ahorbinski: an imperial stormtrooper with the word "justic3" (imperial justice)
Bibliographic Data: Driscoll, Mark. Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, the Dead, and the Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895-1945. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Main Argument: Joining biopolitics to Marxian theory, Driscoll argues that "…human and nonhuman resources stolen from colonial and domestic peripheries, together with excessive profits jacked from colonized renters and subaltern wage laborers, built Japan's imperial behemoth. … Japan's imperialism was irrefutably modern; there was noting late or lacking about it." (6-7)

Empire of the living dead )

Critical assessment:
I still think The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto is the best book I've read this year, but despite some quibbles I think Mark Driscoll's book is the second-best book I've read, and it deserves to become (much like Berry's book) a contested classic in the field. I have to admit that Driscoll has also succeeded in dethroning Prasenjit Duara's Sovereignty and Authenticity from its high place in my regard; while Driscoll's discussion of Manchukuo does not displace Duara's entirely, largely because they have such different concerns and viewpoints, I find Duara's portrayal of the sham state in toto untenable in light of Driscoll's points.

I’ve read at least one of Mark Driscoll’s articles before, and on that basis I was glad to see that in Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque he’s managed to salt his evident passion with enough reasonably couched statements and superb research that his passion augments rather than detracts from his arguments. Furthermore, unlike his fellow traveler Ken Kawashima, whose The Proletarian Gamble is cited several times in this book, Driscoll never loses sight of the people on whose backs and out of whose lives and deaths the Japanese empire was founded and maintained. Indeed, one suspects that Driscoll’s turn to biopolitics and the thanatopolitics that follow out of it in the modern imperial frame (which Driscoll, somewhat idiosyncratically, insists on terming “necropolitics,” against the majority of those working on these topics) was initially animated by his inability to forget the material suffering of the people who were reduced first to bare life and then to the living dead by the operations of empire.

Having spent my own time in the trenches of the thought and lives of many of the imperial actors and abettors Driscoll identifies and discusses, his frank dismissal of people like Yanagita Kunio is a sly sort of revelation, and his elaboration of the systematic aspects of the thought and policies of people like Gotô Shimpei marks an important departure, I think, from the “model of scholarship still present in East Asian studies that emphasizes a more or less homogeneous Japanese cultural nationalism severed from Asia” (4). I’ve long thought that the only way to “save” Japan studies in the era of China’s rise is to square the circle and be aggressively transnational in our historiography, and at least since James Hevia’s English Lessons, which I was glad to see Driscoll cite, we can no longer afford to ignore the global hybridities and mutual deterritorialization and reterritorialization of empire. Driscoll’s exposure of the complicity in and absolutely repugnant cooperation of people like Fukuzawa Yukichi and Futabatei Shimei, who are still more or less sainted in the standard histories on both sides of the Pacific, is also salutary. Moreover, as someone who has come more and more to feel that seeing the Asia-Pacific Wars as a discrete period underplays the extent to which, as Driscoll insists here, the empire ought not be separated from its military operations. Empires are as much a process as they are stable state structures, and violence of all forms is an integral part of that process.

This book was actively difficult to read at times, because as much as I’ve read about the Japanese empire and its colonial sites, I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered descriptions of the actual lived—and died—conditions it created that are as frank as Driscoll’s, and none of my suspicions about why that is are comfortable. I suppose some people will accuse Driscoll of doing a hatchet job on the standard scholarship of Japan's imperialism (starting off with a bang by savaging Yanagita Kunio, rightly, for his "paranoid cultural particularlism" (4) in the introduction), and there is a revolutionary quality to the story he tells, by foregrounding not the question of cui bono? but cui dolori? and by looking not at nation-states but at people and the human costs of capitalist empire. This is a grim, unflinching take on that story, configured very much as a deathride to an absolute wasteland of a conclusion, and indeed my primary quibble with the book is that it ends the only place it can, in the bombed-out ruins of the empire in 1945, with Driscoll declaring that "capitalism itself must be seen as a crime against humanity" (313). But, for the rest of us, my question is, what can be saved from the wreckage?

What can be saved? from the wreckage of Japan studies, from the wreckage of the empire, is essential to ask as an American and as a scholar of Japan, because Driscoll is right if perhaps overreaching when he points out that we in the United States have done these same things too, or at least profited from them. I also think my question is connected to Driscoll's manifest reluctance to deal with ζοη (civilized life, life in society) as opposed to βιος (vita nuda, bare life), which is an interesting gap.

This is a very political book, as any book which talks about the grotesque is by its nature, and my few critiques of Driscoll arise from this fact. He has an unfortunate talent to characterize pre-Meiji periods of history in a way that, while not quite untrue, seems to me to stretch the limits of plausible interpretation, and while I appreciate his critique of contemporary American imperialism and neoliberal/neoconservative intellectual formations, these aren’t incorporated entirely systematically, which is a weakness I’m sure his detractors will seek to exploit. Similarly, he frequently gets carried away by the slickness of his own turns of phrase. But inasmuch as Driscoll’s work is a perfect example of doing what Cary Wolfe argues we must, i.e. instantiate the spectral threat of repositioning historical instances vis-à-vis the current instance, this is an excellent—dare I say vital?—book.

