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Planetary fieldwork

2014.11.12




Michinobu Niihara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Regional sociology, fieldwork and theory of the planetary society

Heavy and far away topic

We live in a world where things that seem somehow distant from us—whether because they appear petty, futile, commonplace, or banal—can suddenly intrude upon our lives in the form of a disaster or urgent problem. Instantly, they become personal (cause, causa, meine Sache). Still, we go around with have no real sense of this at all. “Sure,” we think, “these things happen to people—but they won’t happen to me.” Or at least, that is what we prefer to believe. We simply would rather not think about them.

“A rise of 85 centimeters in the world’s sea levels would cause an area three times the size of Japan to disappear, making environmental refugees of more than 260 million people. Migrants fleeing environmental changes will start to come in direct contact with the people of other regions…” When we hear reports like these, we often brush them aside as old news—things we already know. Though there may be times when we feel we should stop and consider them, the same ideas constantly appearing on TV and in print makes us gradually turn numb. Global warming… poverty… income gaps… measures to address… it all becomes nothing more than a predictable pattern. By chance I happened to watch a program about how the things we use every day—T-shirts, chocolate, mobile phones—are made. These are banal objects, so close to us that we hardly notice them. We may think a situation is bad “over there,” that “people have always sacrificed throughout history,” or even that “something needs to be done.” All of that may be true, but when it comes to what we can actually do about it, we’re at a loss. Though the news is initially shocking, it becomes too difficult for us to think about personally—and the more these scenes repeatedly flash before us, the more commonplace they become. Eventually, we file them away as “banal issues.”

The day everything changed

You decide you’re going to pay more attention to your health and head out for a jog. Just as you get back, you start running a high fever. Though you might typically brush it off as a banal symptom, you’ve been hearing about diseases going around and are concerned enough to stop by the doctor’s office for a checkup. He tells you that you have Dengue Fever. “I didn’t even go to that park that was making headlines!” you think. “Why me?!” “What am I going to do about work tomorrow!?” Your head starts spinning. As you get on your bike to go home, the sky suddenly turns threatening. They’ve been saying that even in Tokyo the weather is becoming more unpredictable… heavy downpours… hail… Just then you hear a thunderclap and the wind starts to pick up. Torrential rain starts pouring down. Disoriented from your fever, you manage to stumble back to your apartment by the university and lay down in your bed. Sirens start wailing outside, telling there’s a risk of landslides. More thoughts drift through your head. Something you heard somewhere.Risk of landslides, they said. Particularly in residential areas where the ground was built up rapidly during Japan’s economic boom… Fever dreams take over, and you’re unable to even sit up. Could I get out of this apartment if I had to? It’s built along a mountain slope… You wonder. I should have made better friends with my neighbors… A muddy smell flows into the room on the backdraft of the ventilation fan. “Could this be it…!?" Just as you’re typing in your status update, you hear a deafening roar…

Tuning into the signs

On September 27, just days after I handed out this cautionary tale to my students, we heard the news that Mount Ontake had erupted. We fill our days with thoughts of things that haven’t yet happened—and not just the major events that affect society, but personal events too. Sickness. Even death. Then, when that “unfathomed future” finally comes—in the form of an unexpected disaster or accident, or unforeseen illness perhaps—the very thing we wanted to turn a blind eye to is now staring us in the face. Completely out of the blue. But it wasn’t really out of nowhere. Had we looked at the situation objectively, we could have seen it coming. It was nothing more than a case of selective blindness. We didn’t want to see the symptoms. We didn’t want to read the signs. So what can we do? How can we better tune in to the signs and symptoms of a coming disaster?

Toward the “planetary fieldwork”

The signs of what is to come first manifest as “background.” We need to probe deeply into the underlying thoughts, deeper meanings, and true intentions that underlie the events, data, and information we process as background—to find the “truth in our bones,” so to speak, by getting physically involved in real situations. The logic of things is constantly moving and changing shape; we must investigate thoroughly and seek out the truth. In short, we need to get out there. We need to look. We need to listen. We need to examine. We need to put our heads together and think. We need to dip our cup into the well of social structures—of human sweat and emotion—that gives rise to the “background.” Finally, we need to find the words and images that well up through our hearts and our guts and leave them as a roadmap for others.

In a “planetary society” with networks and systems that are global in scope, we can start anywhere and with anything—no matter how small. My motivation for writing Exploring, Encountering, and Thinking Together (Chuo University Press 2011) and Fieldwork on “The Liminal Territories” (Chuo University Press 2014) was setting out on a journey—fieldwork—that would lead me to greater living knowledge. I combined the idea of “exploring, encountering, and thinking together” with that of “going to ground zero alone in strange lands, strange religions, and strange countries.” I thought that if I could come together with readers as friends at the point where the two intersect, it would be of the greatest joy and the greatest significance. And I am now working on a third publication, Toward the “Planetary Fieldwork”(Fileldwork for understanding the social structure and underlying human energy in the planetary society).

Michinobu Niihara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Regional sociology, fieldwork and theory of the planetary society
Professor Niihara was born in 1959. He studied at Nagoya University, the University of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi University and the University of Sassari in Italy. After working as an Assistant Professor at Chiba University and an Associate Professor at Yokohama City University, he took up his current position in 2003. He has held lectures, seminars, and symposia at universities in Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Cape Verde, Slovenia and Macau. He writes primarily in Japanese and Italian, and his publications includeHomo Movens: The Sociology of Learning/Unlearning in the Field [Homo Mōbensu: Tabisuru Shakaigaku] (Mado-sha); Exploring “Liminal” Territories [Kyōkai Ryōiki he no Tabi] (Otsuki Shoten); and Exploring, Encountering, and Thinking Together [Tabi wo Shite, Deai, Tomo ni Kangaeru] and Fieldwork on “The Liminal Territories” [Kyōkai Ryōiki no Fīrudowāku] (both Chuo University Press).