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

 

John,

 

I'll have a think about this. But what you said connected to something I'm very interested in, which is the resurgence of research into animism as a viable topic, not just in anthropology (including work by Ingold, Descola, and others), but which has also resulted in interesting interdisciplinary encounters between anthropologists and artists. (There was an recent exhibition in Antwerp which resulted in a book, Animism Vol. I, which includes essays by both artists, curators and anthropologists, including people like Taussig and Viveiros de Castro. Very interesting, I think, but perhaps I shouldn't be mentioning exhibition catalogues to you, at the moment!) Though looking at Japan, one could make a case, I think, that 'animism' as an academic topic hasn't been resurrected for the very reason that it's still very much alive.   

 

Justin,

 

I find your comment extremely interesting. It makes me wonder, as you say, whether ethnography might afford a position from which to localize the claims of object-oriented philosophy. I mean something like the strategy adopted by Malinowski in his argument with the psychoanalyst (and Freud's biographer) Ernest Jones, according to which the claims of the universality of the Oedipal triangle (mother, father, child) wouldn't have much traction in the Trobriand Islands.  

 

Graham Harman - who is a pleasure to read - is the only object-oriented philosopher I've looked at, and my reading of his work is still very sketchy, but, as far as I know, Harman's targets are such thinkers as Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger (an enemy turned into an ally), Merleau-Ponty, and so on. I understand that Harman teaches in a university in Cairo (current scene of unrest and - I hope - enduring political transformation), but I wonder to what extent he allows Egypt to work on his thought. Or, to put the matter more strongly: what would object-oriented philosophy look like if it moved to China? Is it transportable? Or, given that it must be to some extent - after all, books and arguments are capable of being translated - would it carry any traction?

 

The thought occurs to me because I read Francois Jullien's book, The Propensity of Things: Towards a History of Efficacy in China, some time ago, and the philosophical territory he spaces out (by unfolding the concept of shi, 'tendency', 'situation', 'potential') seems radically different from the sort of language we are used to hearing. In fact, Bruno Latour - referring to Jullien, in a debate he engaged in in Hong Kong, appropriately - seems to say that the terms of his own polemical argument wouldn't have much purchase in China because the subject-object split 'was never there' in the first place.

 

Now, I don't know whether Jullien is right about classical Chinese thought - because I know nothing about Chinese philosophy either! - but your speculation that one might look at object-oriented philosophy from some place elsewhere, seems very suggestive to me. One might go so far as to claim that this might be what Monogaku is doing, though it doesn't know it yet!      

 

Justin,

 

Can you say a bit more about "the anthropological concept of the concept"? Is there something more going on here than what I take to be the usual drill, e.g., 

 

1. Anthropologist is learning a language and a word/morpheme seems to pop up in all sorts of interesting places: Could be Nuer kwoth or Japanese mono, but to keep us all on the same page, let's tackle the English "It."

 

2. The anthropologist discovers that "It" pops up various locutions that appear to be used in a range of situations, e.g.,

 

2.a. "Are you doing it?" (Conversation between two businessmen vs. conversation between two teenage girls discussing relationships)

 

2.b "It's good." (Reference to a food just tasted vs reference to a movie or a musical performance)

 

2.c "It devoured Cleveland" (Title of a grade-B SF flick)

 

2.d "It? Oh, yes, s/he's really got it!" (Reference to passion, ability, talent, sex appeal....)

 

2.e "Do you have it?" (That item we just picked up at the grocery store)

.....

 

3. The anthropologist sorts through her notes and tries to map possible relations between the various senses of "It" discovered so far. These suggest hypotheses for further observation and testing.

 

4. Meanwhile, she is trying to keep track of who uses the word when, suspecting that the relationships in play when "It" is used affect its meaning. 

 

5. Eventually the map may become a thick description and a set of interesting questions/hypotheses about, for example, the relationship between neutral pronouns that pre-specify no meaning and tentative or euphemistic usages in which the pronouns point to things that shouldn't be discussed too openly. 

 

This is, I suggest, the sort of exercise from which a lot can be learned without ever arriving at a concept, where "concept" means a clearly, all-purpose definition. But that's just me.

 

What does Justin have in mind?

 

 

John, Here's the reference:

Alberto Corsin Jimenez and Rane Willerslev. "'An anthropological concept of the concept: reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghir" Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13.3 (2007): 527-544.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/alberto_corsin_jimenez/6


John McCreery said:

Justin,

 

Can you say a bit more about "the anthropological concept of the concept"? Is there something more going on here than what I take to be the usual drill, e.g., 

 

1. Anthropologist is learning a language and a word/morpheme seems to pop up in all sorts of interesting places: Could be Nuer kwoth or Japanese mono, but to keep us all on the same page, let's tackle the English "It."

