Saturday, April 19, 2008

Barack Our Savior?

Just in from Josh Weiss:

Reading Philip Weiss's blog for the last month or so, I've come to love Obama. I've jumped ship from Ron Paul to Obama. Instead of googling "Ron Paul" every morning, I now start my day with a Obama search. Quite the ideological leap, you say? Well not according to Boston University professor of international relations Andrew Bacevich, who argues convincingly in this article from The American Conservative that of the three candidates Obama most closely resembles a small-government, non-interventionist paleoconservative.

And yesterday hot tears spurt from my eyes as I watched Obama say in this hour-long interview with Google that while the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line, the problem of the 21st century is the problem of understanding and coming to terms with the Other.

What other mainstream politician even knows this term, "the Other"? But then again, what other politician has met with the late Edward Said? How'd he get this enlightened? Or, more importantly, how did someone this enlightened make it this far in politics? Is his enlightenedness even real? Is "enlightenedness" even a word? Can a politician be too enlightened? We all remember how much good Woodrow Wilson's urbane cultivation did us-- or was his brand of mushy idealism altogether different from Obamian enlightened-ism? Is it a good thing to have a President who's read Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler? Has Obama read Kristeva and Butler? Have I even read Kristeva and Butler?

The more we learn about this enigmatic figure, the more questions arise, both about him and ourselves.

Yet despite all of these good signs, Obama still remains something of a wild card. There are those progressives on the left, like writer Philip Weiss, who are confident that an Obama presidency would lead to significant changes in foreign policy; but then there are those on the nationalist, libertarian-leaning right, like Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, who see all three candidates-- Obama included-- as likely to continue with the neoconservative policy of never-ending interventions, which, according to Scheuer in this interview, will likely prove fatal for both the U.S. and Israel, not to mention for the Muslim world.

So my question is this: Whose appraisal of Obama is correct, the nationalists or the progressives? Can we expect any real change with an Obama presidency, especially with regard to U.S. policy in the Mideast?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Notes on Alastair Bonnett’s 『The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History』 (2004) (Part 1)

Alastair Bonnett is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Newcastle whose publications include Radicalism, Anti-Racism, and Representation, White Studies Revisited, What is Geography, and most recently, The Idea of the West (2004), which attempts to answer the question, What is “the West,” and what are the origins of the concept?

Bonnett's main thesis in The Idea of the West is that the “the West” is largely a creation of non-Westerners. "Indeed,” he explains, “it appears that non-Western ideas about the West, in many cases, precede Western ones; that it was the non-West that invented the West" (2). Bonnett also challenges the commonly held notion that the Eastern world simply imported the West and adapted it through a process of hybridization. Instead, he finds that a closer look reveals that non-Western cultures often actively and creatively constructed representations of the West that suited the political demands of the day, and that these representations were more often than not entirely different from the West itself. Finally, Bonnett also takes aim at the "belligerence exhibited by [Victor] Hanson, [Avishai] Margalit and [Ian] Buruma" (2-3),” contemporary writers whom he condemns for continuing to propagate myths of an inevitable East-West showdown and Western triumphalism.

The idea of “the West” has been used over the years as a sort of undefined variable into which pretty much anything could be inserted. He points out that its assigned meanings and associations have varied considerably throughout history: in the ancient world “the west” was associated with the setting of the sun, death and whiteness, while to those in the mid-19th century “the West” came to signify progress, science, technology, and military prowess. Its geographical parameters proved equally flexible, so that to some the West was limited solely to the United Kingdom, while to many living during the Cold War it was broad enough to include Japan.

Bonnett also identifies two opposing narratives that can be found in every era since the 19th century. On the one hand is the alarmist narrative, which warns that the West has gone into decay (e.g., James Little, Oswald Spengler, Pat Buchanan), while on the other is the triumphalist narrative that celebrates the recent victory and enduring supremacy of Western civilization (e.g., Benjamin Kidd, Victor Hanson, John McCain) while barely managing to conceal deep insecurities. The fact that these two opposing narratives can exist simultaneously proves that the notion of the West, as a tool, possesses "extraordinary intellectual and political utility" (6).

