IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Yi Chen
What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
“What?” I thought. I was surprised: “How could ‘apocalypse be a serious topos? The world must have gone MAD!” You know, in China, where I grew up, one would consider the idea of an “End of the World” as quite mad, a weird “superstition” at best, no more worthy of serious thought than the fear of ghosts. But if you think about it, the idea of apocalypse contains a paradox that actually raises some important theoretical questions about the continuity of the self.
And now, here we are, in March of 2022, every day sliding closer to a potential nuclear apocalypse.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
The apocalypse changes the self to an it. For me, such an apocalypse is a visceral moment of rupture, a complexity of helplessness, desperation. But it is not the end – if it were, you would not be there to think about it. I guess the challenge of the post-apocalypse is to recover the self. This means of course that the self must persist in some way. If it does not persist, if you lose your humanness, whoever it is who then lives on, it is no longer you.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
I am a philosopher and literary scholar. Questions that move me deeply include: What does it mean to be human? How can I understand humanness? What is it like “to understand” a thing? And, what is understanding anyway? I explore these questions through works of literature, or the visual arts, bridging the gap between Western and Eastern cultures, and I apply my thinking to questions of ethics and aesthetics. Central to my work is an understanding of an autonomous self, and the joy of self-cultivation. This is the starting point for my CAPAS project.
What is your fellowship trying to achieve?
Our sense of our own self is continuous. We are the same self that we always were, as long as we can remember. Yet we are not the same, we change. The idea of apocalypse takes change to an extreme: absolute change is imposed on us, we go through a rupture. But what about the self? Does it break? Does it remain an island of comfort and security? And if so, how? These are some of the questions I explore.
As it turns out, one has to avoid a purely theoretical approach. Theory is necessary, but it has to be complemented with experience. This requires finding a consistent way to bridge theoretical knowledge (episteme) and practical knowledge (phronesis). Currently, I am focusing on how to work with “vignettes” of experience and describe the “narrative system” through which they tell their story, and pursue a deeper understanding of theory from the way the story interacts with it.
That sounds horribly abstract –let me illustrate this with an example: viewing Utagawa Hiroshige’s print “Sunrise at Kanda Myojin Shrine” from his One Hundred Views of Edo series, published a year before his death (you can find a copy at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:100_views_edo_010.jpg). I start from “deep viewing”, to begin the encounter. This takes time and a bit of patience. After you spend about 20 minutes with a painting, your perception gradually changes and you begin actually seeing it. Here we are on the temple grounds, on a ledge above the city that is now Tokyo, looking east. The sky is dark, turning lighter and a crimson band marks the horizon. Three figures (a Shinto priest, a shrine maid, and a temple servant) stand some distance away, their backs turned towards us, they all look in the same direction, and they share a moment of quiet. But what they see is blocked by a tall tree. We can only “see” it through their eyes.
Deep viewing seeks out a host of questions: what is in the painting, how is it arranged, what relationships appear, how could the artist have done things differently and what effect would this have; and what does this all feel like to me? At that point, it may be useful to read about the artist, about the scenery, the customs that are being depicted, to better understand what choices the artist made. For example, we see that the colors of the clothing echo the hues and shades of nature, and we learn that this view was painted one year after the Great Ansei Edo Earthquake of 1855, where much of the city that is visible in the print might have been burning, but government censorship would not have allowed to make the earthquake a topic.
From this I build a narrative system. The three people delineate a spiritual space, in which something larger than life is happening. What exactly that is remains open since the view is blocked. Perhaps we can concretely assume a sunrise, but that image is superimposed with Shinto faith symbolism, and the cataclysmic night of the earthquake. We are separated, we are observers, not participants, confined to the concrete world that is woven from the colors and visual spaces, the peoples’ social roles, their postures; yet we too become suspended in the very moment at which everything will change.
This narrative system constitutes practical knowledge made explicit, that we can now relate to our theory: what elements of this system narrate a revelation, an end, a possible salvation, i.e. the typical features of an apocalypse? Does our theory account for a spiritual experience, or does this make the work something other than apocalyptic? And what about the lyricism of the print? Can the apocalyptic moment be conceived as lyrical?
The Heidelberg philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in his Wahrheit und Methode proposed a “hermeneutic” approach to understanding; this means: it is the process of interpretation itself, not the “answers” we get from the interpretation, that bring us to understanding. Such understanding appears on a much higher level than mere factual knowledge, and it is inspiring for me that it is here in Heidelberg where I develop my use of vignettes in this spirit.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
I hope for surprises: things that are new for me, the different ways to think about the same question that my colleagues are pursuing, new paradigms, new collaborators, and friends. Clarifying my ideas and sharing them with others is essential for their vitality. An emergent topic is – once again – an idea of an uncompromisingly human self. This is a foundational belief for my current work, and, shaped into Bildung, it will be a foundation of my future academic work, wherever that may take me.
What are the aspects you are looking forward to with respect to input from other disciplines, other perspectives, and the exchange with the fellows and people at CAPAS?
The fascinating thing about CAPAS is our diverse domains of expertise. But this does not place us into disconnected academic bubbles, there is still this one shared topic – the apocalypse – which ensures that our encounters result in dialogues. Meaningful insights come from insightful minds. Domain specific knowledge only plays a secondary role. I find this environment remarkably inspiring and productive.
To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
There would be two things actually: agency and empathy, and both are crucial. Agency preserves our identity in the face of the absolute. I act, something happens. Even in uncontrollable circumstances agency needs to be retained. If you can’t build, hunt, sleep, at the moment, then draw, sing, rhyme, move…whatever; assert yourself in real or fictional ways. Empathy gives quality to our agency, that quality of humanness in which we encounter the other, which finds joy in the kinship of being, which keeps us connected with the world and thereby keeps us sane. Mere existence is not enough, preserving the self requires those two. Fortunately, those two are not heavy to carry.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the/an (post)apocalypse — whether its films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
I would be the last person to ask about pop culture, but here are two works that have moved me. One is Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary, (1955/1995, UNC Press). Hachiya is a doctor who narrowly survived the Hiroshima bomb. His personal account of living through the nuclear apocalypse, and how he re-grounded the self and helped those around him, express the very humanness that I am seeking out in my work. A bit less literal perhaps is Wim Wenders’ film The Salt of the Earth (2014), a documentary about the life of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Salgado portrayed some of the harshest fault lines of our social, economic, and political distortions: exploitation, famine, war, genocide – but the red thread here too is humanness: “after all, people are the salt of the earth”.
I guess such humanness is the topic I always return to. Is this anti-apocalyptic? Or is this the point of the apocalypse?