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One of the prominent creative minds of the twentieth century, Abe Kobo was among other things an acclaimed writer, photographer and playwright. He was part of the Yoru No Kay avant garde movement and worked alongside such famed figures as Hanada Kyoteru and Okamoto Taro, forming a circle movement which stood at the heart of the leftist intellectual and artistic scene in his contemporary Japan. His novels are seen as poignant statements on the dismal state of society and the individual in the post-World War 2 era, and his characters are invariably understood as shockingly unfortunate "average Joe's" thrown, in one way or another, into an unlikely yet horrifying hell of loneliness, confinement and identity crises. Much scholarship has been dedicated to Abe's literary works, but the resulting interpretations overwhelmingly hinge on banal and simplistic binary oppositions. Some of the most obvious are psychoanalytical interpretations focusing on the relationships between the male leads and female "antagonists"; a typical jumble of castration obsessions and oedipal complexes. Others have seen novels such as The Woman in the Dunes as a political commentary expressing his disillusionment with the Japanese Communist Party of which he had once been a member. Most recently, Christopher Bolton's assessment of Abe reduces his novels to basic dichotomies of Man/woman, face/mask, self/other, science/fantasy and so on, ad nauseam. Even the Bakhtinian interpretation that Bolton proposes in his book does not escape this binarization, this segmentation and this entrapment of Abe's writing. I would like to propose in this paper an alternative reading of three of Abe's novels; The Face of Another, The Woman in the Dunes and The Box Man. A reading which, I hope, will not fall into these reductionist traps, and which will do justice to the complex rhizomatic nature of Abe's writing.
I did not discover Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's fantastically twisted world until after I had read the aforementioned novels, and as I progressed through their works, it became clear that their thoughts fit perfectly with Abe's, forming something akin to D&G's desiring machines, like the interconnected parts of a rhizome. D&G praised what they called "minor literature" which, far from being an inferior sort or coming from a minor language, is rather "that which a minority constructs within a major language". One must note that "minority" here does not necessarily refer to an ethnic group, but rather to anyone operating outside the realm of the "major", the rigid, the coded and "subjectivated". It seems to me that Abe Kobo is a perfect example of a minor writer. Abe stammers and betrays. He uses language in a revolutionary way to say ordinary things, and he uses ordinary language to say revolutionary things. He is a foreigner in his own language. One may see this in his rhythm, in his characters and in his plots. Scholars like Bolton entrap Abe and reduce both the man and his writing: He writes this way because he is Japanese, because he is a man, because he is a science geek, because he is a leftist. All of these are reductive of Abe's stammering. Instead of understanding his work, they interpret it. They attempt to stick Abe's characters, plots, themes, his very thought into preformed boxes and clear cut dichotomies. Conversely, I believe that had Deleuze and Guattari read Abe, they would have said that he is both sand particle and desert. He is insect, he is woman, he is box, he is mask. He is imperceptible.
Each of the novels I will discuss in this paper depicts a story of territoriality and deterritorialization, of multiple becomings, of rhizomatic connections. Abe's characters take the line of flight just as the novels themselves do, with their complex and often downright bizarre and ambiguous structures. Furthermore, these characters also illustrate what Deleuze and Guattari considered the danger of absolute deterritorialization, for although all of Abe's protagonists go through the Deleuzian white wall, they also often fall into the black hole, succumbing to madness, violence, sometimes even murder.
I wish to consider how abe deploys in his tale a textual assemblage and thereby creates a tale of displacement, even of exile within the grip of a feudal society. Starts out under the dominion and territoriality of the urban/state apparatus.
The philosophy of deleuze and guattari may be approached from a multiplicity of angles, but one may begin with the central concepts of machinic assemblages and the Body without Organs (BwO). D&G assert that everything is a product of stratified machinic assemblages (agencements), which they define as such:
" a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns, different natures. Thus the assemblges' only unity is that of cofunctioning. It is a symbiosis, a sympathy. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys. These are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. "
These assemblages therefore create a space for ever-moving flows of intensities. This is indeed quite literal. In 1000 Plateau for example they explain the feudalism as an aggregation of assemblages: First the man/land machineâ€¦.. Assemblages, and aggregations thereof form what D&G refer to as a Body without Organs. The body without organs is a plane of immanence and consistency of desire, with desire defined as a process of production, rather than lack, or a satisfaction of pleasure. Just as the masochist builds an assemblage which "simultaneously traces and fills the plane of immanence of desire, constituting with himself, the horse, and his mistress a body without organ or a plane of consistency"
The point is to make a body without organs, through which intensities fluctuate and pass until there is no longer an I, nor an other, not to be replaced by a larger, more important extension, but rather by virtue of singularities which may longer be called personal, and intensities which may no longer be called extensive. All of the BwO's, a pure multiplicity of immanence in a generalized movement of deterritorialization It is necessary to have assemblages in order to make each BwO. And it is necessary to have a large abstract machine in order to build the plane of consistency. D&G speak of three important strata, those which confine and bind us most directly : These strata are the organism, significance, and subjectivation. The organism limits and dictates the movements of the body, significance forces one to be interepreted, boxed into set acceptable meanings, and subjectivation fixes the subject of enunciation . The body without organ opposes these strata, and proposes rather a "disarticulation" of them.
