Theoretical psychology in Tokyo

Tokyo is a wonderful city. It is also beyond huge. I thought that Seoul in Korea was huge, with its 16 million inhabitants in the greater metropolitan area, but the equivalent metropolitan area of Tokyo packs approximately 40 million people (a UN report of 2014 put it at 38 million). From the viewing deck of the ‘Tokyo Skytree’, at 634 metres the tallest tower in the world, one looks at the city stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions. Truly mind-boggling.

But why call it a ‘wonderful’ city? First, despite its enormous size – it is like 20 cities in one; each of its major centres, like Ikebukuru, Shinjoku or central Tokyo, seems to be the size of a conventional city – it is almost impossible for a literate person to get lost in Tokyo, because everything is so well-marked, mostly in Japanese, but where it counts in English too.

Secondly, the people are exceptionally friendly and helpful; whenever we stop in the street to consult our map – yes, using maps is more conducive to familiarising oneself spatially with a place than to use GPS – it does not take long for a Japanese person to approach us with an offer of help. Thirdly, there are many beautiful parks, or gardens (and big ones, at that), all over Tokyo. We spent one morning in Shinjuku Gardens, for instance, with its traditional Japanese garden, flanked by French and English counterparts, and acres of dense forest-like trees and underbrush. I sat myself down under an ancient Ginko tree to read Sherry Turkle’s latest book (‘Reclaiming Conversation’), while the woman in my life had a field day taking photographs of the beautiful surroundings.

Fourthly, despite the breathtaking complexity of its far-flung underground metro train system, it is the easiest one to use of all those we have encountered because the lines and stations are so well-marked. Fifthly, unlike the majority of cities worldwide, in Tokyo there are public toilets everywhere, and they are clean. This is most civilised. And last but not least, Tokyo is among the safest cities in the world – if you use the toilet in a coffee shop, you can leave your camera or handbag on your table; they will be there when you return. And you need not fear a mugging anywhere; while I was at the conference my partner explored all the streets and shops in Ikebukuro, where the conference took place, without ever feeling exposed to crime. Needless to say, with a sense of national shame to boot, in South Africa this is impossible.

The conference I attended was the biennial International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) gathering at Rikkyo University, with delegates from all corners of the world converging on Tokyo. The quality of the papers varied noticeably, even among the keynote addresses. So, for example, one of the latter focused on the ‘relationship’ between ‘weak robots’ and people, with the emphasis on the manner in which robots displaying various signs of programmed ‘incompleteness’ or helplessness, such as inchoate sounds, or ‘gestures’ interpretable as requests for help, actually elicit ‘assistance’ from humans, who bend over, or pat, the little machines solicitously, attempting to assuage their (simulated) distress.

What struck me as patently misguided about this presentation was the description (without any irony) of the robots as ‘wanting’ help, or as being ‘happy’ when humans oblige. This was so obviously a case of anthropomorphic projection that pointing it out was redundant. Moreover, it was more revealing about the social habits and collective culture of the people than about the robots, which was probably intended, but added to the superfluity of the ‘experiment’. After all, this elaborate, socially embedded robotics project was evidently motivated by the desire to test the willingness of people to ‘assist’ artificially intelligent machines that display anthropomorphic behaviour, but a lot of effort might have been spared by simply putting people in the place of robots, which were even programmed to bow in typical Japanese manner to their ‘helpers’. The fascination of people with robotic beings will never cease to astonish me; before entering robotics school it should be obligatory for everyone to watch the robot-savvy series, Battlestar Galactica; perhaps that would cure them of their robophilia.

Another keynote address that seemed to be a bit below par concentrated on the question, when science will become ‘fully empirical’ (an oxymoron, if you ask me). It thematised the development of ‘scientific’ knowledge in a historicist manner, relativising each stage, from past centuries (mainly from early modernity) through the present to a projection of what one might expect centuries from now in light of the present state of science. The presenter, who distinguished (if I recall) between science, experience and awareness, looked forward to the stage when science would become ‘wholly empirical’ by finally encompassing the ‘subject-pole’ of knowledge, and not only the ‘object-pole’, as it does at present.

Two things struck me here as being either hopelessly uninformed or misunderstood. First, a discipline that encompasses the subject-pole of knowledge in such an exhaustive manner that many, if not most, aspects of human experience and awareness have been persuasively investigated and described, has existed since around the beginning of the 20th century, namely phenomenology, founded by Edmund Husserl (whose name was mentioned by the presenter, but evidently without grasping his significance) and taken further by thinkers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.

Second, to anticipate a science that might become ‘completely empirical’ is to display a lamentable incomprehension of the nature of science (strange on the part of a practitioner) – by definition science comprises the theoretical mediation of the empirical world. It does not simply ‘mirror’ physical reality, but grasps it conceptually through a theoretical prism of sorts. To make science ‘completely empirical’ would render it ‘blind’, as Kant would say. And such nonsense in a keynote address!

There were other such disappointing keynote addresses, too, like the one that provided exhaustive (and exhausting) information on students’ graphic accounts of their ‘images of life and death’, without as much as a finger lifted to theorise the salient predominance of cyclical accounts of life and death over linear ones – might it not be an expression of the fear of death, or put differently, a function of desire, or of imaginary wish-fulfilment, as in a Freudian dream?

Fortunately there were plenty of other papers that compensated for these failed attempts at ‘keynotes’. That inimitable Lacanian-Marxist, David Pavon-Cuellar, for instance, demonstrated admirably why psychological theorising can never escape a political ethos, and Dan Lund Hvidfeldt presented an evocative paper on emergent properties and creativity in the practice of making music. Similarly, Vasi van Deventer elaborated on the ‘existential fear and aggression in decolonising societies’ (with reference to South Africa) and drew attention to the ‘role of unethical theorising’ in a recently published book. Morten Nissen and Tine Friis of Denmark delivered a revealing paper on ‘co-authoring motivation’ in relation to their ‘memory-work with young drug-users’.

All of these papers (and others) gave rise to lively discussions, not least the one on decolonising societies, which suggested nothing less, in my understanding, than that (judging by a recent South African book on the topic, and by students’ graphic representations of what should fill the void left by removed ‘colonial’ statuary) the drive for ‘decolonisation’ signifies the absence of an ethos in the true sense, insofar as ‘nothing’ is offered in the place of colonial artefacts and culture, despite the will to destroy them. (The proponents of decolonisation should read Nietzsche, the philosopher with the hammer, to learn how to ‘create new values’; but then, they would refuse because he is western…)

Nissen and Friis’s paper revealed the absence of ‘motivation’ among drug users in a society that is ‘addicted by design’; that is, in a society where everything is pre-formatted and dished up for consumers, the difficulty involved in discovering, or finding ‘alternative motivations’, was clearly demonstrated.

My own paper focused on the ethical status of ‘theorising the subject’, that may be extracted (mainly) from Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, pertaining to the ‘agency-assemblage-subject’, a relational account of subjectivity that is anti-substantialist and rhizomatic; in other words, where human subjects are uncovered as being constitutively inscribed in constantly-changing relationships of interconnection, and in processes of ‘deterritorialisation’ and of ‘(re-) territorialisation’. (For anyone interested in reading it, see the journal, Psychotherapy and Politics International, Vol. 15, Issue 2, pp. 1-10, 2017: