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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.

One response to “back to school

  1. LindsayNelson ⋅

    Eight classes, yeesh. Love the Code Switch podcast!

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