Paul Roquet. Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self

Victoria Philibert, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 2 (Book review 3 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 28 August 2016.

Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 248 pp.

Paul Roquet's debut book, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, offers a compelling and clear history of contemporary ambient media and its ubiquity in Japan. His study traces the emergence of ambient media to two major wellsprings: the postwar development of background music for commercial purposes, and the environmental music and Erik Satie boom of the 1960s avant-garde. The dominant discourse to date is to view ambient media as merely one tool among many geared towards encouraging consumers, stimulating workers, and maintaining a politically pacified population. Roquet significantly departs from the established discourse to argue instead that the use of ambient media not only can offer gains in personal freedom to individuals, but can offer ways of transforming their vulnerabilities into opportunities for healing. To this end, the author argues for a distinct reading of ambient media primarily as atmospheric tools for self-mediation. The manner in which Roquet interprets ambient content seamlessly across Japanese music, cinema, and literature offers many clear artistic and philosophical insights about the nature of ambience itself as an aesthetic form.

Roquet introduces the concept of ambient subjectivation to encapsulate how the neoliberal self emerges with and through ambient media as a technique of contemporary self-care. This concept is developed throughout the course of the book, yet he takes momentary though fruitful detours along the way to interpolate competing narratives that can, at times, sideline his own arguments. This attention to difference as well as the book's thoroughness in scope are largely responsible for its success in navigating the mercurial borders of potentially so vast a topic. In these respects Ambient Media offers a distinct and balanced insight on how to conceptualize the somatic comforts of an increasingly alienated world.

The book grounds its notion of ambient subjectivation in Michel Foucault’s work on techniques of the self and his concepts of governmentality and biopolitics. Within these frameworks, the proliferation of ambient media in the decades following the 1960s is read as developing with the new self-disciplining self which began to emerge globally as an internalized response to the sociopolitical effects of hypercapitalism. The theoretical grounding in Foucault is not unwieldy here but well-suited to Roquet's approach to this topic. It addresses the dualistic divide between commentators by giving just grounds for a politicized reading. Additionally, it is used to bolster Roquet's argument that ambient media does not merely pacify its subjects, but offers a significant opportunity for them to heal. Unlike other constituents of therapy culture, however, Roquet argues that ambient media is more complex; it does not just afford its users with calming affects (the ultimate mood of which he calls ambivalent calm) but also has the capacity to produce uncertainty and even anxiety (18). As the first four chapters of the book emphasize, various forms of ambient subjectivation are able to mitigate healing through their ability to regulate mood. These forms include the experience of reflective drift and ontological security that accompany a person's experience with ambient media, but it can also be through tempering the hostiles of a pervasive urban atmosphere and reinvigorating one's awareness of the mystery and uncertainty within the objects of everyday attention.

The first part of the book is effective in relaying to the reader various forms of ambient subjectivation and how they operate for both producers and consumers. Despite the intricacy of some parts of his analysis, the author manages to convey both sides of the critical response to ambient aesthetics without compromising his presentation of a clear topology of the form's general tendencies across multiple mediums. His least successful forays occur at times when he has not made a clear case for some of the abilities of ambient media, such as in Chapter Four when he uses the work of environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan to imply that engagement with ambient media has the capacity to restore urban attentional fatigue. While the Kaplan's clinical research on the aesthetic qualities which produce 'soft fascination' are relevant supports for Roquet's ideas, some of his conclusions do not follow. The Kaplans argue that natural environments are rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences of attention, yet this does not mean that simulations of nature do as well. As Roquet himself puts forward, much of the restorative qualities of ambient media come from other factors, such as the calm mood they sustain and the reflective drift they afford. It seems doubtful that a medium whose mantra is to be a “ignorable as it is interesting” can restore the modern decay of attention merely in virtue of its allusions to nature.

Centre stage in Ambient Media, however, are the fifth and sixth chapters which offer in-depth examinations on the Ichikawa Jun film adaptation of Murakami Haruki's short story Tony Takitani (2004) and the novel by Kurita Yuki, Hôtel Mole (2005). In these interventions Roquet makes a strong case for the form as more than just a social pacifier by showing how these works are capable of both reflecting and offering critique on the aesthetics and technologies of ambience themselves. These chapters also significantly expand the scope of Roquet's analysis by showcasing the realm of the interpersonal, offering introductory grounds for considering how an analysis of ambient media intersects with an ethics of care. Roquet's notion of subtractivism, wherein a “smoothing of the self” (127) is achieved by subtracting strong emotional attachments either to people or to the past, is an especially apt and insightful contribution of this section that offers not only a compelling perspective to the film and the story from which it is based, but to the ongoing consumer desires for impersonality and minimalist aesthetics. The strength of these chapters are representative of the book's overall strength, which is to embed a presentation of facts with multiple possibilities and ideas such that it often emulates the reflective drift of the ambient media it describes.

Though Roquet makes a compelling case that a subtractivist reading elucidates both the strategy of the ambient media consumer and the general public's response to the trauma of postwar Japan, at times it feels like he is avoiding, rather than addressing, the relationship the use of the media might have to religious practice. He compares some of the values of a subtractivist attitude with the Buddhist notion of impermanence (muj┼Ź) but other than that, dedicates very little attention to how some of his creative theoretical contributions could be used to in these discourses and vice-versa. At times, Roquet's descriptions of the socially adaptive side to ambient subjectivation that “affords engagement with a wider range of environments and people, enabling movement through a diverse and complex world” (83) seems reminiscent of many tenets of Mahayana Buddhism.The book, however, covers a lot of ground and still manages to dedicate a portion of its final chapter to an overview of the limits of ambient media as a method for direct social critique and political mobilization.

Ambient Media may intend to present a balanced view of the healing potential of ambient media as well as its more doubtful aspects, but by and large the study favours presenting the positives; Roquet admits that his book is just the beginning of engagement with the topic. What Ambient Media achieves is the construction of a clear, contemporary history of the topic while addressing the inherently double-edged possibilities such a history creates for interpretation. Ambient Media will be a valuable resource to any interested in the contemporary relationship between media and its consumers, as well as those studying Japanese film and literature, for the unique insights offered in Chapters Five and Six on Haruki Murakami and the allure of ambient literature.

About the Author

Victoria Philibert is an undergraduate student of Philosophy and Pacific-Asian studies at the University of Victoria. Her research interests are Japanese pronatalism, reproductive technologies, French-Japanese transculturation, and Ancient Greek philosophy.

Email the author

Back to top