition and mistaken identity.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” I nodded hastily, and continued:

It is quite different from The Melbourne Town Players’ previous work in not being veiled, stripping away most of the veneer of artiness, leaving the art instead. Yet A/R has been shaped with a clear eye and a strong dramaturgical hand into an exquisitely crafted work, building a rich spectrum of thought and feeling out of associative nuances. It takes courage and maturity to recognise the theatre in four people on chairs talking about their personal experience, and it was, indeed, beautifully crafted theatre. 

Four performers, fluorescent tubes, and a wall painted blackboard-black. A/R is beautifully ordinary, threateningly postdramatic perhaps, as the actors ask and answer personal questions, tell funny stories (and tales about racial stereotyping, from the butt-end of essentialising assumptions, tend to be hysterically funny), find dead ends to arguments, change direction, change key, but ultimately, and intentionally go nowhere in particular. Where was the dramatic development?, complained one person whom Ming-Zhu Hii would have, in the days of Mink Tails, labelled identifiably white. I looked at ‘Ian’ for answers, and he obliged:

“The lack of a progressive movement to a climactic denouement is one of the show’s great strengths, instead presenting a series of plateaux oscillating between affective highs and lows – disgust and desire, anger and joy, sufficient to illustrate the tenor of its thesis. It was true to the subject matter. There is no resolution to the problem – you go from feeling elated because you’re accepted, to crashing down because of some racist remark; you solve a problem, you find another. Attract, Repel.”

Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

Relieved, I could go on:

How to talk about A/R, which can be read as a very successful moment in the Australian political theatre, without getting factional? It is a beautiful work, but its strengths and innovations really shine when looked at as political theatre – and the political discourse now needed to be employed would likely be alienating. 

There is a strong nod to Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and I – far more so than to circus acts like an oak tree: the staged conversation is personal and unforced, improvised-looking rather than scripted for theatrical friction. While A/R does not quite reach the same magnitude of light-handed yet devastating effect, there is no shame in not being Jerome Bel. There are moments in the show of similar gentle, but enormous, destabilisation of effect. Right after a reasonably heavy story of racial discrimination, Terry Yeboah starts talking about his white girlfriend, and unexpectingly breaks out saying, She’s here tonight! Hi, baby!, and she responds! The effect of turning our heads back into the audience, seeing someone normal, socialised, unremarkable, in the place of a villain, belies interpretation. 

It could have so easily gone wrong many times; the politics of the effect are more noteworthy than the politics of the representation that occurred. By definition, political theatre tries to ‘make things happen’, as Caryl Churchill once said; in Michael Patterson’s book Strategies of Political Theatre, British playwrights overwhelmingly defined political theatre as theatre that has an impact on the audience, that affects them beyond the doors of the theatre building. In other words, whether what is staged is four children playing, or racial tension, is not the deciding factor in whether a theatre piece is political or not.  

By keeping the performers as performers, and the audience as audience, A/R renounces the very role of theatre as a heightened state of exception that, by definition, confirms the rule. In order to build resonance in a string of moments, anecdotes and effects that are inherently unremarkable; it strips away the entire frame of ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation that has been hanging over textual theatre like an Aristotelian hangover, and that political theatre in particular doesn’t know how to do without.  

Yet it is not all just pussyfooting detail. The interventions are real, but subtle. From the moment she draws a CHINK SCALE on the wall, rather than spitting on its implicit racism, Jing-Xuan Chan and the others proceed to explicate the variety of positions they may occupy depending on the situation. We are immediately in very interesting territory. Here, rather than mere victims of incipient racism, is an illustration of strategic essentialism.

‘Ian’ nudged me sternly: “I don’t think you understand what strategic essentialism is. In this case, it was used as a tool in the hands of skilled players on the field of identity politics, as elaborated in the discussion post-En Trance, with the provocation as much in language and speech-acts themselves.

“Like Fear of a Brown Planet?” I wondered. The the political intervention of the humorous, very light-hearted A/R, a gritty show with a smiling face, is in the performative act of saying what are to some, unsayable things – again. There is here a more serious question whether the ultimate effect isn’t lost on those audience members who found the language simply failing to align with their truth; is the alignment noticeable, recognisable when it happens? Notice the ‘again’: it is the iteration that matters, that sets down a possibility of a pattern, and that gets recognised. Without going deeper into a discussion that can get bogged along the lines of you don’t understand; it has never happened to you, which may be as correct as it is unlikely to make one any friends, it is hard to finish this point. 

‘Ian’ pondered: “One of the chief problems we have experienced coming here was the deeply normative tolerance prescribed by Australian multiculturalism. Just like the whiteness of the true Australian skin: always invisible to itself, denied, yet something for all to comply with, more or less, by degrees, for acceptance to accrue.”

I jumped in: “The mind-numbingly idiotic language…”

“I think you’ll find you mean ‘mind-numbingly essentialist’…” ‘Ian’ sighed.

Alright. The mind-numbingly essentialist language, according to which Australia was diverse because of the many cuisines on offer, the maintenance of cultural identities by the shimmying of traditional dances on Federation Square once a year, was taken extremely seriously, elevated into a sort of magical language for getting by in life. To anyone aware of how much more complicated cultural pluralism is on the ground, this was the equivalent of one infant’s babytalk imposed on all the kids in the kindergarten as the right language for that age. But here it was, an invisible, white language, neatly split into politically correct nonsense on the one hand, and bureaucratic proscription (“if you don’t like it here”, “we choose who comes to this country…”) on the other. All the messy rest, heretically non-compliant with our Platonically ideal multiculture, exeunt. 

Georgina Naidu, Terry Yeboah and Jing-xuan Chan. Photography by Naomi Wong.

