Saturday, 30 May 2015

Žižek's Hegel (2): Should we stop trying to change the world then?

Here are some more reflections on Zizek's reading of Hegel in Less than Nothing. I discuss how Zizek tries to escape the conservative implications of "finding the rose in the cross" and why he thinks we can go on trying to change society despite reconciling ourselves to the present.

I ended the first part of my review about Žižek's by throwing out an objection. What happens if his reading of Hegel's Aufhebung is applied to the Marxist problem of the revolution? If Aufhebung is not a reconciliation of opposites, but the negative (the obstacle, the "bad") itself from another angle, doesn't it imply subjection to the status quo, learning to accept present suffering by viewing it from another angle? If reconciliation consists in the recognition that the negative is itself the solution, does that mean that we should stop trying to change society?

This might certainly be one, very conservative way of reading Hegel. As I mentioned in a previous post, Norbert Waszek seems to favour such a reading. Based on Hegel's statements about "tarrying with the negative" and finding "the rose in the cross of the present", he argues that to Hegel the task of reason consists in staying with suffering, tarrying with it, and finding its freedom in it.

There are passages where Žižek seems to endorse this reading of Hegel. If the only obstacle to reconciliation is our perspective on the world, then of course there is no need to "change the world" as Marx put it - all we need to do is to change our interpretation of the world.
Hegel was fully aware that reconciliation does not alleviate real suffering and antagonisms – his formula from the foreword to his Philosophy of Right is that one should ‘recognize the Rose in the Cross of the present': or, to put it in Marx’s terms: in reconciliation one does not change external reality to fit some Idea, one recognizes this Idea as the inner ‘truth’ of the miserable reality itself. The Marxist reproach that, instead of transforming reality, Hegel merely proposes a new interpretation of it, thus in a way misses the point – it is knocking on an open door, since, for Hegel, in order to pass from alienation to reconciliation we do not have to change reality, but rather the way we perceive and relate to it. (Žižek 2012: 201f)
Furthermore, against the Marxist reproach that the present is itself split and run through with contradiction and that “the only way to grasp it as a rational totality is from the standpoint of the revolutionary agent which will resolve those antagonisms” (ibid. 260), Žižek points out that Hegel rejects such a totalization from the future: “the only totality accessible to us is the flawed totality of the present, and the task of Though is to ‘recognize the Heart in the Cross of the present’, to grasp how the Totality of the Present is complete in its very incompleteness, how this Totality is sustained by those very features which appear as its obstacles or fatal flaws” (ibid. 260). Reconciliation, in other words, doesn't mean that we do away with the contradictions but that we reconcile ourselves with them.

However, despite formulations like these, Žižek avoids the conclusion that we should bow to the status quo. Instead he appears to construct an intricate argument about how we must in fact always keep on trying to change the world, without any guidance from dialectics, and that moments of reconciliation in fact play a crucial role in helping us do this.

His argument is not clearly stated and needs to be reconstructed by collecting bits and pieces from different passages and interpreting them in the light of each other. Below I present what I believe are the first two steps, and the most important ones, in his argument.

History is not a cross, because we are not nailed to it

Let us start by scrutinizing the conservative reading of Hegel's statements about tarrying with the negative and finding the rose in the cross a bit closer. Put simply this reading says that we need to put up with suffering and recognize its rationality in order to reach the higher wisdom symbolized by the "rose in the cross". This reading rests on two problematic assumptions. The first is that reconciliation will bring about a lasting pacification of suffering, a taming of the contradiction so that it will no longer spur us to try to change society. Once reason recognizes the rationality of the present, the suffering will have lost its propulsive force, its ability to drive history onwards.

Against this, one should carefully search out the ways in which the present itself is always on the move. It is simply not possible to affirm the status quo, resting in it and feeling reconciled with the world. Žižek is thus careful to point out that the Aufhebung doesn’t result in a harmonious state, in any lasting reconciliation. Hegel does not strive “to locate every phenomenon within a harmonious global edifice; on the contrary, the point of dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart. Hegel’s gaze upon reality is that of a Roentgen apparatus which sees in everything that is alive the traces of its future death” (ibid. 8). Thus, there will always be contradictions and antagonisms that continue to spur us to action, but that action is open and contingent. Against, the conservatives, one may reply eppur si muove - "still, it moves". What? History, of course.

That history never comes to a rest means that there isn't really any stable, unchanging "cross" to which we can subject ourselves lastingly. If affirming the rose in the cross of the present is interpreted in a conservative fashion, as an injunction to affirm the status quo rather than change it, then it in fact has an enormous weakness: namely that reality never stands still. It keeps changing. The present isn't really a cross at all, at least not one to which we are nailed.

The question then arises how we can reconcile ourselves to this changing, moving reality, and the only way to do that is by abandoning the conservative attachment to the status quo. Instead, peace must somehow be found in acting itself, in praxis. As Lukács pointed out, that means that praxis is more “concrete” than mere interpretation or contemplation, which remains “abstract” since it is divorced from the movement of history.

