Thursday, April 30, 2009

Perversion in Modern Japan

Jarvis32 sends me this:
Speaking of Lacan and Japan, I just came across this press release for the new book Peversion in Modern Japan (Routledge, 2009), which examines modern Japanese culture and literature using the methods of psychoanalysis. (I sniff a stinky Zizek behind this recent Lacan craze). I’m particularly looking forward to reading Professor Hayter’s article on Ishikawa Jun, titled “In the Flesh: The Historical Unconscious of Ishikawa Jun’s Fugen,” which should be of interest to you as well.

Monday, April 27, 2009

On "Being Paul Auster's Ghost"

This just in from Sally Suzuki:

Here's a fascinating article by Mr. Shibata about what it’s like to translate Paul Auster. As he puts it, Auster’s novels themselves are “analogous in various respects aspects— the way the characters make themselves disappear, the way narrators tell their tale, the way protagonists look at themselves— to the act of translation” (187). The translator, he explains, like Quinn from City of Glass seeks to reduce his own presence just to the brink of obliteration.

Shibata also discusses Auster’s rare ability to find universal expression for the particulars of life, experience, self, etc— something which reminded me of John Ashbery’s notion of the “one-size-fits-all confessional poem,” which is at once private and public, individual and collective. One might say Auster’s conception of the self— as something always already entangled in the world, as it were— is closer to Husserl or Heidegger than to the subject-object dualism of Descartes.

It's a short article, so I don't want to give away too much. For more, you'd better read it yourself.

-Sally Suzuki, Beholdmyswarthyface Media Director

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem With Kanji

This just in from reader Laurie Spiegelmann, originally of Kansas, currently a foreign researcher in Tokyo:

It is with great regret that I inform you, Sir, that my application for grad school at a certain university in Tokyo has been denied. The reason: I can’t write the kanji.

I took the exam several months ago, answering each question entirely in hiragana. They said that it looked like some illegible Heian manuscript, and that I should return home if I wished to further my education.

I’d be fine with all this, except for the fact that I know all the kanji— for years now I’ve known them all already, known them all. I regard each as a friend, just as you, Beholdmyswarthyface, regard Sally Suzuki, Josh Landers, Jarvis32, Cniva Albinus, Dr. Nabil al-Tasnimi, Mabel Callahan, and Ian Hogarth as friends.

As with friends, kanji are each associated with particular experiences or memories, and like a friend a kanji can be either simple or complex.

上, for instance, is both visually and conceptually simple. 麗, by contrast, is visually complex but conceptually simple. Then there are others which are both visually and conceptually complex, such as 鑽, which means to make fire by rubbing sticks together. (A fairly involved exercise, if you ask me.) Still others are visually simple yet conceptually complex, like the less common 咼, which can mean, if memory serves, any of the following: a distorted face; to slant; to hollow something out; or a form of execution in which the victim’s innards are slowly gauged out.

Yet despite my intimacy with each of the two to three thousand commonly used kanji, I am unable to write them from memory. It’s like the faces of those you know: you always recognize them when you see them, but if asked to draw them, you wouldn't know where to begin.

Unless, of course, you’re an artist— which is the problem, I’m not. In fact, I’m entirely incapable of recreating on paper even the most basic and familiar objects of my visual world. Even squares and rectangles I struggle with. And because of this, I am forever barred from entering a kokubungaku program in Japan. Seems a bit silly, wouldn’t you say?

Laurie Spiegelmann

Ōshima Nagisa and Zengakuren

This just in from Sally Suzuki:

Last night I watched for the first time Ōshima Nagisa’s 1960 classic, Nihon no yoru to kiri. Though I couldn't find the film anywhere online, I did happen to come across a few related videos which I thought might interest you.

1. Ōshima Nagisa’s 1968 film Kōshikei (Death by Hanging), in ten parts.

2. The first ten minutes of Nagisa Oshima’s 100 years of Japanese Film, presented by the British Film Institute.

3. This 1993 Fuji TV documentary about the Zengakuren (Japanese Communist Faction), in 7 parts.

4. This TV Asahi documentary about the collapse of the Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) and the Asama-Sansō incident, in 6 parts.

That is all I have for now. Hope you find it useful.

-Sally Suzuki, Beholdmyswarthyface Media Director

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On Foucault’s 『The History of Sexuality』

Dr. Nabil al-Tasnimi sends me this:

I'm supposed to give a lecture tomorrow on the first two parts of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, but I have a plane to catch and won't have time to read it, so I was wondering if you could provide me with a summary of the work.