Furthermore, for D&G all assemblages are first and foremost desire, since these fluctuating intensities form precisely what desire is. The machinic assemblages impose their territoriality on desire, attempting to take it away from a Spinozan plane of immanence and consistency into well organized territorialized strata. However, in these assemblages which territorialize desire, there are always lines of flight, lines of deterritorialization. This movement from territoriality to deterritorialization permeates all three of Abe's novels. In accordance with the principles of minor literature, Abe's "writing machine" is in itself characterized by a high coefficient of deterritorialization. Indeed, it is difficult to notice the absence of any solid sense of Japaneseness in any of his novels. Contrary to majoritarian authors such as Mishima Yukio, whose writing seems to be a hymn to a so called traditional japaneseness, Abe the minor writer completely takes his prose away from any traditional sense of identity. Himself deterritorialized throughout his youth, as he spent much time in Manchuria, he infused his works with an inherent translocality. Abe's characters are culturally anonymous, even in the rare cases when they have a name. And even though many critics have fallen into the trap of cultural essentialism, seeing his works as an expression of Japanese post-war anxiety, one may instead argue that Abe's lasting international appeal is due precisely to the fact that Abe's novels ask universal questions about fordist/post-fordist urban life and its effect on society. I mentioned the Deleuzian (literal) concept "writing machine", because not only does Abe have a series of interlocking works which echo each other forming something akin to a rhizome, but even the structure of each novel is a fascinating textual assemblage, forming a coherent whole out of seemingly disjointed schizoid parts. From deleuze and guattari's perspective, novels are constituted only by lines of articulation (segmentarity, strata, territorialities), on the one hand, and by lines of flight (moements of deterritorialization and destratification) on the other.
Abe's characters write confessions in notebooks, they take pictures, they draw maps, and his novels are riddled with newspaper clippings, photographs, marginal notes, excursuses and postscripts, all of which combining in a disorganized fashion, taking the very act of writing away from its territoriality, its rigid majoritarian rules, and finding the line of flight, bringing abe's prose into the world of stammering. Of non sense, of minority.
Perhaps more thought should also be given to the concept of territory, as seen through the works of Abe Kobo. Deleuze and Guattari themselves assert that "there is no assemblage witout territory, without territoriality and reterritorialization which includes all sorts of artifice". However, they also argued that there is no assemblage without a point of deterritorialization, without a line of flight which leads on to new creations, or else towards death. In order to fully understand the concepts of territoriality and deterritorialization, a perfect example would be that of faciality.
Faciality in The Face of Another.
In a cheap, darkened apartment, on a low table near a thermos of water for tea, the narrator of Kobo Abe's The Face of Another has left three notebooks -- black, white, and gray -- for his wife to read. Part diary, part confession, the notebooks contain a painstakingly detailed and intimate account of the protagonist's horrific ordeal and transformation following a laboratory accident which left him horribly disfigured. Feeling rejected by both his wife and society as a whole, the narrator decides to construct an elaborate and realistic mask in order to recreate a "roadway towards others". As he progresses with his endeavor, it becomes clear both to the reader and to himself that his main purpose is to seduce his wife under the guise of a complete stranger, thinking at first that this would bridge the gap between them, but ultimately falling into an absurd schizophrenic love triangle in which the new artificial persona of "the mask" takes on a figurative life of its own. While the text hints that it can be read as an allegory of the Japanese national crisis of identity and loss of sociopolitical 'face' in the wake of World War II. Let us consider an alternative avenue.
