OAC Online Seminar 13-24 October: Cosmetic Cosmologies in Japan

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There is a computing expression, What You See Is What You Get (pronounced ‘wiziwig’ for short) that refers to the aim of showing on the screen what the end-product will actually look like, as opposed to a string of numbers and letters. It was borrowed from a TV comedy catch phrase meaning “I am who I am, take it or leave it”. The idea that the truth is not what appears on the surface is endemic in western civilization and is especially favoured by academic intellectuals who often like to think that their own shambolic appearance conceals real depth. They may even cultivate being scruffy in order to suggest hidden depths that aren't there! Beauty is only skin deep after all. It is not hard to find in all this Christian notions of the soul and of heaven being vastly superior to this life. The hedonistic riposte is to say that, other things being equal, it is better to be rich, beautiful, successful and happy than not or, in Gordon Gecko’s words, “greed is good”.

Philip Swift’s entertaining and erudite essay takes off from ethnographic reports of Japanese praying at Shinto shrines. It seems that going through the motions of prayer is all that matters there and this causes problems for academic interpreters (anthropologists included). Surely there has to be more to the ritual than that? Philip asks rather what might happen if we treat superficiality not as a problem but as a resource. He also tackles a common claim that Japanese ritual does not evoke cosmology, the theories and stories that explain how our universe was made. He suggests rather that forms and surfaces – the artificial and the superficial -- might themselves be understood as being cosmologically efficacious in Japan.

Philip Swift lives in London where he taught in the history and anthropology departments at University College London for five years. Philip carried out fieldwork with the members of a Japanese religious group. An article based on this research ('Touching Conversion: Tangible Transformations in a Japanese New Religion') was awarded the Curl Essay Prize for 2009 by the Royal Anthropological Institute. OAC regulars already know Phil for his fantastic blog post The Octopus: Eight Footnotes.

You can read or download the present paper, Cosmetic cosmologies in Japan: Notes towards a superficial investig... here. This online seminar will last twelve days, so there is plenty of time to read and reflect, even to do some impromptu fieldwork! This is not just a specialist paper on Japanese religion. It touches on issues that affect us all. And to prove it, Philip’s argument starts with a scene from a James Bond novel. Now is that superficial or what?

In the movie, Last year at Marienbad, a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to go away with him, but she doesn’t seem to remember that they already met a year ago. It’s a pretty inscrutable movie. I once saw its writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, being interviewed by journalists on French TV. One of them said to him. “I have a theory about what is going on in the film: they were killed together last year at Marienbad and are now ghosts!” Robbe-Grillet replied “What I find interesting is that you need to know what really happened.” Enjoy. And please feel free to join the discussion!

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Thanks Keith. Point taken, and I’ll also take it as a hint to quit quoting Latin!.

I’ll try and be concise. As I understand it, John and Jacob make similar points. With a keen eye towards different kinds of methodological framings, Jacob rightly asks for some actuality; John quite properly calls for a prior attention to ethnographic evidence, before theory gets going.

I admit straightaway that a shortcoming of the paper is that I didn’t include enough data (sorry – I said no more Latin…). The paper isn’t supposed to be a finished argument, so I hope this is forgivable. But while the essay is speculative, it’s not intended to be an ungrounded, intellectual exercise, baseless base-jumping for theoretical kicks. On the contrary, it has its feet firmly planted in (what I consider to be) a genuine ethnographic problem.

Keith mentioned my adventure to St Andrews. The paper given there was on a somewhat different topic – conversion in a Japanese new religion. But let me just refer again to Huon Wardle’s OAC article. What I find especially compelling is Huon’s indictment of rigid ontological contrasts, of anthropological arguments that difference can be accounted for by the unyielding carpentry of cosmology. To repeat, I disagree, if only partially, although Huon isn’t suggesting that we should ditch cosmology completely. As he says: ‘anthropologists will surely still employ diverse heuristics of cosmology and social relationship’, but their accounts should be also be capable of being informed by new ‘types of agent as well as…new fields and forms of interaction and exchange’.