This is why there was sheer thrill in A/R when acronyms FOB and ABC were discussed, points marked on the CHINK SCALE and nuances of being called ‘nigger’ dissected. It was both a reclamation and exposure (again!) of ground that was true, existing, and all but invisible. 

“All well and right,” Neandellus popped his head through the window. “But is there any formal innovation there? Is it good theatre?”

“It’s very good political theatre…” I stumbled and looked at my sensei for argumentation. He was trying to make a bed for himself under the table, and looked frankly disappointed with me:

“Performative politics – i.e. the politics are iteratively done rather than represented. Butler makes a distinction between performance and performativity. Its important not to conflate them. The formal innovation is in lack of denouement.”

“Performativity and performance. One that accrues and one that’s mimetic, right?” I was testing my argumentative powers.

“Yes”, allowed my spiritual uncle. “Sort of. It will do. Mimesis is out of fashion. Accrual is in. But the plateaux bit is important. No orgasmic endings. Just more and more plateaux and deferral of climax.”

There was nowhere for the conversation to go after that. We politely retreated, happy to know we had just seen a great show.

Guerrilla Semiotics would like to thank Ian Woodcock for his generous support during the realisation of this project.

Attract/Repel. With a cast including Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah. Music by experimental jazz guitarist Yusuke Akai. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Lighting design (inspired by Dan Flavin) by Damien McLean, with lighting concept support by Rachel Burke. Concept and direction by Ming-Zhu Hii. Producers: Nicholas Coghlan and Shalini Nair. Development Supported by Full Tilt Creative Development. The Store Room, 17 September-10 October 2009

CITIES, how the world works, poetics of life

The Hunger Artists of St Petersburg

Writes Dmitry Vilensky on the global arts newswire:


On May 15, the young contemporary artist Artem Loskutov was arrested
in his native Novisibirsk and charged with possession of a narcotic
substance (marijuana) by the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s
notorious Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”). Loskutov and
his supporters claim that the police planted the marijuana in his bag
in order to incriminate him. As one of the organizers of the annual
“Monstration” — a flash mob street party in which young people march
with absurdist, non-political slogans — Loskutov had long been an
objection of the Center’s attentions. At a pre-trial custody hearing
on May 20, it was revealed that the Center had been tapping the phones
of Loskutov and his friends for the past six months. In April and on
May Day itself, Loskutov had been summoned to the Center for
“discussions,” and his parents had been called and told that their son
was a member of a dangerous sect. The circumstances of the case and
the way that he was arrested thus point to a campaign of intimidation
directed both at Loskutov and his fellow “monstrators” in Novosibirsk.

The Loskutov case has sparked a massive outcry in Russia’s activist
and art communities. In the past three weeks, artists, activists, and
ordinary concerned citizens all over Russia have carried out a series
of pickets, protests, and actions in Loskutov’s defense. The most
inspiring of these actions has been a “plein air” hunger strike
organized by several young artists in Petersburg, now in its second
week. The artists encamped themselves in a park next to city hall and
began producing paintings and drawings whose central theme is the
increasingly brutal police repression of social activists and
left-wing artists in Russia. The hunger strikers have issued three
demands. First, they want a criminal investigation of the mass arrests
by riot police of a group of young anarchists on May Day in Petersburg
despite their having obtained official written permission to march
with the other columns of demonstrators. Second, they call for the
creation of a public commission to monitor the work of Center “E.”
Finally, they ask that all charges against Artem Loskutov be dropped
and that he be released.

Although the Loskutov case and the Petersburg hunger strike have
become one of the hottest topics in the Russian blogosphere, there has
been a near-total blackout in the mainstream Russian press, especially
television. That is why we ask you to read the article linked below
and learn how you can join our campaign of solidarity with Artem and
his artist comrades in Petersburg. We have called an international day
of solidarity actions for June 9, a day before Artem’s next hearing in
the Novosibirsk Regional Court.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Free Artem Loskutov!
Artists hunger strike drags on as international economic forum looms


Follow on the Chto delat? blog. Thought I’d mention.

CITIES, poetics of life

Jamaica Kincaid on travellers

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being. You are not an ugly person all the time; you are not an ugly person ordinarily; you are not an ugly person day to day. From day to day, you are a nice person. From day to day, all the people who are supposed to love you on the whole do. From day to day, as you walk down a busy street in the large and modern and prosperous city in which you work and live, dismayed, puzzled (a cliche, but only a cliche can explain you) at how alone you feel in this crowd, how awful it is to go unnoticed, how awful it is to go unloved, even as you are surrounded by more people than you could possibly get to know in a lifetime that lasted for millenia, and then out of the corner of your eye you see someone looking at you and absolute pleasure is written all over that person’s face, and then you realise that you are not as revolting a presence as you think you are (for that look just told you so). And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person, an attractive person, a person capable of drawing to yourself the affection of other people (people just like you), a person at home in your own skin (sort of; I mean, in a way; I mean, your dismay and puzzlement are natural to you, because people like you just seem to be like that, and so many of the things people like you find admirable about yourselves – the things you think about, the things you think really define you – seem rooted in these feelings): a person at home in your own house (and all its nice house things), with its nice back watd (and its nice back-yard things), at home on your street, your church, in community activities, your job, at home with your family, your relatives, your friends – you are a whole person. But one day, when you are sitting somewhere, alone in that crowd, and that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you, and really, as an ordinary person you are not well equipped to look too far inward and set yourself aright, because being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words “I must get away” do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person lying on some faraway beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marvelling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is the backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature.

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

CITIES, poetics of life

Jean Baudrillard: The spectre of terrorism

(This one is for Emma.)

