Archive | June, 2013

Dogma Formation

20 Jun

“As a final example of the importance of detail and context, consider the belief now deeply entrenched in US cultural studies that ‘Asia’ and ‘the feminine’ are ‘traditionally’ connected in ‘Western discourse’. This claim is empirically insufficient, as checking any string of Australian newspaper cartoons from the 1890s to the 1950s will quickly establish. Yet when I have given lectures on the historical imaginary of ‘White Australia’ in the United States, I have sometimes been rebuked for ‘ignoring’ the ‘fact’ that Asian figures are feminised. A strange process of dogma formation has occurred, possibly as a by-product of pedagogical transmission: subtle analyses of an indeed substantial archive of feminising images of Asian and of Asian men are taught for their ‘content’ rather than their method to a generation of graduate students who go on to teach their students bluntly that ‘Asia is the feminine for the West’. Along the way, a metonymic flip occurs whereby an empirical set of representations in which Asia is feminised becomes itself the ideal representation of representations of Asia. Of course, in Australia popular cultural history (high art is another story), a different image prevails: ‘Australia’ is a beautiful, bountiful woman menaced by predatory, lascivious and vicious ‘Asian’ men. This invasively masculine Asia s also animalised, or borderline human. But so (we should remember) was masculine sexuality itself thought ‘animal’ or ‘demonic’ by powerful strands of the Victorian imagination, as indeed it still is by many Christians around the world today.” (Meaghan Morris, “Participating from a Distance,” in Rogue Flows: Trans-Asian Cultural Traffic, eds. Koichi Iwabuchi, Stephen Muecke and Mandy Thomas. HK: Hong Kong Univ. Press, 2004. 255. 249-261.)

This passage reminds me a good deal of final high-school exams: there was a kind of liberal, politically correct orthodoxy according to which texts and essay questions were assigned in English Lit, such that you feared for your chances at passing if you dared say anything other than that Heart of Darkness depicted Africa as the dark, barbaric Other of the West/Europe or something alone those lines. As Morris has done here though, there are certain ideas that, having become orthodoxy, need to be rethought. I remember once being in a feminism lecture where I mentioned that the kitchen, at first glance a classic symbol of female oppression, is also a symbol of her freedom. During the fifties the kitchen represented, along with space travel and fast food and the rest, the height of modernity, a world of new horizons and convenience, a world that freed the individual, something that those women who still have to spend half a day preparing their meals would no doubt have less trouble understanding.

Religion and Globalization

17 Jun

I’ve often noticed that “self-reflexive research”, and all its attendant shout-outs to “being aware” of class, gender, race, and so on, inexplicably tends to leave out religion. Bryan Turner makes a good riposte out of this that I rather liked:

“One issue that connects the distinction between theory and its empirical reality is the almost total neglect of religion as an aspect of globality, mainly because globalization theory, like modernization theory in the past, has placed considerable emphasis on the secular nature of these developments. Given the emphasis on economic globalization – for example, in the work of David Harvey (2006) – the role of religion in the history of globalization has been neglected despite the fact that religious globalization pre-dated contemporary secular forms by many centuries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early contributions to the globalization debate emerged out of the sociology of religion and religious studies, especially in terms of the comparative and historical study of world religions. Indeed, the whole notion of ‘world religions’ pre-dates the contemporary interest in globalization by at least a century. For example, the early work of Roland Robertson was associated with his sociology of religion, such as the article on religion, the concept of humanity and the origins of human-rights consciousness (Robertson with Chirico 1985). Other aspects of the sociology of globalization arose out of Robertson’s interest in ‘intra-civilizational analysis’ (Robertson 1982). Before the publication of these articles, Robertson’s collaboration with Peter Nettl on the study of international systems anticipated his later move into globalization theory (Nettl and Robertson 1968). Thus the influential volume on Globalization (Robertson 1992) appeared over a decade after his earlier articles. Robertson can be said to have been an exponent of early globalization theory in the 1970s and 1980s, while later globalization theory, which wholly neglects religion and many of the cultural dimensions of globalization, is occupied by Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, George Ritzer, and Saskia Sassen” (221-222).

Bryan S. Turner, “Prelude 10: Japanese uniqueness versus globalization: a reply to Professor Yui,” in Routledge Companion to Contemporary Japanese Social Theory: From individualization to globalization in Japan today. Eds. Anthony Elliott, Masataka Katagari and Atsushi Sawai. London and NY: Routledge, 2013. 221-226.

Roland Barthes: Empire of Signs

17 Jun

In Barthes’ Empire of Signs, Barthes begins by outlining his desire to “isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system” (trans. Richard Howard, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982, 3). The system, “though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse)” is “[one] which I shall call: Japan” (ibid.). This is the first hint of one of the constitutive limits to Barthes’ project: this fictive “Japan” will also in some sense be based upon a materially existing “Japan” which is implicitly posited, like Derrida’s deconstruction of logos, as the limit of “the West”. Indeed, Barthes openly states as much:

“Hence Orient and Occident cannot be taken here as ‘realities’ to be compared and contrasted historically, philosophically, culturally, politically. I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence – to me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation – whose invented interplay – allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own. What can be addressed, in the consideration of the Orient, are not other symbols, another metaphysics, another wisdom (though the latter might appear highly desirable); it is the possibility of a difference, of a mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems. Someday we must write the history of our own obscurity – manifest the density of our narcissism, tally down through the centuries the several appeals to difference we may have occasionally heard, the ideological recuperations which have infallibly followed and which consist in always acclimating our incognizance of Asia by means of certain known languages (the Orient of Voltaire, of the Revue Asiatique, of Pierre Loti, or of Air France)….[it is absurd] to try to contest our society without ever conceiving the very limits of the language by which (instrumental relation) we claim to contest it: it is trying to destroy the wolf by lodging comfortably in its gullet. Such exercises of an aberrant grammar would at least have the advantage of casting suspicion on the very ideology of our speech” (ibid., 3-4, 8).

It is remarkable to read this passage, published some nine years before Said’s Orientalism, but which seems almost as if Said had used it as his own thesis (Said also used the example of Voltaire). Still, even if Barthes is acknowledging the faults of much popular (and “intellectual”) literature that takes an object of difference as a source of negative knowledge (“the East offers what the West does not/no longer does”), his own project does not seem entirely different from that literature, notwithstanding it attempts to avoid the lure of reading in Japan “another metaphysics”. There remains in Barthes’ project a material basis which it shares in common with the Revue Asiatique: the status of late sixties Japan as a developed, modern country in Asia, one which had become a prominent object of Western interest since the reforms and “opening” of the Meiji period. It is hard to ignore this context, since it is precisely what must be taken into account in accounting for why Barthes has chosen “Japan” as a “system of signs”, and been able to visit this particular “system”, as opposed, say, to Vietnam, or Thailand, or any other number of possible “systems”.

Still, there is much to enjoy in Barthes, not least of which is his style. Here he perfectly captures Pachinko’s boredom and American conservatism:

“What is the use of this art? to organize a nutritive circuit. The Western machine sustains a symbolism of penetration: the point is to possess, by a well-placed thrust, the pinup girl who, all lit up on the panel of the machine, allures and waits. In pachinko, no sex (in Japan – in that country I am calling Japan – sexuality is in sex, not elsewhere; in the United States, it is the contrary; sex is everywhere, except in sexuality). The machines are managers, lined up in rows; the player, with an abrupt gesture, renewed so rapidly that it seems uninterrupted, feeds the machine with his metal marbles; he stuffs them in, the way you would stuff a goose; from time to time the machine, filled to capacity, releases its diarrhea of marbles; for a few yen, the player is symbolically spattered with money. Here we understand the seriousness of a game which counters the constipated parsimony of salaries, the constriction of capitalist wealth, with the voluptuous debacle of silver balls, which, all of a sudden, fill the player’s hand” (ibid., 28-29).

Two more excerpts from this work demonstrate the poetic aspects of Barthes work: much of his writing feels very relevant to performance arts (drama, music, film) because of how it affirms the value of space and action in and of themselves. It often reminds me of the style of writing Ballard developed around the time of The Atrocity Exhibition:

