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June 21, 2012

What are the Kami not? Beyond the logodome


I am really confused about the Kami. Also, alas I have not even been going to Shrines much lately. But here I will describe Shinto as a sort of Nacalian philosophy, a sort of reversal of world as described by Jacques Lacan.

I have long been interested in what God might be. I was raised in many ways an atheist. I had good physics classes and a parent that thought the world physical. I had another parent that believed in "God." "What?" I thought. And I asked, and got answers that did not make much sense to me. "God is love," was one of them. Lately, that answer makes a little more sense, but still not a lot.

I have since searched around for other answers to this question as to what (first of all) the God that Christians talk about might be. So here is my collection of theories on what God might be.

Starting with the most atheistic, Richard Dawkins (2008) says that God is an "imaginary friend". that is a start.

Following on, a book I liked about an imaginary friend is John Wyndham's "Chocky" (1968). In that children's book, the imaginary friend turned out to be an alien from outer space! It has been a long time since I read "Chocky" but I think I liked, or like now, the way the imaginary friend turned out to be real:-). Speaking of imaginary friends that turn out to be real, my son has for the past couple of years been addicted to "The Gruffalo" a picture book by Julian Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (2006). In it a mouse makes up a sort of imaginary friend - a monster called a Gruffalo, who again turns out to be real. Can that which starts out as an imaginary friend become real?

Someone also asked what attracted us to Shinto. One of the things that really attracted me to Shinto was sorry for using a nerdy numbered list but...
1) My feeling was that I did have an imaginary friend
2) Not only do I have an imaginary friend but I can't seem to stop having one.
3) Christianity seemed to require that I claim my imaginary friend is *real,*
4) That seemed to be going a bit too far - to claim reality to my imaginary friend.
5) I met Shinto practitioners (at least three) who said that while they believed in the Kami they were not sure if they were real or not. One famous Shinto practitioner (the founder of a Shinto Sect; Kurozumi, 2000) even seemed to intimate that they thought that their Kami are not real. But as far as they were concerned, that did not matter. 'If you believe then that is okay,  welcome to Shinto!' I bet that a lot of Shintoists would not agree and insist that the Kami are 100% real. But at least some Shintoist felt that belief, imagining something to be true, feeling something to exist, and acting as if something exists, is enough to do Shinto. That struck me, strikes me, as very attractive, very much in tune with how I feel.

Moving on to more highbrow theories of (Christian) God.

Adam Smith (1812, see Brat, 2005), the economist was a Calvinist by upbringing. He theorised the existence of an "Impartial Spectator." He said that we see ourselves from the point of view of an "Impartial Spectator". Bearing in mind where I am going to take this, I should mention that Adam Smith felt the "Impartial Spectator" to be above all *rational*. What is a "rational impartial spectator"? Why should we have, or imagine one?

Sigmund Freud (1913) said we have a "Super Ego," which is an imaginary father figure hidden inside our head. Freud, for all his popularity, is rather hocus pocus it seems to me. He claimed that we have a Super Ego due to the real event (!) of killing and eating (yuck) a primal big bully father, in the depths of human history, and then (for reasons that are not entirely clear) feeling so guilty about it that we felt and feel obliged to internalise that father figure, that our ancestors killed. Freud has written a lot, and gives other reasons for the origin of the "super ego" but, I am not keen on historico-concrete or physiological essentialism of his theories. One thing I do like however is that he emphasises that we *hide the internalisation*. Going back to the "imaginary friend" metaphor, it is as if we make, and intake (eat, internalise) an imaginary friend and then hide the fact that have done so. That part is very much how I feel. For many years it seems to me I kind of forgot my imaginary friend was even there. I had sort of hidden my friend, it seems to me. Freud also asserts that the Super-ego is a condition for the ego or "I" (me, myself) but I am not able to say why. These next theorists start to explain why.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1986) was a Russian literary critic and philosopher of language. Before I introduce what he had to say, Hermans and Kempen (1993) are two Dutch, I think, psychologists, who are quite popular at the moment that have a theory of imaginary friends (though not of god) based upon Bakhtin. Bakhtin argued, I think, that language is always meaningful in communication, in discourse. So what happens when we are on our own? Bakhtin, and Hermans and Kempen, say that we are always imagining a variety of real friends and acquaintances as listeners to our language. Yes! As I write this blog post I am thinking of how a few list members (if they are still reading) might react to what I am writing. It is by imagining their presumed reaction that I am able to be coherent to myself, to be meaningful. Bakhtin (and his followers Hermans and Kempen, 1993) provide an answer as to why it may be difficult to give up on imaginary friends. If language is essentially discursive, depending upon an addressee, then all those times we are using language on our own, we need imaginary-real-friends at least to help, or allow us to understand what we are saying.

