Tag Archives: culture

Japan’s imitation of the West

Memes often travel between neighboring countries and cultures like genetic material travels between bacteria in a colony. The imitation by one culture of another is rarely a pure copying though, but usually a kind of creative act: a selection, curation, editing, emphasising, painting over. But the distance between some cultures is greater than between others. Edward Seidensticker’s wonderful book Tokyo: From Edo to Showa brought home to me that Japan worked very hard as a nation to become Western during the 20th century: to adopt Western values, ways of thinking and attitudes, though not indiscriminately. Underappreciated labour perhaps. Western societies should feel flattered by this thorough imitation.  And if we find fault with Japan, we should perhaps also look at home, at our own societies, and ask if the root of the problem does not lie in something that we exported. It may indeed be that the problems we point out most readily in Japan are the ones that remind us of our own problems in some way. And today, when the sustainability and long term vision for Western societies is increasingly in question, one hopes, for Japan’s sake, that the imitation did not go too far.

We should also look closely at China, which seems to be evolving into a different kind of hybrid of Western and Chinese thinking, perhaps a less wholehearted imitation. Quantitatively at least, for example in terms of speed, the change in China today appears to match anything Japan has gone through. But qualitatively it may be different and it must be anybody’s guess today what direction China will ultimately take.

Concert review: free jazz at Nanahari, Sep 19

The performers: Kevin McHugh from the US on piano, Hugues Vincent from France on cello, as well as an Australian clarinet player, and Japanese cello and flute players and a drummer.

The venue: Nanahari – “seven needles”, 七針 – a small basement in Hachobori, east Tokyo, in an authentically Showa-era building. We are partly transported into another time – the bubble era, echoes of it.

The audience: 10-15 people. Each of us brings something there: hopes and fears, personal histories, wine.

The context: up north, Fukushima seems to be having as deep problems as ever. Governments and companies over the world are embroiled in surveillance scandals and financial problems that seem to be piling higher year by year. The economic outlook in many places, and certainly Japan, is highly uncertain. The Japanese population is aging. For foreigners whose occupation is something unorthodox like music, getting a visa to stay in Japan is not trivial. In the middle east, conflicts are raging with no end in sight.

And yet. Here and now, these musicians from four countries manage to synthesise something that could have been done nowhere else and at no other time. The format is free jazz, one of the least restricted forms of music. McHugh and Vincent probe their instruments – piano and cello – deeply. McHugh dissects the piano and begins adjusting and interfering with its strings and other innards while playing, as he is wont to do. Vincent displays an intimacy and energy with his cello that is almost frightening. One fears what he might be capable of. Through the unorthodox playing, their instruments receive lobotomies, massages and savagery that allow them to produce soundscapes one must suspect they were never designed for. Yet in the hands of capable musicians like these, the result is plausible, amazing and profoundly unique.

The evening goes on for a few hours; various combinations of the present musicians (drawn by lottery) improvise together. The result is sometimes theatre, sometimes pure aesthetics, sometimes metaphysical. There are confrontations and compromises. Something is unconcealed; veils are lifted off. Intensely true and genuine narratives blend to form new and unique stories. The evening’s performances are one justification, one redemption of the mad state of the world today. And on some level, perhaps proof that the madness is not complete, that something healthy and vital is still alive, expressing itself.

Values 3: The case of Apple and Google

Last year, we started hearing about the ongoing rivalry between Apple and Google. The two companies were poaching talent from each other, and reportedly, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt got increasingly confrontational with each other on a personal level. Historically, the two companies both operated in the shadow of and against Microsoft, but with Microsoft sliding into irrelevance, they now appear to be competing with each other instead.

Apple commands tremendous respect, and enormous excitement surrounds its product launches, such as the ones of the iPhone and the iPad. Jokingly, one could almost describe Apple products and shops as a micro-religion, and maybe there is a grain of truth to this joke.

What Apple does so well is to create and project values that surround their products. For the purposes of this blog entry, let us forget about the usual drab meaning of the phrase “project values” as it is used by marketing people and PR consultants. Let us try to have in mind a philosophical meaning of the word value – and why not understand it as Nietzsche did, as a necessary way of relating to reality, a necessary epistemological bias? Apple has a vision for what life with digital products should be like, and the vision has no clear boundaries: its edges are carefully concealed, the vision overflows, spills over into every aspect of the customer’s life. Something that there is a definite dearth of today has been supplied. But this vision cannot easily be imitated or supplied by other companies. It is effective simply because everyone can perceive that Apple and Steve Jobs are so firmly behind it, that there is almost nothing in the way of hypocrisy in how the product is marketed. These people firmly and deeply believe what they say.

