Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bank Withdrawal Limits as Cultural Indicators

So, for whatever reason, my bank in Iowa has a maximum daily withdrawal limit of $300.  I had to specially request that they raise it from $200, and it has still been a huge hassle every time I came to Japan.  My new bank in Tokyo, by contrast, has an initial automatic withdrawal limit that, at today's exchange rate, is the equivalent of $600, and on request it can be raised to about $2400.  Obviously, Japan is a much more cash-based society (I'm going to go tomorrow to pay my rent in cash), but I think it's pretty safe to also take this as an indicator of vastly, vastly different level of overall wealth between Iowa and Tokyo.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why I Do Cultural Studies: The Search for Freedom in Culture

Yesterday I had the kind of intellectual good luck that often occurs in a big city with really cheap used book stores – stores like the Book-Off in Akihabara, where I picked up the 2008 “Best American Science and Nature Writing” for 200 yen (about U$2.50). When I got home I settled down with a thimbleful of Kirin Fujisan whisky (not bad) and started into John Colapinto’s “The Interpreter,” originally published in The New Yorker. The article centers on the ongoing doctrinal struggle in linguistics between supporters of Universal Grammar, led by Noam Chomsky, and its upstart opponents. Universal Grammar is the idea that language ability is genetically coded, uniquely human, and, like the name says, universal – that is, unchanging in its basic nature across human populations. Those arguing against universal grammar are represented in the article by Dan Everett, who has spent a quarter-century studying the Piraha tribe along the Amazon. The Piraha, Everett argues, speak a language so unrelated to others, and with such a profoundly altering effect on their cultural character, that they defy the ‘universal’ part of universal grammar. Everett’s most profound observation is that the Piraha have little concept of the future or past, with limited collective memory or sense of history, and are unable to speak about anything outside of immediate sense experience. The basic stance of Everett and his allies is a version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – the idea that a cultural tendency to not think in abstractions is reflected and reinforced by the Piraha language’s lack of color terms, quantifiers, or numbers.

The debate is more profound than its limited academic scope might suggest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tokyo Journal 1: The Lake of the Unemployed

I went today to a small park near my apartment, where old men ringed a small, meticulously crafted pond, casting lines into it.  The pond was no bigger than my parents' house in America - smaller, even, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room of opaque green water.  The men's tools were not excessive to their task - just simple poles with single lines, no reels.  One man used a pole no longer than his own arm, flicking it as gently as a paintbrush as he pulled in silver, knuckle-long minnows, then, using a chopstick, flicked them off the barbless hook and back into the water.  Most of the men had chairs and umbrellas, drinks and coolers, set for the day.  Noone spoke, except for one man in a straw porkpie hat, gaunt and buttoned into a peach-colored holiday shirt, making conversation mainly with himself. There was one man different from the rest - not old and ready to retire, but middle-aged, with only a streak of grey, and dressed in khakis and long sleeves.  He should have been at work, it was clear.

The silence and stillness of the setting was intoxicating.  A turtle sat on a carefully placed stone in the center of the pond, and over the course of an hour it turned itself, once, and then again, alternating which side was warmed by the sun.  A small flock of sparrows swept from one side of the small space to another, flitting among trees, lighting in the delicate maples and weeping willows that cantilevered over the water.  In that stillness, they were like clowns or children. As I watched the birds, I noticed that the stray businessman had pulled up something golden.  A tiny thing, but he let it flip on the end of his line, turning his head to one side as it threw off water.  He seemed confused.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Paranoid Tourist - Voyeurism and Persecution in Japan

I've noticed a recurring theme when Westerners describe their experience of coming to Japan to the first time - if you are not East Asian, you are likely to be stared at. The stares, as a friend of mine described her own first experience, are not friendly or curious - they're the kind of stares that make one feel less than human, like an object, and most often an impediment. They are from strangers, passing in the street, young and old. This has been represented in culture, most famously by "Lost in Translation", which conveys the sense of alienation and self-consciousness  pretty well. I experienced it myself, both back when I was a kid living in Nagoya, and then for the first few months of being back in Tokyo in 2005 or so.  This stare (back when I was a kid) was part of my dawning perception of racial and cultural difference.  Why, I found myself wondering, was I getting treated like this?

But here's the weird thing about the staring - at least in my own experience, after a certain period of time, it has almost entirely vanished. There are two variables here - obviously, Nagoya in 1990 was a vastly different place culturally than Tokyo in 2005, and so of course the oddity of a foreigner for the people doing the staring is vastly less overall for this second go-round.  My sense of being stared at in Tokyo was never as great as I remember it being in Nagoya, and I certainly never had an experience in Tokyo like the horrifying afternoon when an Obaachan wanted to touch my brother's (curly, blonde) hair.  I did nonetheless feel stared into alienation in Tokyo, even in 2005 - but that sense was gone, maybe after my fifth month here.  There's no reason to look to a shift in the culture of the city to explain that transition.  It's certainly not that my physical appearance has changed, either - if anything I'm weirder looking, with a couple of extra tattoos and a topknot.

There are two explanations that I find compelling for this shift - actually, one explanation with two parts.  The first is that I am not looking for these stares anymore, because I have stopped thinking of myself as an outsider.  As my language skills and cultural savvy have advanced, the idea that I'm a stranger in some radically alien culture has simply gone away.  So maybe I'm still being regarded as a weirdo everywhere I go, but my eyes aren't constantly scanning the faces around me to find confirmation of my own alien-ness.  But I don't think it's simply that I'm not noticing that I'm being stared at - as we all know from experience, humans are extremely good at knowing these things, based on very minimal information.  We have a kind of spider-sense about being stared at, and I simply don't get that tingle with much frequency anymore.

