Why does almost everything seem to me like its own parody?
—Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus
The “Floating World” or “Ukiyo” is the name commonly given to the demimonde of nocturnal pleasures that flourished in Edo-period Japan (1603–1868), specifically in Tokyo’s historic red-light district of Yoshiwara; this era is best remembered today for the flowering of the art of woodblock prints (“ukiyo-e”) that depict various aspects of the Floating World’s daily life, such as kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling, and the secretive world of geishas and courtesans. The Floating World derives it name from its fascination with all things fleeting and evanescent: outward beauty, “singing songs and drinking wine,” superficial entertainments, sexual pleasure. Some ukiyo-e artists’ concentration on the latter category in particular (erotic woodblock prints or “shunga”) has led some commentators to characterize this dimension of Edo culture as an early exercise in creating a “pornotopia”—an idealized, eroticized world of sexual fantasy that exists parallel to the world of mundane contemporary concerns.
For this reason alone—the relentless pornofication of all aspects of everyday life—it is tempting to call our contemporary world a “floating” one, much like that of Hiroshige’s or Hokusai’s Japan. Indeed, if today we find it increasingly difficult to define or describe both the era and the world we live in, if a sense of unmooring, drift, directionlessness, and general confusion seems to have grabbed a stifling hold of our imagination in all its attempts to map the contemporary life-world, this is probably a side effect of our living in a twenty-first-century “floating world”—one that is not only ruled by the tyranny of superficial entertainments (to which most art now is happy to belong), but one that is also radically—and no longer just hopefully—afloat.
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