Announcement: Special Panel at the 2024 Spring Conference

2024 Spring Conference Special Panel: “The Threshold of the Human and the Non-Human: Intersecting Expressions and Their Potentials”

Panel outline

         The concept of “posthuman” has been in circulation for a long time now, spurred on by the expansion of human functions via 20th century technology; it has been applied to various fields, such as cultural anthropology and new ecology, without a strict definition. We may say that the concept is an attempt to relativize the old anthropocentrism of the humanities and to redefine “human” in relation to “non-human,” entities, including technology and the environment. On the other hand, to criticize the fact that a certain entity is seen as non-human entails creating a different set of boundaries. For example, the focus on animals, which has been an important issue in recent years, has the merit of problematizing animals (and their representation) that are dehumanized, but it excludes plants, fungi, inorganic substances, etc. from the discussion. It is also important to keep in mind that the process of removing the boundary between human and non-human should not be a totalitarian elimination of distinctions that encompasses all things in the name of the human.

         If we turn our attention to literature, we will find that even before the concept of the posthuman was established, various intersections between plants, inorganic matter, and humans (human bodies) have been depicted. For example, plants, with inability to speak, offer freedom from the control of the language system; the remarkable function of their roots, developed because they cannot move, connotes vitality; their varied sexual structures suggest the potential of freedom from reproduction, all of which inspired human beings to envy plants, imitate plants, transform themselves into plants, and eventually be replaced by plants. In addition, humans, in their desire for health and longevity, utilize and incorporate a wide variety of fungi into their bodies, yet they are also invaded by invisible bacteria and viruses that can lead to death. On the other hand, human resistance to life threats has led to an exploration of technology, and the boundary between man and machine has become increasingly blurred, with humans coming back to life by being connected to machines and prolonging their life through control over them. Furthermore, if we view the city as “self-propagating nature” (Hino Keizō, Toshi to Iū Atarashii Shizen (The City as New Nature)), we can see how the relationship between “human” and inorganic things is reconstructed while encompassing and transcending the romanticism of the ruins; the city, while built by human hands, becomes equated to nature, thus threatening the boundary between “human” and “non-human.”

         Thus, in literature, the relationship between humans and plants or inorganic objects has a complex structure, their physicality inlaid into one another. Literature can be regarded as a linguistic thought experiment that makes us reconsider the very way of questioning the boundary between human and non-human. It has always depicted the human body not as a fixed entity, but as destroyed and preserved, coexisting and being killed by plants/ inorganic objects. Our symposium will examine, from a posthuman perspective (which also includes a critique of the term), the representations of plants and inorganic objects and the latent power they acquire when depicted in modern and contemporary Japanese literature— a literature influenced by Western Christian humanities.

AMJLS Organizing Committee

Paper abstracts

YAMANE Naoko: Metamorphosis in Osaki Midori’s “Ono Machiko Mono”: An Interplay with Plants

         Osaki Midori’s works are so rich in botanical expression that they could be described as a “botanical garden” themselves. Plants are almost always found next to human beings. When they walk outside, they can smell the fragrance of sweet-scented olives and paulownia flowers, while indoors, bryophytes emit an intoxicating smell and blend into their bodies and minds.

In Midori’s botanical expression, “transformation” in its two senses—abnormality and metamorphosis—is an important motif. Humans look at plants, eat their fruits, smell their flowers, allowing their psyche to get closer to them. Plants have the power to transform the human psyche into a “non-human” (=abnormal) form. Midori’s  works written between 1929 and 1933— Appuru Pai no Gogo (An Apple Pie Afternoon), Daishichikankai Hōkō (Seventh Realm Wanderings), Hokō (Walking), Kohorogi Hime (Miss Kohorogi), Chikashitsu Anton no Ichiya (One Night in the Anton Basement), and Shokanshū no Ichibubun (A Part of a Collection of Letters)—have overlapping characters and will henceforth be referred to as “Ono Machiko Mono,” after the main character of the representative work Daishichikankai Hōkō. In Appuru Pai no Gogo, which is the starting point of the series, “normal patterns” of a “human being” are introduced, from the abuse of the “elder brother” towards the “younger sister” to the subject who falls in love with the opposite sex, marries and reproduces. But throughout “Ono Machiko Mono,” a path is also consistently sought that would allow the subject to escape the normal human “pattern” and live differently. The metamorphosis into plants, with their ecology different from that of humans, e.g., the bryophyte’s “hermaphroditic love” in Daishichikankai Hōkō, is one such path.

         Rosi Braidotti, in Posthuman (translated by Kadobayashi Takeshi et al., Filmart, February 2009), argues that the conventional concept of “human” in humanism was a tool of “exclusion and discrimination” used to distinguish between “human” and “non-human,” and points out the necessity of forming a new concept of posthuman subjectivity, based on the relationship with “non-humans.” Midori’s attempt to form a new subject that differs from the existing “pattern” of “human” through the intersection with plants can be positioned as a pioneering attempt of the “posthuman.”

         In this presentation, I will analyze how the interplay between plants and humans changes (metamorphoses) humans in “Ono Machiko Mono,” and clarify what kind of metamorphic (abnormal) subject is formed through this interplay. Then, I will consider the “posthuman subject” presented by Midori and discuss its contemporary potentials.

FUJII Takashi: What Comes after “Human Beings”: Haniya Yutaka’s Love of Destruction

         The great number of texts left by Haniya Yutaka, including Shirei (Ghost), which was written over half a century but never completed, are filled with a thorough hatred toward human existence itself. This hatred was fostered by the many “mistakes” accumulated by human beings, including the unilateral exploitation of other species in the food chain. To him, this “history of mistakes,” which is nothing short of anthropocentric, is now connected to an extreme nihilism that can no longer be stopped except by “total annihilation,” an expression probably inspired by Takeda Taijun’s Metsubō ni tsuite (On Annihilation).