“The other politeness, by the scrupulosity of its codes, the distinct graphism of its gestures, and even when it seems to us exaggeratedly respectful (i.e., to our eyes, ‘humiliating’) because we read it, in our manner, according to a metaphysics of the person – this politeness is a certain exercise of the void (as we might expect within a strong code by one signifying ‘nothing’). Two bodies bow very low before one another (arms, knees head always remaining in a decreed place), according to subtly coded degrees of depth. Or again (on an old image): in order to give a present, I bow down, virtually to the level of the floor, and to answer me, my partner does the same: one and the same low line, that of the ground, joins the giver, the recipient, and the stake of the protocol, a box which may well contain nothing – or virtually nothing; a graphic form (inscribed in the space of the room) is thereby given to the act of exchange, in which, by this form, is erased any greediness (the gift remains suspended between two disappearances). The salutation here can be withdrawn from any humiliation or any vanity, because it literally salutes no one; it is not the sign of a communication – closely watched, condescending and precautionary – between two autarchies, two personal empires (each ruling over its Ego, the little realm of which it holds the ‘key’); it is only the feature of a network of forms in which nothing is halted, knotted, profound. Who is saluting whom?” (ibid., 67-68).

On the zengakuren riots: “All this combines to produce a mass writing, not a group writing (the gestures are completed, the persons do not assist each other); finally, the extreme risk of the sign, it is sometimes acknowledged that the slogans chanted by the combatants should utter not the Cause, the Subject of the action (what one is fighting for or against) – this would be once again to make language the expression of a reason, the assurance of a good cause – but only this action itself (The Zengakuren are going to fight), which is thereby no longer covered, directed, justified, made innocent by language – their external divinity superior to the combat, like a Marseillaise in her Phrygian bonnet – but doubled by a pure vocal exercise which simply adds to the volume of violence, a gesture, one muscle more” (ibid., 106).

John Lie on the Uniqueness Myth

12 Jun

“Most assertions of Japanese difference or uniqueness are empirically false or unverifiable. At times they merely demonstrate the authors’ ignorance and prejudice. Miri Mikisaburou (1971: 11) confesses that he thought that only Japanese called leprosy as Hansen’s Disease. In 1993, I was shocked by a distinguished Japanese sociologist’s assertion that only Japanese criminals cover their face because Japan has a unique culture of shame. When I pointed out that South Korean criminals act in a similar fashion, he replied that, somehow, they must be different. Such a patently non-logical or non-empirical assertion is, however, often taken as yet another characteristic of Japaneseness. According to Yamamoto Shichihei, the proponent of Japanese religion (Nihonkyou), Japanese place feeling over logic (Yamamoto and Komuro 1981: 1).

“…If many descriptions of Japanese difference or uniqueness are problematic, then the same can be said for their cause. A commonly given explanation for Japanese difference is that Japan experienced nearly three centuries of seclusion (sakoku) during the Tokugawa period. Hence, the Japanese are ‘insular’: ‘History and geographic isolation have been combined with this racial unity to fuel a strong sense of national identity’ (Buckley 1990: 82). In fact, sakoku implied the state monopoly of trade and foreign relations, not complete seclusion of society from foreign influences. As Yamaguchi Keizou (1993: 41-7) argues, virtually all East Asian states featured states monopoly of trade and the Tokugawa state had extensive contact with other sovereign states. In addition, Tokugawa-era intellectuals had extensive knowledge of the world beyond the [sic] Japan, and eagerly sought Chinese and, later, Western knowledge. The very idea of sakoku only became popular after the Meiji Restoration to distinguish the premodern period from the modern period of enlightenment and civilization (Arano 1988: ii). Furthermore, the fact of being surrounded by ocean actually encouraged intercultural contact before the Meiji era; water transportation is, in fact, much more useful than land transportation in the reugged terrain that characterizes much of Japan” (John Lie, “The discourse of Japaneseness,” in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Eds. Mike Douglass and Glenda S. Roberts, Hawaii: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2003. 70-90, 86).

Speaking of/for the Subaltern, Again

12 Jun

I was reading an essay by John Lie about the situation of foreign workers in Japan that pointed out the problematic way in which such workers are often regarded, by progressives and conservatives alike, as “impoverished and lower class”, regardless of educational and status attainments in their home country, establishing a juxtaposition that lumps both “college-educated and illiterate” foreign workers into one category against the “affluent, middle-class Japanese” (74, ref. below):

“Ironically, politically progressive people most clearly articulated the contrast between Japanese and the new foreign workers. Claiming to be sympathetic to their plight, one self-appointed supporter of foreign workers’ struggle argued that they should be allowed to work in Japan because they are pitiful (kawaisou) and poor (mazushii). Progressive Japanese analyses therefore highlighted external, structural factors, such as poverty, rather than individual desires and initiatives (Tou 1992: 29-33). It is, of course, misleading to emphasize only the exploitation and the pathos of the new foreign workers. After all, most of them enter Japan voluntarily and consciously endure the demanding working conditions.” (John Lie, “The discourse of Japaneseness,” in Japan and Global Migration: Foreign Workers and the Advent of a Multicultural Society. Eds. Mike Douglass and Glenda S. Roberts, Hawaii: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2003. 70-90, 74.)

