【Report】The sixteenth and final session of the Global Studies Seminar series “Challenges in Global Studies” “Reexamining the Image of the Modern Human: An Inquiry into the Middle Voice”
Speaker： KOKUBUN Koichiro (Associate Professor at the Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo)
Moderator： TANABE Akio（Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences）
Discussant：YOSHIKUNI Hiroki（Department of Language and Information Sciences, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences）
DATE Kiyonobu(Department of Area Studies, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences)
BAJI Tomohito (Department of Advanced Social and International Studies, the University of Tokyo)
To learn more about the Global Studies Seminar series “Challenges in Global Studies,” click here.
The sixteenth and final session of the Global Studies Seminar series “Challenges in Global Studies” took place on Tuesday, July 27th, 2021. Professor Koichiro Kokubun (Associate Professor at the Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo) gave a lecture titled “Reexamining the Image of the Modern Human: An Inquiry into the Middle Voice.”
Kokubun had been interested in postmodern thought since he was a student. What developed this interest into a philosophical inquiry into the “middle voice” was his encounter with people with addiction, particularly a self-help group of affected women. These women had been suffering from inadequacy in articulating their experiences using the language of non-disabled people. Kokubun emphasized in the lecture that these women were expressing a sense of discomfort with the idea of the “will.” In fact, as he came to learn, counting on one’s “will” could be totally ineffective in overcoming addiction. At the same time, he said, he was surprised to see how the criticism of the will in the Western philosophical tradition bore practical relevance to the lived experiences of people suffering from addiction.
He then referred to his encounter with Shin’ichiro Kumagaya, a leading figure in tōjisha-kenkyū (the study by and of challenged people), who encouraged him that his research would greatly contribute to clarifying the mysteries surrounding addiction. Through this experience, Kokubun came to see the significance of conducting a critique of the will. He also found further interest in the relationship between independence and dependence/addiction (both izon (依存) in Japanese).
Kokubun’s first guess was that the “will” must closely be connected to the active. Hypothesizing that the opposition between the active and the passive had its roots in our language, he embarked on a study of the “middle voice,” a voice located outside this opposition. The “middles” is a voice that existed in ancient Greek, though it has hitherto not been clearly defined. In ancient Greek, a grammatical opposition is found not between the active and the passive but between the active and the middle. In the case of the active, the verbs denote a process that is accomplished outside the subject, while in the case of the middle, the verb indicates a process centering in the subject, the subject being inside the process (Benveniste). In contrast, we in modern times are used to opposing the active to the passive. This, Kokubun suggests, corresponds to the assumed presence or absence of the will behind an action. We can extrapolate from here that for the Greeks using the middle in lieu of the passive, the concept of the will was not familiar. In a language where the active is opposed to the middle, the will could not have emerged as an issue. In fact, Hannah Arendt has famously argued that it was Christian philosophy that first invented the idea of the “will.” While an action can be attributed to an infinite number of causes, the “will” breaks this endless chain of causation and ascribes the action to the specific doer of the action.
Kokubun explained that despite its historically constructed nature, the “will” has been given a privileged and absolute place in modern society. It is yet impossible, he said, to conceive the will as a pure beginning since this would require a “creation from nothing” to take place in our minds. The “will” is therefore nothing more than an object of our belief, supported by the false assumption that an action exclusively belongs to the actor. According to Kokubun, the wide dissemination of this false assumption is inextricably linked to society’s need to deal with the question of responsibility.
Based on such critical examination of the “will,” Kokubun introduced a new conceptualization of responsibility. Focusing on the original meaning of the word as the ability to “respond,” he argued that responsibility founded on the assumed presence of the will is corrupted as it does not entail a moment of response. Rather, he claimed, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan, responsibility is better conceived as an action conducted in the middle voice, such as when one spontaneously responds to a situation unfolding in front of one’s eyes. Far from invalidating the active-passive opposition, the middle voice highlights this very distinction by leading us to conceive what might be called the realm of “imputability,” where actions become imputable to individuals based on their underlying intentions.
In response to Kokubun’s lecture, questions from the discussants were posed regarding depictions of addiction in literature, problems of causality behind addiction, and the possibility of reading Rousseau’s “general will” as a manifestation of the middle voice. Kokubun, reiterating that the purpose of his research was not to cure addiction per se but to debunk the image of the modern man forcibly imposed upon patients of addiction, advocated for the need to develop a novel perspective capable of fighting the malaise in modern society at its very core. Finally, he argued that an inquiry into the middle voice will help illuminate the particularity of the Indo-European languages and the Western society as its basis, which will in turn shed light on and suggest new directions in global studies. A lively discussion with the floor followed, and the seminar concluded in great success.
【TAKASHIMA Asako（Project Researcher at Institute for Advanced Global Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences）】
【 translated by ELLIS Naomi (Ph.D. Student at the University of California, Los Angeles)】