This, perhaps, explains why Hegel so often returns to the example of the French Revolution. This revolution may very well be his prime model of the cross in which the rose must be found – not in the suffering of the status quo, but in the suffering accompanying one of the most preeminent moment in history when people were trying to change the world. Unlike what Lukács thought, however, action to change society cannot be guided by dialectics. To repeat: Žižek is clear about the fact that the course of future history can never be predicted. “Of course, thought is immanent to reality and changes it, but not as fully self-transparent self-consciousness, not as an Act aware of its own impact” (ibid. 220).

Moments of reconciliation

The conservative reading according to which we should acquiesce to the status quo also rests on a second presupposition, namely that there is a logical compulsion in Hegel's dialectics that would rationally lead us to seek reconciliation with the negative.

This is also denied by Žižek. Here the importance of his insistence that dialectics only works retrospectively becomes clear. The fact that necessity only arises in retrospect, in moments of reconciliation, means that there is never any injunction in dialectics to accept any unreconciled status quo. Nothing in dialectics says that we "must" reconcile ourselves to the present. To believe in such a "must" is to misconstrue the appearance of logical necessity arising after the fact of reconciliation with the real process whereby the latter comes about.

This means that one cannot persuade a person to reconcile herself with the status quo using dialectical logic; there is simply no such logical coercion at work in it. The point of dialectics is not to logically demonstrate the rationality of reconciliation. In Žižek's interpretation it is reconciliation that comes first. Only after the fact do the "moments" leading up to reconciliation aquire the status of necessary, "logical" steps.

The fact that necessity only arises retrospectively, in the course of an open and contingent process, means that dialectics loses its justificatory function. The conventional interpretation of Hegel stresses how he justifies the status quo by showing how it reconciles opposing forces. But if Žižek is right that Hegel’s procedure is essentially retrospective, then it’s the other way round. It’s the contradictions that are justified as soon as we affirm the present. This, however, doesn't amount to a defence of the status quo since the present we affirm can very well be one of struggle.

To illustrate this, let us look at two quotes that provide a glimpse of moments when “all is reconciled”. The first is a famous fragment from Nietzsche's later writings:
If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed. (Nietzsche 1968:532f)
The second is by Yabu Shirô, a Japanese activist and autonomist writer. In a grim report from an anti-war demonstrations at the time of the inva­sion in Iraq in 2003, he describes a clash with the riot police in which he is hit, his glasses fly away and he tumbles to the asphalt, a for­est of arms and legs barring his sight:
There, through a tiny opening was the gorgeous blue sky. My thoughts leapt out of my scull, merging with the things around me. Fused with my skin, the cold and distant materials pulsated as if they were alive. I was the asphalt in front of the station, I was the arrested safety boots, I was the anti-war blue sky – and I could have affirmed the whole world! (Yabu 2003:47)
The quotes suggests a form of reconciliation that is not arrived at through any specified logical or conceptual development. The "whole world" or "all eternity" are justified in retrospect in such moments. The quotes also illustrate moments when reconciliation does not arrest change, but occurs in the midst of it. The "whole world" is affirmed, including the struggle to change it. The struggle may in fact be an essential moment in making us feel reconciled with the world. Often, struggling against the negative is the only way to make its existence tolerable. The only way that I can put up with the continuing existence of hunger, oppression and suffering in the world is by doing what I can to extinguish them. Reconciliation doesn't presuppose any end to history, any arrival of a stable state after all change is exhausted.

Perhaps an example can help us understand this better. It is easy to recognize the constitutive role of, say, Hitler, Japanese aggression or “Hiroshima”, for the postwar order. By affirming this order, trying to protect it against the return of Nazism or war, we also in a sense affirm and redeem the "negative" experiences that made this order possible. This isn't as outrageous as it sounds. Affirming the constitutive role of these things does not make us Nazis or supporters of war and genocide. What is affirmed is rather the experience of Hitler, aggression and the atomic bomb - in effect, our abhorrence of them. In fact, it is activists against Nazism or against war that most actively keep Hitler and “Hiroshima” alive by invoking them and the need to “never again” repeat them or their acts. When they do this they do not just simply prop up the existing order, in which abhorrent things certainly still abound. They also attempt to change it into a better world in which war and genocide will not exist. They reconcile themselves to the past by struggling against it and by striving for a better future. 

This means that it is wrong to claim that Hegel’s philosophy ends up in justifying the status quo, in merely “interpreting” the world instead of changing it. As Žižek points out, Hegel’s position is quite compatible with struggling to change the world, since the moment of affirmation can very well arrive in the midst of such struggle. Unlike most Marxists, however, Žižek insists that the outcome of the struggle is unpredictable. All historical development is contingent; only retrospectively is "necessity" imposed.

