When Carps Can’t Breathe in Water: On Tawada Yōko’s Planetary Musings in Corona Times

by Critical Asia

by Christophe Thouny, Dec. 2020】

The Japanese writer Tawada Yōko suggested in a recent publication that the Coronavirus could be ‘the perfect metaphor for the ideal world citizen.’ In this short essay, I argue that the coronavirus crisis is symptomatic of our times and in particular of the collective denial of our desire for the end and change. Coronavirus is a metaphor in two senses, as a symptom of our societies on the brink of disaster, and as a denial of a planetary becoming that cannot allow for global capitalist societies to continue as they are. Coronavirus is indeed a metaphor of death, if one that can reopen onto life, and I want to think, love.

I try here to think with Tawada Yōko about our planetary becomings in Corona times. For this, I read her essay as form of theory-writing. As I discuss in more details in other publications, the planetary constitutes a new situation in which an open space of interconnectedness is increasingly experienced in locally embedded places.[1] Originally published in the German magazine Stadtsprachen, Tawada’s article was translated in the pages of the French newspaper Le Monde on July 24th 2020 with the title: “If nobody died from it, I would make of the coronavirus the metaphor for the ideal world citizen.”[2] In German, she actually wrote, ‘I would celebrate’, maybe something that could not be printed in Macron’s France. Tawada Yōko is a Japanese novelist, poet and performer known in particular for her poetic narratives of travel and wandering across the planet. In works such as The Naked Eye (2004) or The Emissary (2014)[3], she practices a sort of planetary writing able to explore, displace and fantasize planetary movements across national territories and languages, across human and non-human boundaries. Movement is for her the ongoing crossing of the vacillating boundaries of human lives. And movement is what allows for random encounters and contacts with people, places, and stories. It is a creative act born of an ongoing practice of translation where boundaries are not so much traversed as de-formed, allowed to mutate and proliferate into a multiplicity of planetary narratives. Tawada remains a modernist of sorts but one open to change. She is able to generate spaces to experiment and imagine a Kantian world citizen and its planetary becomings. And while she does not systematically engage a planetary situation, her stories often conjure stars, planets and non-human encounters, here, a coronavirus.

Coronavirus is for Tawada a reversed image of the world citizen as it mutates into a planetary being. She does not use the word “planetary” yet there is a sense in which her world citizen is not simply a global subject, nor is it limited to a human world as such. Coronavirus needs movement and human contact (as we do) because it needs an openness to inter-human contacts to survive, adapt and thrive. “If nobody had to die from it, I would even praise the coronavirus as a metaphor for the ideal world citizen who effortlessly crosses national and religious boundaries, who continuously transforms to adapt itself to a new environment, and through human contacts, intensive conversations, concerts, readings or plays, stays alive.” The only problem is that some have to die from coronavirus, that it is a nuisance to the human. “It loves to visit grand-parents and sick friends. It does not kill plants, it does not kill animals, it does not contaminate air nor water. Yet despite so many qualities there is one problem : it harms us”. The coronavirus we see on our screens is a human virus, a doppelgänger abstracted from its planetary environment. This disconnection of an individual body from its environment is the definition of stupidity, and one might wonder then what kills, coronavirus or this particular human form of animality, stupidity.[4]

Before going any further, I want to pause and ask if death is really the problem here? And if death by corona is the issue, what does it mean? What is wrong with death and with this death in particular? What and whose deaths are we talking about? Tawada’s formulation, “If nobody died from it” could be read equally as a rhetorical precaution and as a mark of respect for those dying from the virus. However humans always die from coronaviruses. “If nobody died from it” is an impossibility, the desired zero-risk of risk societies. And zero-risk societies would be the death of the world citizen, the end of human and non-human encounters, and the failure of our societies to accept our planetary becomings. This would mean a hardening of our protective shells to live an endless spectacle of everyday life in denial of the reality of a planetary situation in which we are by definition always already connected with all and everything anytime anywhere. Interconnectedness is the planetary ontology of life onto which late capitalism thrives, claiming to contain any kind of risk behind walls and boundaries knowing perfectly well that this is a lie, that life is born of death, chaos, and love, that it needs to capture life surplus-value[5] to reproduce itself while containing the real risk, the risk of change, the risk of planetary becomings.