In contrast, products developed by Google are to a larger extent designed and developed through deductive reasoning. Even though Google as a company has an image as being progressive and modern, in the sense that they publicly do not want to be evil, and want to make the world’s information maximally available, their deep commitment to pure deduction and logic prevent the products from truly occupying the spiritual territory that Apple has staked out for itself. (Their approach may, however, have other benefits – this text is not a statement about product quality.)

If we establish a scale from creativity-driven production to deduction-driven production, Apple would be on the far left, Google somewhat to the left of the middle, and the likes of IBM and Microsoft on the far right. The latter two are only minimally concerned with changing consumers’ lives; in fact, it sometimes appears as if these institutions would like to be culturally invisible and project as little as possible. Their products strive to be value transparent.

The role that Steve Jobs and his team occupy, then, is something of what philosophers could be. They are, or appear to be, creators and projectors of values, which include aspects of morality and ethics. And such firmly felt values are in fact what society really wants. Apple goes some way towards filling the gap created by cultural nihilism.

Values 2: Human reason is reactive

Previously I wrote about Nietzsche’s assertion that philosophers must create values, and a distinction between scholars, scientists and philosophers was made. The focus now shifts to the faculty of reason and its contrast with another mode of thinking.

Reason can be understood as man’s ability to think according to precise rules. Logic is one such set of rules: by using axioms and inference rules, we are able to generate vast arrays of valid statements. For instance, we can attempt to prove mathematical truths, or we can work out how to place furniture in a room, or the quickest way of carrying out five different errands in an afternoon.

Two essential functions of reason are finding solutions and validating solutions. In finding solutions, sometimes we apply reason as a search process, that is, we work through a number of combinations until we find one that works, or until we give up. By deduction we can reduce the size of the search space, and sometimes deduction will lead to a result without any search being necessary at all. In validating solutions, we might obtain the proposed solution from anywhere, possibly from outside reason itself, and then, again it is sometimes a search process: we may attempt to find contradictions that invalidate the proposed solution, and we do not always find them immediately. This would be validation by absence of contradictions, but we might also validate a solution affirmatively by using it in a problem. For instance, we can verify that 7 is the square root of 49 by computing 7*7, and it would be useless to verify it by testing that 7*7 does not equal any of the values 1,2,3…48,50,51,52… infinity.

Reasoning is a slow, tedious process, and it can only consider so many possible solutions in a given amount of time. But it is reliable, and the results of different pieces of reasoning can often be composed to yield a larger, consistent result. But it is clear that our minds have other ways of functioning as well, with other strengths and weaknesses. In particular, it seems that reasoning is essentially a reactive process. It reacts to a given problem with given constraints and rules of inference. But it seems to be unable to create. Creativity appears to always come from extralogical, extra-reasonable places. Creativity in the spontaneous sense of a child drawing a picture with crayons, or a novelist writing a book, or an orator using a particularly persuasive combination of words that captures a fleeting feeling, or a commuter taking a different route home from work, out of curiosity. The distinction is not always clear-cut: a decision like choosing the colour of a wallpaper could be done both using “principles” with which one reasons logically, or using a spur of the moment feeling about what is good. It is clear, though, that the two can interact very productively: often a complex mental activity needs a dialogue between reason and extra-reason, and not just in the sense that extra-reason produces a suggestion that reason validates. This seems to be the danger with excessive reliance on rationality and scientific skepticism, then – it risks shutting out the essential extralogical factor and reducing decision making to searching, or from another viewpoint, it risks invalidating the most powerful search heuristic of all.

It seems as if there is a parallel, of sorts, with modern democracy in this distinction. Democracy at the national level, too, is a reactive form of decision making today. It is true that groups of a small or moderate size sometimes can create things collectively, and when they do, it seems to be the case that the form of the group enables individuals to take turns in influencing the group and being responsible towards it: the individuals make serial contributions that layer on top of each other to form the collective contribution. But voters in a national democracy do not have a format that allows this process to take place across the entire group, and the scale is too great. Those who create proposals are smaller subgroups or elites, and the voters are reduced to playing one of the roles that reason can play: affirm or reject proposals. In fact, not even this, since they are typically not asked to affirm every proposal – they are able to stage a revolution if their discontent becomes tremendously large, and otherwise they only have the ability to voice rejection every four years or so. (The exceptional case where very large groups can create something collectively would be when they share a common sentiment very well, for instance in the event of a national crisis.)

