Thursday, 31 December 2009

Love of ruins / picking up things / ghosts

Utopia and the uncanny – on picking up things

In my previous entry I described the anime Beautiful Dreamer as suffused by a love of ruins. Later I learned from the DVD commentary that Oshii Mamoru, the director, used to imagine town or school as lying in ruins during his time as a school dropout in junior high. This certainly explains part of the utopian luster that simmers over the sunlit landscape of the empty town and especially over the haunting image of the abandoned school, half sunk into a lake.

That ruins can be the locus of utopian imagination may seem strange. Aren’t ruins usually said to inspire fear, a feeling of the uncanny or creepy? (This aspect of ruins can also be seen in the anime. We see it in the motif of Doppelgängers, in the sense of damnation expressed by one of the teachers, and in the desolate night streets where eerie music is suddenly heard). How can we explain that uncanny ghostly things can also make us feel free, as if bringing with them an air of utopia?

Let’s recall what ruins are: part of the realm of no-man’s-land. It is garbage writ large, an abandoned object which no-one wants or needs anymore. Recently, perusing one of the old copies of Ningen kaihô (Dameren’s old minikomi, of which I now have a complete set thanks to a helpful former participant), I came across an interesting essay by Kikuchi Hisahiko. Referring to what Kashima Jûichi had called the “strange pleasure of things being for free” (Kashima had proposed a “free price market” in an earlier essay and also used the volunteer activities in Kamagasaki or in Kobe after the earthquake as examples of this pleasure), Kikuchi suggests that this pleasure doesn’t stem only from the feeling of having gained something or made a “bargain”, but rather from the liberation from the very idea of gaining things, of profit. Kikuchi observes that free things seem to break with the very logic of money, being things that escape the “general equivalent”. Since the market is a place for exchange, the very idea of things being for free is an anomaly. To children, a garbage station can be a treasure mountain. As they grow up, however, they learn not to pick up things, but to shun them.
Things ‘not belonging to anyone’ are indeterminate. We usually think of such things as ambiguous and suspicious, as lacking substance. Maybe behind that image is the train of thought that discarded things are unnecessary and therefore worthless. In any case, discarded things stir up feelings of anxiety, compared to commodities that instead provide relief by virtue of being universally determined [through the price] […]. But if something is indeterminate, what stops us from determining it ourselves? We can accord it value to us, even if it is unnecessary and worthless to everybody else. To put it somewhat exaggeratedly, this is an act of creation. In this lies the pleasure of picking up things that are for free. (Kikuchi 1996:20)
Here’s an important clue to the ambivalence of ruins. Things that are abandoned or discarded are uncanny and inspire anxiety – until we pick them up! Abandoned and unwanted by others, we can give them value. Giving value to something is, as Kikuchi points out, a form of creation. By picking a thing up, we single it out, we redeem it.

Come to think of it, aren’t the best and most memorable things in life almost always things we’ve gotten without paying for them? Wonderful meetings, revelations, splendid ideas, love?

Yes, this is creation. That is what many artists do: they pick up a thing, and it becomes art. Photography turns sights that are for free into art. Ogawa Tetsuo published a magazine consisting of the scraps he found in garbage bins.

There is a whole long tradition linking rag-picking to happy endings. Think of the fairytale youngest brother who succeeds in his task only thanks to the useless things he picks up on the way. Think of Pippi Longstocking.

The precondition of rag-picking is the existence of a realm of abandoned and unwanted things: things lying around in no-man’s-land, litter, uncanny ruins, the abject refuse of humanity, rejected – yet for that very reason part of the commons.

Until now I have portrayed no-man’s-land in bright colors, as the locus of a utopian imagination. Yet it is clear that not only ruins, but the entire realm of no-man’s-land partakes of the uncanny. The word itself evokes horror: the hell of war, execution grounds, wasteland, armies of dead. The fear of no-man’s-land is the fear of conditions in which civilization is gone, where rules no longer apply and murder is no longer a crime.

By picking a thing up, we redeem it. But who could redeem all the dead? Not even Benjamin’s new angel.