Anyway, what I want to say is that, of course, not everyone will agree with the approach – the cosmological take – I’m advocating. Maybe you might think it’s too artificial, although part of what I’m interested in is, exactly, the possible efficacy of the artificial. But if the argument doesn’t work for you, then maybe I haven’t made it efficacious enough!

Be that as it may, I happen to be of the view that cosmology offers a useful model for anthropological understanding. If Japanese worshippers make model mountains as offerings to the gods, then I'm just trying to model that modelling.
Sorry - just thought I'd add, that if you completely disagree with what I've just said, then an alternative model of what I'm doing might spring to mind: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of Richard Dreyfuss, at the dinner table, going a bit mad with his mashed potatoes!
Phil, your paper is not only delightful to read. It has started a lively and provocative discussion. Hard to imagine what's not to like here. Just re-read it and found myself wondering

(1) Could you spell out a bit more what you mean when you write that cosmology offers a useful model for anthropological understanding? I recall some classic papers about house design and city planning, in which the house or the city was treated as a microcosm of a larger cosmic order; but I'm having a hard time getting my head around the cosmology that informs your understanding of the visible forms of Japanese prayer.

(2) I wonder if it would be fruitful to step back for a minute and ponder the question why surfaces are so fascinating to scholars of things Japanese. To me you use of the term "cosmetic" is telling, alluding as it does to a sense that Japanese culture is more about the costume, the makeup, and the formalized gesture than the individual actors who perform their assigned roles. I recall that when Ruth and I came to Japan in 1980, it was almost a cliché to hear foreign visitors talk about how clean, polite, and dressed-up Japanese were, how they wore the appropriate costume for every activity, and everyone obeyed the rules and everything you purchased was so nicely wrapped. Besides current complaints from their elders about how slovenly and ill-mannered young Japanese have become, I recall my mother, visiting Japan, remarking that it reminded her of growing up in Savannah, Georgia, at a time when ladies dressed up to go out, men wore suits or overalls depending on their jobs, and wearing your Sunday best had a clear and distinct meaning. Are we talking about Japan? An historical moment in Japan? A stage of development when a rising middle class wants to dress the part that signals upward mobility?

I am not for a moment suggesting that cosmology is irrelevant. I am wondering how it applies when the world is changing around it.






Philip Swift said:
Sorry - just thought I'd add, that if you completely disagree with what I've just said, then an alternative model of what I'm doing might spring to mind: from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, of Richard Dreyfuss, at the dinner table, going a bit mad with his mashed potatoes!
I would like to hear more about imitation - that word, by the end of the paper, is carrying most of the weight of the critique of belief and related concepts. So, I am left wanting to know much more about what imitation involves or means; especially what it means to imitate in a ritually satisfying way.

I should say that Philip's other paper was a very full ethnography of religious practices and ideas in a Japanese new religion - just in case anyone gets the idea that he only knows about the place by reading James Bond books.
If I recall the seminars I attended as a graduate student or teacher, at Cambridge, Manchester, Yale or Chicago, the interest for the regulars was mainly to see what the principals would say this week. The paper-giver was in most cases incidental, an opportunity for combat between the main protagonists or a chance for them to stake out well-trodden paths in another context. Would Leach contradict Fortes again this week or just what he himself said last week? The theatre was sometimes quite dramatic. I recall an LSE philosopher, Ian Jarvie, author of a book called Revolution in Anthropology, attacking the method of intensive fieldwork promoted by Malinowski and all the time Audrey Richards sobbed silently on the front row.

I return to our setting since, apart from trying to get more of our members actively involved, there are a couple of meta-questions lurking behind the specific interrogations so far. Who are we? and What is this for? Obviously the answer to the first is that we are an embryonic audience of participant observers. The second is the elephant in the room that it only pays to notice occasionally.

I am reminded of R.G. Collingwood's methodological principle. Collingwood, a philosopher, historian and archaeologist who came from my neck of the woods, hated the Albert Memorial, an imperialist monstrosity in London, and he did his best to avoid it. One day a friend's trajectory took him unavoidably close to it and he found himself asking "What question could this possibly be the answer to?" Later, on reflection, he found that this was a good question to ask more often, whether of a Roman statue dug up near Newcastle or a book manuscript that one has laboured long to write.

