Ki Series Part III
The Ki Character

Losing It in the Syncytial Society

by W. David Kubiak
Kyoto Journal #7, 1988

Getting it together!

YOUR ATTENTION STRUCTURE -- the ways in which your mind / body is attentive to various persons, groups and goals -- is something well worth your attention if you seek to understand social dynamics. This is all the more true in Japan, where bio-social forces are taken for granted. In a series of three groundbreaking articles, the author has drawn on Western and Eastern sciences to elucidate this concept with biological models. "Ki and the Arts of Sex, Healing and Corporate Body Building" (Kyoto Journal #5) discussed the psychosomatic networks of attentive energy which invigorate and interconnect human beings. "E Pluribus Yamato: The Culture of Corporate Beings" (KJ #6) identified techniques of social engineering that have enabled Japanese authorities to mold and limit individual energies. This concluding article investigates the body mechanics of that binding process, and some of the political implications.

As the traditional metaphors for corporate life -- ants, bees, termites and the like -- grow rather stale, few social theorists seem to notice that modern biology has dug up some rather other and quite exotic animals that help us more clearly envision group existence.

Take, for example, the zebra fish. Zebra males are territorial little ferocities with bright gill stripes that distinguish them from their ladies. Dominant males control lush patches of river bottom into which they only allow females, bartering grazing rights for sexual favors. To gain secure positions in these aquatic enterprises, turfless and hungry young males are forced to suppress their sexual markings, impersonate acquiescent females and quietly endure the ensuing indignities.

Or consider the mole rat, a pale hairless rodent that lives in large subterranean colonies in Kenya. Each colony is ruled by a sexually mature "royal couple" who secrete special pheromones -- chemicals which affect other members of the species -- and rub them along their burrow walls. The odor creates a psychoactive 'air of authority' in the community which somehow represses the maturation and sexual development of the colony's other members, turning them into permanently juvenile and subservient workers.

All for One

Such species offer interesting insights into old-fashioned small group dynamics -- the sexual imprecision of famous cowboys' sidekicks, for example, or the fondness of Iow-ranking yakuza for hair tints, permanents and girls' slippers. But major organizations present a more complex reality. And perhaps the most fascinating parallel to modern corporate function is offered by the slime mold Acrasales.

Acrasales start out as free-living individual amoebas sporting about the forest floor, foraging, mating furiously and generally carrying on. At some point, however, when living conditions get tough or food supplies dwindle, one of the amoebas hunkers down, becomes almost luminescent and begins to emit a chemical signal. The surrounding multitudes respond dramatically to this communication and begin streaming toward its source, now called the "founder cell." As they arrive, they swarm up on his back until they form a living phallic-shaped tower comprising tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals and standing perhaps a quarter of an inch high. As the influx abates, this entire collective body generates an external membrane, falls over on its side and creeps away like a slug in search of higher ground and greener pastures. After several hours or days of migration, the corporate body settles down and sends up a hollow tube with a delicate mushroom-like apex called the fruiting body. Though the leadership cadre of the member cells quietly dies away in the basal body, the bulk of the working class members flow up through this stalk to the apex, form individual spore casings and are released on the wind. After floating to new locations the spores which contact moisture hatch again into individual amoeba and the cycle begins anew.

This parable turns out to be improbably useful in imagining the subjective feel of Japanese incorporation. The central phase of Acrasales' life, the collective body stage, is also remarkable to just think about. It is a state of being known as a syncytium (Greek: 'togethered cell') or a plasmodium (Greek: 'thing resembling plasm'). Both refer to a multinucleate mass of cytoplasm, a fusion of what were formerly homogeneous cells that now share a common exterior membrane and behave as a single organism. (Our Acrasales corporation, for example, responds as one to changes in temperature, wind and acidity. It can even be led around a tabletop by the light from a luminous watch dial. All this without any common sensory receptors, nervous system or indeed any specialized cells whatsoever. Yet the beast is together and single-minded. No matter how free and self-sufficient the young cell, once inside the syncytium (pronounced "sinsishium") it becomes harmoniously subservient to the sway of the whole. To achieve coordinated movement and response its will must become transparent to the collective will. The individual membranes begin to break down and become more porous and sensitive to the environment, which now consists largely of its fellows' activities and emissions. There is gradual loss of identity, autonomy and ambition. With improved integration and information flow, neighboring individuals quite literally open up to or into each other.

