Tag: japan


Enlightenment and the search for meaning

December 26th, 2018 — 5:04pm

The premise of the enlightenment would be that we have finally discovered how to live rationally. Authority is located in natural science, free enterprise and free markets, and empirical knowledge. Thus we can cast aside all the superstitions of the past and finally become what we were meant to be. Can we?

Not everyone agrees. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are commonly associated with the “school of suspicion”, throwing doubt on capitalism, on the rational mind, and on morality and religion, to take but a few examples. Freud in particular burst open the doors to the unconscious, bringing back, seemingly, the demons that the enlightenment had sought to finally bury. The bottom line of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents seems to be that man is doomed unhappiness, since his (sexual, violent, etc) desires will always make him clash with polite society. If true, this is truly a tragic insight.

In contrast to Freud, Jung appears to be a man of compromises. Freud’s view of the unconscious is highly centred on sexuality. The “Id” seems to be  primarily a source of threatening or disturbing impulses. Jung’s view of the unconscious is centred on the possibility of integration, of bringing separate pieces together into a harmonious whole, including the “Shadow”, broadly his equivalent of Freud’s Id. He even postulates an archetype that guides the individual towards meaningful integration of these separate parts, the Self. The self provides the individual with a sort of pattern that is repeated over and over again across a lifetime, increasingly elaborate. Eventually all the parts are, if we are lucky, integrated and even the dark or purely negative parts are given a meaning in the whole. The idea that the individual unconscious can basically provide a teleological, predefined template for an integrated personality reminds one of soul or destiny, and seems much more optimistic than Freud. But perhaps it is more accurate to call Jung a realist. He tends to insist on every phenomenon having both positive and negative aspects. Integration may fail. Life may contain excessive suffering, torment or early death. Although individuals are supposed to be naturally led towards greater integration, Jung doesn’t seem to offer any positive guarantees about mankind’s progress as a whole towards a better moral state.

Enlightenment ideas seem to be alive and well, if in a somewhat mutated form, having survived two world wars. The idea that we can design or plan a better society is perhaps questionable after the collapse of the Soviet Union (a notable exception is China, which sometimes looks as if it operates a semi-planned society, while at other times it looks more capitalist than North America). Instead, we live by the rule of market forces and rationality takes the form of scientific R&D, as well as technocratic administration, where appropriate. The rule of a number of invisible hands, the neutered “individual” as the basic unit of production and consumption. Although technological capitalism has produced immense positive effects, its dark side is also sizable.  Enlightenment has led to nihilism. Alienation is real. Although human beings can endure working as replaceable units for some time (if a man has a why, then he will endure almost any how) in general and over time, this kind of work does destroy meaning and is intolerable. What will be the long term consequences of forcibly suppressing common sense and social conscience on a mass scale?

In this environment, it takes a certain stubborn optimism to insist that technological and economic progress will bring about a better society (Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker). It may be too early to pass judgment on what kind of world we are building, but let us at least be keenly aware of its price.

The problem of loss of meaning is for now mainly a Western one, though it may not remain so for much longer. The same cultural forces that drove the development of Christianity – the search for the one truth – may also have driven the development of science and technology. Thus, according to Nietzsche, Christianity contained the seeds of its own destruction. Countries like India and China have perhaps not yet reached “peak enlightenment”, still absorbing Western ideas and intensifying their implementations of technological capitalism. Japan may quite possibly have reached peak enlightenment some time ago and thus shares in the Western problem, although not on a Christian basis. Thus its solutions may look different. In the near future, this problem can be expected to burden all cultures that are committed to technological capitalism.

According to Jung, God, meaning, and the divine are archetypes, which are so deeply embedded in the human psyche that they must be given a concrete form, lest they be projected and unconscious, with potentially disastrous consequences. Our best solution, temporary as it may be, could be to treat consciousness as holy, in both its social and individual forms, in both its explicit/rational and its pre-rational, implicit, potential, half-finished forms. Existentialist cinema like that of Ingmar Bergman (who would have been 100 this year) seems to locate the holy in interpersonal relationships. Tolstoy does something similar. Their views of love are realist and ambivalent: they endorse it, but it may lead one astray (Anna Karenina, Through a Glass Darkly). Yet they certainly endorse it. This region may serve as a practical locus of the holy. Is love not a form of heightened social consciousness imbued with positive possibilities? Does individual consciousness, even of a mute object, not always refer back to the social, through the meaning it contains and through its driving wish to discover and express truth?

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Brexit and globalisation

March 30th, 2017 — 2:37pm

Two momentous events that took place last year were the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership that led to the “Brexit” decision to leave the union. The two are often lumped together and seen as symptoms of a single larger force, which they probably are. But in one respect they are different. The Trump presidency has an expiry date, but it is hard to see how Brexit might be reversed in the foreseeable (or even distant) future.

