Botzwana 08/2002

1. "YOUR FACE IS A SCAPE": 

A SHORT EXERCISE IN FACIAL GEOMORPHOLOGY

 

 

International realities, imagined or not, interfere with each other up to a point that "the virtual" concerns us on an everyday basis. In this situation, even the ethnos will not remain what it once was. The eminent sociologist of Indian origin, Arjun Appadurai, invented the term "ethnoscape," a notion which successfully grasps the ethnos as represented in the new global cultural economy which, as Appadurai writes, "has to be understood as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order." (1) According to Appadurai, it is no longer possible to speak of ethnos as a quality settled in a locality. The more suitable word "ethnoscape" describes "landscapes of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live." They are represented by all those people who are constantly on the move that is: "tourists, immigrants, refugees, etc." (p. 297) I'm a paragraph. Click here to add your own text and edit me. I’m a great place for you to tell a story and let your users know a little more about you.

The notion of "ethnoscape" is indeed impressive. But how should we imagine these "landscapes of floating persons?" Should we imagine them as hovering through the air like herds of balloon-like faces, appearing like more or less regularly shaped clouds, each shaded in a different color? The problem is that, when Appadurai launched his notion of the ethnoscape as a metaphorical derivation of the landscape, he seems to have forgotten one essential point: that landscapes no longer exist. This unavoidably leads to a disquieting question: will the ethnoscape suffer from the same symptoms from which has suffered the landscape and will it, finally, disappear? However, let us first check Appadurai's metaphor itself and see if what the landscape did to "the country" is comparable to what the ethnoscape does to the face. "Landscapes are without destiny" has said Jean-François Lyotard. (2) 

Still, no landscape is thinkable without a minimal dialectics aiming at a reconciliation of antagonisms. What characterizes landscapes is that they are peaceful, temperate, and communicative. When looking at a landscape, we simply cannot imagine all those basic elements like the water eroding, the wind displacing, the frost crunching, the heat drying. The powers that formed the valleys, the canyons and the cracks in our countries are automatically eliminated from our imagination as soon as we see the country no longer as a geological-cultural given but as a - landscape. In other words, the landscape is a cemetery of signs. Signs of earthquakes and tragedies might exist or not exist (did you know that in the suburbs of Paris there was once a huge sea?), but, if they existed, they are covered under a heavy make-up. And they remain unconsidered by the meandering view of the contemplator of the landscape: when looking at landscapes, the eye never clings to the detail.

 

The view is a unifying system and details are "viewed" according to a common norm. This norm can even become linguistic. All villages are "perched on a crest" has mocked Robbe-Grillet, and landscape language is often haunted by absurd anthropomorphisms.

 

My point is that, in reality, the landscape as a unifying system no longer functions, because the landscape as such has disappeared. Landscapes are interspersed with electric cables, warehouses, factories and motorways. This means that, while already in the 19th century landscapes were to a large extent a matter of imagination, today they tend to become, since they no longer exist, a matter of the virtual.

 

Would it now be cynical to say that, in parallel, all those local, ethnic faces, with their natural cracks, valleys and canyons, are today bound to turn into virtual ethnoscapes?

 

In Asia, a certain "neo-Asian" cultural style dominant in youth culture is concerned not at all with national or political identity but with personal  -  that is "facial" - identity. The ganguro movement of young women in Tokyo attracted international attention in the late 1980s not only because of the eccentric style of clothing these women produced, but especially because these women colored their faces in a very dark taint (ganguro means "blackface"). Combined with hair dyed in blond or other clear colors, the ganguros’ look was indeed "exotic" up to a point that it was explained as derived from a Caribbean ethnic outfit.

 

Though revolutionary in its appearance, the ganguro movement was most probably only the - so far - last step of an evolution that the sociologist Takeo Doi had defined in the 1970s as the Japanese ambition "to shelve all distinctions, male-female, east-west, adult-child." The "binarism" that Félix Guattari still insisted upon in 1979, and through which capitalist society is supposed to maintain the facial hegemony of the "either/or" has now definitively been deconstructed. Guattari affirmed that capitalist society does not tolerate faces which do not clearly announce their racial or sexual option: "Not only is it necessary to immediately recognize if this is a man, a woman, or a homosexual, but also which kind of man, woman or homosexual." (3) These cultural barriers have been relativized and this not only in Asia. The white population prefers a tanned skin. In Africa, black people bleach their skins and the clearest taint they can achieve somewhat resembles that of the ganguros. If we look at the Jacksons (no matter if Michael or Janet) the resemblance with ganguros is really amazing.

 

A new international, non-authentic, ethnically-universal face populates the landscapes of the streets and of the media. Critics might find that in these faces, in these "cemeteries of signs," we have difficulties to imagine what conservatives would perhaps call "ethnic reality:" the water eroding, the wind displacing, the frost crunching, and the heat drying. However, since the main occupation of ethnoscapes is to "float" within the classical region of landscapes, (that is "where earth and sky touch") the shift from the real ethnoface to the virtual ethnoscape is probably one of those things that we have to accept as unavoidable.