Now there is here an interesting question of translation. Tawada says in German “Wenn niemand daran sterben müsste”, which literally translates as “If no one had to die from it” (my emphasis).[6] There is here an important difference that disappears in the French translation “Si personne n’en mourrait” (“If nobody died from it”). “If nobody died from it” gives the sense that death just happens in general as an effect of the virus. “If nobody had to die from it” implies a relation between the virus and its dead that is not a mechanical causality embedded into historical contingency, but implies a sense of obligation, some have to die from it, from the stupidity of a human virus, or simply, from the stupidity of a human world abstracted from its planetary becomings.

Since March 2020, cultural essentialism, racism, and nationalism are back to raise more walls between world citizens and arrest them in place. This is however not a state of limbo as these walls are nothing else but props to hide the fact that it is not possible to avoid the exposure to other humans and life forms, and more importantly that the modern nation-state is already in ruins and maintained artificially in place.[7] This ideological use of the wall as false consciousness is entirely part of a capitalist temporality that needs to posit the end of times to keep delaying this very end (or claiming to), and in this delaying, reproduce and adapt itself to further thrive.[8] This is a rhetoric of containment that here exploits coronavirus as a metaphor of the ideal world citizen, and a cancelling out of its possibilities and conditions of life. I remember reading on a Deleuze Facebook group page in March 2020 a post wondering ironically when a Deleuzian will start discussing coronavirus in terms of posthuman becomings. Well, that is precisely what needs to be done if we are to become once again world citizens, if not planetary beings. And this can only start after extracting ourselves from this debilitating rhetoric of containment that fixates on the basest of human affects, fear, arrogance, and egoism : affects that stultify the ego and reject planetary love. Basest here means sad affects that, as Spinoza explains, restrict if not destroy the power of acting, that is to act and be affected.

Writing from Japan nine years after the March 2011 triple-catastrophe devastated the Tōhoku area (North-Eastern region of the island of Honshū) by combining earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, I am particularly sensitive to such rhetorics of containment permeating all media through government mouthpieces, claiming as  Abe Shinzō did that the risk was contained and controlled and that the Olympics can safely happen in Japan, Olympics that are still planned for 2021, although without Mr. Abe.[9] In the case of post-Fukushima radioactive contamination this was obviously a lie as nothing is contained and what had to be controlled was the movement of populations, rather than their isolation and arrest in place. Anyway, people move. We could say the same about Trump’s wall and to a level the wall between Israel and Palestine, regularly crossed because the ultimate objective is to destroy it to absorb Gaza within Israel. This is why I cannot help but hear the corona “stay home” as the “go home” uttered globally to immigrants of all sorts, because one is told to stay home only if one is not home or not willing to remain there. And this implies that one has a place to go home to, and a place to call home. Stay home means stop wandering and go home. Go home, stay away from me, my world, and my life.

Rather than dwelling on this fantasy of containment and freezing of people in place, Tawada Yōko continues exploring possibilities of movement and encounters in the time of coronavirus as she walks across the planet. However, walking has changed, and this might be why she cannot consider herself a world citizen anymore – and this might well be what opens her further to planetary becomings. Tawada’s essay is personal, narrating her movement across Japan, France, the US and Germany during the first part of the year 2020 as she keeps walking without kissing people nor entering buildings. She walks in a state of limbo that does not allow her to feel like a world citizen anymore. Contrary to most discourses about Corona showing shocking if not obscene claims of cultural essentialism, like Japanese Finance Minister Aso Tarō’s claim in June 2020 that Japan’s low virus deaths reflect high ‘cultural standards’,[10] or as I heard recently that Asian people have different genes that would protect them, the coronavirus creates for Tawada a suspended state of being without contact, what she calls an atemporality. She cannot feel the passage of time, this emotion that circulates across bodies, and only writing can reopen a temporal movement across countries to its planetary becomings.

Late capitalist societies are exceptional in their reproduction of an ongoing state of survival in the midst of obscene wealth, a state of survival that keeps intensifying to allow for more primitive accumulation. Exceptionality is the mark of stupidity in a global capitalist world in decline where the exception has become the rule in denial of the exceptionality of its strongest country, the USA, that is in denial of the unevenness of the global world. As Tawada expected, with coronavirus nothing has changed on the global political scene. People just keep doing what they wanted: ‘Anybody who always thought in the sense of autocracy made a few more steps in the same direction. Anybody who cared for democracy defended itself with even more strength. Those who wanted to separate themselves from the EU further distanced themselves from Europe. In countries with a female head of state like Taiwan, New Zealand or Germany, residents were more satisfied with politics than in countries controlled by testosterone.” In short, nothing changed with coronavirus, nothing at all, only an intensification of established narratives and life paths, only an intensification of various ways to survive – not prosper, as if the dead did not matter. Yet again, whose dead are we talking about? For death is always on a vital continuum, death is never outside of life, and life precisely thrives as it passes through death. However common death is on our screens and in our databases, we are not able any more to properly engage with the two deaths, the material death of the body and the symbolic death of the subject. Too many of our elderly today are dying alone, anonymous deaths that we cannot let go but only hide. This is why corona deaths are scandalous, regardless of the fact that we consciously ignore other deaths caused by our societies daily.

