Practical dialectic - PART 1: An audience that isn't there
Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto
- Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, jazz critic and educator
An illustration of how dialectic works
I classify the visitors to my website, by their behavioral patterns, into the following categories:
(Type 1) Those who give me their feedback mainly online.
(Type 2) Those who give me their feedback rather offline.
(Type 3) Those who tend to give me their feedback by reaction rather than by words, or initiate their own action which provokes feedback from my side, either online or offline.
(Type 4) Those who just come and go.
Every month I have an estimated 53,000 visitors, including not a negligibly small number of Internet bots. But it seems Type 4 visitors who accidentally hit my website or opt to remain lurkers all the time account for approximately 96% of the incoming traffic. That translates into a little more than a monthly 2,000 visitors who bother to read my posts and your comments on them.
Since I don't intend to make this website a closed community, I bring forward my argument to all visitors regardless of their types, whenever I open a thread. There's no other way to deal with an unspecified number of people.
But at the same time, I could no longer afford to waste too much time exchanging noncommittal opinions as if we were yet another social networking community. I think that is the surest way to get around the real issues. Rest assured, however, I have picked up the skills to economize the time to deal with those people who are too used to "communicating" on the social media. These sociable people take it for granted intolerance of differences will inevitably lead to exchanges of rant. As always, they are wrong. There should be something in between, or to be more precise, something far beyond the comprehension of these kindergarten kids. Like my fellow countrymen who are obsessed with the myth of homogeneity, these kindergarten kids among my audience think a subject is debatable only when Otoshi-dokoro (a predetermined answer) is given beforehand. All I have to do when the ritual is going on is just to keep dancing with them.
On the contrary, communication among mature people always goes through the process which is called dialectical interchange..
A variety of dialectical methods have been advocated by thinkers ranging from Socrates, to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to Karl Marx, to Jean-Paul Sartre. But the basic concepts underlying them don't differ that much. They all involve the following three steps:
Unlike with most other websites, I present a thesis only after identifying a real issue from a myriad of false ones. The basic criterion I use to weed out nonissues is whether or not I can really internalize the subject at hand, so we won't waste our time discussing someone else's problems which can never be actionable for us. As I have reiterated more than a hundred times in this blog, asking a valid question, not giving a correct answer to it, is what my thesis, or any other dialectical thesis, is all about.
One of the typical ways to create a false issue is to politicize or ideologize what should not be politicized or ideologized. For one thing, people keep talking about workable solutions to the questions with energy sources. Some say "we" should stay with the fossil fuel. Some others say they prefer the nuclear energy, or they think "we" should go for recyclable energies. But I think very few of them are the operators of conventional power plants, experts in nuclear power generation, or scientists actually working on the development of alternative sources. They should know the idea that these nonprofessional or unprofessional people can make a difference just by chitchatting over their pet subject, while casting their ballots every second year, is nothing but an illusion.
How is it possible for those who can't even take care of themselves to take care of others? In that respect, the Chinese people are much smarter than the Americans or the yellow Yankees. For one thing, 大学, the Four Books on Great Learning, that recapitulate the Confucian principles put it like this: 修身斉家治国平天下. Most Northeast Asians, except the Japanese, think it's crucially important always to keep the life-size view of their own lives.
In Step 2 of the dialectical process, this demanding blogger expects you to reciprocate by raising a different question on the same issue I have identified, or redefine the same question I have posed from a different perspective. Since any question already includes an answer in it, you should always keep in mind that the answer is inseparable from the question. If you can really relate yourself to the issue at hand, you can't discuss the correctness of my answer without scrutinizing the validness of my question. It amounts to a fraud to insist you have a different answer to the same question.
This way my thesis hopefully leads to another thesis from your side, which is now called an antithesis.
Most recently I uploaded an essay in a multiple-book review format under the title of Embroideries on a big canvas. I thought the two books, Henri Bergson's Creative Evolusion and Rupert Sheldrake's The Presence of the Past, were debate-worthy when a massive cultural degeneration is under way in the U.S., Japan, and the rest of the world, to varying degrees. By now, one Type 1 and three Type 2 people have given me their comments. They have invariably said to the effect that my accusation against the 2003 UNESCO convention was baseless because preservation of intangible cultural heritage will always bring about innovation. It's as though they are unaware that old traditions preserved just for preservation's sake are as useless as fossils, mummies, or stuffed specimens exhibited in the museum.
To my dismay, they had totally ignored, either carelessly or deliberately, other paragraphs in which I depicted my firsthand experience as a lifetime educator and Wynton Marsalis' observation to support mine. My experience tells that where there is no dialectical interaction between an educator and his students, there will be no transmission of the understanding that professionalism coupled with innate spontaneity and creativity is the only enabler of a creative evolution. When I reminded them of these reasons behind my take on the de facto conspiracy by UNESCO, they all fell silent as if they hadn't said a word about my essay.
