Things I’ve been reading recently #5

Shutting Out The Sun is a journalistic exploration of Japan’s ‘lost generation’ that gives much social scientific work a run for its money in terms of breadth and insight. I read it because of a long-standing interest in the hikikomori: Japanese youth who isolate themselves, often refusing to leave the bedrooms in their parental homes for years at a time. Michael Zielenziger’s thoughtful book offers a detailed account of the lives of hikikomori. To his immense credit, through great persistence he manages to solicit interviews with hikikomori, as well as with the diverse range of advocates who are seeking to help them through very different strategies. The book has left me with the conviction that I would like to study this issue properly one day but also an awareness of how difficult this would be, even if I spoke fluent Japanese and had lived in the country for as long as Zielenziger. Crudely, his thesis is that hikikomori fail to develop a capacity for defensive self-presentation: they can’t dissimulate to fit in and the continuing conformity of Japanese society makes it impossible for them function without this capacity. They don’t develop character armour and they don’t develop social identities. Whereas they might be able to find a place as unusual people in much of Western Europe or North America, their idiosyncrasies prove crippling in this social context. The world becomes ever more scary, inviting retreat into a place of safety. In my terms, I’m left with the thought that what Zielenziger is describing is meta-reflexivity: the mode of reflexivity that emerges en masse when there’s substantial contextual incongruity but whereas other social environments work to foster this, if not outright encouraging it, Japan is rather hostile. Reading this book left me aware of how little I knew about Japanese society or about Japanese politics. Zielenziger convincingly situates the growth of the hikikomori in terms of broader trajectories within post-war Japanese society. At times, he lapses into end of history triumphalism. The book was written in the early 20th century and it would be interesting to see if he would revise some of his praise of American capitalism vis-a-vis Japanese capitalism in light of the financial crisis. His analysis of the sclerotic tendencies in the latter are convincing but his praise of the flexibility of the former really isn’t.

24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep is a book I bought some time ago but read quickly this week in preparation for the Time Without Time symposium I’m taking part in. It’s a short book which uses the transformation of sleep to explore a broader trend towards social acceleration. It has the familiar tendency of critical theory to ascribe agency to abstractions (i.e. talking about ‘neoliberalism’ doing things rather than using neoliberalism as a concept to make sense of why people, individually and collectively, do the things they do) that frustrates me. I often agree with the claims being made but I think that at best this is a form of short hand: it needs to be unpacked in terms of groups and you’ve not explained the phenomenon in question until you do so. It also has the familiar tendency within the acceleration literature to treat agency as a dependent variable, passively moulded into new forms by digital technology and neoliberalism. I think people are changed by technology and social systems. I just don’t think you can adequately identify these by talking about inexorable structural trends that change all agents in the same way. Not least of all because it obscures the possible points of resistance to these trends, as well as the variability with which their influence is felt amongst different groups. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable book that I got a lot out of despite reading it far too quickly. I’m aware of the irony that I speed read a book about social acceleration… it seemed impressionistic to me but that might be a consequence of how I read it. It was full of interesting ideas and interesting insights though. Most usefully, it suggested to me how I might incorporate sleep into my account of cognitive triage. Are those moments when we ruminate and struggle to sleep often important to our reflexivity? The pathologisation of difficulty sleeping could then be seen as within the sphere of activities that generate cognitive triage.

Late Fragments by Kate Gross is a moving little book written by a 35 year old woman with terminal cancer, detailing the final months of her life before she left behind a husband and two young boys. The fact she died 2 minutes before they woke up on Christmas Day has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up in the bookshop and decided to buy it though. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die was a cancer memoir of sorts and I loved that. But it used her experiences as a basis to inquire into the ‘cult of positive thinking’ taking over America. I’d be curious to know what Ehrenreich made of this book by Kate Gross. It wasn’t a hymn to positive thinking but it came close at points, detailing the self-discovery that cancer facilitated. I think I’d been curious about Gross herself. She was parliamentary private secretary to Tony Blair early in his premiership and had been chosen to run his African Governance Initiative. The book reflects on her career as a self-defined ‘ambitious’ person and the self-discovery facilitated by her cancer amounted to rediscovery of the cultural interests she was forced to forego as a result of her career aspirations. It’s very sad and I’m still not sure what I thought of it. I’ve written a little about it here.

Graphic Novels I’ve read recently:

  • The Edge of the Spiderverse is an epic story involved various Spidermen from parallel universes coming together to fight a common threat. It’s funny & engaging in a way I rarely find Marvel comics to be these days.
  • Southern Bastards is a stunning book by Jason Aaron detailing a criminal conspiracy in a small Alabama town. It’s very funny.

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About Mark