The parallels to group consciousness in human beings are striking. To re-invoke sociologist Nakane Chie:

Just how much a Japanese depends on, and expects from, his coworkers may be incomprehensible to the outsider. There are no clear lines which divide one's own from another's... responsibility is diffused. The group as a whole becomes one functional body in which all individuals are amalgamated into a single entity.

Eric Fromm wrote in Escape from Freedom of the individual that:

becomes a mere part of the body that his hands have built. By conforming to the expectations of others, by giving up spontaneous individuality, the self weakens and gradually feels powerless and extremely insecure. He thinks, feels, and wills what he is supposed to think, feel, will. By not being different, doubts about one's identity may be silenced: "I have no identity, there is no self excepting the one which others expect: thus I am 'as you desire me'."

The common media or plasms shared in human corporate bodies are our attention or ki fields (networks of connected consciousness discussed in "Ki and the Arts of Sex, Healing and Corporate Body Building". Devoting attention to others fills your consciousness with them and, consequently affects your experience, memories and temporary identity. You may or may not be what you eat, but you are definitely in-fluenced, in-fused and in-formed by what you attend to.

To comprehend the bio-social techniques of corporate joinery we should thus think about attention management and how human syncytia might actually be engineered. Though this technology is rarely explicit, it is none the less widely used in Japan, for example, where groups typically encourage each new member to be 'deeply receptive to the thoughts and feelings of those around him... to make others a part of himself (jibun no naka ni aite o ireru -- literally putting others inside oneself ). ' (Thomas Rowlen, The Promise of Adulthood in Japan) In biological terms, these ki linkages among animals are analogous to the more visible interpenetrational mechanism that exists in the plant world, called plasmodesma. The Brittanica defines plasmodesma as "the thin strands of cytoplasm [cellular fluid] that pass through small openings in the membranes of adjacent cells. They form subtle connective channels that facilitate intercellular integration and the interchange of information and nutrients."

The Body Politic

Our 'filaments' of social attention may be comparable to such cytoplasmic strands, but they are actually energy bonds, and thus similar to the shuttling forces that tie entities together at the atomic and molecular level. But to best visualize how ki bonds work we should turn to the concepts of Eastern mystical physiology. Ki bonds can be roughly classified into three types -- conjugal, collaborative and psychic or ideational, according to the chakra complexes they are associated with. Chakras are plexuses or centers of power in the subtle or energetic body, and they have been recognized in remarkably similar ways in Mayan, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese and Hindu occult traditions. Benjamin Walker, author of the encyclopedia Hindu World writes of them:
[Though the details vary slightly] the major plexuses in all esoteric traditions are situated within the 'undivided body, that is, the trunk, arranged along an axis extending from the top of the head to the root of the spine... There is said to be an intimate interconnection between these centers, each invigorating and charging the others. Power rises upward from the lowest plexus to the crown of the head. In Eastern schools the crown plexus and the root plexus are defined in terms of male and female potencies, and whose conjugation is celebrated as a kind of mystical union which bestows great power and mastery on the practitioner.

"Theologue" by Alex Grey
The Chakra Tree

Various traditions number them differently, but the chakras are generally mapped in three main clusters: around the brain, the heart & solar plexus, and the groin, perineum & sexual organs.

To begin at the bottom -- conjugal bonds and the third chakra complex: In Eastern medical theory, vital energy (ki) is most powerfully generated and stored up in the chakra complex of the lower abdomen. This is the locus of the Hindu kundalini and shakti, the Tibetan golden cauldron, the Taoist cinnabar field, etc.

This lower third of the mystical body energizes the being with sexual and assertive vitality (kiryoku). The interests of its chakras are selfish -- individualistic, genetic, reproductive interests. They generate the seed of biological continuity and the enterprise and aggressiveness needed to plant and protect it. Though this complex (and its associated glands and organs) constitutes the body's main ki generator, it must be regularly fired with conscious attention. Accordingly, incessant celibacy does not generally sublimate the energy of this zone, but rather diminishes it to the point of atrophy (as in the old "use it or lose it" maxim). Procreation, individuation and evolution all depend on the vitality of this complex, and nature endowed it with extreme pleasure to barter for the psychic ki it needs for ignition.

