In a review of Thinking Through Things for the OAC, I noted certain similarities in spirit between the argument of this book and the ideas currently being pursued by a motley collective of researchers in Japan under the banner of the Monogaku project. It occurred to me that this project might do with a separate, special mention here because I’m interested in finding out if anyone’s ever heard of Monogaku, and, even if they haven’t, what they might make of it anyway.

There is an aphorism attributed to the poet Basho: ‘what the pine is, learn it from the pine’ (matsu no koto wa matsu ni narahe). Judging from the present fascination with ‘things’, it would seem that anthropology has lately been cashing in on Basho’s elementary lesson. But scholars in Japan have been thinking ‘things’ through as well, and, in the case of the Monogaku group, anyway, they have apparently been doing so independently of academic developments over here.

 

Straightforwardly translated, Monogaku means ‘the study of things’ (mono, in Japanese, more or less meaning ‘thing’; gaku more or less meaning ‘study’). But mono is perhaps better left untranslated, so that mono-logy might perhaps be a happy way of rendering the term. (Although, Kamata Tôji, who has been directing the research, has suggested ‘Mono-sophy’ or ‘Mono-logical thinking’, both slightly unwieldy denominations, I think.) But just as the meaning of ‘thing’ isn’t singular, the meaning of mono isn’t monolithic either, and the two terms don’t exactly overlap. In Japanese, mono can be written in kanji (Chinese characters) in a number of ways, each permitting of a different determination. Thus, mono 物, ‘thing, object’; mono  者, ‘person, aspect of a person’; and, more obscurely, mono 霊, ‘spirit’. It is these different, but related, dimensions – and this conceptual constellation in general – that Monogaku is keen to explore, and for which reason the contributors often choose to represent mono by means of katakana (one of the two Japanese syllabic systems of writing), in order to keep the conceptual options as open as possible, and so to conjure with all three meanings concurrently. It is by means of this more unmarked designation of mono that, as Kamata (in his editorial capacity) writes, the term traverses the senses of ‘person’, ‘thing/matter’ and ‘spirit’, and so simultaneously enters the territory of social science, natural science, and religious studies.

Because mono, so conceived, criss-crosses disciplines, the Monogaku programme has gathered together an eclectic mix of researchers, from religious studies, cultural studies, new media, art and design, robotics, and so on. Consequently, particular contributors not only explore the modes of mono ethnographically, but also even how this expanded concept of mono (as thing-spirit) might be applied to problems in industrial design and the design of robots.

 

More evidently than the English ‘thing’, mono-terms may express a spiritual side (as can be seen in words such as tsukimono, ‘spirit possession’, mononoke, ‘spirit’, ‘spectre’, etc), and it is part of the aim of Monogaku to draw attention to this animistic, or animated dimension of ‘things’ in Japan (and to some extent elsewhere). For example, Shimazono Susumu (a specialist in religious studies) devotes his chapter to the attractions of things, and the animistic intimacies that they are capable of engendering. Although his conclusion, that this owes to a pan-human psychological faculty (which is somewhat reminiscent of Stewart Guthrie’s argument in Faces in the Clouds) is, I think, fairly flat and uninspiring from an anthropological point of view.

Rather more provocative is Kamata’s suggestion that Monogaku began with Zeami, the 15th century playwright and principal creator of Noh theatre. Observing that an important function of Noh performance is the calming of angry spirits, Kamata points up the mono-logical associations between ‘storytelling’ (monogatari), ‘imitation’ (monomane) and spirit possession (tsukimono), so that, by imitating mono, the Noh performer becomes possessed by them, and thus, through story (the telling of mono) the spirits may be calmed.

Equally evocative and interesting, I think, is Kamata’s attempt to picture the structure of mono in terms of their front (omote) and reverse (ura) sides, or their visible and invisible dimensions. In order to imagine these complex relations, Kamata appeals to the chiasmic topography of the Klein bottle, that intertwisted figure that Roy Wagner (deploying it for different purposes) describes as ‘a single surface that is at the same time both inside and outside of itself’ (Coyote Anthropology, p.7). This might seem to be unnecessarily esoteric, but I happen to find it suggestive, because it calls to mind an episode from my own fieldwork with members of a Japanese new religion. Puzzled by the relations between the ‘physical body’ (nikutai) and the ‘spirit body’ (reitai), I asked a regular member about them. Gesturing at a cardboard box on the table before us, she pointed at its lidless edge and said, ‘You wouldn’t know where its outside becomes its inside’. As with the box, so too with the bodies: things constituted through chiasmic relations.

