Thursday, July 9, 2015

Maut ka Kua – The Death Well
: A Response to Anne Allison's Talk on "Greeting the Dead" by Suraj Yengde

Maut ka Kua – The Death Well
 When a talk finishes and the audience responds not only by clapping but also with cheers and whistles, in this way one can summarise the significance of the presentation they just witnessed. Cultural anthropologist, Anne Allison, was “Greeting the dead” and Managing the Solitary Existence in Japan. In a groundbreaking theory of death that derives from her book Precarious Japan published in 2013, Allison offers insights into the little-discussed socialities of Japan. Isolation, misery, pain, suffering, ‘rental’ love and death are some of the widely apprehended synonyms of shifting global capitals. Allison explains each of these in a succinctly interesting form as she narrates new forms of living as a changing “grammar of existence.”

You many think about Japan as being the country with advanced technological developments – robots, SONY, automobiles, bullet trains, etc. Apart from its highly advanced, bullet train-like growing economy, you must have also heard about “weird Japanese fetishisms,” such as relating to sex or sexual objects or widely watched pornography that interestingly hides male’s sexual parts and advertises females’. There is also another disturbing scenario that is little know and discussed in the western world: Allison brings our attention to some of the existentialities of modern day Japan. Life in this country appears as an archetype of blind spiritualists who do not believe in the notion of god and want to dissociate with religious institutions. Oxymoronically, there is also a growing tendency towards spiritualising one’s death. Death is a seductive phenomenon that has a profitable market in the growing economy of middle class, materialised Japan. While people in Japan want to immortalise the afterlife, in the present life they want to be assured of a promised dignity. The situation of Japan is such that wedding planners and the wedding industry in general are now turning towards the death business. As a simple principle of capitalism goes - business is favoured in terms of profitability. In this way we can see the more profitable business is becoming death business. Plots for the cremated ashes are sold expensively and the richer the dead ash is the better prospects the fossil gets. This is the ideal principle behind Buddhist capitalists who want to assure the Japanese a better death. Death becomes important because it assumes an important position of a certain sociality. Death is so rooted in the Japanese society that isolated people, who are abandoned from the familial as a belief system, want to be assured that they will be rest in dignity. Their fear of death is not as much an issue of temporality of life than the social life after death. Death is sold; this very phenomenon that Buddha announced as the ultimate truth, forms an assemblage with neo-materialism, producing non-confirmed fears. This results in a society becoming totally ridiculed, a masquerade of fake life undefined in its purpose of existence. All the chaos happens when religion as an institution sleeps with capital. 

It appears in Allison’s presentation that there is a limited role played by the Buddhist temples of a certain order that guarantee a ‘grave friend’ and also a service of ‘post death divorce’ in teaching the solitary society to be a part of the larger commune. Due to inappropriate advantages gained through the death business, Japanese individuals,’ especially young males, turn to find the comforts of life in immaterial things. They make virtual partners, toy friends, robot dogs and even organise a cremation ceremony for robotic pets who have lost their lives. This description of Japanese society urges those who are less fortunate (wealth-wise), to rethink and remodel the arrears of developments that they would want to undertake. The solitary society of Japan is a good example for the developing world to model: a society based on social consciousness and cultural involvements.

Allison’s presentation tries to summarise multiple issues discussed in her earlier book. That is why one is introduced to a sliding show of vignettes of experiences and narratives. While not addressed in Allison’s talk, the issues of people with different sexual orientations, woman as a fetish object, the conditions of ethnically marginalised societies and their role in the death economy, all become questions one has to start thinking about. Buddhism, on the other hand promises egalitarian rationalism and belief in community as a principle of ideal society also asking one to focus on individuality in order to attain the nirvana. In spite of the active Buddhist school of thought in Japan, the increasingly ‘social solitary’ life of the Japanese raises several questions of the capacities of such schools.

The vocabularies of security, social status, and recognition are the artificial effects reproduced by the orgasmic nature of capitalism impregnated with materialism. These identities are the result of inequality and unfavourable distribution of wealth where one grapples with detouring the phantasm of the petty economics of material life. If incidents of solitude are the result of job status and finances then it becomes an aspiring greedy middle class and upwards story. The materialist graphic nature of the Japanese abnormal society might also be the protest of the marginalised who cannot afford the richness of deaths. One might also ask, do the poor have such problems or is it the rich man’s hopeful disease?

 Suraj Milind Yengde is an Ambedkarite Africanist finishing his last bits of PhD thesis University of the Witwatersrand

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