[The following post was triggered by a discussion thread in the EdX on-line “MOOC” Visualizing Japan, though beyond the scope of that course. The thread started with staff questions about the nature of DEMOCRACY, NATION, & EMPIRE, provoking my thoughts from the comparative histories to broader issues of “parts & wholes,” and from there to the rich, lively, and diverse Japanese aesthetic.]
What is democracy? nationhood? empire? etc.
These are extremely interesting question on many levels, one of which was illustrated by the recent vote in Scotland where the tension between two levels of potential group identity were so clearly represented. History is filled with the struggles between would-be separatists & would-be consolidators at every order of magnitude—regional versus national at one level, national versus imperial at another, for example.
Nor is there a single scale for defining levels, as the tribal sense of ‘sovereign nationhood’ felt by many Native Americans (as well as by some members of other ethnic groups) may illustrate. Levels themselves can be variously defined, e.g., as a hierarchy of authority, “Chinese eggs” (one within another), or even social strata (as commonly seen in riots, like those in Hibiya Park, Tokyo, where a mob turns against signs of authority & establishment).
Easy value judgments about such conflicts & their interpretations are often turned on their heads by subsequent history. Swept up in the immediacy of self-righteous indignation & the tactical imperatives of its collective anger, the mob can take on a life of its own, sometimes very much at odds with the longer-term interests of participants. What may start as an expression of the people’s will, exuberance, and power (shown, for example, in the destruction of police boxes) can turn the corner to destroy the community’s own infrastructure (e.g., the streetcars).
It is practically a truism that separatist coalitions (an alliance of groups that “separate themselves” from the established order & its authorities), if successful, tend to fragment, turning the separatist urge on former partners into a struggle for control or dominance. The recent developments in Egypt, from mass public expression to provisional government to elections, attempt to consolidate power, popular & military reaction, etc. provides a ready example.
The core idea of “democracy” may stem from what can be called a will to self-determination, whether by individuals (as in a constitutional democracy with personal rights specified) or groups, as when “a people” defines itself as a nation in possession of “its own territory,” or a community rises up to assert its voice. As shown in the Egyptian example, the lines separating “mob,” “sub-culture,” “faction,” “community” & “the people” easily blur into each other, particularly when the action heats up.
The “demo” in democracy refers of course to the people, but fails to specify exactly which people. As a result, all kinds of people have their own definitions, sometimes excluding others from the category, even within an historically shared territory. Some assume democracy means each person has an equal vote and majority rules. Others that it presumes certain constitutional protections and guaranteed personal rights. On the other hand, there are countries with quite autocratic, hierarchical systems that call themselves things like “The People’s Democratic Republic of Such-&-such.”
When you get right down to it, most “people” may have quite limited influence–or even assurance of protection–even in the most democratic of democracies. As for guarantees of “life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness,” well, just ask those young Americans drafted into the Vietnam escapade, for example, how secure those rights were. Whether holding relatively open elections every few years or headed by “supreme leaders” with lifetime tenure, nations generally function “in the name of the people as a whole,” but act through representatives, agents, agencies, bureaus and departments.Ostensibly acting on behalf of “the people,” the agencies themselves are often strictly hierarchical in decision-making, command and control, as well as in how resources get distributed. Whatever the economic theories embraced, there are close correlations between those with greatest resources, status, influence, and authority. In the most extremely unequal societies, stark divisions may appear between “the people” and those ostensibly governing them on their behalf.
Those “in charge” may be composed of two classes, overlapping on rising up the hierarchy–those who decide and those who follow orders to carry decisions out. “The people” tend to see these two as the same, with most (if not all) direct interactions involving those carrying out orders, implementing policies and enforcing regulations.
In good times, people may feel they have a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Other times, large segments of the people may feel completely and irreconcilably at odds with those who regulate their society. In one incident, the people may destroy police installations; in another, police may do the rioting. The people may fill the streets, blocking all other commerce; the army may be ordered to restore order. In one situation, the people demand justice from its own agencies; in another, a mob demands injustice.
All this takes place in the name of “the people,” a sense of group identity often potent, sometimes compelling, yet also loose, subject to pivots, shifts and inflammations, factions and fractures along a variety of lines and between classes. While these do not invalidate the concept of “the people,” they do remind us of the old adage, the devil’s in the details, i.e., not in the ideological packaging. A fair assessment must look past the slogan to the substance, past the propaganda to the practice.