Bonnett's argument poses serious challenges not only to the alarmists and triumphalists, but also to the founder of post-colonial studies himself, Edward Said. Bonnett sees the recent discourse on Occidentalism as divided into two camps: those "who define Occidentalism as a Western project of self-invention [e.g., Said] and those who ally it with the examination of images of the West from across the globe" (e.g., Bonnett) (7). Bonnett faults the Said camp for not sufficiently focusing on the "uses and deployment" of Occidental discourse, something which he, Xiaomei Chen, and others consciously strive to do. Bonnett faults the geographers, too, who, "paralyzed by memories" of a colonial past, are afraid to address these questions of use and deployment.

Bonnett's methodology is to "use influential intellectuals as . . . prime sources," focusing on the 19th and early 20th century for the first four chapters, and on the 20th century for the final three. (For this article, I focus most of my attention on the first four chapters.) Bonnett’s top-down approach runs the risk of becoming myopic; yet by focusing on a handful of influential intellectuals he is able to see beyond the limits of popular national narratives, so that the larger, transnational narratives can be discerned.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


* * * * (Note: Translations were done many years ago, and may be in need of revision.)

André Breton (1896-1966), French dada poet and novelist later turned Surrealist, famously made the distinction between dadaism and some of the other coeval artistic movements in Europe when he wrote that “Cubism was a school of painting, futurism a political movement: DADA is a state of mind.” It was this emphasis on interiority and phenomenal representation that led Takahashi Shinkichi 高橋新吉 (1901-1987), the subject of this article and the author of the following dada collection of poetry, Makuwauri shishū 「まくはうり詩集」 (1921), to later assert that dada was merely an imitation of Zen, and that Tristan Tzara, André Breton, and other European founders of dada were, in fact, latent Zen Buddhists.

Like Zen, dada was a way of seeing and interpreting the world in a way that denied the existence of the self or ego, doubted the possibility of knowledge, and, perhaps most similarly, relieved language of the burden of having to convey truth. As time went on, artists became more conscious of a connection between the two, and by mid-century, according to William Seitz in his The Art of Assemblage, “It was the knowledge of dada, in part, which led certain modern artists, after 1945, toward Zen Buddhism.”

Dada found its way to Japan around 1920, and somehow managed to survive as a preeminent movement for over a half a decade, with only six key figures. The movement began with the publication of several informative, though not entirely flattering, articles about dada’s development in Europe, including those by the more sympathetic critics Tsuji Jun 辻潤 (1884-1944) and Katayama Koson 片山孤村 (1879-1933). In his article “A Study in Dadaism,” published in 1921, Koson delineated the three artistic principles required for practicing dada art, namely, “bruitism, simultaneity, and the use of new materials in painting.” Another critic, Kawaji Ryūkō 川路柳虹, published favorable reviews of dada in the Waseda University literary review. There was also Moriguchi Tari 森口タリ, perhaps the most favorable critic of dada, who wrote for the Waseda University literary review several scholarly articles, including “The Poetry and Painting of Dadaism.”

But it was Tsuji Jun, the well-established critic and translator of foreign literature (mainly works by Max Stirner and Oscar Wilde), who proved to be the most influential of the dada advocates, and who provided Takahashi Shinkichi with moral support from the outset, even writing for him the postscript to Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi 「ダダイスト新吉の詩」 (1923). In 1922 Tsuji published two articles on dada, “Misunderstood Dada” and “Talk on Dada,” and, together with Takahashi, played a key role in dada’s permeation throughout Japan. Though it was Tsuji who in 1921 discovered Takahashi and soon after made possible his writing career, the friendship between the two did not endure after Takahashi abandoned dada for Zen; Tsuji instead moved toward nihilism and a kind of Stirnerean individualism.