Japan, of course, is not the only place where the noblesse oblige of the educated and liberal proves problematic. The contemporary Western academy has for some time attempted to counter this pouboir/savoir problem with all sorts of reflexive and self-distancing measures. Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” has enjoyed a good deal of citation, no doubt partly because, like Said’s Orientalism, its provocative, polemical elements, aimed as a wake-up call, drew wide attention. The essential argument of Spivak’s essay is something of a logical fallacy – that if the subaltern even could speak, they would not be subaltern anymore – is overstated, and it is not surprising that Spivak has since allowed for a good deal of possibility that the subaltern can somehow be heard in the dominant or hegemonic register, writing:

“It is the disenfranchised who teaches us most often by saying: I do not recognize myself in the object of your benevolence. I do not recognize my share in your naming…she tells us if we care to hear…that she is not the literal referent for our frenzied naming of woman in the scramble for legitimacy in the house of theory” (“More on Power/Knowledge” and “Feminism and Deconstruction, Again”, Outside in the Teaching Machine, 48 and 137).

As Bart Moore-Gilbert remarks, “Like Said’s Orientalism, which is also ostensibly so concerned to undermine the equation of the West with ‘voice’ and the East with ‘silence’, an essay like ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ actually ends up by constructing the subaltern as the West’s ‘silent interlocutor’. (Moore-Gilbert also offers an excellent single-sentence summation of the ambiguity at the heart of Orientalism: “the question of whether Westerners are ontologically incapable of ‘disinterested’ or ‘true’ knowledge of the non-West”, Postcolonial Theory 110). Perhaps the greatest irony of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in this respect is that if Spivak’s account of subaltern silence were true, then there would be nothing but that non-subaltern (particularly the West and the native elite) left to speak to or write about” (Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics. London and NY: Verso, 1997, 104). Bruce Robbins has criticised Spivak for repeating the gesture of speaking for/in place of the subaltern in Foucault and Deleuze. Writing in defence of Said against similar charges, he note: “The critic who accuses another of speaking for the subaltern by denying that subalterns can speak for themselves, for example, is of course also claiming to speak for them” (Bruce Robbins, “The East is a Career: Edward Said and the Logics of Professionalism” in Sprinker, Edward Said 50; see Parry, “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse”, 39, for a critique of Spivak’s “deafness” to the voice of the Other).

In View of the Fact

9 Jun

The people of my time are passing away: my
wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who

died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s
Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:

it was once weddings that came so thick and
fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:

now, it’s this that and the other and somebody
else gone or on the brink: well, we never

thought we would live forever (although we did)
and now it looks like we won’t: some of us

are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know
what they went downstairs for, some know that

a hired watchful person is around, some like
to touch the cane tip into something steady,

so nice: we have already lost so many,
brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our

address books for so long a slow scramble now
are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our

index cards for Christmases, birthdays,
Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:

at the same time we are getting used to so
many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip

to the ones left: we are not giving up on the
congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on

the nice old men left in empty houses or on
the widows who decide to travel a lot: we

think the sun may shine someday when we’ll
drink wine together and think of what used to

be: until we die we will remember every
single thing, recall every word, love every

loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to
others to love, love that can grow brighter

and deeper till the very end, gaining strength
and getting more precious all the way…

(A.R. Ammons, In View of the Fact, 1996)


9 Jun


So it came time 
for me to cede myself 
and I chose 
the wind 
to be delivered to 

The wind was glad 
and said it needed all 
the body 
it could get 
to show its motions with 

and wanted to know 
willingly as I hoped it would 
if it could do 
something in return 
to show its gratitude 

When the tree of my bones 
rises from the skin I said 
come and whirlwinding 
stroll my dust 
around the plain 

so I can see 
how the ocotillo does 
and how saguaro-wren is 
and when you fall 
with evening 

fall with me here 
where we can watch 
the closing up of day 
and think how morning breaks

(A.R. Ammons, 1955)