Talk on food and place-making Nov 26

Poster for talk.

Poster for talk.

I’ll be speaking from 2-4pm on November 26th at the Suginami Ward Public Library on some of the food justice & community-building things I worked with in LA. While the concept of “food justice” doesn’t have the same ring in Japanese, and it is not as geographically based (e.g. food deserts) as in the US, many people are aware of stratified access to good, tasty, fresh affordable food. And are starting programs and informal orgs to deal with it. I touch on some of those common connections, and on some neat projects I found in a recent trip to Alaska, in this talk…no reading required, but a reservation is good–call the library at the # on the poster.

back to school

Shirayuri campus, in Sengawa.

Shirayuri campus, in Sengawa.

The higanbana, equinox flower, is the traditional back-to-school foliage in my part of the world. My campus used to be a medicinal herb garden for the Tokugawa shogunate. Even today, it is impeccably maintained, though more for passers-by than healers at this point. Though who is to say, really.

Higanbana‘s name is a compound of “the other shore” + “flower,” and the other shore is, of course, a metaphor for shades, the dead, and the marker of days that now gradate into more dark than light–the equinox. It blooms and dies within a few days. For obvious reasons, it is also a good marker for the return to school and the dwindling days, and light, of summer.

The toggling effect of the higanbana–poised between day and night, life and death, nature and culture–is one I tried to keep in mind as I made up this semester’s syllabi. As a patron flower, you could do worse than picking one that moves between two planes. A flower that, in other words, code-switches pretty effectively (and who knows what lurks on the other side, really…).

Code-switching was initially an idea in socio-linguistics, to refer to the ways that people moved between languages of genres of language (dialect, formality, etc)–and the ways that mattered, by fostering doubled identities and linguistic worlds in one person. More recently, it’s appeared in pop culture to point out how people move between different languages as they traverse different worlds of formal culture, informal culture, street culture, and/or subculture, especially as those worlds are racialized and work through different expressions of gender. It’s a pretty common feeling for anyone who has lived or been abroad, even if “abroad” is just down the street.

This semester I find myself teaching 2 grad research methods classes, in addition to 6 UG classes. A pretty typical Japanese-professor load, 8 all together. One is in what “professionalization” means for grad students starting out in English-based literary studies in Japan; the other is on eco-cinema, with films from Japan, US, northern/indigenous Canada, and China.

In literary studies, recent years have seen a mini-boom in the field of object-oriented literary studies. On one hand, this lit-crit approach is an effort to de-center the exclusive humanism of some lit-crit, to guide attention to relations in texts, and thus the world, that provide contexts for humans–not only history, per se, but objects such as one typically finds in realist lit, in categories like machines, tools, furniture, dwellings, non-human and non-animal beings.

This line of thought, often described as object-oriented-ontology (OOO, a fun acronym to add to typical academic prose!), has, understandably, been prominent in Romantic literary studies, which tends to privilege consciousness, imagination, and the vernacular human when it treats poetry and poetics. (Maybe it goes without saying, but the transcendental, in the age of the anthropocene, is mostly bracketed as a fiction in OOO, if not out of the picture altogether. Timothy Morton’s writings on “ecology without nature” are a good reference and his book of the same title does an awesome job of breaking down how modern Anglophone writing (including some non-western texts in English, and a separate body of Romantic-influenced, non-western, modern fictional works) understands “nature,” in great part, in ways that stem from Romantic poetics.

Personally, I’m not as interested in the ontological questions (nor do I have the philosophical/linguistic training to root out a lot of the textual disputes and work with them) that reprise things that, in the end, still seem idealist to me. Questions like: “What Is X?” or “What Is Being?”. Defining, therefore fixing, ontology seems at odds with making the new relations vis-a-vis the “natural” world, to keep up with things like climate change, population flows and displacements, and resource depletion. I’m more interested in how the meanings, and the undertow of narratives, are constructed, and arguments made (in abstracted systems, such as the voices, POVs, and textual moves we use to put narratives and reading experiences together.)

