poetics of life

Sei Shonagon’s Lists

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is one of the strangest and most delightful works of literature in the entire human history.

Shonagon (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese empress Sadako in the peaceful Heian era. She authored the Pillow Book, a “collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court.” In other words, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was creating Beowulf, Shonagon was writing a blog. Pillow books (Makura no Soshi) were a genre of personal writing of the time, and it wasn’t unusual for court ladies to swap and read them: the one that survives to our time is the one that was most fun to read.

And it is fun to read; and not just compared to OTHER 1,000-year-old books. Shonagon describes the trivial, everyday minutiae of a world extremely alien to us, that of a totally secluded Heian court: one in which people rarely walk, but rather crawl; in which women blacken their teeth; in which polygamy is normal, but men and women hardly ever see each other’s faces; in which professional posts are obtained through poetry contests; and in which referring to a woman by name was considered so rude, and thus so thoroughly avoided, that nobody knows what Sei Shonagon’s actual name was. You read Pillow Book, and you really get a sense of who these people were, these people who lived a thousand years ago: what other book does that?

And you can very quickly become immersed into the spatiality and the temporality of their life: the seasons, the festivals, how people’s careers progress, what to wear when, what to never wear, how to find a husband, what is uncool, what happens to the dead, the spatiality of flirting and romance, the spatiality of old age and abandonment. And I suppose that’s why I love it so much: for the way it is eschews grand themes. Everyday life is an incredibly under-appreciated thing. How it works, why it works, why it fails, why we’re happy or miserable living it. As Chris Marker said, “I’ve been around the world several times, and only banality still interests me.”

The most famous thing about Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s lists. Here are some:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shatters.

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

25. Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.
[…] Continue reading “Sei Shonagon’s Lists” »

CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

Robert Dessaix: Arabesques

It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.

In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.

When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:

1. on happiness

‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’

2. on protestantism

…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.

(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)

3. on travel

‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’

4. on how Australians perceive Europeans

Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.

CITIES, poetics of life

Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library | The Awl

What the available details of Wallace’s life and ideas suggest is that we in the U.S. are maybe not doing a very good job of taking care of recovering addicts, or of those suffering from depression.

The new Me Generation of the aughts is like a steroids version of the innocent ’70s one, which really amounted to little more than plain hedonism. There wasn’t as much guilt and self-recrimination in those days. Today this focus on “Me” is something more like an obsession with our faults, a sick perfectionism, coupled with an insatiable need for attention; the idea of the ‘star’ as something we want to be.

A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with “self-help,” which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.

“We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?”

Maria Bustillos, Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library

CITIES, how the world works

Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)

At a lecture I was giving at a large West Coast university in the spring of 2008, the female students talked extensively about how much they preferred to have a completely waxed pubic area as it made them feel “clean,” “hot,” and “well groomed.” As they excitedly insisted that they themselves chose to have a Brazilian wax, one student let slip that her boyfriend had complained when she decided to give up on waxing. Then there was silence. I asked the student to say more about her boyfriend’s preferences and how she felt about his criticism. After she spoke, other students joined in, only now the conversation took a very different turn. The excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion of how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with nonwaxed girlfriends, saying they “looked gross.” One student told the group that her boyfriend bought her a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day, while yet another sent out an e-mail to his friends joking about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver.” No, she did not break up with his; she got waxed instead. Continue reading “Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)” »

CITIES, how the world works

3xQuestion (rather less rhetorical than they may seem)

1. 1994

The New York Times had an article on the front page asking: why isn’t there class conflict, why aren’t all these people recognizing they have class interests that are being betrayed, lethally betrayed, by Big Business, and why now do people blame government instead of blaming business, and why is the boss never really seen as being the enemy and is rather being seen as a fellow victim? The article laid out in political and sociological terms how much the Right has won and how much the elimination, not even so much of the Soviet system as an alternative – because it never really has been an alternative for us – but of an ideological space marked “alternative”, how the elimination of that has absolutely forced people into simply accepting as a given all the things that are contrary to their own self-interest. You won’t blame the boss because blaming the boss means developing a critique of capitalism as a system and, of course, we all know now that capitalism is the only conceivable system. Look at the destruction of the trade unions, the idea that everybody is downscaling and everybody is being put out of work. No one is getting angry at these corporations anymore because it is simply assumed they will maximize profits at the expense of human beings, and that this is the way that it has to be.
– Tony Kushner interviewed by Carl Weber

2. 2006

How did we get [to the war on terror]? The best place to look for the answer is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before. Examining the cultural mood of the late ’90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.

The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it “changed everything.” But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come—the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.
– Christopher Hayes, The Good War on Terror: How the Greatest Generation helped pave the road to Baghdad

3. yesterday

Nick Dave’s new book The Death of Bunny Munro, about a man who sits in a hotel room and masturbates fantasizing about vaginas (what elese?, you sort of wonder), is due for release in Australia in August. This is the cover. If I knew whether I think it’s problematic or not, it would mean I have found answers to many questions troubling me these days. I haven’t, so I don’t.

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, spatial poetics

Contemplating Hell

Contemplating Hell by Bertolt Brecht
Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that is
Must be even more like Los Angeles.

Also in Hell,
I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens
With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,
Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless

Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which
Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere.
And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,
Even when inhabited.

Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks.

CITIES, spatial poetics

Journalism, exquisite journalism:

Michail Gorbachev did not make a public appearance until nine days after the accident. Was this embittering?

You know, journalists always ask the same thing. Were you lied to? The Soviet power never told the truth. That was nothing new! What interests me is something else. The pause.

The pause?

In the zone helicopters were taking off, technicians were running about in their thousands, but no one had any explanations. It was a new reality. It was forbidden to sit on the ground. It was forbidden to stand under a tree for any length of time. Fishermen said they couldn't find any worms, that the worms had bored a meter and a half down into the earth. Nature had obviously received signals. I find this fascinating. People reported they'd not only seen a fire, but also a raspberry-coloured glow and that they'd never thought death could be so beautiful. Former Afghanistan fighters were flown in with helicopters and machine guns and were asking: What good are our helicopters here? An entire culture collapsed, the familiar culture of war.

(…) There were no boundaries after Chernobyl. Spaces dissolved.

I continue to be amazed that people have failed to understand Chernobyl as a new way of seeing the world. Chernobyl changed space, but politicians still talk about things in terms of today, there, nearby, foreign. It's so strange. What does near or far mean when the cloud was hanging over Europe on the second day and over China on the fourth? Even a country that doesn't build reactors will be hit by the fallout from another country.

You can read the complete conversation with Svetlana Alexievich on signandsight.com.

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

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.