Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Artur LOZANO-MENDEZ

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

The 26th JAWS conference was held on the Faculty of Arts & Sciences of the splendid South Campus of Bosphorus University, from the 1st to the 4th of September 2015. Thanks to the efforts of the organisers, the faculty of BoğaziçiUniversity and the team of volunteers, the conference went on without a hitch. Rather than making the attendees drowsy, the heat seemed to spark lively arguments and exchanges, both in the panel discussions, and in the aisles and outdoors conversations.

Fig. 1: A few snapshots taken during the conference: cats at the benches in the backyard garden of the faculty (1); a small boat went up in flames while a group of attendees were carrying on the conversation in a bar with a view of the harbour near the South Campus (2); a vista of the Bosphorus from the hills of the university (3); one of the many bridges crossing the Bosphorus Strait, snapped during the dinner cruise (4)

Rather than breezing through the parallel panels, summarizing the already summarized abstracts of the conference program, and throwing the occasional personal remark here and there, I would like to focus this report on just one of the excellent array of panels of this year’s JAWS conference. I am selecting this one only because it is the one where I jotted down more notes. All panels were of a consistent quality throughout the conference and this became a repeated remark and observation in aisle conversations.

On Wednesday, Sept. 2nd, the panel «Representing Nature and Technology in Japan» was held from 14:30h, right after lunch, to 18:30h. This was a long panel that encompassed two sessions, with a half hour break at 16h. The panel was organised by Dr. Dolores Martinez (SOAS, University of London; Oxford), who had structured the panel so that paper presentations would not sprawl over a 20 minutes. The panel chair, Dr. Paul Hansen (Hokkaido University), supervised the time management of the sessions, and he made good use of the extra time to allow for exchanges with the audience after each of the presentations. This proved to be a wise decision as the panel comprised seven papers and opening the floor only at the end would have probably meant that the papers of the first session would have received less feedback. Of the two venues where parallel panels were being held, this one was held in the smaller classroom, which allowed attendees to better hear the questions and comments of fellow audience members. All these factors resulted in a lively panel.

The roster of presentations of the panel was opened by Fabio Gygi (SOAS, University of London) and the paper “Tsukumogamiki: representation and animation.” The paper was focused on the text of the Tsukumogamiki (“Record of tool kami”) of the Muromachi period. The actual definition and understanding of the concept oftsukumogamiis subject to debate and it was addressed in the presentation. A baseline definition of tsukumogami is that they are household objects that acquire a spirit over time (a period of almost 100 years according to the Tsukumogamiki; Noriko Reider’s translation). Many cultural practices and beliefs revolve around this notion. Thus, the paper explored an enshrinement oftsukumogamiand Shinto practices. The research and analysis proposed an exploration of “animation” as the practice of “ensouling matter,” a concept borrowed from Victoria Nelson (2001). Another interesting theoretical spin on the term “animation” was “recalcitrant animation,” a discontinuous quality of objects that actualises itself when such objects fail us as if following a will of their own. 

The thread of abandonment and the elicitation of emotional response in humans by humanly created or altered objects and environments was picked up by the following panellist, Katsuno Hirofumi (Osaka University of Economics), in his paper “Residues of Technological Utopia: The Formation of Ruinophilia in Post-Industrial Japan”. Katsuno’s research consisted of ethnography conducted in haikyo(廃墟), ruins, such as the Maya Tourist Hotel, in Kobe (cf. the web Abandoned Kansai). While embedded in organised tours of these abandoned facilities, Katsuno inquired about the reasons driving the informers and their reactions to the places themselves. “Utopian” spaces such as fun parks turned into chronal heterotopias; Gukanjima, a heteropia of deviation that made possible the utopian pretensions of empire–they all serve as the heterotopical mirror through which visitors can make out their own countenance. The current nostalgic streak of the ruinophilia (amply shared through new media and social networks) also has a precarious code that negotiates the claims to the locus ofhaikyo. It is not merely an abandoned place that becomes a ruin. Indeed, once abandoned places are “properly” decaying, their aesthetic value goes up.haikyois not just bereavement and isolation, it layers time over that, and time becomes distance, and this mental distance becomes peace of mind. One can admire the scar and remain still; the bleeding wound, on the other hand, demands a reaction that cannot possibly be evaded. When do places that were meant to be inhabited turn into actual fossils? Katsuno is still carrying on with the research, which opens a host of potential lines of analysis.

