Tosaka Jun’s Spatial Theory and Reflections on Film

The Theatre District in Tokyo circa 1930
Yoon Jeong Oh revisits Tosaka Jun's critical interpretations of Japanese society and cultural criticism, arguing that in his writing on post-WWI Japan, Tosaka problematizes the everyday and reinstates heterogeneous temporalities by restoring the social space occupied by the people who live, work, and move about the city streets.

The 2020 global pandemic affected the urban context from the visible surface of city streets to the most quotidian details of city life. In New York, where I teach and live, the streets were uncannily desolate in the spring and much of the summer. The scenes of “exuberant street and sidewalk life,” which used to make cities such “animated, flourishing places,”—according to Jane Jacobs’s firsthand observation featured by David Seamon earlier in this section—had disappeared at once. With the shutdown of the world economy, moreover, the “ethnic and socio-economic diversity” that, according to Mark Shiel, Edward Soja considered “a net benefit to big cities” was quickly blurred. During the days when New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic, those who had the means to flee or places to go escaped as soon as the “Stay-at-Home” order was announced. While the remaining white-collar workers along with the unemployed stayed indoors, the sparse streets were mostly populated by certain ethnic groups and certain socio-economic classes (which often overlapped) running essential jobs. Segregated from indoor spaces, diversity was rare. Now, six months into the pandemic, streets and sidewalks in the city are reemerging, intermittently colonized by restaurants and bars that are arranging new outdoor dining areas where masked waiters go around serving unmasked customers. Diversity is reappearing with a more critical consciousness, for the unevenness is ever more revealing.

Such coexisting yet uneven differences in urban spaces generate various social discourses on everyday life that are often antagonistic to one another. At the moment of 2020, one waits for a return to normal with an equal amount of both impatience and apprehension. The desire for normalcy allows one to fantasize as if the old normal were steady and stable; the above variable existences, however, interrogate what has been in fact normalized to conceal uneven realities. Thus, Henri Lefebvre rightly proposed the concept of the everyday that acknowledges living diversity as such without reducing “lived experience” to contingency.1Henri Lefebvre, “The Everyday and Everydayness,” trans. Christine Levich, Yale French Studies, no. 73 (1987): 11. Though his first volume of Critique of Everyday Life was published in 1947, social discourses on the everyday, generated from the streets of metropolitan centers and industrialized sites, can be traced back to the interwar period (1918-1939) at global historical conjunctures. Hence, I would like to introduce Japanese Marxist philosopher Tosaka Jun (1900-1945) to the readers here at this critical moment.2Asian names are written with the family name first.

Predating Lefebvre, Tosaka first addressed everydayness in his essay “Analysis on the Concept of Space” in 1928 and confronted the aforementioned antagonism over the everyday in “The Principle of Everydayness and Historical Time” in 1930.3They are reprinted in Tosaka Jun zenchū (Tokyo: Keisō Shobō, 1966), 1:477-517 and 3:95-104 respectively. The latter, “The Principle of Everydayness and Historical Time” is translated by Robert Stolze in Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 3-16. Since post-World War I Japanese society moved to heavier industrialization and heightened urbanization in the 1920s and 1930s, the new appearance and practice of everyday life was constantly advertised in mass media (e.g. popular magazines, newspapers, radio). Yet, without the fragmentation and alienation lived by the masses who worked in urban industries, the everyday became fixed like a product through advertising and by powerful sociopolitical discourses in reaction to Western-led modernization. Against the ideological turn of these social discourses, Tosaka problematizes the everyday and reinstates heterogeneous temporalities by restoring the social space occupied by the people who live, work, and move about the city streets. Tosaka’s conception of space as a dialectical association with time focuses on matter in motion, and interestingly his historical materialism, articulated through spatial theory, connects the material function of film (as moving photography) to the singularity of film that he calls “reproduction of the present.”4Tosaka Jun, “Film as a Reproduction of the Present,” trans. Gavin Walker, Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, 106. His speculations from almost a century ago thus urge us to rethink space and film in respect to the unprecedented present and, at the same time, to suggest a way of contemplating this irreducible moment with regard to theories of space and film. Though I will not be able to conclude this ongoing thought here, I hope that the readers keep resonating with it in the everyday of these difficult times, which are ever indeterminate yet changing day to day.