The seat of creativity is ultimately in the individual, and not in the collective. When democracies create agendas, goals, projects and proposals, they are not acting democratically, but channeling individual elements within.

Values 1: Philosophy, science, and their relationship

This is hopefully the start of a short series of posts in which I attempt to relate the concepts of value and value creation, in particular as they were understood by Friedrich Nietzsche, to the modern world, in some kind of way. Comments of all kinds are encouraged!

In the beginning (understood as ancient Greece), there was philosophy. That is to say, most systematic inquiry into matters worth thinking about was collected under this umbrella term. Ethics, politics, epistemology and metaphysics went side by side with physics, biology and astronomy. As millennia passed, the collective human knowledge and scholarly labour grew, and some philosophical disciplines got their own name, cut the umbilical cord, and got to stand on their own feet.

There are many definitions as to what a philosopher is; one definition would be those who study the academic subject of philosophy in academic institutions. The German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote at length about what a philosopher really is; in his definition a philosopher is someone who creates values. Nietzsche rejected morals and universal truth as laid down by a God or higher authority; instead they are created by subjective human beings, and by philosophers in particular.

Perhaps [the genuine philosopher] himself must have  been critic and sceptic and dogmatist and historian and also poet and collector and traveller and solver of riddles and moralist and seer and “free spirit” and almost everything in order to pass through the whole range of human values and value feelings […] But all these are merely preconditions of his task: this task itself demands something different – it demands that he create values.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, s. 211, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

We may understand a scholar to be a person who processes knowledge. Good scholarship entails marshalling what has been written and studied previously, perhaps with a view to settling a question or supporting a perspective. Scientists and philosophers can make use of scholars in their work. To the extent that the scholar does more than merely process knowledge, he or she is something more than a scholar.

In contrast, a scientist, as we understand him or her today, is someone who combines scholarship and primary investigation (in the form of calculation, experimentation, measurement and so on) in order to create models of nature and the world, in order to gain the power to explain. The classical scientific process involves repeated refinement of hypotheses until one that cannot be proven wrong has been found.

Today, science, which formerly was known as natural philosophy, has grown enormously large, and to most people probably appears to have much greater value than philosophy. The scientific mindset is widely appreciated and respected throughout the world — perhaps too respected. Scientists learn as one of their highest virtues to be skeptical and to reject assertions that are made without a basis in measurement or theory. Paralysis by skepticism is very much a possibility. To see the danger in this, we have to recognise that a great deal of valuable things in human history have been created without such a basis – by people who have been something like the ones Nietzsche describes.

The dangers for a philosopher’s development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all. The scope and the tower-building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows weary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a “specialist” – so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. […]

Indeed, the crowd has for a long time misjudged and mistaken the philosopher, whether for a scientific man and ideal scholar or for a religiously elevated, desensualized, “desecularized” enthusiast and sot of god. And if a man is praised today for living “wisely” or “as a philosopher”, it hardly means more than “prudently and apart”.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, s. 205, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

In fact, scientists today do not, in my experience, work like the ideal scientist described above. Scientists often use their own judgment and their own values in order to influence how their science is to be used. Einstein and Oppenheimer had opinions about the use and misuse of the nuclear bomb. Creators of vaccine may have opinions on how it is to be distributed and may be able to influence this. Sometimes these value statements made by scientists are pure judgments, applications of an ethic that the scientists already believe in. However, sometimes the situation is so new that the scientists effectively have to create values. To the extent that they do this, these scientists dabble in ethics, morality and philosophy, but this is often overlooked, as is the fact that scientific method itself was created by philosophy.

Nietzsche calls for philosophers to make use of scientists and artists, and create values in the service of mankind. He calls for a new recognition of the true role and dignity of philosophy, which does not at all need to mean a reduction of the value of science, but rather an expansion of the whole system. Philosophy stands naturally above science and scholarship and uses them as its tools. The activity of creating values based on philosophical insight by necessity goes on constantly and should not be confined to little nooks in the margins of society. The full extent of and need for this activity needs to be acknowledged.

Has the situation changed since Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil in 1886?