ahorbinski: kanji (kanji)
Bibliographic Data: Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2006.

Main Argument: "The 'library of public information' that took shape after 1600 signifies, for me, a quiet revolution in knowledge--one separating the early modern period from all pervious time. In empirically grounded accounts of contemporary, often mundane experience, investigators created from fissured parts an integrally conceived 'Japan.'" (209)

Print, nation, and the early modern )

Critical assessment: This is a bravura work of sheer research and interpretive tenacity, as well as brilliance, and in a way it seems to me a natural progression from Prof. Berry's earlier work on Hideyoshi and on the culture of the Onin Wars in Kyoto, both of which form the backdrop and essential prerequisite for what we might call the Tokugawa settlement. It's also beautifully, marvelously written, trenchant and transparent and a brilliantly constructed narrative. As well as a meditation on early modern Japan, the book is also an interesting examination of the early modern in general, and a rebuke to the persistent conflation of modernity with the formation of nations. Certainly modern nations are different from premodern nations, but nations are not exclusively modern formations (nor are the elements of modernity unique to the modern period). Anyway, it's a fascinating, excellent book, with implications well beyond Japan.

Further reading: Harry Harootunian, Toward Restoration: The Growth of Political Consciousness in Tokugawa Japan; Karen M. Gerhart, "Visions of the Dead"

Meta notes: Prof. Berry's work is the best of all advertisements for Berkeley's East Asian Library and its collections; it's also in some ways a loving tribute to her late husband, Dr. Donald Shively, whose research focused on popular culture in the Edo period.
ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Bibliographic Data: Barshay, Andrew E. The Social Sciences in Modern Japan: The Marxist and Modernist Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Main Argument: Barshay starts from the hypothesis that "the form assumed by social science in a given national setting is closely bound up with the institutional path to modernity taken by that nation" (x) and that Japan, Germany and late imperial Russia were "developmentally alienated" from the experiences of the so-called Atlantic Rim countries, who were perceived as being developmentally "advanced," and that this sense of lateness was the primary determinant of each country's social science. Barshay goes on to analyze and explicate what he sees as the two primary strands of social science in modern Japan, the Marxian tradition in various schools, and the brand of "modernism" (which despite its name was a postwar, fairly progressive phenomenon) advanced by the late great political scientist Maruyama Masao.

The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. )

Critical assessment: This is an excellent, erudite, empathetic book. Barshay writes with a thorough understanding of and sympathy for his subjects, and with a certain profound, implicit sadness: as he told me when I remarked on that to him, it's an elegy.

This elegiac quality is particularly evident in the chapter on Maruyama, whom Barshay worked with at Tôdai and who emerges here as a titanic, solitary figure whose time slipped away from him before he knew it--but who, crucially, didn't make much of an effort to make clear to his fellow citizens the choice they faced between, to put it crudely, the red pill or the blue pill, between nationalist modernism and progressive postmodernism. Maruyama bet his money and took his chances and chose the blue pill, and ought to be admired for having the courage of his convictions, but if his time and a moment like that comes round again it will not be through people like him remaining aloof. Indeed, I think the real discovery of this book isn't the work on Maruyama but Barshay's spirited introduction and exploration of the thought of Tamanoi Yoshirô, the last member of the Uno School, who wandered far afield into a sort of globalist environmentally conscious localism and whose thought has, in my opinion, huge potential value as a potential foundation for a post-Westphalian, post-humanist future.

Further reading: Maruyama Masao; Tamanoi Yoshirô; Yasunaga Toshinobu, Andô Shôeki