Bakhtin (1986, p126) himself went further to assert that not only do we imagine the reaction of imaginary real others, (i.e. for instance John Dougill or David Chart, or Sean K., or anyone we are talking to) Bakhtin also claims that we imagine a "super addressee." What is a super-addressee? Bakhtin says that any person that we are talking to, or even any group that we are talking to, are not going to understand all that we have to say. We want to say more. We want to say what we have to say and not be limited by our audience (as if!). So Bakhtin claims, we also imagine in addition to all the people (the second persons of our narrative, a third person, someone else who is, hearing or reading our words and understand them. This rings a bell: Adam Smith's "impartial spectator." It also explains the "reasonable-mess" of Smith's spectator. I think that Smith said that his "spectator" is reasonable because rather than "spectating" (that is to say viewing) the impartial spectator is an impartial listener.

George Herbert Mead (1967 and free on the Internet) has the same kind of theory, but also provides more meat to notion that our imaginary friend is essential, or even that the imaginary friend turns out to be real. Mead starts out from the "Radical Empiricism" of William James in which experience, for the child at least is a chaos of colours and feelings in which there is no self nor world just a mishmash of experience [Aside, Japanese philosopher of Zen, Nishida was also very influenced by James]. Mead proposed a way for us to recognise ourselves, our self, from out of that confusion. He said that we do, we must do it, by expressing ourselves and internalising the reaction we imagine others to have - imaginary real friends again - and then gradually, to internalise so many perspectives, that similar to Bakhtin's "super addressee" we become able to simulate a "generalised other." That is to say, a sort of amalgam of all the friends we have, of our mother, our father, our friends, our enemies, eventually an impartial listener. By coming to be able understand at first the reactions of real others, and finally to the reaction of their amalgam/average/generalisation, we are able to understand our words objectively, and understand who we are, from the perspective of that simulation.

I bet all these people are (in my version) sounding very similar. Too right. The above is merely my interpretation of all these theories.

Now break (Collins, 1982, 1:59)....When I was about 22 I went stone raving mad and found that I not only did I agree with all the above, but that I met my "super-addressee," my "super-ego" my "generalised other," the "Gruffalo". And I did not like, did not want to share a head with the simulated person I met, primarily because she was a woman. Or rather, most of all, I did not like the self that I had (have) in the dialogue I had (have) with my internalised "other," because all this talking to a woman had feminised him (me) more than seemed advisable. Also, until that point I had been an atheist. After that point I came to think that I had an imaginary friend upon whom I depend.

About two years later I came to Japan.

Japan is a strange kind of place (or perhaps the UK was). I felt very liberated here. It seemed to me that Japan did not have the same kind of thing going on at all. The Japanese did not seem to care nearly so much about heir words. In Japan it was like, *no one is listening*.

There is a Japanese theorist Arimasa Mori (1999), who lived in Paris and was au fait with the aforementioned theories of super-addressees etc. Nothing that the Japanese language contains gramattical markers and first person pronoun change depending upon who one is talking to, Mori said the same thing: Japanese language is directed only to the person the Japanese speaker is talking to. There is no third person presumed to be listening. There is no impartial spectator to Japanese words. At first it was like I had escaped God that I had left the logo-dome("Mad Max 3"*).

It seemed to me that the rugged individualism, the self-confidence, the self-esteem of my English peers was bought at the price of believing in the tenets of reason, of internalising the big ear in the sky.

Almost all theorist of Japan since Ruth Benedict and well before and after, Eshun Hamaguchi, Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, Kimura Bin, Takeo Doi, Chie Nakane, Shu Kishida, Takahiko Masuda, Steven Heine and lots more, and all the big names (sorry to name drop), seem to claim that the Japanese are collectivists, groupists, interdependent. That they do not have a God or even Gods, but that they are defined in, trapped in, only care about, their real friends, or at best imaginary-real-friends (see Herman and Kempen above). The Japanese, it is claimed, only care about self-presentation, how they look to 'their public' (Seken). They could, under this theory, sell their mother down river if it suited them and the rest of their peers did not complain.

