Monday, July 16, 2012

Aokigahara Forest, Part 2: Vitally Active Debris


I don't want to get too hung up in terms of rendering people as "debris" as much as I do elevating the "debris"  -- which would mean elevating all of that which is left behind in the suicide forest on an -- and I have to take a deep breath when I write this -- equal ontological footing as humans.  But I want to do this hypothetically, as a thought experiment.  What if we were to look at those non-human objects which were left behind with the same ontological weight as human beings?  It's not easy to do, unless we begin by thinking in terms of agency first.  Can we possibly think of those objects as having the same agency as the humans who left them?

One way to do this is to follow Jane Bennett's lead in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, and think of the role that "vitality" plays in how human beings separate themselves from other objects. In her book, Bennett calls for a reconceptualization of what we tend to consider inanimate matter into something with more agency -- to think "beyond the life-matter binary" (Kindle location 422 of 2417).  As much as I enjoyed Bennett's book, trying to find a solid definition of "vitality" or the "vibrancy" of which she speaks is difficult; but I do not think that's necessarily her fault.  To think about what is traditionally thought of as inanimate matter (or objects, or instrumental technology) on equal ontological footing with the human subjectivity which "knows," "experiences," or "utilizes" such matter is intrinsically counter-intuitive.  It's not easy to do, and less easy to explain.  But I think the following section sets up some parameters, and helps us to at least figure out a sense of what she's getting at:
"Why advocate the vitality of matter?  Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.  It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.  These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness, or even "respect" ... The figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be of the impediments to the emergence of a more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption."  (Kindle location 36 of 2417).  
I chose the quote above because it stands in contrast to the objects we're seeing in Aokigahara:  Those objects seem to be poignant reminders of life.  But if we think about the objects which the individuals have left behind, they themselves would seem, by traditional standards, to lack a certain "vitality."  In fact, the only way they do gain some kind of "life" is by another living witness's granting of agency upon them.  In other words, a person such as Hayano comes across an object; the object is granted a kind of subsidiary vitality via the connection (by another) to its imagined "owner" (i.e. human agent).  The vitality of the object seems contingent upon human subjectivity.  It only means something if there is a human witness there to give it such a meaning.   But, from an alternative -- but not opposite or reciprocal --  view, the object itself does have a real impact on the vitality or agency of the human.  That is to say, my instinct here is to flip the sentence rhetorically and say 'what if  human subjectivity were contingent upon the vitality of the object?'  But in doing that I'm still kind of stashing a little human ontological nugget into the object itself:  "vitality of the object" does nothing for the present discussion, because "vitality" here still has human connotations.  It is difficult to think of vitality any other way than in human terms.  So "vitality of the object" simply means "object with human agency projected onto it."

But, a slight tweak may get us on the right path.  Perhaps, "what if the vitality of human subjectivity were contingent upon the object?"  To achieve what Bennett calls for, I believe that "vitality" must always be associated with humanity; vitality is a placeholder for "humanness."  It's a kind of anthropomorphization-lite.  If we think of objects having vitality, according to Bennett, then we aren't giving into that hubris-feeding, earth destroying fantasy of conquest and consumption.  Human subjectivity works as human subjectivity because it must bestow a vitality on objects it comes across within its field of experience.  Even if we see an object as something to be destroyed, used, or otherwise exploited, we must imagine it as such -- visualize it.  It must come into our field of experience.  This, I believe, is the vitalization Bennett's calling for, and if this is the case, then her call becomes an existential one -- albeit a very reformed, avant-garde existentialism, in which the centrality of subjectivity is de-emphasized to pull the importance of the objects/matter into the foreground.

