Thursday, September 6, 2007
On “The Collective and the Individual: Literary Practices and its Social Implications,” from Earl Miner’s "Principles of Classical Japanese Literature
Earl Miner presents a convincing case for the particularly collective nature of Japanese literature by looking at the predominant role of “collections" in pre-modern and early-modern Japanese literature. Citing numerous examples from the Nara through the Edo periods, Miner shows that even works that lack the –shū suffix are still often, in fact, collections, thereby qualifying a great many of the pre- and early-modern works as such.
The problem with his argument, however, lies in his seeking to ascribe elements of this literary phenomenon to broader social and historical contexts. Examining the societal functions that inform the production of art is a methodology that can and does often prove effective; however, when one is not trained in social history, and is therefore unable to provide sufficient evidence to support one’s claim, then it loses its effectiveness.
Though Miner’s conclusion may be accurate― namely, that the “particularly Japanese” social tendencies and notions of “self” and “person” greatly informed the production of literature― the evidence he sights to reach this conclusion is sparse, and his reasoning smacks a bit of nihonjinron. Miner makes several very general and contentious claims about Japanese group psychology and behavior for which he sights no evidence other than the centrality of collections in the literary canon.
This poses a larger question: Can any inferences be made about a society through the study of that society’s art, and, if so, what? Can we learn anything about 18th-century German society by listening to and studying the music of Bach, or, inversely, can we explain the music of Bach through the social behavior of Germans? Keeping in mind these larger questions, I will point out some of Miner’s more problematic claims, and show where more evidence could be justified.
[to be continued . . .]