Sunday, 24 April 2011

Tatou’s trips: Japan

Spring has come to Norway, as sudden as intense. The forest got its colours back, most snow and ice have disappeared, the sun is wonderfully generous and the sound of busy birds fills the air. It is a beautiful time to celebrate Easter, and a great moment to have a few days off. Some time to relax, for a change - that is, time to read a detective or two, walk in the forest and update my weblog.

As you may have read, in February and March, we were in Japan. I have told several stories about that trip, but one story has been waiting on the shelf, unfinished, for a while: Tatou's latest travel account. First delayed by unforeseen circumstances, then by work obligations, but here it finally is.

Tatou had been to many Asian countries, but never to Japan. She was very excited about going there. I had told her many things about the country, and she couldn’t wait to see it with her own eyes. She was particularly curious about Japanese gardens, as the pictures she had seen looked beautiful. She was also looking forward to learning more about Zen, as she occasionally practised Zen meditation herself; and Shinto, as she had been told that it is an animistic religious tradition whose followers worship trees, rocks and mountains. I may have expressed some of my skepticism regarding this aspect of the tradition at some point - nevertheless, being a professing animist herself, Tatou was quite curious to find out more about it. And of course, she couldn’t wait to take a bath in one of those famous Japanese hot springs.

First, she spent two weeks in Tokyo. She had never been fond of big cities, so she didn’t particularly like it. As I was busy with my workshop, I had little time for sightseeing, so Tatou didn’t get to see much of the city either. There were two things she liked, however. The first thing was the fact that the hotel where we stayed had a beautiful traditional Japanese garden. While I was attending lectures at the national library, she spent many hours wandering around the garden, listening to the quiet voices of the trees and rocks, and talking to the koi carp in the pond.

The second thing she liked was the forest around Meiji Shrine. It was in the middle of the city, but it felt like another world, and there were many big old trees. The ceremony that was being conducted at the shrine when we visited was also interesting, but unfortunately we couldn’t see clearly what the priests were doing as we were not allowed inside the building. But the traditional dance looked beautiful, even though the music made her a bit sleepy.

The trip really became interesting when we left Tokyo and went to Kamakura, a small town with hundreds of Zen temples. We arrived late because of some problem with the train, so we didn’t have time to see many temples on the first day, but the first one we saw was absolutely amazing. It had a huge wooden gate, and many lovely plum trees that were all in bloom. It was still a bit chilly, but spring had undeniably come, and made the place look very beautiful. The temple also had many small stone statues of Guanyin, Tatou's favourite bodhisattva, whom she had once met while she was living in Vietnam. And it had a nice garden, including a pond where a shiny blue kingfisher was fishing. The place made her very happy.

We visited two more Zen temples that day, and Tatou liked both. They all had plum trees and flowers and nice old buildings, and the second one had a strange statue of the happy Buddha of the future. She thought she could feel his presence.

The second day was also nice. I went to some sort of Shinto seminar, but as it was in Japanese Tatou didn’t join me. Instead, she went to see more temples with her friend Nhung, our Japanese friend Katsuo, and his father. First, they saw the Daibutsu: a famous, high statue of Amida Buddha, who once promised to save mankind. It was wonderful; even bigger than she had expected. They even went inside the statue - inside the Buddha’s body! It was a bit strange, but they had a lot of fun. Afterwards, they visited one more temple, where they saw a beautiful wooden statue of Guanyin, as well as many small statues of another bodhisattva called Jizō that all had small toys near them. But when Tatou heard they were for dead babies, she got a little bit sad.

The next day, we went to Ise, a provincial town which houses two of the most famous Shinto shrines in the country. Both are surrounded by a small forest. Tatou loved the forests, especially the second one. It was full of trees that were very old and powerful, and she could hear them whisper and sing their songs, very low and slow. The shrines were special, too – beautifully simple wooden buildings that vaguely reminded her of the houses she had seen in Tana Toraja. Sadly, as we weren’t allowed inside she could not hear the high gods very well. But then, high gods are usually distant, and most of the time they are too busy thinking about abstract matters to be able to communicate with individual people or animals. Very different from local nature spirits.

We also went to a famous shrine standing in front of two rocks in the sea, that were married by means of a long rope tied between them. Tatou liked the rocks, but she was a bit afraid of the statues of frogs standing everywhere. They looked like they were made of stone, but of course that was just outer appearance as they were actually guardian spirits. Their eyes followed us suspiciously, and although Tatou told them they need not worry, she wasn’t sure whether they understood her language.