First, let us the concept of of faciality as developed by Deleuze and Guattari in a thousand plateaus. The face for D & G is not a spiritual marker of the human as opposed to the primitive or the beastly, nor is it even culturally universal. It is rather a historical and authoritarian power imposed on western and westernized societies. The face is a machinic assemblage which radically deterritorializes and overcodes the head, and indeed the entire body through a process of "faceification". It is the product of an authoritarian sociopolitical assemblage which, by putting in conjunction the white wall of significance and the black holes of subjectivation, created an abstract machine of faciality which produces faces "by giving the signifiant its white wall, and subjectivity its black hole" The face is neither animal nor human. it is monstrous, grotesque and somehow sublime. And if mankind were to have a destiny, D&G insist that it would have to be "escaping the face, undoing the face and faciality, becoming imperceptible". The purpose is not to return to a pre-face, primitive or animal state. D&G propose a much more radical and transgressive alternative. Instead of regression, they propose becomings. Multiple becomings, animal becomings, spiritual becomings, strange becomings which will go through the white wall and come out of the black holes, which will finally allow the very traits of faciality to escape the authoritarian organization of the face.
The protagonist in The Face of Another begins his tale of woe with a very sudden and involuntary loss of face. He finds himself in between; in the cracks, neither a part of society nor completely outside of it. He feels forced out of the social assemblage, and even hints at a very deleuzian conception of social and micropolitical relationships when he sadly notes that "66: although the people walking along the streets were strangers to each other, they formed a tight chain, like some organic composition, and I could not squeeze in."
However, Although his initial accident destroyed his face, it did not destroy the abstract facial machine. The strength of the subjectivation and signifiance strata were much too strong to be replaced, and it is indeed not easy to undo an absolute deterritorialization and overcoding of one's entire body. Furthermore, while he still lived within society, whose authoritarian machine presupposed and required the organizing power of faciality, it was not possible for him to live without it. His initial conception of the face as a roadway to others is indeed quite true, although, as D&G would argue, the facial machine is more accurately the inhuman prerequisite for human relationships in today's westernized capitalist societies. In any event, the abstract machine of the face could certainly not be destroyed by a simple laboratory accident. The result was the protagonist's desire to replace the face that he lost, to create another white wall with black holes which truly is just as artificial as the one destroyed by the accident. From there begins a very literal reenactement of Deleuze and Guattari's process of faceification. As The protagonist goes through the painstakingly technical process of building his mask, he even sees it as a white surface, comparing it to "a map of some unknown foreign land". Eventually, however, this new "re-deterritorialization" of the body carried within it the temptation of the line of flight. As the protagonist saw the possibility of faceless living, and in spite of his repulsion at himself, he gradually started slipping further through the cracks, or perhaps rather new strange becomings began growing from the space between old and new faces, between ravaged and artificial skins. He even writes at one point that "putting one mask over another would be the same as not putting on any at all". As his face began to unravel, so did his perception of the facial assemblage as a whole. When confronted with a grotesque closeup of a woman's face in the movie theatre, he becomes very much aware of the inhuman nature of the face, of any face, even real ones (64). The protagonist attempts to find a mask becoming that is not a face. He sees the line of flight and attempts to trace it. In a drug induced haze, he writes the following:
"I had gone beyond the face itself and arrived at the other side of the problem. I may hve glimpsed, if only for a moment, a freedom which was unimaginable when I relied on human relationships seen through the window of the face. (...)Having lost my face, perhaps I could make contact with another world of real things, which were not pictures painted in windows.
This twice removed deterritorialization came with its own dangers, however, and the protagonist would indeed ultimately fail. Not, as Bolton had argued, because of some castrating oedipal relationship with his wife, but rather because he falls into phantasm, into the black hole, into the dark pits of madness and self-destruction, becoming no different than a sociopath.
Ironically, it seemed rather that his wife was indeed more successful. Initially trapped in a binary husband/wife, beauty/beast opposition, she breaks free and finds her own line of flight; her woman-becoming and her mask-becoming. She is the penultimate traitor in the novel. She betrays her social role as a wife, she betrays the truth by playing along with her husband's mascarade, she betrays adultery by committing it with her own husband, and most importantly, she betrays and rejects her role as an oedipalizing force. In a way, the man/woman assemblage at the beginning of the novel required the creation of the mask as a catalyst of sorts, thereby creating a new assemblage, one through which a line of flight could be traced, and the fluxes of desire could freely run. The wife sees through the mask. She sees through this new facial machine her husband built for himself. She goes through white wall and establishes a clandestine, transgressive relationship both with her husband and with the mask. Throughout the novel her husband deplores her "impersonality", her "transparent nonexpression". He writes of standing "in blank amazement before the unknown territory of [her]". However, it may be argued that she is the one who sees the face for what it is. A machinic assemblage, a signifier of expression. And as such she manages to undo it, to unravel it, to become imperceptible.