Food items such as alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee are not consumed for any nutritional value, but for enjoyment. These food items are referred to as “shikohin.”. Why did mankind pursue these items that, at first glance, seem to have little purpose in survival?
“Shikohin” is a term that is difficult to translate outside of Japan and unique to the Japanese language. It is said that the first person to use this term was Ogai Mori, who described “shikohin” as something that is “a necessity in life” that is also “a poison” in his short story “Fujidana” published in 1912. Being both a poison and a medicine, “shikohin” is surrounded by ambiguity. In the DIG THE TEA series, we will explore modern day “shikohin” and its role in our society through interviews with leading experts both in and out of Japan.
For the 6th installment of this series we visited psychiatrist Takuya Matsumoto. In Part 1 we talked about how transitional objects play a role in the process of subjectivation, the inseparable relationship between “pleasure” and “odiousness,” the innate human tendency for addiction and how shikohin has the potential to help us deviate into an alternative community. In Part 2, we will discuss how there is a fear towards pleasure that drives the growth of “impermissible deviations” in society, the difficulty of maintaining minor communities, and the necessity of uniting with others in order to resist the “holism” that is overtaking our society today.
Interview&Editing: Masanobu Sugatsuke Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato
Fear of pleasure drives the oppression of “impermissible deciations”
── In Part 1, we ended with the discussion of how our society as a whole is eliminating the seedlings of deviation and how that is problematic. What do you think led to such a phenomenon?
I think the cause of it comes from our fear of “unfamiliar pleasures.” For example, one reason why cigarettes are often the target of criticism is because smokers are finding pleasure in a way that non-smokers do not understand. They are scared of the people who are indulging in a self-destructive form of enjoyment that they cannot comprehend. On top of that, they are afraid of finding their own pleasures. Even for the people who took down the billboards, if they had taken one step towards understanding that world, they may have found it to be fascinating. However, such unpredictable pleasures are being avoided in all aspects of society.
── During the coronavirus pandemic, there was the rise in “self-restraint policing” where civilian vigilantes enforced “stayhome” measures through social pressure. These groups often attacked any deviance to the core.
Deviance is not being seen as “something that is mysterious but potentially very pleasurable.” Rather, it is interpreted as “something that is morally wrong that needs to be suppressed.”
On the other hand, with the legalization of casinos and the popularity of smartphone gaming, the act of gambling and people getting addicted to spending more money is allowed. This seems contradictory at first, but in fact the same fear of deviance is at the root of this as well. The problem here is that the fine line between “permissible deviance” and “impermissible deviance” is being defined by the government. Only state-controlled outlets for addiction are allowed and any other outlet is being thoroughly suppressed or eliminated. Gambling and games generate a huge amount of money and economic prosperity, so it is an outlet for pleasure that is easily understood by everyone.
As the outlets for our pleasures and addictions become so limited, our culture also becomes more and more impoverished and mediocre. Our curiosities towards the unknown is what drives the world forward. In my personal experience, I remember right after I entered middle school in Kochi Prefecture, I saw a black poster on the bulletin board of the school that read “Ideology will collapse.” It had a huge impact on my mind as a 6th grader and I still remember the sensations I felt at the time very clearly.
This shock I experienced through seeing that poster is at the root of why I grew interested in contemporary philosophy. I did not understand the words at the time, but I remember getting excited about it and looking up the term “ideology” in the dictionary. From there I learned about Karl Marx and Louis Althusser, and began reading their books. If we lose these passages into unknown worlds, humans will become very uninteresting beings and I think the world of academia will also become very mundane.
The difficulty of keeping minor things minor
── What can we do to resist the oppression of deviance?
I think it is important to participate in acts of deviance and discreetly show that we are participating in that act in society. Because of social networking sites, these days the slightest deviation can go viral on the internet and attract mass criticism. The biggest problem is that today all of our activities are made overly public in some way. Although our sense of social welfare is declining rapidly in our society, at the same time, there is a rise in a harsher social pressure that is much like what French philosopher Jacques Lacan called the “iron order” and it is becoming all-encompassing. That is why it is important to deviate a little and escape this totalitarian and overly public world. As our society becomes more “socialized” in a negative way, I think it is important that we re-establish things that are more localized and minor among our communities.
There is no need to try to make something mainstream. Rather, in a minor community that acts as a refuge from the mainstream, we should not let the same logic of capital, hierarchy, law and institutions of the mainstream community take over. In this place of escape, we need to think of a logic that is not based on capitalism, and even if there is competition, it must not be a capitalistic one. In these organizations, we must think in a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic way. By undergoing self-critique in this way, the most important thing is to keep these alternative communities going. Once we establish ourselves as a minor community, we must remain minor. The moment we try to make it mainstream, we will be caught up in capitalistic logic.
Keeping a minor community minor is the most difficult task. It is like when an indie band becomes popular and mainstream, as soon as capitalistic logic and organization intervenes it quickly becomes uninteresting. I think one reason why participant studies and self-help groups are garnering so much attention lately is because they provide us with hints on how to maintain such minority groups. For those who are encumbered by the logic of modern capitalism and organization, the non-bureaucratic way minority groups are organized may look ideal and utopian. Of course, even within such minority groups, there are a lot of issues and it takes a lot of work to constantly question whether we are being pulled into capitalistic and institutional logic, so these are not utopian communities that are easily realized.
── You mentioned that on the other end of the spectrum, casinos and smartphone games are dominating the logic of the majority?
I think that is fundamentally the case. Of course, I am not entirely without hope. For example, even people who play smartphone games are able to create a community amongst themselves that will act as a safe space. I do not intend to criticize that fact.