The best part of the trip were perhaps the three shrines of Kumano, an ancient pilgrimage centre in a gorgeous mountainous area; a traditional mix of Shinto, Buddhism and mountain worship. Tatou liked all three, especially the second one, which was located next to an old Buddhist temple and pagoda, and an impressive high waterfall. But in her opinion the most special place was the small shrine on top of a mountain, overlooking the town where we were staying. It had a big rock with a rope around it, and it housed a very old mountain spirit, who had once been very powerful and angry but had become friendly and gentle now that he was old – except for once a year, during the fire festival, when he would get excited and wild again.

Finally, after we had visited the third shrine of Kumano, we went to hot springs. The first one was very special. According to the explanation it was the world’s only hot spring on the Unesco World Heritage list. It was a small wooden cabin, which individuals or couples could use for up to half an hour. The bath itself was made of stone. The water was green as jade, smelled of sulfur, and was so hot that it made Tatou feel as if she was being boiled! In fact, just ten meters further down the road people were boiling eggs in the same hot spring water… After we had put some cold water in the bath, it wasn’t so extremely hot anymore, and we enjoyed a nice, relaxing bath.

Later that day, we went to another famous place, where we could take a bath in the open air right next to a river, together with playing children and a group of old men. Eagles were flying above us, it was raining softly, and the hot water made us feel calm and sleepy. Tatou was beginning to really like Japan.

We left Kumano and went to Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, famous for its many temples and gardens. I was quite busy, so most of the time Tatou and Nhung went out to explore the city together. They went to an old castle with a beautiful garden, and to some famous Buddhist temples with sand gardens, arranged in such a way that it reminded Tatou of the sea. She thought she could see waves, and small islands of mossy stones in the middle of the sand. She wasn't sure her interpretation was right, though.

They saw beautiful flowers and trees in the botanic garden. They visited an unknown shrine, inhabited by a group of majestic herons. They even went to a temple with a magic well - according to the sign, those who drank from it would have their wishes fulfilled. Kyoto is a rich and fascinating city, and they barely scratched the surface. But Tatou loved the many temples, gardens and picturesque alleyways she and Nhung explored. It would be great to stay here a bit longer, she thought. It would be nice to live here for a while.

Then, as everybody knows, many tragic things happened. Not to us - we were safe in Kyoto - but to many other people in Japan. When she saw the images, Tatou was very sad. We went home a little bit earlier than planned.

These past six weeks, media worldwide have published and shown pictures of Japan. Many pictures, most of which show sadness and destruction. Having seen all those pictures of violent tidal waves and broken buildings, one would almost forget what a beautiful country Japan still is. Therefore, Tatou has asked me to post some of her Japanese pictures on my weblog - to show you some of Japan's beauty.

For instance:


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The loss of agency and the illusion of control

The opportunities the internet provides us with are potentially unlimited, or so we are usually told. Competitively priced flight tickets, free movies, ancient gnostic texts and hardcore rape porn are but 'a mouse-click away' - for those who know where to look, that is. The internet enables us to communicate with friends and family living in faraway countries as easily as with random strangers. We have access to a wealth of information, anywhere, anytime. The internet, in sum, has provided us with great new opportunities and information - and empowered us accordingly. That, at least, is the common assumption. But has it, really? Has this 'wealth of information' made us more independent and in control of our own lives? Or does the widespread illusion of control and freedom of choice, of which the internet is a core aspect, paradoxically convey a more sinister, contradictory reality - an actual loss of personal agency?

I downloaded a movie, yesterday. It was an illegal download, theft-light, which some of you might disapprove of. But don't worry: karmic retribution came fast. Today, my laptop was infected by some malicious software, pretending to be an anti-virus program. The software performed a fake system scan, warned me that my laptop was full of viruses, Trojan horses and other nasty things, and tried to block internet access. It looked very professional, as if it were part of Windows itself, but when I was asked to order their 'professional anti-virus software' and leave my credit card details I got suspicious. Fortunately, I still managed to get online. After some failed attempts I found a website which step-by-step explained me how to get rid of the rubbish. I followed the steps, without understanding why I took them. I created a strange file in Notepad and installed it as I was told - but I have no idea what I did and why I did it. I had little choice, though - without external help, I would have never got my computer clean.

I hope it is clean now - the software is nowhere to be found, so everything seems fine, but there is no way to be completely sure. The experience was unpleasant, and reminded me of an experience I had a couple of months ago, when my former laptop suddenly crashed and stopped working. These experiences have made me realise how completely dependent I am on the internet - for my research (i.e., work), for my financial situation, for making phone calls to my family and my family-in-law, for communicating with friends, for getting information about public transport and entertainment, for following the news and so on. Besides, I am dependent on my computer - for my personal archive, for music, for pictures and for writing. Nevertheless, I have no understanding whatsoever of the way it works. A laptop may be small, it is an extremely complicated device, and a layperson like me will never be able to really grasp the way it operates. Accordingly, when an unexpected problem occurs, we have great difficulty solving it, and cannot do so without external advice.