The conjugal bonds this complex empowers are thus designed to bind the self to others who will both attentively stimulate it and biologically fulfill it. Sensual union is the apotheosis of this bond and is powerfully synergistic ("bigger than both of us"). In sensual embrace a couple's giving and taking become freely con-fused in an energetic exchange of mounting attention. And pheromones, aromatic molecules of genetic and sexual information, are mutually released to further seal the mind/ body communion.

Although conjugal bonds are extremely powerful, they are rather useless to corporate body builders. They are close-in, high-energy ties like the bonds of an atomic nucleus; and the psycho-physical nature of the bonding is such that it cannot be used to join groups much larger than families.

The collaborative bonds of the second chakra complex are rather more useful for tying groups together. While you can only join individuals two by two with the conjugal centers, you can forge quite large bands with collaborative attention. Collaboration in its meaning of working together requires all participants to re-spect (repeatedly observe) each others' activities to keep their selves in sync. The referencing beams of ki or attention they thus exchange form the pulsating attention structure of the group and bind it in common purpose.

The collaborative bond is experienced in the sense of "we" in action. Depending upon how often and how long individuals interconnect their ki to reference themselves, the sensation can be either intense (Iynch mobs, rock bands, team sports, etc.) or more diffuse (construction gangs, research teams, craft cooperatives...).

Collaborative ki, like conjugal ki, is magnified by synergy to a force palpably greater than the sum effort of individual members working alone: esprit de corps. And, as with conjugal ki bonds, the effective radius of the binding force is inherently limited -- here by the need for direct personal referencing between members.

I Owe, Therefore I Am

Corporate body builders must therefore draw on the brain's first chakra complex and its psychic/ideational bonds to link great numbers of people together. Psychic bonds generally fall into two categories -- ninjo (literally 'fellow feeling') bonds, which are primarily psychic enhancements of conjugal or collaborative ties; and giri (literally 'rule by ritual') or social duty bonds, which are evolutionarily distinctive forces that enable the creation of huge social organisms. Ninjo bonds are ties of common feeling like sym-pathy, em-pathy, or affection. They draw on the forces of the southern chakras and can be intense at the personal contact level. The strong reciprocal ki flows bonding mother and infant, master and disciple, or bosom friends can turn their relationships into stable and enduring social structures.

Since ninjo bonds are experientially formed and thus personalized, they too are not the organizational adhesive we seek. For bonding total strangers into large complex bodies we have to turn to the tensile abstractions of giri. Giri bonds are of two basic kinds: a) the ties of psychic identification (I am part of X party/Y religion/Z corporation") empowered by shared ki foci (common enemies, symbols, memories, rituals, etc.); and b) the shackles of indebtedness ("I am ob-liged (with-bound) to . . . "). Unlike the basically egalitarian conjugal and collaborative linkages, these giri bonds are essentially hierarchical and place the 'bonded' in an inferior or subordinate position vis-a-vis another person or a collective entity.

And while both debt and identification are important forces in conjoining social bodies, the former is by far the more coercive and reliable adhesive.

The legal and social recognition of debt as an ob-ligation, or binding relationship, is of course a pancultural phenomenon. Indentured serfs or laborers, common in both Eastern and Western history, were essentially bonded slaves; they were indentured ('entoothed') under the total control of another until the debt was discharged. Whether "I owe my soul to the company store" or I am merely obliged, the creditor has an incessant claim upon my attention, effort and consciousness -- in short, upon my ki. Even the most benignly unremarked debt is at least potential trouble and can therefore provoke uncertainty and tension. In extreme cases, such as the traditional Japanese daughter-in-law/mother-in-law nexus, such anxious awareness of one's vulnerability to another's will or demands also consumes ki, often rendering the debtor not only bound but also gradually debilitated.