Meta notes: For the purposes of the book Barshay treats the question of whether history is one of the social sciences as settled, but even from talking with people in our department it's clear that I'm not the only historian with strong reservations on that score. Personally, I tend to conceptualize my interest in history as an interest in narrative, on a fundamental level, so the idea of there being something 'scientific' about it is one I regard with a certain degree of skepticism. I don't know how, short of turning into political science and importing statistics and game theory into the marrow of the discipline, we as historians could really claim to be "scientists" in any meaningful sense of the term, though I also think the very idea of "the social sciences" is a legacy of the totalizing views of the 19thC, which thought of Science as Truth, when in reality it's an ideology and a worldview, one among many which gets productive results when you apply its methodology to the world. One of the reasons I didn't go into poli sci is in fact its heavy reliance on mathematics (not that I don't love mathematics, because I do, but I love narrative more), and one thing that's been made clear to me over the course of this semester, as if I had any doubt, is that historians have no common empirical rubric by which to judge historical phenomena and events--if we did, we would have truly equal, truly comparative histories of Asia and Euro-America, for example, and aside from a few isolated pioneering attempts, we just don't. So we have a long way to go, both in terms of developing our own empirical standards and in recognizing that "science" has no a priori, stronger claim to Truth than any other discipline.
ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Bibliographic Data: Frank, Andre Gunder. ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Main Argument: Contrary to just about all received economic and historiographical theory and engagement of the last 150 years or so, evidence shows that far from "taking over" beginning in 1500 CE, European world economic dominance did not really begin until about 1800. In every century since at least the 10th (and probably much earlier), Asian economies were far wealthier and more productive than those in Europe, which were only able to participate in the world economic system to the extent that the silver they expropriated from the Americas was desirable to Asian economies as money and as a commodity. By the late 1700s, most Asian economies had fallen into a high-level equilibrium trap in which economic rationality mitigated against the development of mechanization. By contrast, at the same time perpetually high labor costs and high labor mobility in western Europe forced people there to invent mechanized labor-saving devices (aka the Industrial Revolution) in order to compete globally. The resurgence of Asian economies at the end of the C20th and beginning of the C21st is quite probably part of the world economic system returning to its normal pattern.

Yeah, it is a terrible pun. )

Critical assessment: The importance of Frank's argument, and his conclusions, is belied at time by the tendentious tone he takes, but all in all I am glad to have read this book when I did. Frank is basically correct, and the proof is that his arguments--and his interpretation of the evidence--have the virtue not only of simplicity but of accounting for almost everything we know, unlike racist Eurocentric blathering about what in "culture" gave rise to Western hegemony. It wasn't culture; it was global economic forces. Frank's conclusions also put bullets into the notions of globalization, mercantilism, and "capitalism" per se, which any sensible person already knew were false--in a word, Frank checks all the ticky-boxes. I do think that (like most economic historians) he doesn't account enough for human irrationality--racism and wars aren't incidental to human history; they are a prominent feature of it with important causes below the macroeconomic level. The global economic system throughout history may evince "unity in diversity", but humans aren't the same as their economies.

I found myself asking at points, "Is it really all about the benjamins, baby?" Reading this book and Abu-Lughod, you get the picture of humanity as driven by the acquisitive instinct--I don't want to say greed, precisely, because it's perfectly reasonable to want nicer things, individually and societally, and I think of 'greed' as wanting more than one needs--which may well fundamentally be true. But--and I freely admit this is because I am not an economic historian, and have no desire to become one--just because sociocultural formations are "responses" to global macroeconomic forces in the global economic system doesn't invalidate studying them as subjects of study in their own right. And I don't think it necessarily invalidates comparative histories, either--I hope it doesn't! It just means that we have to be exceedingly careful about the terms of our comparisons, and not fall into the Eurocentric theory trap.

Speaking of theory, I'm still sort of in awe at how Frank disregards it so blithely. Now, I personally have never had much time for Marx as a descriptive writer ("the Asiatic mode of production"? Tell me another one!), but I do think that there are things, to paraphrase Chakrabarty, that are well worth being saved from the Eurocentric wreckage, and Marx's critiques of the havoc that modernization and mechanization wreak on people as people are definitely some of them. We need Marx, along with feminism, to help us grope towards a way out of the worldview our macroeconomic response-formation (modernity) has stranded us in, and I don't want to give that up.

Also, high five Adam Smith! Way to be mostly right! I think we can even vindicate him saying "the colonies don't pay" if we recognize that he was talking about the British colonies on the eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean, whereas when Frank talks about "the colonies," which manifestly did pay, in disease-ridden blood and sweat-stained treasure, he means all of the Americas under European subjugation.