However, I do feel a sense of crisis. Smartphone games are designed to make people addicted to them and spend a lot of money. If you want to stay in a community of gamers, it is almost inevitable that you will be subject to intense capitalistic logic, law and institutional rule. For example, for those who create YouTube videos on gaming, they get caught up in the intense competition for views and channel subscriptions. In these situations, it is difficult to create spaces and communities like the smoking room or salon. When a community that was meant to be an alternative place to escape capitalistic logic becomes a community that is ruled by even stronger capitalistic rules, that can be hell-like.
Prohibiting organizing and AI-ification of individuals
── In your book “Kyouraku Shakairon, The Social Theory of Pleasure,” you talk about how after 2010, our society has developed a stronger sense of entrapment as people are controlled in a more statistical way.
The impossible pleasures become enjoyment and the “father” has been replaced by the keeper of data. In our modern world, we are slowly being suffocated under the total control of the latter as a result of the former forcing our superego to command, “Enjoy! Jouis!” with the various gadgets that we are given to provide us with addictive pleasures.
It seems that smartphone games are the perfect example of this situation of “suffocation” that we are experiencing in our society.
Yes, it is an addiction that is a result of being combined with capitalist logic. In such a state of suffocation, you cannot escape without closing and opening, or disconnecting and connecting. When you do not feel like you belong in your community of family, friends, work and school, you first reject communication and distance yourself so that a different form of communication can occur.
── In that sense, I think the current role of shikohin is exhibiting a negative trend. In the past, shikohin were used to create a sense of unity and had ritualistic and communicative purposes to form bonds within a community. However, as shikohin becomes a daily commodity, it is becoming something we enjoy on an individual and personal level. Smoking and alcohol and coffee are all becoming things that we enjoy on our own.
I agree that this is a negative trend. As I have repeatedly mentioned, the most important thing about shikohin is that it creates alternative spaces to connect with people through sharing an indulgence. The personalization of shikohin makes it difficult for such connections and communities to develop.
I think this problem is also related to politics. For example, when Yamagiwa was President of Kyoto University, the “Information Disclosure Liaison Committee,” which acted as a place for dialogue between students and the executive board, was abolished. Instead, they set up a “Student Feedback Box” where they collected feedback from students through individual contributions. As a result students who united and formed self governing groups were criticized and students who spoke out were punished for various reasons. In other words, they prohibited the act of forming connections with others and only listened to feedback from individuals who acted like AI robots.
However, as a matter of course, people cannot attain strong influence and power without uniting. Knowing this, they are forbidding the act of connecting. Individual feedback can be sucked up, discarded and dismissed by simply saying, “We have considered your feedback.” When Kagawa Prefecture issued an ordinance against internet gaming to prevent addiction, it collected public comments and the fact that there was an abnormally large number of comments that advocated the regulation drew suspicion. Individual opinions that are not formed into a unified group can be conveniently cherry picked or ignored and easily set aside by saying, “We have considered your feedback.”
When people unite and connect, they can become a powerful force and a major stakeholder. Then it becomes difficult to ignore their voices. In our society today, both on a national level and at the university level, there is an absurd fear of citizens or students uniting and that is leading to the trend of isolation and inward movements of individuals. The fact is that partisanship is greatly frowned upon today.
A secret society to resit the totalitarian capitalist logic
── So is uniting with others the way to resist the pressure of totalitarianism?
Yes. If some people are uncomfortable with the political nuance of forming a partisan group, then it can be suggested that we create a “community,” “side space” or a “secret society.” If you are uncomfortable in the community that you are living in now, you must create and maintain an alternative community. By doing so, at the very least, the community you are a part of will operate differently from the mainstream and this will slowly change society and the world. We may not be able to change the world all at once, but there is a possibility that you can change the world around you a little at a time.
Right now, the government and universities are putting up large barriers to prevent such practices. It is becoming more and more difficult to create secret communities. I believe that we must resist this trend.
── It’s true that when I first started working as an editor in the 1980s, there were a number of places we could go to that had a code of secrecy in place so that information spoken within its walls would not leak outside. However, now with social networking sites, we find that even protected information is often leaked.
Over the past 20 years as the Japanese economy has continually moved downhill, there is a mood that has developed in our society that pressures us to make everything public and have a social purpose. As a result, things that existed in the “gaps” of society are being treated as worthless. The reason why there is growing criticism towards humanities and social sciences and public welfare is because these things appear to have no productive value to the public. In all areas of society, we are required to be productive in a way that can be expressed in numbers and the capitalist logic is taking over.
In this society, only things that have conformed to capitalistic logic like casinos and smartphone games are allowed and other forms of addictive outlets are suppressed. Even the ways in which we enjoy ourselves, if it is not a public form, it is prohibited. For example, lately if you are a person who eagerly awaits the new Apple products and you purchase any new Apple product that comes out, you are considered a “gadget lover.” However, I think that if you are a real gadget lover, then you should pick up a hobby of doing electrical work or connect with other people who share a passion for gadgets. I feel a strong sense of crisis when I see this current situation where people who have the potential to share bigger passions are being limited to feeling happy or sad based only on when Apple announces their new products.
It is difficult to build spaces and communities that are not public and mainstream by just saying “let’s do it.” It is important to have a common passion that we are “addicted” to. The same is true for shikohin.
I experienced the birth of the internet in the late 90s when there was great new potential in it to create these minor communities. There were online billboards where different communities were formed and people who shared similar interests congregated. Before GAFA gained dominant control over the internet, there was a moment where these communities were made possible online and there was a great variety of ways to deviate from the mainstream. We need to create that again. I imagine that with the development of new media platforms and technologies, we may see a ray of hope again someday. It is important to keep a watchful eye out so we do not miss out on that opportunity.
Translation: Sophia Swanson