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February 2010
 
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Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 10:29 am
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Adjectives I'd use to describe this minimised public presence: discreet, considerate, polite, apologetic, cold, withdrawn, inward, socialised, repressed.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.

50CommentReply

imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 02:59 am (UTC)

From the perspective of 21st century Tokyo, the Situationist slogan "no more dead time" looks curiously antequated and naive. Suddenly it becomes clear that Situationism was just Romanticism's last (swaggering) gasp.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
Strange

How perfectly bizarre - I wrote my comment before yours was posted - it updated as I posted mine and we both used the S word - a perfectly Jungian moment !


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spectres de marx - (Anonymous) Expand

(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 03:02 am (UTC)
Regret

Dear Mr Momus

Your ponderings will be sadly missed when you hang up your blogging shoes.

Whatever shall we do ?

I for one wish you would turn your hand to some kind of situationist guide book to Tokyo, or perhaps a novel set there.

Please do inform us what you will do with all the valuable free time being blog free will gift you, and whatever you do don't waste it !!

Best wishes.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
Howard

Yes, Mr Momus san

We would also like to know your 4 favourite Devoto discs ?

Many thankings


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Yeats - (Anonymous) Expand

Re: Yeats - (Anonymous) Expand


milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 03:12 am (UTC)
&_&

quite a nice few paragraphs. It has a magic feel to it. the photos are amazing (I had to screen-save the "do it at home sign")

You've gone over Iki a few times, and the people leaving comments have smashed it to utter boringness in their thorough examination and re-examination of it's sublties and origins, but I still find it, in its very nature something, in the end, not translatable and only experienced. the image you painted of the woman offering this, will always make my heart young. This idea is echoed through out their lives... and even in the process of making love it's self.

(Why did you end it the way you did... the last paragraph seems a bit tacked on, and not of the same energy or perfection. It's meant to balances things out, but... its sort of glassed over and not well connected with the themes repeated several times in the rest of the piece.)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)
Re: &_&

The last para is just where my thinking ended, but there's a private reason that I can't really divulge for ending with the thought I did, something that relates to where I'll be spending the next few weeks.


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Re: &_& - (Anonymous) Expand

Re: &_& - (Anonymous) Expand

Re: &_& - (Anonymous) Expand
cbertsch
cbertsch
Charlie Bertsch
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 04:38 am (UTC)

I always love your entries, but this one is a notch above the already elevated average. Wow. You're writing is so lucid and thought-provoking. Thank you!


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jdcasten
J.D. Casten
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 04:54 am (UTC)
Homeless Hikikomori

With some AI theorists suggesting that our environment is our most important type of memory… would the Hikikomori folks have a repressed Consciousness? I was just trying to put this post together with your recent Hayao Kawai post on unconscious/conscious minds, the interior & exterior, plus the private and the public.

Bong Joon-ho’s episode in the movie “Tokyo” featured a Hikikomori person too:


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Dec. 28th, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)
Re: Homeless Hikikomori

"repressed Consciousness" = depression.
Repressed chemical/emotional/sensory status; the world experienced less vividly.
If the Hayao Kawai Un/Conscious/Interior/Exterior model proposed is accurate then hikikomori's are a judgement of something amiss in Japanese culture while in the West they're just a bunch of incompetent narcissists.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 05:19 am (UTC)
there's nothing wabi sabi about workaholics

leave it to nick to romanticize the sardine can experience of japanese commuter trains. funny, no mention of the elbowing and jostling for space or an open seat or the overall pettiness and loathing those jam-packed trains exude.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)
Re: there's nothing wabi sabi about workaholics

"Pettiness and loathing" is not a good description of the atmosphere on any Japanese subway train I've ever been on.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 05:22 am (UTC)

great stuff, i'm not sure what you mean by intensity though. it is precisely the word i would use to describe tokyo (and not , say, south america ) . i feel intensity by your definition somewhat overlaps with extroversion whereas i tend so see the reverse. a hikikomori IS intense.


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subalpine
subalpine
subalpine
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 05:51 am (UTC)

maybe this can be understood as intensity as exuberance..? (or something like that)

i see what you mean - tokyo does certainly seem intense in its own way.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 06:51 am (UTC)

"is a pivotal character in Western cultural history, a modern-day Svengali connecting Romanticism, Situationism, Punk Rock and New Romanticism."

Was it Malcolm McLaren?


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subalpine
subalpine
subalpine
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 07:25 am (UTC)

iki, otaku, hikikomori...

These words have absolutely no meaning in English! Taking their sounds and transcribing them into katakana italics without any accompanying meaning is a well-known trick that the Japanese English speakers use!!

; )


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stanleylieber
stanleylieber
Stanley Lieber
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 09:35 am (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 11:24 am (UTC)

Momus,

I was wondering what one line in 'What Will Death Be Like' meant.
It's 'Death will be unlike the wedding guest's story, the ship drifting lost and the dead sailors sighing'.
Is it some kind of literary reference?

Greetings,
M


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)

Yes, The Ancient Mariner by Samuel
Taylor Coleridge!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
Tokyo vs Damascus

I think your most recent posts have convinced me that I'm not that interested in Japan. Couldn't you go to the middle east for your final months of blogging?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 02:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Tokyo vs Damascus

Funny you should mention Damascus, I just told a story in my unreliable tour at Now Idea about St Paul coming from Damascus to Japan with Alexander the Great, "which is why the Japanese are puritans today".


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butterflyrobert
RND
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)

Gosh, I miss Tokyo.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
scandinavian perspective

I think there are similarities in scandinavian cities. For example, in copenhagen people do not put curtains on most of their windows in their apartments. This means that you can spend your time looking out, with candles on inside, without a sense of invasion from outside. i think the explanation is this absent without leaving idea.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Dec. 27th, 2009 11:26 pm (UTC)
don't go. . . .

don't go, i won't know where to travel next in my web explorations. Your blog has been one of my greatest treasures, to be apart of a foreign momus world. Sometimes i want to quit the internet too. I find myself in loops of familiar situations, catching myself from visiting a site i was just at, which is really quite pathetic ( really i'm not that boring. . . just sometimes).
I want to learn. . . but more often than not, i would like to be entertained. Your blog felt like both of these things. Oh well, back to naruto. Happy new year :)


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