Six years ago I along with Belgian Japonophile Michael Hauspie gave my first-ever happyō in Japanese to a graduate seminar at Waseda. Our topic: Inventing the Classics: Modernity, Nationality, and Japanese Literature, edited by Haruo Shirane. Needless to say, our presentation sucked (at least my half of it). Half the class fell asleep, teacher included.
In this article for the New Zealand Journal for Asian Studies, Roy Starrs of the University of Otago does a far better job than we did in addressing both the merits and shortcomings of Shirane’s book, and in exposing the fault lines in recent criticism, namely, the split between postmodernists and “anti-postmodernists.” (I’m not quite sure what to call latter— traditionalists? modernists? humanists? torchbearers of the Enlightenment? neo-New Critics? neo-conservatives?)
While admitting that the “antifoundational” approach to the canon (defined by Shirane as “those texts that are recognized by established or powerful institutions”) has enriched our understanding of literary history and helped to sweep away old dogmas, Starrs wonders whether the trendy suppositions of postmodernism haven’t warped our understanding by reducing everything to social phenomena. Writes Starrs:
As to whether these excellent literary-historical essays convince one of the validity of the “antifoundational” canon theory Shirane propounds in his Introduction, my feelings are more ambivalent. Generally speaking, the notion of “invented tradition” was a useful one when traditions were commonly and uncritically accepted as rock-solid, age-old “givens” or as arising and evolving naturally over many centuries without conscious intervention or manipulation by elite power groups. As with all such ideas or metaphors once they become widely popularized, however, there is always the danger that this once-useful 198 Starrs notion itself becomes too much of an idee fixe and is applied too simplistically or indiscriminately to all manner of cultural phenomena, no matter how diverse, hybrid or multifaceted.
Here’s a list I’ve compiled of some of the supposed attributes of these two camps (Starrs refers to the camp on the left as the “literature-lovers”; shall we then call the others “literature-demystifiers”?):
Humanistic --- Anti-humanistic
Universalistic --- Particularistic
Belief in aesthetic standards --- Rejection of aesthetic standards
Foundationalistic --- Anti-foundationalistic
Essentialistic --- Constructionistic
Objectivistic --- Relativistic
Belief in the primacy of author --- Emphasis on social/historic factors
Belief in notion of genius --- Denial of genius
Focus on individual, inner life --- Focus on collective consciousness
Starrs, clearly aligning himself with the “literature-lovers,” speaks of the nihilism of postmodernism, warning that humanists who accept the theories of these pernicious postmodernists in fact “embrace their own death.” Starrs even names names:
Some of the still most venerated intellectuals of the 20th century, from Heidegger and Benjamin to Foucault and Derrida, were among their number, men whose nihilism led them to political folly of the highest order – nothing less than the defense of anti-intellectual, antihumanistic tyrannies in Germany, the Soviet Union and Iran. Was this the result of their straining after a reputation as “original thinkers”, or perhaps a mere delight in confounding “established opinion”? Or was it simply, and less flatteringly, the result of a rather limited power and range of thought?