Category Archives: loss

ruins – the past, the real, the monumental, the personal

Did I ever tell you about one of my favorite buildings in the world? It’s a public housing project named Kaigan-dori Danchi 海岸通り団地 (not to be confused with the type of projects one finds in the US, it was perfectly desirable housing in its time). This particular danchi (“community housing” or – generally public – housing project) was located smack in the middle of the richest section of Yokohama, between Kannai and Minato Mirai, perhaps one of the richest areas of the Tokyo region. Here it is in all its dirty, dirty glory, with Landmark Tower in the background.

Yes. This is Kaigan-dori Danchi, one of the grossest “ruins” (haikyo 廃墟) I had ever seen. Or, I thought it was a ruin. You know, an abandoned building. Because it looked too much like a shell to be anything else.

Then I got a message on Flickr.

In it, the messager wrote that he grew up in Kaigan-dori Danchi and now lives in New York City. He advised me that yes, it’s still inhabited, and thanked me for putting so many photos of it on Flickr. (Yes, I went for a photo shoot of this complex, more than once – hey, it was on my walk home from school!) He felt nostalgic at seeing his boyhood home and was interested to see what it looked like now.

In other words, what I’d felt vaguely strange about as some kind of ruins voyeurism – the same kind of ruins porn that takes hold of nearly everyone who wants to take photos of Detroit, for example – turned out to be a two-way street. It wasn’t pure voyeurism; it was a way to connect with someone who had a direct experience of the past of this place, a place that was still alive and had a memory and a history, rather than being some monstrosity out of time – as I’d been thinking of it. I saw it as a monument, not an artifact.

So this was in 2008, a half year after I’d become obsessed with Japanese urban exploration photography, which was enjoying a boom in the form of guidebooks, a glossy monthly magazine, calendars, DVDs, tours, photo books, and more, in Japan at the time. (Shortly thereafter, and I CALLED IT, came the public housing complex boom. I do have some of the photo books related to this boom too, because there’s nothing I love more than a good danchi.)

As part of the research for a presentation I gave on the topic for my Japanese class at IUC that year, I’d done some research into websites about ruins in Japan (all in Japanese of course). These were fascinating: some of them were just about the photography, but others were about reconnecting with the past, posting pictures of old schools and letting former classmates write on the guestbooks of the sites. There was a mixi (like myspace) group for the Shime Coal Mine (the only landmark of the first town I’d lived in in Japan). The photo books, on the other hand, profoundly decontextualized their objects and presented them as aesthetic monuments, much the way I’d first viewed Kaidan-dori Danchi.

So I wonder, with ruins porn a genre in the United States and Europe as well, do we have the same yearning for a concrete, real past that some of these sites and photographers exhibit, and not just vague nostalgia for the ruins of something that never existed? How much of ruins photography and guidebooks are about the site in context – the end point of a history – and how much is just about “hey I found this thing”? How much of this past is invented, never existed, purely fantasy, and how much of it is real, at least in the minds of those who remember it?

These are answers I don’t yet have, but I’ve just begun on this project. In the meantime, I’m happy to share Kaigan-dori Danchi with you.

Meiji nostalgia: the 1910s-1920s

I’m always struck by the nostalgia for the Meiji period (1868-1912) that I find even before the end of Meiji, but especially in what ramps up in the 1910s-late 1920s, in particular with the reprinting of literary coterie Ken’yūsha’s Garakuta bunko (late 1880s) in 1927, the re-publication of Waseda bungaku‘s special Meiji articles and issues in the form of Meiji bungaku kenkyū in 1929, and the publication of Meiji bungaku meicho zenshsū (The Complete Collection of Famous Meiji Literary Writers) from 1926. It’s something about this late-20s flurry of Meiji activity, plus what precedes it in the literary journal Waseda bungaku, that fascinates the part of me that is interested in archives and social memory.*

Why social memory? Well, Waseda bungaku, the literary journal of Waseda University (started by Tsubouchi Shoyo in the 1880s-1890s, then on hiatus until 1906, restarting in that year – late Meiji), contains a huge number of articles written by surviving members of Meiji literary groups about their memories and their friends, long or recently dead, and their reminiscences of the early days of those groups and associated publications. Shimazaki Tōson writes of the founding and early period of literary magazine Bungakkai and its coterie in the early 1890s, Kōda Rohan writes of the death and life of Awashima Kangetsu, and Emi Suiin writes volumes about Ken’yūsha and its early and late history.