So then, if we take that vitality as a kind of neo-existentialism (perhaps a materialist-existentialism?), then we can more easily occupy the "object" space in a kind of inverse eidetic reduction.  How does this object "activate" my subjectivity.  How does it "ping" the self?  Getting back to Hayano in the forest, the objects he's handling are not really acting as reminders of the humans who left them there.  In reality, those objects are bringing Hayano's self-reflexively forward out of the forest, allowing Hayano to think of the possiblities of the people who may have left these objects behind.  These objects are not direct links or reminders of people, instead, they are actants which activate Hayano's subjective experiences, and thus his epistemological processes which provide a series of possibilities as to where these things came from, who they belonged to, and even the more involved -- and presumptive -- narrative origins of how they got there.  The objects activate the thinking-Hayano; the self-reflexive Hayano who is aware of himself being aware of his spatio-temporal position amid the environment of the Aokigahara forest.  The objects reinforce his imago in extremely complex and manifold ways.

In this way, the objects are vital as per Bennett's definition, but only because they are actants upon the vitality-bestowing capability of the human being itself.  I think the objects are "vitality"-inducing.  I'm tempted to say that these objects -- really, any objects -- act as a kind of ongoing efficient cause of selfhood.  All objects perpetually trigger, reinforce, and reiterate the self.  But, the most important thing to remember is that it is a self which is composed of the objects around it.  It is a self that is unique to that specific topology and temporality.  How is this different than a Husserlian model of consciousness, where the self is dependent on phenomena (it's own biological phenomena as well as the phenomena around it)?  Husserl implies that phenomena allows the self to come into being -- as a raw material -- that fuels the consciousness; and that the overall modality of experience is contingent upon the internal structure of the consciousness.

Let's try that another way.  For Husserl, what we experience "out there" in the world around us is actually occurring internally -- within our consciousness.  So, the distinct qualia of our own, personal experiences is determined primarily by the consciousness itself.  The phenomena (of our biological functions, as well as the sense data from the external world) is always already filtered through the process of consciousness.  For me, however, I feel that the very processes and mechanism of consciousness itself is determined by the external.  So, it's not just the shape of thoughts ... it's the mechanism and shape of consciousness which is determined by what we traditionally call the external world.  So, how the consciousness functions, and the qualia of experience, is a tapestry in which the biological phenomena of thought, memories, emotions, etc, are woven together with the specific topography that particular human being occupies.

This isn't that difficult to conceptualize, actually, when we think about extreme examples of how we experience the world.  When we are obsessed to the point of distraction with something, it's the emotional phenomena which rises to the surface and affects experience the most, pushing the "external" to an almost dangerously low level.  It is an aspect of "self" which takes center stage, and seemingly detaches us from the world we physically inhabit.  Conversely, when we are completely subsumed in the external world ... say, in those moments when we are "running by instinct" alone,  or are completely in the moment, that "self" is subsumed to the point of not even being able to form a coherent temporal schema (i.e. "The car hit a patch of black ice, it started spinning, and the next thing I knew, I was upside-down in a ditch").

I think that each of the individuals who enter Aokigahara doesn't just experience the forest differently, I think they are the forest according to their individual experiences.  As soon as they step into it, they become all that the forest is, including what they know of it before they enter.  For those that enter determined to die, they leave no trace of themselves, but instead willingly subsume their "selves" into the topology of the Aokigahara itself.  They disappear.  Those who step in with doubts must find a way to assert their "selves" against the topology of the forest, and thus leave behind lifelines, notes, and other marks distinguishing that self -- either to save their own lives, or to leave a bit of themselves to be found by an other.  Not to be morbid (probably too late, I know), if a person wants a part to be found, then there was always doubt -- always an aspect of them which desired to live.  The debris -- or remnant -- is an inanimate surrogate of self; as if to say, "I cannot bear the prospect of living, but nor can I bear the prospect of nothingness."  That object left behind (whatever it may be), isn't alive, but it's not nothing.

Ironically, to leave something behind becomes the final mark of the human survival instinct.  The object is what remains of the human.

This is all leading somewhere, and I'll wrap up my Aokigahara thoughts in the next post.