Murakami Haruki, ghosts, and the solidarity with the dead

However, there is a way of solidarizing oneself with junk and refuse which does not depend on the ability to "pick up" and give value to it. Lets look at the following passage from Murakami Haruki's Hardboiled Wonderland, where the protagonist compares his life to a beach where junk is washed ashore by the waves and then washed back into the sea.
When I look back over my life so far, I see all that junk on the beach. It’s how my life has always been. Gathering up the junk, sorting through it, and then casting it off somewhere else. All for no purpose, leaving it to wash away again.[…] This is all my life. I merely go from one beach to another. (Murakami 1993:375)
Here the uncanniness of junk is superseded, but in another way than that described by Kikuchi. "Picking up" and redeeming things by giving them value seems to presuppose the unimpaired agency of a fully "living" person who through his act of creation is capable of suspending and abolishing the "death" or fallen condition of junk. In Murakami we see something else: a subjectivity that is powerless to create value, which is itself part of the fallen condition and which seems to feel at home among the junk precisely because it is not fully "living" itself.

There is what I would like to call a "solidarity with the dead" that suffuses Murakami Haruki’s fiction and gives it its famous "dark" coloring. The city wanderings of his heroes often lead them down to dried out wells, moist cellars, damp attics, long labyrinthine corridors, subterranean passages and the like - all with a distinctly sepulchral air. It has often been pointed out that these typically cold, dark and lifeless places represent an “other world” mirroring the unconscious of the narrator.
Saying this perhaps I will be misunderstood again, but I feel an immense sympathy for the dead. When all is said and done, my sympathy for the dead is stronger than for the living, and my sympathy for the non-existent stronger than for those who exist. (Murakami, in Murakami & Kawamoto 1985:67)
Not only junk, but ghosts too lose their uncanniness in Murakami's fiction. Although many of the people who populate his fiction are ghost-like, they are hardly “uncanny” in Freud’s sense of the term. Freud defines the uncanny as something familiar that has been repressed, as “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light” (Freud 1990:364). As I once wrote:

In the Hades described by Murakami, ghosts are part of the trivial everyday. The reason for this is simple. Ghosts are only uncanny to those who identify with the living. By contrast, Murakami’s heroes are themselves “ghosts”, i.e. traumatized survivors, and tend to assume the perspective of the dead. The “other” world in his fiction is in fact not radically other, but comes forward as a place where the protagonist feels comfortable. This can be seen in “end of the world” narrative in Hardboiled Wonderland, in which the old Town where the narrator lives is clearly modeled on Hades. Although some of the “phantoms” inhabiting the town - such as the librarian - seem to be “doubles” of people met by the narrator in his conscious life, there is nothing frightening or vengeful about them. Rather they comfort the narrator and try to help him. (Cassegard 2007)
Murakami carries his solidarity with the dead to the point where the narrator or main protagonist almost seems to turn into a ghost himself. In The Wind-up Bird, Okada Tôru thinks of himself as a deserted house (akiya) or ruin somehow able to sense the movement of visitors inside it, yet unable to interfere with them. When a woman caresses his cheek, he imagines her touching its walls and pillars, and adds that there is “nothing he can do about it” (Murakami 1997:68). This state of passive acceptance and openness recalls the standpoint of an invisible ghost, unable to do anything by passively observing the visitors to whom he is incapable of communicating his presence. Think also of the strange vantage point of the narrating voice in his 2004 novel After Dark. To whom could such a voice belong, if not to a ghost?

Let me briefly mention another example of this solidarity with the dead. The central trauma of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) is the American betrayal of the ideals of the 60’s. The image of Hades is centrally present - both as an implicit metaphor of “the spilled, the broken world” of the late 80’s America and in the form of Shade Creek, the village of the Thanatoids. The Thanatoids are people who are physically dead, yet for some reason - some grudge they bear because of wrongs suffered in their lives - are unable to die completely. Some of them are radical students killed in the violent suppression in the late 60’s of the “People’s Republic of Rock and Roll” at the University of the Surf in California. What is interesting here is how differently the two characters who are most directly responsible for the clamp-down are portrayed: the FBI-boss Brock Vond and Frenesi, a hippie who betrayed her comrades. While the former - the embodiment of the fascist desire for authority - identifies with the living, Frenesi is a kind of ghost, living “between the two deaths” just like the Thanatoids and symbolically dead after her betrayal. That the Thanatoids are depicted with more sympathy than Vond is not surprising, but so is Frenesi. Like her victims, she too is dreaming of recovery - in what she calls her “Dream of the Gentle Flood” in which divers descend into the water, which has flooded California, and bring back up for us “whatever has been taken” and “whatever has been lost” (Pynchon 1991:256). What we find here is again that the writer assumes the perspective of the “ghosts”, of the victims of the “living”. Just as in Murakami, there is a solidarity with the ghosts, who tend to appear reassuring and familiar rather than uncanny.

