Masaya Chiba, an expert on French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, has written best-selling works of philosophy and award-winning queer fiction. His writing hasn’t been translated into English yet, so we connected with one of Japan’s most notable contemporary writers to uncover his perspective on art and life.
Making philosophy fun
If Masaya Chiba’s books didn’t make philosophy fun, they wouldn’t be selling more copies than every other philosophy book on the Japanese market. His latest release, Gendai Shiso Nyuumon (“Introduction to Contemporary Thought”) “describes the essence of contemporary thought in an unprecedented way.” Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan—Chiba breaks down the who’s-who of postmodern and post-structural philosophy. He explores deconstruction, power, exploitation, difference, psychoanalysis, and more, directly applying the concepts to everyday life in a way that’s almost astonishingly easy to understand.
“The concepts are abstract in themselves. But I connect them to human relationships, to everyday human life,” Chiba says. “I believe that ultimately, the biggest of questions are reflected in mundane, incredibly small details of everyday life. So I try to analyze the minute as much as I can.”
Chiba has written a whopping seven books in the last four years. There’s Gendai Shiso Nyuumon, two Akutagawa prize-nominated novels. He’s penned best-selling books of philosophy about Deleuze, about how to study, about meaninglessness. He’s even written an American travelogue. He regularly publishes philosophy essays in peer-reviewed journals in Japan. He even does some music on the side. It’s an impressive resume boosted by a substantial social media following to boot.
“Researchers are writers by nature,” Chiba says. “It’s not just about thinking inside your own head but making things. That’s why I’m also interested in making art and music. Not obeying the set rules is at the center of Deleuze’s philosophy. It’s about combining all sorts of things and experiencing connectivity among them. A philosophy of creativity.”
The path to Deleuze
Masaya Chiba grew up as an artist and became interested in contemporary art as a high school student in the mid-1990s. But a high school teacher got him interested in art criticism. This was just as Windows ’95 came out and the internet became a phenomenon in Japan. “That’s when I started to focus on writing instead,” Chiba says. “I wanted to do art criticism at first, but I realized I had to study conceptual theories and moved over to philosophy.”
In college, he studied anthropology and began researching the French structuralists and post-structuralists, with the inscrutable and near-incomprehensible Deleuze looming large. He was aware of Deleuze since high school. In fact, he had three heavy volumes of Deleuze sitting in his room since that time, waiting for him to develop the knowledge and background to break through the wisdom hiding within.
Deleuze is known for his bold attempts to rethink metaphysics and his intimidating writing style that keeps readers on their toes. “There’s no strict hierarchy in Deleuze – it goes all over the place, expanding horizontally,” Chiba explains. “For me, one of the important themes in Deleuze is that there aren’t distinctions between things in the way we typically imagine. In fact, many things are connected.”
Before the internet, high culture and pop culture were vastly divided, without much of a bridge between them. So in the context of Deleuze’s philosophy, an online age seemed to offer the potential for connectivity.
But instead, as social networking increased, connectivity became too extreme. “Rather than boosting creativity, we started to feel pressure and judgment from others, effectively suppressing creativity,” Chiba says. “As I started to read Deleuze deeper, I realized he wasn’t saying that connectivity was strictly a good thing. He saw the dangers of an over-connected ‘society of control.’”
Lately, Chiba has reconnected with his intellectual roots by thinking and writing more about art. Chiba sees art as revolutionary in a society focused on efficiency, where people want to do everything they can to be productive and avoid unnecessary tasks. “Art doesn’t have a specific objective,” Chiba says. “The art is the objective in itself—a non-objective, so to speak.”
Fiction, philosophy, what’s the difference?
Chiba didn’t write any novels until his editor suggested he give it a shot. But they quickly became a new kind of vehicle for exploring the same ideas he takes an interest in philosophically.
Just as his essays incorporate figurative language and refuse to be purely logical arguments, his writing grapple with plenty of philosophical ideas. Deadline, his debut, and Overheat, his latest, are both intense first-person, nearly stream-of-consciousness journeys amidst the philosophy, relationships, desire, queerness, and memories that emerge from the midst of changing life. The first focuses on an upcoming masters’ thesis deadline, and the second on a move from Tokyo to Osaka.
Stylistically, Chiba is influenced by Samuel Beckett and the diaries of Paul Klee, who both intrigued Chiba with the extreme simplicity of their prose. “I wanted to write simply about things that happened, plain descriptions,” says Chiba. “So I used my memories from Tokyo as a basis for the story and started to write.”
Chiba’s fiction is notable for its queer themes. His interest in sexuality is a core motivator behind his writing. As LGTBQ people have been gradually (albeit at a much slower pace than the West) accepted in Japan, Chiba says he wants to focus on complex problems, not advocate for simple “acceptance.”
“It’s important to recognize that there are fundamental differences in life and society being queer,” Chiba says. “The ‘normal life course’ doesn’t apply in the same way. With literature, I can express the incredible complexity of sexuality, the negative aspects of desire.”
Chiba recently finished a novel to complete the loose trilogy formed by Deadline and Overheat, scheduled to come out in Japan next year. Moving forward, he plans to think about a new fiction project and advancing philosophical writing around the theme of time and temporality.
While his short story “Magic Mirror” received a French translation, his writings have yet to get English translations. “It’s very complicated so it would be difficult, but I’d love to see my book on Deleuze, Ugokisugite ha Ikenai (Don’t Move Too Much) translated into English,” Chiba says.
Masaya Chiba’s open romp between philosophy, fiction, and art offers up powerful possibilities for free and empowering ways to live life. Hopefully, we’ll see his ideas, which are already exerting a real influence in Japan, expressed in English in the coming years.