A flute is blown, a tone sustained, strung like a bridge of sound across an otherwise silent expanse. By flute I mean the shakuhachi, the most important of traditional Japanese wind instruments. “Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20th-century avant-garde flute repertory,” writes David Loeb in the Kōhachirō Miyata album’s liner notes, “were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.” The sounds are ones I reimagine come evening as I listen to birdsong. As May concludes, it’s time to plant. ‘Tis summer–nearly so. If not for rain, I’d have been at the pool reading Reclaiming Art, a book by Weird Studies podcaster J.F. Martel. Or perhaps I’d have finished Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I find the latter troubling in its traditionalism. Japanese communists of the 1930s regarded Tanizaki as a reactionary in the years prior to the Second World War. His writings failed to adopt a recognizable ideological “stance.” He was a foot fetishist; a masochist; his writings explore the erotic and the grotesque. To the ideologues of his day, this made him “decadent,” his worldview colored by nostalgia for premodernity and by an embrace of fantasy and the unconscious. The elements I admire in Tanizaki, however, are his visceral aversion to capitalist modernity, his respect for embodied being, and his desire to live well.
It is the discussion of aesthetics in Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows to which I am drawn as I contemplate objects that have “come into appearance” at the level of the trash stratum. The book is one I gleaned just this morning from a bin at Goodwill. It begins with an appreciation for traditional Japanese architecture. Tanizaki mourns this architecture’s defeat by the trappings of modernity: electricity, lightbulbs, flush toilets. “A man who has a family and lives in the city cannot turn his back,” he writes, on these “necessities of modern life” (1). Places of beauty and meaning undergo “improvement.” Homes of paper shoji give way to homes of glass. This change provides the occasion for Tanizaki to reflect on “how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science” (7). “The facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms,” he writes, “might well have presented themselves in different form” (7). ‘Tis a delicious thought. Tanizaki’s thought experiment supplies the premise for an alternate history. Tweak the premise a bit and you get Sesshu Foster’s novel Atomik Aztex. Or better yet, Foster’s latest book, ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, co-written with Arturo Ernesto Romo.
Modernist art and literature gain viability — become possible — only when there are social movements afoot vying for control of the production of reality. Such was the argument Marshall Berman made in his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, is it not? (Book out of reach, I settle for Berman’s essay of that name.) He complains early in his essay of “primitivist romance” among his fellow former SDSers following the latter’s disintegration in 1969. He accuses these former comrades of nihilism and anti-Americanism. Berman’s views are silly; I bore quickly of his rash judgments. His admiration for Marx’s “developmentalism” leaves him cold to the pleas of Indigenous resistance movements and anti-colonialists like Fanon. Berman is no ally to those of us who demand an end to the money-form. His humanism excludes from its circle of care nonhuman relatives and kin.
Hippie modernism was an attempt to eroticize or more broadly sensualize Western modernity. It was a project launched from within the West that drew inspiration from the cultures of native and non-Western people. Within a sensualized landscape replanted and rewilded with minimal reliance on technology, people could relax and admire the barking of dogs, the music of birds. A neighbor operating a chainsaw is all it takes, though, to disrupt the peace of this reverie. I’m reminded of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson,” which begins, “Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone / a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out / music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes.” Baraka’s poem reminds us that Paterson’s modernity (like that of the rest of the country) never extended to many of its black residents. To help bear his burden — to absorb the anger forced upon him by the racism of our society — I undergo a cleansing ritual. I absorb, I reprocess, I release.
“Do you hear a robin?” I overhear my niece asking her sister in the next room. Let us resolve to learn something new. Listen to Lee Konitz’s “Sunflower” and drink a Martini.
“The essential irony here,” wrote LeRoi Jones in response to “cool jazz” players of the 1950s like Konitz, is that “when the term cool could be applied generally to a vague body of music, that music seemed to represent almost exactly the opposite of what cool as a term of social philosophy had been given to mean. The term was never meant to connote the tepid new popular music of the white middle-brow middle class. On the contrary, it was exactly this America that one was supposed to ‘be cool’ in the face of” (Blues People, p. 213). Fair enough — but let us not make “existing to cast judgment on others” our middle name. Get out there, swept up in the joy of common, everyday, familial being with others. ‘Tis the season. Imagine in the circle of an eye a triangle of power. With one’s hands, weigh a series of geodes and prisms. Go for walks in a snow-covered neighborhood. Exchange presents. Sit by a fire. Recognize “modernity” as a trope that signals the emergence of the condition to which it refers. Those who use this term come to occupy an alternative temporality — a “temporal structure,” as Fredric Jameson explains, “distantly related to emotions like joy or eager anticipation,” where time fills with promise (A Singular Modernity, p. 34). The term generates an electrical charge, a feeling of intensity and energy. Think of it as a shock doctrine, a shock to the system, an electrification of consciousness.