So, to conclude, how does Žižek position himself in regard to what I have called the conservative reading of Hegel? As we have seen, he is not entirely clear here and sometimes he sounds as if reconciliation indeed simply means recognizing the futility of the struggle, “changing the perspective”, seeing that the obstacle is in fact a precondition and so on.

However, a closer reading reveals that Žižek in fact demolishes the two assumptions on which the conservative reading of Hegel rests. Firstly, there is nothing in dialectics that says that we must reconcile ourselves to just any present. Secondly, even when reconciliation occurs, it doesn't need to imply any submission to the status quo - it can be a reconciliation with the world that, as a crucial ingredient, includes one's efforts to change it.

But Žižek's interpretation in turn raises several new questions. Why, if history keeps changing anyway, does he continue to exhort us to tarry with the negative and try to find the "rose in the cross of the present"? What's the point of such an operation? And if dialectics is only useful retrospectively and cannot say anything about real causes behind historical change, what is it then, according to Žižek, that drives history onwards?

To be continued (in the next post)!


Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968) The Will to Power (tr. W. Kaufman & R. J. Hollingdale), New York: Vintage.

Yabu, Shirō (2003) “Rojō de torikaese” (Take it back on the street), pp 46-47, in Noda Tsutomu et al (eds), No!! War, Tokyo: Kawadeshobō shinsha.

Žižek, Slavoj (2012) Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Žižek's Hegel (1): the obstacle is the solution

Bildresultat för zizek less than nothingŽižek's Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Verso 2012) is a long read. Here I'd like to make a few remarks on his interpretation of Hegel, especially two ideas that are central to it and which I find remarkably simple and interesting. The first is that dialectics only works retrospectively. The other is that Aufhebung or sublation doesn't consist in changing the negative; instead, it comes about through a change in the subject that enables it to view the negative from another angle and thus to reconcile itself to it. Both of these ideas seem to put Žižek on a collision course with Marxism, at least at first sight. I will therefore also discuss briefly how I think Žižek can be placed in relation to the Marxian tradition. The crucial point remains, as Marx put it, whether we should change the world or merely interpret it. My argument in brief will be that Žižek holds on to the goal of social change, but that the impetus of this seems to derive less from dialectics than from Lacan. I will divide my comments into a series of posts, beginning with the two main points of Žižek's Hegel interpretation here and saving the rest of the discussion for later.

Dialectics only works retrospectively

Žižek repeatedly points out that dialectics only works retrospectively, by “positing its own presuppositions”. Of course, the element of retrospectivity is stressed by Hegel himself, in his statement about the owl of Minerva that only flies at dusk, but what Žižek brings out much more clearly is that what Hegel refers to as "necessity" is also nothing but a retrospective effect. To Žižek, the fundamental reason that dialectics cannot serve as a tool for logically deriving or predicting the course of history is that history is an open and contingent process, the appearance of necessity only arising retrospectively. Rather than each category succeeding the other with logical necessity, “each passage in Hegel is a moment of creative invention”. The thing “forms itself in an open contingent process – the eternally past essence is a retroactive result of the dialectical process” (Žižek 2012: 468).

By stressing retrospectivity, Žižek is able to reject the common portrayal of Hegel's dialectic as a grand teleological narrative with no room for contingency. However, what is striking about this interpretation is that it doesn't dispense altogether with necessity. As Žižek points out, Hegel's dialectics operates through a “reversal of contingency into necessity” whereby “the outcome of a contingent process takes on the appearance of necessity: things retroactively ‘will have been’ necessary” (ibid. 213). History does not follow a necessary course, but consists in a series of "successive re-totalizations, each of them creating (‘positing’) its own past" (ibid. 272f). The process of becoming thus retroactively engenders its necessity: “the process of becoming is not in itself necessary, but is the becoming (the gradual contingent emergence) of necessity itself” (ibid. 231).

This relationship between contingency and necessity may at first appear curious, but it is not hard to think of examples that illustrate it. Think for instance of person who has experienced a tragic accident that changes his life for ever. Although the accident may well have occurred totally out of the blue, it is easy to imagine such a man saying in retrospect that without it he wouldn't have been the man he is now - that it was "necessary" for him to be the man he is. It is also easy to find examples in social theory. Take Michael Heinrich according to whose interpretation of Marx the “socially necessary labor” needed for a commodity to acquire a certain value can only be determined retrospectively, in the act of exchange. It seems quite possible to discern a dialectical "positing of presuppositions" in how Heinrich sees the constitution of value: rather than deriving value directly from the amount of labour put down in producing a commodity, as has often been done in readings of Marx's theory of value, this labour is only posited in retrospect as the "cause" of the commodity's value. To a certain extent we also find a similar operation in Foucault - might not the inversion described by him whereby discourse produces the subject supposed to express itself in language be seen as yet another case of this retrospective positing of presuppositions? The difference between Foucault and the dialectical approach described by Žižek is that to the latter there is no way to simply step out of the retrospective illusion of necessity, as it appears that Foucault tries to do. Thus the tragic event will continue to be consitutive of the man in our example - as a necessary part of my idea of him - even if I fully recognize its contingency. Similarly, in Marx the idea of value as an independent (discursive) entitity generating labour as a mere illusion would be senseless since it would undermine the very concept of value. So according to Žižek, rather than dispensing with necessity, we need to view history as both contingent and necessary at once, in a kind of parallax view.