Further reading: Louise Young, Japan's Total Empire

Meta notes: "A more serious sin for materialist thinkers is that disregarding larger structural complexities prevents us from, in the words of Walter Benjamin, 'grasp[ing]…the constellation which [our] era has formed with a definitely earlier one'" (301).
ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Bibliographic Data: Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. [2000]

Main Argument:
The entire constellation of concepts, cliches, habits of thought and ways of being in the world commonly collected under the rubric "(political) modernity" is not a universal set of concepts, but instead a set of concepts which have deep roots in Europe. Furthermore, these concepts have colonized and are indeed foundational myths for the entire structure of the social sciences and of universities globally, thus ceding the European intellectual tradition an unquestioned, if not unthought of, pride of place in any scholarly inquiry. Writing from within that tradition, it is not possible (or even wholly desirable) to transcend it (and the idea of doing so probably is a function of a false understanding of the nature of the dilemma)--but it is necessary to keep firmly in mind the fact that histories are always plural, that the universal can only be glimpsed in the particular, and that historical time is something that is imposed on events--by holding these contradictory theses in mind at the same time in cognitive resonance, we may be able to grope our way towards a post-Enlightenment, posthuman future, in which Enlightenment rationality is only one of many valid ways of being in the world.

Historiographical Engagement:
Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, John Locke, Herodotus, Aristotle, Michel Foucault--what we in undergrad were pleased to call "the Great Conversation." Also in the second half of the book in particular most of the major Indian and Bengali historical figures and thinkers of the past two hundred years, particularly Gandhi and Tagore. Covertly, Giorgio Ambagen's idea of "bare life" and the concept of biopolitics. Also, only semi-explicitly, with Søren Kirkegaard (who is still awesome).
Provincializing Europe )

Critical assessment:
It's not every day that the back cover description of an academic press book completely misses the point, but the back cover says that the book "globalizes European thought," which misses the point--European thought is already (always) globalized, and what Chakrabarty is trying to do is both to problematize that in and of itself, to show that European universalist thought is itself a particular thing, and to carve a space in that supposedly universal discourse for the non-universal, non-total histories and ways of being in the world outside of Europe (and within it too, I'd bet) that treats them as valid and as vital.

Inasmuch as he simply points out something we all should already have known, it's a brilliant book, though I personally related more to the first half, which is all theory, than to the second half, which gets into the specific particulars of the translation of modernity in Bengal. At one point I asked in the margins, "whose Europe is this not?" as in, what conceptions of Europe does Chakrabarty disregard to make his points, but the question is fairly minor and seems like a form of "white people's pain," so let that be. My bigger critique is that (and I'm tempted to ascribe this to the fact that Chakrabarty is a man) despite his gestures towards feminist scholarship, he doesn't quite make enough of an attempt to fully incorporate it into his attempts to pry open spaces inside the concepts whose European origins he exposes. Let me say here that I am directly familiar with 90% of the "great thinkers" Chakrabarty quotes; until some time in college I considered the idea that humanism could be expanded to cover classically non-humanist subjects to be fairly unproblematic, and even claimed myself to be a humanist. I no longer think this is the case; Chakrabarty is unquestionably correct when he says that the universal idea of the abstract human embedded in European enlightenment thought has been deployed to marvelous effect in the cause of social justice, but I don't think he quite gets the fact that the abstract universal human simply can't be expanded to fit a lot of people whose ways of being in the world are antithetical to the Enlightenment project. The day when feminism truly triumphs is the day when we will have a new posthuman civilization, because the one we are living in now, for all the fact that we are unquestionably postmodern, is still one shaped and framed by modernity. (I have to say that I think postmodernity is a dead end--an interesting, fun dead end, but a dead end nonetheless, which is part of why I'm not terribly concerned about the conceptual difficulties involved in trying to write postmodern history, though I do think that the idea of postmodern history, and trying to write it, deserves further consideration and attempts at the same. Actually, it strikes me that Pandemonium and Parade is a least a half-hearted attempt at that; the way Foster specifically abnegates the question of belief in youkai strikes me as a Chakrabartian attempt to dislodge rationality from its pedestal, and allow for non-human agency in history without actually taking a stance on the existence of non-human agencies.)

As a side note, that the social sciences have not previously grappled seriously with the epistemological implications of quantum mechanics is frankly boggling.

Further reading:
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time; Walter Benjamin, Illuminations; Herodotus, Histories (reread); John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (reread); Tessa Morris-Suzuki, A History of Japanese Economic Thought; Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History; Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism; Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract

Meta notes:
If Chakrabarty writes under the signs of Marx and of Heidegger, then I should probably try to write under the sign of Chakrabarty. Also, reason isn't everything, but I already knew that.

Once again I find myself asking, Can we ever really know anything? and Why do we write/do history? Historical time makes for an excellent narrative framework, and I find myself wondering whether my insistence that the story of the human race isn't just One Damn Thing After Another is not in fact conditioned by my thinking of myself as living in historical time. But on the other hand, like all narrative tropes, historical time exerts a pressure on the contents of the narrative to proceed (note this figurative language) in a certain way, and we have to beware of that, and the fact that historicism implicitly valorizes the passage of time in and of itself in a deeply problematic way.

The other thing is Chakrabarty's almost passing comment on the fact that all other intellectual traditions outside of Europe (and Euro-America) are considered dead for the purposes of scholarship. This is absolutely essential to remember, and that there is no essential reason that this should be so--clearly efforts at correction in order. Chakrabarty also says it's simply not possible to walk out of the collusion between modernity, universities, and the state, but if it's not complexly possible to attempt to do so in some fashion, we should all just go home.

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ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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