Our group identities have been and remain central to our survival & well being, yet, like many tools, have double-edged blades. Their evident advantages include the potential to make wholes greater than the sum of their parts, thereby enhancing all the parts. So people work together to protect themselves, their land, livelihoods & culture from other groups, not all of whom are friendly. We recapitulate our ability to cooperate on behalf of shared self-interests in team sports, for example, where each team assembles a variety of skills united by the end they hold in common.
Our sense of identity includes both I & we, me & us. The plural can be filled by pair-bond, family, comrades, team-mates, companions, clan-members, countrymen, fellow so-&-so’s, even all who share a language, land &/or compatible concept of civilization. As with the behavior of birds in a flock, there’s no clear separation between singular and shared identities. Thanks to mirrior-neurons, the capacity for empathy and other expressions of entanglement, even our brains & body chemistries are inter-connected.
pluralism can convey a variety of advantages to a group or society, providing the larger whole the benefit of many perspectives, approaches, skills & capacities, so long as these are sufficiently coordinated. By an interesting quirk in the nature of organic, economic & other dynamic systems, a whole tends to produce a greater, more useful synergy the greater the diversity of its parts—up to a point, and within certain necessary conditions.
The parts have to be able to work together effectively, in other words, each in its own way, within the larger scheme of things, since differences can lead to conflict as well a cooperation. Division of labor illustrates the synergistic potential, while the destructiveness of feud, warfare and factional division may remind us of what happens when diverse elements make the whole less than the sum of its parts, all of whom may suffer and be diminished.
Group solidarity and the sense of having interests-in-common may be heightened under threat from other groups. Competition and cooperation can therefore fuel each other up multiple levels of organization, each higher level faced requiring higher level responses, as the bigger the threat, the greater the incentive to join with others to meet it. Much conventional social history seems to be about group efforts to orient, subjugate, consolidate, or eliminate other groups from a particular territory—or, alternatively, efforts to protect one’s group & territory from the same, often in alliances with similarly motivated groups.
Being both more or less confined within their land mass and subject to invasion, island people tend towards political consolidations, whatever the nature of the internal accommodation, by federation and/or conquest. Even in large, connected land masses, however, there are pressures toward confederations of various kinds, including efforts to impose extended imperial yokes with systems of tribute, taxation, and conscription, along with cultural values and bond-affirming rites of deference and respect.
All such yokes are not created equal. Some may more than pay their way by the value they add through maintaining codes of behavior, standards of law, justice, and economic exchange, while also encouraging the shared cultural expressions which shape the sense of identity held in common, including the arts and sciences. While civil authorities regulate matters of individual rights, contracts, and other responsibilities, expanded cultural opportunities may enhance the lives of individuals and the sense of shared identity across class, clan and time.
Higher levels of organization have their costs also, as well as at times their perversions, abuses, over-extensions, and factional or ideological obsessions. Whatever the theories behind them, structures also reflect those who run them.
More fundamentally, they also obey the laws of diminishing returns with respect to investment in their own infrastructure. An initial investment in roads can have a tremendous impact on the level of economic and cultural exchange, for example, promoting a communal sense. Further investment in super-structure may produce at some point not just less gain, but actual harm, reduction in productive activity. Maintaining those at the top of all the management structures at the many branching levels of state machinery in their accustomed style can become a burdensome oppression, for example; another may be seen in the counter-intuitive gridlock that can result from crowding too many roads into an already congested space.
These are phenomena & characteristics associated with systems which combine what we might call “horizontal & vertical relationships,” the former being exchanges between individuals on more or less the same level, more or less regulated in turn by agencies operating from a higher level. Cells in an organism differentiate according to organizing instructions & situation, where they find themselves in relation to neighbors, tissues, organs, etc.
Or, in economics, you & I may do business, each with something to exchange of value to the other, buyers &/or sellers theoretically on the same level, each free to negotiate satisfactory terms or walk away. Yet our ability to do business exists only by virtue of being facilitated by the system as a whole–government currency, roads, postal service, internet, laws against fraud, plus countless other cooperative instruments. Horizontal transactions exist within the vertical systems often just taken for granted.
The “vertical” element in this equation may itself be variously organized, e.g., by hereditary lineages, by region & scale, by constitutional compact providing some aspect or another of democratic input. There is often the “nesting” of levels or orders of magnitude, from local organization to a broader, more regional level, & from there to the national &/or imperial. Which level best represents &/or serves the people?
Of course there’s no one answer to that question, nor are people themselves consistent in how they answer it–in different times, moods, conditions, & situations. Nevertheless, in modern history at least, the nation state has carried much weight in human affairs, as well as how people identify themselves. In most cases, the sense of national identity seems to have deeper attachment than to the greater empire–except, of course, for those nations which have also developed the imperial characteristics.