In fact, Suiin not only wrote these lengthy articles, he also penned the book Meiji bundanshi – jiko chūshin (A History of the Meiji Literary World – Focused on Myself) in 1927, and another, Ken’yūsha to Kōyō (Ken’yūsha and [Ozaki] Kōyō) in the same year. These are focused entirely on his memories of his life in the Meiji literary world, including big shot Ozaki Kōyō, Ken’yūsha’s founder and one of the most popular and influential writers of the mid-Meiji period (d. 1902). His books, coincidentally – or perhaps not – came out in the very same year as a reproduction of Ken’yūsha’s first literary magazine, Garakuta bunko, reprinted by an individual (Kaneyama Fumio) with the express purpose of providing more material to Meiji literary scholars interested in that coterie’s activities, for whom the archives were dwindling if they existed at all. Likewise, in 1927 an article appeared in Waseda bungaku on Ken’yūsha’s somewhat later Edo murasaki magazine, testifying to renewed (if perhaps not sustained) interest in that coterie’s publications and, importantly, that specific time period of the early Meiji 20s (late 1880s-early 1890s).

Just two years later, in 1929, a publication came out that commemorated the 27th anniversary of Ozaki Kōyō’s death with a special society pamphlet, for lack of a better word (kaishi 会誌). Why it’s the 27th anniversary is anyone’s guess (or, if I’m missing something culturally significant, please fill me in!).

I recently received a fascinating set of books for my library that collects the “Meiji issues” (Meiji bungaku gō) of Waseda bungaku from 1925-1927, and was published in 1929. It appears to be bound volumes of individual, original Waseda bungaku issues, although there is a discrepancy between those and the reproduction of the “originals” that also arrived – the ads are different, and the ones in the “1925″ issues all date from 1927 or later. Leaving this fascinating publishing story aside for the time being, let’s take a look at the preface. Just as with the Garakuta bunko reprints, the editor (Honma Hisao) of Waseda bungaku and these volumes claims that there is a dearth of material for those studying “Meiji literature” and in order to help future scholars, it is a mission of “a magazine with a tradition stretching back into the Meiji period” (i.e., Waseda bungaku) to collect its issues in a gappon 合本 and re-release them to the public.

preface As Michael Williams pointed out to me, this isn’t even primary sources on Meiji literature – it contains Taisho and Showa writing on Meiji. But I think there’s a particular draw, an almost-primary-source quality, because the articles are by and large written by other Meiji big shots (if not the deceased Kōyō himself) such as Rohan and Tōson and Suiin, and they’re about those Meiji memories and Meiji experiences. They’re social memories of Meiji, giving the reader a direct connection to events and literature of the past through the firsthand experiences of the writers.

So is it really about a lack of Meiji sources? Possibly, but unlikely. Meiji literature was being reprinted and recirculated both in single-volume form as well as in zenshū, or “complete” literary collections, of various kinds. I think it’s more a mixture of nostalgia and fear of the experiences and memories of the period disappearing, perhaps along with the fires that accompanied the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and along with those who were dying, like Awashima Kangetsu had only a few years before. It was a time when the original Ken’yūsha members were old and dying off, when major Meiji figures were disappearing and no longer accessible – and no longer surrounded by others who could also remember the time of their youth.

