Saturday, 29 January 2011

Tokyo Compression

Alienation is one obvious masterplot in which to fix Tokyo Compression, Michael Wolf’s unsettling, voyeuristic images from the Odakyu line.

This certainly is how I first read these photographs, and how at first I framed them for others. his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind...the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another…the worker’s activity [is] not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self... (Marx, 1844 Manuscripts)

There’s no doubt Tokyo Compression provide us with a shock of recognition. Here’s one part of Tokyo’s “deep acidic loneliness…the city full of lonely people”, an unsettlingly specific catalogue of one part of everyday life which, to work, requires a sort of generalized lack of specificity, as commuters avoid eye contact or acknowledgement of physical presence in order to make it all bearable.

Rail networks link and connect, too; they’re prime sites for thinking through movements of people and goods, the working of a city and “the coordination of existential data (the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality.” These are images from a basic unit of Tokyo experience.

But masterplots lay traps. I sent these images on to a friend in Tokyo and got an angry response in return. She rejected the pity and disgust these photos worked to programme, the way they framed her as an outsider peering in on others, trapped like animals in a zoo display, presented without any agency or chance for choice or activity of their own.

I’d missed one obvious way of reading, mislaid by my own masterplot into a naïve, and patronising, underreading.

There is, to be sure, an ethical discomfort we should feel as viewers here: these are photos of people who clearly were uncomfortable being photographed (something Wolf has acknowledged and attempted to think through), and photos which place us in a very specific – externalised, cooly distanced – relation to what we’re gazing in at.

Remember, though: Glotzen ist nicht sehen.

I’d missed another point.

The city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time…Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequence of events leading up to it, the memory of past experience. (Lynch)

These are images at pains to stress their own framing and devised nature – beautiful, certainly, in their use of stray detail and compression to ‘hold’ a moment – and that very self-consciousness sets off other questions.

Where’s the movement? Trains contain commuters, but they also carry them: they transport, they connect. A nicely practical aesthetic question, then: what does it mean to look at still shots like this, to see a rail network as it stops? What might be missing?

That becomes another way of asking, as I think more on it, about the possibilities of seeing alienation on its own, or whether we need to reach for the wider, dynamic totality of which it’s a part. That’s one way of saying there’s more to cities:

To be modern…is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. (Marshall Berman)

Like everyone else I have felt the also the chaos of the metro and the traffic jam; the monotony of the ranks of houses; the aching press of strange crowds. But this is not an experience at all, not an adult experience, until it has come to include also the dynamic movement, in these centres of settled and often magnificant achievement. (Raymond Williams)

Is that, finally, then, again a question of politics?

The reactionary nature of any realist aesthetics today is inseperable from this commodity character. Tending to reinforce, affirmatively, the phenomenal surface of society, realism dismisses any attempt to penetrate that surface as a romantic endeavour…Film is faced with the dilemma of finding a procedure which neither lapses into arts-and-crafts nor slips into a mere documentary mode. (Adorno)

The rail unions in Japan are about to start their annual Spring Offensive. That points towards another masterplot, of course, and one I wouldn’t know how to narrate off these images. I’ve left them hanging here, with counter-quotations which came to mind as I bothered over my friend’s reply, and the shallowness of my own first way of seeing, as a way of trying to keep the questions which came up at work. They’re hard questions, but old ones.


Thanks for Michael Wolf for permission to reproduce these images, and to David McNeill, who drew my attention to them in the first place. You can buy Tokyo Compresion here.

The line on Tokyo as the "city full of lonely people" is from Carl Shuker’s masterpiece The Method Actors, p. 126.

The Adorno quote is from “Transperencies on Film”, in J M Berstein (ed), The Culture Industry (Routledge, 2001), p. 182.

Marshall Berman, All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity (Penguin, 1982), p. 345.

Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (MIT Press, 1960), p. 1

Williams, The Country and the City (Paladin, 1975), pp. 14 – 15.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely stuff -- reminded me of Kelman's story 'Some thoughts that morning' (in *The Good Times*).

    How much of modern urban art is about 'civil inattention', as Goffman called it?