City of ShuttersNovember 7th, 2015
Distance renders the illusion of stillness and the land appears peaceful from afar. The flight path from the Cascades to the Nipponese archipelago traces an arc across the Northern pacific rim, a landscape of loneliness and geologic violence. Almost immediately after departure, the distinctive c-shaped ridge of the volcano comes visible from the portal. Sometimes called Loowit or St. Helens, it is a young mountain, yet much older than any human language. For me it is a place of original and repetitive departure, its last major eruption timed with my birth, the trees along its northern flank all my own age. The smooth alluvial slopes and dunes almost resemble skin from this altitude, and faced with such a scene, people intuitively turn to the language of the body. The ashen plains and lahar-scoured valleys often figure as scars, but I prefer to think of them as vomit, a messy process whose character is cleansing and regenerative rather than entropic. Scar better describes the irregular quadrangles that skirt the mountain’s perimeter, cleared of trees by human hand and laced with now-useless roads.
Further on, we pass over the factory where our aircraft was assembled. Its a new vessel, more graceful and efficient than its predecessors, more automated, probably the most complex object ever mass-produced, and it enables an act that has been inconceivable for most of human history: to cross the Pacific in half a day, to compress the foreign into the proximate, to float above all the scars that enable the cities to build the craft. It does so at enormous cost. The price of the day’s journey is a year’s income for much of the human population. I push the little button that fades the portal glass dark. The eyes can only watch so hard for so long. The mind can only translate so much sensation into memory between rest cycles.
After a few hours, I look down again, and the vast ice rivers of Glacier Bay loom below. Even at their summer nadir, their scale exceeds the body’s ability to relate, and yet I know they are shrinking, and the aircraft is involved in their shrinking, I can only hope that the vessel is involved in another shrinking, the shrinking of nationalism, that other great dark force that looms. These forces are bound up together and to push against one is to be tainted by the other. Each lashes back at whoever would indulge in delusions of purity. I have claimed my purpose: to force apprehension between parties and nations who would deny their involvement with one another, whose denial imperils all, and the aircraft is an instrument of suture, and like all such instruments, it is also a weapon, and having been profaned by it, I immerse myself in what is unclean, what never was clean. My body absorbs the consequences of the inevitable crime of merger and radiates the opposite of nationalism, which sounds like laughter and uncanny transliterations of onomatopoeia and smells like the familiarity of human body scent and the smoke from roasting tea as winter approaches. The smoke washes away any desire for cleanliness, and every overheard sentence, each cumulative unit of meaning arriving via new sounds and inflections renders less and less legible the obsession with guilt and innocence endemic to my ancestral land.
The city grew and the city grew wealthy. The mountains and the sea, which had acted as barriers for generations, fell to the ingenuity of contraptions. Ships arrived, tunnels bored, the foreign flowed in and out and diffused into the banal. Nobody can answer, why here? but here is where the city happened, accumulating across the plain until the people were so numerous that no other city exceeded them. Yet as the city spread, the city’s components remained small. No vantage could afford an impression of the vast Kanto plain. The houses and streets retained the impression of a small city. The city happened underground. The city happened behind closed doors. The city had no center. The residents held close to home, guarded their privacy, and occasionally emerged to rub against each other or to cross the sea. The city was a constellation, the city was full, so that when some ambition reared some new scheme, it was shunted away to the edge.
The city learned how to move people with precision. A web of tunnels went everywhere at once, so fast and precise that anyone could cross the city on a whim, but it wasn’t necessary. Every needful thing was close at hand. The airport became full and overfull, and a new one was required. By then, the nearest fields were 60 km distant, so a new tunnel was bored to bring the city to the planes.
But we opt for the Keisei Line, the old slow tracks made to connect the city with Narita town, which now serve as the airport’s back door, on whose narrow bouncing cars I watch villages and bamboo-carpeted hills slide by as dusk falls, and the trains’ slow movement denotes a different mode of relations, a mode of embodiment, more rigid than the car or the aircraft, more linear but also gentler, more humane.
