On Rage and Grief

Judith Butler’s moving speech at the 2014 International PEN conference. Partial transcript below:

“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a de-formative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion? That something that takes hold of you and makes you stop and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motions, when we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties that we have to others, that shows us that we are bound to one another, and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed. If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here, and you over there, but the I was in the crossing there with you, but also here. So I was already de-centered, one might say, and that was precious. And yet when we lose, we lose our ground, we are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific you that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not, as it were, lost the place of the you, the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in a scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability.

[….] A loss might seem utterly personal, private, isolating, but it may also furnish an unexpected concept of political community, even a premonition of a source of non-violence. If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds, even the wretched ones, which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings, and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose. This being in thrall is one way of describing the social relations that have the power to sustain and to break us. Way before we enter into contracts that confirm that our relations are a result of our choice, we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction; the lived form of its affirmation is non-violence. Perhaps non-violence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief. Since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up in others, such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed, we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move, or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss. Yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition of showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”



Of Tsunamis and Sea-Change

‘We live tranquilly on a ground whose solid foundations are sometimes shaken. We build without care on vaults whose columns now and then waver and threaten to collapse.’ Kant, ‘On the Causes of the Tremors of the Earth’

‘Perhaps this is a place where belonging now takes place in and through a common sense of loss’ (Judith Butler, Afterword to Loss: The Politics of Mourning, 2003).

We all remember the images. The towering wall of menacing seawater crashing upon the shore; the fragile houses broken into bits or transported by the flood waters far into the land; the debris of cars, trees and broken walls piled up against the ruins; the thousand fragments that could never again be reassembled into a whole. 2011 was a year of great catastrophe, but the images of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami taught me the true meaning of devastation. In that instant when nature claimed tens of thousands of lives, Japan – and the world – became marked, seared, a mark that is ineffaceable, insuperable. That site of ruination is the point from which arise questions about survival and continuity, shadowed as they are by the irreversibility of loss and the fear of further desolation.


A new kind of thinking and being emerges from annihilation. Or at least we would like to believe so. In the aftermath of 3.11, western media was inundated with stories about Japanese stoicism and collective resilience, stories about heroism and sacrifice, much like those disseminated in the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake. The moment of loss was also to be a moment of great change, of rebirth. As in previous disaster narratives, society harbored hopes that from the ruins would spring a more resilient nation. The local community, established in preindustrial society, was strengthened once again in the face of shared suffering, and an image of a ‘disaster utopia’ was projected, superimposed upon the phrase ‘Ganbaro Nippon’ (‘Let’s do our best’), the ubiquitous expression that articulated fortitude and the will to regenerate the nation. As illustrated in the namazue prints produced after the Ansei earthquake, destruction was followed by the yearning for renewal.

But the history of disasters is also the history of fraught reconstruction processes, and socio-political maelstroms follow closely on the heels of natural catastrophe. In the words of scholar Noguchi Takehiko, ‘Natural disaster often serves as a catalyst, accelerating and bringing to the fore problems, contradictions, and tensions below the apparently calm surface of societies.’ 3.11 ignited debates in Japan about the political ineptitude of the central government, the failures of modern society and the dangers of unchecked technological progress. While the Self-Defense Forces were praised for their efficiency in disaster management, the central government was relentlessly denigrated by the press and the public. Even prior to the tsunami, a loss of faith in government was already detectable, exacerbated by ongoing problems such as public debt, low GDP growth, income inequality, unemployment and the rise of poverty (see Samuels). The rural community of Tohoku was further affected by depopulation and the advanced age of citizens. Faced with the catastrophic consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, the bureaucratic system revealed itself to be crippled by convolutedness and inefficiency. Different groups and factions sought to seize the opportunity to shift paradigms, to change the course of the nation, for disasters create moments of ‘punctuated equilibria’ (Samuels), when pre-existing constraints are relaxed temporarily in the face of exogenous factors such as war or natural disaster. The choices made at such a time are consequential and likely irreversible.

