Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Name-Dropping: The Art and Politics of Referentiality in Modern Japanese Fiction

This just in from Vladimir Kutznutzov:

Dear Beholdmyswarthyface,

Ever wondered why the Japanese have such a penchant for name-dropping? From Mori Ōgai to Murakami Haruki, Japanese writers love sliding in a famous name or two whenever they get a chance. We Russians are notorious name-droppers, but are still no match for the Japanese!

In fact, I'm currently working on a paper that explores this subject of referentiality in Japanese fiction. Here are some questions I've formulated to guide my discussion:

a) Who and what is being referenced?

b) To what extent do the authors refer to "themselves," their contemporaries, and their immediate surroundings?

c) How does the reference function within its embedded context?

d) How have the methods of referentiality evolved since Meiji, and how does this evolution correspond to geopolitical/historical/cultural shifts?

e) What are the various functions of referentiality (eg, didactic, pedantic, aesthetic, parodic, political...)?

f) What is the relation between reference choices and genre/narrative structure/story/subject?

g) What effect do references have on readers? Are they disguised codes, and if so, what messages do they convey?

h) Why are some stories littered with references, while others aren't?

i) Why do some works refer only to Western sources, while others only to Japan/China?

j) Why do earlier works typically refer to "high" culture, while more recent works refer to popular culture?

k) What does an author's use of references reveal about the ideological underpinnings of a work?

l) How and to what effect do authors use references to manipulate, bend, collapse, or exploit binaries like foreign/native and modern/traditional?

As you pointed out a while back, Earl Miner has argued that pre-Meiji Japanese literature is essentially nonmimetic. “Japanese aesthetic," he writes, "rests not on the imitation of discrete agencies but on relation.” In other words, the literary work is not the simulation of external reality, but is rather a "re-presentation" of literary/historical characters and conventions with which the audience is already familiar.

However, in the early Meiji period reformers like Tsubouchi Shōyō sought to distance themselves from this nonmimetic tradition. For them, Edo-era parodies like Tamenaga Shunsui's Umegoyomi served as models for what one shouldn't do when writing the "new novel." Worthwhile art, they claimed, had to be more life-referential (ie, mimetic, with an emphasis on the private psychological interior of the characters) than art-referential (ie, literary pastiche).

Yet despite Shōyō's call for a new novel of "life" over "art," Meiji writers continued to draw from history and art—only now their referential pool had expanded beyond China and Japan to include the West. Furthermore, unlike Shōyō, who drew a clear line dividing "life" and "art," these writers seemed to regard the two terms less as mutually exclusive binaries than as two modes of a dialectical process in which "art" is both product and producer of "life," and "life" is both product and producer of "art."

At any rate, here is the provisional list of references. I plan to expand it in the coming weeks.
Additions/suggestions/related reading lists are most welcome. Oh, and I will eventually fill in where it says *All Japanese and Chinese.


Chris Horton said...

I drank tonight an illegal( in the US) Japanese combination of viper-venom and sake. The snake was curled up inside the bottle, which, frankly, beats the hell out of the intimidation factor of mescal with its scorpion.
What other secretly awesome things are you hiding that Japan has to offer?
Besides pseudo-intellectualism and the outdated farce of socialism, of course.

Josh said...

Marvin Marcus discusses Mori Ogai's penchant for "name-dropping" here:

Lucy Tucker said...

Also, check this out: On Referring in Literature. I found it very helpful.

Beholdmyswarthyface said...

Chris Horton,

Very nice comment. I've pasted it onto the blog. And I think I know the viper-venom drink of which you speak. It's called habu-shu. Haven't had it though. Other secretly awesome products: ... can't recall any. I don't buy things (I'm a communist, remember).

Lucy and Josh: Thanks. I'll make sure Vladimir checks out those two sources.