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.

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!