The bond of indebtedness is thus not just a restraint upon autonomy. It actually represents an outbound loss of conscious energy. Japan has traditionally understood the psychosomatic implications of this depletion. Debt is a primary cause of suicide and depression among Japanese men, and many older Japanese profess to feeling physically uncomfortable when they fall behind in even the most insignificant gift exchanges. In fact the most common Japanese responses to receiving help or a favor are almost cries of pain: arigato -- "how hard it is to bear... (this obligation)"; and sumimasen -- "(my obligation for this) will never end."

Conceived merely in terms of services, objects or money owed, however, debt is usually only a temporary entrapment. To regain one's autonomy and stanch the psychic hemorrhage, one has only to reciprocate or return what is owed -- always at least a theoretical possibility in Western societies. It was left to Japan's cultural genius to perfect the consciousness of 'on', the perpetual debt, the unbreakable bond. the lifelong subordination.

On (rhymes with groan) is often defined as a debt of gratitude for a favor or benefit, but the favors or benefits it usually refers to can never be fully reciprocated. You can not, for example, give birth to your parents, an education to your master, or a job to your employer. Insofar then as one is born, trained or employed in Japan, one is inextricably bound by on. The strength of this tie can often astonish outsiders. Watching otherwise progressive Japanese friends yanked haplessly away from lovers for arranged marriages to relative strangers, or from wives and children for years of distant company service is a depressingly common source of foreign bemusement.

In Tokugawa Religion, a classic study of Japanese values, Robert Bellah identifies this dynamic and its utility in drawing individuals into the "larger whole":

Man is weak and helpless by himself. Only with the help of his benevolent superior can he live, and the blessings he receives are so much greater than his ability to return them that ... he can never truly repay: he perpetually stands in debt. The obligation to make the effort, however, is unrelenting. Selfless devotion, though, establishes a 'perfect" relation with the benevolent superordinate, and at the same time allows the individual to identify with him, to lose himself within him.

To make sure that the majority of Japanese remained "weak and helpless" and desirous of losing themselves in a larger body, Japan's leaders have tirelessly promoted child-like devotion and obedience as true loyalty and the only acceptable behavior with respect to authority. From the sixth century until the end of the Pacific War, they incessantly preached the religion of ko (filial piety). Bellah explains its utility for thwarting individuation and consolidating national authority:

To achieve selflessness, for the destruction of self, ko was the best means: "All the errors of mankind arise from 'self' as we think 'this is my body', 'this is mine', but ko slays self." Filial piety did not compete with loyalty, it reinforced it. We may see in the following quote from Nichiren that filial piety in the last analysis meant loyalty for the Japanese: "When a father opposes the sovereign, dutiful children desert their parents and follow the sovereign. This is filial piety at its highest. . ." (Ibid.)

Unlike the societies of the West in which the basic unit was nominally the inviolable individuals or those of India or China where the family was fundamental, Japan accorded no basic rights or recognition to anything below the collective. The self of the dutiful Japanese subject was thus to remain juvenile, undefined and totally responsive to the directive will of the group. To keep his or her attentive energy (ki) circulating solely within the group (and the group itself loyally incorporated within the greater body politic), Japan employed group responsibility, emperor worship and the doctrine of kokutai, the mystical body of the state.

The concept of group responsibility effectively preempted the right or possibility of privacy in Japan. Indeed, it still does so in many homes, schools and companies even though the sanctions have waned somewhat. In the past, all personal actions could have widespread and lethal social repercussions and thus became everybody's business.
Entire families, five-family groups, and even villages and wards might be held responsible for the act of a single individual. A wrong step would jeopardize not only himself but could bring disaster upon his group. The group itself thus came to place social conformity higher than group membership, and a transgressor was more apt to receive rejection than support from his brethren. This situation leads to a close identification with the collectivity and a tendency for all the subcollectivities to support the rule and morality of the total collectivity at whatever cost to themselves. (Ibid.)

To further dissolve the organic bonds that people formed in their neighborhoods, shrines and work groups, the imperial institution was utilized, sometimes cynically, to foster a conception of overriding loyalty:

The whole nation is a single family. The Emperor is "divine", he is "lord" and he is "father" of the national family. The people are worshipers, retainers and children. This is one aspect of what is meant by "kokutai", a conception of the state in which religious, political and familialistic ideas are indissolubly merged... and consequently all action is governed by "on". (Ibid.)

