Two Weeks in Tokyo: For a Language (Probably Never) to Come

From the series Hunter, 1972. Photograph: Daidō Moriyama © Daidō Moriyama Photo Foundation

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In an essay on the American photographer William Klein, Takuma Nakahira attempts to explain the power of Klein’s influential photobook New York. Klein’s photography rejects the “static gaze,” a way of seeing that essentially seeks visual evidence to support what it expects to see because it has “already perceived a meaning to the world.” For Nakahira, most photography participates in this static gaze. What makes Klein’s work so different—and so influential for Nakahira’s theory and practice—is its hallucinatory quality, a way of seeing akin to that of dreams in which, as Nakahira says, “everything appears as fragmentary and flat,[and] any meaning based on our usual perspective is completely, beautifully neglected.” Nakahira goes as far as to compare this non-static vision to an epistemology of madness, citing the autobiography of a young schizophrenic girl for whom things “lost their names, their function and meanings. … and began to take on life, to exist. This existence,” she writes, “accounted for my great fear.” For Nakahira such is the potential revelatory—and terrifying—power of photography.

In May of 2016, I spent two weeks in Japan. Because of my limited understanding of spoken or written Japanese, I found myself in a perpetual and at times infantilizing state of disorientation, the results of which strike me as something of a cognate to Nakahira’s vision for photography. Though this disorientation waned as I became accustomed to, and developed strategies for, dealing with the linguistic and cultural isolation that walled me off, for a stretch of time it seemed I had only my senses as navigational tools, the most important of which was sight. At certain moments my intelligence seemed to reside almost wholly in my eyes, with which I had to “read” a world the vast majority of people around me perhaps didn’t see, that world having been rendered transparent for them by the (necessary) mechanisms of habituation. Slowly, wordlessly, my internal map began to guide me around. I was orienting myself; I was “growing up.” If I were to stay in Japan, to call it my home, the same mechanism would—with or without language—no doubt obviate the heightened awareness under whose auspices I now wandered the city. A routine would eventually emerge and with it a return to blindness. Such are the ineffable benefits of travel.

But there wasn’t time for that. I had only two weeks. The gaps between literal “likenesses,” as opposed to schematic or figurative approximations, opened up in all their explicit referentiality. Things as things began to exist in and of themselves in real time, not simply as confirmation or validation of the accuracy of some linguistic or conceptual pointer. It was as though their “thisness”—in particular their existence outside language—was revealed, if only for a moment. And the overriding impression I confronted time and again was this: that of the gloriously useless essence of these things. The experience was strangely exhilarating. I wandered the city like a lost child. Without the assistance of my iPhone I would have been completely helpless as my apartment was in the Shimbashi neighborhood, whose proliferation of soulless skyscrapers, nameless streets, and meticulously clean alleyways presented themselves to me as part of some labyrinth.

Nakahira writes, “In our everyday life, we see the world as something that has already been clarified. Otherwise, it would probably be impossible to live a stable and continuous life. But in reality, what do we know about the world? Don’t we just believe that we know something about it? If this is the case, there is no liberty within ignorance.” To follow this reasoning, habituation and conditioning allow us to function with some degree of efficiency while at the same time constituting a kind of “ignorance” that strips us of true vision. Such is the sacrifice we make—though perhaps this says more about me. I experienced its inverse: my ignorance stripped me of the normalizing blindness and its implications. As the weeks went on, I witnessed the return of this blindness—but not completely. If I wandered as an illiterate, I became more literate with regard to my senses.

Driven by hunger and necessity, I would wander into the Family Mart across the avenue from my apartment. One day I needed contact lens solution. I picked up a box and tried to read the label. Futile; it was in Japanese. Soft or hard lenses? Was this something to be intuited from the photograph of the product on the label? I poured over it for some indication, some color, some signifier, some clue. I asked the cashier, who was as helpful as he could be, but he steered me back to the same bottle. Over the course of the following weeks, I found myself eating fruit. Oranges don’t require product labels. Each comes with its own label. Having co-evolved over eons to be, at peak ripeness, starkly visible against a leafy green context to mammalian eyes, oranges exist beyond language.

But at no time over the course of these two weeks did this disorienting state manifest itself more obviously than during the interviews conducted with the photographers. I would hover along the edges of the action as inconspicuously as possible, listening to the conversation, fascinated by how much “interpersonal communication” I usually missed because of language itself: by how language casts its obfuscatory spell; how utterly powerful it is to alchemize the world; how it conceals as much as it reveals. Without language, I could see each person being interviewed, undistracted by what they were saying, what they were projecting, shaping, influencing—everyone does this, whether they know it or not. But here they sat, linguistically naked before me. When I later reviewed the English transcripts, I was startled by how much at odds my reactions were with what they had actually said. This forced the obvious knee-jerk question: which was more accurate? My wordless observations or the words themselves, stripped of context?

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