Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aokigahara Forest, Part 3: Empty Spaces and Pieces of Mind

[This is the final installment of the Aokigahara posts]
"Studying how people co-exist with nature is part of environmental research.  I was curious why people kill themselves in such a beautiful forest.  I still haven't found an answer to that."

Sometimes my literary theorist upbringing can really do me a disservice.  I was initially going to jump all over this statement and say that Hayano is actually not looking to see how people co-exist, simply because he is finding the things that seem to not belong to nature.  After all, it is the objects themselves which lead Hayano either to  decomposing corpses (which, as per the end of the video, are transformed into objects or markers of pity, "Sometimes I feel sorry for them"), or to nothing.  But even if nothing is found, Hayano populates the empty space with a narrative of what might have happened.  By no means am I faulting him for this, or even criticizing him for it in an academically snarky way.  On the contrary, this is what humans do.  This is how our brains operate.  And I believe that this narrative-making is actually the manifestation of a truly human instinct. All living things have a survival instinct.  But if we're going to really figure out what makes human specifically human, it would be our unique way of creating narratives (whether literary as in the creation of myths, or scientific in the creation of theories and postulates).  I also think that the way in which humans utilize objects is also an aspect of that narrative.

What Hayano is studying is our co-existence with nature, and, by his own admission, he cannot seem to rectify the beauty of the forest with what he sees as the ugliness of decomposition.  Instinctively, we should see decomposition as ugly: decomposing corpses are toxic and can pollute water and food supplies.  They can attract vermin and other scavengers which are detrimental to health.  Yet, one of the ongoing markers of "humanity" or at least advanced thought, has been ritualized burial.  And what is ritualized burial but an attempt to re-integrate the body with the earth, and simultaneously ameliorate a sense of loss.  The two are not diametrically opposed.  We memorialize the dead, as a way to simultaneously remember (bring to mind) and forget (return the body to the earth, and mythically, return the soul to whence it came, or liberate the life-force).  But we don't really want to forget,  do we?  We need that act of burial to mark an end, to find closure, and to leave a remnant behind which can focus our memories when we need them to be focused.

Now, let's think of this in more posthuman terms.  To circumvent the deleterious effects of decomposition, we find elaborate ways to either preserve or dispose of the dead.  Whether we choose a "green" burial and commit the body naked into a pit and foster decomposition; or we burn it to ash, make the ash into a diamond, and wear it around or necks; or if we mummify the dead to be unearthed millenia later and put on display in a museum, they are all, essentially, the same action:  a reintegration into the landscape as object, and an integration of loss into the conceptual landscape of self.  Mourning is a reconstitution of self in light of an absence.  Instinctively, I want to jump to the emotional/affective loss.  But I'm going to resist that urge again and focus on the physical loss.

The closer I am to the person who has died, the more likely their physical presence is attached to the idea of them.  In fact, I can actually get a visceral response when I think about the people whom I love the most simply not being there physically.  In the topography of everyday life, the physical presence of others around us is more important, I believe, than even emotional connection.  I think that existentialism may have done us a disservice in that it has elevated the concept of the consciousness to a point where it becomes unduly synonymous with the emotional, intellectual, and conceptual self.  We become so focused on getting over a loss on a conceptual level, that the sheer weight of physical absence is overlooked.  If thinking, then, is truly distributed over the specific topological spaces we occupy (as per Andy Clark's work), then the physical absence of a person with whom we've shared a specific space would have a profound effect on the mechanism of thinking itself.  The process of cognition would occur with a major piece missing, literally.  One would be thinking with a piece of his or her mind missing.

One last bit from Hayano to bring this home:

 "I think the way we live in society these days has become more complicated.  Face-to-face communication used to be vital, but now we can live our lives being online all day.  However, the truth of the matter is we still need to see each other's faces, read their expressions, hear their voices, so we can fully understand their emotions.  To coexist."

To some extent, every physical object that constitutes our immediate, regular environments is a part of the thinking self -- literally.  A truly distributed cognition system consists of the biological brain, body, and physical objects within a person's specific living environment.  One can say that the machine through which one "co-exists" with others virtually also makes up part of that cognition system, but somehow, that virtual presence is qualitatively different than having a face-to-face, "real life" interaction with someone.  A distributed cognition might explain why an online, virtual presence "just isn't the same" as the "live" alternative.

Aokigahara, and the suicides therein, gives us an albeit extreme way to recharacterize the lebenswelt  (or life-world: our lived experience in our specific, individual space and time).  I don't pretend to try to get into the minds or the inherent anguish these individuals have experienced.  But as someone familiar with the impact of loss (especially the kind involved with suicide), it is the intricacies of the physicality of loss which often remain unexplored or de-emphasized.  If we miss out on the role of physicality in the tragedy of death, we'd be even less inclined to see the role it has in our everyday interaction with the world around us.