Such ideology provides Japan with a powerful locomotive for modern collective activity. Virtually all Japanese corporate bodies -- ecclesiastic, criminal, commercial etc. -- can be seen as miniature emperor systems that lay total claim to their members' religious, political, familial, economic and even recreational energies. In defining the total psychic environment they cultivate complete dependency and thus control of their constituents. Bellah's work was confined to the Edo era, but Nakane Chie's postwar study, Japanese Society, attests to the endurance of the ancient paradigm:

With group consciousness so highly developed there is almost no social life outside the particular group on which an individual's major economic life depends.. . to the point that the human relationships with this 'household'' group are thought of as more important than all other human relationships... This corporate "family" even envelops the employee's personal family; it engages or surrounds him totally (marugakae in Japanese). Thus group participation is simple and unitary, and each corporate body develops a high degree of independence and closeness, with its own internal law which is totally binding on all members.

Binding together the group-needy is child's play. The real challenge to the developer of social organisms comes from the reluctant joiners. The response is to make the social environment too threatening for the luxury of independence, by obstructing one of the prerequisites of a free and individualistic culture: the guarantee of swift and impartial justice. A legal system that equally protects the weak and the powerful or holds them to a single standard of conduct has yet to be established in Japan. The glacial pace of the civil court system, for example, seems expressly designed to favor the more powerful (usually corporate) party. The 12 to 15 years it commonly takes for civil or class action suits to reach final judgment here can grind even the most righteous individual plaintiffs into exhaustion and penury.

Equally important, the glaring legal "exceptions" that are consistently made for certain influential bodies teach the Japanese quite effectively where true power and protection must be sought in this society. Gambling is illegal in Japan, except for ultranationalist mobsters like racing tycoon Sasagawa Ryoichi ("I'm the world's richest fascist."). Prostitution is illegal in Japan, except for the yakuza-run and saturation-advertised "soaplands", call girl services and strip / sex shows. The yakuza syndicates' brazen land swindles, their forced evictions for banks and developers, their intimidation of corporate stockholders and citizen activists on behalf of polluting corporations are further examples of official benign neglect. Subservient to the establishment, ferocious to the citizens, the yakuza and militant rightists are the corporate bodies' samurai. Their activities and immunity dramatize a message to the Individual: "Equal protection under the law is yet a myth, my child. Better run for corporate cover."

All in the Head

To raise a strong, healthy corporate body thus requires two technologies. First, a series of cultural techniques to encephalize your population's ki, to shift its primary charge away from the self-intensive bonds of the lower complexes and up to the potential we-ness of the mind. And second, techniques to keep their ki concentrated within the group's psychic perimeter.

A variety of pervasive methods for encephalizing ki were noted in considering Japanese anthroculture (the domestication of humans for corporate inclusion) in issue #6 of Kyoto Journal. The hormonal effects of educational stress, estrogenic soybean foods and arranged dispassionate marriages disable lower chakra activity and influence. This shift of social emphasis to the cooler northern chakras helps strengthen abstract social tie-ups but it also embezzles ki from private concerns. The erotic and the social are psychically linked. Taking a stand is, socially speaking, a phallic act, and to stand up for one's self or principles in a Japanese group is as publicly assertive, seminal and usually unwelcome as an erection. As the saying goes: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" (Deru kugi wa utareru).

Likewise, the educational and economic devaluation of bodily skills, manual trades and physical expressiveness demote the body (and its motive central chakras) to a mere transport vehicle for the mind. A Japanese friend once observed, "for salarimen the hand is primarily a device to keep the watch from falling off." As the descendants of hunting cultures blow away rabbits on Sunday and citified farm children gild urban alleys with green, Japan's atavistic craft urges are now bonsaied to the twitching of pachinko levers.

While encephalization is perhaps strongest here, it is certainly not unique to Japan. lt occurs wherever education and high-status professions are defined mainly in terms of cerebral activity. Northern Europeans, American Wasps and some modern Jews can be seen to demonstrate aspects of the phenomenon -- picture a graph of Nobel prizes to Ashkenazic Jews plotted against their Olympic medals. In fact corporate thinking in most industrial societies has virtually deified encephalization as an evolutionary ideal. Consider popular sci-fi portrayals of 'advanced' aliens as epicene, marshmallow-headed dwarfs...

