Modular futures, black robots in Showa Japan




…aaaand, below is the audio, in MP3 format. 3 versions–collect them all!

Text and audio from scratched talk @ UCLA, for a conference in June 2015 on robots, called Machine Dreams. It was a great event organized by Margaret Rhee with tons of poets, art people, scholars…a great event I was supposed to participate in, over these high wires. As it turned out, I got sick, for the first time in–15? 20?–years, and the new software and hardware I was learning to record the talk for broadcast only came together at the very last minute (neighbor’s dog going off during recording, my stupid dyslexification of the actual time difference, everything happening sooo slowly), and I showed up an hour late to my 2am time slot. I ended up delaying the whole thing, as they waited patiently, and then never gave the thing. So I blew it. BUT, it’s still a good summary of a book chapter I just published, and pulls in some current events from Japanese diplomatic use of robots, and is a decent archive.

Reconnecting to nature through food, 日本語版


text of talk Reconnecting to Nature through Food–日本語版

This is the Japanese text of a talk, with PowerPoint slides, that I did about a year ago, just after I arrived in Tokyo. My school has an active program in environmental humanities (環境人文学), of which this was a part. This year, we continue with projects–growing mushrooms, assessing the campus, screening films. This prez gives a sense of how I am translating some concepts from my time in LA, both in universities and in the field, to work in Tokyo.

Coming up

I am very excited to be part of this upcoming conversation in New York on “blackness in Japan.”

Poster for upcoming NYU symposium on blackness in Japanese lit and culture/s
Poster for NYU symposium on blackness in Japanese lit and culture/s

Lots of people know there is a pretty vibrant hip hop scene in Japan. But when people think about links between Japan and the “west” they tend to think the “west” was a single monoculture. Few people know, for example, that the talent on the “black ships” piloted by Matthew Perry that barged into Yokohama harbor was a minstrel show.

An example of how Japanese culture was greeted with many multiple kinds of “west” is English-language instruction. Many people who have taken part in the English industry in Japan know the politics of hiring–it is easier to get and keep a job if you look like a familiar version of an “American” whose image might be seen on TV ads or in imported blockbuster movies.  The legacies of English, though, are more multiple: the very first e-kaiwa (English conversation) teacher was a half-Scot, half-Chinook man named Ranald McDonald who hailed from what is now known as Canada. In any case, this symposium promises to situate Japan in a more interesting series of routes between itself and not only the west–the US. But it also connects Japanese people and places to the different ports of call both literal and figural that wrote black culture into a world system. Encounters on different scales–personal, regional, national, global.

The event was put together by Will Bridges (Japanese lit) and Nina Cornyetz (Japanese lit/film), and sprang from a panel at the Association for Asian Studies in 2012, in Toronto. The panel also included Shana Redmond (American studies/Afr Am history) and Yoshinobu Hakutani (American lit), who will be reprising their papers to incorporate an additional year and a half of thinking.

The initial run of this panel was really exciting for a couple of reasons. The first was the array of new materials–new to me–and new contexts. I had read works by each of the presenters before, but the liveness brought a new dimension to the table–really impressive considering that the works all contained close readings of dense verbal/literary texts or images. This was by far the most engaged and engaging panel I have seen at an AAS, so I am looking forward to hearing from participants past and present!

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.


is this a checkup or a concert?

This is a delightful scene from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006). I saw some of his works in LA a couple years back, an exhibition at Redcat. But it was only this weekend, when I saw his newest film, Uncle Boonmee Recalls His Past Lives, that I started to really appreciate the kinds of forms that lap from film to film–the diptychs that chop films into before/after or different POV halves, characters who double and then return as ghosts, the pop ballads that end the films and stretch into the credits. In Syndromes, it’s a plaza aerobics scene, in Uncle Boonmee it’s an ambient song in a diner that then plays as the backdrop in a hospital room, with a change of cast, and maybe a ghost.

The character who plays the dentist here will crop up again in his pop star guise toward the end, when he re-meets the monk, but in a  sparkly green glam blazer, while on tour and in disguise.

No one here is a ghost–yet. Although they will confer about one later, when they meet again. The film was screened as part of a very entertaining conference at Berkeley on Asian Horror Cinema “and beyond.” It seems that horror started as a genre (J-horror, K-horror, etc.) and now isn’t one anymore, since it’s become so crowded not only with extremities, but also with ghosts, historical hauntings and monsters such as aswang spirits, batlike beings that may co-exist with you as friends or loved ones, and manananggal. Thus, the beyond. These are related but scarier beings that speaker Bliss Lim referred to as “self-segmenting viscera suckers.” They leave their legs behind when turned into full-on spirit form, and need to re-attach in order to get grounded again.

The takeaway from this string of films was that unlike ghosts in the Dickens to Ghostbusters, these beings sit alongside regular people, and may be involved with them, even closely involved, but not necessarily in scary ways. Apichatpong in particular has a whole Buddhist angle that is about living alongside negativity rather than purging it, and about how past attachments create the capacity for new ones and past lives alongside present, in dialogue with it. Ghosts can therefore provoke comfort and push people flush up against the real while still being unreal, as well as stirring up sorrow or unrest, and need not be tied to revenge.