Nabil al-Tasnimi

Well, here's what I had time to put together. Hope this helps:

In parts one (“We Other Victorians”) and two (“The Repressive Hypothesis”) of the first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976-1984), Foucault gives a broad overview of the history of sexual discourse in Europe, which he sees as beginning in the 17th century and continuing to develop up through the present. Rather than focusing on the particulars of sexuality practices and tendencies, Foucault is instead concerned with two larger questions: how and why did this discourse develop, and what is the relation of this discourse to power? Thus, the first half of Foucault’s argument outlines the history of the idea of sex, while the second part is focused on the relationship between this sexual discourse and the institutions of power that create and apply it.

Foucault takes aim at the "repressive hypothesis," the notion that after the Enlightenment Europe entered a puritanical phase in which sexuality was suddenly silenced and repressed. Foucault argues that in fact the opposite is true-- that the West, far from being mum on the subject of sex, actually became increasingly articulate as it invented whole new systems of discourse to talk about the subject. Foucault sets the date for this shift somewhere in the mid-17th century, when sex began to transform itself from act to discourse, from being something that was done to something that was talked about. "Rather than a massive censorship," he explains, "beginning with the verbal proprieties imposed by the Age of Reason, what was involved was a regulated and polymorphous incitement to discourse" (Foucault, 34).

It was not long after this that a new scientific idiom was created to systematize all forms of sexual behavior, and to define the "norms" of sexual practice. The discourse continued to be refined within elite circles in Europe, so that by the late 19th century we begin to see publications such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which describes in extensive detail “abnormal” sexual behaviors (broadly defined as any act in which the goal is something other than procreation). Though originally confined to elite circles, this discourse slowly trickled down into the public sector, and popular novels such as Herbert Spencer Ashbee’s My Secret Life (1890) marked the beginning of a the new literary genre: the tell-all confessional, which was quickly assimilated into the popular consciousness.

The Catholic confessional also played an important role in spreading this new discourse to large segments of the public, helping to lay the foundation for the creation of a new modern phenomenon, “sexual subjectivity.” Churches, rather than shying away from the subject, began to participate like never before in the discussions, often using descriptive if not explicit language to explain to its parishioners the lines between what is acceptable and what constitutes sin. Schools, too, joined in on the fun, as they established sex education programs with the intent of regulating children’s sexuality in unprecedented ways. "It would be less than exact,” Foucault notes, “to say that the pedagogical institution has imposed a ponderous silence on the sex of children and adolescents. On the contrary, since the eighteenth century it has multiplied the forms of discourse on the subject; it has established various points of implantation for sex; it has coded contents and qualified speakers" (Foucault, 29).

Thus, rather than being repressed, sex in fact became something widely talked about, managed, put in terms of utility, administered, and even, by the mid 18th century, made into a police matter. Given these new regulatory responsibilities, the state suddenly found itself with an excuse to increase its size and scope; and, in turn, practicing regulated sex became a form of service to the state. Done properly, fornication could be an important way of contributing to the production, growth, and population increase of the nation (25-6). Whether planned or not, this new role of sexual regulator had the effect of radically increasing the size and power of state apparatuses (24).

Certainly, sex seemed to be a convenient tool for expanding state and institutional powers; but was this power really exercised through repression, as critics claim? Foucault’s short answer is no, it wasn’t. Rather than using methods of repression, states in fact wielded and maintained power through production: of life, governances, medical control, intellectual power, media, and the manufacturing of knowledge, most importantly sexual knowledge. States began to realize that to steer the discourse on sexuality meant, in many ways, to steer the population.

False Choices

Foucault argues that categories of “sexual identities” are, for the most part, arbitrary constructions that do not accurately reflect any real phenomena, but instead serve only to conceal a whole set of nuanced and complicated truths about human sexuality. By challenging the validity of this discourse, Foucault is moving away from the Marxian-Freudian premise that "all is sex," i.e., that one’s sexuality is the true indicator and center of the self. Foucault rejects the “strap-on” identities of the modern discourse, which he sees as false labels that, instead of providing people with the “liberation” they claim to offer, in fact confine people to rigid and uncritically inherited categories from the past, many of which are based upon prejudices and false assumptions. Most of these identities were in fact created and defined by an elite corps of technocrats, scientists, and the medical industry, each of which was driven by their own self-serving agenda.

Foucault concludes that the whole notion of "liberation"— the buzzword of his day— is wrongheaded because it calls for the liberating of things that do not exist, or, at best, are rough approximations of actual phenomena.

