Christopher Potter

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On Reading In Praise of Shadows by Tanizaki

By Christopher Potter, Dec 30 2014 09:53PM

Richard Dawkins once wrote that when aliens finally arrive the first question they will ask of us is if we have discovered evolution yet. Dawkins provocative as always. I doubt whether we'll even know that aliens have arrived let alone understand what they might be asking of us, if asking indeed means anything from their perspective. The value of such provocation however is that it promotes a thinking response. In me it has provoked the question, is there anything in the scientific method that guarantees that alien cultures will stumble on the same understandings? I first wrote ‘truths’ for ‘understandings’ and then scrubbed it; the strength of the scientific method is that it sidesteps truth for truer: it is a way of systematising knowledge. So I suppose my question is, does the knowledge that aliens have found out have to look like our knowledge, or even be recognisable as knowledge from our perspective? In Tanizaki I have come across someone who had got there before me (I'm sure there are many others, but so far I haven't found them out). The relevant passage comes after a discussion about the design of lavatories. Tanizaki tells us that the white porcelain aesthetic of the West is unpleasing to an Oriental eye, which might prefer wood over porcelain; even a wooden handle would make the prevalent Western design more pleasing than the white-tile aesthetic of Western bathrooms; which aesthetic often actually is white tiles. He is making a point that illustrates a general understanding of the many ways in which the East has bowed to the West:

'There are those who hold that to quibble over matters of taste in the basic necessities of life is an extravagance, that as long as a house keeps out the cold and as long as food keeps off starvation, it matters little what they look like. And indeed for even the sternest ascetic the fact remains that a snowy day is cold, and there is no denying the impulse to accept the services of a heater if it happens to be there in front of one no matter how cruelly its inelegance may shatter the spell of the day. But it is on occasions like this that I always think how differently everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art - would they not have suited our national temper better than they do? In fact our conception of physics itself, and even the principles of chemistry, would probably differ from that of Westerners; and the facts we are now taught concerning the nature and function of light, electricity, and atoms might well have presented themselves in different form.' Tanizaki, despite 'indulging in idle speculation,’ makes a profound point. There is nothing that guarantees that the scientific method had ever been found out on earth let alone in alien civilisations, nor. But if it had been re-formulated by another culture on earth would it have to look anything like the scientific method as we know it to be, or its knowledge look anything like the knowledge we arrogantly suppose will be recognised not only across the world but across the universe? Tanizaki goes on to make the point that if the scientific approach were different then so too would its technologies be different from those the West produced: ‘And had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favour for them with the machines. These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage.’

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