Tosaka Jun

Let me first introduce Tosaka Jun briefly before moving on with my reading of his selected essays on space and film. Tosaka was born in Tokyo in 1900 and graduated from Kyoto Imperial University in 1924, specializing in the philosophy of mathematics and the fundamental concepts of the natural sciences.5Sourcebook for Modern Japanese Philosophy, trans & ed. David A. Dilworth, Valdo H. Viglielmo, and Agustin Jacinto Zaval (London: Greenwood Press, 1998), 321. His graduation thesis on space, entitled A Theory of Space [Kūkanron], was expanded in a number of articles while he was teaching as a lecturer in colleges in Kyoto and Kobe from roughly 1926 to 1931 after he had spent a year in military service. Moving away from neo-Kantianism toward Marxism, he “directed his attentions on the one hand to envisaging a comprehensive theory of science and, on the other, to mounting a powerful assault on liberalism and capitalist cultural ideology under fascism.”6Harry Harootunian, Uneven Moments (New York: Columbia University Press), 219. Tosaka obtained a post at Hōsei University in Tokyo in 1931 but resigned after three years during a time of political tension at the university. Among other activities, the Research Group on Materialism that he headed, better known by its Japanese abbreviation the “Yuiken,” put him in grave danger. Tosaka was intensely and vocally anti-war and anti-fascist until the government prohibited him from writing in 1937 and arrested him a year later. After several years of being in and out of prison, Tosaka died in 1945, a week before the war ended.

On Everyday Space

In the midst of Tosaka’s various critical interpretations of Japanese society and cultural criticism, ranging from the historical, social, and political situation of Japan to comedy, journalism, film, literature, and more, spatial theory lies at the starting point and foundation of his thought. Tosaka’s theory of space unfolds in a number of his early essays, such as “Towards the Establishment of Physical Space” (1924), “Realization of Physical Space” (1924), “Geometry and Space” (1926), “Regarding Space as Category” (1926), “Space as Characteristic” (1927), “Analysis on the Concept of Space” (1928), and “On Space” (1931).7The first six essays are reprinted in Tosaka Jun zenchū, 1:365-517. “On Space” is reprinted in Tosaka Jun zenchū, 3:239-266 and partially translated by Stolz in Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, 17-35. It is noteworthy that he starts to discuss everydayness in terms of space in his later works8After the two articles mentioned, Tosaka continues his discussion on everydayness in his 1934 essay “On Everydayness,” reprinted in Tosaka Jun zenchū, 4:136-141. and concludes his spatial theory with the concept of everyday space in “On Space.”

Tosaka does not simply attempt to spatialize the everyday. The concept literally refers to “the space used by people in their everyday lives.”9Tosaka, “On Space,” Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, 27. In order to theorize space, when space has never been at the center of philosophy, Tosaka tries to grasp the concept of space in a general sense that does not serve any “particular specialized sphere of inquiry” and calls it everyday space.10Ibid., 27. Because there is neither any “knowledge of some actual thing called ‘spatial theory’ [kūkanron] as a discipline of science or philosophy passed down to us through history” nor do we have “the existence of an object of a spatiology [kūkangaku] as we do in the study of consciousness by contemporary psychology,” various phenomenal forms of space are grasped and conceptualized within specialized disciplines, such as “intuitive space” in psychology, “geometric space” in geometry or mathematics, “physical space” in physics, and so on.11Ibid., 18 and 25. Since these concepts of space are mediated by specialized sciences, Tosaka calls attention to an immediate form of space that is not built from a particular perspective or born of some disciplinary interest. Although it is not space itself or the truth of space, this everyday space is philosophical space precisely because of its nonspecialized character.12Ibid., 27.

The physical materiality of everyday space—the fact that there is space—makes a direct phenomenon of philosophical matter. Tosaka calls this there-ness “the Da-Charakter of everyday space.”13Ibid., 32. Tosaka writes the whole of Da-Charakter in the German spelling and uses the German word Da for “there” throughout the essay. Yet, in contrast to the Heideggerian Da whose “anthropological” concept of existence (Dasein) is associated with subjectivity, Tosaka makes clear that it indicates an objectivity: “that is, space cannot be explained other than in terms of itself.”14Ibid., 32. In this way, Tosaka traces the problem of materialism through the theory of space, for space is an expression of matter’s objective Being-ness, which at the same time confronts the question of Being in German philosophy that was at the center of debates at that time. By locating the everyday “there,” Tosaka designates the very social space lived by people as the general space where all conceptions of space, whether scientific or abstract, must be originated. Everyday space is, as Harootunian clarifies, “where actual existence was carried out and which structured its own sense of time in the present, the now.”15Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 136-137. A general space posited before any conceptualization must possess such immediacy and directness.

