A Tourist in the Königsberger’s Dream: Review of Hiroki Azuma’s Philosophy of the Tourist|Yuk Hui

March 10, 2023
Hiroki Azuma’s Philosophy of the Tourist, newly published in English translation, is an essential philosophical exercise that aims to respond to what may be described as the political impasse of our time, especially in light of the intensification of geopolitical conflicts since the pandemic. Not that the pandemic is the cause, but it has certainly triggered an acceleration of conflicts whose germs were already present in the very concept of the nation state. The strict border control introduced by various countries, in parallel with the flourishing of nationalisms over the past few years, has made the Weltbürgertum an unattainable dream; not to mention the global ecological crisis, which can only be resolved within a framework that goes beyond the interests of individual sovereign states. With this in mind, we must welcome Azuma’s efforts in this book to reinvent the tourist as a figure that heralds the possibility of transcending the limitations of the nation state. For the Japanese critic and philosopher, the “path toward the universal global citizen has been blocked […]. I wrote this book,” he confides, “because I do not want to live in a world like that” (109). For many reasons, it would be ignorant not to compare Philosophy of the Tourist with Kojin Karatani’s The Structure of World History(2010; English translation 2014). Karatani and Azuma are the most outstanding critics and original thinkers of their respective generations in Japan. Azuma has acknowledged the influence of Karatani, and indeed sees his book as a “renewal of Karatani’s theory of the Other(155).” And the two of them share the same philosophical task: to sublate the nation state. Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”(1795)serves as a common point of departure for the development of their projects. But along with this commonality there are fundamental differences. Karatani’s work imagines a grand institutional framework to come—the “world republic”— whereas central to Azuma’s work is an individual figure, that of the tourist. Karatani seeks to think a federation of States which will be able not only to avoid wars but also to end all forms of antagonism. This philosophical project has as its task to sublate the concept of the political state, which Hegel advocates in his Outline of the Philosophy of Right(1821) as the sole political form under which freedom and ethical life can be realized. Karatani sees clearly that Hegel, and not Marx, was the philosopher who was able to grasp the trinity of capital-nation-state. Therefore, he takes the state as his point of departure in order to conceive a political form capable of sublating the state—a sublation, understood in Hegel’s sense of both preservation and cancellation, which can then only take the form of a federation of states.
Instead of starting with the State, Azuma sets out from the initial problem of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right—that is to say, the problematic of individual rights. Philosophy of Right is first of all a critique of right in the modern age: Hegel saw that individual freedom had emerged as the most significant and disruptive right following the Reformation and the French Revolution. This right as such is abstract and immediate; therefore, it can be merely arbitrary [willkürlich]; that is to say, I can do whatever I want. This right is not freedom for Hegel; on the contrary, freedom is abstract right sublated; therefore, it is only in the political state that freedom is possible. Azuma, however, does not follow Hegel’s ceaseless attempt to exclude arbitrariness [zufällig]. Instead, he wants to take arbitrariness to its extreme. Azuma gives us a very straightforward definition of tourism: the tourist is someone who “‘tak[es] a trip to a main destination outside his/her usual environment,’ ‘for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited’,” but more fundamentally, tourism is “a phenomenon tied to the birth of mass society and consumer society”(14). The tourist is immediately distinguished from the immigrant and job seeker. A tourist is essentially a consumer who buys a ticket and goes somewhere to consume goods or services. Consumption is arbitrary since it is not a satisfaction of needs but a mere question of choices. As Azuma reminds us in Philosophy of the Tourist, as in his previous writings on Otaku (2001; English translation 2009), Alexandre Kojève, in the first edition of Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, considers the end of history as having arrived with the realization of the American way of life, namely the animalization of the human, i.e., humans becoming mere consumers. In the second edition of the Introduction, Kojève added a note after his trip to Japan in 1959, suggesting that there are two forms of post-historical subject: American animality and Japanese snobbery. The two are exclusive of one another, we are told: “An animal cannot be a snob.” So is the tourist an animal with Japanese snobbery, or a Japanese with animality? The above question returns us to the issue of identity, which is central to Azuma’s whole treatise. Azuma cannot avoid reinventing the figure of the tourist, even though he might be reluctant to do so. The tourist with which he identifies himself doesn’t seem to be an animal—at least not a database animal like those described in Otaku—Azuma says that he hasn’t “watched much anime or played many games over the past few years.”(27). A tourist is a human, but not a human who has to decide between friend and enemy in Carl Schmitt’s sense, nor between animal laborant and homo faber in Hannah Arendt’s sense. The tourist has to be a new subject, transcending the nationalist and libertarian ideology by profiting from the new domain of politics brought about by the escalation and integration of the world market. Therefore, the tourist is not merely a victim of consumerism. Instead, it stands between two rights, namely the right to consume—in which respect it is animal—and the right to visit—in which respect it is human. Azuma seeks to identify in this overlap the potential to transcend the framework of the nation state. Where Karatani recognizes in Kant’s treatise on perpetual peace the importance of the federation of states, Azuma highlights the importance of hospitality and the right to visit other countries. The Kantian inspiration here is an irony we have to recognize and appreciate because Kant, as we know, never travelled out of Königsberg. This irony provides a perfect shortcut for deconstruction, because most of the examples Kant gave to explain his philosophy, such as the example of the pyramid in the analytic of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment, were never based on lived experience but were only imaginings based on written texts.