Now this is where I and most of the theorist I know part company and where I get onto the Kami. The view of the Japanese as collectivists is not my experience. Yes the Japanese are into harmony, or getting on well together (Yamagishi, 2002). But it seems to me that one of the reasons that they are so into harmony is because the Japanese are so self-possessed. I am an egoistical English public school ponce. Though fractured, I know how to push people around, and I have in the past. The Japanese, however, are no push-over. They say "yeah," and "I agree" and "Okay, probably the opposite" and "whatever." Then they walk away, ignore you, and know you are a fool. The Japanese seem to be very independent, as in difficult to sway, non-conformist, to me. There is some research to support this view (Takano & Osaka, 1999; Takano & Sogon, 2008), but it is limited and contraversial.

All the same while it appeared to me that Japanese words slip slide like the proverbial 'water off a ducks back' they make baseball players, cars, marathon runners, boxers, scholars, fashion, anime, manga, architecture, weird inventions, martial artists, computer games, and a whole load of beautiful people, to beat the world. You don't get that sort of creativity and achievement without a considerable degree of personal motivation. What is going on?

Incipit Lacan (2007). I love, but mainly also hate Lacan. Jacques Lacan was a French obfuscater. He obfuscated like mad. He may well have been a genius or a charlatan or both. Most of what he says is to me at least, double Dutch. However, he has a couple of things going for him. Like Mead, Nishida, and James, he believes that at first there is chaos, and that the self (me, I, you) is something that created, even fictional. Secondly, he also says that there are two ways of creating a self. All the above theorists stress the importance of Language. And Lacan may stress the importance of language even more the any of the above. But he also theories, in his paper on "The Mirror Stage" that one can have a visual self, if we have a mirror or another person's face. We can, or we do, according to Lacan, generate an conception of self visually when we see ourselves reflected in a mirror, or when we see how others' faces change according to our visual behaviour.

Mead also addresses this question specifically. He says that while one can always hear one's own linguistic thoughts, we need a mirror (of glass) or an physically present audience, to be able to gain an autoscopic (self-directed self-) view.

All the Western theorist of internalised others, imaginary/simulated interlocutors, above (see also Buber 1970, Marková 2006 for a review) sound so rational. Unfortunately for them, recent advances in neurology have shown that we all can simulate Autoscopy (Blanke & Metzinger, 2009) via "mirror neurons." All the above Western theorists treat it as a given that we can understand ourselves from the perspective of others (quite a mental feat, methinks) but seeing oneself is almost impossible without external devices.

Okay. So what are the Kami? For a long time it seemed to me that in Japan, the Japanese, the Shintoists have learnt how to see themselves. Not only do they see themselves from the position of other-real-imaginary friends. I.e. not only can they imagine how their mothers see them, or how their father, friend or grandparent sees them, they can also simulate how their dead great grandparent sees them, and how the world sees them, and how (similar to the generalised other, or super addressee) a impartial spectator, in the literal sense see them. The Japanese have what the Noh philosopher Zeami (see Yusa, 1987) calls "riken no ken" a view on the self from nowhere, from a generality, from the kami, from the view point of the Japanese Gods.

So my first answer to this question, "what are the Kami", is that they are, like the Western God, a sort of imaginary friend, that is amalgamated, combined, generalised and thus from no-where just like their Western counterparts, but in a different channel vision, not language. In both cases, however, athiests take note, they are imaginary friends upon which we depend.

But then, returning to the confusion that I expressed at the beginning of this email, it seems clear at the same time that the Kami have a lot to do with symbols. After all the sacred tablet in my household shrine is a piece of card with the name of a deity stamped upon it. It is almost as if all the preceding argument should be reversed. In the beginning was the word and the word was god? The "god body" in my household shrine contains a word, printed on a piece of paper.

Another thing I have been interested in these past few years is Japanese superheroes who, from Mitoukoumon, Mira- Man, to Super-sentai and kamen rider transform via the use of symbols. The receipt of special symbols in the form of sacred shrine tablets (ofuda), lucky charms (omamori), ('rubber-') stamps received when on pilgrimage, Gaia memory, Pokemon cards...all these things are tremendously important and sacred.

I wonder if the "the body" that Christians receive at the sacrament/mass is the same sort of thing. But even if that where the case, is "the body" (of Christ) sacred? I am not sure of the importance of the body of Christ to Christians or the extent to which it is felt to vector the sacred. Okay, yes. I will run with this. The Christian god listens, is linguistic, is the linguistic Other of our thoughts, but is vectored by a wafer of *body*. Shinto deities see, is the together-seeing (Osama Kitayama, 2005) thou, but they are vectored by the tablet or a sign.