We have had plenty of global events in recent years, from the death of Diana to the World Cup, a well as plenty of violent and real events, from wars to genocides. But a symbolic event global in reach–an event that is not only broadcast worldwide but that threatens globalization itself-had not yet occurred. For the length of the stagnant nineties, in the words of Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez, “events were on strike.” Well, the strike is over. Events are back at work. With the attack on the World Trade Center, we have now witnessed the ultimate event, the mother of all events, an event so pure it contains within it all the events that never took place.

All the speeches and commentaries made since September 11 betray a gigantic post-traumatic abreaction both to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. The moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed, because it was this insufferable superpower that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all.

That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream the destruction of so powerful a hegemony – this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West, and yet it is a fact nonetheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to erase it.

In the end, it was they who did it but we who wished it. If we do not take this fact into account, the vent loses all symbolic dimension; it becomes a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics that we need only repress. But we know well that such is not the case. Without our profound complicity the event would not have reverberated so forcefully, and in their strategic symbolism the terrorists knew they could count on this unconfessable complicity.

It goes well beyond the hatred that the desolate and the exploited – those who ended up on the wrong side of the new world order – feel toward the dominant global power. This malicious desire resides in the hearts of even those who've shared – in the spoils. The allergy to absolute order, to absolute power, is universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center were, precisely because of their twin-ness, the perfect incarnation of this absolute order.

Countless disaster films have borne witness to these fantasies, and the universal appeal of the images shows just how close the fantasies always are to being acted out: the closer the entire system gets to perfection or to omnipotence, the stronger the urge to destroy it grows.

When the world has been so thoroughly monopolized, when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism? In dealing all the cards to itself, the system forced the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the game is ferocious. Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a generalized system of exchange. All those singularities (species, individuals, cultures) that have been sacrificed to the interests of a global system of commerce avenge themselves by turning the tables with terrorism.

Terror against terror – this is no longer an ideological notion. We have gone well beyond ideology and politics, The energy that nourishes terror, no ideology, no cause, not even an Islamic one, can explain. The terrorists are not aiming simply 😮 transform the world. Like the heretics of previous times, they aim to radicalize the world through sacrifice, whereas the system aims to convert: it into money through force.

Terrorists, like viruses, are everywhere. There is no longer a boundary that can hem terrorism in; it is at the heart of the very culture it's fighting with, and the visible fracture (and the hatred) that pits the exploited and underdeveloped nations of the world against the West masks the dominant system's internal fractures. It is as if every means of domination secreted its own antidote. Against this almost automatic from of resistance to its power, the system can do nothing. Terrorism is the shock wave of this silent resistance.

It is a mistake, then, to characterize this as a clash of civilizations or of religions. It goes well beyond Islam and America, on which one might be tempted to concentrate in order to create the illusion of a confrontation resolvable by force. There is a fundamental antagonism at work. But it transcends the phantom of America (which is perhaps the epicenter though not the incarnation of globalization) as well as the phantom of Islam (which likewise is not the incarnation of terrorism). This is the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself.

(Continue reading at the European Graduate School…)

CITIES, poetics of life

Predrag Mitrović for Zarez: How stereotypes are turning us into crocodiles (abridged excerpts)

The following text was originally published in Zarez, vol.X (233), 12 June 2008. Translation mine, and so was the bridging.

In these last few decades a kind of a mental crust has started to grow on people, because both media and life have imposed an artifical need to choose your side: starting from birth, which gives you your ethnic, confessional position that you have to behave according to. So, if you are a Croat or a Serb or a Bosnian, then you have to be a good Croat, good Serb, good Bosnian; you cannot, eg, be a Buddhist Croat. (laugh) That doesn't work. You have to be an exemplary Catholic, go to church like Bosnians need to go to the mosque on a regular basis.

These manufactured prototypes of Croats, Serbs and Bosnians are being imposed on children who are now living with these stereotypes. If they behave differently, they are either traitors or ugly ducklings nobody wants to play with. This all creates a pressure and a paranoid situation in which you are afraid to do anything outside these stereotypes, because it won't be considered right. It means you simply try to blend in as much as possible, to disappear in the crowd. It is an incredibly bad situation for an individual in their formative years, and a young person gets encrusted in the stereotype. I have worked with many young people in acting schools and I would be astonished when I demanded improvisation. I get such horrifyingly restricted movement; you have an impression that that young person feels to be asked to act in front of a group of crocodiles, not other people. You simply see that frightened look and the question: “What if I do something wrong now?” I explained to them individually: “You can't do anything wrong, whatever you do will be good, will be yours!” But to no avail, fear is always stronger. If we don't break from this fear of prototypes – good Serb, good Croat, good Bosnian; if we don't free our kids from this fear of creative thought and creative act, we will become the very bottom of Europe; people won't recognise us as fellow creatures.

For the end. Why did you include Robert Franciszty's Four seasons in a slaughterhouse in the program of this year's Teatarfest, which is about animal rights, better still, animal liberation? Is it not perhaps ethically out of measure to present a performance on animal rights in a city where, during the siege, people were forced to hunt and eat pigeons to survive, the zoosymbols of peace?

Not just pigeons we ate during the war… (laugh) You wouldn't believe what else we ate – tree bark, grass… Being a member of the generation that had to read partisan stories at school – you know, how they ate bark to survive guerrilla fighting – I thought once, in a very hungry moment: “How can you not remember which tree they ate from?” I couldn't remember which type of bark was poisonous, and which one wasn't. (laugh) We ate all sorts of things, not just pigeons; they were a luxury then.