One final critique--well, two: 1) Frank's uncritical acceptance of the existence of the Srivajayan empire, which may well have never existed; and 2) the near-total neglect of Africa. At the end Frank says that it may have mostly been caught in a "low-level equilibrium trap" for the period in question (north and east Africa excepted, of course), and in the beginning he both lowballs the number of people stolen out of the continent and says that that loss of millions of people probably had little demographic impact (!), which seems difficult to credit at best without in-depth explanation. Obviously, one of these is much more important than the other.

Classmates of mine pointed out that Frank in speaking of the "high-level equilibrium trap" is following theory that is now almost completely discredited, and that no one writes "this kind" of global history these days; global or international history looks at movements between nations/nits of analysis, as opposed to what Frank does, which is take it out to a whole other level. I firmly believe we need histories like Frank's, if only to force the rest of us to remember to raise our heads up out of our niches.

Also, one gets the typically rosy economic history picture from Frank--wars and revolutions and genocides and all forms of violence get short shrift in his account, which anyone who looks at world history over the past 500 years can tell you is hideously distorted. This is why I don't think we can reduce world history to accounts of the acquisitive instinct and trade at play; humans, for good and ill, are more than that, and Frank's disregard for all the ugly parts of humanity are a serious blow to his account.

Further reading: Frederick Teggart, Rome and China; Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Meta notes: Don't fall into the boundaries trap, the periodization trap, the theory trap--bear these things in mind as categories, but not as things that exist independently. Cite Frank! Write history from the perspective of his conclusions, and, as they say, spit in the eye of anyone who looks at you sideways.
ahorbinski: kanji (kanji)
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Youkai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

I read this book as background material for my panel at Sirens 2010, and it's excellent. Foster, an assistant professor of folklore and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, wrote this manuscript as his dissertation; he tracks the history of youkai as a cultural phenomenon from their first taxonomy in the Edo period to their most recent haunting of media in contemporary urban Japan. Foster ascribes two different components to youkai as they are experienced culturally: the mysterious, which refers to "things that defy established regimes of knowledge" (2), and the weird, which "invokes strangeness of form but is also bound up with the eerie and the supernatural" (24).

Youkai are, broadly speaking, the monsters, supernatural creatures, and weird phenomenon that have haunted Japan since the emergence of Japanese culture in the Heian period, if not before; generally speaking, more and more youkai have come to be recognized over time, though a few major ones--tengu, kappa, kitsune, tanuki--have historically had the lion's share of the attention and have even shown up beyond Japanese borders, particularly the kappa (remember Harry's third-year Defense Against the Dark Arts classes?) and the kitsune. They are Japan's answer to fairies, and the popular attitude towards them reveals many of the same fluctuations in belief and fascination with fairies experienced in western European countries at similar stages of modernization and industrial development. Rather than offer an encyclopedic examination of youkai themselves, Foster concentrates on youkai as a broader cultural phenomenon, examining how youkai were considered at four distinct cultural moments and thereby illuminating, ultimately, how the Japanese nation at that moment considered itself. It is a well-written, frequently brilliant book.

The panel I'm on at Sirens is "Are There Faeries Outside Western Europe? Exploring Fey Folklore from Around the World," and on the basis of this book I'm inclined to think that strictly speaking there aren't "fairies" in Japan--generally speaking, the concept of "fairies" generally includes some powerful fey who are human-esque in form, if not in thought or motivation, whereas while some youkai have the ability to shapeshift (notably tanuki and kitsune), those forms are not necessarily human, and there is absolutely no emphasis on beauty as an intrinsic part of youkai transformations, whereas the Fair Folk are fair (and the double meaning of both beautiful and pale there is not accidental) by definition. Now, why the kitsune in particular has seen a lot of uptake outside the Japanese context, and why the kitsune is inevitably a foxy Asian (or not) woman in human form, says a lot more about the expectations writers outside Japan bring to kitsune than about kitsune and other youkai themselves.


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

May 2016

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