That brings us to my second, related point - that I'm genuinely not being stared at, because I'm not expecting to be stared at.  I think we send out subtle signals that we regard ourselves as odd or unusual, and people respond to those by treating us that way.  The eyes may be the most important of these signals - if I'm constantly checking the faces of those around me for either approval or disapproval, and if I'm moreover projecting insecurity, I'm inviting hard stares, even from people who would probably be nice to me in a more in-depth interaction.

All this is important because it's easy to see this staring as a sign of racism or other deep-seated cultural prejudice against non-Japanese (at least against those recognizable as such).  But more than some hostility based on cultural boundaries as such, I think it might be safer to attribute this (and I'm not the first to say this) to a general Japanese resistance to those who don't belong.  This belonging doesn't necessarily have much to do with things like skin color, appearance, or clothing (though I'll grant it's probably easier for a white person to 'settle in' here than for darker folks), but with body styles, posture, and particularly, with how one uses one's eyes. I am always paranoid about being seen as 'a tourist' - even when I was new here, you'd rarely find me with my map out, neck craned, slowly shuffling down the street in obvious confusion.  But on a much more subtle level, it might be impossible to conceal one's outsider status - I'm reminded here of the research on subconscious micro-expressions that Gladwell reports on in Blink.

The case is a demonstration of the basic concept of intersubjectivity - that who we are as people is constructed in the confrontation with others.  If I think of myself as an outsider - if I'm intimidated by what's going on around me - I invite reinforcing responses from others, and this continues until I'm once again comfortable in my own skin, in my new context.

Do you still feel like you're being started at in Japan?  How do you respond? Or have you, like me, gotten comfortable and stopped noticing it?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Nap of Reason: Financial Collapse and the End of Enlightenment

It’s a day of forceful rain here in Tokyo. In fact, it’s the first real rain in at least a month, and while I would prefer to be off using the last few days of my unlimited rail pass to drift lazily through the countryside on a local train, it’s not too unpleasant to clean my temporary apartment and drink green tea. I’ve also just been listening to the latest Deep Read from Planet Money, an interview with Satayajit Das, a longtime trader and analyst, and author of Traders, Guns, and Money: Knowns and Unkowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives. His basic perspective – that the market is essentially unpredictable - is in line with the ideas presented by many other guests of the show, with Nasim Taleb (The Black Swan) the most entertaining and bold.

While very significant in the realm of economics, what interests me most is that these writers and thinkers are part of a larger explosion into the popular consciousness of a broad set of ideas that refute or revise enlightenment rationalism.  In addition to economics, you'll find these in mathematics and psychology - books like Mlodinow's Drunkard's Walk, Ariely's Predictably Irrational (which I haven't been able to read yet) and the model for most current writing about science and society, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (A fine book, but all the one-word titles that have coattailed it are infuriating: Sway, Nudge, Click . . . ugh).  These books (at least, the ones not by Taleb) are often tentative and hedged, and generally try to integrate their insights into a larger rationalist framework.  But they have nonetheless managed finally to mass-market a vision of the world - and in particular, the world of human action - as one that we are not at all well-equipped to understand.

I'm far too ignorant as yet to make this argument with any sophistication or detail, but there seems to be a lineage here with the set of philosophers that we associate with poststructuralism - figures like Derrida and Lacan who focus on the failures of dialogue and interaction, on the limits of language and reason, particularly, again, as regards human interaction.  What the economic anti-rationalists have discovered is, basically, the same problem of intersubjectivity at the core of Lacanian thought. In post-rationalist economics, no prediction can be accurate, because that prediction itself has consequences that it cannot have taken account of. Similarly, Lacan's account of human action is one in which all of our targets constantly move exactly because we are pursuing them.  All of the conclusions we draw about the people in our lives are distorted by the lens of our own mind, which erects illusion and image where we lack true knowledge.

Economics is also linked with the Lacanian human in a more emotional way. Finance is supposed to play the role of society's resource-allocator, placing investment where it will best serve to satisfy human desire.  But what if the failure of market rationality is caused not just by our inability to anticipate others' perceptions of our actions, but by the ultimate futility of a finance aimed towards Satisfaction? Bringing to bear the concrete strength of money on such a fleeting, ever-changing, and ultimately unattainable thing is surely a recipe for just the chaos we have witnessed.

It remains to be seen whether the financial collapse heralds a greater consciousness of our own limits, and finally push society as a whole to a stage beyond the Enlightenment progressivism that has been our limit for centuries. Even if this shift does begin, there will surely be those who continue to be victims of rationalism. Most obviously, there’s no sign Wall Street traders are going to give up their formulae or the sense of certainty they’re selling. There’s also a strange sense in which rationalism, albeit in distorted form, underlies one of the most patently irrational phenomena of the past few years - the mania, particularly among those most afraid of collapse, for gold bullion.  Gold is the ultimate illusion of safety, a safety based entirely on the expectation that others will continue to think of it as valuable.  While simple-minded, this is not so much different from the faith that traders put into their models and graphs.  What gold represents is the externalization of faith - and we as a society are beginning to see just how much of a blind leap it is to trust in reason.