What I'm trying to say is that a more drastic level of inhumaneness does not abolish a less drastic one from being inhumane, too. It's inhumane to murder, but if witness ten murders, that should not accustom us to murder. This is why it is precisely in Sarajevo we need to talk about animal rights, about cruelty, because it's a thin line when you're slicing throats – today it's a chook, tomorrow a pig, the day after tomorrow… These are thin lines. If you start raising the perceptive bar, then you start searching for the ultimate line, then the bar can go up indefinitely. I think we haven't even learnt from the war, we're forgotten everything too quickly. We've forgotten what a dead human body looks like, so today we don't care about killing, or not, a stray dog.

Sites of tragedy are the best places to say: “Look at what violence does, so let's talk about life, about earth, about society, non-violent communication!” This is why Srebrenica is the best place where to discuss peaceful cohabitation. What happened here happened as a mistake, and to transcend that mistake in that space is our task for the future.”

CITIES, poetics of life

Attempts on Her Life; or the anatomy of a decade.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre: Attempts on Her Life. Written by Martin Crimp. Directed by Susie Dee. Sound Design and Composition by Kelly Ryall. Set and Costume Design by Jeminah Reidy. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Audio-Visual Design by Nicholas Verso. Cast: Rhys Aconley-Jones, Chloe Boreham, Ananth Gopal, Kali Hulme, Joshua Lynzaat, Jen Mackie, Laura Maitland, Jan Mihal, Ella Roberts, Anna Teresa Scheer, Sophie Testart and Megan Twycross. Guild Theatre, University of Melbourne, 16 – 24 May 2008. Bookings on 03) 8344 7447 or

A virtually identical version of this article can be found online on

There is something about the theatre of blood and sperm (in the sense of a distinct spatio-temporal artistic trend, centred on the UK, but also a bit of Germany, Austria and the ex-Balkans) that seems to me to speak most clearly and precisely of what 1990s were. Watching Attempts on Her Life, a Melbourne University Student Union Theatre production of a 1997 text by Martin Crimp, for the first time I came to realise how our entire worldview changed with the war in Bosnia. It is a view from the distance, and yet to me (who has spent the 1990s somewhat closer to the epicentre) this enormous, eye-opening change of perspective was never reported as accurately as it is in these wounded, screaming plays. Not even by, say, Kusturica. I had a vague idea, previously, that Bosnia became Western Europe's big trauma, a failure of optimism, but never took it seriously ('our suffering is so much bigger'). In retrospect, the crash of hopes within Bosnia was probably complementary, rather than contrasting, to the larger disillusion.

So what really happened in the 1990s? There was our war, a brutal, senseless and incredibly immediate war. In Britain, there was the introduction of CCTV and the rise of surveillance society. There were the first doubts on consumerism, channelled through the early slacker fiction. After the ambitious 1980s, it started becoming apparent that our enormous appetite was not just a consequence of our fulfilling ambitions, that it was not a constructive consumption, a transformation of elements. It had turned into consumption for consumption's sake, blind and insatiable, until, to paraphrase both Slavoj Žižek and Viktor Pelevin (1999), it became a monotonous murmur of absorbing and disgorging, joyless but for the punctuating, ever briefer wow!-moments. There was the first mention of eating disorders. Yet the formal rhetoric of the mass (and not so mass) media, inherited from the 1980s, was that of the end of history, the best of all possible worlds, endless joy, how lucky are we?!

Today, the lag between what we feel and what we are told to feel is slightly different – post-9/11 world is a sombre world – and the dissident behaviour nowadays is, perhaps, to trust thy neighbour and not feel afraid (see American indie). Then, however, the arts reacted with an explosion of violent nihilism, as if subconsciously we were trying to heal the gap between what we heard and what we felt. It was the decade of Trainspotting (1996), Nirvana (1991-1994), Tracy Emin, The Prodigy (early 1990s), Fight Club (1999). Even reading early Bridget Jones (1995) leaves an aftertaste, for all the shopping and gossiping is framed by dysfunctional eating and persistent binge drinking. When the towers collapsed, Baudrillard said they had to; we had been making them collapse in films so persistently we brought it on ourselves. Our return of the repressed. But perhaps it was simply the external reality bursting the same feel-good bubble that we were trying to burst from the inside, through our art, all along.

It was all slightly different elsewhere. While Europe had a real war on its doorstep, the US had a televised one that – again quoth Baudrillard – never happened. I would be curious to know what an Australian subject in 2008 may find in Attempts on Her Life, what sort of reading they would have. Perhaps the war on terror has created the same de-localised anxiety here. But my entire life flashed before my eyes. In-yer-face was so good, so accurate at nailing the threads that connected our fears. Perhaps it is the theatrical medium that allowed these plays to circumvent plot, cause and effect, setting or rounded characters, and keep alive the tenuous threads between acts and emotions, that now makes them such a mirror of a decade. In Blasted (1995), the violence Out There and its impact on our ability to love. In Family Stories (1998), the guilt for our children's future. In Woman-Bomb (2003, but it counts), the raging impotence in the face of coerced serenity, governmental soothing.

In Attempts, the inability to quite pinpoint what it is that worries us, between the everyday hedonism here and immense suffering elsewhere, results in a disconnected series of semi-portraits, of semi-stories, of variations on a feeling. The text is subtitled 17 Scenarios for theatre: the death of Anna, Anny, Anja, Anushka, figurative, artistic or medically sound, is narrated in fragments, dialogues, commentary, songs, video, arguments, answering machine messages. Recurring motifs are war, femininity, surveillance, despair. Not innocently, the empty vessel on whose person the scenarios are played out is a woman.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre's production, in the skillful hands of Susie Dee, plays with the possibilities of theatre. As much as the context of certain dialogues is transparent, they are never staged literally, but hover in a dreamspace, a not-quite-space. As a result, the production refrains from situating the meaning in any one place (imagine the boredom of 17 times same), leaving it both associative and open-ended.