Perhaps the most important writer to have been immediately influenced by Takahashi’s dada poetry was the young poet Nakahara Chūya 中原中也 (1907-1937), who would later become one of Japan’s most esteemed Symbolist poets. Chūya was only sixteen when he first read Takahashi’s Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi, which so entranced the budding poet that for several years it was all he read. After dada had more or less disbanded, Chūya continued writing dada poems until discovering French poet Arthur Rimbaud, at which point he began to move toward Symbolist poetry. Traces of dada, however, can be found even in Chūya’s later poetry, and he is still considered by many to be, at least in part, a dada poet.

Takahashi Shinkichi, the central figure in Japan’s dada movement, was born on January 28, 1901 in a fishing village near the city of Matsuyama in Ehime prefecture, in northwestern Shikoku. Shinkichi was largely self-educated, having attended only commercial school from 1913 to 1918, the year he decided to secretly run away penniless to Tokyo. This first peregrination to the capital would later be recorded in his dada novel Dagabaji Jingiji monogatari 『ダガバジジンギヂ物語』.

In 1920, his poem “Honoo o kakagu” 『焔をかかぐ』 won a prize in the newspaper Yorozu chōhō 『万朝報』, the Tokyo-based paper that soon afterward introduced Takahashi to dada through several articles about Tristan Tzara and other European dadaists. But Takahashi soon left Tokyo and returned to his hometown in Ehime, where he found a job at the local newspaper and began to publish various poems. In 1921, the year he became an apprentice monk at a Zen temple, he began a first edition of Makuwauri shishū 「まくはうり詩集」, which he showed to the newly befriended Tsuji Jun, who would later edit and write the postscript for the 1923 collection, Dadaisuto Shinkichi no shi.

During the next year he made the acquaintance of futurist artist Hirai Kenkichi 平井謙吉and novelist, poet, and critic Satō Haruo 佐藤春夫 (1892-1964), who would write the introduction to the edited 1923 collection. 1924 would see his return to Tokyo and the publication of his first novel, titled simply, Dada 『ダダ』. It was after this publication that Takahashi’s writings and studies would take a turn away from dada and toward Buddhist literature, culminating in 1926 with his throwing overboard into the Korean Sea the manuscript for a second dada novel.

Takahashi’s transition from dada to Buddhism, however, may have been smoother than he portrays in his diaries, since both systems of thought hold as one of their fundamental assertions the notion that “the word is useless and poetry is to be abandoned.” In the end, dada, ironically, served not as Takahashi’s introduction to European culture and literature, but rather as an introduction to his own native tradition.

For the following translation, I have tried to follow the advice of Vladimir Nabokov, who observed that “free translation” is a term “which smacks of knavery and tyranny,” and that the primary duty of the translator should be to remain as faithful as possible to the linguistic features of the original work.

The following translation is intended for the reader interested in poetry.

* * * *

A Collection of Cucumis Melo Poems

Makuwauri shishū まくはうり詩集 (translated by Ryan Morrison)


Shall we begrease the glee?
Might get slippery
Might as well be dead

the girl with the sallow face
blue-yellow girl
the girl

unknown man

All those wanting to eat the oden stew
made from putrefied sun, encephalon
welcome to the darkful dada-hermitage
bulging out of your skulls like rice cakes.

downstairs is red felt carpet

a collapsible dining table
and rice crackers

the Metropolis


Owing to the sun falling
Only on my right cheek and my left cheek’s freezing
I’m sick of walking
Despite wearing these new tight-fitting drawers
I slip into the embankment choked with steaming manure
Without dissolving into tears.
Passing under the arm toward the heart’s vicinity
The dim flickering autumn winds
Deride both the red dragonflies
And me
Thrashing us with culms of bamboo
No time to brush them aside
Seeing the river surveyor
Throw down his snipe
Seems a terrific atrocity
To the schooolgirl heading home behind me.
Pressing my brow against the telephone pole
To bear it up
I hunkered down, into a ball.


