Jacobowitz – Writing Technology in Meiji Japan

9780674088412-lgJacobowitz, Seth.  Writing Technology in Meiji Japan: A Media History of Modern Japanese Literature and Visual Culture.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asia Monographs.  2016.
Publisher’s page

I know, I hear you.  “Finally!” you exult, “Something from this decade!”  And it’s true!  Not only is this book recent, it’s practically hot off the presses!  Full disclosure: I was asked to review this book for the journal Japanese Language and Literature, which is run by the American Association of Teachers of Japanese.  This post will echo some of what I said in that review, but if you want the director’s cut version, look for it in the forthcoming issue of JLL.  That issue should be out later this month, so check it out!  Alright, that’s enough shameless plugging for one post, I think.

Jacobowitz’s book has a mouthful of a subtitle that presents a huge, huge project.  I mean: a media history of ALL of Japanese literature and visual culture in modernity?  I already feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew just looking at 3 moments in modernity, and even then only at the sci-fi in those moments!  So how does Jacobowitz do in carrying out this ambitious (to say the least) mission?  Guess we’ll just have to click that “Continue Reading” button to see…

This is a book that made me think a lot about form, content, and the power they have over each other.  Basically, this book is (according to the publisher, at least: my copy’s loaned out) 312 pages, and it really feels like it, especially in the first half.  Where you end up at the end is worthwhile, but if I weren’t getting a publication credit for reading this book, I might not have had the wherewithal to finish it.  That said, I’m glad I did.  Jacobowitz makes a compelling case for an origin story for Japanese literature (and note that I’m using “literature” throughout this post to mean “modern literature”) that was dialed in to the media landscape of its day, rather than simply springing fully formed from the head of Tsubouchi Shoyo and Futabatei Shimei.  In some ways, I’m reminded of Tom Gunning’s Cinema of Attractions argument, which I gather was a real landmark in film history.  Perhaps this book will be the same for Japanese literary history, but it will have to overcome itself in some ways to do so.

So what do I mean by that?  I think a lot of the feeling that the book is a slog comes from Jacobowitz’s methodology.  He’s an avid, self-professed Kittlerian, and he uses Kittler’s discourse network analysis methodology throughout.  Unfortunately, at least for me who hasn’t read Discourse Networks 1800/1900, this amounts to a very long discussion of infrastructural, technological, and political developments at the end of the 19th century with no clear indication of how any of it is supposed to relate to literature.  It becomes clearer over time (spoiler: he’s linking everything together under the colonial episteme), but in the thick of it, I was constantly wailing, “Why are we still talking about the postal system?!?!”  I’ve read just enough Kittler to be dangerous (look forward to that post coming soon), and so my hot take on this is that Jacobowitz is trying to be much more methodical — with citations and everything! — whereas Kittler was, shall we say, unconstrained by such considerations.  As a result, where Kittler’s prose feels appealingly sleek if you don’t think too hard about what it’s saying, Jacobowitz gets bogged down in tracing all the material histories of empire without taking much time to take a step back and talk about its broader philosophical significance.

Luckily, everything starts to click together, K’nex-style, in the back half of the book.  We get to the significance of shorthand transcription (being one of the first recording technologies to differentiate information from medium and conceive of “noiseless,” perfectly transferable speech) and how this led to the genbun itchi writing style that came to define Japanese literature in late Meiji.  Jacobowitz takes us from shorthand, through rakugo (which was kind of a training ground for shorthand reporters), to Tale of the Peony Lantern (Kaidan botan doro) and its influence on Shimei’s Ukigumo, and finally to Natsume Soseki’s I am a Cat (Wagahai wa neko de aru).  This last text Jacobowitz uses to show how Meiji writers remained aware of the materially contingent origins of their style, and were willing to play around with it.

One thing I liked about Jacobowitz’s book is that it didn’t seem to get over-deterministic in its analysis of technology.  Especially in discussions of Meiji, “technology” often gets tossed around as a stand-in for “western influence”, and here too, Jacobowitz doesn’t shy away from recognizing that a lot of the technologies under discussion had their origins in the West.  That said, he doesn’t simply fall back on the conclusion, “Japan was imitating the West, and so modernity is a foreign import that Japan should resist.”  Instead, he keeps the history open and shows how Japan was not slavishly imitating the West, and how history need not have gone the way it did.

You might have noticed I haven’t said anything about the “visual culture” part of the title.  That’s because Jacobowitz doesn’t spend much time on it, either.  Honestly, I’m not sure why he felt the need to try to add in art historical discussions in the first place (maybe just to prove discourse analysis’s use in art history?), but beyond a few close readings of some woodblock prints, he never tries to delve into visual culture as deeply as he does literature.  Honestly, I think the book is strong enough as a literary historical study, and any more forays afield would have tipped the scales too far in the “bloated” direction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s