Photo credits: Vicki Jones

Jeminah Reidy's set puts the audience in the centre, in a swarm of swivel chairs, while the stage hugs the sides of the theatre, as a long, white, tiled underground station. The actors (for there are no characters) talk to each other, argue, across the auditorium, which results in some beautiful mass movement, as audience members swivel left to right, following the action. From one fragment of a story to another, the focus shifts from left to right, backstage to front, until, all possibilities exhausted, it ends exactly where it started. Cyclic nature of life or exhaustion, it nonetheless feels complete, concluded.

Some of the attempts on her life are simply exquisite: a battle of art criticism over her posthumous exhibition of suicide notes, despite all its mime of realism staged as a dream, a nightmare, of a gallery opening. Autobiography of a sex worker (replete with vivre-sa-vie-claims), confessed in third-person (restrained and fragile Megan Twycross), behind a screen, with a mass dance, interrupted half-way and from then on dictated by the translator (militantly French Chloe Boreham). An unexpected song (excellent Kali Hulme). The central point of the performance to me seemed to be a faux-advertisement for pink caddillac Anny, presented in Bosnian Croatian (I may have misheard here, and if so I apologise for any offense) with a sexy MC (rather good-looking Jan Mihal), turbo-folk music and three dancers in fluorescent pink parkas (overflowing with references to nouveau riche, war profiteers, the new bad taste). As the advertisement progressively degenerated, turning from the sum of our desires („always a beautiful blonde inside“) into the sum of our repressed anxieties (with „no room for Gypsies, Arabs, Kurds, blacks“), I was reminded not only of the vast semantic cathedral attached to the possession of a good car in a place like Bosnia, but also of those sarcastic news programs Danijel Žeželj created in Sun City (1993), in which genocide, wars, and new ozone holes were interspersed with hardcore porn and an order: smile wider!, wider!

Is Melbourne University Student Union Theatre always this good? Was I meant to be aware? Only the occasional acting glitch points to this being a non-professional production, rather than something that Malthouse could be staging. Right. Now. It did help that Crimp’s play may be the most brutally, icily poetic text I have encountered in a Melbourne theatre in a while. Whichever way, this outstandingly creative and courageous production may be the best thing currently playing.

See also: On Stage (and walls)

CITIES, poetics of life

Ghost in the Shell, and the fluid self in body and mind; recapitulation.

I don't want to offend more than I absolutely have to, so I will conveniently hide most of this sleepy ramble behind a LJ cut.

1. It is not only the cyborg that is the idée fixe in Japanese animation, or Japanese art in general. It is the disintegrating body, disintegrating mind. It is body fused with machine and mind fused with other forms of consciousness.

opening sequence (making of Motoko):

The most interesting point, however, is not the idea, but the way it is approached. Without drama. Without a sense of tragedy. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is by no means a sad one. There is a sense of hope and future in the fusion of selves that is entirely absent from your average Western understanding of the same (best exemplified by the puzzled disgust at the Borg).

2. For whichever reason Western us find the idea of a fluid, unstable self repulsive, it completely soaks the philosophical response to something like Ghost in the Shell in theoretical misunderstanding. Western critics find all sorts of pessimism in the ending which simply isn't there.

My objective in this semi-scientific quest is not so much to shake our preconceptions of the gendered body á la Haraway, or mount any elaborate philosophical castle where it doesn't belong. In fact, Haraway's cyborg theory has been most unhelpful in my mini-research, blurring the eyes of too many cinema theoreticians, making them interpret Motoko as a feminist body rebelling from the observing men, sexualising a rather asexual problematics. Instead, I am simply interested in the plurality of ideas on the self. That something seemingly so simple would be subject to disagreement: I find that too interesting to let go of.

On the one hand, I don't need to explain too much that we the Western peoples – particularly the hyperindividualist, say, Australians – find the very idea of the fluid self immensely threatening. There is a crossing of borders involved that is too frightening. There is Christianity involved, the indivisible and unique soul as a gift from God, and a unique body to be cared for and preserved at any cost (suicide being a big taboo); Western bodies are precious souls, Western souls are precious souls. But is it all?

3. According to Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An essay in abjection, the dividing line between the unconscious and conscious mind is in itself blurred, and therefore our sense of self is never stable. The abject is anything that reminds us of this instability, anything that disturbs order, blurs boundaries, creates ambiguities.

While looking around, I've found a whole range of issues that induce this border anxiety in the Western theoretician: rubbish, illness, and physical mutilation of the body; demi-human elements such as zombies and ghosts; puppets, in puppet theatre and otherwise; the question of inanimate objects coming to life, appropriating life force they are not meant to possess and this being a sin, the proverbial 'playing God' (Frankenstein monster); internet and cyber-bodies, the fusion of man and machine; trans-sexuality; mutations, from radiation and as an element of SF; clones as copies of the unique snowflake self, and robots as either copies of the unique self or a unique human species. Kristeva notes that a great part of this spectrum of the abject makes regular appearance in horror films, being frightening for its own sake.

4. A common offline narrative indicating boundary anxiety holds that Western bodies are precariously porous and under attack from outside by “germs”. These germs or viruses are ubiquitous evils associated with matter out of place, or untoward contact. They come from other people and overpower us when our personal or social boundaries are not maintained. This narrative has expanded to include other boundary violators, such as carcinogens, radiation, chemical food additives, and genetic modification.