It’s a long way from a flower, per se, but natural objects as portals to alternate cosmologies is a familiar dynamic that traverses Japanese classical lit, to speculative fiction of today, to the edited film-objects that make up doc films that, in turn, put us as viewers into new relations to this world (or try to).  Many recent pushes in the “keep Humanities alive” trajectory involve treating texts as objects, within which other objects might be found, classified, and later read–so-called “Distant Reading.”

Being able to use Big Data to trawl for possible words and phrases across many texts, as first-stage research, is appealing, as one of many research tools. But it’s not a substitute for reading closely for patterns and style that are essentially genre-driven–all about context and fit with convention. This semester, I hope to keep that higanbana in mind, as a port of entry into another world, as I continue to read and watch stories of natural objects in a changing world, and work with my students to open, read, and re-link the archives to this world.

Girls, leaping through time

One of Hayashi Natsumi's "levitating portraits." Source: Called "yowayowa, or fliumsy, weak, because she is "too small" to carry a heavy SLR camera.

One of Hayashi Natsumi’s “levitating portraits.” Source:

Last summer I became entranced with photographer Hayashi Natsumi’s portraits of herself levitating in everyday settings. This winter, I got a chance to connect her work more intricately to some recent trends in animation, speculative fiction, and “girls’ writing” (少女文学). I”m almost tempted to call her self-portraits the “missing leap,” like the “missing link” of evolution, as they tether together so well many assumed but unspoken ideas of genre and characterization we see in contemporary animé and fiction of, by and about girls. Also, these images are very readable, as many of my students came to know these images, as they flew, so to speak, to the four winds of the Internet via blogs and other micro-media. I think it’s important to showcase the work of female cultural producers as well as the big-ticket animé franchises, because they are not very visible in the film-animé world.

Hayashi’s approach as a “camera woman,” she writes, draws on her “yowayowa” or flimsy, weak, persona, because she is “too small” to carry a heavy SLR camera; I wonder if it in some way refers to the “lightness” of the digital medium, or how it is viewed as less material than printed and developed photography.

Some of her images are 3D, and in fact,many of the images available on line have 2 ways of viewing–“cross-viewing” and “parallel viewing.” Here are instructions for viewing:

With “parallel viewing” images: Please see the image on the right with your right eye, the image on the left with your left eye.
With “crossed-eye viewing” images: Please see the image on the right with your left eye, the image on the left with your right eye.

Two ways of viewing--both add dimensionality.

Two ways of viewing–both add dimensionality.

Whether or not they are to be viewed in the parallax form of cross- or parallel- viewing, “straight” or crosseyed, they all aim for a kind of dimensionality, 3D. They also feature a kind of foreground/background construction where the figure of the girl is very clearly defined, while the background is less immediately clear–whether blurry, or because it is following the contours of mainstream animation that is “flat” in its composition. (Her very interesting and more complete gallery and production notes are found here.)

I really like these images because they bring together, and create a new narrative for, the genre of time-travel and teleport fiction that has been popular and has featured girls since the 1960s. Most people who have even ambiently been around feature-length animation in the last decade have noticed that the “flying girl” character is one given a great deal of airtime. (Tom Lamarre’s recent book has several chapters breaking down how animé images are composited and shot, to different effects.)  The tendency is probably crystallized in the majestic flying scenes of Miyazaki Hayao films, themselves wonderful galleries of the kinds of movement that can be made animate in animation.

What interested me, and was slightly different than the animé aesthetic, is the way that some kind of 3D effect was associated not only with flying, but with a particular point of view, an interiority–the photographer’s. In a brief interview with the New York Times, she states, “‘I wanted to express myself as an honest person ‘whose feet are not firmly planted on the ground’ by shooting myself being free of the gravity of the Earth,” …and continues, “When I am free of the gravity inside the picture, I feel free of any obligation to the society and live without being bound to many things.” Her figure is most often alone, or set against crowds, or framed with a single other person.