         Haniya’s discourse on “annihilation” is very diverse. For example, in a leaflet by Miwa Takashi inserted in chapter 8 of Shirei, he writes, “Only the revolution that takes place at the time of the death of the human race, when no more children exist, will be the true and pure revolution.”  With the fulfillment of this “pure revolution,” he develops an extremely mysterious vision of “the creation” of “a new and unknown existence that has never existed before.” What will come after the “death of mankind”? The scene after the extinction of mankind is likely beyond logical or formal comprehension. Then, why is Haniya so obsessively attracted to the motif of “extinction,” over and over again? His attitude brings into relief an incongruous leaning towards what we can only call “love of annihilation,” directed at a world from which humankind has disappeared.

         In this presentation, I will analyze the structure of Haniya’s “love of annihilation” from a cross-sectional perspective, keeping in mind the theme of “annihilation” itself, inextricably linked to the problems raised by the Anthropocene. Apart from Shirei, I will also focus on Haniya’s essays (“Jinrui no Metsubō ni tsuite” (On the Death of Humanity), “Haikyo to Kikai Ningyō” (Ruins and Machine Dolls),” “Mirai no Haikyo” (Ruins of the Future), etc.), which question the meaning of human existence and of the literary endeavors produced amid the ruins after the extinction of mankind, as well as on Haniya’s discussion on the possibility of a “post-human” that overcomes our current human existence, in light of technological advances such as genetic engineering.

HAGA Kōichi: The Landscape of “Literature of the Anthropocene”: On Hino Keizō’s Yume no Shima (The Isle of Dreams)

         In 2000, P. Crutzen proposed the term “the Anthropocene” to refer to the epoch during which human impact on the environment has become considerable. Since then, it has been discussed in various fields of the humanities, and the term “literature of the Anthropocene” has also been gradually introduced in the field of ecocriticism after 2010. By focusing on the issues raised by this “literature of the Anthropocene,” it may be possible to add a new dimension to Hino Keizō’s (1929-2002) novel Isle of Dreams (1985).

         In Isle of Dreams, the protagonist Sakai Shōzō wanders from the center of Tokyo across a bridge to the outer reclaimed land of Harumi and then to the central breakwater. This movement overlaps with Sakai crossing his inner border between reality and illusion; he ultimately dies unexpectedly on the island of Odaiba, an intermediate realm of “dreams.” Using the contrast between Tokyo with its forest of skyscrapers and the desolate reclaimed land on the opposite shore as its background, the text depicts from different angles the boundary between the visible and the invisible, but also the blurring of this boundary, establishing sub-contrasts such as those between mass-produced products and their waste, humans and non-humans, and consciousness and unconsciousness. Isle of Dreams, where these opposing elements mingle, reflects an environment called “new nature,” in which man-made materials have become a part of the natural world.

         The climax of the work is a scene in which the boundaries between the skyscraper in the foreground and the burnt ruins in the background disappear, and everything appears as a solid gray mass. Here, the conventional framework of chronological form is temporarily lost, and an ontological presence manifests. Hino’s ontological representation of matter brings to mind T. Morton’s ecocritical concept of “hyper-object,” while his “new nature” can be read as anticipating the landscape of the Anthropocene.

         On the other hand, I believe that the “literature of the Anthropocene” also asks for an epistemological reading of Isle of Dreams, which has an ontological ending. I will thus conclude my presentation by analyzing Isle of Dreams from the perspective of energy, which is one of the issues that “the literature of the Anthropocene” makes visible.

OZAWA Kyōko: Humans and Ruins, or the Ruin of Humanity: Focusing on Japan from the 1960s to the 1980s

         From the 1960s to the 1980s, that is, from the period of high economic growth to the bubble economy, the urban environment surrounding human beings underwent rapid changes. This refers at the same time to the transformation of the urban environment itself due to the development of technology and to the social transformation brought about by changes in the industrial structure. In this period of seeming “progress,” however, images of “ruins/ abandoned places” and “waste” are also present in many types of artistic expression, in literature, visual art, and even popular culture. These are no longer the burnt fields that were the reality immediately after the end of World War II, but rather the ideologically recurring scenes of catastrophe, or gaps found in the rapidly developing urban space. The vision of “ruins” presented by Isozaki Arata in 1968, Abe Kōbō’s focus on “spaces unregistered to the public” such as illegal garbage dumps in the 1970s, and the huge boom in the artistic and literary representation of ruins and junk in the 1980s (including Ōtomo Katsuhiro, Miyamoto Ryūji, Hino Keizō, Mikami Seiko, and Tsukamoto Shinya): —— not only images of ruins of artifacts such as cities, buildings, and machines, but also those describing the ruins and waste of human existence itself, as well as the fusion (or intermingling and mutual boundary transgression) of the human body and waste, began to appear more and more frequently.

         The fusion of the human body (including the brain and nervous system) with artifacts (cities, machines, etc.) that are the product of technology is, on the one hand, associated with the concept of cyborgs and the enhancement of various human abilities. At the same time, however, there is certainly a genealogy of visions in which the human body is half-broken via merging with the Other in the form of technology (or by failing to merge and generating waste). Here, the human body is transformed into something beyond the conventional category of “human.” Focusing on this latter aspect, this presentation will analyze the nature and potential of an existence that defies the conventional understanding of “human” and “human reason,” based on several representative works from the above-mentioned period.