In the 1930s, many Kyoto School philosophers as well as other intellectuals inquired into the nature of technology (gijutsu) amid the growth of heavy industrial capitalism, rapid mobilization for war, and the proliferation of technology throughout all areas of life. This essay examines Nakai Masakazu's thoughts on technology as it relates to what he perceived as the disciplining of the creative, practical-political energies of the masses by capitalist commodification and specialization. Instead of only defining technology as the instrumental means of production or the technical, instrumental rationality of capitalism and bureaucratic control, Nakai inquired into the essence of technology as manifested in everyday mass culture. Similar to other contemporary thinkers on technology in Japan and elsewhere, Nakai viewed technology as acts of invention and poiesis in the world; however, he located this essence of technology within the interstices of modern capitalist life—in mass-mediated subjectivity, in the sensations and forms of contemporary cinema, and in the “bodily technologies” of sports, for example.
By examining Nakai's thoughts on the essence of technology, I wish to analyze the relation between Kyoto School philosophy and the political in wartime Japan, because these have often been viewed in isolation from each other or framed simplistically in terms of political complicity or resistance to fascism. Nakai's thought during the prewar and wartime periods in particular is often either overlooked in favor of his postwar activities in the Hiroshima Culture Movement or seen as mainly engaging in a politics of building some type of counterhegemony or collective resistance against fascism through his organization of periodicals inspired by the Popular Front in Europe, such as Doyōbi (Saturday) and Sekai Bunka (World Culture), for which he was arrested along with others in 1937. However, as I demonstrate, Nakai also primarily sought inventive sites of the political through his understanding of technology within modern capitalist life—or, in his language, different “points of departure,” “acts within acts,” para-existential “middles” of chance and opportunity, and uncanny sensations irreducible to sight, sound, or understanding. At stake for Nakai in such concepts were the critical, transformative energies of the people themselves, which were increasingly subject to the various disciplinary regimes of capital and the state.