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Postmodernism and Japan
By Masao Miyoshi, H. D. Harootunian
Duke University PressCopyright © 1989 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
On Culture and Technology in Postmodern Japan
The rise of modern subjectivity and man-centered individualism is seen here not merely as an avoidable mistake, but as a phase in the course of human emancipation and maturation—though a phase whose intrinsic shortcomings have now become obvious.
—Fred R. Dallmayr, Twilight of Subjectivity
I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence—to me the Orient is a matter of indifference.
—Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs
Where will Japan take the postmodern retrospective perception that individualism was a "mistake," that the yearning for emancipation and freedom promised by humanist notions of subjectivity will not be satisfied? Dallmayr does not ask this question of Japan specifically, for he addresses himself to modernity in general and to a modernity as articulated within the framework of a theory of subjectivity and of knowledge identified with a humanist history since the Renaissance. Yet the relevance of Dallmayr's question for modern and postmodern Japan is clear. What is beyond, or what comes after, possessive individualism and radical subjectivity? Is it community at home, the Japanese ways of doing things, that provides the site and process of postmodern certitude? Can phenomenology identifiable with Husserl and Heidegger, and perhaps Sartre, frame an alternative intellectual orientation? If the intervening force after the "obvious" failings of subjectivity is social consciousness as articulated by Lukács (not as inevitable, but as reflexive human intervention), then where might the source of reflexivity be located? Dallmayr points his readers to the problematic of nature as alienated subject, and, further, to the complex discussions about the dialectical epistemology of subject and object that emerged out of the Frankfurt School. His assessment of our intellectual history beyond the "obvious," however, remains uncertain, not unlike the sense of the postmodern in Japan, where, similarly, we sense a profound uncertainty about what might lie beyond the "intrinsic shortcomings" of individualism and subjectivity.
In the second epigraph, Roland Barthes expresses skepticism regarding subjectivity in terms of cultural knowing. Since for Barthes subjectivity, either individual or cultural, aside from being a fabricated semiotic system, is actually only a myth, the Oriental Other quite logically is not knowable to him and therefore is a matter of "indifference." More importantly, Barthes's comment is about the Other as unknowable just as "we" (any "we") are unknowable to ourselves: hence the reflexive significance of admitting the limitation of cultural knowing, "until everything Occidental in us totters and the rights of the 'father tongue' vacillate." In his brilliantly laconic and at times annoying semiotic reading of contemporary Japan, Barthes reveals a radical and ironic skepticism that the Japanese have not been able to indulge, engaged as they have been in the relentless course of high-growth economics. What will cultural reflexivity mean to a Japan that can now afford its share of skepticism, and then some? Will it seek to "export" what it "knows" for certain about itself to observers who do not "understand" Japan? Will it mediate and manage its cultural knowledge through institutional channels not yet clear? Or perhaps, under the projected conditions of low-growth economics, the Japanese will admit, along with Barthes, that the "Occident" is a matter of indifference to them, not because self-known cultural essence is beautiful and true and knowable, but, consistent with Barthes's semiosis, because what might constitute Japanese culture as the basis of self-knowledge is also unknowable, changeful, never fixed, always an open text containing a "surplus of meaning," and hence never beyond doubt, and that, therefore, even the rights of the "father tongue" will always vacillate. In truth, as most of us are aware, the history of modern Japan reveals quite a different pattern in cultural epistemology, so as to make this Barthian possibility seem unlikely.
For Japan, the West as the resource of technological knowledge has hardly ever been an object of indifference, except in certain egregious instances when, driven by uncompromising patriotic and nativist impulses, society has retreated from its—technology'—hold. And culture as the resource for firm, unshakable self-knowledge has rarely been characterized as ultimately unknowable, certainly not since perhaps Dogen and the early phases of Zen Buddhism in the thirteenth century; on the contrary, culture has been thought to be perfectly knowable, understandable from within, not requiring translation—not even the mediations of "language" and other "signs." A matter of the human spirit—kokoro—cultural certitude broadly conceived in terms of various historical and aesthetic verifications has served to frame technology within what is known for sure. Cultural self-knowledge, in other words, must be firmly grasped as a prior condition if technology is to acquire proper grounding. Culture precedes and frames technology, informs its ideology, grants it power, and, alternatively, generates contests over its own meaning.
The postmodern condition in "post-postwar" Japan will probably involve a working out of the deep interplay between technology and culture, the historical and the universal, otherness and self. The presumption that culture, history, and self are knowable has already generated intense and sometimes polemical discussion, since claiming to know is not the same thing as convincing others of what that knowledge is. In this arena of debate, culture is defended as radical individual commitment (as in Mishima Yukio's "defense" of culture), or explicated in the social-scientific terms of a refined, irreducible, and distinct "structure" or basic "pattern" (as in Nakane Chie's "vertical" society and Doi Takeo's "dependency" theory of childrearing), or presented as ideal "form" (as in Kobayashi Hideo's work on Motoori Norinaga). Or, as we hear more regularly of late, culture is "managed" by an impersonal administration so that it might be contextualized for "proper" understanding. Rather than see an end or resolution to these interpretations, postmodern Japan will witness an intensification of debate over the claims of cultural self-knowledge.
For the postmodern condition is an extension of the modern past; the differences between the two are a matter of degree and quality. The postmodern is termed as it is precisely because of the unlikelihood of a clear revolutionary break between the "modern" and what might lie beyond. As a phase "after" modernity, the postmodern retains the skepticism generated within the modern: namely, that "modernizing" development does not fix into place ethical or human purpose in history. For example, ever since the memorable debates among American and Japanese academics in Hakone in i960 on the modernization of Japan, we have been alerted by the commentaries of Japanese intellectuals, notably Maruyama Masao and Toyama Shigeki, among others, to the high probability that beneath high-growth development there was a human experience that really did not coincide with the theory of modernization and the rationalization being advanced primarily by Western social and historical scientists. Between Maruyama's insistence on the central importance of creating political value—i.e., political "fiction," as he referred to it and for which he is remembered—and the proposition among several American scholars that modernization is measurable history, there issued a dissonance that will undoubtedly spill over into the postmodern when the measurable threatens to become marginal and the possibility of "fiction" appears to have precious little outlet in the context of high-growth structures: a point made with painful directness in the satirical film Household Game, in which the demands of contemporary knowledge infiltrate the family household in the guise of a "tutor"—a shaman of sorts—who throws the rules of household civility into total disarray. The postmodern marks a moment when the simple questions are retrospectively asked of rapid modernization: "What is the meaning of all of this? What's it all about?" These questions were first raised by Japanese scholars at the Hakone Conference of i960 at just the moment when Japan was about to launch its new history of high-growth economics in order to "double the national income." When this history of high growth had all but come to a close, the political scientist Ishida Takeshi echoed in 1984 the views of his mentor Maruyama at Hakone: "... any examination of development concepts must address the question of the purpose of development, i.e., development for what?" At issue for him was not only how a society might go about achieving goals that are already established, but, more importantly, how does it, politically, set goals for itself to begin with.
However banal these questions may seem, they contain within them the realization that the history of development will not change drastically into something new, and that, therefore, the postmodern is likely to be a continuation of development, only less of it. "Is this all there is to it?" we might then ask. "More growth at less speed?" The rhetorical implication that this cannot be the case is hedged by the conservative perception of the postmodern as being "postrevolution." The very term "postmodern" is informed by a deep skepticism and uncertainty as to how dramatic transformations are to take place within our history, an observation that has been made from any number of viewpoints, but in sum reveal the awareness that the classic guideposts of historical change are not reliable indicators. Increased technological production has not fueled the social dialectic. Indeed the dialectic has not fired, to say nothing of its having misfired. The systematic reproduction of consumer goods has homogenized society, making everyone, as is often expressed with much pride in Japan, a member of the "middle class." Increased technological productivity, as this view would have it, does not generate a social dialectic but, on the contrary, neutralizes and disarms it.
Accordingly, the state is not about to wither away; instead, it has gained in sophistication, has become the preeminent apparatus that defines and promotes national interests, and has sustained the conditions of its own locus by managing culture. As the writings of Louis Althusser and Jürgen Habermas suggest, large-scale political organizations, such as parties, appear to be appendages of the state and of its interests rather than independently representative of the public good. And, equally troubling, the persuasive capacities of independent political criticism are now held in suspenseful doubt. Indeed, what constitutes the "private," the basis of the autonomous subject that Maruyama prized and theorized about, has become enormously problematic, resonating in this regard with the "post-individualist" theme expressed by Dallmayr. The avenues available in moving from subjectivity to civil society at large no longer appear so innocent as they might have before, in, say, the decade following the end of the Pacific War. Education in particular has become a focus of debate and attention; in addition to scientific instruction, the kinds of social norms being taught and perpetuated have come under critical scrutiny. And, more broadly framed, the question of the primacy of culture in relation to technology has resurfaced in the bold and assertive terms of indigenous exceptionalism, or, the genre of writings often referred to as "Japanism"—Nihonjinron.
