Just as the Haitian earthquake was followed by a welter of religious interpretations (fundamentalist Christians blaming sinful Haitians for it, Vodoun practitioners weighing in on the events, etc.), so the Japanese quake-tsunami-meltdown trilogy is offering evidence of humanity’s interpretive propensities.
You may have already seen the YouTube troll video satirizing right-wing Christian responses, which scandalized so many viewers that the young videomaker has apparently gone into hiding. I won’t link to it, since it doesn’t really deserve all the hits, but it’s easy enough to find. The gist of it is that “God is soooo great — we prayed for him to smite his enemies and there he did, smashing those godless Japanese to smithereens.” A lot of viewers couldn’t seem to tell the difference between satire and the real thing, which apparently follows Poe’s Law: one can’t satirize fundamentalist religion without it being taken by some as the real thing, because there are enough instances in which the real thing is as bad as that (Glenn Beck being only the tip of the iceberg).
Here’s Tokyo’s mayor saying it was divine punishment for Japanese “egoism and populism,” and then apologizing for it. (He is a mainstream Shinto/Buddhist Japanese; the three terms are difficult to extricate from each other in many circumstances.)
More representative of a traditional Shinto perspective is Martin Palmer’s articulation in an interview with the BBC’s William Crawley. Palmer is Secretary General/Director of the Alliance for Religions and Conservation, founded by Prince Philip in 1995 as “a secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.” (I’m not sure why Crawley chose Palmer rather than a direct representative of Shinto, but Palmer’s knowledge of Shinto and other religious understandings of nature is excellent.) In my friend Michael York‘s summary, the interview goes like this:
Palmer, in discussing the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power stations’ meltdown from a Shinto perspective said that for Shinto nature is considered infinitely more powerful than human beings. It is not an ethical matter; it’s just what happens. Referring to a famous painting of the 1820s and the great wave image within traditional Japanese religion, Palmer cited the wave as the heroic element; the wave is a divine force.
The tsunami is a work of the kami – the spirits that inhabit every part of nature. We are at the mercy of nature but also we are protected by nature. Nature does not consider humans to be the most important thing; the kami, the spirits, are the most important. They can also be maverick; they can be concerned with their own affairs. There is with Shinto no sense of punishment, no philosophical problem of suffering. Palmer pointed out that this is a very different understanding of human significance than that which prevails in the West. In Shinto, we are here by the grace of the gods, but we are not their main concern – we are not the centre of the story. We are not why the gods exist, we are not why creation exists, and we are not why these events exist. These natural disasters occur because this is just how nature is.
Crawley then pointed out that there are two things here: natural disaster and a linked technological accident. To this, Palmer replied that the Shinto had been opposed to the nuclear power stations from day one as being not a good idea. If the stations had been built on sites that were chosen according to traditional Shinto rituals and understanding of the forces that live within the land, they would not be over dangerous cracks in the earth and easily attacked by nature. He referred to “a remarkable arrogance and disrespect for traditional understandings of the power and spiritual forces that reside in the land.” It was here that Crawley cut Palmer off because the programme needed time to present the Dalai Lama’s abdication of political power.
The full interview can be heard here.
All of this resonates with an immanence-based process-relational perspective: nature does what it does, it includes the “good” and the “bad” (which are relative to their perceivers), we are part of it and sometimes we get struck down in it. (Careful readers will know that when I say that good and bad are “relative to their perceivers,” this doesn’t mean that “everything is relative, anything goes, and whatever you think or do is as good as anything else.” The world is layered and folded: perceivers share their perceptual situations with other perceivers, so my “good” is closer to your “good” than it is to the good of an amoeba, a viral bacteria or cancer cell, or an asteroid whipping through the solar system. Hitler’s actions may have seemed “right” to him, but in a human context they come off as psychotic and grotesque. And as for “nature,” if it includes everything, becoming a fairly meaningless term, so be it. It corresponds to what, in an East Asian context, is thought of as “the way,” ziran, an active and unfolding “suchness,” or what Gregory Bateson called “the pattern that connects.”)
What I’ve only occasionally written about on this blog is the importance of the arts of imagining and ritualizing in our ability to carry on in the face of events like these. (Those arts figured importantly in my first book and will have more of a place in Ecologies of Identity.) Foucault referred to such practices as “arts of the self,” but confining them within “the self” is too limited, and in fact too modern, an understanding of them; they are affective and bodily, individual and communal, micropolitical and cosmopolitical. Today our authorized rituals tend to be scientific or political (in a conventional sense), but these aren’t involving enough; and our collective imagination is in a wild flux. When the dust settles from the twenty-first century, we will be in a cosmopolitical space that’s barely imaginable today.