Perfected by the Tea Masters

Fredric Jameson

  • Japan-ness in Architecture by Arata Isozaki, translated by Sabu Kohso
    MIT, 349 pp, £19.95, July 2006, ISBN 0 262 09038 4

The three-stage process [of the building of the Katsura Imperial Villa] is perfectly discernible in the layout of the buildings as they survive. Beginning from the Ko-shoin with its celebrated Moon-Viewing Platform (tsukimi-dai) of bamboo, the Chu¯ -shoin and the Gakki-no-ma were added, and finally the Shin-goten. All rooms face the pond at a uniform angle, whilst successively set back from right to left (as viewed from the pond). This layout is known as a flying geese formation (gan-ko¯ ). Taken as a whole, the extension scheme produces an irregular and asymmetrical rhythm, likewise affording requisite light and ventilation.

But more importantly for our context, such a layout recalls the positioning of tea utensils during the tea ceremony, called sumi-kake (corner arrangement) or suji-chigai (shifting streaks). It was perfected by such tea masters as Oribe and Enshu¯ . Originally the latter expression denoted a way of placing certain utensils (for example, chopsticks) side by side at a uniform angle. Later on, it came to indicate a way of placing multiple objects in parallel on the diagonal.

The dynamism of the flying geese formation allows for a complex of buildings that might easily be aligned according to a more rigid formula to shift off axis by increments, to the eventual point of renouncing all symmetry and centrality. This was the way in which Katsura’s varied façade was created. It is also the unique configuration that traditional Japanese builders evolved to express depth – by means of layered planes.

The description is as arresting as the space itself, for it includes an account of the corporeal training (the tea ceremony) necessary to perceive the space in the first place, as well as to construct it. The writer will later on propose a whole programme for using this remarkable construction – the Katsura Imperial Villa – but at this stage we need only ask ourselves the culturalist question: is this phenomenology to be considered an exotic curiosity for practitioners of Western space, or can it mean something closer to home, such as a spatial habitus we can adopt, or even one we can recognise and incorporate into our own now greatly enlarged eclectic canon of world spatial scenarios? And if so, what would be our motive for doing so, save as a source of market variety?

Culturalism is bound to remain one of the crucial philosophical issues in the age of globalisation: its debate with universalism cannot be completely subsumed under the polemics that continue to swirl around the human rights agenda that turns currently on the status of women and on capital punishment. But even those juridical issues, which involve physical existence and suffering, imperceptibly find themselves diverted into the questions of religion and of freedom, which are by no means so immediate or so existential. Meanwhile, the character of the oppositions at war here changes dramatically as one moves from one level or context to another: the natural law universalism of Habermas and his followers, which can embody an Enlightenment stance against superstition and tyranny, suddenly looks rather different when it is realised that it is the United States, a wealthy commercial and non-national society without any indigenous culture of its own, which seeks to embody the new global universalism, identifying its own parochial values and institutions (such as the constitution and ‘democracy’) with universal human nature on a world scale. At that point, people who felt that culturalism remained an alibi for exoticising and marginalising Third World cultures and societies as such might be tempted to recommend a healthy dose of it as therapy for what is either hypocritical or brutally cynical, if not simply blind and self-absorbed, in American thinking about the great outside world beyond those apparently dismally protected US borders.

At which point, the philosophical problem of relativism rears its ugly head and another round of polemics, in a somewhat different spirit and terminology, sets in. How can the Absolute be relative? How can it be historicised? Maybe it doesn’t even exist. Cultural relativism is always a little easier to profess and to defend, particularly in our current anti-Enlightenment, multicultural and post-national situation, in which it seems to let the various cultures simply ‘be in their being’, as Heidegger liked to say. But this is to reckon without that ‘giant sucking sound’ with which all these formerly authentic cultures are in the process of disappearing into the global standardisation of late capitalism, of commercialisation, commodification and consumerism – the three ‘c’s of that Disneyfication which is the hallmark of the new world system. This, however, is when the polemics and the oppositions on which they are based suddenly vanish, since this new global standardisation has no opposite number any longer: the days of the struggle between the Westernisers and the Traditionalists are long gone, no one believes in Modernism or its high culture any longer, all the formerly authentic sub-group cultures have become postmodern simulacra, even when they kill people. At this point, the idea of religion is resuscitated, as though it had not died long ago; yet only Islam remains as a possible example of it, even though 80 per cent of the American population claim to be believers (unfortunately for this claim, they are also consumers). Indeed, one suspects that even the prestige of Islam, now taken to be the embodiment of religion as such, is based on some fundamental misunderstanding about ‘belief’, a category of otherness always projected onto other people.

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[*] Even though by now the latter have become the negation of the negation: ‘Calling scenes of ruins to mind has itself faded, the very act becoming a sort of ruin in itself.’