Nevertheless, space itself or the truth of space can be found only in the general synthesis of various phenomenal forms of space, mediated and immediate, entering into “a dialectical relation and unity with time, movement, and philosophical matter.”16Tosaka, “On Space,” 25 and 35. Here, Tosaka insists that space and matter mutually constitute the dialectical moment in which movement or motion is necessarily paired with time (for philosophical motion or mobility is none other than change in time).17Ibid., 34. The theory of space, therefore, can not only be traced back to the problem of materialism but it also establishes a relationship between space and time beyond parallelism. According to Tosaka, “by following the dialectical thread running through space, we can for the first time establish space’s relationship to time—two things the majority of people have assumed to be parallel. Had we not proceeded in this way, the problem of space could only have been aligned in some vague relation to the problem of time.”18Ibid., 35. Tosaka’s complaint aims at modern philosophy which only deals with partial problems of space. For only a particular space can be addressed in parallel with a particular time. Space in a general sense, i.e., everyday space, has been ignored or repressed in philosophy as well as history.

To unpack the dialectical relation of space, we must turn back to the principle of everydayness, which governs the dialectical logic and historical time. In “The Principle of Everydayness and Historical Time” Tosaka shows how contemporary social discourses of the everyday become ideological by either temporalizing or spatializing everydayness. The former renders the everyday “the eternal now” based upon the thought of time as undivided, pure duration (as in Bergson’s speculation of durée), in which time is made temporality outside history.19Tosaka, “The Principle of Everydayness and Historical Time,” Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, 5. The latter, on the other hand, construes the everyday to be timeless repetition, by making time completely homogeneous. Time is spatialized in this case as it is divided by measurable units, such as hours and time frames, to the extent that it becomes “acceptable to insert any division in any place,” as if today were exchangeable for tomorrow or yesterday.20Ibid., 6. Tosaka firmly warns, “Something people must recognize is that both thinking of time as temporality and spatializing time are part of the same tendency. Both the mythologizing of time and its vulgarization have the same result.… It is the neglect of historical time, the forgetting of the proper parsing of time.”21Ibid., 7. Tosaka’s materialism significantly separates space from the spatial, for the “proper parsing of time” must not exaggerate the spatial divisions in time but accord with our living on earth. Although our consciousness could live in “the eternal now” or “the present as a point in geometry,” our bodies cannot.22Ibid., 12. The most important feature of historical time is the fact that people live within it, which is why the principle of everydayness must govern historical time. 23Ibid., 11. Simply put, historical time is the time of our lives, and the everyday is living itself. Tosaka here relates a day of his own living: “no matter what I need to put aside, I must finish this manuscript today” because it is from this work, which must be absolutely done this present of today, that the law of perspective is imparted to organize yesterday and tomorrow.24Ibid., 14 (translation modified). The principle of everydayness is thus the principle of practice, not of possibility.25Ibid., 13.

The Ginza District, Tokyo, 1930

Everyday space is, then, none other than the field of practice.26Tosaka, “On Space,” 32. It is important to note that, as space and time are of different dimensions, “a particular characteristic of space according to the everyday conception…is its three-dimensionality.”27Ibid., 29. The dialectical logic of space must be this “three-dimensional logic of different planes.”28Tosaka, “The Principle,” 15. That is to say, because a thing exists in multiple dimensions, it can appear as one thing on one plane and something entirely different on another without being contradictory. Because the dialectical logic of space recognizes a “concrete mutability” (i.e. diversity) of the thing that is always in motion and thus appears in multiple dimensions, a possibility for difference arises as a matter of course in the xfield of practice through its three-dimensionality. As Harootunian explains, Tosaka argued “against a formal theory that mediated things by lining them up on the same plane because it was driven by the law of contradiction that could not tolerate nonidentity.”29Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity, 144-145. By reinstating different dimensions for things to appear differently, the dialectical logic invalidates the law of contradiction. Tosaka introduces the three-dimensional structure of space to the former, where multiple planes exist in a vertical relationship, whereas the latter only perceives identity as if it were on a two-dimensional surface.