Fukushima stands at the centre of all the debates. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), with its long history of falsifying safety reports and underestimating risk, became villainized in the public eye. Despite the fact that vulnerabilities were highlighted years before the disaster, not much has been done to address issues in the reactor designs and management system. Lack of transparency regarding these issues, and the prioritization of capital over security, has created a wide rift between the government and the people. The Kurokawa Commission Report, published in July 2012, critiqued the collusion between business and government, and identified 3.11 as a man-made disaster, not entirely unforeseeable (Samuels). As water and soil become contaminated, the ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Huet) has therefore superseded the natural disaster, and through human failings, the event has become destructive in the most totalizing sense.

While the nuclear situation imploded at Fukushima, elsewhere in Tohoku the survivors struggle with the work of rebuilding. Despite the passing of several laws after the 1995 Kobe earthquake to enable more effective disaster response, no national agency has been established. 7 months after March 2011, less than 2/3 of temporary housing had been constructed; nearly a full year later, most of the wreckage was still strewn across the land ravaged by the tsunami (Samuels). The funds allocated for rebuilding were stuck behind a seemingly impermeable barrier of bureaucratic procedures. In spite of the generous outpouring of the international community, the volunteerism and donations, much remains unfinished. Three years on, there is an incremental rise of stress-related deaths amongst the survivors, and escalating rates of suicide and depression. With the unrelenting housing crisis, it is hardly shocking that those who evaded death have found it difficult to live a life fraught with instability, homelessness and bereavement. As the major of Rikuzentakata noted, ‘Disaster victims are disaster victims 24 hours a day’. The persistence of catastrophe means that suffering bleeds beyond the temporal and physical boundaries of the actual seismic shocks and tsunami.


The ideal of community has also been undercut by reports of distrust among new neighbors in the temporary shelters, and amidst talks of tsunagu (‘connection’) political dissatisfaction continued unabated, shown when victim groups sued local authorities for misconduct during the crisis. Social solidarity is thus rent by deep fissures much like the land itself. In other words, not much has changed in the aftermath of 3.11.

Disasters raise questions about leadership, community and the potential for change. We cannot know how great a shock is needed in order to instigate structural and institutional transformation, but we hold onto hope that natural disasters, wars and other cataclysms, by puncturing the stability or stagnancy of normal operations, would be harbingers of a new order. But the state in Japan and the painful process of reconstruction have suggested that change is slow and unclear. According to scholars such as Richard J. Samuels and David Pilling, 3.11 was not a game-changer as many had hoped. Incremental change will occur as a result of myriad small steps and long drawn-out calculations, debates and revisions. Japanese culture, as Pilling argues, is one of evolution, not revolution.

Yet against the political backdrop, in the face of possible nuclear disaster, and amidst ruined hopes for change, groups of people are undertaking the immense work of survival. Theirs is the narrative that holds a politics of possibility, which suggests renewal and a coming-to-terms with what has been lost. People tend to gardens planted where their homes had once been; animals lost amidst the wreckage are being cared for; local monks founded a Café du Monk, to help survivors deal with the aftermath; a stream of volunteer groups still enter the region to assist with reconstruction; Japanese architects have designed new homes for those robbed of their former homes; arts exhibitions and music events are set up to rejuvenate public life; and spiritual guides provide support to thousands of souls lost upon the waves. Such acts exemplify kizuna (‘bond’; 2011 word of the year). If the Fukushima crisis can be controlled, then the reconstruction process can generate social renewal. Or else the only change we can expect is a catastrophic one. Ours is an age where threats of annihilation are omnipresent and disaster seems to be always just around the corner. As the debris from the tsunami travels across the Pacific and reach the shores of North America, we need to stand on the other side of the three-year span and reflect on the meaning of disaster and of community. Much remains to be changed – in Japan and elsewhere – and much can be made of the fragments that we shore against our collective ruin.



Further Readings

Parry, Richard Lloyd, ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, 6 February 2014, London Review of Books.

Pilling, David. Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. Penguin Press, 2014.

Samuels, Richard J. 3.11: Disaster Response and Change in Japan. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Sand, Jordan, ‘In Tokyo’, 28 April 2011, London Review of Books.

Solnit, Rebecca, ‘In Fukushima’, 10 May 2012, London Review of Books.