When scrubbing the sliding screen
the red cur drinking water, auburn tongue
the boatman’s wife
scrubbing tubers the scuffle over the crucifix
and the greens that flowed toward her

terrific windstorms
the dreaded premature ejaculations and blackouts
rain-shutter ricketing
the wooden joist collapsed between the mats
out sprouts green bamboo
should our shanty be whisked away
so long as we hold on all’s okay
a rope tied round its withered reeds
the sliding door’s eclipsed my head

but if you’re going to buy paper
buy potatoes instead
these fingertips that picked up the scrub brush
now felt cold
riding the sliding screen toward the light grey bank out beyond
body quivering
I stopped these cogitations.


went to buy koniak
dead drunk flames rise from the red split wood
tongue the sky’s base, an empty coffin.
a middle schoolboy came carrying octopus legs
boiled them in the earthen pot
eat the koniak, middle schoolboy
now that it’s moist

he said that inside the mattress
his stomach is cold and hurts

in the midday autumn the sky is towering
bringing hog’s-meat he came again
to where in the eye half-shut with sleep
toothpowder had been scattered.
“Shall I give up the ghost?”
“now here me this, middle schoolboy
descending the embankment:
marry neither the housemaster’s daughter
nor the temple girl, yet feast
leave no taste on the testamentary
which even without sugar is saccharine”



Mother’s child
dreamt of crimson rice

Father’s granddaughter
pissed a green-blue liquor

the son and granddaughter went their separate ways
their dreamage and urine never mingling.



It’s always afterward the slaughterer feels the weariness
For every filly two hundred million spermatozoa
Was the nursling
Tightly held between rich swollen dugs
Not asphyxiated when his mother, full of sin,
Waxed aroused watching the figures of copulating horses,
Watching their very horseness?
It is written: “The vagina’s mucous membrane
Is presumably an alkaline,
Though it may soon turn acidic.”
I remember what they had said.
Still they do not hear
Agreeable weariness
Two withered legs
Innumerable men
For what reason do you not call to one another, spermatozoon?
Deep are the sins of women
Sakyamuni’d been in error.
Is it not that each month
But one egg is secreted
I think
One must think
Were there no gradation to the sin
We would have planned in advance no penitence
For the murder or masturbation
Accompanied by that same weariness.


Nothing can be done about her lips being thick
on the street all is closed
the face of the earth frozen over
the sound of clogs echoing out endlessly—
clip-clop the glass door at the barbershop
the white curtains, cold pummels the face
the earthen floor at the greengrocery electricity is leaking onto
onions were faintly quivering.
but at my back
a figure wrapped in a manteau
clearly visible with a sideways crawl
a faint shadow
flowed from my feet
and, noticed, startled me.

A spider crouched into a ball
on the empty elbow of an empty chair.
for being so cold-blooded so overfed
her ichthyosic arms coiled
and so are her thighs the woman
by now had sunk into slumber
still the
two shadows are
leaning absently against the electric pole
still, lighting a smoke
my hand trembles
in effort to seize her exhalation
might she have been
an apparition
the young boy
holding in his piss
not knowing
the stars and moon
are already relieved
turns his head upward under the lantern hung from the eaves
under the latten umbrella-light
its interminably apologetic face
wrapping the scene
in a sympathetic hue
but surely there is no reason
for a woman to be in each arm
for how many hours had it been,
my walking alone?
the two shadows
follow apace unsevered
turning back turning back I
see the furtive
and tardy arrival the standing at attention
of the strangeness of things I try to disrobe,
throwing the manteau over the bridge.


was not in.
His wife gave me a mandarin.
It was about to snow.
A man
the young woman hybridous in tow
cried into the streets,
let us heed the will of the Lord.
Returning home along the river
I stopped by the outhouse
Through a loose board
blew from below
a biting breeze.

I bit through the sleeve-grass
into the orange’s pulp.
Let us heed the will of God.
My teeth are set on edge.


