W is for ‘wabi-sabi’

26 09 2010

In Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto

I’m in Japan at the moment, and I brought with me a copy of a book that made a profound impression on me when I was 16 or so (when I guess everyone is profoundly impressionable!). It’s called The World of Zen: an East-West Anthology, edited by Nancy Wilson Ross (Vintage Books, 1960).

In an extract called ‘Zen and the Art of Painting’, the great Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki identifies the concept of wabi as being a key component of the Japanese, and specifically Zen, aesthetic. “Wabi really means ‘poverty,’ or, negatively, ‘not to be in the fashionable society of the time.’ To be poor, that is not to be dependent on things worldly — wealth, power, and reputation — and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position: this is what essentially constitutes wabi” (p. 92). Wabi often combines with the related concept, sabi, which “consists in rustic unpretentiousness or archaic imperfection, apparent simplicity or effortlessness in execution, and richness in historical associations… The utensils used in the tearoom are mostly of this nature” (p. 94).

Tea ceremony utensils used on my last trip to Japan

A few months ago, in a posting on the Dogme discussion list, I invoked the principle of wabi-sabi as a counterbalance to the distracting clutter and noise associated with materials overload and unnecessary technology. I wrote: “Put another way, it is what we have been calling ‘a poor pedagogy’”. And I added: “I have absolutely no evidence that a pared-down, minimalist pedagogy is any better than an abundantly-resourced and hyperactive one. I just have a hunch. This kind of simplicity is a value I aspire to, both in education and in the way I live my life. At the same time, I readily admit that I am far from achieving it, both in education and in life”.

In a witty and well-argued response, Darren Elliot took issue with what he considered to be an unsavoury blend of orientalism and an overly-romanticized cult of poverty. He commented: “I love an analogy as much as the next man, and I can see the appeal of wabi-sabi. But as I live in ‘the orient’ I’m cautious about co-opting cultural concepts of the East… you can end up one step away from Madonna in a sari”.

Interestingly, Diarmuid Fogarty (not normally one to suffer posturing gladly) came to my defense: “Rather than glamourising poverty, I think dogme is about unglamourising wealth. At the heart of it is an ideological belief that stripping away the consumerism from language teaching enables more effective and more efficient teaching. It brings it back to individuals using their own language to mediate the world rather than relying upon the prefabricated language of others to help them mediate their world. Perhaps this is something that the Web 2.0 fans would like to pick up on?”

In eschewing consumerism and aspiring to a Zen-like simplicity, does Dogme glamourise poverty? More importantly, perhaps: is this Zen-like simplicity compatible with Web 2.0? (A kind of ‘webby-sabi’ perhaps?)