A Certain Lack of Focus

Monday, November 05, 2007

Shadows and Light

The other day I read an article called "In Praise of Shadows" by Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki. The essay was originally published in 1933, but except for a few mentions of technology that now seem antiquated, the translation feels fresh and modern, I think even more relevant to post-WW2 Japan than it was at the time it was written. It was a fascinating read that brings up questions of design possibilities and unfulfilled potential.*roomTanizaki begins his essay with grumbling, that is very nearly humorous, about what a shame it is that the Japanese no longer have their toilets outside and must ruin the beauty of traditional Japanese homes with ugly modern invasions like plumbing and furnaces and electric fans. However the commentary is never quite a complaint and the observations are tempered with the admission that modern conveniences make life better and are, in many cases necessary. His point is not that he wishes furnaces and flush toilets had never been invented, he simply wishes they had been invented by the Japanese. He comments, "... I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science... had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our everyday lives, and even upon government, religion, art, and business."

As he continues his tone seems to become more condemning, comparing Western and Eastern elements with a certain distaste for the Western, saying for example, "We do not like everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance..." Reading carefully however, it can be understood that this tone is not dismissive, rather wistful for the lost opportunity in borrowing technology. Different is not the same as better, but Tanizaki clearly believes that this different would have been better: for Japan.

The main cause of difference according to Tanizaki is light. In the West everything is brightly lit where as in the East things are dim and subtle. roofHe explains, "...in the Gothic cathedral of the West, the roof is thrust up and up so as to place its pinnacle as high in the heavens as possible... In the temples of Japan, on the other hand, a roof of heavy tiles is first laid out, and in the deep spacious shadows created by the caves the rest of the structure is built... Even at midday cavernous darkness spreads over all beneath the roof's edge... There are of course roofs on Western houses too, but they are less to keep off the sun than to keep off the wind and the dew... they are built to create as few shadows as possible and to expose the interior to as much light as possible."

He goes on to explain how this effects art and theater, and how the introduction of bright electric lights have destroyed both. He speaks unfavorably for example about Kabuki, "...whatever they may have been in the past, the gaudy Kabuki colors under the glare of the Western floodlamps verge on a vulgarity of which one quickly tires." Gold gilt Buddha statues were not "...mere extravagance. It's reflective properties were put to use as a source of illumination." In other things, such as the decoration of lacquerware dishes, the gold was meant to be a subtle glow from a shadowed corner, likewise paintings were meant to sink into the edges and clothing that seems gaudy with expensive gold and silver threads in full light would twinkle calmly in, "...the flickering light of the altar lamps[.]"As his essay continues he talks of the shadow qualities of Japanese people as well as their art. Skin tones, he says, are more opaque than European skin tones, independent of darkness. "Taken individually there are Japanese who are whiter than Westerners and Westernsers who are darker than Japanese, but their whiteness and darkness is not the same... Among the Japanese were ladies... whose skin was whiter than theirs. Yet from across the room these ladies, even one alone, would stand out unmistakably from amongst a group of foreigners. For the Japanese complexion, no matter how white, is tinged by a slight cloudiness." So to Tanizaki, it is the in the physical nature to tend towards the shadows, where they are at their most beautiful, like the misty paintings, the subtle play of gold just at the edge of vision.womenReading Tanizaki's essay, it becomes apparent that he is not talking so much about shadows as he is mourning a lost culture. His history has been dragged out into the light and as such it is being transformed for the worse, then disappearing. While he accepts the necessity of modern technology he asks why it is necessary to throw away the old ways while bringing in the new. "I did wonder at the time why they could not be designed with a bit more consideration for our own habits and tastes[,]" he asks towards the beginning of the piece. I wonder the same thing, for I would expect if there were any culture capable of adapting rather than absorbing, it would be the Japanese. If there is any condemnation in the tone, I think it is directed inwards, asking, why have we allowed ourselves to be lost in the new, in that which is not ours?

I think it could be fair to say that Tanizaki is speaking as much about the character of people as of their culture. At risk of stereotyping, light also makes a good metaphor for the differences in Western and Eastern people. While the Bush administration makes a lousy example of transparency, Westerners, and especially Americans are typically straightforward, sometimes to the point of being rude or over simplistic. Asian cultures on the other hand tend to be anything but direct. Early this year, China tested a missile by destroying one of their own satellites. Some speculate that this was a warning for the US to stay out of Chinese affairs in Taiwan. I can't think of a less direct way to send a message, but it is a subtle, and yet undeniably strong statement. Words from the shadows. Perhaps Tanizaki is lamenting the loss of the gentle, the polite dealings that seem inappropriate and extravagant in the light of Western directness.

Sub-meanings aside, I think it's enlightening to contemplate design possibilities that might have been. Tanizaki asks an interesting question, what would the toilet or the furnace or the electric light have been were it invented by the Japanese? In the modern world we are so interconnected that creativity free from intervention is impossible. While different cultures may come up with new solutions, those solutions are quickly stolen by the rest of the world so that technology is built up one tier at a time and we have only single new solutions, no different solutions to one problem. The only groups which are more or less isolated, such as groups of aboriginals in South America or reservations of Native Americans, are crippled by history and unlikely to come up with a unique line of technology. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part the world is too interdependent to see any kind of diversity in design. For design and technology to thrive, a certain amount of sharing is necessary, but also the freedom from constant influence.

*All photos came from Flickr searches and are linked to the photographer's site.

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