If dialectics only works retrospectively, it cannot point the way forward to a communist revolution. Žižek makes the provocative claim that by stressing retroactivity, Hegel was in a sense a better materialist than Marx, who carried out an “idealist reversal of Hegel”:
[I]n contrast to Hegel, who was well aware that the owl of Minerva takes wing only at dusk, after the fact – that Thought follows Being (which is why, for Hegel, there can be no scientific insight into the future of society) – Marx reasserts the primacy of Thought: the owl of Minerva (German contemplative philosophy) should be replaced by the singing of the Gaelic rooster (French revolutionary thought) announcing the proletarian revolution – in the proletarian revolutionary act, Thought will precede Being. (ibid. 220)
Žižek in fact in several passages seems to suggest that a properly dialectical understanding of our situation requires us not to try to break out of the status quo, but instead to "tarry" with it, recognizing the negative as the very goal or solution we are looking for, and thus to reconcile ourselves to it. This is the second major element in his Hegel-interpretation and I will now turn to discuss it a bit more in detail.

The negative isn't an obstacle

A point which Žižek makes again and again throughout the book - and also in several previous books, like The Sublime Object of Ideology or Tarrying with the Negative - is that the Hegelian Aufhebung (or sublation) is not a reconciliation of opposites, a reappropriation of alienated content in a higher "synthesis", but merely the negative itself from another angle. Two favorite examples which he often uses to illustrate this operation are the Rabinovitch joke and Adorno's antagonistic definition of society (below I quote them from The Sublime Object of Ideology for convenience):
Rabinovitch [is] a Jew who wants to migrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why; Rabinovitch answers: 'There are two reasons why. The first is that I’m afraid that in the Soviet Union the Communists will lose power, there will be a counter-revolution and the new power will put all the blame for the Communist crimes on us Jews – there will again be anti-Jewish pogroms...' 'But', interrupts the bureaucrat, 'this is pure nonsense, nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last forever!' 'Well', responds Rabinovitch calmly, 'that’s my second reason'. (Žižek's 1989:176)

Adorno starts from the fact that today it is not possible to formulate one appropriate definition of Society: as soon as we set to work, a number of opposing, mutually excluding determinations present themselves: on the one hand those which lay stress upon Society as an organic whole encompassing individuals; on the other those which conceive Society as a bond, a kind of contract between atomized individuals... In a first approach, this opposition presents itself as an epistemological obstace, as a hindrance preventing us from grasping Society as it is in itself - making out of Society a kind of Kantian Thing-in-itself which can be approached only through partial, distorted insights: its real nature escapes us forever. But in a dialectical approach, this contradiction which appears at first as an unresolved question is already in itself a solution: far from barring our access to the real essence of Society, the opposition between 'organicism' and 'indivicualism' is not only epistemological but is already at work in the 'Thing-in-itself'. In other words, the antagonism between Society as a corporate Whole transcending its members and Society as an external, 'mechanical' net connecting atomized individuals is the fundamental antagonism of contemporary society; it is in a way its very definition. (ibid. 177)
In both cases, the resolution leaves the negative as it is, showing that what at first presents itself as an objection or obstacle is the very solution one is looking for. Rabinovitch unexpectedly turns the official's objection into a support for his decision and Adorno uses the obstacles to a definition as the basis for the very definition itself. In the Hegelian reversal, Žižek writes, "there is no real reversal of defeat into triumph but only a purely formal shift, a change of perspective, which tries to present defeat itself as a triumph” (ibid. 2012:197). The resisting element, the obstacle, is in each case turned into "a positive condition of possibility” (ibid. 471). To add a further example used by Žižek, to Christians the distance from God can be recast as God's distance from himself, so that the distance paradoxically becomes what unites me with him. Just as in the case of the definition of society, here a dialectical reversal or reconciliation is brought about since "by way of transposing what appears as an epistemological limit into the Thing itself, Hegel shows how the problem is its own solution” (ibid. 477). This shift of perspective always comes about retrospectively. Thus: "we never directly realize a goal – we pass from striving to realize a goal to a sudden recognition that it is already achieved" (ibid. 203). Or: “This is how Hegelian reconciliation works – not as a positive gesture of resolving or overcoming the conflict, but as a retroactive insight into how there never really was a serious conflict” (ibid. 204).