To conclude I return to the beginning of Tawada’s article. In coronavirus times, walking cannot be wandering nor flânerie anymore : it has become a therapeutic, as when “domesticated carp desperately go back to the surface and open their mouth as if they could not breath in the water anymore.” This is a powerful image that raises two important points. First the human qua carp is not able anymore to breathe and thrive in its dwelling environment. And more importantly, this impossibility to thrive here and now generates a state of survival, a fear of death and change that paradoxically pushes us outside of our fragile everyday environments in what could be a suicidal drive. The use of the term “therapeutic”, however complicates the situation. A therapeutic practice is never the realization of a drive for survival. Survival is the mark of stupidity, of a particular mode of individuation that abstracts and isolates the individual from its living environment. The survivor is the everyday hero qua zombie, the good guy ready to sacrifice himself to reproduce the same absurd every reality, safe, stable and comfortable. A therapeutic practice on the other hand is an art of life, of care for the self in its dwelling environment and in complete acceptance of a planetary and cosmic state of interconnectedness. Coronavirus is a metaphor for change and the challenge it poses is whether or not  we are ready to accept the inevitable.

Christophe Thouny, Ritsumeikan University, Japan


[1] Christophe Thouny, The Land of Hope 2012: Cartographies of Fukushima, 2012. In Frenchy Lenning ed. Mechademia Vol.10 World Renewal (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 17-34. Christophe Thouny, Dwelling in Passing: The Urban Planetary in Modern Tokyo (Forthcoming).

[2] Tawada Yōko, “Si personne n’en mourrait je ferait du Coronavirus la métaphore du citoyen idéal du monde”. Le Monde, July 24th 2020.

[3] Tawada Yōko, The Naked Eye, Susan Bernofsky trans. (New Directions Publishing, 2009). Tawada Yōko, The Emissary, Susan Bernofsky trans. (New Directions Publishing, 2018).

[4] In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze defines stupidity as a mode of individuation peculiar to the human that always endangers thought because it does not allow to make the proper distinctions, leading to the profusion of false problems. In other words, stupidity is a mode of individuation that, as Levy Briant explains, “must be thought as that relationship to individuation where solutions (individuated entities) are detached from their problematic fields and thought in isolation.” Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 150-151. Levy Briant, “The Pedagogy of Problems and the Figure of Stupidity” in Larval Subjects, https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2007/02/25/the-pedagogy-of-problems-and-the-figure-of-stupidity/. Accessed October 3rd, 2020.

[5] Brian Massumi defines surplus-value of life, or processual surplus-value in opposition to capitalist surplus-value as defined in Marxism. “Processual surplus- value, in contradistinction to these two forms of capitalist surplus-value [absolute and relative surplus-value], is purely qualitative and concerns the intensity of lived potentials.” Brian Massumi, 99 Thesis on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto (Minnesota University Press, 2018), 16.

[6] I thank Professor Earl Jackson for pointing this subtle difference and its implications.

[7] Wendy Brown, Walled States: Waning Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 2010)

[8] I draw here on the work of Gavin Walker who discusses capitalism in terms of the katechon that must endlessly be delayed to reproduce itself. Walker, Gavin, The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016). I develop further this idea in a coming publication on Japanese contemporary visual culture.

[9] Abe declaration: http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/statement/201309/ 07ioc_presentation_e.html. Abe Shinzō resigned on August 28th 2020 for health reasons unrelated to the Corona virus, just a few days after having set a new record for the longest (8 years) uninterrupted run, having failed to realize his two cherished plans, the revision of article 9 of the postwar constitution to allow Japan to have an army and take part in US led wars, and the 2020 Olympics.

[10] Japan Times, “Japan’s low virus deaths reflect high ‘cultural standards,’ says Taro Aso”. June 5, 2020.

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