The issue of culture in relation to "reason" (as knowledge) recalls for us the discourse on otherness with which Japanese civilization has been intensely engaged over the recent decades. One slant of this discourse reveals a Japanese self-conception that says: We are more than what we say of ourselves as a "truthful" and "compassionate" people, and that margin of plenitude comes from the moral and historical epistemology of the Other. Among Tokugawa intellectuals this meant reserving a vital scholarly place for the Confucian "classics" vis-à-vis the considerable intellectual and emotional enticements of nativism or kokugaku. It is true that devotees of rational Confucian epistemology could not but agree that while they could know Chinese thought, they could not become Chinese—that knowing and being were not identical, and, therefore, as an extreme example, that the ideographic system of writing should be abandoned in favor of the indigenous syllabary or a radically revised ideographic system in keeping with indigenous grammar. The act of translating Chinese sentences—kanbun—into Japanese ones—kakikudashibun—presumed the possibility of bringing something of the Other into the home culture.
The previous formula could be altered to read: What we are capable of knowing from whatever source outside ourselves may indeed be true and valid, but the real margin of plenitude is in our indigenous culture. The quest for Western science and technology in the mid-nineteenth century was grounded in this sense of cultural certitude. The earliest textbooks on Western science from the beginning of the Meiji era (e.g., Fukuzawa Yukichi on physics) were translated into Japanese through the assignment of ideographic equivalences. Japanese self-consciousness expressed itself with a primary reference to continuous "culture" and not to technological "work"—the latter, in the final analysis, being like Confucian knowledge attributable to the Other. Translation as considered here refers not only to making knowledge accessible; it speaks to the construction of a relationship of authority framed in terms of the culture within, the exceptional or essential elements often relied on by Japanese to explain their ultimate "difference" from every other culture around the globe. The question of independence and dependence has always loomed large within Japan's modern experience. This has been especially true as regards the relative autonomy of culture in relation to technology and of culture as the margin of plenitude in the self-conscious Japanese subjectivity. For Japanese, self-knowledge, derived from a prelapsarian encounter with the gods and the land they created, always forced a difference between the plenitude of being and otherness, whether the Other was China or the West.
If we might adapt Victor Turner somewhat, the marginal in the formulation I have suggested here in the case of Japan is not the liminal Other, but the term for cultural order and selfhood itself. One does not "pass" through and return from it to the world of rationality and order; the margin is not "anti-structure" but order itself. It is the constant tone, like some sort of deep "bass note" (to rely on Maruyama Masao's phraseology of koso); or the essential ideal form that continues over time, that does not require translation, that plays a legitimate role in cultural, historical, and aesthetic philosophy.
The problematical relationship between culture and knowledge of the Other was articulated with particular intensity in early twentieth-century Japan. As in the case of Tokugawa Confucianism, the Other was clearly also "within" the historical process, although obviously much more powerfully so in the structures and processes of industrial production and the technological knowledge such production required. It was in this particular moment of reflexivity immediately following the first industrial revolution that some of the key terms were formulated that would establish the ideological place of "culture" in relation to "technology." Beginning in 1910, we detect a wide range of critiques against the previous transformational synthesis of the Meiji era that subordinated culture in relation to the new knowledge of Western technology. Along a broad front, we find critics saying that what changed in history was the unexpected and forceful infusion of technology into a particular social history of the late Tokugawa era that contained a momentum, some would say a dialectical one, of its own. History was thus grievously distorted and culture was placed under permanent siege. From this early perspective, technological progress, the measurable improvement of efficient: production, was determined to be a different order of things from aesthetic and cultural forms, for these latter did not (and ought not be allowed to) change and were to be evaluated by norms other than functional measurements of progress.
Excerpted from Postmodernism and Japan by Masao Miyoshi, H. D. Harootunian. Copyright © 1989 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsContents
Note on Japanese Names
On Culture and Technology in Postmodern Japan
Critical Texts, Mass Artifacts: The Consumption of Knowledge in Postmodern Japan
Of City, Nation, and Style
Visible Discourses/Invisible Ideologies
Modernity and Its Critique: The Problem of Universalism and Particularism
Maruyama Masao and the Incomplete Project of Modernity
Against the Native Grain: The Japanese Novel and the “Postmodern” West
Somehow: The Postmodern as Atmosphere
Japan's Dual Identity: A Writer's Dilemma
Suicide and the Japanese Postmodern: A Postnarrative Paradigm?
Karatani Kōjin's Origins of Modern Japanese Literature
One Spirit, Two Nineteenth Centuries
Infantile Capitalism and Japan's Postmodernism: A Fairy Tale
Picturing Japan: Reflections on the Workshop
Notes on Contributors