This idea of the obstacle revealing itself as a condition of possibility is repeated again and again in the book, and rendered in a variety of similar-sounding formulas. With each repetition, Žižek takes the opportunity to develop a particular aspect of corollary of this interpretation of Aufhebung. One of these corollaries is that the basic number of Hegelian dialectics is not three, as usually thought, but two. Hegel’s dialectics lacks a “Third” that unites, reconciles and stabilizes the opposites (ibid. 112, 303, 473f). What is usually regarded as the "Third" is just the second moment, or the negation, from another perspective. Objectively, nothing changes. The only change that takes place is in the subject - in the form of the realization that there never really was a conflict, that the obstacle was in fact a condition of possibility, that the goal is already achieved.

This also means that the Aufhebung (or reconciliation or "negation of negation") can no longer be seen an overcoming of alienation in the sense of a reappropriation of the lost “positive” content of the original starting point or “thesis”. The negation of negation is thus not an overcoming of a splitting or externalization. It is also not an overcoming of suffering:
Hegel’s point is not that the suffering brought about by the alienating labor of renunciation is an intermediary moment that must be patiently endured while we wait for our reward at the end of the tunnel – there is no prize or profit to be gained at the end for our patient submission; suffering and renunciation are their own reward... (ibid. 198)
Psychologically, the negation of the negation happens as one realizes that the enemy or obstacle one is struggling against is constitutive of one's goal, that the goal would in fact lose meaning without the obstacle - when "the struggling subject" realizes that it "needs the figure of the enemy to sustain the illusion of his own consistency":
So, far from celebrating engaged struggle, Hegel’s point is rather that every embattled position, every taking of sides, has to rely on a necessary illusion (the illusion that, once the enemy is annihilated, I will achieve the full realization of my being). This brings us to what would have been a properly Hegelian notion of ideology: the misapprehension of the condition of possibility... as the condition of impossibility (as an obstacle which prevents your full realization) – the ideological subject is unable to grasp how his entire identity hinges on what he perceives as the disturbing obstacle. (ibid. 200)
So far so fine. But let us venture a first objection.What happens if this reading of Aufhebung is applied to the classic Marxist problem of the revolution? Doesn’t it result in an advocacy of subjection to the status quo, to the negative suffering of the present (referred to by Hegel as "the rose in the cross")? If we translate the formula to more quotidian language: wouldn’t it mean that, for instance, workers should recognize exploitation as their true "condition of possibility", that they should just learn to view capitalism "from another angle"? For Žižek, it doesn't. But the explanation for that will have to wait until the next post.


Žižek, Slavoj (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj (2012) Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The pleasure of destruction: Godzilla and other things that come from the ocean

In this post I want to focus on the role of the sea, especially the vast expanse of sea stretching out in a south-eastern direction from Japan, as a screen for utopian as well as dystopian projections in Japanese popular culture.

A good place to start is Godzilla - not the new movie from last year, though, but the original one from 1954. In these post-Fukushima times, it's easy to understand the enormous impact this movie must have made on the audience when it was released, resonating, as it does, with the fear of radioactivity, memories of the war and at some level also with an ancient dread for the sea itself as the birthbed of tsunamis and typhoons.

"Irane" (No thanks), a print by Inaba Tomoko in the wake of the "triple" diaster 2011  
It is well known that this original Godzilla movie is littered with references to the war (see Igarashi 2000, Napier 1993). The monster is awoken by US nuclear tests in the Pacific. Its attacks on Tokyo replicate the destruction wrought on the city by the American air raids. The Japanese military is totally powerless to stop it. People run for shelter to the sound of air raid sirens. It razes buildings symbolic of power to the ground, but - like the Americans - leaves the imperial palace intact. In an interview, the director Honda Ishirô later stated that the destruction had been modelled on the March 1945 fire-bombings of Tokyo. That the monster was a thinly veiled reference to the former enemy is also clear from the fact that the film opens with a scene that in a shockingly direct way alludes to the Lucky Dragon incident, showing a Japanese fishing boat suddenly overpowered by a mysterious force emerging from the sea. This incident had taken place earlier in 1954, when a Japanese fishing boat had been showered with radioactivity from a US hydrogen bomb (despite being outside the putative danger zone), leading to the death of one of the crew members a few months later. But is Godzilla really a stand-in for the enemy? In another memorable statement, the film's music director Ifukube Akira, said: "I even thought Godzilla was like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war". Here too the reference is to the war, but the monster is seen as an incarnation of Japanese soldiers, who, in the fashion of vengeful ghosts, return to haunt and kill the survivors.