The Kenny G Fallacy

Some claim that the global proliferation of this Euro-American model of discourse is proof of its inherent truth and merit, and that Foucault's argument is, at best, misguided. This line of reasoning reminds me of what I call the “Kenny G fallacy,” which says that the fact that Kenny G has sold millions of records around the world irrefutably demonstrates that his music is of great value (a fallacy held by my father, an avid Kenny G fan). Following the same logic, some claim that the recent rise in the number of subscribers to the Western discourse on sexuality automatically legitimates the discourse.

To me, however, it seems that the recent “globalization” of the discourse actually validates Foucault's second thesis, namely, that sexual knowledge has from the beginning been a handy tool for institutions of power. Seen from this angle, it seems perfectly predictable that the exportation of this particular brand of sexual discourse would accompany the rise of the U.S. as the dominant global power over the past sixty years. Had, however, the hegemonic global power of the last sixty years been, say, the Netherlands, and not the U.S., then the global model of sexual discourse would have been something altogether different.

It is also important to note that the “globalization” of this discourse is not a truly global phenomenon, as it is limited for the most part to those regions of the world under direct American influence. For example, one might see a prevalence of this discourse in countries aligned politically to the U.S. (e.g., South Korea, Japan, Estonia, or Poland), but would be a bit more hard pressed to find similar movements in Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Serbia, or other non-client states.

Take for instance the notion of “gay identity,” which along with black, Jewish, lesbian, bisexual, and other “identity movements” arose out of particular historical circumstances in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century, when the melting pot suffered one of its major crises of retribalization. Though the notions of both race-as-identity and sexuality-as-identity can be traced back to earlier roots, such movements are a particularly American phenomenon, for which there were previously no equivalents elsewhere in the world. (Is this even true? Somebody correct me if I'm wrong!)

One case that comes to mind is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech last year at Columbia University, in which he made the statement, "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country." Predictably, he was roundly condemned for homophobia. But, in a sense, his statement was not altogether inaccurate, if taken in proper context and with due attention paid to the word “like.” Surely homosexual activity exists today in Iran as it has always existed. The difference, however, is that the Persians, like the Japanese, have not felt it necessary to define themselves by sexual acts in the same way we in the U.S. do. In other words, engaging in a certain act does not categorically define who the person is. What Ahmadinejad seemed to suggest was that, in Iran, sexuality and identity are not always conflated, there is room for ambiguity, and a defiant proclamation of identity is unnecessary, even laughable. Themes of pederasty, sodomy, and homosexuality are in fact quite common in both the pre-Islamic and Islamic literature of Persia (up through the present), and, like the Greeks and the Japanese at particular times, Persian poets often praised homosexual relationships, which they considered to be among the purest expressions of human love.

Other cases abound which show the degree of variance regarding interpretation of human sexuality. In Thailand, the conceptions of homosexuality and “kathoey” are so nuanced that their discourse defies in many ways the Western discourse (Manderson, Sites of Desire). Papa New Guinea is another case in point, where men of pre-marital age are required to engage in sexual acts with older male members of the community as a sort of rite of passage (Nagel, Race, Ethnicity and Sexuality). One could go on forever citing examples of cultures where the notion of “sexual identity” is still a mostly meaningless concept. But for us Westerners who already are saddled with these identities, it is too late to go back to the pre-discourse phase of history. What is needed now is a reconfiguring of the existing categories, so that they may more accurate reflect this complex phenomenon of human sexuality.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mabel of Dublin, Accompanied by Sister, Graciously Attends Entrance Ceremony at the Budōkan Not Knowing Of My Absence

This just in from Mabel, Dubliner:

You probably don’t remember me, but I made a comment on your blog last year, which I think you posted.

Anyway, I happened to be in Tokyo last week with my sister, and we thought we’d stop in on your nyūgakushiki (“entrance ceremony for new students”) at the Nippon Budōkan, hoping to cheer you on when they called your name. Problem is, they didn’t call your name, or anyone’s name, so we never could figure out where you were sitting. You were there, right? I took this panoramic picture of the ceremony, hoping to spot you in the picture when I got home. But still I don’t see you. Do you see you?

Warmest regards,

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Three Contemporary Writers

This just in from Ian Hogarth:

Idiot! Good thing you enrolled in the Department of Contemporary Literary Studies! You don’t know the first thing about the contemporary world, let alone about contemporary Japan!

But not to worry. I’ll do what I can to help, starting with a crash course (similar to the one you gave your mother) in contemporary Japanese culture that focuses on manga, popular music, and contemporary fiction. But first you’re going to have to get over this Nagai Kafū-wannabe anti-modern sourpuss phase that you seem to be stuck in.