The relative national unity Japan enjoyed presumably conveyed a level of protection the more divided territories of China and India lacked, each with vacuums colonial agencies sought to fill. The colonial powers intended to extract value, yes, generally the primary objective, but often sought to provide some benefits in return also, through expanded trade and cultural exchange. Whether trading metal tools for beaver pelts, or providing administrative, constabulary and judicial services, this “something in return” may distinguish imperial authority from the opportunistic piracy of raiders & enslavers.
History itself, it seems, is more mixed at the core than simplistic interpretations generally allow. It seems self-evident that not all the “goods” conveyed by colonial powers had true value, but equally undeniable that some people, products, and services did convey such value, whether to selected individuals or to the territories as a whole. Beyond the direct national or colonial ledger, the networks developed may give rise to higher orders of beneficial exchange—technologies, sciences, arts, ideas, ways of thinking and making.
If there are possibilities for exploitation, corruption, and pollution, there are also opportunities for learning, reason, cooperation, mutual benefit, and enlightened self-interest developing across time, even with respect to humanity as a whole. In colonized India’s case, as in the Americas, colonial fruits included democratic ideals, as represented by the idea of swaraj, self-determination.
Being so mixed, histories get complicated quickly, as societies go on wrestling with overlapping orders of authority—individuals, families, clans, tribes, mobs, regional states, companies, nations, trans-national corporations, interational compacts and alliances, biological foundations and planetary commitments. In many cases, reversals are more the rule than the exception. In Japan’s case, an over-extended imperial ambition led to degradation, suffering, even foreign occupation—which in turn led to a close 21st Century friendship.
in a Japanese context…
Japan has such a long national history, it has integrated not just its diverse territorial regions into its geography but civil wars, factional divisions and many other internal conflicts, making a single historical fabric passed along with artistic representations of people, places & events in the various times & multiple places–in many genres, materials & media, bringing multiple perspectives to any reflection.
Besides the usual variety of tragedies, comedies, & romances one might expct in any country with a rich history, Japan seems to have as rich a graphic & literary heritage as can be found anywhere in the world, with subjects ranging from lowest human failings to highest human achievements, most disciplined observation to wildest flights of fancy. It may be worth noting that the United States has developed its national identity much more recently.
From its mish-mash of countless mostly independent tribes, communities, colonies, and even warring states, the United States goes on struggling to integrate its internal divisions, feuds, battles over individual and group rights, and overlapping levels of government into the kind of whole that adds value to its parts. As it expanded westward, fueled in part by European expansionism, it took on an increasingly imperial character to native nations and to empires already there.
Whether original inhabitants are pushed out or ally in some fashion with the more powerful forces and their imposed systems of control, the land becomes part of the greater empire. What one viewpoint considers imperial conquest, another regards as nation-building, with no clear boundary between nationhood and empire. When nations are conquered and/or voluntarily submit to a higher order of authority, they may also retain a degree of quasi-national identity and/or cultural autonomy, whether by explicit treaty or by means of psycho-social undercurrent, a sense of independence from the dominant culture.
Psychological borders, like geographical ones, are never fully secure, or even clear to those who may feel different kinds of group identity even at the same time. The more burdensome the conformity, obedience, deference, tribute and/or taxation demanded seems, the greater the motive to resist, even when futile, giving rise to heroes and martyrs. There’s a paradoxical, inherent contradiction in the tension between degrees of imposed control and will to resist, or, turned around, degree of separatist activity hostile to the dominant order and will to establish demonstrable control.
It is often said that history is written by the victors, but few, if any, victories are absolute, particularly where thoughts, feelings and expression are involved. Along with the territories, nation and empire both absorb their defeated, including the blood shed into the land by victor and defeated alike. Sacrifices, on behalf of whatever groups and ideals (but at base for the land), run together to nurture the joined roots across generations.
The same shed blood may fester, fostering habored resentments that can flare up with opportunity and/or provocation, as well as nurture a shared national sense of belonging to the one land, “where our fathers died,” as one anthem goes, made sacred partly by the sense of ancestral presence. On the one hand there is the potential for inherited feud; on the other, the potential for working together on behalf of the new whole.
One can’t separate cultural identity from its roots in the land, from which it weaves threads of folklore, myth, all manner of imagery, thought, philosophies and arts, including those of politics & government. A lot depends on the how institutions of authority are exercised & perceived.
