Trip to Japan: Nature, Human and Extinction

Written by  Alex Benson


I approached the Luce field experience in Japan in the summer of 2015 with questions about culture and conservation, questions informed by my background as a scholar and teacher of American literature. More specifically I’d been puzzling through two strange claims advanced by Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: one, that “the eternal whale” can never, as a matter of principle, go extinct; and two, that “if that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due.” (He’s writing just before the mid-19th-century “opening” of Japan to international trade and politics.) How do ideas about ecology and economy intersect in statements like these? And what do they look like when addressed through a transpacific context, from the nineteenth century on? Assessing the impact of the Luce trip on my own research and teaching moving forward, what has emerged most distinctly for me is a more sharply articulated set of questions having to do with the idea of extinction.

If “extinction” names some of the most urgent, irreversible threats of environmental change, it is also a more complex concept—and, in the historical sweep, a more recent one, too—than we tend to recognize. In English it can refer to the disappearance both of life-forms and of forms of life, suggesting an analogy (however fraught) between “species” and “culture.” The threat of nonhuman-species extinction galvanizes conservation efforts and conversations about biodiversity, while the threat of human extinction underpins our discussions about global climate change and the potential end of the epoch many have started calling the “anthropocene.” The term “extinction” has also been used by some to rhetorically raise the stakes in discussions about Japan’s aging population. What, though, might be obscured by the language of extinction? What assumptions—about the environment, about nonhuman life, and about cultural survival—are built into this concept (and, mutatis mutandis, its counterparts, such as the Japanese zetsumetsu)?

In the metaphorics of extinction, the death of a species is imagined as putting out (extinguishing) a light or vital spark. Perhaps the most illuminating moment of the Luce trip, for me, happened in total darkness. Or almost total. The town of Honmura on Naoshima Island is home to a building called Minamidera, designed by architect Ando Tadao, Inside the building is an installation by the American artist James Turrell titled “Backside of the Moon” (1999). All of this sits on the footprint of a former shrine.




As viewers enter the backside of Ando’s building and then come into the space of Turrell’s piece, they are guided to benches inside a large chamber that has been designed to block out light. For the first several minutes inside the space, one can’t even see one’s hand in front of one’s face. After a while, though, one’s eyes adjust and one’s pupils dilate. The shape of the space becomes visible in surprising ways. What had seemed a total lack of light turns out to have been only a relative darkness. Melville more than once uses the phrase “the blackness of darkness,” and it connotes differently at different moments in his writing, but the collaboration between Ando and Turrell in producing this space had me thinking about this phrase in new ways—in particular, considering the way that it suggests an intensity, “darkness,” converted into an absolute, “blackness.” And vice versa. For me Turrell’s piece thus literalized, in sensory experience, a way of thinking about the conceptual, and literary, history of extinction. But there is another history involved in this space as well, one that might also, and perhaps in more exigent ways, help us think through processes of cultural disappearance and conservation: the way that a former site for communal gathering and religious practice, in an economically depressed area of the country, became a site for a collaboration by artists with enormous international social capital. What is preserved at this site, what lost, what generated, and is it useful or not to tell these stories through ecologically-inflected terms such as extinction and diversification?

Moreover, how does a site like this, with its complex but largely invisible relationship to the social space that used to exist on the same footprint, compare to the one that we visited a few days earlier: the shell of a former police station in Onagawa, a fishing village devastated by the 2011 tsunami in the Tohoku region. This building, knocked on its side and reduced to a bare concrete structure by the force of the water, is one of the few things that remains of the village’s pre-2011 architecture. It sits in the middle of acres of new construction sites, a few hundred yards from a gleaming new railway station; rebuilding efforts have started quickly. But the station building itself is fenced off, vegetation growing through it.




The question of whether this massive, unsettling piece of debris will remain as a kind of 3/11 memorial was, at the time we visited in the summer of 2015, still an open one, and it’s a discussion that will come back to me in my study of cultural transmission, memory, and the nonhuman environment—most specifically, the ocean, which Ishmael calls “the dark side of this earth”—in Melville and elsewhere. Unlike Minamidera, this structure is entirely open to light and weather; like it, it forces us to reckon with what it would mean for something to be extinguished.

Looking ahead, in addition to pursuing a research project on extinction and narrative, I’ll be developing an undergraduate course on “The Literature of Extinction,” and intend to introduce it to the Bard curriculum in the Fall 2016 semester. Our texts will include American and Japanese narratives of extinction and endangerment, both of nonhuman species (whales will constitute a substantial module; I’ll continue puzzling over Ishmael’s ideas, alongside John Manjiro’s, about whaling) and of cultural traditions. Students will read scholarly works not only from literary studies but also from anthropology and environmental studies. It’s my hope that the comparative, transpacific study of a concept that we rely on to describe change and disaster—and also the study of how this concept becomes manifest in stories and in spaces—can give students some critical resources for articulating their view of environmental futures as well.

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