So is Godzilla less an enemy to subdue than a ghost to be placated? In any case, Godzilla is more than a thinly veiled fleet of American bombers. Recall the scene early in the film when the first rumours of something strange at sea are starting to circulate. An elderly fisherman says, with tremour in his voice, that "it might be Godzilla" (Gojira ka mo shiranee) and explains that in the old days human sacrifices had been needed to pacify the monster. Later, during the stormy night when Godzilla first wades ashore, the villagers perform a religious ritual involving dancing and tengu-masks, presumably in order to placate the monster. Here, obviously, Godzilla is treated as a form of god-like being or kami associated with the sea.

The fact that Godzilla resonates with religious traditions may at first seem surprising considering the central role of science in the movie. It is modern science in the form of nuclear bombs that awakens the monster. The main protagonist is an aged scientist, Yamane Kyôhei (played by Takeshi Shimura). In the end, it is also science in the guise of the "oxygen destroyer" invented by the young scientist Serizawa that subdues the monster. Susan Napier also highlights the role of science in her interpretation of the film, which allows for a happy ending by letting "'good' Japanese science triumph against the evil monster". The film, she writes, belongs to the fundamentally optimistic genre of "secure horror" in which order is "ultimately reestablished, usually through the combined efforts of scientists and the government" (Napier 1993:332). But this interpretation is hard to square with the fact that Godzilla reenacts the trauma of the war: surely science is a flimsy and fragile protection against the force of trauma. If the "deeper" problem addressed by the film is related to the war and the guilt associated with it, then science is certainly not the recipe. Furthermore, viewing science as the savior overlooks the fact that what subdues Godzilla is not just science but also a human sacrifice, namely that of Serizawa himself, who, instead of returning to the surface after having delivered the oxygen destroyer at the bottom of the sea, chooses to cut off his air-hose in order to die together with the monster. This suicide clearly enacts the very ritual - the human sacrifice - mentioned by the old fisherman earlier in the movie. Science then is not the solution, but merely the camoflage or alibi of the real solution, the resurrection of ritual by other means. Ritual becomes a means of atonement, a way of addressing the lingering grief and guilt associated with the war. The monster becomes the place-holder of the trauma that has to be placated. "Never again", Yamane says, echoing what today has become the formula for addressing the horrors of the war. But his prophesy that new Godzillas will be born as long as the bomb tests go on reminds us that the task of finding a reconciliation with the past is not over. 

Serizawa's sacrifice
Godzilla embodies destructive forces associated with the sea, forces that both evoke the Pacific War and forces of nature such as typhoons and perhaps earthquakes that in old times were addressed in religious language. But what is the significance of the sea in this movie? That the sea is in fact central to it is suggested by the fact that it plays a similar role as an abode of monsters or supernatural beings in many other works of popular culture.

Take for instance Neon Genesis Evangelion, the celebrated anime series from the mid-90s, where monstrous "apostles" (shito) mysteriously hatch in the ocean and compulsively wade ashore in Japan to wreck havoc in a seemingly endless succession. At once we can notice the similarity of the geographical route taken by Godzilla, which in turn, as we have seen, repeats the route of the US forces in the war. Like in Godzilla, there is also a striking tendency to "quote" war-memories, as in the bisarre naming of several principal characters after WWII aircraft carriers. As Sawaragi Noi suggests, it is easy to read the apostles - who form a cross when they blow up - as a symbol of the US or the West, and the endless row of battles therefore as a traumatic repetition of the desperate last days of the Pacific War. At the same time, there are many things in the weird setting - for instance the fact that the Evas (the gigantic robot-like machines used for battling the Apostles) have to be driven by children - that only make sense if we view the film as not really being about the struggle against an external enemy but rather as an imaginary reproduction of an inner psychic traumatized space in which two impulses compete: on the one hand the death-drive or the urge to repeat the trauma - a drive symbolized by the relentless Apostles, who seem to lack all consciousness and attack blindly - and, on the other hand, the budding impulse of recovery and consciousness, symbolized by the small kids locked up in the gargantuan mecha-shells who have to fight the death-drive. The big difference to Godzilla is of course that Neon Genesis Evangelion is a far more "anomic" film, a film that depicts a world in which the terrifying psychic/supernatural forces can longer be brought under control. There is no longer any ritual - in the style of Serizawa's sacrifice - that can contain them.

Apostle approaching from the sea
The importance of the sea here resides, I think, in the fact that it helps us compare movies like Godzilla and Neon Genesis Evangelion - movies that appear to have a lot in common but which nevertheless differ in interesting ways. The sea can play this role because of its persistent association with the supernatural. The supernatural forces associated with the sea do not necessarily have to be monstruous. Recall for instance the arrival on a of the "myriads of gods" (yaoyorozu no kamigami) to the bath-house in Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away). The gods arrive on a paddle-streamer, hailing from a glittering city on the other side of the water:

The arrival of the myriads of gods
This reminds us that the sea is also Japan's utopian direction - the place of Tokoyo, the happy, green land of immortals or the dead which was pictured as existing far out in the ocean or on the other side of the sea. Tokoyo could also be pictured as a land of gods, as in the Okinawan idea of Nirai Kanai, from which the gods would periodically come to visit the human world. Japanese etnographers like Orikuchi Shinobu and Yanagita Kunio have written famous works on this belief. The former based his theory of marebito (visiting gods, or "rare visitors") on it, while the latter discusses the various ways in which it was linked to a view of the ocean as a bringer of gifts and blessings in his late work Kaijô no michi. Probably this belief in gods arriving from the sea is also connected to the idea of the Dragon Palace (Ryûgû) under the sea where the god or goddess of the sea was supposed to live. This palace appears already in the Kojiki myth about Uminosachi where it is said to be the dwelling of Watatsumi, the sea god. The chronicles Kojiki and Nihongi also contain other myths that describe gods arriving from the sea such as Sukunahikona or Hiruko/Ebisu. The most touching of these tales is probably that of Hiruko (the "leech-child) who was deformed and put out to die in a boat of reeds, but who - according to one variant of the myth - was taken care of and healed in the Dragon Palace and later returned on the back of a wani (a form of sea monster) and became worshipped as Ebisu, protector of fishermen and one of the "lucky gods". In parts of Japan there was a belief that the Buddha of the future, Miroku, would arrive on a ship from across the ocean. Similar ideas can also be found in the Chinese legends about islands like Peng-lai or Fusang which were thought to be located in or floating around in the Eastern Sea and which were also associated with immortality and eternal youth. It is not farfetched, I believe, to see an echo of these mythological beliefs in the motif of the seven lucky gods on their "treasure ship" (takarabune) which become popular in Japan from the Muromachi period onwards.

Ebisu, Daikoku and the other lucky gods in the treasure ship

The last great historical moment when these beliefs fuelled popular Utopian expectations on a large scale was probably in the wake of the Ansei Earthquake in 1855. As the historian Gregory Smits points out, the destruction became linked in the popular mind with the arrival of Perry's "black ships" the year before. A large number of woodblock prints (so called namazu-e) exists from these years that depict the gigantic subterranean catfish (namazu) that was thought to cause earthquakes. Many of these prints depict the catfish together with one of the lucky gods, Daikoku, who has a wonderful hammer (uchide no kozuchi) which showers gold over the common people. The message of these woodblock prints was clearly subversive since they called for yonaoshi - "rectification of the world" - which implied the redistribution of wealth. Smits makes a point of the fact that the giant catfish was usually depicted as big and black and that the name Daikoku literally means "big black". In the prints, these two "big blacks" were in turn linked a third, namely Perry's black ships.

Daikoku and the catfish

The catfish forces the rich to throw up their money
Does this rich flora of myths and folklore tell us anything about Godzilla? Well, let us try, as a thought experiment, to map these ideas on film monster and see what we get. I have already suggested that Godzilla can be seen as an incarnation of the trauma of war. Could it also be seen as Ebisu? As a "rare visitor" (marebito) who brings blessings, utopian energies, and the possibility of a renewal or rebirth of the world?

Maybe this is not so farfetched as it may sound. Godzilla, after all, is an ambivalent creature, not so much a mere external enemy to be destroyed as a catalyst of our own inner process of coming to terms with a painful past. In later films, it even takes on the role of defending humanity against other invading monsters, becoming, in effect, a kind of benevolent deity. The sea too was never regarded simply as a bringer of blessings, but was also, just like the monster, a source of destruction, of typhoons and tsunamis. To really grasp the utopian side of Godzilla, however, we need to hold fast to the deep pleasure of destruction itself. This pleasure is well expressed in the following quote:
"Godzilla appeals to that destructive instinct that’s in all kids," says Takeshi Maruyama, a 28-year-old "salaryman," who grew up on the VS series and has an extensive Godzilla figure collection. A lot of buildings were constructed while Maruyama was growing up, a period for Japan’s "bubble era" modernization. And it was a delight to see Godzilla destroy them almost as soon as they went up, Maruyama recalled. One of his favorites is "Godzilla Vs. Mothra," released in 1992, which showed his hometown of Yokohama destroyed, including Land Mark Tower, one of this nation’s tallest buildings, which was being built as the movie was shot. "It is so fun to see a giant thing break and get totally destroyed," he said. "You can’t explain it in words. You just feel it in your heart, and it’s so immediate." (Kageyama 2014)
What is this pleasure? To understand it, we might compare to how the Neo-pop artist Murakami Takashi welcomed the collapse of the "bubble economy" in the early 1990s. Comparing the bubble to a maniacal feeling of having conquered the world, he writes that “when that mirage vanished, we felt relief, as if to say: ‘That’s right, this is what reality looks like’” (Murakami 2005:135). This sentiment was echoed by the philosopher Karatani Kôjin, for whom the collapse was a breath of fresh air. Looking back in 1997, he writes that he had “felt almost suffocated in Japan during the 1980s”, when people were euphoric and Japanese capitalism seemed triumphant (Karatani 1997).