On the Modern Bookshop


Tucked away in the affluent neighborhood of Daikanyama, in Tokyo, is Tsutaya Books, a design gem and book emporium that frequently features on lists of the best bookshops in the world. Large glass panels and white, woven facades distinguish the three-pavilion complex that houses a diverse range of books (in Japanese and English), plus an upscale restaurant, a Starbucks, and a travel concierge in the travel books section. There is no denying the pleasure of walking through the gleaming spaces, or of sitting at a large wooden desk with a view of the majestic trees outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The space spelled perfection – no dust, no insects, no stray books displaced. Being a bibliophile, bookshops are my natural habitat, but there was something jarring about Tsutaya. From the cafe to the design section, Tsutaya was mainly frequented by the trendy and wealthy customers who reside in the neighborhood. With the exception of a few arts students, it was difficult to spot someone who did not carry a luxury bag. Setting aside the affluence of Daikanyama as a contributing factor, I wondered whether the glamorization of reading, coupled with the commercialization of the modern bookshop, does not ironically spell the end of the book.

I grew up in the vicinity of a modern bookshop, and it provided much-needed sanctuary during adolescent years of existential confusion. That branch of Chapter’s (a chain of bookstores in Canada) was the place where I collected cheap paperback copies of classics, discovered contemporary prize-winners, and honed the art of book collecting. It was not a luxurious place, though modern, and on most Friday evenings, it was mainly filled with  students, bookworms or those looking for a birthday card. The shop will be closed at the end of the month, and its demise – alongside the demise of numerous similar establishments – signals the end of an era in the history of the bookshop. North American chains, such as Barnes & Nobles, probably occupy a space between the cozy, ever so slightly dilapidated secondhand shops of Europe and the grand, luxurious bookshops like Tsutaya. Perhaps glamorization is an effective marketing scheme, and by rendering the act of reading chic and sexy, bookshops not only hope to sell more books but also to encourage reading. Perhaps. At Eslite, a grand bookstore in Taipei (with chains in other Asian countries), I once came across a book signing event, in which an author encouraged young people to become novelists because it is now fashionable; true to the spirit of his book, many readers in attendance carried Prada bags and scrawled notes on the newest iPads. In many cafes in Taipei, there are piles of English books sitting in corners, by the window, or used to enhance the look of certain products. Vintage books have become fetish objects, and the bookworm is no longer a denigrated character, but a persona that many willingly assume, while relaxing in a gorgeous space decorated with books.

The linking of literature with fashion can be damaging to the former, much like the rising practice of giving students monetary reward for every book read – the surface reward (whether it’s $5 or a glamorous public image) erodes the intrinsic value of reading. We need to not just read, but to be seen reading. The spectacle of the reader means that the act of reading, and not just the physical books themselves, has been completely consumed by the market, like all the other arts. While shops like Tsutaya were founded with the ideal of resisting the advent of digital media, I wonder if they’re not as detrimental to reading as Facebook and tablets, if not more so. British novelist Will Self recently published a verbose panegyric on the death of literary fiction, and he points out how ‘The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestation’. When the culture of reading (and concomitantly, writing) becomes saturated with glamor, ruled by trends, it will be purely a matter of easy, fast consumption, without difficulties or complications, much like fashion. This process has already begun, of course – no other cultural conditions could have allowed for the flourishing of Fifty Shades of Grey. In an age of intellectual laxity, it is no wonder that books (particularly difficult ones that will not be read) have been reduced to merely decorative objects or status symbols in so many places in the world. When I see vintage Penguin paperbacks and literary paraphernalia such as fountain pens – which are now extremely popular outside western culture – I feel a sense of sadness, despite my ardent love for these objects, because they are remnants of a time that is no more. In an era where solitary reading, deep thought and intellectual engagement are unfashionable, what could such objects be except consumerist trends and empty signifiers pointing to a vacuous beyond?

So, the luxury bookshops, for all their convenience and beauty, will never replace their precursors. Of course bookshops are necessarily commercial spaces, but they should also be spaces for thinking, for imaginary journeys, for serendipitous encounters with that perfect sentence. Perhaps there are some similarities between the luxury bookshop and virtual spaces that encourage bibliophilia and reading. The newly launched My Independent Bookshop, backed by Penguin, allows bookworms to create their own ‘gateway to brand new worlds’. While choosing books for one’s own shop and choosing the ‘wallpaper’ can be quite fun, it is also a bit unnerving, since this is a shop that one can never enter, pages that one can never touch. But for every book bought, a percentage of the sale goes to a local, independent bookshop, so the website is linked to the spaces of real bookshops.

