OAC Online Seminar 13-24 October: Cosmetic Cosmologies in Japan


There is a computing expression, What You See Is What You Get (pronounced ‘wiziwig’ for short) that refers to the aim of showing on the screen what the end-product will actually look like, as opposed to a string of numbers and letters. It was borrowed from a TV comedy catch phrase meaning “I am who I am, take it or leave it”. The idea that the truth is not what appears on the surface is endemic in western civilization and is especially favoured by academic intellectuals who often like to think that their own shambolic appearance conceals real depth. They may even cultivate being scruffy in order to suggest hidden depths that aren't there! Beauty is only skin deep after all. It is not hard to find in all this Christian notions of the soul and of heaven being vastly superior to this life. The hedonistic riposte is to say that, other things being equal, it is better to be rich, beautiful, successful and happy than not or, in Gordon Gecko’s words, “greed is good”.

Philip Swift’s entertaining and erudite essay takes off from ethnographic reports of Japanese praying at Shinto shrines. It seems that going through the motions of prayer is all that matters there and this causes problems for academic interpreters (anthropologists included). Surely there has to be more to the ritual than that? Philip asks rather what might happen if we treat superficiality not as a problem but as a resource. He also tackles a common claim that Japanese ritual does not evoke cosmology, the theories and stories that explain how our universe was made. He suggests rather that forms and surfaces – the artificial and the superficial -- might themselves be understood as being cosmologically efficacious in Japan.

Philip Swift lives in London where he taught in the history and anthropology departments at University College London for five years. Philip carried out fieldwork with the members of a Japanese religious group. An article based on this research ('Touching Conversion: Tangible Transformations in a Japanese New Religion') was awarded the Curl Essay Prize for 2009 by the Royal Anthropological Institute. OAC regulars already know Phil for his fantastic blog post The Octopus: Eight Footnotes.

You can read or download the present paper, Cosmetic cosmologies in Japan: Notes towards a superficial investig... here. This online seminar will last twelve days, so there is plenty of time to read and reflect, even to do some impromptu fieldwork! This is not just a specialist paper on Japanese religion. It touches on issues that affect us all. And to prove it, Philip’s argument starts with a scene from a James Bond novel. Now is that superficial or what?

In the movie, Last year at Marienbad, a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to go away with him, but she doesn’t seem to remember that they already met a year ago. It’s a pretty inscrutable movie. I once saw its writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, being interviewed by journalists on French TV. One of them said to him. “I have a theory about what is going on in the film: they were killed together last year at Marienbad and are now ghosts!” Robbe-Grillet replied “What I find interesting is that you need to know what really happened.” Enjoy. And please feel free to join the discussion!

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I take on board absolutely your statement that the Japanese didn't need Austin to teach them that things can be done with words. You might want to consider, however, that this is not remarkable. At one end of Eurasia, Genesis begins with the statement that God said, "Let there be light," and creation began. The Gospel of John begins with the words, "In the beginning was the Word....and the Word was God." Gnostic and Kabbalistic traditions are full of magical words. Closer to Japan, in China, from which much in Japanese religion is borrowed, Daoist priests assert that the cosmos is regulated by esoteric words written in a script revealed only to Daoist adepts. The notion that knowing the "true names" of things allows the magician to control their behavior is common enough to be a standard trope in fantasy, e.g., Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy.

This suggests to me that the interesting questions have to do not with whether words do things. They do, all over the world. It is how, in particular, in specific cultural contexts they are held to do particular things. It is, for example, interesting to note that in Genesis, the words are spoken words. In Daoism, spoken words are powerful but so, and perhaps even more so, are written words. Thus the need for Daoist priests to learn the esoteric script used in drawing charms.

Be that as it may, let me say that I have enjoyed your paper immensely and found it very "good to think," indeed. If I have seemed harsh in some of my comments, it is not because I disrespect you. You are, in my view, a keen observer and a brilliant writer. If your analytical game is improved just a bit, your work will, I believe, be a major contribution to the now altogether too stuffy anthropology of Japan.

If these remarks appear to be condescending, please remember that they are offered in the spirit of of a Japanese sempai, who only gives a really hard time to those less senior in whom he sees the greatest promise.
Thanks John,

Not condescending at all, but extremely encouraging. And your contributions - including your wasabi-coated comments! - were very helpful, because, among other things, they prompted me to try and make my own thinking more explicit.

Many thanks indeed.

And thanks to everyone again.
Speaking in the spirit of a West Indian rude boy; thanks very much Philip - and thanks to everyone else who took part too.

Philip Swift said:
Thanks John,

Not condescending at all, but extremely encouraging. And your contributions - including your wasabi-coated comments! - were very helpful, because, among other things, they prompted me to try and make my own thinking more explicit.

Many thanks indeed.

And thanks to everyone again.



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