imomus (imomus) wrote,

Was it "the sublime" talking through me -- or the Darjeeling?

I want to pick up one tiny -- but very interesting -- footnote to yesterday's discussion about punk. A comment signed "Michael and Kiyomi" asked:

"re: punk rock--is it not possible we're falling into a modernist trap; that is, by overly periodizing it, we also strip it of any transcendent (or sublime) value it may have? either that, or perhaps i've had too much darjeeling today..."

I answered:

"Some people think things have whatever longterm value they do by being rooted, precisely, in their epoch. I tend to cluster the idea of "transcendental" with ideas like disembodiment, or the idea that what's ultimately real is elsewhere, or that freedom lies outside of society, or that individuals should somehow step outside of their social context to realize themselves most fully, or the idea that there are universal human rights. What all these ideas have in common is some notion that things have more value the more they're detached from the specifics of their creation and their context, detached from society. And I believe the opposite."

Before I go more into the ideas in that, I want to pause -- appropriately enough -- to look at the embodiment -- the situatedness and specificity -- of "Michael and Kiyomi"'s comment. First, it's signed by two people, a Western male and a Japanese female. It's a comment from a couple, presumably the ones illustrated in the accompanying picture, seen visiting a Japanese temple. This points out to me that Michael and I share an interest in Asia, an interest that's expressed right at the very heart of our social lives and the core of our sense of self, because it's reflected in our choice of partner.

And yet, despite the united front, we have to assume it's Michael who's speaking. The idiom is American ("periodizing"), and the first person is used. Michael defuses the tension which might, possibly, be created by sounding a cautionary note with a joke -- some people might have made an assertive statement then said "but it's early in the morning" or "I may be on drugs", but Michael may have had "too much Darjeeling today".

Okay, this isn't exactly Sherlock Holmes. And I'm sure Michael (and Kiyomi) will be along themselves to give us far more profound insights into their lives and motivations. We could learn a lot more just by clicking on the link to their journal. The very first line I read there is "I'm dreaming of California, even while I'm here in California". Which is very interesting in itself, very much on-theme.

But I want to go back to my comment. It's an anti-metaphysical stance, somewhat contrarian, and I think I've come to it by visiting Japan and seeing how very different things are there. As I tried to point out in my essay on Superlegitimacy, I noticed that in Japan personal fulfillment is very much tied up with assuming one's social role, being invested 100% in what one does. I notice this just about every time I look at anything Japanese. For instance, last night I watched this little report on Tokyo Kawaii Wars:

Look at how fanatically the girls are invested in being girls, how the people selling clothes by shouting through megaphones seem to be giving their stupid jobs absolutely all they've got, and drawing some glow of joy from the responsibility. That's more or less the earliest impression of Japan's utter difference I had when I first visited in 1992, and it's also my "latest" impression, reconfirmed last night when I watched the Kawaii Wars video.

Superlegitimacy means that what's real is here and now, under our noses. It's what society tells us is real. So you don't hold back from your time, your place, your rank, your gender, your job, your lot. You don't try to keep your personal life out of your theorizing. You don't make appeals to some absent-yet-utterly-real God. You don't see freedom as something nebulous and negative, tied up with reluctance and refusal. You don't try to shun your own body, or feel disgust and alienation from its natural processes. You're not a detachable soul, stuck in the "charnel house" of a body against its will.

Almost everything we believe in the West is challenged by the superlegitimacy and situatedness of the Japanese. Plato, Christianity, the body-mind split, our idea of freedom and transcendental value, even our idea of universal human rights. And it's fascinating to see what happens when people start to edge towards more Asian ways of seeing. I'd say the most Asian thing Michael says is "perhaps I've had too much Darjeeling today". Because it punctures his own point about punk's potential to be a "transcendental sublime" with a very down-to-earth view that "you are what you eat". I'd even see something Asian in his line about "dreaming of California, even while I'm here in California". Because it acknowledges that fatal split we encourage in the West between the ideas of things and their embodiment.

It strikes me that there's something all the things I'm interested in have in common. Materialism, atheism, an interest in embodiment, situatedness, art and "culturalism" all share an interest in seeing what happens when you refuse to abstract things. A work of art, or a culture, invite us to take them for what they are. A sculpture lists its materials because it is its materials. It's embodied, irreducible, unique. Cultural arguments do the same. Rather than focusing on logical or ethical or financial arguments like "We do this because it's practical, or right, or profitable", they focus on "We do this because we do this. It's our culture". Value is inherent, in this argument: "If one thing matters," as Wolfgang Tillmans titled one of his books of photographs, "everything matters". (And what better justification for the very specific, limited and embodied piece of information we call a photograph? If this glimpse of a shoe matters, everything else we might glimpse in the world matters too.)

Of course, this "embodiment" view of the world -- bolstered by superlegitimacy -- isn't risk-free. It can be anti-intellectual. It can be conservative (one definition of "Cosmic Toryism" is that "Whatever is, is right"). It can undermine the whole logic of activism, reformism, and liberalism by dismantling the underpinning logic; the idea that there are universal human rights -- and wrongs.

The thing is, it's very hard to see the Western idea of liberalism in the same innocent way once you've been to Japan. For instance, if you've been brought up with Western feminist slogans like "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", it's hard not to be impressed by an entirely different gender politics, a politics of negotiated interdependence rather than pretended independence. And it's hard not to wonder -- in the face of an obvious deep delight in being female in Japan, an obvious glow, a dolly swagger -- whether the desire of some Western feminists to shun their own gender-specificity doesn't spring from a combination of detachment and disgust?

It's exactly this sort of mistaken Protestant conception of freedom as a kind of detachment -- at its simplest, the ability to say "No!" -- that also makes us Westerners see our own bodies as charnel houses. Many Western reporters on Japan imply -- or say quite explicitly, without apparently noticing how patronizing and rude it sounds -- that Japanese women are "behind" and are "only now starting to catch up", but it may be that, by refusing refusal, they've put themselves far ahead. (Actually, I hate that whole idea of one society being "behind" or "ahead" of another, but I suppose I mean by "ahead" something like "a difference that others may end up emulating".)

Refusal -- of our era, our situation, our society, our logistical system, our gender, our jobs, our bodies -- is an enormous waste of time. There is no neutral space to step back into, no high ground from which everything can be seen, no God, no "outside", no "above", no "universal", no "justice". Just here, just now. Can you hear the sound of your own breath? How does that Darjeeling taste?

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