There is something about luxury bookshops that, like the virtual one, feels slightly removed from the physical, humble, and highly subjective experience of reading. Perhaps that sense of the unreal stems from the shop’s seeming perfection, or from the fact that many books (in shops such as Eslite) are wrapped in plastic to protect them from dust and humidity, thus rendering browsing impossible. Jean-Luc Nancy provides superb descriptions of the bookshop experience in his On the Commerce of Thinking: On Books and Bookstores –

‘[The reader in a bookstore] doesn’t devour, but tastes, inhales, sniffs, or licks the substance. The bookstore is a perfumery, rotisserie, patisserie: a dispensary of scents and flavours through which something like a fragrance or bouquet of the book is divined, presumed, sensed. It is where one gives oneself or finds an idea of the book’s Idea, a sketch, an illusion, a suggestion. Perhaps it speaks of what one was looking for, what one was hoping for.’

Nancy recognises the full sensory, even sensual, experience of the bookshop. And the scent of books beckons the bibliophile forward. Nothing smells as intoxicating as a secondhand bookstore, the scent that floods the mind with memories and an ardent sense of curiosity.

‘Even touching books communicates to the reader particular impressions: the weight, grain, or suppleness through which one thinks one can discern the inflections of a voice or else the fluctuations of a heart.’

Wandering through narrow corridors lined with shelves or turning yellowed pages that carry the scent of ages – these are bookshop experiences that are rapidly becoming obsolete. I think of the old bookshops on Charing Cross Road; G. David in Cambridge; and Shakespeare & Co. in Paris – the places where we might ‘find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being […and] balance ourselves after the splendors and miseries of the streets’ (Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting’). The complex spaces and shelves of these shops in a way mirror the Gutenberg mind, from the dust-covered corners of which something new or old always springs forth at the invitation of the familiar scent. I would gladly exchange designer armchairs and Starbucks coffee for such spaces again. It is not just the loss of beautiful vintage volumes that I mourn, but the loss of a solitary, internal life that is deeply entangled with reading, of life that leaps forth from words, of the infinitude of being and feeling suggested by the well-worn pile that accompanies the perpetual traveler.

Nancy says it best, and deserves to be quoted here in full:

‘For, in the end, the Idea of the book will always, from its very conception, have been the Idea of its reading, and through that reading, the Idea of another book, of another writing that continues on from the first […] In fact reading does not lead to more reading, but to everything else, to what is sometimes called action and sometimes experience, where we rub up against the illegible real.

All the same, it is only by always reading anew that one can discard books one by one. Throw them not on the pyre or into oblivion, but launch them further and more profoundly into what should, with just cause, be called the bookstore of the soul, the free space of a devouring of and by the pure Idea, the labyrinth of books that are read, jotted on, forgotten, and dust-covered, the books learned and forgotten by heart, the creasing of the edges of pages whose image always comes back because they contain certain precious words.’


Of Catfish and Catastrophe

Namazu-e-Earthquake-catfish-Japan6The defeated catfish outstretched on the table divides post-disaster Edo into two distinct groups – those in the upper half of the picture, including builders, who benefit from the disaster; and those in the lower half, including wealthy merchants, who suffered greater losses.

The long catalogue of disasters that have struck Japan’s capital has long daunted those unaccustomed to the tremors of the earth. On 11 November 1855, a 6.9-7.1-magnitude earthquake destroyed most of Edo (precursor to modern Tokyo). Estimates of death ranged from 7000 to 10,000. Eighty aftershocks per day continued to shake the city for nine days after the initial tremor.

Although there were no newspapers published in the city (since the shogunate forbade public comments on the regime), within a few weeks of the disaster, hundreds of earthquake-related woodblock prints appeared, many of which featured a giant catfish, namazu. These fascinating prints, called namazu-e, offer a window on the socio-political consciousness of Edo in the final decades of the Tokugawa period, and bring to the fore disaster’s capacity as an agent of social change.

