Conference Istanbul 2015 – Report Michael FACIUS

Michael FACIUS
Freie Universität Berlin

As someone who has mainly been working on the history of Chinese knowledge in late Edo and Meiji Japan over the last few years, I am very grateful to the conveners of an anthropological conference on technology and nature in contemporary Japan for accepting my amateurish paper proposal on Japanese Augmented Reality (AR) apps for smartphones. I would also like to thank the Toshiba Foundation for the conference grant that allowed me to travel to Istanbul and deliver it.

In my paper, I presented an attempt to understand AR apps as a tool or technology that can enable new kinds of knowledge practices in relation to nature. In addition to the manipulation of smartphones to augment visual or aural cognition, conceptualizations and representations of nature/technology can be understood as vital practices in the construction and transmission of knowledge. The contributions to the conference confirmed my perception that these broadly conceived practices are a point of connection between approaches in the history of knowledge and anthropology.

I learned a lot from the diverse papers presented in Istanbul, from Halide Velioğlu’s (Karabuk University) timely analysis of fictitious first-person accounts of the victims of police violence produced in the aftermath of the Gezi park protests of 2013, to Louella Matsunaga’s (Oxford Brookes University) comparison of the rationales and procedures of reporting hospital deaths in England and Japan. However, in this brief selective report I will concentrate on the papers that relate more closely to the issue of knowledge/practices in light of the main theme of the conference.

That “nature” and “technology” are not separate and complementary phenomena, but products of a modern conceptual differentiation, is a well-established notion.[1]Many of the papers dealt with the transgression of the boundaries between the two or the production of one through the other. Sport is an arena where these boundaries are particularly tightly enforced and called into question at the same time, as William Kelly (Yale University) succinctly showed. Where does the athlete end and technology begin? With high-tech running shoes? Bow and arrow? The horse? The wheelchair? On what grounds can a trans woman be barred from competing with other, conventionally “woman”-identified persons? How should gender in sports be controlled anyway? Through self-identification? Hormone levels? Chromosomes? From a discussion of these problems, which are simultaneously about ontology, governance, engineering and ethics, Kelly turned to ponder the future of the Olympics. The games in Tokyo in 1964 were the first to bring together the Olympics and Paralympics in one event; the Tokyo campaign for 2020 was won in part thanks to its promise to create a barrier-free city. Will the two competitions merge in the long term and transform professional sports into a more inclusive arena less occupied with bodily difference?

The papers in the panel on technology and sexuality further explored the theme of the creation and definition of “nature” through technology. Yoko Kumada (JSPS Fellow) attended in her paper based on fieldwork in an SM club to technologies used by sex workers to produce and sustain “natural” bodies, from pubic hair removal to breast enlargement and vaginal lubricants. Japanese men, Genaro Castro-Vazquez (Nanyang University) found, are now wooed into undergoing penile surgery by advertisements that promise better relationships and more confidence through a glans enlargement or the insertion of silicon balls into the shaft.

It is worth noting that the phenomena under discussion in these papers are all globally inflected. What is at stake is not primarily “Japaneseness” and culturally specific concepts of gender (even though preferences for pubic hairstyles or penis implants will surely differ across countries), but economic considerations, as illustrated by the Olympic committee, the mushrooming beauty clinics and the sex industry. If not explicitly, the papers seemed to say that the rigid boundaries between able-bodied and disabled, beautiful and ugly, male and female are policed and perpetuated not least by decisions in marketing departments, thus shaping desires, identities, behaviors and career options.[2]

In contrast to these papers, Fabio Gygi (SOAS) presented a rather Japanese view of nature in his discussion of the tsukumogami kithat relates tales of animated household objects. He argued against explaining away the complexity of the narrative by invoking the culturalist trope of Shinto techno-animism, stressing instead practices of “ensouling”: in the story, rituals are a necessary ingredient to animate the tool gods.[3]This resonated, but also gave an interesting twist to a discussion in the panel on robot technology. There, Martin Rathmann (Heidelberg University) referred to the concept of the “play-mode” which tries to explain the curious fact that we interact with robot pets, which are “in reality” inanimate, as if they were actual living beings. It might be instructive from an anthropological perspective to understand this play-mode as a comparable animating practice, just like the AR app relating to the anime series mushishithat appeared in my paper, which makes visible – and simultaneously more real – mythical creatures called mushi.[4]

As we have seen, issues of “reality” and the limits of enlightenment ontology cropped up repeatedly throughout the conference. That is probably no coincidence, but indicative of a larger paradigmatic shift in the humanities currently underway.[5]My impression after attending the JAWS conference was that the anthropology of Japan is in an excellent position to propel this conversation forward.

In wrapping this report up, I would like to add that I was particularly impressed by a round table organized by Erdal Küçükyalçın (Boğaziçi) that showcased the developments and achievements of Japanese Studies in Turkey. Since the founding of the “veteran” programs at Ankara University and Boğaziçi University in the 1980s, there has been a significant expansion of faculty and programs that deal with Japanese language, culture and society. It was exiting to hear about this from many of the scholars who initiated this boom as well as the next generation who will carry it forward.

[1]See e.g. Kirsten Hastrup, ed. (2014). Anthropology and Nature. New York: Routledge.

[2]On this see also the intriguing account by Peggy Orenstein (2011) on the manufacture of “princess culture”, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Girlie-Girl Culture. New York: Harper.

[3]“Ensouling matter” is a concept taken from Victoria Nelson (2001). The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[4]A related argument about “petness” as a relational category is made in Jen Wrye (2009). “Beyond Pets: Exploring Relational Perspectives of Petness.” Canadian Journal of Sociology34(4), pp. 1033–1063. 

[5]Calls for the multiplication of ontologies are voiced from different quarters right now. See e.g. Greg Anderson (2015). “Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past: The Case for an Ontological Turn,” American Historical Review120,3, pp. 787–810; Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters (2015). “Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space33, pp 247–264. Cf. also the remark by JAWS member Joy Hendry on current initiatives for a “mutual anthropology” that “does not rely on the thinking of the Enlightenment”: Joy Hendry (2015). “The State of Anthropology in and of Japan: A Review Essay.” Japan Forum 27(2), pp. 121–133, here p. 130.