The sub title of the film "Mad Max 3" is "Beyond Thunderdome." I like the title because it was a place that was also a sound, or perhaps a place were sounds are heard. It seems that my head, or perhaps even Western culture is like a sound box, or place where sounds, particularly words sound and are heard, hence "the logodome." When I eventually saw the film, and the "Thunderdome" in question, a place were people go to fight to the chant of ""two men enter, one man leaves." and the existence of a double man (Master-Blaster, reminiscent of Nietzsche's dwarf that rides on Zarathustra's shoulders) made me think that its writers (Miller and Hayes) might conceivably have have been thinking about imaginary friends, imaginary audiences. It has a great poster (above) with Auntiy Entity (Tina Turner) on the shoulder of Mad Max (Mel Gibson). I feel that I have, or am, an imaginary dwarf riding on a giant.

Selected Bibliography
Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. (V. W. McGee, Trans.) (Second Printing.). University of Texas Press.
Brat, D. (2005). Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics. Virginia economic journal, 59. Retrieved from
Blanke, O., & Metzinger, T. (2009). Full-body illusions and minimal phenomenal selfhood. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 7–13. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.10.003
Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou, trans. (W. Kaufmann, Ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Collins, P. (1982). You Can’t Hurry Love. Atlantic Records.
Dawkins, R. (2008). The God Delusion. Mariner Books.
Donaldson, J. (2006). The Gruffalo. Puffin.
Freud, S. (1913). Totem and taboo. (A. A. Brill, Trans.). New York: Moffat, Yard and Company. Retrieved from
Hermans, H. J. M., & Kempen, H. J. G. (1993). The Dialogical Self: Meaning as Movement. Academic Press.
Kitayama, O. 北山修. (2005). 共視論. 講談社.
Kurozumi, M. (2000). The Living Way: Stories of Kurozumi Munetada, a Shinto Founder. (W. Stoesz & S. Kamiya, Trans.). Altamira Pr.
Lacan, J. (2007). Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. (B. Fink, Trans.) (1st ed.). W W Norton & Co Inc.
Marková, I. (2006). On the inner alter in dialogue. International Journal for Dialogical Science, 1(1), 125–147.
Mead, G. H. (1967). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press.
Miller, G., & Ogilvie, G. (1997). Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Warner Home Video.
Mori, A. 森有正. (1999). 森有正エッセー集成〈5〉. 筑摩書房.
Smith, A. (1812). The theory of moral sentiments. Retrieved from
Takano, Y., & Osaka, E. (1999). An unsupported common view: Comparing Japan and the US on individualism/collectivism. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2(3), 311–341.
Takano, Y., & Sogon, S. (2008). Are Japanese More Collectivistic Than Americans?: Examining Conformity in In-Groups and the Reference-Group Effect. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(3), 237–250. doi:10.1177/0022022107313902. Retrieved from
Wyndham, J. (2010). Chocky. Penguin Books.
Yamazaki, M. (Ed.). (1984). On the Art of the No Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami. J.T. Rimer, Trans.) (annotated ed.). Princeton University Press.
Yamagishi, T. 山岸俊男. (2002). 心でっかちな日本人―集団主義文化という幻想. 日本経済新聞社.
Yusa, M. (1987). Riken no Ken. Zeami’s Theory of Acting and Theatrical Appreciation. Monumenta Nipponica, 42(3), 331–345.

Posted by timtak at June 21, 2012 01:31 AM

I think a lot about this too.

However - What 'god might be'
*appears* to be a similar question to;-

'is this experience that I am aware of, the thing that other humans refer to as 'god',

but it is not exactly the same.

It is the same question as you asked before, concerning a gold standard.

One might use a great many words that are 'given', but yet have no gold standard at all.

Does the word 'god' have any kind of 'gold standard' or is it a word that describes a thing that is not 'really' there? (If anything can be said to be 'really there'!)

There are thus at least TWO main aspects of language:
The *given* words
The 'own experiences' that might, or might not, be described/ shared *via language*
IF a useful word or words exist to facilitate this.

