Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement

The day after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s northeast coast I received a well-intentioned facebook message from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in nearly a decade.  She was checking to see if I and those I care about in Japan were all right.   Although I responded graciously and positively, my own reluctance to participate in the twittering drama filled me with suspicion.  By writing to me, was she trying to claim a little piece of the action, a connection to the disaster?  Would she secretly prefer that I were directly affected so that she could share in the piquant pang of aftershock without having to suffer its enduring losses?

About a week later, as the scale of suffering in Japan became clearer, I became less concerned with everybody else’s questionable investments in the pain of others and more suspicious of my own hesitancy to engage emotionally.

Although I frowned and cried as solicited upon seeing the unavoidable photos of people staggering through muddy ruins, I wasn’t sure how to feel the rest of the time.  Brian Massumi’s claim that

“power is no longer fundamentally normative, like it was in its disciplinary forms—it’s affective”

suggests that stories and images circulate and infiltrate strategically. Even though, as de Certeau reminds us, readers aren’t fools and we employ tactics with which to play and navigate the web of discourse, we’re still stuck inside of it—and it inside of us.  Our critique of media, savvy avoidance of manipulation, and resistance to being told how to feel are themselves already the threads of discourses that have been woven into us.

Part of me wants to believe that some basic feeling for the suffering of others arises before all of this, that there’s a relational web prior and in excess to the discursive one—and that it’s woven more tightly.

But if the mass mediated means through which we gain access to others is always already shaping how we feel for those others, how can we feel without capitulating to the powers that traffic in affect? In the case of catastrophes, which seem to (fairly regularly) punctuate the passage of ordinary life with significance, how do we resist the meaning-making machines while still engaging meaningfully?

I’ll explore these questions here and in a series of posts to follow by looking into the ways various media structure our experiences of disaster and construe “eventfulness.” Considering the political and social interests at stake in Japan and the US, I’m curious about how this particular disaster is being positioned in historical time, and what such placements obscure, or displace.  But mostly, as I meditate on my own relationship with Japan and reaction to the unfolding news, I wonder how to engage responsibly with media and the “real” event.   Helpful to this project is Diana Taylor’s model of the witness who, reflecting Louis Althusser’s model of dialectic spectatorship and Augusto Boal’s “spect-actor”, serves as a

“guarantor of the link between the I and the you, the inside and the outside”and “accepts the dangers and responsibilities of seeing and of acting on what one has seen.”

This task is not easy considering how often we are bombarded with images and news of disaster.  People tell me that they either feel distant and numb to the repeating images, or else they connect to the images through identification: imagining the people in the images are one’s own mother, brother, etc.  The problem with the latter approach is that it brings the other into one’s own ideological universe and blinds one to the political, cultural, and other factors that structure the experience of the event.

These modes of spectatorship are not unlike those of hegemony and identification criticized by Althusser in relationship to theater.  However, when we are dealing with the theater of the real, and its tendency towards catastrophe, the ideological agendas organizing devastation into spectacle elicit modes of relating, as well as detaching, that register in the body.

Quoting the work of Hal Foster regarding shock and subjectivity in America, anthropologist Allen Feldman points to the double nature of the subject’s pleasure:

“in its guise as witness the mass subject reveals its sadomasochistic aspect, for this subject is split in relation to a disaster; even as he or she may mourn the victims, even identify with them masochistically, he or she may also be thrilled sadistically by the victims of whom he or she is not one.”

Feldman raises the stakes when he explicitly links the creation of the “mass subject” in modernity to catastrophe and the visual technologies through which the catastrophic is ideologically produced and distributed.  Developing a theory of the “actuarial gaze,” which he describes as

“the visual organization and institutionalization of threat perception and prophylaxis,” Feldman asserts that “the visual culture of risk reportage circulates catastrophic images as a psychosocial and, ultimately, political desire and currency.”

The visceral intensities ignited and snuffed in these visual images constitute the subjectivity from which we establish ourselves as a public, and how we, as a public, are going to relate or not.

I’d like to say that my reluctance to participate in the disaster drama stemmed solely from a refusal to let this awful thing give me any sort pleasure, masochistic or otherwise.  Or that I harbored sophisticated political suspicions of risk reportage.