The figure of the tourist allows Azuma to imagine a path “that brings the universal and particular together without the condition of belonging to a state”(66). The tourist is the individual that emerges from the sublation of the universal and the particular. The tourist displays a certain indifference: “Tourists simply use money. They ignore national boundaries as they fly across the surface of the planet. They don’t make friends or enemies”(79). Now, how can a tourist simply spending money elsewhere contribute to such a grand philosophical project as the one Azuma wants to construct? How can we talk about being a tourist as a form of resistance? In responding to this question, Azuma revisits Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s trilogy, like almost all leftist intellectuals in the past decade—everyone had to pay homage to the spectacle. The work of Hardt and Negri claims to be the new Capital, but regarding it as a revolutionary guide would be like expecting a bat to lead us out of the cave. Across a number of disagreements with their notion of multitude—vitiated by a “fatal flaw”(103), “too vague, and at times mystical”,(105), and “nothing more than a negative-theological”(113)—Azuma makes his trip to differentiate his tourist from the multitude. The following claim summarises the fundamental difference: “Where the multitude go to demonstrations, the tourist goes on junkets. Where the former builds solidarity without communication, the latter communicates without solidarity”(114). The tourist communicates without solidarity because they are only passing through. Seeing a demonstration, the tourist immediately pulls out their phone, takes a photo, uploads it to Instagram, asks what is going on, then goes back to the hotel and checks the number of likes they have. In comparison, the multitude goes into the street, shares a bottle of whiskey with comrades, and protects one another from the police’s batons. With these two caricatures in mind, it is dubious to immediately affirm the rationality and effectiveness [Wirklichkeit] of the tourist beyond social media spectacle. However, being content with this stereotype, we would miss the genius of Azuma. What the author sets out in this book is not a mere entertainment with some Hegel quotes, but a project he has thought through since writing his doctoral thesis, The Ontological and the Postal: On Jacques Derrida (1998). To grasp the essential points of this project, we should like to understand Azuma’s position in terms of three axioms:
1) Resistance must be realist, and therefore ontological.★1 2) The world is a network, and the tourist is a packet. 3) Resistance can only exist in the form of misdelivery.
The tourist is a figure that stands against the multitude because the theory of the multitude is a negative theology. By negative theology, Azuma understands claims such as that God exists because He doesn’t exist (however, we must be cautious because we cannot equate existence and givenness, for if something is not immediately given that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). The multitude is vague, literary, and romantic because it exists only as a negative idea: it is what it is not. One may wonder whether this reproach does not also apply to Karatani’s “world republic”, because what he calls “mode of exchange D” is a idea that is never given as such and will never arrive. Like all operations under the regulative principle, it will only arrive in an approximate form but not as exact knowledge; for example, when one asks about the purpose of nature, we cannot say what exactly it is; at most, we can speak about it “as if” it had a purpose. But this is another issue which deserves a more dedicated discussion beyond the scope of this review. For Azuma, the tourist is, and in so far it is, is the source of resistance. In Philosophy of the Tourist we read of how the “postal” targets negative theology: “in contrast, ‘postal’ is a word that refers to the realistic observation that, although that which cannot exist simply doesn’t exist, it may appear to exist as a result of a myriad of failures in the actual world, and to that extent may produce effects that make it seem as if it exists”(111). The tourist’s existence is postal; like a packet, it is sent from one end to another end via routing algorithms similar to those we know from network theory (to which Azuma devotes a chapter of his book). Azuma doesn’t reject the category of the ungraspable. Instead, he sees it as a misdelivery. And, against network theory, it is in the misdelivery, rather than the successful delivery, that we find resistance.
Why is misdelivery a form of resistance? Misdelivery here doesn’t mean that when you travel to the USA, the flight instead takes you to North Korea. For sure, that would be a misdelivery, but that does not make it a resistance; it is rather a system failure, if not a disaster. Azuma turns instead towards the power of the contingent or the accident. This concept is fundamental in Philosophy of the Family (An Introduction), the second part of Azuma’s book. The tourist is firstly a contingent being, and secondly, is open to contingency—contingency meaning that everything can be otherwise. For example, I want to take a flight to Tokyo in April because I read that there will be beautiful cherry blossoms and I might have the chance to meet Azuma san at the Genron café; however, it is also not necessary that I go to Tokyo this April since it can be otherwise—for example, I can see him speaking online if I pay for the show, or I can go next year during the same season. If I arrive in Japan in April, what strikes me the most might be neither the cherry blossom nor Azuma san, but something else I didn’t expect. A tourist will have to expect the unexpected, like a Heraclitean (fragment 18). Now the figure of the tourist becomes more apparent, and at this instant, Azuma concludes: “All resistance must begin with the reperformance of misdelivery. I will call this the principle of the tourist. The new solidarity of the twenty-first century begins there”(140). Tourists are not passive consumers as we used to think. Instead, they are active connections that reconfigure the world conceived as a network. A tourist has to be curious and courageous, as Azuma assigns them the task “to meet people they were never meant to meet, go to places they were never meant to go, think thoughts they were never meant to think; they seek to infuse contingency back into the system of Empire, to rewire concentrated edges once again, and to revert from preferential selection back to misdelivery”(139–40). This theme of contingency extends from the first part of the book, Philosophy of the Tourist, to the second part of the book, Philosophy of the Family (An Introduction), which, as Azuma explains, is a sketch of some preliminary ideas, to be developed in a future work. But why does Azuma want to include the family in the philosophy of the tourist? As we know, in Philosophy of Right, family is logically (not temporally) the beginning of the triad family—civil society—modern state. The return to the family is a stepping back to what is prior to the modern state, as well as the beginning of another cycle (in the sense of recursion). The family that Azuma is addressing here is doubtless not the same family found in the Philosophy of Right, where love is sublated into the interest of civil society; the family here is individual right sublated into love. Familiar similarity and misdelivery stand out as two philosophical principles that sustain post-nation-state politics in Azuma’s formulation(222). However, in the end, maybe they are the same principle, since Azuma ends his book with the claim that “being a parent means making a misdelivery and being surrounded by children of chance”(223).