If no words exist already, then other ways to describe the experience, are or may be available, but in any case there can be no guarantee that any other person will know or understand the experience - 'described', by words or any other way.
( eg discoveries, proofs physics/maths exist as kinds of 'truth' but have to be given words so that they can be expressed, shared and understood)

The search for expression (via language, metaphor, images, sounds, movements etc etc) of human experience
must have some importance in a 'group' dependent species.
While individual humans can and do survive in many solitary and isolated conditions, they survive (in physical terms at least) best in groups.
From an 'individual' point of view, survival of a singular MIND, ie without the support or approval of other MINDS, must also be an essential condition, since 'singularity' no matter how small the condition might be, is obligatory - at least some of the time. Thats to say, one cannot expect, hope for or guarantee full 'approval' of any group, all the time. Some people as individuals or groups ('innocent' or not) find themselves obliged to suffer total exclusion, or death. (eg in 'ethnic cleansing' or martyrdom, or - the complete rejection of significant ideas, eg scientific ideas etc).

The word 'god' (in any language and whatever kind of god to which the particular word refers),
for any one person,
might have no meaning at all, except for 'given' meanings.
Thats to say -
in consideration of the worlds religions, the word(in all languages) has a vast number of explanations or descriptions of the word's meaning.

Can there be any kind of gold standard?

For myself, I think of rather like the Hindu story of the blind men who try to describe an elephant. Each blind man - touching a small part of the elephant describes his part, which can give no real idea of the sum of the parts that *might be* a gold standard of the word 'elephant'.

I have small use for 'given' descriptions or definitions. 'Belief'before 'real experience' generally speaking seems to me to be least acceptable, although 'belief' is sometimes obligatory.

Infants learn to face their own independence, and express fear pain and anger, when they begin to become 'self aware' and recognize the inevitability of 'separation'.
Their grief and rage will be expressed in crying, and clinging to a parent or carer. The degree of kindliness and nurturing/love they receive as infants, is likely to affect their ability to 'stand alone' as they mature,
however the protective resource and strength of parents and carers cannot be their 'only' resource.
I can remember the recognition of that at around 3 years old when my parents were obviously very afraid during an air raid. I recognised at that point, without any kind of expression of the thought at that time, that 'alone' in ones mind, is a natural condition from which at any given time, there may be no escape.

My own name-less resource of strength for that time, is similar to this day. The resource is 'there', whatever name it is given, and may be accessed. People find many ways to do that.

Max Planck said

"All matter
originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together".

My 'vision' of god (experienced as a physical sensation of light and warmth as an expression acceptance and love) has been of being 'WITHIN' and 'a part of' that 'force', whatever it might be, as an inseparable entity.

I think Plancks quote describes a 'force' pretty well.
The influence of much of *organised* (Nicene Creed?) christian religion in the West, has (in my opinion) - and long after Jesus himself began his own 'gold standard' expression of god, created the illusion of separation. As if 'god' is somewhere else, and must be approached by various religious behaviours and in certain clothes and buildings, or cannot be 'found'.

Not only that - but that all those people who didnt get the 'actions' correct, were and remain (as 'non-members') excluded to greater or lesser extent. (Some western religions even professing the same leader, in Jesus, have attempted to cancelled each other out in this respect)
The more useful core of western christianity, however, remains available to be considered, as the life/example/spirit of the the man, Jesus of Nazareth, whose expression of god, as 'love' was the opposite of separation and rejection. His gold standard god, is expressed (from all the evidence available, & not from the religious dogma) as a force from which he (as everything/everyone) is inseparable.
the 'force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together" perhaps. Dunno.

It makes no sense to attempt to deal in syllogisms, or required outcomes, nevertheless, I feel my own kind of affection for the force that created 'me' even as one microscopic part of it. It does not (could not!) abandon me, and even if I have no way to express 'me' - within the force, even as a microbe, I am known and have a 'worth' and I acknowledge that worth, for every other part of it. So, In this case there follows a kind of ongoing communication that can be accessed at all times, with or without words. My 'prayers' do not need words, but sometimes have astonishing effect. They are perhaps a cross between meditation and conversation, if I CAN dexcribe the condition of my mind, the things that concern me, or that I celebrate or fear etcetc, I do,
but sometimes they have no words, but are prayers in spite of that. A deliberate concentration of 'being with' god.
Heightened perception, different levels of consciousness? Dont know. There is very often a 'response' that does not come from my own reasoning. It is not about 'fixing' anything.
Just as when I was an infant, I could not require an immediate end to the explosions I could hear that my parents could not stop.
A source of strength, perhaps, in *belonging* - to the whole thing? Strength, most certainly is one usual outcome.

Posted by: et at June 22, 2012 07:27 PM
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