At first, I almost felt insulted by their kick-the-can tactic. But when the blood in my ragged cerebral arteries was about to reach the boiling point, I had second thoughts. I said to myself, "It's not their fault that they have been conditioned to selectively respond, strictly in predetermined ways, to their favorite stimulus words cherry-picked out of the total context. Mr. Obama is the one who should take the blame for the manipulation - so I heard. More importantly, they have the right to remain uncommitted to my cause and the basic rules and manners it calls for."
Now it looks as though we are exchanging non sequiturs between us. You may have learned about the Latin words in the English class. But just in case, I'll tell you what the Canadian schoolmaster taught us 40 years ago at the in-house language laboratory of IBM. He said: "When I first started teaching English here, I was really upset at the communication gap between the two peoples. For instance, I asked a Japanese student which he liked more, rice or bread. He answered, 'I prefer rice.' I asked why. He said, 'Because I am Japanese.' This is a good example of non sequitur."
If someone from among my audience had taken my serious thesis about creative revolution seriously, he would have raised valid questions, instead of looking for a logical flaw to nitpick in my thesis. For instance, he would have said something like this: "Essentially, creation and evolution are two incompatible ideas. Bergson's notion about individual 'embroideries' on a shared 'canvas' is nothing but an analogy for nothingness which is 'eternally prior', and not convincing enough to make the two foreign ideas concomitant."
Certainly this would have put my thesis into a different perspective, and made me expand the scope of my self-imposed reading assignment to Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism and other breeds of determinism such as teleology and mechanism. And most importantly, I would have felt an urge to revisit Jean-Paul Sartre, my lifetime philosophy teacher, so I could possibly convince my audience that man's evolution, or devolution for that matter, is not a predetermined and automatic process.
Another person who also took me seriously might have challenged me with respect to my take on Sheldrake's hypothesis. He would have said:
"As you wrote, the English biochemist fails to unravel the 'profound mystery' about man's creativity and spontaneity. But actually his dilemma is twofold. He also fails to clarify whether everything that appeared in the past is present or only part of it remains there today. There's more to it. You should have added another dimension to your argument if you wanted to zero in on the issue of creative evolution. As you've always told us, Japan is a nation where the East has met the West in the most unfortunate way. That should also mean the past met the present, and the present will meet the future, in the weirdest way in your country."
Certainly I would have really appreciated such an antithesis although what is at issue now is too complex to address in an essay or two.
Actually I have mixed feelings toward the past: its presence and its absence, and my part of the past and the rest of it. Yet, I'm reasonably sure when you lose someone or something you have once become committed to, you don't lose it to anyone else. It's gone forever, unless you find a sophisticated way to reestablish the bond.
The secular cemetery on the mountaintop where the
ashes of my parents are buried now
Some six years ago, I launched Yamamoto Family Websites, the first of its kind in Japan. At the beginning, my family websites consisted of three parts: "Cyber Museum," "Family Reunion Site" and "Memorial Service Site." If you had signed up with its two private parts, you would have seen the images of the secular burial site being sent real-time from the webcam installed there, while hearing musical pieces by Samuel Barber, Johannes Brahms and the like being streamed all the time.
But this setting didn't last more than two years because it didn't take me long to realize it had turned out to be my one-man show.
For one thing, I wanted to mend the protracted family feud by starting the Family Reunion Site. I thought this would help restore the family tradition by passing it down to the younger generations in our genealogy. But contrary to my intention, my mentally neotenized biological son made use of the site to refuel the same old infighting by dredging up his long-held grudges against his paternal grandmother and my siblings, as if to represent his mother, my ex-wife.
As I always tell you, my eldest son is a typical people person. You never know what it is like to have such a child if you don't have one, or you are a people person yourself. His pathology is such that he swallows everything without asserting himself. As a result, it's not that infrequent that he erupts in the face of a situation which a mature person can easily tolerate. Most of the time he directs his anger inward. More often than not, it's an implosion. But that is not to say he never explodes. He doesn't explode simply because he thinks he can't take it anymore. He does so only when he is very sure he isn't challenging the supposedly homogeneous society where harmony prevails. In that sense, his close kin, such as his biological father, or an uncle or aunt as his proxy, is the ideal target. This is the reverse side of his likable personality, which, in fact, mirrors the pathology of his home country.
Another reason I closed down the private sites was because not a single family member but the now-deceased brother-in-law, former Nissan executive, appreciated the Memorial Service Site either in the way I had expected.
As is the case with every Japanese family, we had a family tomb in a "Buddhist" temple where the ashes of all deceased family members were buried. But shortly before I launched the websites, I got involved in a dispute with the temple over 戒名., Kaimyo which means fancy Buddhist titles all of the dead should be given posthumously. At first, I said, "I don't need any Kaimyo for my parents." Their reply: "It's kind of a must for the deceased to have one." Then I asked, "How much would it cost me?" "That depends. But the minimum rate for the lowest rank would be in the neighborhood of 500K yen per body." That's why I had my parents' ashes dug up and moved to a secular burial place on a mountaintop, although I was well aware it would be a costlier solution.