There is, I think, a moral dimension to the pleasure expressed in these quotes, which can be expressed as pleasure at seeing justice done. It is relief at the disappearance of something that is not just suffocating or oppressive, but that by rights should not exist. Here is the place to quote Kafta, who ends one of his stories ("The City Coat of Arms") with the following words: “All legends and songs originating in this city are filled with nostalgia for a prophesied day when the city would be smashed to bits by five blows in rapid succession from a gigantic fist.” Expressed in these words is the pleasure of the apocalypse, of divine force levelling the human world. A similar pleasure is, perhaps, also typical of revolutionary moments. A new world has always required a settling of accounts with the old one. Talk of yonaoshi (rectification of the world) was in fact feared by Tokugawa officials much as the talk of revolution has been feared by elites in the modern world.

Is Godzilla then linked to revolution? Well, it is certainly linked to the desire to erase wrong. The reason that the monster is not simply a fearful external enemy and that there is something pleasurable about the destruction it causes is that the "ghosts" that it embodies are right. The destruction is felt to be rightful and well deserved. As James Berger (1999) points out, the desire for the apocalypse is always a desire for a second catastrophe that will set things right that went wrong during the first one.

The monsters appearing in films like Godzilla and Neon Genesis Evangelion point back to earlier, prior catastrophes that are still not properly acknowledged and atoned for by those responsible for it. The catastrophe of war, perhaps, in which countless people were sacrificed for the nation or the emperor, or the ravaging of nature, or the exploiting of people for the profit of others. These catastrophes have a traumatic quality since the "wrong" that needs to be righted is not just external, but committed by the communities with which "we" identify or the systems that benefit "us". Unlike in the usual enthusiasm for revolution, the trauma calls for the destruction, not of an external enemy, but of ourselves. This is why, at first sight, these monsters appear as vengeful ghosts that won't go away until they are placated, until we apologize properly, until we have found a way to make up for our wrongs. Until that happens, the monsters will reappear and the cities and skyscrapers will continue to be toppled over and destroyed.

Trauma, I suggest, is suppressed revolutionary desire - it is the guise taken by such desire when it cannot be acknowledged by the ego. It is revolutionary in its merciless accusation against the present and in its insistence that justice be done, but at the same time it is suppressed because the ego is unable to acknowledge its own destruction. The trauma calls for the ego to stop identifying with what needs to be destroyed. Freud stresses that the traumatized person actively desires to repeat the trauma. Importantly, this is not just a symptom of the trauma but also part of the process whereby it can be mastered. By repeating it actively, out of its own volition, the ego turns itself from a passive victim into an active agent, and thereby gradually makes the trauma acceptable to consciousness. This can be seen as a process whereby we acknowledge the right of ghosts - as a process whereby we move towards the standpoint of the ghosts and thereby resurrect them, lend them life, as part of ourselves. The working through of a trauma is not a mere inner process, but a transformation whereby we commit ourselves to changing the world into a better one in which the ghosts will not have died in vain. As we repeat, we learn to avoid the "wrongs" of the first catastrophe and, if we learn well enough, not only the ghosts but we ourselves will spring back to life. The pleasure of destruction doesn't just spring from cruelty. Another dimension is the feeling of recovery, or, as Karatani puts it, that we become able to breathe again. 

As I think I've shown, destruction in Godzilla is linked at least indirectly to a form of Utopian imagination. Looking at the list we have assembled so far of the monster's incarnations, we find: the American bombers, the souls of dead Japanese soldiers, the god of the sea, the rare visitor, Ebisu and Daikoku, the giant catfish, and maybe Perry's "black ships". Which one of these incarnations will come to the fore when we watch the movie will depend on our interpretation. When facing Godzilla, we should perhaps ask ourselves, as we should whenever we meet a human being: this person has immense potential both to do me harm and to bring me happiness - what will it be? Will it be both?

The pleasure of destruction


Berger, James (1999) After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Igarashi, Yoshikuni (2000) Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kageyama, Yurika (2014) “Japanese fans speak on evolution of 'Godzilla'”, Japan Today, 28 July 2014; (accessed 2014-07-28):

Karatani, Kôjin (1997) “Japan is interesting because Japan is not interesting”, lecture delievered in March 1997, reproduced on Karatani Forum: (accessed on 2002-11-19).

Murakami, Takashi (2005) “Earth in my Window”, pp 98-149, in Murakami Takashi (ed) (2005) Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, New Haven: Yale University Press

Napier, Susan (1993) “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster from Godzilla to Akira”, Journal of Japanese Studies 19(2): 327-351.

Smits, Gregory (2006) “Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints”, Journal of Social History 39(4): 1045-1078.

Yanagita, Kunio (1978) Kaijô no michi (The ocean roads), Tokyo: Iwanami.
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