The latticeworks of Japan’s rail network is complex beyond comprehension and so efficiently timed that one constantly feels pressure to board one train, then another, with only a partial certainty of its destination, so that as the train accelerates, a mild panic sets in and the train becomes a vehicle of faith, and that faith’s prophetic text is a telling distillation of Japan’s techno-geography. Something between a list and a map, the text depicts relative positions and intersections of rail lines, but bears no relation to any spatial orientation, as if the linearity of the rail line is the only interface through which various sites may touch. I must have consulted the text a dozen times during that hour, alternately gleaning its three irrefutable maxims: you have departed; you will arrive; and most menacing, but also reassuring, you are currently nowhere. Later in the week I would accumulate the confidence to violate the text’s logic. I would choose a destination, ride the metro there, then walk back along the surface to my point of origin. While the text may ignore the surface world and its continuous blending of one place into another, it does no violence to the latter’s viability. The surface pleasure and subterranean pleasures complement each other, even if no text can contain them both.
Somewhere between the center and the edge, or the centers and the edges, in what was once the center, or a center, lies Asakusa along the Sumida River, which was a center of sorts between the times of the waxing and dwindling of barges and canals as the preferred technology of movement. Then the center fractured and migrated and left Asakusa to tend its temple and its shore on its own terms, its own scale. The low-rising apartments and bridges may or may not precede the era of the elevator, but their scale does not embrace the logic of the vertical city. The streets are narrow, cars few, the density just enough to make the subway financially viable, so there is a fine hum of activity and motion that consists more of bodies than moving containers full of them. There are small shrines frequented by nearby residents and it seems that every patch of concrete is tended by someone’s broom. Some men are living in orderly cardboard shelters under the elevated highway. Everything is enough, nothing too much.
But the centers are always recalibrating for position. Next to the park, through the canopy foliage of a temple that has burned and been rebuilt over and over for centuries, a vertiginous spire pulls on the gaze. Amid the two-story houses and little lots full of parked bicycles, somebody has decided to erect the second-tallest structure on earth, the 650m Skytree, many kilometers from anything else that approaches its magnitude. It both projects loneliness and commands reverence. Essentially an homage to the mathematics of structural engineering, it rises over Sumida ward, where clusters of tiny machine shops once invented the metallurgy of miniaturization, where industries like bicycle components and small internal combustion engines were perfected by artisans before graduating to mass production. The Skytree duplicates that complexity of rivets and welds and braces but in the service of maximal load-bearing. To follow its struts and imagine how stress is transferred from one beam to the next and back, to imagine wind and earthquakes, the way that flexibility and rigidity, compressive and tensile strength may be translated into numbers and then swirled, is to become lost in a labyrinth, to realize the genius that underlies the performance of any complex system, and that most of that genius is unnamed and unremembered.
Tōkyō was once notorious for harboring the world’s most expensive plots of land, but it is actually pretty easy to finds voids in the urban fabric, places where the eye may wander and focus near infinity. This act of resting the eye’s muscles until they reach into the distance, while still giving it a place to land, may be a kind of necessity, a reset for the nerves. A craving for it may arise, something like lust, and providing for that craving may be part of what makes a city viable. It hems in the desperation for flight. The Skytree provides for some of that need. It’s visible form nearly anywhere in the way a stratovolcano may dominate the landscape for hundreds of kilometers around. The fatigued gaze longs for that single-pointed distance sometimes. Other times it needs an expansiveness that has width and there are also fields of emptiness sprinkled throughout the city: the surface of the river, the lotus ponds at Ueno, the rock gardens and weedy back yards of the shrines. And there is an even finer-grained, accidental provision for the faltering gaze. The default ground surface in less invested areas is a fine, compressed granite gravel that comfortable holds mu, the same quality of unfullness that the rock gardens seek to evoke. The playgrounds, ball fields, and derelict lots all have this quality, and tend to arise unanticipated in the visual field. This ready access to vacancy makes for a city that invites the gaze in as much as imposing itself.