I have one other tidbit to add to the Meiji nostalgia boom of the late 20s. The series I referenced above, Meiji bungaku meicho zenshū, was published in 12 volumes from 1926-1927 and there are publisher advertising leaflets for it stuffed into the books that make up Meiji bungaku kenkyū (the Meiji re-issues of Waseda bungaku that has been discussed). One is nearly poster-sized. The books that make them up, save for Kōyō’s Irozange and Rohan’s Fūryūbutsu, are largely forgotten now, and it even includes one translation by Morita Shiken. Yet it’s a “scholarly resource” including explications, criticism, photographs, and illustrations – not exactly nostalgic. But I’d argue that it’s the context in which I find those leaflets that makes them intimate parts of the fabric of Meiji social memory: they’re reprints of the very books that the writers of the nostalgic essays would have read in their youths, and supply the means to remember Meiji through direct experience in 1927, 15 years after the end of the period in 1912.

All of this Meiji-related publishing activity, I see as a flurry of nostalgia for and fear of the loss of Meiji memories, of Meiji experiences, and ultimately of the memories of the writers’ and publishers’ very youth itself. These actions bind up inextricably the institutions of archives (personal and official), publication (private and commercial), remembering (individually and socially), and commemorating – creating the very idea of “Meiji” and “Meiji literature,” an idea that can never be severed, at least in the late 1920s, from the memory and social fabric of those Meiji survivors still living.

leafletsmall leaflet

* Actually, I came to my dissertation research topic – literary anthologies of the recently deceased – through a course entitled “Archives and Institutions of Social Memory.”

Iseya Opens to Commemorate Ichiyo’s Death

If you were in the Tokyo area today and lucky enough to hear about or come across this shop in the Hongo 5-chome area (Bunkyo-ku), Iseya 伊勢屋質店 (a 19th-century dime store) was open just for today, to commemorate the anniversary of Higuchi Ichiyo’s 樋口一葉 death. From @frognalway, info and a photo if you follow the link:

伊勢屋質店の外観。一葉の命日(11/23)に年に1回の公開をしているんですって。

Ichiyo is one of the authors I study, and is the woman you’ll find on the current 5000 yen bill in Japan. She died in 1896 of tuberculosis, at the age of 24, and just as she began to climb to the heights of an amazing literary career.

The question always remains, would she have been as famous – or as widely accepted by all of her male fans, friends, and critics, who were the big shots of the Meiji literary world – if her life had been longer, forcing her into a category after all, or into choosing between marrying (and quitting) or writing (and not being the right kind of woman). But that is only a what-if; for her life was far too short, and difficult, and poor.

By the way, this shop is allegedly the setting for her most famous work, Takekurabe たけくらべ.

post office as information central?

The future of the post office – and of snail mail generally – is a frequent topic these days. (Well, it has been for a while.) I listened to an excellent show from On Point the other week that had on several people, including someone with the post office. It was excellent in that the guests made several really strange points that were extremely thought-provoking, and I’d never heard them before. I think they deserve to be discussed widely: they broaden the conversation from just “post office or not?” and think about the actual role of this institution in serving its consituents. What is the point of the post office, anyway?

The post office delivers information, reliably (mostly) and often securely. It provides a way to get delivery confirmation and insurance on your stuff, rents out mailboxes (especially important for people in neighborhoods where mail delivery is unreliable, often due to the lack of safety and lack of access to mailboxes – and lack of maintenance by landlords). It lets you get stuff where it’s going, fast. I know that UPS and FedEx and DHL do these kinds of things too, but for general purpose information delivery, the post office is here to serve all of us, no matter where we are, no matter what. This is its mission.

As time goes on, demand and form of information changes, obviously. We’ve already had new technologies and new regimes of categorization that bave been developed to accommodate changing needs. I have only to look at pre-ZIP code letters to be reminded of this. Honestly, for someone who has grown up with ZIP codes, it’s shocking. Within my lifetime, moreover, the place of ZIP codes on the envelope has changed (no longer a need for a new line; in fact writing it along with the city and state is encouraged). We have even more, better technology for reading the messiest handwriting, for distinguishing that ZIP code (and now, a 4-digit code afterwards that means it’s your house) from the text written next to it. We’re getting pretty advanced, here, if you think about it.

