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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Tower of Babble

I surfaced early this stormtossed Sunday, eagerly welcoming my reconnection to the wired world. The man from Mediatti (Edogawa Cable Television -- phone 0120-281641) did indeed arrive at 11am, as the sky thundered; my contract was finally signed, 2.5 months after the first attempt. However, contrary to my expectations, the guy who handles the hardware side of the equation couldn't make it on account of the typhoon. He/she won't be able to come until Tuesday, in fact. Which means two more days of trying to avoid myself, in a world of reduced interactivity.

My computer has been in detox for like 10 or 11 weeks; I have been suffering withdrawal symptoms for just as long. There must be viruses and cookies on my computer flapping around like condemned fish on a deck, frantically trying to reconnect, and complete their programmed agenda. It makes me wonder: are there also viruses and cookies loose in my mind? Now they are in detox, they must be feeling the pinch. Are they toiling to hook up again with the Web, but are mysteriously being denied access? Access has been denied a long time now, but there are only two more days of this cold turkey left to bear.

Maybe it was a good thing the Internet was not reconnected today, because it encouraged me to go out and investigate the typhoon, which was hurling towards Tokyo. After a night of unremitting rain, I was surprised when at about noon the heavens cleared, allowing the sun to shine bright and hot. The eye of the storm wasn't supposed to pass until 6pm. I thought to myself: this seems to be a strange meteorological phenomenon, and if I go outside, I will be able to experience it. Just like my mate down in Chiba, surfing the waves... just like that mad Australian I would be meeting the typhoon halfway, and riding it. So, I hit the street, and the first thing I did, was skirt 'round the perimeter of my apartment block, and creep 'cross the carpark that it abuts. I wanted to see what my apartment looked like from the rear, but my incursion freaked out one of my neighbors, an elderly woman who lives perpendicular to my back shutters. She opened the backdoor of her house and wandered out warily, mumbling to herself. Perhaps she suspected that I was a burglar, they always accuse foreigners of something or another in this country. When I unsheathed my camera to snap a photo of my room, she gasped, her worst fears confirming. I bowed awkwardly, and apologized, "Sumimasen, ojamashimashita!" as politely as I could, wishing I spoke better Japanese. I don't think she understood me. 

Bruised by my latest collision with Japanese xenophobia (why do I always end up living next door to busybodies? and by the way, I am not the only gaijin who has trouble with odd neighbors!), I swiveled around and left.

My apartment, from the rear carpark (Japan, 2007)

I returned to the road, and discerned in the distance a tremendous chimney, at least 20 to 30 floors high, flashing through the mist. As in many parts of deterritorialized suburban Tokyo, my local monument is a waste incineration plant. Inspired by Paul Virilio's concepts of speed (and its effect on the city), I decided to walk towards it. It's good sense, after all, to be able to orient yourself by the skyline, in case you ever got lost. And as it turned out, I had gotten lost once around this tower, more than 4 years ago in another era of my Tokyo life, while I was distributing chirashi for Kobayashi-sensei. Back in those days I would never have honed in on something as utilitarian as a chimney -- but I have learnt to appreciate extreme engineering recently, it is what Japan is all about. I reasoned it would be a good way to experience not only the typhoon, but the devastation of Paul Virilio's speed -- the Japanese landscape which had been swallowed up, and cemented over, by progress. As I was to discover, this was also the perfect place to perceive the potentials of negating speed, by learning to slow down and smell the roses.

My local landmark, a garbage incineration chimney (Japan, 2007)

It soon struck me how much greener it is here in Edogawa Ward, compared to my former locality of Taito Ward (台東区). A tiny temple lofted into view, radiating such an atmosphere of calm that I knew it was a little pocket of old harmony, in other words a piece of original Japan which had survived the explosion of speed. As I ventured on, it became more apparent that there were flotsam and jetsam of old harmony all over the place. Weeds springing verdantly from a cracked sidewalk, their flowers reflected in sputtering puddles... to me they were not vagrants but spontaneous Japanese gardens, in miniature and scattered to the margins. The real gardens of the people living on the Kyu-Edo River, every inch of their front yards hogged by azalea hedges, without a single blade of grass in sight. Totally different from the suburbs of Australia! And the weather was also different from your weather back wherever you drop from, unless you hail from the hurricane belt -- yes, the weather was pretty interesting today. The sun fought a mostly losing battle with the clouds, but every now and then it would emerge again, and transform everything into a wonderful summer's day -- for a couple of minutes at least. Then the wind and the steam and the humidity would return.

Asked if there was any merit in information society, Paul Virilio replied: "Yes, because it finally poses the question of a common language. It cannot be otherwise if there is to be world citizenship. It is Babel, moreover. What we are witnessing is not the Tower of Babel but the return of Babel. Can the world have a single language? Is this unicity of communication good or evil? Another positive point: Information will make us earthlings..."

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