How socialization shifts the personal center of identity or gravity is quite evident in different cultures' body languages for indicating the self. The combative and lineage-conscious Old Testament Semite male, for example, identified and committed his self in oaths by grasping his testicles. (Testes, testament and testify share the same etymological root.) Americans, by contrast, whose identities are determined more by individual effort and abilities than by blood, tend to touch their chests when indicating the self in ceremonies or conversation. The Japanese, however, tend to define their selves in terms of memberships in larger collectives. (Indeed, some common forms of self-introduction do not even mention the speaker: Mitsubishi no mono desu, "Mitsubishi's thing/person am.") As the individual's life is largely controlled by group ties and the nexus of those ties is in the head, a Japanese usually indicates the self by pointing at his or her nose.

Another rough gauge of a society's encephalization is its members' acquittal on the dance floor. As ki becomes more concentrated in the upper chakras, less is available to animate expressive movement. Encephalized bodies, more aware of the social environment than of the internal force of the music, tend to remain 'self conscious', and generally display little grace, rhythm or improvisational abandon. As encephalization proceeds and energy is drawn north on the body's axis, the psychosoma becomes almost ionized. Since the neglected lower chakras no longer generate as much kiryoku the individual loses energetic self-sufficiency and becomes increasingly dependent on input from the social environment. One becomes an obligate joiner, socially clinging, addicted to external influence. One craves group life because that is where the largest, cheapest supply of social ki is found.

Japanese ethics further reinforce this outer-directedness. Here values are not universal principles that an individual can embody and stand up for on one's own, but are rather flexible and situational, requiring constant external attention to what is already happening, to determine what is right. Nakane observes, Japanese morality is always determined by contemporary trends. The feeling that 'I must do this because A and B are also doing it' or 'they will laugh at me unless I do such-and-such,' rules the life and behavior of the individual with greater force than any other consideration."

Japanese encephalization consequently creates an unusually strong susceptibility to fashions and trends, which are referred to as ryuko, 'going with the flow'. Such social tides are analogous to the streaming movements of syncytial bodies, generating almost unthinking submission to the authority of the 'current'. This wavelike power is not restricted to marketing booms or to inane crazes for the likes of frilly lizards or 'American Outdoor Life'. Since such followings override or dissolve critical judgment, the same orchestration of media influence could conceivably lead great numbers to political extremism, racial xenophobia and perhaps even militarism.

One for All?

Today such organismic meditations are of more than theoretical interest. Japan's far right appears ready to exploit syncytial dynamics in its campaign to reestablish imperial discipline and a homogeneous xenophobic nationalism. Many old guard and/or mercenary scholars pump out popular nihonjinron ("Theories of Japaneseness") tracts which focus discussion on the country's origins, 'essence' and manifest destiny, and attempt to promote widespread fascination with what is truly, 'uniquely' Japanese. Furthermore Japan's conservative political establishment's hardline refusal to apologize for past aggressions and its enduring participation in the Shinto rites at Yasukuni Shrine (where the country's war dead are augustly enshrined) continues to tempt ultranationalists with the possibility of again merging Japan's religious and political bodies and regenerating the overriding authority of the kokutai.

Preparations are already underway. Besides the war shrine visits, the increasing volume and visibility of rightist bus parades and the literary attacks on Jews that mask recent anti-Americanism -- all are attention-getting preludes to this "hopeful" new period. Each focuses national awareness on the rightists' agenda and coalesces social ki around their imperial founder cell.

Conversely, textbook censorship, teachers union-bashing and terrorism against liberal media serve to quell opposing currents of thought and assure that the coming agitation leads not to divisive controversy but to consensus and further centralization of power.

Rightist ideologues appear confident the population is ready for such a consolidation . And indeed, many citizens frustrated by foreign animosity, economic insecurity or a lack of national purpose might again welcome the embrace of a powerful mystical body. Certainly without a persuasive vision of Japan's future, the society's worried attention is up for grabs Effectively channeled it could yet animate a new imperialistic organism of world-shaking proportions.

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