So now there is the fairly dramatic change of declining mail volume, which has not been accompanied by a high enough increase in stamp prices to keep up with the times (really, every other country in which I’ve mailed a letter has been close to $1 for even domestic mail). We have a lot of people conducting their information needs online, even those bits of information that must be kept secure: banking, shopping, student financial aid and loan applications and processing, university business (I’m thinking of my own stuff here). We need secure document delivery, and we need it to be a lot better than it is now. Recent break-ins to companies that are holding customer and credit card information (ahem, SONY) are making this abundantly clear.

In light of this, do we need some kind of central, trusted authority that we can go to for secure document delivery?

I argue yes, and I argue that this is exactly a natural place for the post office to step in. I’m not talking about printing out PDFs and making sure they get securely to their destinations. I’m talking about a secure information infrastructure provided as a public service for all of us. No, it will not replace our banking or our insecure game network accounts. But don’t you think that this would be a great service, one that we can’t quite imagine now what it would look like… and one that exactly fits the mission and history of the post office?

Through any kind of calamity, no matter what, we will get your stuff securely and reliably to where it needs to be. We will make it available to you, no matter what.

This sounds a lot like the current mission that surrounds the delivery of paper mail and packages. I am not arguing that this should replace what they’re doing. Don’t close all the post offices and argue Internet for everything. There are still a lot of things that need to be delivered securely by post: you wouldn’t believe how few forms will take my secure Adobe digital signature on the PDF as the equivalent of a pen signature. Imagine being able to develop that pen signature (so easy to forge) into something more secure, in digital form. Would that not be awesome?

With the way things are going, I hardly think that anyone in government would consider this kind of natural evolution as worthy of supporting, as worthy of seed money for infrastructure. We are not so good at thinking outside the current narrow box of the status quo; we have blinders on that we can’t seem to remove. But the post office itself sees itself as needing a transformation for proceeding from here on out. If only innovation and creativity could win out, but I’m not holding my breath.

Incidentally, this whole post office closure thing? Most articles I read are about people complaining they would have to drive 6 miles to the nearest post office. Guess what. I have had to drive miles to the nearest post office my whole life, because I have been unlucky enough to grow up in the suburbs, then live in a city that thinks it’s a great idea to build their fancy new post office (and library!) miles away from our small but active downtown, and make it miles away from any public transit: you can’t walk either, because you’d need to get across several very dangerous freeway on and off ramps. Seriously.

mac woe update: adobe drops flash for PPC

Sigh.

This article talks about much of my last post, with the focus not on Google Apps but on Adobe Flash: “Adobe Flash Has Left PowerPC Macs Behind

The reason I’m linking to this piece is that it makes an excellent point about “obsolete” PowerPC Macs (and even Intel Macs) not being so obsolete relative to their PC counterparts, but made so by Apple’s hardware decisions. Given that I haven’t owned a PC for at least 9 years, I had nothing to compare to, but this author points out that Apple dropping support for its older hardware sends perfectly good Macs to an early grave despite having the same or even better performance for still-supported older PCs.

On the Power Mac G5 and PowerBook G4:

While these highly capable PowerPC machines meet or exceed the Windows-based minimum hardware specifications required for the latest release of Flash Player, it matters not. Progress in the world of Mac OS X tends to make Apple hardware obsolete much faster than comparable Windows computers released in the same time frame.”

“I’m simply dumbfounded that fully capable PowerPC Macs continue to lose support and functionality with so many things that similarly aged (and often far older) Intel machines still receive” – as am I! Because I did not know that older Intel machines were supported for so long. Then again, this author makes the excellent point that support is being dropped for OS 10.4 but still retained for Windows XP.

