Sunday, 31 October 2010

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Amidst all the Islamophobia and shrill ‘new atheism’ thrown up by the war on terror, it makes for a striking contrast to consider the reputation of Buddhism in the West. From the Beats to the Beastie Boys, Buddhism’s kept its reputation in the West as the progressive’s choice in faiths, the peaceful and tolerant religion, glossed by Damien Keown in his Very Short Introduction like this:

Buddhism also seems in harmony with the other dominant contemporary Western ideology, namely secular liberalism. Buddhism is undogmatic, even to the extent of instructing its followers not to accept its teachings uncritically, but always to test them in the light of their own experience…Buddhsm is more concerned with the development of understanding than the acceptance of creedal formulas (OUP, 2000)

A nice reminder then, via Jerryson and Jurgensmeyer’s Buddhist Warfare, of the fact that, like all religious traditions, Buddhism’s been shaped by - and has in turn shaped - the history it has developed within. That’s a history of class society, so a history of war.

Here’s Takuan Soho (沢庵 宗彭) from the Rinzai School of Zen, on the philosophical uses of war, and the Buddhist values of violence:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind’, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hand is not a sword a sword and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.

I’m not knocking the bloke, naturally; he’s had a delicious side dish named after him, and stars in the manga バガボンド, so there’s a legacy there I need to acknowledge.

But historicising’s important, yes? Anyone who’s read their D T Suzuki with any attentiveness shouldn’t be surprised here. Religious discourse and organization are a part of the totality of their social world - from Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom to Korean Christianity in the democracy movement of the 80s to Falung Gong today - and their contradictions and insights are inseperable. We can’t pick and choose what aspects of traditions we want to acknowledge and, more importantly, a pseudo-progressive mystical Orientalism is still an Orientalism.

So watch out for the uplifted sword!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Cold Racism versus Memory

It feels so long since those few months when, just a year ago, Hatoyama’s election brought with it the feeling there were new opportunities for Zainichi. Hatoyama made a great play of his appeal to voters as “citizens” and not “members of the nation,” and planned extending some voting rights to some non-citizens (although, of course, DPRK citizens were excluded from all this with the scorn and conceit to which we’re all accustomed). The autumn of 2009 was alive, in the Zainichi activist circles I moved in, with a sense of possibility: whatever the (massive) cynicism of Ozawa and Hatoyama, their commitment to electoral reform was of long standing, and the introduction of these topics into official discourse above opened spaces for contributions from more radical voices below.

Times change, yes? Obama humbled Hatoyama over Okinawa; Ozawa’s had, shall we say, problems; the question of relations with China, and half-heartedness at best amongst big sections of the DPJ itself, have eclipsed Koreans’ democratic rights as the political questions of the day.

Meanwhile, all the crap of ages continues. Jamie has written about the offensive and violent antics of the creeps in 'Zaitokukai' (在日特権を許さない市民の会), all that stalking of school-children and picketing of playgrounds no doubt an expression of innately Japanese dignity and somehow showing 和 at work. It’s important to stress, as Jamie does, that this weirdness isn’t an aberration from standard conservative norms but is, instead, their expression, the end-product of what Ranciere has described as ‘cold racism’:

The racism that we have in today's case is a cold racism, an intellectual construction. It is primarily a creation of the state. We have discussed the relationship between the state of law and the police state. But it is the very nature of the state that it is a police state, an institution that fixes and controls identities, spaces, and movements, an institution in permanent struggle against any surplus over its account of identities, that is to say it also struggles against that excess to the logic of identity that constitutes the action of political subjects.

Jamie’s post draws an important connection between this ‘cold racism’, the passion from above, the antics of the far right, and the crisis of historical memory in Japan, the product of the decades-long project of revisionism and state-sponsored denial.

So much of this struggle seems to be over the status of victimhood, who gets to claim it, and how, hence, among other things, the popularity of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s conservative manga, with their reassuring message that a sorting out of the facts will reveal the (implied) reader to have been among the victims all along.

One, important, way to counter this framing of victimhood as a rightist political mobilizing category is to insist on the historical record and honest accounting. That’s necessary but, I suspect, insufficient: a complementary approach, drawing on those moments when memory has played a central, and transformative, role in Japanese politics, has insisted on contesting the right’s ownership of the category of victim itself. Records of the horrors and the impact of the Pacific War and, sometimes, of the shock of the realization of war guilt and complicity, have been used by artists to create a sense of commonality between ordinary Japanese victims of the war and people in the colonized nations. Against “cold racism” from above – and its noxious by-products – the project of historical memory has held out the chance for the oppressed in Japan to re-imagine their relations to the forces above them.

John Dower’s Embracing Defeat reproduces a waka from a village poetry magazine from 1947:

The crimes of Japanese soldiers
who committed unspeakable atrocities
in Nanking and Manila
must be atoned for.