The presentations continued revealing the anxieties and struggles inherent in the “politics of signification” (Hall 2009:122) of popular culture. Next was Dr. Griseldis Kirsch’s “Technology versus Nature – Life Imitating Art in Higuchi Shinji’s Sinking of Japan (2006)” paper. The analysis of Higuchi’s film was a springboard for a more incisive scrutiny of the “security myth” (安全神話, ansen shinwa) that touched upon the national insecurities that Funabiki Takeo summarised in his notion of historical “anxiety” (不安, fuan) emerging, or rather, resurfacing in moments of crisis; the both solid and precarious relationship of Japan with the USA; the imaginings and representations of the national collective confronted with catastrophe; the literary/mythical resort to the sacrifice of the one character for the good of the many (a trope present in other disaster films and even Honda’s Gojira, 1954). Finally, there is quite a measure of skepticism in many of these films concerning the potential of human ingenuity to overcome Nature’s course. 

After the 30 minutes pause, I presented my paper “I am where I think not, naturally” (Artur Lozano-Méndez, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). This paper is an attempt at applying Jacques Lacan’s “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud” (1957, 1966) to the works of director Oshii Mamoru, focusing on the treatment of Nature vi-à-vis technology. The research studies Oshii’s representation of humans’ mediated access to reality under Lacan’s signifying chain’s prism–such mediatedness being reinforced by Oshii in performance, production design, composition, sound, editing… Lacan’s reflections on the metaphorical and metonymical semiotic inexhaustibility, Jeannot’s knife, intersubjectivity, the animal condition, and play–they all illuminate Oshii’s films in new and engaging ways. I will not expand on the content of the paper here because I feel that would be too self-serving.

Next, Dr. Lola Martinez presented her paper “Zombies in the countryside: Okita’s 「キツツキと雨」(2011)”. Released shortly before the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 in Japan, the fiction underscores the uneasy coping of the Japanese with modern lifestyles. Thus, the film presents a variety of eco-zombies that embody a retaliation of Nature against the equally zombifying fit all, end all, be all model of modernity. Respecting Romero’s template, though, the film does not depict sentient empathetic zombies such as the ones of In the Flesh(the recent BBC drama series). A parallel is drawn between the drifting Japanese youths and the zombies. The zombies, in their lack of empathy, solidarity and self-concern, are presented as an impasse and the film renounces wishful thinking and happy endings. As was the case with Higuchi’s proposal, Okita’s film is also incredulous of leaderships (symbolized by the character of a film director in a metalinguistic play) and the ability of humans when it comes to the containment of Nature.

Dr. Hideko Mitsui (Universidade de Macau, 澳門大學) followed with a paper entitled “Nostalgia for Moominvalley: Commodification and Nature-Friendliness in Contemporary Japan.” The paper analysed the popularity and commercial use in Japan of Moomin, the character created by Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914–2001). The character was introduced in Japan in the seventies and its popularity peaked during the nineties. Marketing strategies licensing the character exploit its enduring nostalgic association with a harmonic Arcadian nature-friendly way of life. Thus, the character has been used to sell “eco-conscience” in products that are clearly not ecological. Firms marketing technological and lab-designed products, such as Nissan or Shiseido, have used Moomin in past advertising campaigns. 

The last paper, by Jutta Teuwsen (Universität Düsseldorf) analysed “The Merging of Technology and Nature in Contemporary Japanese Arts.” The paper analysed not just the representation of Nature and technology in the work of an assortment of Japanese artists, but also the resort to technology in the creative process to aid in the baring of Nature, as in the work of Konoike Tomoko and her illumination of inner parts of the body. Of note also is the use of video and installation by Tabaimo to depict biological and physical processes. In her pictorial output, Aoshima Chiho has proved to be most adept in unveiling the dead, nihilistic aspects that more frothy depictions of modernity tend to downplay, and she does so by subverting that very cheerfulness and forcing it to share the canvas with its very opposite. Finally, Ikeda Manabu’s work adopts a perception, displayed also by other artists analysed in the panel, of a Nature involved with humanities’ preferences or pursuits. 

Before concluding, we would be remiss not to stress the mood of congeniality that characterised the conference. Important factors in facilitating this are: the scheduling of breaks between sessions, the fact that the number of participants is not astronomical, and the organisation of parallel activities where researchers can get to know each other beyond the contents of their respective papers. All the organisers, from the scientific committee that examined the panel proposals to the last volunteer, deserve credit for a fabulous conference.