One of the best descriptions of this anxiety complex is given by Martin in her study of ideas about the immune system. She gives plenty of contemporary examples of boundary anxiety towards foreign substances, reflected also in recent advertising campaigns promoting wars on bacteria in the household. The latter focus on children ingesting germs if bacteria are not “wiped out”. This indicates that barrier models of defence are still strong, despite reports of such anti-bacterial agents helping the evolution of resistant bacteria and impeding the development of the immune system.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

5. In discussing our anxiety over cyber-bodies, cyber-existence and the fluidity of presence and absence of clear-cut individuals, Marshall writes:

“Western” cultures already have a set of “virtual body” constructions, which are complementary to our constructions of the “physical body”; those of the “soul”, the “mind”, and the “ghost”, all of which blend together due to their status of being “not-physical” bodies. The polarity between mind/body, generates the parallel of “virtual” or online for “spiritual”, and offline for physical.

Such a material/immaterial split is not essential, and many Western traditions have proposed more elaborate divisions of the mind, including the sources of mainstream religion. The Hebrew Scriptures distinguish nephesh from ruach, and the Greek Testament distinguishes psyche from pneuma. Both of these divisions are often translated as “soul” and “spirit”. Lullian alchemy makes the distinction between spirit and matter one of degree; matter could be etherealised and spirit concentrated. Mid Seventeenth Century philosophers such as Joseph Glanville and Henry More used examples of ghosts and witches to make arguments about the complexity of the multi-part soul’s interaction with the world. Such arguments seem to have become incomprehensible in the Eighteenth Century and later.

Other cultures can become more elaborate. The people of Zinancantan in Mexico have a 13 part soul. The Banyang claimed that humans are individually connected to animals or other natural phenomenon (babu) into which they can transform, or send out as an extension of themselves. The babu moves in a parallel ‘shadow’ world, the ‘forest of babu’, with effects in this world – making humans sick or destroying crops for example.

The point of this reference is not just exoticism but to illustrate a schema which could easily be applied to online experience, but which seems unavailable to Westerners. There are separate but parallel worlds, one is a ‘shadow’ of the other, part of oneself goes into the other world and behaves differently (perhaps more socially “irresponsibly”), yet we are connected to this other self. Tensions in one world spill into the other.

Despite such traditions, we tend to polarise body and mind, often while criticising other people for doing so. … A recent tendency is to represent minds as software, with the result that the distinction between computers and minds blurs. Computers become host to the realm of spirits.

-from The Online Body Breaks Out? Asence, Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gender, Polarity and Politics by Jonathan Marshall

6. Now compare the nonchalance with which the makers of Ghost in the Shell discuss this blurring of the one with the many, and the many with the panorama, in their oeuvre:

Ghost in the Shell does not have a definite chosen set, but in terms of street scenes and general atmosphere, it is obvious that Hong Kong is the model. Such a choice has, of course, something to do with the theme: on the streets there flows an excess or a flood of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols…. As people live [unaware?] in this information deluge, the streets will have to be depicted accordingly as being flooded…. There is a sharp contrast between old streets and new ones on which skyscrapers are built. My feeling is that these two, originally very different, are now in a situation where one is invading the other. Maybe it is the tension or pressure that is brought about by so-called modernization! It's a situation in which two entities are kept in a strange neighboring relationship. Perhaps it is what the future is.

In the midst of the profusion of signs and the heat of the messy urban space, the streets are remarkably chaotic. Passers-by, shouts, cars, all kinds of mechanical noises and human “sound pollution,” all merging into one, forcing itself into humans' central nervous systems through their ears. But why do people succumb to this “destructive” environment? Now that the artificial has replaced the natural, humans are like animals in the past, deprived of the characteristics of being human as a whole. Pulled directly into the whirlpool of information through the stimulation of visual and auditory senses, their feelings are henceforth numbed. On the other hand, countless mutually interfering and uncertain data pass through cables at light speed. This is the way informatics continues to expand its domain. Are people then like tiny insects caught in an enormous spider web? No, it cannot be. Humans are not tiny insects trying to escape from the web. It's not like that. In fact humans have willy-nilly become part and parcel of the spider web. Humans now have no idea of what their destination might be; they are like one of the silky-threads of the spider web. [emphasis mine]

Nozaki, Tohru et. al. The Analysis of Ghost in the Shell . Tokyo: Kodansha Young Magazine, 1995; from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

The interesting side-note is that the fused, unclean landscape becomes in itself an illustration of the unclean, contaminated future. The atmospheric L.A. in Blade Runner was threatening by virtue of incorporating an overt Asianness into a city that was still collectively imagined as uniformly white-bred. This may be an aesthetic side-note, but there is a long history of urban 'regeneration', 'slum clearance', et cetera, in perfectly fine and functional districts of unfortunately colonial cities, due to this semiotic contamination. What we consider as exciting and vibrant now can, through the same set of lens, easily become threatening and dangerous. In both cases, there is a sense of leakage between worlds, of contamination.

7. On the other hand: But it is not just on this large scale of global cultural flows (particularly of technoscape, mediascape, and ideoscape) that fractal aesthetics are relevant to Ghost in the Shell. On a smaller level — namely, that of the body — the idea of the fractured body of the humanoid hybrid has been popular in cyborg films … Corporeality, as we remember, is one of the four Cs listed by Frances Bonner to delineate a general pattern of plotting in cyberpunk films, which emphasize the wetware of mutable bodies. For Baudrillard, the body is now an infinite set of surfaces — a fractal subject — an object among objects. In cyberpunk's hyper-techno culture, “the centrality of body” is paradoxically represented by “the fragmentation of the body into organs, fluids and 'bodily state,'” and “fractured body parts are taken up as elements in the constitution of cultural identities”. The cyborg woman warrior in Ghost in the Shell, following in this tradition, speaks also to the “emergence of cyborg identities” that is predicated on “the fractured, plural, decentered condition of contemporary subjectivity”. …

… And throughout the film, from the opening ritual of birth (or manufacture) in a feast of visuals dominated by images of numerals and water or fluid, to the later horror of the mutilated torso and limbs registering the monstrosity of cybernetic organisms, corporeality is closely linked first to the sea of information and then to the human-machine interface, both of which are firmly grounded in and contrasted with the background of a future Hong Kong cityscape.