Another reads

Vividly, the traces
of the Japanese Army’s atrocities are shown.
Suddenly, a sharp gasp.

One of Saeki Jinzaburo’s poem on atrocities in China was censored by the occupying forces for mentioning regret at losing the war:

So full of grief is this day
that it made me forget
the vexation of the day
we lost the war.

The next great moment of historical memory was the 1960s and 70s, spurred by the radicalism of the student movement. It’s the readership of this era’s war works I find the most interesting to think about, with so many settled into middle age and with decades’ of coping and managing of memory behind them. Most well known internationally is Nakazawa’s はだしのゲン (about which now see the autobiography of Barefoot Gen): so often consumed as an account of the bomb and of war’s depravations, the tale is also an insertion into ‘official’ memory of the story of anti-war and leftist families, victims with an awareness of the victimizing occurring across Asia.

Shizuko Go waited thirty years to write レクイエム (Requiem), her account of the bombing and destruction of Yokohama. Its primary purpose, decent and vital, is to serve as another ‘report on experience’:

People walked abruptly out of one another’s lives. A friend who’d waved goodbye on Kawasaki Station platform died the same night in a firebomb attack; a kindly factory hand who’d given the girls a share when the workers had received a ration of frozen mandarins received his draft papers and wasn’t at his bench one morning. As each day began, the exchange of greetings was full of the joy of having met again, while eyes meeting in farewell each evening held the sorrow of knowing this might be the last time (90).

In representing this in the 1970s, though, Go was also intervening in that political moment, stressing the “ugliness” (98) of the truth of Japan’s war record, the “free-for-all” (98) of Nanking, the “vile acts” (99):

That beautiful something to believe in was not to be found. Not in the turmoil of Yokohama Station, nor in the emptiness of the silent factory; there was no consolation, no answer to her prayer. The divine wind that should have saved the nation from peril had failed to blow…all the things she had believed had disappeared without trace and only the elderly teacher’s tears, with her plea for forgiveness, had poured into the hollow of her heart. (100)

In today’s constricted political spaces, and in the face of a concerted, and largely successful, right-wing offensive, honourable if embattled artists continue in the tradition of Nakazawa and Go. The far right use the category of victim as a ploy and as a tool with which to victimize others. We can look to political strategy to combat this victimization. At the same time, thinking about the experience of victimization, and of the challenge of reconstructing and representing difficult historical memory, offers inspiration and example. The shrillness and theatricality of today’s far right point, I think, to the brittleness of the political categories they’re trying to mobilize with and around. There’s more than one way to be a victim, and more than one way to remember or contest a history.


I’ve taken quotes from Geraldine Harcourt’s translation of Requiem (The Women’s Press, 1985). The poems are from Dower, Embracing Defeat (New Press, 2000), pp 507 – 508.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

You're Writing What You Know

Elif Batuman’s polemic on Creative Writing courses in the last LRB was good fun, especially the sketch she attempts of the ideology at work in the talk around ‘programme fiction.’

I’m not so interested in that seemingly endless debate about whether the programmes are for the good or not (see the sensible responses from several interested parties, and try finding similarities in Carl Shuker and Tusiata Avia the next time someone tells you writing courses produce a homogenized literary voice). The programmes, and the expansion of higher education more generally, are part of new post-war social-institutional formations, like the salon or the coffee shop in centuries past, so – no surprises here, either – historicizing is in order. What’s the general ideology and authorial ideology within this literary mode of production? Batuman’s much too elegant a critic to use terms of that sort, but an aside of hers points in those directions:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique take as telos. The raw material hardly seems to matter anymore: for hysterical realism, everything; for minimalism, nothing much. The fetishisation of technique simultaneously assuages and aggravates the anxiety that literature might not be real work. McGurl writes of the programme as a manifestation of ‘the American dream of perfect self-expression.’ Taken as an end in itself, self-expression is surely sensed, even by those who pursue it, as a somehow suspect project, demanding shame and discipline.

This way of talking about talking about literature and literature in higher education – historicizing all that vital chatter and self-publicising as well as the self-consciously ‘critical’ statements – presents an opportunity to consider the relations between schools, book markets and ideologies of writing, a more interesting matter, if nothing more, than forever pondering whether writing can be taught or not (after all, as Robert Crawford’s The Modern Poet demonstrates, there’s been anxiety on these scores since the 1750s).

It’s not just the question of writing, either, but of reading too. Batuman, in an aside after quoting a writer’s description of their material, notes that "literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest.” That the well-to-do have always loved exotic tales of others’ misery is part of the point here, to be sure; another ought to be that diversifying the range of experiences fed into the contemporary novel, perhaps a useful step, leaves only part of the process explored or expanded. The other question is who’s reading, and how. Now, none of that feels so far away from Brecht’s questions, or some of his answers.