Sunday, October 5, 2014

Study Guide Questions for Edogawa Rampo’s “Human Chair” (1925)

Study Guide Questions for Edogawa Rampo’s “Human Chair” (1925)

*Translated by James B. Harris, included in his Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination (1956)
*To purchase the English translation, click here.
*To listen to an audio recording of the original (read by actor Sano Shirō 佐野史郎), click here.

Although not explicitly proletarian literature, it's a very proletarian/revolutionary work, in my view. Written in 1925 (just before the proletarian movement peaked and just before the Shōwa Financial Crisis 昭和金融恐慌 of 1927), it's the story of a poor ugly worker who is alienated from the products of his labor (i.e. fancy expensive chairs that are bought by the ruling class) and who one day decides to disrupt this process of alienation by hiding himself/living in his chair and fondling the wealthy women who sit in it;a truly revolutionary work.


1. Ero guro nansensu: Literary and artistic movement in the 1920s and 1930s that devoted itself to explorations of eroticism, sexual corruption, decadence, the perverse, the bizarre, and the absurd. Although influenced by the “decadence” of European modernism, the movement’s roots can be traced to ukiyoe, shunga, and other native art forms of the Edo period. In general, the movement challenged state ideology and bourgeois conservative values, and this story is no exception. Today, lingering traces of the movement can be found in manga, anime, etc. The popular literature magazine Shinseinen 新青年 (1920-1950) was, in its early years, a major venue for the movement.

Some Relevant Marxist Terms[1]

2. Alienation: Karl Marx developed his theory of alienation in his early writings, particularly in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). Using the German words Entfremdung (to estrange, make alien, rob) and Entäusserung (to alienate, part with, sell, externalize), Marx outlined various ways in which human beings become alienated in their lives, particularly in the course of the labor process. According to Marx, human beings experience a loss of control over their lives and over the creations that constitute the basic institutions and processes of society, such as the state and work. This alienation or estrangement means that human beings have a sense of living in a world that is alien and hostile, and they experience their lives as meaningless, unsatisfying and worthless. Ultimately human beings live their lives in a way that is less than fully human; they are dehumanized. 
Marx derived his theory of alienation from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s notion of alienation and his own critique of Hegel. For Hegel alienation referred to the process of “Spirit” (Geist) externalizing itself in the creation of reality, but failing to grasp that the world was not something external to Spirit. Spirit, through human consciousness, gradually comes to realize that the world is the creation of Spirit, and in so doing overcomes alienation. Marx, treading in the footsteps of the “Young Hegelians” and Ludwig Feuerbach critiqued and moved away from this notion of alienation rooted in idealist philosophy. Following the line of thought developed by the Young Hegelians and by Feuerbach in particular, Marx identified the problem of religious alienation where human beings create the notion of God and attribute to this creation idealized features of themselves. Having created God and projected on to it our most essential features, we then give it an independent existence and bow down to worship this entity that is entirely our own creation. This process sees the externalization of our essential features and the fashioning of an alien entity out of them which then has a power over us. 
In religious alienation we become separated from our essential selves, and this occurs in an even more significant way in the labor process. Human productive active is fundamental to us, not just as the way in which we produce our subsistence, but also as the way in which we develop and express our human potential. However, in class society, and in capitalism in particular, the process of production is a process by which individuals become alienated. First, individuals are alienated from what they produce. For example, a worker in a factory creates a product which is then sold by the factory owner when, where, to whom and at what price he sees fit. The worker has no control over the product that he has created. Secondly, an individual is alienated from the conditions of the work process, that is, he has no control over the process of production, does not own the tools of production and, increasingly under capitalism has to perform dull, repetitive tasks requiring little imagination, skill or creativity.
Thirdly, an individual is alienated from his “species-being,” that is to say, he is unable to develop and express his essential human characteristics. Human beings, according to Marx, are essentially productive creatures and it is in the course of producing that we distinguish ourselves from animals. Unlike animals human beings produce consciously, planning their actions and using imagination and creativity. Human beings can exercise their will and not just act according to instinct, and they are also essentially social and cooperative, but all these characteristics are denied in the labor process in capitalism. The restrictions placed on us by a class society where the majority do not have free access to the means of production, where there is a highly specialized division of labor, and where control is exercised over our labor by bosses and impersonal market forces serve to prevent work from being the enriching and fully human activity it should be. For Marx the solution to the problem of alienation is communism; the overthrow of capitalism with the abolition of the division of labor and private property will make de-alienation possible. The theory of alienation is controversial among Marxists and Marxist commentators with some, for example Stalinists and structuralist Marxists such as Louis Althusser, viewing it as essentially a product of Marx’s immature thought and a theory that he left behind as he developed his more sophisticated and scientific notions of historical materialism and of exploitation in particular. However, Georgii Lukács, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Erich Fromm and Gajo Petrovic are notable Marxists who have accorded a place of importance to the theory of alienation in Marx’s thought.