But here I’ll conclude this mono-logue, my highly partial introduction to Monogaku, and ask what others might make of this project. Have you heard of it? Do you find it interesting, useful, or otherwise?


Bibliography:

 

Kamata Tôji (ed.), Monogaku no bôken [Adventures in Mono-logy] (Osaka: Sôgensha, 2009).
Kamata Tôji (ed.), Monogaku: kankaku kachiron [Mono-logy: Studies in Sense Value] (Kyoto: Kyôyô Shobô, 2010).

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Replies to This Discussion

Philip, this is fascinating. I will shortly turn to Amazon.co.jp and order the books. The only thing I can add at the moment is  to take note of the existence of Mono magazine and the category of magazines it exemplifies — all basically catalogue-style reviews filled with new stuff. You might also want to look into a new "simple life" phenomenon called Danshari

 

Many thanks John.

 

I'll take a look at Danshari, certainly. Likewise, I would be extremely interested to know what you make of Monogaku

Philip, just got my copy of Monogaku: Kangaku Kachi Ron, whose title I would translate "The Study of Things: A Theory of Sense-Value." Reading the introduction, two thoughts pop into my head. First, are you familiar with Terry Eagleton's Ideology of the Aesthetic, his intellectual history of Western philosophy's attempt to bridge the gap between reason and sensuous experience? Second, what, if anything, do you make of the fact that the book is the product of what seems to me a highly Japanese research process: a series of government funded symposiums, bringing together scholars from several different disciplines to address a public policy issue—a perceived decline in Japanese creativity—by searching for renewed vitality through a return to the roots of Japanese culture?

 

John,

 

Crikey, your Japanese reading ability is fast! Mine isn't, unfortunately. It takes me ages to plough through paragraphs...

 

I must admit I know precious little about the politics or processes of research in Japanese universities, even though I was affiliated with an institution (The National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka) for a time.

 

Certainly, one of the things that I find interesting about Monogaku ('the study of things') is its attempt to creatively conceive what mono ('things') might be from a Japanese perspective. In this respect, of course, it differs completely from Thinking Through Things, which advocates a method in which 'things' are treated heuristically; having no prior definition, they are more like a kind of conceptual 'X' that find their particular contours and content in ethnography.

 

What I can say is that, in thinking about the Monogaku project, it struck me that one possible response to it, given its obvious emphasis on the different senses that the term mono ('things') have in Japan, is that this smacks of Japanese claims to cultural singularity. So the next reflex would be to dismiss the argument as another example of the so-called Nihonjinron literature (a name, for those who don't know, used to describe (and denounce) Japanese scholarship that presents Japan as somehow exceptional or unique, culturally, spiritually, psychologically, etc). In other words, the project might be seen to be just another example of the Japanese tendency towards auto-Orientalism.

 

Although I'm not sure yet exactly what to make of Monogaku, I would resist this kind of interpretation at least, if only because it seems to me to be a lazy way of labelling ideas and arguments, with the implication that they merit no further consideration. Plus, it strikes me as bad anthropology. (I'm not saying, incidentally, that this is what you are implying, John. Not at all!)

 

To be sure, Kamata Toji (the editor) seems to be a rather colourful figure. In another book I have of his, he describes himself as (in addition to being a professor at Kyoto University) a 'freelance Shinto priest'. He received his PhD from Kokugakuin University (again, for those who don't know, a university in Japan especially associated with Shinto studies, and with the training of would-be Shinto priests), and much of his work is concerned with Shinto, both as a topic of, and as a resource in, research. For some, I suppose, this sort of thing might ring alarm bells, but for me it makes his arguments all the more interesting.

 

Last point - sorry John! A further intention I had in mentioning these books was just to try (in a half-baked fashion anyway) to introduce some Japanese research to a non-Japanese audience - or to the Anthropology of Japan group, at least. As you know, it's not uncommon to hear that non-Japanese anthropologists of Japan take too little notice of the considerable literature that Japanese academics produce themselves. A quick Google search sadly seemed to confirm this. The only mention I could find so far of 'Monogaku' in English is this one right here!

 

 

 

Orientalism, whether auto or other, is, of course, a serious danger. But, I suggest, we must take some risks to achieve deeper understanding. 

 

Here there are many things to suggest that monogaku is a simplistic "return to our roots" move by an academic entrepreneur for whom those roots are cultural capital—an effective move, too, since it plays well to the mindset of aging corporate and government leaders, who are constantly grumbling about how young Japanese have become so alienated from what they ought to be. 