I think we are in agreement that Philip's presentation is good to think with and he has claimed little more for it than that... for now. It is when we ask how it squares with our own intellectual projects that the gaps open up. It is my sad observation that some decades ago, if a paper like this were submitted to an academic journal, there was a good chance that the reviewer would ask "Has the author succeeded in realising the aims he set for himself?" Nowadays the question is more likely to be "How would I have written this paper? And how can I force the author to include some of my thoughts in it?" All too often academic exchange at this level is so many ships passing in the night without meaningful contact.

Surely, as we struggle to establish a conversation among ourselves and to extend its range of participation, we have to ask what kind of anthropological project we might presumptively share. And that depends on who we think "we" are. My motive in bringing up Huon's paper is that he wants to raise there the question of what anthropology might be for and what new kinds of social relations might sustain our exchanges.

I have written at length about anthropology as one way of approaching the next human universal, successor to Christianity, bourgeois economics and other western impositions on the world. I argue that the fact of our living together on this planet requires us to find means of association based on both our common humanity and the cultural particulars we live by. The model is great literature, history, the law and yes ethnography, all of whom approach universal truths by delving deeply into particular personalities, places and events. Of course who "we" are and how such a grandiose project might be mobilized are moot, but some such question lies behind most of what I hope to find answers to. It is not about sameness versus difference, but sameness in difference; not inside versus outside, but how they are connected.

Contrary to appearances, I do not want to derail our discussion from the specifics of Philip's arguments. Quite the opposite. I wish to encourage a lot of small questions and observations that might lead to bigger ones. And for him to range freely backward and forward, bringing up whatever takes his fancy. But please keep at the back of your mind that we are starting out on a journey together with little institutional precedent and we need sometimes to ask "What question could this possibly be the answer to?"
Philip Swift said:
In the Amaterasu myth, the divinity is persuaded to leave the cave because she thinks she's looking at a different divinity altogether; rather than recognition, what she gets reflected back to her is difference. This might be understood as an example of the capacity of Japanese divinities to not appreciate 'true things'. But, equally, it would seem to support Huon's highly insightful proposal that the presentation of the same thing might actually be something rather different.

This reminds of something Roy Wagner (2001) is fond of pointing out: That the one in the mirror is not you (nor is it human), and it steals your act of looking in order to see itself. This insight was originally formulated by a Papua New Guinean (an Angan speaker) concerning one's reflection in a pool of water. There is a kind of reciprocity or exchange of perspectives at play here.


Philip Swift said:
Getting on to your more difficult - excellent - question of the invisible, virtual aspects of mirrors, in so far as mirrors are often hidden inside Japanese shrines as repositories (literally 'bodies') for the gods, I confess I have no ready answer. The main reason given as to why such mirrors - mostly, but other objects are used as well - are kept out of sight, is related to the maintenance of purity. Concealment, and its relation to purity, is a major issue in Japanese religions. I almost hear my audience exclaiming, as they read these lines, 'Aha - depth at last!' Perhaps. To be perfectly honest, I haven't yet thought of a better way to relate this to the other issues in the paper. It is, at any rate, a paper in progress.
But what I find quite suggestive is the fact that mirrors - those exemplary devices of simulation - are very often the substitute bodies of the gods.

