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: an imperial stormtrooper with the word "justic3" (imperial justice)
If now isn't the time to refuse the naturalization of capitalism and the ideological insistence on its benevolent and civilizing character, then there never will be a time.

--Mark Driscoll, Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, the Dead, and the Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895-1945 (5)
The book is excellent, by the way; one of the best I've read all year.


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

May 2016

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