 

That said, there remains the possibility that, given a new environment, a return to the roots may produce different fruit. I recall again the classic work I suggested to Heesun Hwang, Joseph Levenson's Confucian China and Its Modern Fate, which is all about the reworking of traditional ideas to fit new circumstances. I think of the debates over how to interpret scripture that continue to roil Christianity and other religions of the Book and gave rise to hermeneutics. I reminisce about brainstorming sessions devoted to how best to turn traditional and, many seemed to think, "uniquely Japanese" ideas into corporate advertising for Japanese companies producing what were, in their time, some of the world's most advanced technologies. 

 

Monogaku could, indeed, turn out to be yet another variation on classic Nihonjinron. It could also turn out to be just another bunch of exotic terms for long-familiar ideas (animism, anyone? The genius of the place, the craftsman, or the work?) What makes looking more closely worthwhile is the remaining possibility, that through close reading (and/or misreading), we can discover genuinely new ideas or fresh perspectives on old ones. 

 

The hunt is up. Tally, ho!

 

John,

 

Thanks for the Levenson tip, as well as the Eagleton suggestion. But what's most encouraging is the optimistic and experimental spirit of your final comment. After all, criticism is easy. So instead, let's have some engagement!  

Phillip,

 

You ask, we deliver. As I continue to read Monogaku: Kangaku Kachi Ron,  I note that it offers numerous opportunities to engage with one of my favorite topics: the material forms in which knowledge is embodied and presented. Here are a couple more observations for us to ponder.

 

I have noted previously that the Monogaku project seems very Japanese to me in the way that it is organized. I would now add to that observation the book that is currently our primary source. It is not, of course, uncommon in the West to publish collections of conference papers. The difference to which I point here is that the contents of Monogaku: Kangaku Kachi Ron are (albeit almost certainly in edited form) presented as verbatim transcripts of the presentations. If we take them at face value, this book records people talking to each other as opposed to texts written to be read. This fact opens up a number of lines for further investigation.

 

I note, for example, that Kamata, the scholar/Shinto priest/conference organizer, turns his opening remarks into a very effective example of, what shall we call ? performance art or academic theater. Having announced his theme, 物から、ものへ, (from physical thing to ambiguous and polyvalent mono), he proceeds to build his presentation around three objects. The first is a stone, recovered from a Jomon archeological site, into which humans or nature have bored holes. When he blows into the holes, the sounds reveal that the stone can be used as a stone flute. A bit later he picks up a piece of bamboo into which holds have been drilled, a flute that resembles those found associated with Jomon-era haniwa sculptures. Again he demonstrates how blowing into the flute produces musical sounds. Then, after talking for a bit more, he picks up the third object, a conch shell recovered from a Jomon site in Okinawa. He quips that, in this case, the Jomon people probably ate the conch before blowing into the shell and producing, as he then proceeds to demonstrate, another dramatic sound. 

 

I am impressed by how elegantly these demonstrations enliven and enrich his basic proposition. Stone, plant, seashell, all associated with the ancient roots of Japanese culture, all transformed from mere objects to musical instruments, brought to life by blowing into them, all producing eerie sounds that evoke ceremony and ritual, employed to launch a conference explicitly dedicated to reconsidering mono  from artistic, religious, and scientific perspectives. This guy is good. I could see him having a successful career as a TVCM planner or Creative Director. I find myself thinking about the difference between what he has done here and the arid style of the typical academic paper or Power Point presentation....

 

 

Philip, Thank you for this enlightening post. Do you know if anything relating to the Monogaku project been published in English?

 

Object-oriented philosophers often speak as if ethnography is on their side, but I wonder what an explicitly ethnographic engagement with their work would look like.

Justin, the only thing I have found in English besides what Phil and I have written here is an announcement for an art exhibition:

http://www.tokyo-gallery.com/img/monokeirokemono_En.pdf
This is only the result of a cursory Google search; but it does look like we have a nice topic here for further research. Could I interest anyone in a joint project? Phil should definitely have first dibs, since he discovered the topic; but I'd be happy to tag along and contribute.


Justin Shaffner said:

Philip, Thank you for this enlightening post. Do you know if anything relating to the Monogaku project been published in English?

 

Object-oriented philosophers often speak as if ethnography is on their side, but I wonder what an explicitly ethnographic engagement with their work would look like.

 

John,

 

I very much enjoyed your previous post, with its upbeat assessment of Kamata's writing style. As for a joint project, I love the idea! 

 

Justin,

 

Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately - this discussion aside - I don't know of any English language engagements with Monogaku. It's conceivable that some Japanese studies journal has commissioned a book review, but if so, it hasn't come out yet.