Between the two examples -- (1) of Amaterasu recognizing the one reflected as an Other, and (2) mirrors as a kind of substitute body of the gods -- I wonder if what we're dealing with here is a kind of Japanese perspectivism. This also resonates with some of the other examples mentioned. As John M observed, the point of ritualized activity is not to express personal emotions, desires or meanings but to get rid of them all together. In this perspective, the 'human' is often 'emptied' out, and perhaps, formalized modes of interaction are about seeing and relating to one another as kinds of divinities. Just a thought.
Having been, as promised, a real nuisance, I would like to say a bit more about what Phil has accomplished with this extraordinary paper. I would, in particular, like to note that his juxtaposition of James Bond and the Japanese salaryman, both of whom throw into question what it means to be praying, is a brilliant provocation. It not only compels reflection on what the observer means by "prayer," via prayer, it draws us into a debate about how we interpret the surfaces that are, after all, the only things visible to the ethnographer. If it evokes the questions that Clifford Geertz took from Gilbert Ryle's attempt to interpret winks, it also reminds me of Stephen Owen's Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: an Omen of the World, in which Owen notes the difference between romantic lyric in the West, which assumes a reader who looks through them for something behind them, and Tang lyric, which assumes a reader with a classical Chinese education who can follow the allusions clearly visible in the language of the poem. It also points my train of thought to Dan Sperber's Rethinking Symbolism and what could be an answer to the problem Philip raises. Sperber suggests that, instead of referring to particular meanings, symbols evoke a mental encyclopedia, in which all sorts of possible interpretations reside, keyed to particular situations in which a symbol appears.

All of this comes together for me in Huan's three-step exposition of Kantian dialectic (the old-fashioned kind, rooted in dialogue). I imagine myself the observer who recalls Bond as he sees the Japanese salaryman. In step one, I say to myself, "He appears to be praying." When I ask the salaryman what he is praying for and to whom he is praying, his answers, "Nothing in particular" and "I don't know" are disturbing. When I ask myself why, I recall that in my tradition a prayer is always directed to someone (in a Protestant Christian context, the one and only Lord God Almighty) and always includes a request for something (if only "Thy will be done"). I remember, too, times from my own Lutheran childhood when prayer was (1) associated with real anguish, (2) serious while conventional or (3) just going through the motions. These reflections trigger all sorts of connections in my mental encyclopedia, raising the sorts of questions I have noted in previous messages.

A paper that does all this for me is, in my view, a very good paper, indeed.
Keith Hart said:

I think we are in agreement that Philip's presentation is good to think with and he has claimed little more for it than that... for now.

Indeed, yes! But as Keith had almost said (but didn't), "it only pays to praise occasionally." It is good to think, and it is beautifully written for which I am envious.

For me it is good to think with because it follows lines of thought that I do not usually follow, a style of reasoning I do not usually employ, and raises issues that I do not normally consider. Yet, it is not always clear how such a line of thought fits into the theoretical view of the world that I have constructed for myself, and so I probe it. In this case I have been trying to clarify Philip's intended interpretation of certain statements he made in his paper so that I understand more clearly just what is at stake. Sometimes I am at a loss to identify just what an anthropological explanation purports to explain, or to put it otherwise, what the exact object of a given anthropological description (or problem) is.
(I tend to think slowly - even slower on high-speed trains - so while I was composing my reply, I can already see that some new ones have come up, which is great, actually. I'll work on a faster response next time!)

‘What question could this possibly be an answer to?’ This is a great question, maybe the best question of all. The push-pulling current of the discussion has been very useful in prompting me to make my own thinking more explicit.

As in the fairly flipped out image that came to be late last night (of Richard Dreyfuss in that Spielberg movie, manically heaping up his mashed potato mountain) I find myself as well to be driven by a question, and I’m trying to assemble an answer – although you might question my choice of building materials!

My question comes out of certain ethnographic interpretations of Japanese religious practice, and it concerns the answers they seem to be implicitly looking for. For, in reading these (often highly capable) accounts, I get a sense that the practices being described are treated as problematic in so far as they appear to be disappointingly thin, or lacking in substance. In short, there is a disconcerting impression that prayer and similar practices somehow seem to be inauthentic. It’s because of this problem, I think, that such interpretations are drawn towards the answer that most commonsensically suggests itself: that even if such practices appear to be artificial or inauthentic on the surface, they are actually backed up by a deeper interior realm of beliefs that would authenticate them. Hence, in this interpretation, depth comes to the rescue of surface appearance, because the otherwise superficial or stagy behaviour at shrines is seen to get its substance from the underlying beliefs that Japanese people have in gods.