… The monstrous, mutilated and deviant body, shattered by violence, comes close to Donna Haraway's notion of “regeneration after injury” for salamanders, though the “regrown limb can be monstrous, duplicated, potent”. … In a sense, the final scene of horror of mutation and the attempt by the “Ghost” of Puppet Master to merge with the “Shell” of our heroine is symbolic of the entanglement of “self and other within monstrosity and the parasitical relationship between the two”.

-from on the edge of spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Hong Kong's Cityscape by Wong Kin Yuen

This, I think, is where Wong goes astray, seeing horror where there isn't necessarily any. The ending of Ghost in the Shell is, if not quite serene, then certainly hopeful and buzzing with excitement.

8. Now compare the following notes on bunraku. Keep in mind that Barthes, Claudel et al. were exposed to bunraku without understanding the language of the text, or its cultural context. Empire of Signs is well-known for Barthes's declaration that the Japan in its pages is “a fictive nation”, “a reserve of features whose manipulation… allows me to 'entertain' the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system.” What this collection of quotes shares with the analyses of Ghost in the Shell above is the cloudedness of eyes: they say more about Christian understanding of mind&body than the relationships explored in the artwork analysed. What they do is depict the confusion:

Barthes’s reading of the puppet theater comes in “A Lesson in Writing” [“Leçon d’écriture”] (1968), later revised and incorporated into The Empire of Signs [L’empire des signes]. His interpretation of Bunraku (the nineteenth-century descendant of Chikamatsu’s ningyô jôruri that is still preserved and performed today) hinges on a feature of the performance that has fascinated a number of Western critics: the fact that the puppet is manipulated by three human puppeteers who remain visible onstage, while the voices of all the puppets are performed by a single chanter.

For Barthes, this visible separation of the puppet’s body both from its voice and its motive force shatters the illusions of the Western theater and the Western subject, laying bare the layers of the theatrical sign. The dispersed subjects of the puppets undermine the Western notion of a unified, whole subject. The Western dichotomies that constitute the self as this unified whole—dichotomies such as inside and outside, body and soul, and God and human—are now replaced with new articulations of body, voice, and will that expose the layers of signification and self. Speaking of this dissociation as a kind of Brechtian alienation or “distance,” Barthes says that distance is made explicable by Bunraku, which allows us to see how it can function: by the discontinuity of the codes, by this caesura imposed on the various features of representation, so that the copy elaborated on the stage is not destroyed but somehow broken, striated, withdrawn from that metonymic contagion of voice and gesture, body and soul, which entraps our actors. [emphases now&upcoming mine]

… Paul Claudel expresses the soul of the puppet as something dispersed among the performers, the audience, and the language of the text. He notes that while a Western operator stands above his or her puppet and pulls its strings, the Japanese puppet replaces this vertical geometry with several manipulators and a reciter surrounding the puppet. From Barrault’s image of a “heart to heart” union, we move to an idea of the puppet as the bright center of a communal consciousness.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

9. However, it soon gets interesting again, as Bolton dives into the actual history of bunraku, building on Chikamatsu Monzaemon's writings and the narrative conventions of nineteenth-century Japanese drama:

The most interesting kind of transformation in the puppet theater and the one that speaks most directly to the violence of Ghost in the Shell is the transformation brought about through death. A pessimistic interpretation might see violence and death as the inevitable tragic outcome of these social conflicts. But in the puppet theater, death is not only a consequence of these social pressures but also in some sense a willing transformation that reconciles individual volition with these social roles and expectations. For Jihei and Koharu, suicide releases Jihei from his obligations and atones for his failures, while it also represents a final consummation of the two figures’ love. They die in an attempt to respect or escape these obligations but also in the hope that they will be reborn together.

And so, at the end of Ghost in the shell: … She is neither Kusanagi nor the Puppet Master, but some combination of the two, alive both in body and on the net. This plural but embodied existence is figured in her voice. Barthes and others saw the puppets’ shared voice as a sign of the decentered self; but Kusanagi is able to regain her old voice, seeming to gather it up again from across the net. … But the voice more than anything signals a retention of her old self and a bodily wholeness, while the power to change voices also shows she can find herself in new places or transform herself in new ways. In this new (old) voice, she recites more of the passage from I Corinthians that was heard earlier in the film: “When I was a child, I spake as a child . . . but when I grew up, I put away childish things” [Warabe no toki wa kataru kotomowarabe no gotoku . . . narishi ga, hito to narite wa warabe no koto o sutetari]. In this passage that equates selfhood with speech, the Japanese translation of Paul is inclusive; where most English Bibles have “when I became a man,” Kusanagi says hito to narite: “when I became an adult,” or even “when I became human.” … If Kusanagi is a kind of puppet whose voice, weight, and story reflect a division between unified and decentered subjectivity, or freedom and fate, then this final scene also represents her as an independent subject. She is independent in the sense both of being self-sufficient and of being free. She is whole, but she retains an openness that allows her to define herself. Not closed, she is nevertheless complete.