The internet, on the other hand, seems as big and endless as the universe - but equally incomprehensible. It works, we take for granted that it works, and as long as it works we don't ask any questions. Meanwhile, however, we make ourselves completely dependent on systems and devices we do not understand, and don't really control. As soon as something unexpected happens, our certainties are challenged and we are reminded of this dependence - only to happily forget it as soon as the malicious software has been removed. By doing so we silently accept the fact that we don't truly control the devices we have become completely dependent on - naively believing that there are others 'out there' who do understand how it works and can solve possible problems for us. But we are not the only ones who are dependent on the skills and knowledge of a few anonymous IT specialists: so are our government agencies, airline companies and banks. For instance, your financial savings are but bits and bytes, immaterial computer data, whose very existence depends on the system's functioning - but you accept it without giving it much thought, as you have no choice.

As the 'progress' of communication technologies and digitalisation ruthlessly continues, we are becoming more and more dependent on things we understand less and less. It is today's Faustian pact: as we have embraced the amenities of ever-evolving electronic appliances, we have willingly lost control over central aspects of our own life. Internet-banking and e-tickets are obvious examples, but there are many others. Newspapers, books, chronicles and other paper documents - those centuries-old devices for storing, sharing and preserving information - are gradually losing their physicality, only to be reduced to digital files that can be read on iPads and e-readers, whose preservation depends on the existence of a few backups. Few young people today are able to adequately plan and make appointments in advance, as they have grown up with mobile phones and are used to being able to change plans last-minute - no structural planning or commitment is necessary anymore. Drivers have become unable to read maps, as their navigation system tells them where to go - as soon as it makes a mistake or stops working, they are lost. Or worse: increasing amounts of walkers and hikers - those archetypal 'nature-lovers' of the past - have thrown away their maps and compasses, and walk with GPS devices instead. The more we listen to machines that tell us what to do, the more we forget to follow our senses and make our own independent judgments.

I am not saying that all technological progress has negative effects. Medical technology has greatly improved, saving many people's lives. The internet has given us wonderful opportunities for communicating with family and friends. Technological progress has contributed a lot to environmental destruction, but it can (and should) also play an important part in tackling environmental problems in the near future - further developing sustainable energy, cleaner engines and so on. So I am by no means a reactionary romanticist who is opposed to technological progress per se. The issue I am addressing here, however, is the paradox that while recent developments in communication technologies may have given us the feeling that we have more control and more choice, in reality our choices are limited, and we have actually lost control over our own lives. By increasing our dependence on external agencies (electronic devices, internet forums and phone helpdesks, 'experts') for our daily lives, we have in fact lost much control. In other words: in most contemporary societies, despite the widespread rhetoric of freedom and independence, personal agency and independence have decreased.

This development extends far beyond the realm of technology. One example is the bureaucratisation of society: digitalisation may have made it easier to, say, submit your tax statement (has it, really?), but it has also given birth to a variety of new procedures and regulations. The more information there is, the more authorities seem to feel the urge to control it - as exemplified by the international deterioration of privacy legislation, and governments' wishes to store private phone calls and emails for many years. In countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, every tiny thing is now regulated, in government agencies as well as in universities or private companies, leaving little or no space for negotiation and flexibility. Thus, personal requests turn into official applications, individual exceptions turn into dangerous precedents, and small-scale conflicts turn into court cases. The more interpersonal relations are regulated and bureaucratised, the less people are able to solve small problems independently and informally. And the more authorities try to control information, the more procedures and obligations they produce, and the less power individuals have to negotiate. Thus personal agency and freedom are challenged further.

One might object by saying that there has never been as much choice as today; that contemporary society offers its members a personal freedom unprecedented in history. 'Are we not completely free to choose and design our own lives?' you might ask. This is of course one the great myths of liberal capitalism - that in 'enlightened Western civilisation' people can do as they wish; that anybody can become a millionaire, if only they work hard enough. Alas, in reality social background, financial means, education level, ethnicity and interpersonal networks are highly influential in determining the extent of one's success. Structural economic and power inequalities within wealthy societies are discursively veiled by floating signifiers such as 'integration', 'citizenship', 'participation', 'free choice', 'free market' and, last but not least, 'democracy'. But despite the egalitarian rhetoric, independence and individual agency are valuable commodities, not equally available to all members of society. A well-educated fiscal lawyer or diplomat has access to personal and economic resources (and, hence, can make choices) that the average catering employee or truck driver could not possibly dream of. More tragically, hundreds of thousands of people living in affluent European countries are systematically denied any agency, any official social position and hardly any legal rights. They are labelled 'illegal', and criminalised for the simple fact that they have not been able to meet with all bureaucratic requirements the authorities posed them. No matter how determined they are, they have very little control over their own lives, and can never 'become a millionaire'.