But I’m not sure about this particular interpretation, because it seems to conform rather too nicely with our own commonsense, to confirm what we already know anyway, which is that religious practices (whatever they look like) are the outward expressions of an ultimately prior, internal domain of religious beliefs. But this particular verity – as universally obvious as the fact that the Pope is Catholic – in fact, has a history, and is the long, historical outcome of particular arguments and changes in ways of knowing. Hence, if it is a fact, it’s likely to be local one (to us, in Europe and America), even if we have carried it and its consequences all round the world.

What makes me hesitate, you see, is that Japanese informants don’t tend to talk about belief at all when they’re practicing prayers at shrines or attending religious festivals (matsuri) or making offerings to ancestors. So perhaps our way of modelling what’s going on by appealing to ‘belief’ is not the model, because, while it seems to answer our question, it doesn’t seem to address theirs.

So, in attempting to make a rather different model of what might be going on, I was struck by this idea of Masakatsu Gunji’s that ‘[Japanese] gods don’t appreciate true things’. It’s apparently owing to this peculiar preference of divinities that offerings made to them are often confected, fabricated, or take the particular shapes that they do. (I hope to return to this later, because I’d like to address Huon’s question about imitation in more detail.) What is, I think, useful about a model informed by this idea – a model founded on the notion that simulation is efficacious – is that it bypasses our anxiety over inauthenticity or artificiality, because, in this model, a certain amount of artificiality is actually necessary in order to worship the gods properly. (I’d also like to answer John’s question about cosmology more properly, but for now, the model is cosmological to the extent that its design is inspired by the manner in which Japanese worshippers establish relations with the gods. I’ll try and get back to you too Justin, on a related point!)

All of which mashed potato musings bring me back to Keith’s Collingwood question about the Albert Memorial. I’ve walked past it enough times. It’s an odd monument, expressing bombastic colonialist pretensions. It underwent a cosmetic makeover too. Not so long ago, the restorers covered Albert in a dazzling gilded skin of gold leaf. But if the memorial embodies a particular answer to a particular 19th century question, then it also presupposes a whole host of – dare I say, cosmological - notions about monumentality, durability, firm foundations and convictions, all of which might look rather different when seen from somewhere else. To be sure, the Japanese build monuments as well – some of them just as bad. But let’s suppose you could somehow see the Albert Memorial in London from the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture – that shrine complex that is oh so ephemeral, in a strangely durable way. You’d probably be required to revise a number of your expectations.

But let’s keep this going…


Philip Swift said:
(I tend to think slowly - even slower on high-speed trains - so while I was composing my reply, I can already see that some new ones have come up, which is great, actually. I'll work on a faster response next time!)

Not at all! We are the equivalent of the slow food movement. Take your time, pick and choose, be recursive, if you like.
What is, I think, useful about a model informed by this idea – a model founded on the notion that simulation is efficacious – is that it bypasses our anxiety over inauthenticity or artificiality, because, in this model, a certain amount of artificiality is actually necessary in order to worship the gods properly.

I agree; and that point is very well developed in the essay. I suppose what I had in mind was something further. Imitation generally speaking means the same for me as it does for Japanese ritualists, at one level anyway: imitation is copying. However, obviously ritualists value this copying in a way I do not. I suppose what interests me, then, might be the values and emotions that are carried along or instanced in the act; happiness for instance or hope or satisfaction.


Huon Wardle said:
What is, I think, useful about a model informed by this idea – a model founded on the notion that simulation is efficacious – is that it bypasses our anxiety over inauthenticity or artificiality, because, in this model, a certain amount of artificiality is actually necessary in order to worship the gods properly.

I agree; and that point is very well developed in the essay. I suppose what I had in mind was something further. Imitation generally speaking means the same for me as it does for Japanese ritualists, at one level anyway: imitation is copying. However, obviously ritualists value this copying in a way I do not. I suppose what interests me, then, might be the values and emotions that are carried along or instanced in the act; happiness for instance or hope or satisfaction.

To connect this to my previous comment on Japanese perspectivism. What in Japanese prayer, or Japanese ritual more generally, is being imitated or simulated? What forms do such imitations take, and efficacious to what ends? To recognize, and possibly incarnate, the divine perfection of self, other and world?

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