-from From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater by Christopher A. Bolton

10. Tiny side-note here should get some attention on the generous acceptance of communal living, action and harmony in a great deal of Asian countries, and the liberal perception of the same as a kind of Borg in the West (saying “in the West” here is probably the most problematic thing I have done so far in this text, and I am not putting myself 100% behind it). What came first, racist chauvinism or the fear of bodily de-individualisation is the proverbial chook&egg problem.

11. In an interesting piece on social acceptance of household robots in Japan, Robertson observes:

The cute and catchy names of many humanoids — such as PaPeRo, Wakamaru, Posy, Pino, Robovie—also create an affinity to the “cute characters” who have inhabited Japanese popular culture long before “real” humanoid robots appeared.

The Japanese use the word “character” (kyarakutμ) as a categorical term for endearing cartoon or toy mascots—like Hello Kitty (recently reincarnated as a robot)—almost all of whom have distinctive and individualistic personalities. The ifbot (sic) robot, for example, is packaged with… information about its past, hobbies, personality, and so forth. … The term “character” has several meanings: a fictional or imaginary person or entity; a quality or aspect that defines the apparent individual nature of a person or a thing; and the inherent complex of attributes that determines the nature of a person’s actions and reactions. In Japan, humanoid robots like ifbot not only have character, but they are regarded as and referred to as “persons”—not “as if ” they were persons, but as persons. This is readily evident in the use of certain suffixes, such as kun (for boys) and chan (for girls and boys), which indicate endearment, familiarity, cuteness, and/or child or diminutive status. Thus, Wakamaru is also referred to on Mitsubishi’s website as Wakamaru-kun.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

12. The meaning of the word “person” does not automatically include “human.” Generally, “person,” in both English and Japanese* (hito, jin, nin) means a human being. Legally, however, a “person” may statutorily include a corporation, partnership, trustee, or legal representative. A hðjin, for instance, is a juridical person. Moreover, “person” is also a grammatical category of pronouns and verb forms, such as the “third person” (daisansha — sha or mono is another Japanese word for “person”). To reiterate then: the issue here is not about personification, but about the person-ness of, or personhood attributed to, robots.

In addition, two key cultural factors influence the way in which Japanese perceive robots. First and foremost is Shinto, the native animistic beliefs about life and death. Monotheism has never had a home in Japan, and unlike the three major monotheisms, Shinto lacks complex metaphysical and theological theories and is primarily concerned with notions of purity and pollution. Shinto holds that vital energies or forces called kami are present in all aspects of the world and universe. Some kami are cosmic and others infuse trees, streams, rocks, insects, animals, and humans, as well as human creations, like dolls, cars, and robots.

The second factor concerns the meanings of life and living—life and fertility are especially celebrated in Shinto. Inochi, the Japanese word for “life,” encompasses three basic, seemingly contradictory but interarticulated meanings: a power that infuses sentient beings from generation to generation; a period between birth and death; and, the most essential quality of something whether a living thing or a made object, such as a puppet. Thus robots, humanoid and otherwise, are “living” things within the Shinto universe, and in that sense, are very much a part of the natural world. By the same token, the creation of humanoids— or artificial life—is not at all imagined as a matter of “playing God.”

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

Two side-notes: the famous mourning ceremony for broken knitting needles; and the Zen dissertation on life, in which the common definition of life is dissected and shredded to non-existence, like an artichoke, finally ending on this note: all living things grow, but so do crystals. Finally, the pronoun mono (the same of mono no aware), which can be used interchangeably for animate and inanimate things, including people. This in itself would confuse a Western logician out of its mind, as it effectively puts in the same basket subjects and objects.

13. Although “platform” is a generic term in robotics, it has a specific resonance in Japan in connection with the theory of ba, or place or topos. The concept and theory of ba (which is often used interchangeably with basho) is closely associated with the work of Nishida Kitarð (1870–1945), generally regarded as the founder of modern Japanese philosophy. According to Nishida, ba — he uses basho—encompasses a non-dualistic concrete logic meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction. He proposes instead a dynamic tension of opposites that, contrary to Hegel, never resolves in a synthesis. This notion of ba is also concomitant with self-determination: as Nishida declares, “a self-determining entity cannot be located in something other than itself.” Moreover, the place (ba) of dynamic tension and the self-determined self are always in an incomplete or emergent state. Nishida’s theory of ba and self-determination stand in stark contrast to the logic of “Western” rationality (and perhaps monotheistic thinking more generally), which is based on a separated self (subject), where an object is observed as definitely separate by the subject who occupies the position of observer. The theory of ba proposes instead that a living system lives and maintains self-consistency by the contingent convergence of the separated self and the non-separated self.

Nearly twenty years ago, Donna Haraway envisioned a posthuman future— the “cyborg path”—as liberating, especially with regard to overcoming a Western philosophical history of excessively dualistic thinking. Haraway’s cyborg is an individual who is neither entirely technological nor totally biological, and neither male nor female in any absolute sense. However, as I discussed in the context of Nishida Kitarý’s theory of ba, “excessively dualistic thinking” has never been an issue in non-monotheistic Japan.

-from Robertson, Jennifer (2007): 'Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Humanoid Robots and the Posthuman Family', Critical Asian Studies, 39:3, 369 – 398.

14. I suppose the main reason why I've been doing this has been because I've been finding the idea of human mergers, in body or mind, not only suddenly plausible, but also quite attractive. That is, I would now argue that there are definite moments when a human being is not one and alone, but merging with the environment: when in love, of course, but also when listening to music, swimming in the sea, eating, feeling overwhelming emotions, not to mention crowd dynamics. I would also argue that there is, in a sense, that urge to blend ourselves in every attempt at interaction. There is, quite simply, a human merger in every friendship. In the hermetic solitude of our minds, we would simply go insane.