In time-travel stories featuring girls, their bodies are typically very involved in the encounter with new spaces and times. The visual things that emerge to describe the worlds experiences when in transit to different time/spaces are typically full of tumult, if not pain and incomprehension. The novel and animé versions of the classic novel The Girl Who Leapt through Time show the experience of transit as a “contact zone” very unlike the boys’ adventure-story capsule of protection–these frontiers are displacements of perception and limit experience. Inside her head after this shot, we gambol through a panorama of worlds, from elements to ponies to potential hells. She falls to the ground, at peace, on a pillow of grass–but the trip itself is anything but pastoral.

The first time-travel scene from Hosoda Mamoru's 2006 animé of The Girl Who Leapt through Time

The first time-travel scene from Hosoda Mamoru’s 2006 animé of The Girl Who Leapt through Time

The sense of wonder and suspension, and slight flight, are very refreshing after the constant passes of trauma that seem so common in other depictions of interior life and space-time displacement.


Course blog for “Urban ag in LA”

My class has officially started, with the building/installation of eight raised beds in the UCLA garden, and 25 students enrolled. We will be starting our first seeds on Thursday–and sheltering them like crazy until this unseasonal cold spell fades away. Students will be posting their grocery store reviews, tracking the garden’s progress, and folding in current events posts and links here.

imperial godzilla, part 1

One of the most intriguing works of the so-called “new academicism” era in 1980s Tokyo  analysed the ways that the “image” of the emperor was inscribed into the very fabric of the city itself–in sign systems like hotel names (imperial hotel, etc.), and subway planning, infrastructure that skirted around the imperial palace grounds. On a topical note, that author, INOSE Naoki, was just elected mayor of Tokyo on December 12. Infrastructure is very much on his mind, and in his history. He was a big player in the privatization of highways under the Koizumi administration in the early 2000s, and is very attuned to the novelty of micro-media such as Twitter. What he means by wanting to “reform” TEPCO, though, remains to be seen.

Inose’s book on “images of the emperor,” along with Taki Kōji’s book on imperial portraits, really shook up the cultural studies world. Both drew on visual and material-culture sources to show how ubiquitously sign systems (記号) of imperial messaging were written into daily life, in both site-specific ways (portraits in schools), and in infrastructural ways, connecting things (subway lines). The links that connect imperial sign systems to infrastructures, though, seem to me to emerge in even earlier contexts–namely, in the Godzilla films of the mid 1950s. My class last quarter did a little experiment with Google–we “got directions” for the monster’s rampage into Tokyo, and found something astounding: Godzilla tippy-toed around the imperial palace, and just kept going. Before getting into deep monster-ology, let’s refresh with a bit of plot summary…

The first Godzilla film in 1954 ends with a paean to national communications infrastructures, at the expense of an older sense of communication and ritual. The eyepatched hero, mad scientist Serizawa, descends to the deep to set off his mysterious and powerful Oxygen Destroyer as a last-ditch effort to fend off the monster. He does so from the deck of a ship on which stand the ethical paleo-historian, who only wants Godzilla for research purposes; his daughter, who has dumped Serizawa in favor of a less brooding, more entreprenurial salvage operator who is poised to make a fortune with wartime scrap metal; and a fleet of reporters with armbands that more or less look like “NHK.” Serizawa, despondent, cuts the tube on his oxygen supply, a deep-sea-diver’s high tech update of the old ritual of hara-kiri.

Serizawa flanked by the paleo-historian; the scholar's daughter; his rival; and a nosy reporter and some SDF troops.

Serizawa flanked by the paleo-historian; the scholar’s daughter; his rival; and a nosy reporter and some SDF troops. Minutes later, he will cut his own lifeline

A triumphal news report announces the “victory,” focalized by a radio announcer and the nosy newspaper reporter who acts as the film’s structure of “witnessing.” Meanwhile, the characters closer to Serizawa mourn, for various reasons–for his sacrifice, and for the fact that another Godzilla may yet re-surface.

Serizawa is clearly the “feudal remnant” in the story, banished and celebrated by the civic sphere of journalists and quasi-military men. I’d like to suggest that the identification of him with the monster, so strong at the end, shifts our worry from a nuclear bomb appearing again to another spectre–Japanese imperialism. As elegant and disciplined as Serizawa is, he’s clearly too grotesque and archaic himself to live. This reading is strengthened when we think of how Godzilla’s stroll through the realm formally reprises the traditional imperial journey of the junkō, or imperial progress.