But even in the daily life of a well-educated, average citizen choice is more limited than it may seem. Of course, dominant ideology has made us believe that we are powerful consumers, who can choose almost everything in their lives. Thus we can choose from twenty different brands of olive oil in any given supermarket, choose which insurance company we want to get our health insurance from and choose which company to pay for our electricity. But the question is whether these choices make us free and independent, or, on the contrary, restrict us - for instance, by taking up unnecessary time and energy. Is it really empowering to be able to choose between a huge number of bottles of olive oil, most of which are probably very similar, and to be able to choose between a number of different insurance companies offering the same services? On the contrary, one could argue that these arbitrary choices between products, which we are continuously forced to make, in fact contribute to a sense of guilt and uncertainty ('have I made the right choice? If only I had...'), undermining individual agency rather than enforcing it.

Besides: how free are we really, when we buy product C in stead of product B? To what extent are we influenced and conditioned to buy a given product? Do all those people who feel they 'need' or 'want' the new iPhone really need it and want it - in other words, do they base the decision to buy an expensive new mobile phone on their own free will, or are they merely effectively manipulated into believing this? (Why, incidentally, would anyone want to spend hundreds of euros on an over-hyped device with an unpractically tiny screen and an annoying, user-unfriendly touchpad?) In sum, how much space is left within consumer capitalist ideology for individual judgments, alternative choices, and rejection of dominant myths? How many people are really capable of resisting the fata morganas, and choose independently?

A final example of the loss of agency and control in contemporary society is food. Despite the fact that food is one of our basic daily necessities, very few people have any knowledge of the origins of the food products they consume, let alone control. Don't get me wrong: I am happy I have the opportunity to eat and cook a wide variety of dishes from all over the planet, a luxury my parents did not have when they were young. But I do feel anxious about my total lack of knowledge about the way my food has been produced. The supermarket provides me with ten different kinds of prefab soup - all one has to do is put it in the microwave - but the origins of the various ingredients are not revealed, nor is the production progress. I usually make my own soup, rather than buying the prefab stuff, but even then I don't know much about the science, economics and logistics involved in growing the vegetables I use. Factory-farmed meat and imported fish are even more problematic, of course, involving a range of complicated ethical, political and health dilemmas. I simply do not possess the knowledge necessary for making adequate judgments every time I consider buying a given food product - nor does, I assume, the vast majority of the population.

In other words: I am totally dependent on the morality of unknown others, or the control mechanisms designed by the state to reassure my food is healthy. There is no guarantee that my food has been produced in an environmentally sustainable way, or that it does not contain any dangerous bacterias or chemicals. But as long as I can't afford to be self-sufficient and produce my own food (which very few people can), I have no choice but to accept and try to stick to fresh and local ingredients as much as possible (easier said than done, when most vegetables and fruit in your country of residence are imported). My point is not that food nowadays is of an inferior quality compared to, say, fifty years ago - probably the contrary - but that we have become completely alienated from its production process. Food is commodified to the extreme: to the extent that we are no longer able to see where it comes from. We go to the supermarket and wonder which one of those twenty bottles of olive oil we should choose, but we have no clue as to their respective origins and contents. We finally base our choice on rather arbitrary things, such as the price and the attractiveness of the label. Thus, without background knowledge, freedom of choice is meaningless.

I have no solution. This essay is a diagnosis, but offers no obvious cure. I don't really believe in easy solutions anyway. The social condition I have tried to describe is complicated and multi-faceted, involving politics, economics and science, and there are many more things that can be said about it. My essay is exploratory rather than explanatory, raising questions rather than answering them. The argument is somewhat tentative and anecdotal, and needs to be developed further. I welcome any suggestions and contributions.

But I do think I have a point. Despite widespread optimistic rhetoric on individual choice and personal freedom, in contemporary society individual freedom is paradoxically restrained as a result of the constant fragmentation of knowledge. Crucial aspects of life, such as personal finances, communication with loved ones, individual mobility and food production are outsourced to external agents. Technological progress, digitalisation and globalisation have brought many positive changes, but they have also increased our fundamental dependency on unknown others, thus contributing to a loss of personal agency. The Nietzschean ideal of the 'free spirit' - living and thinking completely independently of others - is further out of reach than ever. We may still believe in the illusion of individual freedom, but as soon as our iPhone has a virus, we are lost.