Imagining a World That Doesn’t Judge Based on Usefulness. Interview with Philosopher Hiroki Azuma

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 seventh installment of this series, we visited philosopher Hiroki Azuma. Since his first book “Ontological and Postal” released in 1998, he has been one of the most influential literary critics in Japan for the last 20 years. He explores a wide range of themes from information technology, subculture, to politics and has developed his own philosophy based on the idea of “misdelivery.” He founded his company Genron Co., Ltd in 2010 and has put his philosophical concepts into his work as a business owner. In part one, we discussed the existential meaning of shikohin through looking into the value of “non-essential” things in our lives, and how “mistakes” are a necessary part of human life. In part two, we will discuss what role shikohin have in our future while considering the irrational and animalistic nature that makes us human and the current state of social media which is slowly moving away from people’s real truths. 

(This interview was conducted on September 25, 2020)

Interview&Editing: Masanobu Sugatsuke Co-Editor: Masayuki Koike & Takumi Matsui Photos: Mayuko Sato

Part 1 of 2 》The Hidden Values of Life’s Non-Essentials. Interview with Philosopher Hiroki Azuma

Irrational instincts separate humans from machines

── In part one, we talked about how “mistakes” are the true essence of humans. In your book “New Dialogues” that was released in 2020, you say, “I am a misdelivery fundamentalist. Everything that is transcendental comes from misdelivery and turbulence.” 

If someone were to actually live in a completely “righteous” way, we would turn into machines. The reason why humans do not become machines is because we have an animalistic part to us. This animalistic nature is what makes humans make mistakes, and in turn that makes us think about transcendent beings such as Gods. 

Historians with a simple evolutionary view of history such as Yuval Noah Harari say that we were animals in the beginning, then we evolved into humans, and in the end we will become God. I do not agree with this. God is nothing more than a delusion we humans have created. The reason why such a delusion was necessary was because in our history as a species and throughout our evolutionary process, it played a certain essential role in encompassing the various desires that are engraved in us which are irrelevant to rational living. In order to suppress such irrationality, we needed an existence like God. 

The reason why humans are different from machines is because we hold many hidden animalistic desires that operate under a different logic from rationality. At the same time, it can be said that this is what makes us human and it is the strength of life. All living things have things about them that may not seem necessary in the present moment, such as big ears or very long legs. However, these features are exactly what increases their probability of survival when their environment changes drastically. If we were rationally designed to simply and efficiently exist in the present moment, we would not have the biodiversity that we have in our world today. I think views such as Harari’s leave out the complexity and diversity of our world and of humans. 

── Harari also argues that there is a division between a very small elite class of people that approaches God and a “useless class” that can only engage in labor that is below AI. 

The first important point is that humans should not be measured by how “useful” they are. I have recently been reexamining Marx’s “Capital” and I find that his argument that the power of labor should be seen as a special commodity to be a very interesting idea.  

At the basis of the argument in “Capital” is the premise that all useful things are exchangeable. If only useful things are to be exchanged equivalently, then money is a convenient tool and economic activity itself presents no problems. However, what Marx saw as problematic was that the creation of surplus would become the cause of exploitation of humans. In an economy that originally consisted of equal exchanges, how and why does surplus value come to exist? Here, Marx looked into labor power. Human beings are not to be measured by whether or not they are “useful.” However, when human labor is converted into a commodity by being labeled as labor power and measured for usefulness, it turns something that cannot be exchanged in an equivalent manner into something that can.  This is the problem at its core. 

Human usefulness cannot be measured and humans don’t have to become labor power. This same argument has been made by Heidegger using the term “Gestell.” Heidegger went all the way back to Plato’s doctrine of truth who saw the world as a resource to be measured in terms of usefulness and said that this is the root cause of the modern problems of science and technology. If you think about it, the world itself simply exists, and the idea of measuring the world in terms of usefulness by thinking about how much money something can make or how many cars can be made is quite perverse. The universe is massive and filled with things that are not “useful.” These ideas are petty when you think about the gigantic existence that is the earth. How narrow minded it is for us to try to classify the world according to “usefulness.” 

Will alcohol be banned in the 21st century? 

── And yet, our world today is becoming more and more focused on the “usefulness” of things. The tendency toward eliminating non-essentials is a perfect example of this.

I agree. As I mentioned before, through running Genron I have learned that business is full of misdeliveries. Things do not go according to plan, but unexpected people show up and help. This is why it is important to be loosely connected to a lot of people. These connections become one’s fortune and it would be terrifying to try to do business without it. 

Nonetheless, people nowadays believe that it is most efficient to move according to a plan built on some idea and they do not allow misdeliveries. If the 1960s and 1970s were the height of freedom and liberation, it is clear that the world has been moving in the opposite direction since the second half of the 20th century. The shift to online communication caused by the pandemic is an extension of this trend. At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if even alcohol becomes banned by the mid-21st century. The perception that alcohol is the root of harassment is spreading. Just as our morals towards sexuality ebbs and flows considerably with each generation, so too does our perception of alcohol. 