 

2. The anthropologist discovers that "It" pops up various locutions that appear to be used in a range of situations, e.g.,

 

2.a. "Are you doing it?" (Conversation between two businessmen vs. conversation between two teenage girls discussing relationships)

 

2.b "It's good." (Reference to a food just tasted vs reference to a movie or a musical performance)

 

2.c "It devoured Cleveland" (Title of a grade-B SF flick)

 

2.d "It? Oh, yes, s/he's really got it!" (Reference to passion, ability, talent, sex appeal....)

 

2.e "Do you have it?" (That item we just picked up at the grocery store)

.....

 

3. The anthropologist sorts through her notes and tries to map possible relations between the various senses of "It" discovered so far. These suggest hypotheses for further observation and testing.

 

4. Meanwhile, she is trying to keep track of who uses the word when, suspecting that the relationships in play when "It" is used affect its meaning. 

 

5. Eventually the map may become a thick description and a set of interesting questions/hypotheses about, for example, the relationship between neutral pronouns that pre-specify no meaning and tentative or euphemistic usages in which the pronouns point to things that shouldn't be discussed too openly. 

 

This is, I suggest, the sort of exercise from which a lot can be learned without ever arriving at a concept, where "concept" means a clearly, all-purpose definition. But that's just me.

 

What does Justin have in mind?

 

 

Justin, many thanks. Looks really interesting. Is now in my Dropbox, accessible from my iStuff. Will get to it shortly.

Justin Shaffner said:

John, Here's the reference:

Alberto Corsin Jimenez and Rane Willerslev. "'An anthropological concept of the concept: reversibility among the Siberian Yukaghir" Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 13.3 (2007): 527-544.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/alberto_corsin_jimenez/6

 

@Philip and Justin

 

Just popping in to say that we are still buried in work at The Word Works.That said, what I'm working on now, descriptions of 120 photographs for an exhibition on Japanese Pictorialism, connects in interesting ways with discussions of mono and other things. Pictorialism was an art photography movement in which a combination of soft focus and manipulating the print were used to produce photographs that were said to express the photographer's feelings and inner landscape, as opposed to contemplating nature per se. Also a form of art photography, Modernism retained the emphasis on the photographer's subjective gaze but insisted on straight photography, with minimal retouching of prints, shifting the source of value from moody self-expression to composition that highlighted the discovery of form and rhythm in the external world, using the photograph to highlight previously unnoticed aspects of that world. Lot of interesting stuff to think about here.

 

Hello John,

 

Pictorialism sounds very interesting, and I'm grateful for your introduction because information about the work of modern Japanese artists and art movements still seems to be hard to come by in English. A relevant case - relevant because it directly relates to mono - is the work of the so-called mono-ha ('school of things') movement. There's a chapter devoted to them in the second volume of the Monogaku series (haven't read it yet!). To be sure, there are bits and pieces out there in English, but in this case, as well as many others, I feel that there's an opportunity for a fuller, more thorough treatment.   

But, connected to this problem of the deficit of information about Japanese contemporary art in English, as well as the insufficiency of English translations of Japanese anthropology, philosophy, and so forth, I wrote to Kamata Tôji, to let him know about this discussion, and he informed me that the catalogue to the exhibition that you mentioned, that was held as part of the Monogaku programme, has an English translation of the Japanese. So, for anyone who might be interested in Monogaku, this catalogue could be helpful.

 

In addition, Prof. Kamata has very kindly put a link to this blog and discussion on the Monogaku website.       

Phillip, 

 

No new progress to report on monogaku. Other priorities keep getting in the way. Just dropped in to suggest another work that may offer some fruitful comparisons, Francois Julien (1995) The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China (translated by Janet Lloyd, originally published in French as La propension de chose: Pour une histoire de l'efficacité en China, 1992). Just arrived in the mail, and the first few pages look very promising.

 

Hi John,

 

I'm afraid I've not got much to report either. Except to say that a Japanese translation (expertly done by Okui Haruka of Kyoto University) of my short introduction to Monogaku (above) has now appeared on the Monogaku website. 

 

I mentioned Jullien's book in my reply to Justin. China isn't my field, of course, but I found the book to be very suggestive, and highly relevant to this discussion, as you say.

Phillip, I clicked on your link but it took me to the top page of the Monogaku site, from which it isn't obvious how to get to the translation of your introduction. Could you provide a link that points directly to it?

 

Ah, sorry John. 

Maybe this link will work?


 

 

 

 

奥井遼:Philip Swift さんの原稿の翻訳

 

 

A quick coda to this old discussion, but I'm surprised and delighted to be able to report that the cursory introduction to mono-ology which I wrote for the OAC (above) has been included (in English and Japanese) in a new collection of Monogaku studies, edited by Prof. Kamata and issued by Kyoto University.

 

The entire volume is available to download (for free) in PDF form here.

 

But I'm told the book will also appear in hard-copy format as well. 

 

 

Philip, congratulations. I've just downloaded the PDF, and your presence is very striking, indeed. P.S. I wouldn't call this an old discussion. I would call it a discussion in waiting, until we have both had time to read and digest the monogaku corpus, a project that hovers near the top of my stack but hasn't yet reached the top.

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