Friday, July 6, 2012

Aokigahara Forest, Part 1: You Always Find Something

I came across this video recently. It's been making the rounds on various blogs and Tumblr, mostly in the context of suicide prevention and various religious discourses. On an emotional level, it's quite moving. On an intellectual level -- especially in the context of posthumanism, it's fascinating. Watch the video before proceeding. Heed the disclaimers, though, because there is some imagery that might be disturbing to some.

From a posthuman perspective, I was struck the most by geologist Azusa Hayano's statements regarding the tape that had been wound around trees and tree-limbs:

"People who are indecisive about dying, wrap this tape on trees along their way so they can find their way out ... In most cases, if you follow the tape, you find something at the end. Either you find a dead body, or you find traces that someone was there. You always find something."

Hayano's statement here is telling. For him, indecision and doubt are marked by the existence of physical evidence/objects. He later implies that those who are determined to commit suicide walk into the forest without any kind of objects to leave behind. They seem to walk in and "disappear" completely. From a posthuman perspective, it would make sense that doubt would be marked by objects. Objects have the quality of holding one to a specific time and place. On a practical level, they can mark goals or destinations (literally, a starting line or finish line, or monument, or landmark). On an affective level, they become representations of a specific moment in time and space, and take on the a kind of emotional burden. As I've said previously in Posthuman Suffering, we seek out technology as a means to "lift out" pain and suffering from our human selves. We want technology not to alleviate that suffering, but to actually suffer with us. Note, that's with us, not for us.

For objects, the relationship is similar, I think. But because of the physically simple nature of a single object -- in this case, the tape -- the practical/affective boundary is indistinct. The tape in Aokigahara Forest allegedly serves a singular practical purpose: to allow the individual to find his or her way out should they decide not to kill themselves. But how can we not assign a more profound, symbolic purpose to them as well: traces of lives; tendrils that anchor the individual to the possibility of living. The tape becomes, literally, a lifeline back to the world. And, given Japanese technoculture, that 'world' is one represented by technology, or that which is not nature (Hayano discusses this toward the end of the video, more on that later).

I can't stress enough exactly how important the affective/practical nature of that lifeline is. For the individuals who want out of the Aokigahara, the tape is their only way to navigate back to the main trail system. Furthermore, it seems as if those who do actually decide to leave the forest still leave objects behind. Granted, those objects may simply be trash, but they are evidence of their presence nonetheless. Even the tape remains behind. Are these texts? Testimonials to moments of despair? I wonder how many of those who decide not to kill themselves ultimately pick up after themselves and take the tape with them. I would be inclined to believe not many at all; but that is pure speculation. The objects seem anonymous enough to not specifically identify an individual (and thus not bring the potential for some kind of public shame), but are personal enough that they represent an individual life or path. I'm reminded here of Sting's "Message in a Bottle." At the moment of despair, "100 billion bottles washed up on the shore," testaments of lonliness for 100 billion castaways.

On the other side, however, for those who do succumb, these lifelines are only lifelines in the past tense. For the living, the life-lines represent the final moments of a person, and mark the final trajectory of a life. And, in such a fashion, what is found at the end of the line are "things." As Hayano stated, "you always find something" whether it's scattered objects, or a corpse. And in that moment, the person is now definitively a "thing." That thingness is even more emphasized by the state of the human found.  And it's up to the people on the other end to bestow upon the corpse its human-in-the-past-tense status.  If the corpse is never found, it becomes indistinguishable from the forest itself. In a similar register to the Heideggerian "they," the corpse-as-thing, devoid of a certain essential "human-ness" (very problematic term here, I know), becomes obfuscated by the otherness of the forest itself.  It is only found when there is someone else there to find it; and furthermore, it is found because it is not of the forest -- but is distinguished in the same fashion as the other artifacts which themselves are markers of a once present human.  Poignantly, the suicides of the forest are rendered into debris; the debris of modern life.

More in the next post.