It also makes me remember my general policy of “if it’s old and getting too slow, put Linux on it” because a Linux install will usually make most of the problems of an older Windows box magically go away. Indeed, Linux on older hardware is a good thing: but where is the support for older PowerPC platforms? In comparison, it isn’t really there.

It’s really too bad to see the end of this era. First the Dreamcast (an excellent RISC console that also runs Linux), now the Mac PPC line. It’s not that Intel/AMD architecture is superior: it’s just so common that it’s simpler to drop support for anything else. Unless there is another explanation?

google dropping app support; molly has PPC angst

A decision I made over five years ago has ended up making me quite unlucky these days.

iBook G4 photo

I intentionally bought a PowerPC Mac, the iBook G4, when my iBook G3 succumbed to the infamous logic board defect a year or so after Apple stopped fixing it for free. My first winter semester at Michigan had just started, so I was stuck: I needed the data from my G3′s hard drive even more than I needed a computer, and I knew that Apple would soon drop PowerPC in favor of Intel. Like the idealist I can be, I went for the PowerPC instead of waiting a while for the new hardware, because after taking some computer architecture courses and having done a little assembly programming, I had come to the conclusion that RISC architecture is superior to CISC – meaning that I favored PowerPC over Intel.

Little did I know how ghettoized the PowerPC is out there in the real world. Naive, I had no idea that most operating systems and software are not ported to PowerPC – not even Linux.** In the first few years this wasn’t a problem and wasn’t anything I noticed beyond having a matte screen instead of a shiny one. I still love my G4, with its plucky reliability and long battery life.

Starting about last year, however, more and more software makers dropped PowerPC completely, as OS X only went up to version 10.4.x on PowerPC and many required 10.5, which is Intel-only. Even the software that is still released for 10.4 stopped supporting my laptop, including OpenOffice.***

I resigned myself to having a laptop that is circa 2009 in terms of what it runs. I am okay with running a Japanese version of OpenOffice 3 that will open .docx files for me, and running Adobe CS3 and Word 2004. Honestly, I don’t need the newer versions of these programs for a base model iBook that only has 40GB of hard drive space. What I need is the reliability, toughness, and 5 hour battery life (with the ability to buy new batteries) that my 5 year old friend provides. I have a desktop for everything else!

I have a sinking feeling about it now, though. We have a problem. Google is going to gradually drop support for older browsers, which includes pretty much every browser that I can download for my PPC Mac. While I applaud their strict use of HTML5 (I use it too!) and refusal to cater to legacy browsers that don’t understand it, I realize that I am basically screwed. And how much I rely on Google, frankly.

Here are things I would like to use a laptop for: Web browsing, Gmail, Google Docs, a little word processing, PDF reading and editing, writing, and possibly a little Photoshop. And some Twitter. If I suddenly can’t access or use Gmail or Google Docs, that is a huge blow to using my laptop to be productive – it’s the point of carrying something around that will let me access my files remotely to begin with!

“Get a MacBook,” a voice pleads in my head. They are so shiny, fast, small, and nice. They’re still only 13″ but have a wide screen that makes it seem so much bigger than the 12″ iBook. They have long battery life. I’m kind of in love with them despite myself. Admittedly, I resent the non-removable battery that will allegedly last for the average life of a laptop. But if I wasn’t suddenly losing all software support for my peculiar architecture, I wouldn’t even consider a new laptop.

I just bought the laptop a new battery. It has 5 hours of battery life, does everything I need it to, and is very hardy. It’s relatively small, light, and convenient. It has some very expensive software on it. Most importantly, it simply still works fine and has nothing wrong with it. I abhor wasting things. I am fond of this laptop. If it weren’t for the uncertain nature of old hard drives and impossibility of replacing that without breaking the case, I’d argue that it probably has many years of good life left in it. It’s the Volvo of laptops.

So even if I bought a new laptop (which I can’t exactly afford now), I’d want to keep using the iBook for as long as I can. Why waste it? But why have two laptops, one running Linux?^ (Seriously, I already have a netbook running Linux.) They’re the same size. It makes no sense to keep the iBook around for anything other than preserving my installation of many pieces of CS3. And because I heart the damn thing.