Japanese folk explanations attributed earthquakes variously to the movement of a giant creature that supported the earth (usually a dragon/snake, ox or fish); the movement of a deity or giant supporting the earth; the shaking of a subterranean, load-bearing pillar; or the careless movement of human ancestors. There was also the notion, derived from Chinese philosophy, that earthquakes result from the temporary imbalance of the forces of yin and yang that are embedded in the earth. However, from the late seventeenth century onward, the notion that a giant subterranean catfish is the true cause of earthquakes gained more currency. While pre-Lisbon theodicy placed responsibility in God’s hands, the Japanese placed it in the hands of namazu, the catfish. It was said that the catfish lay under a stone at Kashima shrine, at the easternmost point of Honshu; when the god of the shrine neglected his duty of holding down the catfish, the creature would awaken, thus causing tremors.

Around the time of the Ansei earthquake, the god of Kashima might have been particularly negligent, for the earthquake hit at a time of seismic instability throughout Japan – in 1853, an earthquake destroyed a castle in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine in Ise in 1854, and two tsunamis in 1854 caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast. Was all this the work of the giant catfish and of divine negligence? The people of Edo rejected the idea of pure contingency, and viewed the 1855 catastrophe in the context of drastic political change; in other words, human agency played a significant role in the coming of the disaster. For the Japanese, it was telling that the disaster followed so closely the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and 1854 (a period that had seen its fair share of natural disasters); the opening of the ports suddenly destabilized the shogunate system that had ruled in Japan for 250 years, and the expansion of foreign relations was resented by some. Social and political order was weakening (later to be replaced by the centralized state in 1868), and the Tokugawa shogunate was on the decline. Assigning blame to the divine authorities was in some ways a veiled criticism of the authorities governing the nation, who were increasingly unable to take care of the people, and as a result of the government’s negligence, cataclysmic events have occurred.

Namazu-e_-_Kashima_absent-mindedThis print interprets the disaster as resulting from the negligence of Ebisu (the god of fishing and commerce, asleep in the foreground), in whose care Kashima had left the city, seen burning in the upper half of the picture, as Kashima on a white horse rushes back in a panic. Namazu is depicted as a terrifying force of destruction, yet from its cavernous mouth falls golden coins, signaling the post-disaster redistribution of wealth.

Society was equally shaken by the other events that occurred in a period of great volatility, including crop failures; epidemics; the Tempo famine of 1833-1837; riots and popular revolts. The severe fractures in Japanese society were becoming more apparent. The namazue prints, which emerged in the aftermath of the Ansei earthquake, in part responded to the general atmosphere of instability. The catfish depicted in the prints were not punitive, but were more frequently sympathetic. One of the major themes portrayed by the namazue was the redistribution of wealth and the rebalancing of society. Common among the prints were depictions of the catfish forcing wealthy men to spew out coins, thus contributing to the charity funds that would help rebuild the city. According to Kitahara Itoko (Japanese historian on disasters), public registers listed the names of all donors, with the wealthy contributing more. While prosperous tycoons hoarded goods and wealth during the Tokugawa regime, society became imbalanced. Namazu restores the free circulation of money, so that the economy, like the vital forces of nature, would flow freely, thus avoiding stagnation and the festering of greed. In other words, disaster restored social health by correcting an imbalance. The subversiveness of this message meant that the shogunate soon banned the printing and distributing of namazue prints.

Namazu_01The merchants in the upper right-hand corner can be seen holding an abacus, and dividing their wealth to aid the impoverished masses, or to assist with the reconstruction project

The prints also showed how some social groups, such as builders, had benefited from the cataclysm, since their skills were rendered indispensable by the devastation. Thus destruction was followed by renewal, and in the collective sharing of loss and the communal efforts of reconstruction, a ‘disaster utopia’ (Kitahara) was created – akin to the rustic paradise depicted in von Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’. In stark contrast to the brutality that followed the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Ansei earthquake facilitated the utopian dream of restoration and restructuring. Namazu, as depicted in these prints, was not so much the cause of the earthquake as its visual manifestation of social change – a reminder that the question of community lies at the heart of disaster.


Further Readings

Bates, Alex, ‘Catfish, Super Frog and the End of the World: Earthquakes (and natural disasters) in the Japanese Cultural Imagination’, Education about Asia, vol. 12, no. 2, (Fall 2007).

Sand, Jordan, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 28 April 2011, <http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n09/jordan-sand/diary&gt;

Smits, Gregory, ‘Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints, Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 4 (summer 2006), 1045-1078.

Smits, Gregory, ‘Conduits of Power: What the Origins of Japan’s Earthquake Catfish Reveal about Religious Geography’, Japan Review 24 (2012), 41-65.


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