Do they seem to constrict, constrain, demand an uncomfortable conformity, exact a burdensome taxation? Or do they encourage peace with one’s neighbors, shared prosperity, and expanded opportunities for self-expression? Does the group in charge recognize, respect & even represent its diverse elements as parts of itself, or does it offer the conquered only a subservient, obsequious third-class assimilation (& that only by demonstrating servility, obedience & service to the superior group)?
By such inclusions & exclusions, the sense of an “us” may take shape, as both reflected & promoted by representations of all types, in all communication, in all media, whether mass or local. Where cultural identity is involved, the representations may be considered in some ways more significant than the historical events themselves. This is partly attributable to the fact that important aspects of perspective are conveyed by treatment, the point of view expressed & attitudes embodied. There may be another, larger factor, however, simply in the fact that the representations themselves are indigenous reflections, and it is these that ultimately make the physical events part of the conceptual history.
Perry & the black ships, being portrayed in distinctly Japanese representations, become part of Japanese history. The same may be said even for acts of native villainy, cruelty & oppression. Being portrayed by sensitive artists & faithful historians with no complicity, these, too, become part of the shared historical identity.
the Japanese aesthetic of parts & wholes
Despite some western misconceptions to the contrary, the deeper Japanese aesthetic reflects and celebrates a dynamic balance between wholeness and diversity, oneness and variety. One can see and experience the commitment to diversity and variety in the culinary, literary, and architectural arts, to take just three examples across a wide range of artistic specialties. Nuances of various flavors and the subtleties of diverse elements are heightened with contrasts, complimentary echoes, pivots and shifts, whether we are talking plate & palate, progression in a linked poem, or kinds of joints used in the emergence of a single structure.
In traditional joinery, 50 quite different kinds of joints may be intentionally employed, some by nature respected all the more for remaining hidden. In renga, linked poetry, the pivots & shifts from leaping stanza to stanza (& poet to poet!) keep the conversation lively, en route to an aesthetic representation of the whole. Perhaps something of the same shows up in the sequence of un-foldable screens. A similar appreciation of multiple perspectives, even with a single artist considering a single subject, can be seen in the many views of Fuji. Rashomon offers one kind of example in film, the idea of an event variously viewed and interpreted.
Kurosawa offers a different kind of film example in the variety of treatments, moods, kind of story portrayed segment to segment in Dreams, his visual renga, with its nod to Basho, the timeless 17th Century linked poetry guide whose masterpiece, oku no hosomichi, represents an astounding unity composed of a deceptively simple and lightly drawn sequence of travel sketches, which gather threads of the country’s ground, history, folklore, ecology and cultural legacy ro weave a single great pilgrimage of communion with the land and its inhabitants, then & across time, companions from all walks of life, poets from near & far.
Basho himself explores the many dimensions of cultural representation in ways & levels unmatched in world literature. Lao-tse may be more explicitly philosophical, Rumi & Whitman more overtly ecstatic, Aurobindo more mantric, and many more mythically committed to particular metaphor sets, but none are more multi-dimensional than Basho, let alone as intimately conversational.
All cross borders, the way way music does, many quite explicitly. Rumi calls himself “Christian, Jew & Muslim” (as well as Chinese & Indian). Whitman sharers “passages from India,” sings the every-self electric, and says, “look for me under your soles,” ar one with the ground, the dirt & the earth. Aurobindo & Lao-tse are the masters of wholeness, one synthesizing eastern & western ideals, the other the dynamic of yin & yang in the nature of things.
Each makes a great contribution to potential identity, who &/or what we are in our multiple relations, at the multiple levels of self & all. From a cultural perspective, each opens a window on the soil that created him—a good part of it local, but each with significantly global elements, including a debt felt in part to poets & others from afar. Basho provides the best insight into Japanese culture (as Aurobindo does for the Gita, and perhaps the poetry of Indo-Aryan worlds). He is at once the most distinctly Japanese writer & window on the world’s shared legacy of writing that crosses borders as readily as levels.
Bod Library has had a hand in two published translations of the oku-no-hosomichi so far, rendered in the anthologies (for recognition’s sake) as Narrow Road through the Backcountry. A third, rendered as Basho’s Backcountry Ways (trails within) is in progress, along with Backcountry Ways–& Beyond, a book-length, in-depth exploration of the work, its aesthetic roots & “inner elements,” including a “Trail Companion Guide” to the passages in Basho’s journey. These background materials may be accessed at www.bodlibrary.info as they go up. For pdf. with the fresh translation itself, email your request c/o email@example.com with “Basho’s text” in subject line & a word on your interest in the body. (Include VJx & related bits of self-introduction if connected to the Visualizing Japan MOOC, for example.)