Wherever there is an interior and exterior, there must also be a border, and that border must have a gate, for everything begins outside, and an interior has no meaning unless someone, sometime, entered it. In Tōkyō, that border is often a shoji, a moveable plane of material, wood or paper or glass or metal. The old temples and farmhouses were built with walls almost entirely of shoji so that they could be opened entirely and their interior would dissolve into the landscape. Where houses and shops touch up against each other, their public face tends to emphasize opacity and the gates only open to those who have some prior knowledge, some established means of contact.
Illegibility can also be a means of limiting access. Many businesses are unlabeled and the street layout is said to have been optimized to generate confusion in intruders. Indeed, navigating the back alleys of Tōkyō without a mobile device is a prospect I’d rather not contemplate. All of it is mediated by shoji, which become now a wall, now the absence of a wall, blinking open and shut like so many horizontal eyelids. The elevator has them, and the subway car ingests and ejects through its metallic maw.
With so much demarkation, so much infrastructure of privacy, implications arise about the nature of exteriors. One crosses the shoji’s threshold and expects to be seen, to become immersed in contact. One consequence is an enthusiastic collective embrace of the camera, which Japan both manufactures and consumes by the millions. The camera’s focal-plane shutter is very much like a shoji, another mechanical eyelid, imposing a veil of ignorance most of the time, then blinking open to sudden exposure. Unlike the biological eyelid, the camera shutter’s default position is closed. Or it was until recently.
The oldest shoji have little divots to catch a finger to push them along their rails. Later, motorized shoji were developed and activated by a button. Now in the button’s place is a little ‘don’t touch’ sign, for one’s mere presence is now enough to activate the transit without need for contact. The camera shutter followed a similar trajectory from manual to remote to automatic activation, then finally to shutterless, always-on, all-seeing cameras, the shoji that will open for any body and the one that must sense the proximity of a specific key card.
The visual field in this moment is dominated by the gaze of the security camera. In a large city, one often sees them, and one assumes that one is seen by ones that one cannot see. In the midst of this data-gathering onslaught, one assumes that visual privacy does not exist. So, out on the streets, I repeatedly pose my daughter and capture images. Inevitably, other bodies flit around the periphery of the frame and imprint themselves on the captured image without being themselves its 'primary’ subject. Occasionally, I’ll capture a passerby from a stealthy angle, and that is when I begin to feel invasive. To be the object of attention, to appear, is somehow different that squatting in the fringe pixels. The always-on camera may produce a flood of data, but it is unable to sort meaning from meaninglessness, and so serves as a bad proxy for the deliberate gaze. By selecting meaningful angles and moments, the manual gaze gathers 'more’ data than the automatic one. It appends a metadata marker to each captured image, inviting a reiteration of the original call to see. In this way, the manually activated shutter release penetrates the subject and becomes 'digital’–mediated by the digit, or finger.
My final moments in Tōkyō were the most intense, departing from Shinjuku station during the morning rush. I had always wondered why only some of the subway platforms had an auxiliary set of sliding doors attached to the platform edge that aligned with the train doors and opened in unison. Then as I descended the escalator, the crowd throbbed and smashed into itself. The gates were a levee holding back the deluge of bodies from falling onto the tracks. It would have been alarming had I not already accumulated a familiarity and absolute trust with the people of Tōkyō. As seven or eight bodies pressed me from all sides, I knew that the flow would carry me, that this process too was designed, that there was no struggle, that every person was holding onto responsibility for everyone else, that some collective knowing would discern the train’s capacity, and would match it exactly and not exceed it. I thought to reach for my camera, but my arms were locked to my sides, every line of sight was interrupted by bodies, and Tōkyō had entered me enough that at that moment I cared more for the comfort of my unknown companions than for some trifling visual memento.