── It’s true that people seem to be drinking less alcohol, especially the younger generation. 

Preventing harassment is important. However, when harassment occurs, it is usually the exception and not the norm. What is happening now feels like a self-perpetuating process that is trying to find problems everywhere and in everything. 

── A common criticism of shikohin is its addictive nature that leads to excessive consumption. There is also a growing demand for “ethical shikohin” that matches the health and environmentally conscious ideas of the 21st century. In order to make ethical changes in production, distribution and consumption, we are beginning to see the emergence of products such as organic wine and organic coffee. 

In the end, I think it is a matter of degree. In regard to addictiveness, all we can say is that we will enjoy something to a degree that does not cause trouble for others. If you say that all addictions and dependencies are bad, even human relationships are based on interdependence. The degree in which something is healthy or unhealthy can also only be made by arbitrary judgment. In the end, that judgment can only be made by the individual. 

As for environmental issues, we can all agree to the fact that littering is bad, but if we were to attempt to create an absolutely ethical and environmentally friendly world, we would eventually arrive at the conclusion that the world would be better off without humans. In fact, more antinatalism views are emerging, but I think that the fundamental issues addressed in these arguments are wrong. It concludes that logically, it would have been better if human beings were not born. That conclusion is fine, but the fact is that humans do exist, so these ideas become nothing but a play on words. Coming up with the conclusion that our very existence is a mistake because we became obsessed with the goal of being ethical has no meaning and helps nothing. 

Social media is no longer a space for honest thoughts 

── I also thought that the term “ethical” would become a new set of values that would become an alternative to capitalistic values, but year by year it is becoming more constrictive. 

I get the impression that the word is being used for people to jump into something that makes them feel like they are “doing the right thing” without giving it real thought. When we tweet something with a political hashtag attached to it, there is an illusion that we are enforcing some kind of justice, even if we are not interested in the issue itself. I think everyone wants justice that is easily attained without any thought. Most of the people who tweet something with a political hashtag are not really committed to any activism, they just want to show other people the version of their “self” that is using a specific hashtag. 

The root cause of this slacktivism is social media itself. Social media makes detailed reality very difficult to see. Political activism used to come from the existence of people in your community who were struggling and those who sympathized with their problem joined their movement. You would decide whether or not to join by communicating with those people involved. 

Unfortunately, the ineffectiveness of hashtag activism was proven by the high approval ratings at the end of the Abe administration and the start of the Suga administration. The Suga administration had the third highest approval rating in history, after Koizumi and Hosokawa. This is regardless of the fact that the administration was made up of members whose average age was 60 years old, they had only two female cabinet ministers, and there was faction based personnel and policies that showed no regard for the failures in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless, they maintained high approval ratings. No matter how many hashtags fire up the internet, it does not influence the majority of Japanese citizens. If liberals and opposition parties do not take sincere reflection and learn from this reality, there will be no comeback for these parties. 

── That is a harsh reality. I also feel that social media is changing from a platform that used to be for self-expression to a place where people find a “place” to exist within social trends. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult to see what the true thoughts of people are. The results of the recent change in administration showed that the true thoughts of many people were that they support the Abe administration. Within these people, some may have tweeted with hashtags “Mori Kake” and “Sakura no Kai” and expressed criticism at the same time. 

I think social media used to be a place where people expressed their true thoughts, but now only the stories on the surface circulate the platform and it seems no one really writes about their truth. Even though people state phrases such as “stop harassment” or “live ethically” and seem to have high conscience, I feel that most people do not really live by these words in their real life. It seems to me that words have become idle and are just floating around. 

── In your book “General Will 2.0,” you envisioned a new democracy in which the “unconscious mind” of society is made visible through information technology and used to form the basis for consensus. Do you think the realization of this future is now less likely?

Yes, I think social media is no longer a place where the unconscious minds of the people are revealed. Desires are covered up the moment they are expressed. The things we buy on our own and the things we buy when we are with friends are different. Social media used to be closer to the prior, but at some point it changed into the latter. 

As if to symbolize this change that happened in the essence of social media, the dream of the 2000s that claimed that the internet will change politics has all but diminished. In fact, I believe that the growing popularity for AI among the world’s top thinkers in the 2010s was a “psychological compensation” for this. The blogs and social networking sites that were expected to “change our society” actually produced populism, post-truth, and Trump. I think this is why we are all starting to jump toward big, dreamy stories like “singularity.”

The rise of conformity and death of “the left”

── What problems arise when the dialogue on social media becomes detached from reality?