Initially I thought my kids, siblings and in-laws, especially my younger brother who has settled down in Chicago since he was a Vice President at Bridgestone Firestone North America, would appreciate the setting which allowed them to visit his father's grave whenever they felt like it. But actually they let me down by sabotaging what I'd intended with the Memorial Service Site. According to Google Analytics, my surveillance tool, my younger brother, let alone his wife and sons, never visited it either physically or virtually. It looks as though he has forgotten he had a successful career in the auto industry only on the coattails of his father.
This is why in 2009 I wrote off my investment of 4-million yen, a fortune for a humble pensioner. Also this is how I wiped out a substantial part of my past. Now it's all gone like a web-dust.
However, it's not that everything has just disappeared. Now at the crossroads of the past and the future, I can still re-call the finest moments of my life I shared with these adorable faces in unforgettable places in the last seventy-seven years. Now I have realized that lasting creations from the past, such as good music, always help me re-create what has once been lost in the past, or make appear what has somehow failed to appear before. To me, creation, be it an artistic creation or a technological invention, is nothing but re-creation of the past. Plato's epistemology was not as superstitious as it looked when he said learning is nothing but recollection.
This is, however, not to say that creation is an easy task. It's possible only when an old tradition finds a spirit of innovation, or vice versa, either by serendipity or just by accident. That's basically why we can't expect something really new from those noble savages.
When the time comes, I will write myself off without leaving a trace of my physical existence, or at least minimizing it. But until then, I'll carry it on to re-create things that make my life worth living.
I know most of you think I'm lunatic because I constantly mix up my part of the past with the rest of it, and the presence of the past and the future with their absence. Some two years ago, an American visitor to my website gave me an offline comment on my way of thinking. In essence, he said I looked like a schizophrenic. The unlicensed shrink was absolutely right. These days I've been even more haunted by a surreal sense of watching a phantom parade going on before me. But I know I'm not alone.
Shortly before the May 23 crash in Tokyo Stock Exchange, Noriko Hama, professor at the Business School of Doshisha University, wrote an interesting essay for The Japan Times. In this article, she predicted Ahonomics (NOTE 1) is doomed to failure because it's yet another "automatic resort to Rip van Winkle economics (NOTE 2)." She wrote: "A rather terrifying passage from a poem by William Hughes Mearns comes to mind: 'Yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away.'"
NOTE 1: "Aho" means an idiot.
NOTE 2: Professor Hama called the Japanese system Rip van Winkle economics because she wanted to refer to "the lost two decades." But actually she should have called it Urashima Taro economics.
Obviously the Doshisha professor thought the Prime Minister is just the ghost of his grandfather who was an undercover CIA agent. But at the same time she might have meant to say all other characters appearing in the farce aren't there on the stair. For one thing, Abe keeps saying it all hinges on ordinary people in the private sector whether or not his revival plan, especially the now-famous "third arrow," will succeed. But in fact, we level-headed people know there is no private sector in this country. Now the phantom is expecting his fellow phantoms to resuscitate the dead society.
If some of you had shown the willingness to really participate in the dialectic interaction on the issue, we would have been able to deepen our debate over the presence of the past and the future, or the absence of them, and thus clarify the driving force of creative evolution, or the dynamics involved in devolution of mankind.
Fortunately, though, there still are a small number of Type 1 and Type 2 visitors to this website who opt to share my serious concerns seriously. Last November, for instance, I uploaded an essay under the title of In search of a brand new sociopolitical model. I'd thought it was the single most relevant issue in the wake of the failure of "the American Revolution." At that time one of the regulars from Arkansas, who calls himself Diogenes sent me a 2,469-word-long antithesis. Although the word-count does not really matter, it's unimaginable that you can present your counterargument in the "succinct" format prevalent in Twitter or Facebook. I was glad that Diogenes of Arkansas obviously took my thesis too seriously to brush it aside as a pipe dream. His opposition constituted a real challenge to me. Thus far we have failed to meet halfway, but that doesn't really matter either because meeting in the middle is not the purpose of our exercise.
In PART 2 of my lecture, I'll talk about Synthesis, the last step of our dialectical interaction, which, in turn, makes the first step for the next round of our debate. In that piece I will focus on some Type 3 users of my website with whom I've had fruitful interactions in the last nine years. I'll also touch on Jean-Paul Sartre's version of dialectical method which has always guided me as a full-time blogger in one way or the other.
TO BE CONTINUED TO PART 2 OF MY LECTURE ON PRACTICAL DIALECTIC ·