The degraded painter Mister Z
Despises the spring fall and future
And over the last twenty years
His mother has worn out her bat-
“What is sandwiched between its shaft,
You see, is a pearl.
No matter what a thing is,
There is nothing that doesn’t resemble a meal.”

“Surely we’re not to eat the vainglorious hog;
But will we, mother, be able to wipe our sweat
Though the rags are yet to dry?
Should we naught the spring and fall,
What’ll be left to draw
With these benumbed hands?
I am not a sharp
Perceiving dog.
I can’t make out
The future’s fragrance.”


Dandelions were blooming
The rickshawman trotted over.
Carrying away somebody’s lover.
Steam trains absent and so are the electric trains.
A cardiac arrest.
This one-street town
With not
That much dust.
Kneeling dejected,
He’s dead already isn’t he,
Poor bastard
Hauled in
To the first confectionary shop.
Poor mister
Shot himself in the stomach.
Having lost the bet
And soon were heard
Rumors of my return.
Can the rickshaw tread reposefully along?
Is what I say unreasonable?
Can death be avoided if we’d just stay calm?
Dandelions fond of
Yellowish tubercle bacillus.
Will my lungs ever improve


The socialist to the prosecutor
said in a low voice
You feel quite nice when you board the plane
but the dog still got away.

now settle down and tell me
is it really something
like the rarefied air
this love

an indulgence?
the gamut of things
seen as one in a cerulean hue
to whom among us hast thou given such eyes

there is but one tongue
gnawing off that tongue
and not gnawing off that tongue are the two things humans can do.
tell me eremite

is there a suicide
ending not in death
would Sakyamuni or Christ revived
be only meeker than the dead

is the oft-said word gramercy
any different than matters of conscience
again I was thinking would this have been the loincloth
of a indigene? and you

aren’t you worried about your family
sure they’re something to worry about
for they too are sometimes my possessions

and is it not a paltry thing
your ego
a kind of vestment
you ought to remove

rage against it with resolve
for courage will be needed to course in an instant
all of forever
and then shall ease the throbbing in the head.

[Poems taken from: Takahashi Shinkichi zenshū 高橋新吉全集. 4 vols. Seidosha, 1982. Makuwauri shishū can be found in Volume One.]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Grady Glenn's Letter to His Friend Working for the McCain Campaign

This just in from Grady Glenn:

Dear Friend Working For the McCain Campaign,

Give my condolences to the good Senator. Unfortunately for him it's all downhill from here.

Had it come down to Clinton and McCain, we could have expected 70% of eligible voters (including progressives, paleoconservatives, libertarians, Quakers, branch dividians, southern avengers, conscientious intellectuals, all blacks, and myself) to stay home on November 4, allowing McCain to win by a fair margin.

But now that it looks as if Obama will be the Democratic nominee, a good majority of that 70% will show up at the polls to vote Obama, and McCain will likely be defeated in the general election.

Had McCain heeded the advice I gave him last year and moved away from the mad neoconservatives and toward a realist platform-- the kind to which he seemed to subscribe for his first 15 years in the Senate-- he could have avoided such a fate. Tell him he'll need to listen to my words more carefully from here on out if he wants to win; but barring some major catastrophe in the next few months, it's probably already too late.

At this point his only hope is to take Chuck Hagel as his running mate. Whether Hagel, a staunch anti-neoconservative, would accept or not it another question.

Glenn Grady

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Notes on Motoori Norinaga's Critique of "Genji Monogatari"

This just in from Cniva Albinus:
In the “Ōmune” 「大むね」 section of his "Genji monogatari tama no ogushi" 『源氏物語玉の小櫛』, Motoori Norinaga 本居宣長 (1730-1801) condemns the bulk of previous commentary on Genji monogatari, and calls instead for a new, aesthetically-based standard for assessing monogatari. He argues that the Confucian-Buddhist framework of analysis― the only one made available for the past several centuries― is no longer appropriate, and that a new system based on mono-no-aware must be established. The terminology of kanzenchōaku 勧善懲悪 (“promotion of good, chastisement of evil”) must be replaced, he insists, with a system of discourse centered on the idea that the primary purpose of literature is to make the reader aware of the "workings of emotions” (ものの哀れを知らしむる), and not to promote virtue or chastity.