On Film (from the Materiality to a Singularity)

Finally, it is the three-dimensionality of everyday space that I find useful in connecting Tosaka’s spatial theory to his reflections on film. Although he does not explicitly situate his film theory in relation to spatial theory, it’s not trivial that Tosaka mentions that “the urban origins of [his] interest in film” directly initiated in everyday space:

The glorious streets of consumer life, the type of social relations possessed by the theater, constitute the secret (?) that guides me toward the cinema. When one is tired of reading books and can’t be bothered to visit friends, hurling one’s body into the noise and fray of the pulsating city streets that force one into movement (despite the current socioeconomic contradictions) gives a sense of ease and self-confidence to modern man.30Tosaka, “Film as a Reproduction of the Present,” 104.

Instead of the cinematic representation or dramatization of modern times, Tosaka focuses on the materiality of film. The bodily movement on the city streets shifts to the screen where he finds moving photography. As we have seen, for Tosaka, everydayness governs the principle of practice; everyday space is the field of practice; thus, film leads to “a practical measure” by placing its emphasis on the sense of vision.31Ibid., 105. In film, the movement of matter is given to the visual senses on the screen. Through its material function (as a photograph in motion), film reproduces a portion of actual reality in “the form of realism that is specific to film itself.”32Ibid., 113. The problem of representation or even that of artistic reality is not the issue here. Tosaka finds the singular world of film in its “reality in the sense of the reproduction of actuality reality.”33Ibid., 105. That is, according to the practical measure of seeing, film provides another plane or level with multidimensionality, which allows matter to appear differently.

Therefore, filming techniques like montage must not be considered merely as visual tricks that oppose the realistic essence of film taken on the spot. They rather support a practical means because film itself signifies a modality of cognition for reality.34Tosaka, “Film Art and Film,” Trans. Gavin Walker, Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader, 119 and 120. Tosaka explains, “on a general level, our everyday experience of sight and sound is itself more or less a technique of montage—in this sense, perhaps we can liken travel, sight-seeing, and so on to a type of montage” as well.35Ibid., 118. In this manner, film suggests that the reality we perceive every day is not absolute reality but is also one of multiple dimensions, just as when we travel, we experience another plane where things appear differently. Besides the spectator’s practice to cognize reality, what makes the reality reproduced in film singular is “the mass characteristic possessed by film content itself.”36Tosaka, “Film as a Reproduction,” 111. Before the technological fact that it can be reproduced any number of times and brought anywhere to be shown by anyone, film first appeals to the general sensibilities of the masses, i.e., a mass sense of actuality, custom, and so on. The reality reproduced in film thus reveals “something that confers a mass sense of satisfaction that cannot be duplicated in other forms of art,” and in doing so, it confronts the audience with their own consciousness.37Ibid., 113.

Ultimately, due to the singularity of film called “reproduction of present,” film as such is never reduced to an art. During the time when film was becoming the popular medium of news as well as of propaganda, Tosaka asserts that “the fundamental problem for film theory, prior to any considerations of film as a phenomenon of cultural history or art, is that we must consider film to be first and foremost something epistemological.”38Tosaka, “Film Art and Film,” 120. Film signifies “a new human cognitive capacity” independently from art or any other forms of art such as literature.39Ibid., 118 and 119. Thus, instead of questioning whether a film is art or not, Tosaka insists to ask whether it is film or not. In other words, before separating news or propaganda from the representative form of film as an art, what must be first inquired is whether it is film as the modality of cognition. As discussed above, the moving material of film presents the concrete diversity of matter in changing circumstances, which instantly demands that the audience operate the means of cognition for its epistemic function. In addition to this materiality of film, Tosaka calls attention to the unique form of abstraction that the cinema possesses to operate as a function of cognition, for “Abstraction is one of the most fundamental operations within all cognitive function.”40Ibid., 120-121. If film itself is to be considered as a medium, it might be this cinematic abstraction that mediates film with other means of cognition. Tosaka leaves this question of abstraction and mediation open for us, to be addressed in another space.

In place of a conclusion, allow me to modify the question at the moment: Can film mediate multidimensional modalities of the material world without reducing itself to art or culture? In my reading of Tosaka’s reflections on film paired with his spatial theory so far, film can enter into the three-dimensional, dialectical moment of space only when it reminds the spectator of other planes on which things appear differently in motion (for example, the bodily movement on the city streets outside the cinema). The mass characteristic of film thus must appeal to the mass senses without reducing the masses’ dissensus. In order to avoid a formal theory’s mediation of things on an identical plane where nonidentity is not tolerated, the cinema must be able to mediate film with other dimensions, where uneven realities reveal the ever unprecedented present day by day.


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