I’m at a crossroads: my PPC laptop is soon not going to just be dated, but unsupported. I don’t want to waste a perfectly wonderful laptop that has seen me through an entire PhD program. I have good software on it. Why buy a laptop the exact same size and type? Because it will save me from Google no longer supporting my laptop, and Web browsers that are actually implementing new W3C standards from not running on it.

Lesson learned: Even though I want superior architecture and don’t jump at trends (like oh, x86?) that I think are not worth it, I have to just go with the crowd, because sooner or later it will leave me behind. I am still not getting an iPad though. How long do you think I can scorn touch screens before I become officially old?

* (Yes, that is how old the G3 was. About three and a half years. Not bad for a laptop with a manufacturing defect that I was very hard on.)
** There are a number of PPC Linux distributions, but specific software may or may not be ported. Usually not.
*** Weirdly, there are a few local language versions of OpenOffice that do still support PowerPC architecture. Since one of those is the Japanese-language version, I now happily use a Japanese word processor and try to keep my language skills current, at least in terms of menu choices.
^ If I could get it to run for the newest AmigaOS I would run to it without hesitation, but I have only gotten reports of it running on a Mac Mini. Don’t think I haven’t considered getting a Mac Mini solely for this purpose. The lack of a monitor is mostly what’s stopping me.

killing time at the bookstore – not the library

A quick observation – while reading a New York Times article on the closing of Barnes & Noble stores, I was immediately struck by their first interviewee’s comment: I kill time at the bookstore.

The theme of the article is that bookstores are used in non book purchasing ways just as often, and that the demise of a brick and mortar store is saddening those who don’t buy anything on top of both employees and those who do enjoy purchasing while they browse.

Or just browsing, in general. Amazon does a fairly good job of this but it’s far from the real thing.

I couldn’t help thinking about this situation in terms of libraries: because that’s what libraries are for. I think rather than talking about libraries attempting to simulate the bookstore experience – comfortable furniture, events, coffee – we could think of this from the perspective of the large chain bookstore taking over the library’s role in the community.

When it’s far more convenient to get to a Borders or Barnes & Noble (and there are more of them, making it easier to just pop in wherever you are), why bother funding libraries? If they let you hang out and read as much as you want (again, the interviewee talks about reading a book a chapter at a time when he comes in with time to kill), what need are libraries fulfilling, other than letting you check the books out without paying something on top of your taxes?

Why not rethink this upsetting situation in which bookstores are closing as an opportunity for libraries to make their case as the original entities fulfilling this role, and as an essential part of the community?

It seems to me that “community” spaces are more and more private, commercial spaces in the US. The bookstore, the coffee shop, the gym. I can’t remember ever going to a community center in my entire life. And my local library in Ypsilanti is very isolated, a drive away from where I live downtown, and is not even on public transit (which I use most of the time rather than driving). It’s easier for me to wander into the Barnes & Noble or Borders (or three) that are on my local errand runs – and that are on multiple bus lines – than to take a trip out of my way to the library.

Instead of focusing on single focal points, why not a distributed form of libraries – small storefronts, if you will? I can’t think of anything that could serve a community better than more spread-out, accessible, convenient service that promotes itself clearly and loudly as an antidote to disappearing bookstores – and as an irreplaceable part of the private-but-public fabric of the community.

a horrible coincidence

A paradox? Not quite.

But a few things have inspired me to think about archives lately – use vs. preservation.

The sad fact is, the more you lean toward preservation, the less access you have. Using causes damage, speeds aging.

Preservation puts a barrier between people and materials. Digital preservation doesn’t capture a full physical experience, just as one cannot “print out” a web site without contradicting the very fundamental point of hyperlinking and the technology of the web.

So the more you use your favorite things, the more you destroy them.
Continue reading