As scholars like Takashi Fujitani and Gyewon Kim have shown, the imperial “progress” through the countryside took a number of routes and was shown in a variety of media forms, from woodblocks to paintings to photos. There was a variety of scenes, and different demands to show the emperor in the landscape or looking at local scenes. The effect was to localize and nationalize him in a national panorama, represented as well as implied.

Let’s take a walk, and see the sights that Godzilla stomps through, and the images they conjure…

If Godzilla were to “get directions” to the Imperial Palace…

The 1954 film Godzilla is many many things. It is a demo of how the housewife “bicycle citizens” make demands on public officials, as they did in many grass-roots health and consumer movements. It is about how monsters are represented on screen, and it is about possible terrifying figures. Because Godzilla is so much about speculation, and contains within it many possible futures, the connections to the past have, for good reason, been eclipsed.

In last quarter’s film class–the star system in Japanese films, including Godzilla–we introduced Godzilla to the twenty-first century, and one of its key technologies–GPS. In tracking its movements (it’s never really been made clear whether G is male or female, so I”ll leave it open), we find an interesting habit–Godzilla avoids the imperial palace, tippy-toeing delicately around it, even when rampaging through many other swaths of the city, high and low.

Godzilla first burbles up from the watery deep in the Philippine Sea, about halfway between Guam and the main islands of Japan.

…on the approach to the mainland

The next sighting finds us approaching the mainland, in Tokyo Bay…from where Godzilla rampages into the city itself. Tokyo is marked “A” here, because the film teaches us to watch from the mainland point of view–something out there is closing in on “us,” and for mainland residents, that narrowing distance comes with a spike in anxiety.

...nearing the mainland

…nearing the mainland

Finally, the monster alights outside Shinagawa, near the water, as a group of office workers goes on a booze cruise with—eerily—Polynesian-sounding music.

The rampage continues as Godzilla climbs up on land. The first casualties are against civilians, as it stomps a train before getting tangled in a network of transmission wires. This landscape features some of the more stunning of designer Tsurubaya Eiji’s scale-models—the cityscape modeled at 1:25 size.

You’ll notice that the itinerary of Godzilla’s path has led from periphery to center, past to present. The monster’s breath lasers in on electrical towers, melting them, as the monster journeys in to the center of the city, where houses erupt in flames, and entire streets burn.

city streets erupt in flames, with destruction reminiscent of the fire-bombing of Tokyo

city streets erupt in flames, with destruction reminiscent of the fire-bombing of Tokyo

In the second part of this two-part essay, I’ll look at the tour within the city, and make some speculations about what the patterns of stomping and avoiding mean.

ontario farm trip / urban ag summit

The Iceland Garden in Mississauga–named for the skating rink across the way. In the background, some of the large houses that are quickly filling in the formerly rural land outside of Toronto.

In mid-August I hopped up to Toronto for a few days to go to a big gathering called the urban ag summit. I had cased a lot of projects and talked to people in Montreal in the spring, and was quite curious about Toronto, regarded from afar as one of the most with-it cities going in terms of food policy. The sheer number of people involved in food issues was astounding; for the first time, I met an urban planner who specialized in food issues, in the way one might specialize in other infrastructure like traffic.

There was a long talk by Will Allen, whose most oft-repeated word was: “quantify.” There were meals thronged by people without dainty appetites. There were cool workshops about growing on rooftops. There were authors whose works I had enjoyed (Food and the City). There were lawyers who worked on “urban ag law,” prying land out of the jaws of vacancy, inventorying it, and turning it into gardens. The 596 Acres folks have an exceptionally awesome visual presence–large graphically striking newsprint mapping out the various areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There were debate about interim use of such plots. And there were tours.

I took the tour of peri-urban landscapes, in homage to both greater Glendale, the vast stomping grounds I call home, and with deference to all of LA county in general, with its edge city qualities. We went to four farms. Iceland Teaching Garden, above, a community garden firmly planted in encroaching sprawl; a large perma-culture-based farm; Farmstart, an “incubator” farm, where people started with 1/4 acre, got bigger, and drew on minimal technical advice from a state-funded incubator that basically left them alone; and a farm-educational center with amazing covered-cloth tent apparatus.

