December 27th, 2009


Absent without leaving

The greater Tokyo area has just under 36 million people living in it; it's still the world's most populous metropolitan area. If this monster of cities runs remarkably smoothly most of the time, and even feels like a rather relaxing place, it's because of the particular, even peculiar, habitus of presence which prevails here. Tokyo people are very good at being absent without leaving.

Tokyo's inhabitants, especially in their transitions on public transport, maintain a minimum degree of presence. Crushed against each other or spread out on seats, with lowered eyes and the virtual escape-environments of books, newspapers and electronic gadgets, they're there but not there. They're (it's Howard Devoto's phrase) absent without leaving.

A certain amount of discretion and self-minimisation exists amongst commuters all over the world, of course. But the Japanese are more discreet, and minimise themselves more politely and considerately than anyone else I know. Even their houses seem to avert their gaze; you can pass down a heavily-built Tokyo street with the sense of being completely unobserved, thanks to the frosted glass in the windows, just as you can sit in a crowded train carriage and not find a single eye meeting yours. It can feel uncanny at times, like being an invisible man. Most of the time it's very reassuring, though. You soon miss it in other cities.

Adjectives I'd use to describe this minimised public presence: discreet, considerate, polite, apologetic, cold, withdrawn, inward, socialised, repressed. And there we begin to hit on an interesting paradox: you withdraw into yourself in the interests of the collectivity. Your absence is highly social, even when it resembles a semi-autistic withdrawal. You turn inward to facilitate outward smoothness. You make yourself ghostlike out of courtesy to other people, who do the same.

When you get to your destination, of course, the sublimation and repression can stop. You can suddenly elevate your presence, like the glum silent queuer finally reaching the nightclub, checking his coat, greeting his friends, ordering a drink. What's the maximum degree of presence? Perhaps being a celebrity would represent that: a celeb is a super-individual, someone whose mere presence makes our day, our month and our year. Quick, take a photo! The celeb is being asked his view on this and that, and listened to respectfully. The celeb has engineered his life so that there's no dead time, no self-repression. Like a Romantic poet, we imagine his life filled with moments of maximal intensity. We wish our lives were like that.

The other person like that, weirdly enough, is the madman or homeless person, who lives completely in the moment because he uses the spaces of transition as his places of residence. The street or the train is the homeless person's destination; no need to sublimate, save up intensity for later. This is it; grumble, chatter, joust, laugh, be yourself, right here on the street, right here on the train! It doesn't matter! You're going nowhere! You're mad and you're homeless! The obligation to be self-effacing and considerate doesn't apply to you! Be intense! Live in the moment! Make every second count!

For the rest of us, though, self-repression is a daily fact of life. Especially in conditions of urban density; we could say that density and intensity are at odds. The more dense the urban conditions, the less intense we want people to be as they transition through public space, the more ghostlike we require each other to be. Don't talk on your cellphone! I know it makes you feel like a celebrity, feel more alive and intense, but please don't do it! What if we were all celebrities in this carriage? What if all 36 million of us in this city were super-intense individuals at every moment! What a nightmare! Let's all stay ghosts, please, at least until we reach our destination!

Japan being Japan, of course, has developed aesthetics of non-presence, turning something negative into something positive with its own etiquette and its own subtle beauty, and giving non-presence a sort of presence. Iki describes something muted, sombre, restrained, apparently-unselfconscious, half turned-away, "an aesthetics of the back, of the nape of the neck. It can't be face-to-face. It's an aesthetic of obliqueness and peripheries which avoids focus and despises intellectual analysis". A woman whose seductiveness has an iki quality would, paradoxically, turn her turning-away towards you as she dropped her gaze and revealed her back, her shoulder, the nape of her neck. An absence becomes a presence; it's something I see enacted by women on Tokyo trains every day.

A related aesthetic might be Naoto Fukusawa's idea of the super normal; self-effacing, slightly bland goods that blend comfortably with others are better than loud, flashy, unique, individualistic goods. "Super normal design means design which, instead of trying to stand out by making a statement or being "stimulating", blends into the background, becoming unobtrusive but indispensable."

You might seek maximum intensity in an affair with a lover, perhaps, but smooth, unobtrusive consideration in a longterm relationship with a spouse; the perfect spousal togetherness might approach a discreet, doubled aloneness, whereas the perfect affair intensity would be the unbearable tangle of two celebrities, two Romantic poets, or two mad homeless people.

At the tragic end of intensity is the individual who becomes intolerable when his quirks get amplified by too much attention: "everyone loves you until they know you," as John Lydon sang. At the tragic end of self-effacing consideration is the self which disappears and can't come back, even when the destination-requiring-presence is reached. So we get the otaku, unable to emerge from the pages of his manga, or the hikikomori, who can't even leave home in the first place, and who's taken consideration to its ultimate degree of absence: that barricaded room where the self both disappears from the world and becomes the world.

Momus appears tonight between 6 and 8pm as The Unreliable Tour Guide at Now Idea, Omote Sando.