I think diversity in political activism will continue to decline and the liberals will find themselves in increasingly difficult positions. In 2012, right after a change in administration, I had a chance to speak with sociologist Eiji Oguma. He said to me, “The good thing about the left is that it is composed of a diverse range of people. In demonstrations run by conservatives, they are all wearing the same kind of clothes and raising the same kind of arguments, while leftists participate in separate groups and individuals, and the messages written on their placards are all different.”

However, eventually the left, led mostly by SEALDs, also started using the same convenient store printed demonstration methods and held up placards of the same design and color. At this time, I think the left lost something that was important to its identity. Power is uniform by nature so that is why the outside oppositions must be varied and diverse. However the approach of using a hashtag for casual participation resulted in a uniform movement that simplified things. This instantly turned the movement into a momentary popular fashion trend that was easily consumed and discarded. The end result was that even though they instigated a campaign against the Abe administration, the Suga administration was able to come into power with the third highest approval ratings in history. 

On a global level, ideas such as the leftist populism advocated by Chantal Mouffe are gaining popularity, but I can’t see how it will be successful. If oppositions play by the same rules as those in power, they will surely lose. That is why rules need to be changed and we must fight with more guerrilla-like tactics. However, the members of SEALDs and those who participated in the hashtag movements have a very simplified belief that if they say what is righteous, it will spread throughout the world. I am sure they are good people, but I think the lessons of our past history have been lost. Righteousness usually does not spread right away and is usually met with suppression. 

This is why all social reform starts off as something small. It is not accepted right away and only brings small changes to the world at a time. This is why it takes time. By the time we see any result, it is not uncommon that we are approaching the end of our lifetime. Righteous things are always complicated and a little different from the social norms of the generation. When there is a single flag of “righteousness” that everyone can easily flock to, it is already not truly righteous anymore. 

── What can we do to avoid settling for a “righteousness” based on conformity?

I will give very simple advice, and that is to have a place in your life where you can meet and be involved with people that are unrelated to your work. Many left-wing people tend to surround themselves with other liberals, be it family or friends. They do not know any Abe supporters personally, so they have the illusion that the administration will fall easily. This is a mistake. 

Just a short while in the past, we had to communicate with people in order to buy goods. For example, if you wanted to buy vegetables, you talked to the shop owners at the market. These people may be avid LDP supporters. Through these regional and family communities, we were able to experience diversity in political opinions. However, now we are able to buy goods without communicating with others. I believe that these social changes are one of the factors behind the leftist intellectuals’ detachment from reality.

I don’t think it has to be a local community to be involved in. However, we must intentionally create opportunities and connections to meet people who have different political and social values as ourselves. I myself am careful to maintain a neutral position. It is easier to grab the attention of certain groups and get retweeted by making extreme statements, but before you realize it you will be surrounded only by people who are similar to you. It is important to remain sensitive to the fact that there are a wide variety of people and thoughts and make a concrete effort in coming to terms with different opinions. 

── At what point do you think we lost these opportunities and spaces to meet with people of different values?

I think the loss accelerated after the year 2000. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the post-baby boomer generation like myself were children, our parents’ generation still had connections to their rural communities, the suburbs were still being built, and not everything was overtaken by convenience stores and roadside businesses as they are today. When we entered the 2000s and the post-baby boomers entered their 30s, the nuclear family became fragmented from the community and I feel that we lost a lot of spaces where one could encounter political diversity. 

In order to really resist this pressure for the simplification of everything, I think the only thing we can do is work steadfastly to educate the public. Education takes a lot of time and it is not possible to mobilize a million people in one shot. Rather than creating a big festival, people in different fields and backgrounds must be involved in education in different ways. This is the only way to make the world a better place. Instead of dreaming of a revolution through social media, we should do what we can to help in the areas that are accessible to us. For myself, the Genron Cafe is an attempt to create such a place. 

── Cafes have historically played a major role in the creation of civil society. Democracy and insurance companies are also said to have started in cafes. 

On the other hand, major cafe businesses such as Starbucks that dominate the market today do not seem to be serving the purpose of creating a space for discussion and exchanges of opinions. Their function as a place is quite clear and it is simply to drink coffee or kill time. I get the impression that we are losing “third spaces” and “time”. 

I agree completely. I am trying to maintain a place that acts as a “third space and time.” However, one cannot measure the effects of these actions. In fact, I have recently come to believe that this idea of measuring things is the root of evil. No matter how good your idea is, the moment you try to measure it, you get caught up in the game of capitalism and social media. This is why I try to maintain a stance where I do not measure progress. 

Sigmund Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” is known for only having a few hundred printed books when it was first published. The important thing is that change happens in society as it spreads slowly and this takes time. If we aim for measurable progress from the start we will begin to spend money in advertising or investments and will be forced into creating short term results. That is not my desire, so I try to create logic and spaces that will go against measurable progress. 


Part 1 of 2 》The Hidden Values of Life’s Non-Essentials. Interview with Philosopher Hiroki Azuma

》Past articles of this series can be found here

Translation: Sophia Swanson