FarmStart McVean Incubator Farm, in Brampton.

Awesome tent structure @ Albion Hills Community Farm, in Caledon.


interim spaces / pasadena

The Woodworking Bus, part of the Alternate Routes project. Source:

Talking to urban planners, lawyers and urban ag/community health and garden advocates lately, I have found that opinions differ wildly on the value of vacant lots as interim spaces. One POV feels that any way in is a way in, and that finite contracts on a year-to-year basis that may be revocable are well worth the effort developing. Namely, this is because they allow something to be done NOW, and the benefits of urban gardening can be evident to all in the very near future. Another opposing POV feels that too many times urban gardening has reclaimed vacant and neglected spaces, remediated the terrible soil quality, introduced foot traffic, made the land productive both emotionally and in terms of mental/physical health payoffs, and made the formerly ratty and abject place a place where people want to go, as opposed to want to avoid~~only to be booted out when property values make developers lick their chops. I think opinions hinge also to some extent on the availability of said land (it being felt to be even lousier to be kicked out if there are few or no other options).

Enter…the mobile workshop and garden, a way of allowing some flexibility into this fairly strict-seeming set of options. Thanks to the kind invitation of my friend M, I toured an example of such movable thinking last night, night of the blue moon: an art opening at Side Street Projects in northwest Pasadena. Here is what the space looked like at about 5pm, before people started coming in.

Picnic tables, soon to be garnished with flowers, BBQ and homemade pickles. Airstream studios in the background (my finger in the foreground…oops!).

It must have been 100, 120 people at one point. I found that the project managers had done some very smart long-term thinking about how they occupied the land. It’s rented from the City, and sits between a Church’s Chicken and an old abandoned Victorian house that the City is going to move somewhere else, as it is historically significant. “Rent” is paid in sweat equity, through the workshops and open events that SSP sponsors. And as is typical with such arrangements, there some rules–no performances, for example, and most strikingly, no gardening. I think the fear is that people would get too attached to the space, and occupying the land would morph into Occupying the land. The design solution is to make many things mobile. Here is a picture of picnic-goer S doing his thing at a station in the Woodworking Bus, one of several types of movable teaching studio on the lot.

Desk-like stations, each outfitted with tools, line each side of the Woodworking Bus, which also includes a teacher’s station for use during workshops.

Other such conveyances include: a FEMA trailer that has been re-purposed into a hanging garden, and several Airstream trailers that serve as studios, workshop spaces, and gathering spaces for artists/community folks who may need to have meetings outside of their living spaces. Future plans include mobile raised-bed gardens that could be “transplanted” into a new space, in the event that their interim use expires.

The mobile spaces of the SSP presented some really inspiring solutions in a two-birds-one-stone way (sustainability, land use). Also, the pickles were sublime, and the crowd very amiable. So much so that I forgot to take any further pictures…

e3 garden, sunset canyon rec center

I’ve been slow in posting, but wanted to relay some images of a garden I’ve been working with, as things race into bloom. The garden is planned and managed by a crew of students in the E3 student group–Ecology, Economy, Equity–at UCLA. There’s something new and surprising every week when I go in. The main organizer, Alyssa, has been working with Facilities and Food Services as well, and since last week, had made a series of trellises, and a frame for a vertical herb garden, out of found wood. Some of my students have stopped by, and we have planted some Japanese things–shiso and mizuna–along with the peas and onions. Tomatoes too are going in, and so far, some green onions and wheatgrass have grown enough to start digging in to.

The solo tomato, holding down the fort for the main event next week.

The Sunset Canyon people have been really cordial in letting the garden sit among the pools and weekend events; they even OK’d expansion of the space, so next week if all goes well, it will be tilled, composted and planted beyond the current fence.

Some winter plants going to seed in the corner, along the fence that will be moved to create more growing space.

It’s really been a blast to work with such motivated, resourceful students, and I can’t wait till the harvest begins for real.