★1  The term ontological we use here might deviate from Azuma’s own reading, because he has made a distinction between a logical-ontological deconstruction and a psychoanalytic-postal deconstruction in his reading of Derrida. For my part, I believe that Derrida’s deconstruction has been onto-postal since his Introduction to Husserl’s Origin of Geometry(1962): the postal is the excess, namely the supplement, which may be carried from one generation to another. What remains a problem in Derrida is a history of the supplement, and therefore a history of the postal. I would welcome further discussion with Azuma on this point.


Philosophy of the Tourist


What is Genron?

Genron is a publishing company founded by critic Hiroki Azuma in 2010 located in Gotanda, Tokyo. Our mission is to present cross-disciplinary discourse on politics, culture, science, and philosophy as we construct an independent platform for knowledge, unbound to the conventions of academia and not reliant on subsidies. In addition to the 30+ books and 100+ electronic magazines we have published so far, Genron has operated the Genron Café event space over the course of a decade, continuously programming conversations that are open and unrestricted by time or political stance. Our web Genron website hosts articles, publishing recent essays, conversations, book reviews, and more.      In 2017, Azuma published Genron 0: Kankokyaku no tetsugaku(Philosophy of the Tourist) through Genron. This monograph examines the concept of the tourist, interpreting it as both a new subject that transcends the conflict between nationalism and globalism, as well as a new “Other” that innovates on traditional leftist theory. The book has been highly regarded in Japan since its publication, and at last in January 2023, it received an English edition translated by John D. Person and published by Urbanomic.      The above is a review of the English edition by Hong Kong philosopher Yuk Hui. In addition to Genron publishing the Japanese edition of his major work The Question Concerning Technology in China, Hui has had multiple discussions with Azuma in symposiums he has held in China and at Genron Café talk events.


エラスムス大学ロッテルダムの哲学教授。著書に『デジタルオブジェクトの存在について』(ミネソタ大学出版、未邦訳)、『中国における技術への問い——宇宙技芸試論』(アーバノミック、邦訳はゲンロン)、『再帰性と偶然性』(ローマン&リトルフィールド、邦訳は青土社)、『芸術と宇宙技芸』(ミネソタ大学出版、未邦訳)など。著作は十数カ国語に翻訳されている。2014年より「哲学と技術のリサーチネットワーク」を主宰。2020年よりバーグルエン哲学・文化賞の審査委員をつとめる。 Professor of philosophy at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, author of several monographs that have been translated into a dozen languages, including On the Existence of Digital Objects(University of Minnesota Press), The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (Urbanomic), Recursivity and Contingency (Rowman & Littlefield), and Art and Cosmotechnics (University of Minnesota Press). Hui has been the convenor of the Research Network for Philosophy and Technology since 2014 and a juror of the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture since 2020.