You’d do well to start by looking into these three writers:

1. Furukawa Hideo (1966- )

2. Machida Kō (1962- ), punk rocker, poet, and novelist. As far as I know, none of his works has been translated. I recommend his 1996 novel, Gussun Daikoku. And here is his official website.

3. Ishiguro Tatsuaki (1961- ), physician and novelist. Biogenesis and Other Stories was published this year.

So look through the works of these three writers, choose a work you particularly like, and translate it. This is a good opportunity for you to embark on your first major translation project. You’ll also want to register here. You’re not getting any younger, so the sooner you make your debut as a translator the better.

-Ian Hogarth

A Page in Madness (Kurutta Ippeiji)

Sally Suzuki sends the following:

I think you mentioned a while back that Kawabata’s screenplay for Kinugasa Teinosuke’s landmark film A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji, 1926) was included in Bill Tyler's recent anthology of "modanisuto" Japanese literature. Well, after a little snooping around, I came across this (the first ten or so minutes of the Kinugasa’s film), as well as this episode of “Cinema Then, Cinema Now” in which psychoanalyst Dr. Harvey Greenberg and film historian Joseph Anderson discuss the film’s significance.

If I can find the film in its entirety, I’ll send that along too.

Sally Suzuki, Beholdmyswarthyface Media Director
Thank you, Sally. And to add to your findings, here's a 3-minute montage that comes, I think, toward the end of the film:

Saturday, April 4, 2009


This just in from パパ:
















Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mother Prepares Son For School

This just in from Mother:
My dear son,

I did a little background check on your two new advisors at Tokyo University. The first is a specialist in Russian and Slavic literature. I remember you reading Bulgakov, Babel and Zamyatin as an undergrad, but you might want to review here some of the lesser-known Soviet writers.

Your second advisor is apparently one of Japan’s most renowned and widely read translators of contemporary American (and British) fiction. I’ve compiled a list of some of the authors he’s translated; try to familiarize yourself with them before the semester begins, even though American (and British) literature isn’t your specialty. I suspect you’re only vaguely familiar with Paul Auster, Malcolm Bradbury, and Thomas Pynchon.

1. Steven Millhauser, novelist, short story writer. Won Pulitzer in 1997 for novel Martin Dressler. His short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was made into a 2006 film called The Illusionist.
2. Serbian-American poet Charles Simic.
3. Rebecca Brown, writer of gay and lesbian fiction.
4. Stuart Dybek, Polish-American from Chicago, acclaimed master of the short story.
5. Barry Yourgrau, multimedia writer and performer. Also writes for Huffington Post. Here’s his article from January of this year about the slaughter in Gaza.
6. Edward Gorey, writer, illustrator. Creator of the “Mystery” TV program intro.
7. Richard Powers, writer, addresses science-technology issues.

8. Ethan Canin, novelist, faculty at Iowa Writer's Workshop. Author of America America.
9. Malcolm Bradbury, novelist, academic. Author of famous polemical campus novel, The History Man. Here is David Lodge’s review of it.
10. Steven Erickson, surrealist/magical realist novelist, author of The Sea Came at Midnight and Zeroville.
11. British philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson, best known for The Outsider, a non-fiction work about the lives of various artists.
12. American Southern novelist and poet George P. Garrett, who served as poet laureate of Virginia from 2002-6.
13. Paul Auster. Here's CLR critic Garan Holcombe's not-so-favorable review of Auster's latest book.
14. Thomas Pynchon

Hope this helps.

Just in from Sally Suzuki

Sally Suzuki, apparently on a Lenin kick, sends the following:
Here are three links which might be of some interest to you and your peers.

1. In this lecture titled “Imperialism, Lenin and Bukharin,” socialist philosopher Phil Gasper uses the writings of Lenin and Bukharin to examine the current US/NATO imperial project. As he sees it, “the Bukharin-Lenin picture still very much fits the dynamic of international relations.”

Like most socialists, however, Gasper downplays the influence of neoconservative ideology on current U.S. Mid-East policy, attributing the war instead to the forces of capital— an argument that strikes me as a bit reductionist, as it fails to take into account the particular agenda of America's Israel-oriented new ruling elite. Still, it’s an informative lecture and worth the time.

2. In this 1978 documentary, British journalist James Cameron uses rare archival footage to explore the life of Lenin, from his early years and exile and to his post-Revolution rule and death. The soundtrack includes a weirdly orchestrated version of Rachmaninoff’s not-so-Communist-sounding Prelude in C# minor.

3. Finally, here’s a not-entirely-unrelated paper by Jodi Dean which explores Zizek’s provocative interrogation of democracy.

I have much more to send, so let me know when you’re ready.

Sally Suzuki, Beholdmyswarthyface Media Director