3. Commodity: According to Karl Marx, the commodity is the cornerstone of capitalism and commodity production is a key defining characteristic of capitalism. Marx begins his investigation of capitalism in Capital with an analysis of the commodity. A commodity is something that is produced for exchange rather than something produced for immediate use or consumption by the producer. According to Marx, every commodity combines two aspects: use value and exchange value. Use value refers to the power of a commodity to satisfy some human want, or put simply what the commodity is used for.
Exchange value refers to what a commodity can be exchanged for, in other words its power to command other commodities in exchange for itself in a particular ratio. The value of a commodity is the amount of labor embodied in it (see LABOR THEORY OF VALUE), and the labor that creates a commodity can be viewed as either concrete labor, that is a particular kind of labor (such as weaving) that produces a particular use value (such as cloth), or as abstract labor. Abstract labor represents labor in an undifferentiated way, as just labor that creates exchange value, and only occurs in a system where commodities are exchanged and the labor embodied in them has to be commensurable. Marx identifies one particular commodity as crucial in capitalism because of its unique ability to create value, and this commodity is labor power. Labor power is the source of surplus value and ultimately of profit in capitalism (see EXPLOITATION; FETISHISM OF THE COMMODITY; SURPLUS VALUE).

4. Fetishism of the commodity: In his analysis of capitalism in Capital Karl Marx introduces his notion of the fetishism of the commodity. Drawing an analogy with religious fetishes where a power is falsely attributed to an object, Marx argues that in capitalism the commodity is given the appearance of being the natural source of value by the prevailing social relations. Commodities appear to have a natural and intrinsic value rather than being the value of the labor power invested in their manufacture. Marx attributes a similar fetishism to wages, profit and rent, which in capitalism have the appearance of being revenue derived from labor, capital and land respectively, but are in fact derived from different amounts of labor power. Marx sees capitalist social relations as mystifying, as obscuring the true relations between people and things, for example wages conceal exploitation, and overall capitalism appears as natural rather than a historically specific social form.

5. Reification: The term reification is linked to the notions of alienation and  commodity fetishism. It refers to the idea that human qualities, relations, actions and even human beings themselves are transformed in the course of capitalist production into things, and these things come to have power over human beings. Karl Marx implicitly discusses the phenomenon of reification in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), and explicitly analyses it in the Grundrisse (1857/58) and Capital (volume I, 1867; volume II, 1885; volume III, 1894).
According to Marx, all the key elements of capitalist production, for example, the commodity, money, capital, profit, and wages, involve this process of reification. Social relations between individuals become thing-like relations between persons and social relations between things; social actions take the form of the action of things. Human creations become independent of their creators and human beings become subject to their own creations; human beings are governed by the system of commodity production that they created. The social origin of these economic creations, of wealth and value, becomes obscured, and bourgeois economists compound this mystification by presenting the attributes of these elements of capitalism as natural properties. The notion of reification was given prominence in  Marxist thinking by Georgii Lukács in his History and Class Consciousness (1923) in which the main chapter was devoted to “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” According to Lukács, commodity production entailed the key problem of fetishism, giving a relation between people the character of a thing and obscuring its origins. Reification gradually seeps into the inner life of society, even into the consciousness of human beings. Bourgeois society is in thrall to rationalism and rationalization, to the calculable and the measurable, and in the grip of a false consciousness that does not allow the social origins of capitalist relations to be perceived. The proletariat, its members treated as objects, as commodities, when it develops its class consciousness will actively rebel against reification and end it by ending capitalism. The place of reification in Marxist theory and its relation to other aspects remains a point of debate. For some it is a form or aspect of either alienation or commodity fetishism, while others see it as replacing the immature concept of alienation which was still rooted in philosophical idealism. In general, it has not received the same attention or been accorded the same importance as alienation and commodity fetishism.

Study Questions

Answer all of the following.

1. Describe the narrative structure of the work. What subgenre(s) of novel might this work be classified as?

2. Describe the personality and circumstances of the author of the letter. What is his relation to the world, to his craft, to his creations?

3. Does this work have a political message? Cite evidence to support your answer.

4. Describe the man’s interest in and interactions with women. In what way does his interest in women change? What is to account for the change?

5. How does the man perceive the world while in the chair? Which of his senses are most acute?

6. How is this work an instance of the “ero guro nansensu” movement? Identify and describe its “perverse” and “grotesque” elements.

7. After the man’s relocation to Yoshiko’s house, how does he go about eliciting her affection?

8. Discuss the ending. Does the second letter assuage Yoshiko’s fears? Or does she still suspect that the man is inside her house? Which letter are we to believe?

9. In his article “Panorama of Enlightenment” (Kaiko no panorama), Maeda Ai argues that human relations in Japan from the Meiji period on have been mediated through objects, particularly Western objects. How might this work be read as a statement or meditation about this fact of post-Meiji life?

10. The notion or literary device of “the confession” is at the very heart of Japan’s modern literature, particularly in so-called “naturalist” literature. How does this work problematize the notion/device of the confession?

11. It is a truism that one’s mode of reading will affect one’s interpretation of a work. How does this story thematize/confirm this truism?

[1] Definitions of Marxist terms are taken from Historical Dictionary of Marxism (Walker, Gray, 2007)

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