Motoori's first task is to reassess the terms of appraisal. Within this new system, the value of the work is no longer determined by the moral “goodness” (as decided by Confucian and Buddhist scholars) of the characters; rather, it is determined by the degree to which the work conveys mono-no-aware and engenders empathy in the reader. Attributes such as “good” and “bad,” being relative to their substance and function, might have an opposite meaning in another context. For example, what is considered “good” in an ethical context might be “bad” in an aesthetic context, or vice versa. Motoori gives the example of the “penetrability” of the arrow and the “impenetrability” of the armor― both good qualities in terms of their substance and function.

Having established that qualities are only good or bad in relation to their context and function, Motoori goes on to define the “good” qualities of a monogatari. A good monogatari conveys mono-no-aware (ものの哀れを知り), engenders empathy (情ありて), and adheres to laws of decorum (世の人の心にかなえる); a bad monogatari fails to do these things. These three qualifications may or may not coincide with those of Buddhist-Confucian doctrine. As the cases of both Genji and Fujitsubo demonstrate, characters can be "good” despite behaving rather badly.

As is typical of Japanese aesthetic theory, Motoori discusses the purposes of monogatari in terms of reader-response. While providing the reader with diversion, amusement, and solace is included among its purposes, the main purpose of monogatari is to offer the reader a “knowledge of life,” i.e., the understanding of the “actions of men” and the “workings of emotions.” According to Motoori, the kind of writing that best conveys this “knowledge of life” is a sort of psychological realism, which takes as its subject “the ordinary stuff of life.” Contrasted with this type is the “outlandish” category of monogatari― those works concerned with gods, fantasies, absurdities, etc.― which Motoori holds to be inferior.

Motoori points out that when monogatari is attacked, the attack usually comes as one of the following two objections, or both. The first contention is that the content of monogatari is frivolous and indecent, and will likely lead the reader astray. The second complaint is that, because the happenings are not true, it is absurd for one to feel empathy toward people who never existed (i.e., the “fiction paradox”). In Genji monogatari, Murasaki provides a defense of fiction in the famous Hotaru chapter, which is one of the world’s first examples of fiction-as-subtextual-aesthetic-argument. Her argument is subtly presented in dramatic form through the characters Genji and Tamakazura.

Motoori, tracing this famous dialogue between Genji and Tamakazura, provides the following defense. Just as it is necessary in speech to give vent to pent up feelings, so too is it necessary to give vent through writing. Like poetry, monogatari arises from and is legitimated by the need to communicate one’s grief to another, and it is this process of communication that provides relief. The purpose of art, again, is defined in terms of a communicative act― a contractual bond between author and reader― with the reader finding solace through the identification with representations of people, and the writer finding relief by unburdening his thoughts through these representations.

As for the criticism that monogatari contain only frivolous lies, Motoori counters that they are merely half-lies, or rather half-truths, similar to the hōben 方便, or “expedients,” of Buddhist doctrine, and that within their fictional framework essential truths (偽りの中の真) are contained and delivered. While being untruths, they are not untruths (空ごとながら空ごとにあらず), he reasons. In this way, they are essentially no different than the official histories of Japan or China, and certainly no less important: for while the official histories record the “outer” truths (i.e., the public events of officials and aristocrats), the monogatari record the “inner” truths of the events that go on behind closed doors, and the private thoughts of those within these inner quarters.

[For an English translation of Motoori's essay, see: Motoori Norinaga's criticism of the Genji monogatari : a study of the background and critical content of his Genji monogatari tama no ogushi / by Thomas James Harper.“The Intentions of the Novel” section.]