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Ambiance, common(-)place, common time, place creating connection
Aesthetic transformations of the sensory and aporia of language

Two contradictory trends are apparent in the contemporary world: one tending towards greater uniformity, in architecture, music and such; the other towards further fragmentation. The term ‘globalization’ either causes societies to dissolve, through decreasing differentiation of forms, or to harden in differentialist reaction. But alongside dichotomous rationales – trendy or outdated ambiance, open or closed neighbourhood, innovation or conservation – there is also scope, witness Japan, for a back-and-forth rhythm which contradicts stabilization by means of the principle of identity and deprived third parties.
The becoming of ambiances raises the question of the transformation of space over time. How does time leave an impression on space? How does space express time? Drawing on ethnographic observation of unobtrusive everyday street ambiances in Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Beijing, we shall show that an ambiance is the singular encounter between an environment and a moment, occurring in a (collective) subjectivity involving sharing of the sensory, memory and imagination.
The challenge raised by the theme of the Third International Congress is inextricably epistemological and linguistic. An ambiance cannot be prompted, less still programmed. It is not an ‘object’. It does not unfold in space and time, but generates an unpredictable, indeducible space-time. We cannot ‘have’ an ambiance any more than we are ‘moving’ towards one. An ambiance comes upon us, indivisible, barely expressible yet undeniable. This experience refuses to be broken down into the western dualism of subject and object. Indeed it is scarcely compatible with the particularity of Indo-European languages in which the grammatical structure of a sentence is driven by a subject of which the position is anterior, exterior and superior, with a tendency to abstract itself from its surroundings, reduced to a mere backdrop. It is impossible to set forth an ambiance, starting from a eurocentric ‘I’, which pre-exists the context and can abstract itself from it. To interrogate the intransitive nature of this experience we shall use the Japanese language, which does not separate subject (shutai), place (basho), setting (fôdo) and connection (ningen). However, despite the difficulty of expressing an ambiance in everyday speech or analysing it – in other words breaking it down – in learned terms (Wittgenstein) – an ambiance can be narrated, sung, danced, filmed and staged. In which case, whatever is no longer represented but rather recreated in this way is another ambiance.


François Laplantine is Emeritus Professor at Lyon 2 University, France, where he founded the anthropology department. He has carried out most of his research in Brazil, where two universities have awarded him an Honoris Causa degree, but his attention has recently shifted to Japan and China. He has published about 30 books, translated into several languages. Recent publications include Tokyo Ville Flottante, Stock, Paris, 2010; Une Autre Chine, De l’Incidence, St Vincent de Mercuze, 2012; Quand le Moi Devient Autre, CNRS Editions, Paris, 2014; L’Energie Discrète des Lucioles. Anthropologie et Images, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2014; The Life of the Senses: Introduction to a Modal Anthropology, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015; Non. Négation, Négatif, Négativite entre Chine, Japon et Europe, De l’Incidence, 2016.


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