Sunday, July 13, 2008

Amoeba City / Mollusc Society (Tokyo)

"... conforming to Western philosophy, which regards each center as the seat of all truth, our town centers are always full. They are places where the values of civilization are collected and condensed : values of spirituality (with churches), power (with offices), money (with banks), goods (with department stores) and words (with the 'agora': cafes and walks). Going downtown means encountering social 'truth', taking part in the sublime richness of 'reality'. "The city I'm referring to (Tokyo) presents this amazing paradox : it does have a center, but this center is empty. The whole city revolves around a place that is both forbidden and indifferent, an abode masked by vegetation, protected by moats, inhabited by an Emporer whom no one ever sees : literally, no one knows who does ever see him." "... Its center is no more than an evaporated ideal whose existence is not meant to radiate any kind of power, but to offer its own empty center to all urban movement as a form of support, by forcing perpetual traffic detours. Thus, it appears as an image that unfurls again and again in endless circles, around an empty core."

"Barthes himself has often pointed out that while the center of a European city is historically linked with a market or cathedral where citizens converge, nothing so clear-cut ever occurs in a Japanese city. "Tokyo, thus, is an 'amoeba city' with its amorphous sprawl and the constant changes it undergoes, like the pulsating body of the organism. And as with an amoeba, Tokyo demonstrates a physical integrity and the capacity for regeneration when damaged." This is a fascinating idea that is clearly linked with that of the 'mollusc society' described by the anthropologist Chie Natane in reference to the 'decentralized' psychological behaviour of the Japanese as compared to the 'vertebrate' behaviour of westerners."

“This city cannot be known except through some sort of ethnographic activity: you need to find your bearings . . . by walking its streets, by looking around you, through habit and experience: each discovery is both intense and fragile, it cannot be repeated, and only its trace can be left in our memory: in this sense, visiting a place for the first time is like starting to write about it: as the address has not been written down, it has to found its own writing”. "The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicious protection, envelops the foreigner (provided the country is not hostile to him) in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize. Hence, in foreign countries, what a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, worldliness, nationality, normality. The unknown language, of which I nonetheless grasp the respiration, the emotive aeration, in a word the pure significance, forms around me, as I move, a faint vertigo, sweeping me into its artificial emptiness, which is consummated only for me: I live in the interstice, delivered from any fulfilled meaning."

Roland Barthes :: L’Empire des Signes

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