 

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (2001)

 

Notes

1. Arjun Appadurai: "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy" in: Mike Featherstone: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity, London: Sage 1990. See also Appadurai's Modernity at Large (Minnesota UP, 1996), p. 33ff.

2. Jean-François Lyotard: The Inhuman (Stanford UP, 1991), p. 183.

3. Félix Guattari: L'Inconscient machinique (Paris: Recherches, 1979), p. 97. 

 

Botzwana 08/2005

2. In Praise of Blandness:

Some Thoughts on Japanese Television

When zapping through the international channels on a hotel television it is immediately obvious when we have reached the Japanese news. Almost no newscast will pass without the display of silent pictures of building facades or ordinary streets overlaid with a report of the crime that has happened here. The problem is that the here looks like everywhere else, which makes the entire coverage somehow spooky. An accident has happened or somebody has been murdered: the camera takes endless shorts of the street segments and the walls where the event took place though there are absolutely no traces to be seen.

 

In this entirely normal looking house took place a group suicide. The billowing curtains make us shudder (did the victims leave the widows open before...?). Another popular morbid element is the empty hospital bed in which the victim could have been seen if the television had been able to film her. Next comes the almost daily corruption scandal: with unwearing routine the news producers first provide a shot of the company’s name plate at the entrance after which the camera will pan towards the office windows through which we glimpse shadowy silhouettes or - most of the time - nothing.

 

Hundreds of similar looking places are shown in this way per year. As a matter of fact, who would actually like to see what had really happened? Which saturated consumer society would like to witness its crimes in real or almost real time? These gray, claustrophobic shots of concrete and asphalt that deny any point of view are not supposed to establish a scenic place of an event. This is not fiction but a newscast: we are not asked to imagine anything. The "event" must rather be found in these impersonal shots in the form of an absent code that cannot be deciphered but which can perhaps be felt while staring at these bland pictures. The crime is not supposed to be presented as a narrative, it is not even a fact (which could best be reproduced by evoking a scenic real place) but appears through an abstract space linked to some bits of information.

 

The other element by which we immediately identify Japanese television is the omnipresence of cooking shows. Japanese watch on average 3.5 hours of television daily and food shows are on every channel. A Japanese probably does not spend single day pass  without watching at least one food show. These programs - which are rather food-assisted talk shows - come as game or variety shows and are a hilarious mixture of serious information about recipes, diets, food history and geography, and absolute nonsense. In almost all shows, food is used as an element of competition. It is often prepared by following complex plots and the highlight of every cooking show is the tasting of the product. Here it comes, we have seen it a thousand times: The actress tastes, for a moment her face displays a critical though still overall appreciating expression which will, after exactly five seconds, give way to the outcry: "oishi!" Women might jump up a little from their seats while men are usually more restrained. One can consider this as a ritual. Still I am surprised that so far nobody seems to have been worried about the most obvious fact: that you cannot taste food on television. Of all the senses, those that cannot be transmitted by television waves are smell and taste (there are even food radio programmes which reduce food tasting to an auditory experience). What are we actually supposed to think while we are watching the actress tasting the food? Are we supposed to empathize with the taste? One can empathize with feelings like happiness, for example, but how can one empathize with a taste that one does not even know?

 

Again we are confronted with an interesting blandness. The taste conveyed in food shows is a taste that is neither real nor imagined but virtual because it is "there" simply in the way it is enacted; it is there not through an "as if" but as a reality that is apparently self-sufficient. The French sinologist François Jullien has called the aesthetic quality of "insipidity" (which he finds especially in traditional Chinese paintings) a "beyond" which does not lead the spectator into another, metaphysical world, but which appears as a "virtual" quality. (1) For Jullien this insipidity provides a "special type of intuition of existence" which is extremely rich on an experiential level. The virtual is always richer than both reality and imagined non-reality because the "nothing" through which it is conveyed contains infinite possibilities. This aesthetic insipidity is not meant to lead us towards some hidden truth that needs to be revealed but it rather unfolds itself as an "all there is." In a way, it represents a reality in itself, which is not real but virtual. This is exactly what we are confronted with in Japanese television. The blandness of the news images or of the taste in the food shows is not due to a lack of reality but is part of its underlying concept. It produces a presence that does not need to be either actual or hidden but which is simply there as if it had produced itself. This is the particular blandness of virtual reality and it is an essential element of Japanese television.

 

Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (2003)

 

 

Note:

1. François Jullien: Eloge de la fadeur: A partir de la pensée et de l'esthétique de la Chine (Paris: Livre Poche, 1991), p. 115ff.

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