As a student and then an engineer in London during 2003-2007, one of the first vivid, intense impressions I got was that the UK was a much better integrated society than Sweden. Manifestly, people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds were – it seemed to the 19-year old me – living and working together smoothly on many social levels. During my life in Sweden until then, I had not ever seen immigration working out in this way. It was mostly seen and talked about as a problem that had to be addressed (and on a much smaller scale than what we have now).

This may of course reflect the fact that London has long been, until now, one of the most global cities in the world (Tokyo has nothing on it in this respect, although it has a massive energy and dynamic of a different kind), and the place I came from was rather rural. Countryside Britain was never as well integrated as London. World cities tend to be sharply different from the surroundings that support them. But on balance, the UK came across to me as a successfully global society.

In the years since, Sweden has, it seems to me, successfully integrated a lot of people and there are plenty of success stories. It has become a far more global society than it was in, say, 2003. At the same time, xenophobia has been on the rise, just as it has in the rest of Europe and the US, and now Swedish politics must, lamentably, reckon with a very powerful xenophobic party. Reactive (in the Nietzschean sense) forces are having a heyday. Ressentiment festers.

The global society is probably here to stay. The ways of life and work, the economic entities that now bestride the earth, are all firmly globalised. This is an ongoing process that may not end for some time. (However, this probably will never erase the importance of specific places and communities. To be rooted in something is in fact becoming ever more important.) But globalisation, to use that word, has plainly not brought prosperity to everyone. In fact, many have been torn out of prosperity by economic competition and technological advances. Witness American coal miners voting Trump. In my view, though not everyone will agree, a well-protected middle class is necessary to achieve a stable democratic society. Witness what happens when that protection is too far eroded. Neglecting this – which has been a failure of politics on a broad scale – is playing with fire. General frustration becomes directed at minorities.

Being somewhat confused ourselves, and living with weak or failing, if not xenophobic or corrupt, politicians and governments, we – western/globalised society – may need something that is utterly lacking: new ideology, new thinking, new dreams. Not a wishful return to the 90’s, 70’s or some other imagined lost paradise, but something that we can strive for positively, and in the process perhaps reconfigure our societies, politics and economies. For this to happen, people may need to think more, debate more, read more books, and be more sincere. Sarcasm and general resignation lead nowhere. One needs to look sincerely at one’s own history, inward into the soul, as well as outward.

A successful form of such new politics probably will not involve a departing from the global society. But it may involve a reconfiguration of one’s relationship with it. So as Theresa May’s government proceeds to negotiate the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – which must be a bitter, gruelling task for many of those involved – I hope that what she is initiating is such a reconfiguration. I hope that Britain can draw on its past success as a highly global society and constructively be part of the future of the West.

4 comments » | Life, Philosophy

Japan’s imitation of the West

December 14th, 2013 — 12:01pm

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.

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Concert review: free jazz at Nanahari, Sep 19

September 19th, 2013 — 11:28pm

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.

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A time to build barriers

September 22nd, 2012 — 12:29pm

Countries like Japan thrive on barriers to information flow. It is hard to overstate how deep and wide the rift caused by linguistic differences between Japanese and Indo-European languages is. The number of people who speak both very good English/German/French etc and very good Japanese is small and unlikely to grow dramatically. Yet there is a willingness from both sides to learn about the other side and push/pull information through that narrow channel.

One important consequence of this situation is that heterogeneity can develop and be preserved. Customs, the general way of thinking, the public sphere in Japan are different to their counterparts in the West. Among Western countries, these things are becoming increasingly homogenous thanks to ease of communication and the Internet. Not only will there be things on both sides of the divide that will never flow through the connecting conduit: the smaller partition, Japan in this case, can also act as a kind of catalyst and refinery for whatever comes in through the conduit, developing its own, highly refined versions of absorbed impressions. This is not possible if one has instant access to all information on the other side.

The Internet may yet turn out to be the greatest homogenising force mankind has ever known. For this reason, it is now an urgent task to erect new barriers on the internet and to restrict information flow. The wide open space must be partitioned into rooms with walls, doors and windows. The new barriers do not need to correspond to the old ones — it might even be preferable if they did not. Because the new barriers can be different from the old ones, the internet as a whole becomes a constructive step that we can endorse, and not something we are forced to react against. It is a stepping stone into a new world. Through restriction, we will be liberated.

An afterthought: barriers would be a negative addition that paradoxically has the potential to generate something new. But the negative aspect is certainly distasteful at first sight. If there is another way of achieving heterogeneity, which does not require barriers, then let’s hear it.

2 comments » | Philosophy

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