 

The only comparable thing I can think of is the contribution of the anthropologist Fukushima Masato (University of Tokyo), 'On Small Devices of Thought', that appeared in Latour and Weibel's classy catalogue to the exhibition Making Things Public. Fukushima's piece (that's immediately followed by Amiria Salmond's, as it happens) considers the differences between the concept of mono and the concept of 'things', and he goes on to suggest that an exhibition organised around the logic of mono would have looked very different to Latour and Weibel's. (It's interesting, in this respect that the Monogaku research programme did, in fact, include an art exhibition, as John pointed out.) However, Fukushima wasn't a participant in Monogaku, and I've heard it said that he regards the project with suspicion, though I'm not clear exactly why...

 

Your intriguing point about object-oriented philosophy for some reason called to mind Martin's comment (in his recent online paper) that a possible problem with Thinking Through Things is that 'things' in that book tend to speak by means of people - 'a kind of anthropological ventriloquism'. I found myself thinking about spirit possession, and the fact that, in Japanese, tsukimono ('spirit possession') literally means something like, 'a thing (mono) that sticks, attaches' itself to a person. The implication of this case, anyway, would be that the real author of utterances isn't a human at all but some thing altogether different. In other words, rather than 'anthropological ventriloquism', this might be understood as a mono-logical version.

 

But I guess that a hardline object-oriented philosophical response to this would be to invoke the regress, and to argue that spirit possession is just another mistaken case of human 'access', so that this example of 'things speaking through people' is actually an instance of '[people saying that] things speak through people'. I might have got this wrong, of course.   

Phil, think about how you would like the project to work. Ruth and I are currently up to our ears in catalogue translations for three art exhibitions, and it will probably be this coming weekend before I can back to this in any serious way.

 

The one effect of considering the topic that I have noticed so far is a sudden sensitivity to what I once would have read and likely passed over as bits of everyday animism. Thus, for example, I am reading the English translation of Kawabata's The Master of Go and am struck by a passage in which the reporter who embodies the author's point of view remarks that, while arrangements of go stones can be described in purely abstract terms, there comes a moment in every game where the stones seem to come alive....

 

I find myself wondering how this differs from habit of the people I grew up with of personifying ships or boats and treating their behavior as symptomatic of a certain kind of, always stereotypically feminine, personality....

Philip,

As far as I know, object-oriented philosophy (OOP) is unable to anticipate these kinds of examples (spirit possession). Despite claims to the contrary, OOP, along with its critique of the correlation and philosophies of access, take for granted certain Western concepts of what constitutes subjects and objects in the first place, and the possible kinds of relations they can enter into. I wonder what a proper anthropological response would be to OOP. I suspect it would have something to do with an anthropological concept of the concept.


Philip Swift said:

 

Justin,

 

Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately - this discussion aside - I don't know of any English language engagements with Monogaku. It's conceivable that some Japanese studies journal has commissioned a book review, but if so, it hasn't come out yet.

 

The only comparable thing I can think of is the contribution of the anthropologist Fukushima Masato (University of Tokyo), 'On Small Devices of Thought', that appeared in Latour and Weibel's classy catalogue to the exhibition Making Things Public. Fukushima's piece (that's immediately followed by Amiria Salmond's, as it happens) considers the differences between the concept of mono and the concept of 'things', and he goes on to suggest that an exhibition organised around the logic of mono would have looked very different to Latour and Weibel's. (It's interesting, in this respect that the Monogaku research programme did, in fact, include an art exhibition, as John pointed out.) However, Fukushima wasn't a participant in Monogaku, and I've heard it said that he regards the project with suspicion, though I'm not clear exactly why...

 

Your intriguing point about object-oriented philosophy for some reason called to mind Martin's comment (in his recent online paper) that a possible problem with Thinking Through Things is that 'things' in that book tend to speak by means of people - 'a kind of anthropological ventriloquism'. I found myself thinking about spirit possession, and the fact that, in Japanese, tsukimono ('spirit possession') literally means something like, 'a thing (mono) that sticks, attaches' itself to a person. The implication of this case, anyway, would be that the real author of utterances isn't a human at all but some thing altogether different. In other words, rather than 'anthropological ventriloquism', this might be understood as a mono-logical version.

 

But I guess that a hardline object-oriented philosophical response to this would be to invoke the regress, and to argue that spirit possession is just another mistaken case of human 'access', so that this example of 'things speaking through people' is actually an instance of '[people saying that] things speak through people'. I might have got this wrong, of course.   

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