But I was primarily loathe to identify with the community of spectators I imagined excitedly rallying their concern on the receiving end of the mediated image.  It was the thrill of the social—the heightened sense of occasion—that I couldn’t stand.  Nothing, it seemed, would make me feel so far away, so alienated from the thing in itself than positioning myself from this A-frame cottage in Iowa somewhere inside the Big Deal Event.  As for approaching the thing in itself, I knew of no other means than those used by the community of spectators themselves: disaster footage.  But did I really want to go there?  As elaborated by Zizek, the “passion for penetrating the Real Thing” spirals into an increasingly violent pursuit of the Real within the images that structure our reality.  I did not want to experience the tsunami as the “thrill of the Real,” the ultimate special effect.

An internet search brought me to a video of the tsunami swallowing the coastal town of Kuji where I had stayed with a family nearly 10 years ago.   The dreadful thrill of the footage did indeed flood my body darkly, excessively, like the tsunami itself.  Feeling my own footing give way, despite sitting down, I braced myself.  Had someone been next to me, however, I would have reached out to them, without thinking, to steady myself.

I wonder now about that instinct.  Why, when something awful or awesome is about to happen, or has just happened, do we tend to grab on to the people next to us?  Surely, the support sought by such a gesture isn’t merely that of balance, but of affiliation.   I hadn’t wanted to get on the drama bandwagon, but here I was: wanting to connect.

The public I imagined gaping from a safe distance was probably not the public into which my friend had been calling me when she sent me that facebook message.   Rather than use the event to elevate the drama in our lives, she may have been reaching out to me in order to ground the drama in a shared reality. This is not to say she was trying to reduce the significance of the event; the ordinary world has its own sort of eventfulness.  As Kathleen Stewart describes it,

“modes of attending to scenes and events spawn socialities, identities, dream worlds, bodily states and public feelings of all kinds.”

The everyday eventfulness “resonating in bodies, scenes, and forms of sociality,” spreads in whispers and flourishes in indeterminacy.  Something is happening, is going to happen, to us.  The mode is one of suspension that fastens potential significance onto the tiniest of things.  The effect isn’t of elevating reality into ungraspable proportions, but of charging reality with limitless points of connection.

While the looming risk perception propagated in the “actuarial gaze” may make and mask the ways in which we always feel vulnerable to invisible, ever-present and threatening powers, maybe it fails to displace the ways we feel vulnerable to each other.   The witness, unlike the spectator, creates a zone of proximity in the “link between the I and the you”.   Amidst the spectacular scenes of ruin, my old friend took the risk of writing me after all this time, took the risk of hearing bad news and having to respond, and took the risk of being criticized or blogged about.  In doing so she offered me the first clue for thinking about mediated models for responsible action.





2 thoughts on “Regarding Japan: On the risks and responsibilities of engagement

  1. A post both moving and intriguing. I am struck by the way in which all of the theorists cited appear to conceive the relation of Spectator to Reality along the lines foreshadowed in Calvinist theology, in which the individual soul stands naked before an almighty God, freed but also bereft of the social ties (family, church, etc.) that mediated the relationship in a more catholic (pun intended) world. Thus, how to respond comes down to an individual, dare we say “consumer” choice, to accept or reject in whatever manner seems best to the “me” in question.

    Consider as an alternative, a traditional Chinese perspective, in which multiple gods, ghosts and ancestors make claims on our attention but our responses to those claims are seen as mediated by degrees of relationship to them and prudential concern over whether ignoring a claim will harm us. In this frame, a friend or family member’s asking if we are all right is perfectly natural; we might be offended if they didn’t ask. But so is indifference to the fate of those with whom no relationship exists.

    It is, if one stops to think about it, a very peculiar thing indeed to beat up on oneself for not sharing an other’s pain if there is nothing that one is willing or able to do to alleviate that pain. Virtual schadenfreude is no nicer than any other kind.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, John! It’s probably peculiar for us, too, to be suspicious of other’s concerns. I mean, it was a little ridiculous to write through all this and arrive at something fairly obvious about connecting. Your framing of the issue within theological contexts points to the possibility that our theological, or relational, orientations are inadequate to the task of bridging the ways we think we ought to feel (and that should be ‘natural’) and the ways we end up feeling (like cynical and disappointed at our own cynicism).

    Your description of a traditional Chinese perspective is fascinating. It’s interesting to think about ourselves, too, as if within a web of invisible forces making their claims on us according to degrees of relationship. Without a formal system of relational obligations, we’re left with the ways media itself generates proximity or distance.

    But you also remind me of the Buddhist perspective in which those who die without ties to the living are doomed to wander the earth as yearning, starving spirits. To prevent this from happening to the unclaimed or still missing victims in Japan after the 49 day window of initial mourning passed, so many priests and all sorts of people prayed and prayed for the unconnected. The anonymous others, precisely because they lack the power to make claims within the web, might need us even more.

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