In my dissertation, I suggested that Murakami’s sympathy for lost and discarded things and his solidarity with the ghosts might be connected to a quest for resurrection, that it might be related on some level with Benjamin’s search for “rags and refuse” in the Paris passages. If Murakami’s point of departure is the Hades of lost things, Benjamin’s was the “hell” or “inferno” of modern capitalism, with its ever recurrent shocks and remythologizations.
Just as for the Jews “every second was a small gate through which Messiah might enter”, so for Benjamin every piece of rags or refuse was a potential “dialectical image” which might trigger the sudden flash of recognition, the involuntary memory, which would help dispel the nightmare. (Cassegard 2007)
In both Benjamin and Murakami we see, I think, a subject that recognizes its inability to achieve the creation of value by itself, and which therefore waits for it, or only half consciously gropes for it, in what may appear to be a passive fashion, in the manner that a believer might wait for grace or a traumatized patient for recovery.


Ruins, discarded things and ghosts all seem to partake of a strange ambivalence, oscillating between the uncanny and the redemptive or utopian. The hinge, or fulcrum, where one swings over to the other is the moment when some form of creation occurs - for such moments can occur, even when we feel too powerless to aspire to be its "subjects" or agents.

This helps us understand a curious phenomenon: that no-man’s-land often serves as a place for recovery. Ueyama Kazuki, a former social withdrawer (hikikomori) writes that the Great Hanshin Awaji earthquake in 1995 helped him to break out of his own isolation. He too joined the volunteers and helped remove rubble together with everyone else. A neighbor offered him juice.

People who until then had been strangers not knowing each other’s name or face despite sharing the same neighborhood helped each other naturally. Money was of no use. All that mattered was to share if there was need, to help one another. (Ueyama 2001:76)

Exhilarated, the describes how the fact that there was no running water in the taps appeared to him as a symbol of “freedom” and “evidence of the fact that the invisible ‘everyday’ had collapsed”, which had oppressed and plagued him until that day.

To me, it felt as if I was breathing for the first time in my life out of my own power and with my own lungs. (Ueyama 2001:76f).
It is not coincidence that his report resembles the descriptions of life behind the barricades in Paris, May 1968, which I quoted earlier. Durkheim and Simmel too mention the magic of great, leveling crises like wars and catastrophes. Redemption, reset, yonaoshi are a string of words that seem to belong together and echo each other. What Ueyama’s report highlights is that the connection between ruins and new life is not purely imaginary, not limited to popular culture or religion, but often real.

I'm not glorifying wars or earthquakes. No one should try to create ruins on purpose. Even to talk of how people can be helped by such large-scale tragedies sounds perverse. No one can count on recovery, least of all when the semblance of a no-man’s-land is created intentionally.

Ruins are almost always the result of a tragedy, but the life that starts to bud among the ruins is not necessarily a tragedy. It all depends of us, on what we create. That is the touchstone. How will we behave if such a moment comes, and what will we create? This is what demands thought. How do we avoid hurting anyone? Where are the maxims that can withstand the catastrophe?


Cassegard, Carl (2007) Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature, Folkestone: Global Oriental (based on a PhD dissertation available here).

Freud, Sigmund (1990) Art and Literature, London: Penguin Books.

Kashima, Jûichi (1995) “Tadamono ichi no kokoromi o teiki suru” (Proposal for a free price market), pp 79-80, Ningen kaihô No. 5 (March).

Kikuchi, Hisahiko (1996) “Tada no mono – mono o hirou” (Things for free, picking up things), pp 17-21, Ningen kaihô No. 7 (March).

Murakami, Haruki (1993) Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, New York: Vintage.

Murakami, Haruki (1997) Nejimakidori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), Vol. 3, Tokyo: Shinchô bunko

Murakami, Haruki (2004) Afutâ dâku (After dark), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Murakami, Haruki & Kawamoto Saburô (1985) “‘Monogatari’ no tame no bôken” (An Adventure for the Sake of Narrative), Bungakukai 39:8: 34-86.

Pynchon, Thomas (1991) Vineland, London: Minerva.

Ueyama, Kazuki (2001) ’Hikikomori’ datta boku kara (From me, a former hikikomori), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.