Figal – Civilization and Monsters


Figal, Gerald.  Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan.  Durham: Duke University Press.  2000.
Publisher’s page

Man, I’m giving Duke University Press a lot of links these days.  Don’t worry, my next post (spoilers!) will be on a book from Routledge.  Which could it be?  You’ll have to live with that tension until, like, tomorrow.

Vigilant readers of this blog may remember Gerald Figal and his love of monsters from a while back when he had some choice words for mass media under capitalism as it is portrayed in Paranoia Agent.  As you can see, this is a long-running interest for him, and one that I think is explored a bit more satisfyingly in his monograph from 2000.  Why is that?  Read on, fellow traveler!

The difference between this book and Figal’s article in Mechademia could be summed up as the difference between intellectual/discursive history and media studies.  Whereas in the article I reviewed a while back he was arguing that mass media (and specifically its consumption) under late capitalism was monstrous, in this book, Figal really digs into what he means by “monstrosity” and how that concept was mobilized in the turn to modernity in Japan.  If we read his discussion of monstrosity here charitably against the later article, the latter takes on more interest and complexity.  Figal offers a definition for monstrosity and “the weird” here as the Other by which modernity constitutes itself discursively.  More than just a nostalgic pastness or rurality in the abstract, though, Figal uses Izumi Kyoka’s aesthetics of “twilight” to chart an in-between course that avoids polarizing binaries.  In other words, the supernatural, precisely in its stubborn haziness and resistance to firm definition, does not allow for either-or distinctions asked by modernity (civilized or backward?  colonizer or colonized?).  While I don’t know if this was the sense in which he was using monstrosity in relation to Paranoia Agent, it might be fun to take a second look at it with this in mind.  Is the monstrous media he investigates simply a site of slippage in the totalizing drive of modernity?  We’ll think about that later.  For now, let’s focus on this book.

Figal pursues his discussion of the supernatural (characterized variously as youkaibakemonoobake, and fushigi) through case studies of the thinkers Inoue Enryo, Minakata Kumagusu, and Yanagita Kunio, as well as a look at the literature of Izumi Kyoka.  What’s most interesting to me about this approach is that it highlights the diverse political uses of fantasy.  I’ll admit to having fallen into the trap in my own work of using “fantasy” as a catchall, utopian concept of alterity and possibility without ever really interrogating its actual political deployments.  Figal shows the ways in which “fantasy” or “difference” or “mystery” can be mobilized for both politically progressive and conservative ends.  In Minakata and the early work of Yanagita and Izumi, he see the supernatural being valued for its difference with modern, state epistemologies.  Youkai become totems of local or folk knowledge regimes that destabilize the monolith of state-sponsored knowledge.

Inoue and later Yanagita, however, commit to the “mythbusting” approach to the supernatural that promoted modern, ratiocentric scientific modes of thought that the state promoted along with their attendant habits of instrumentalizing the world as a standing reserve for colonization.  Fantasy here becomes the benighted other waiting to be liberated through incorporation into the colonial center.  More than just the “foreign” colonial other, too, these epistemes were used to discipline “domestic” bodies of citizens and marshal them toward state expansionist and modernization projects.  Even more troubling, Yanagita’s turn to the “abiding folk” of rural Japan became fertile ground for the creation of a nationalist myth of racial and cultural purity in danger of pollution by Western values.  It’s a point that seems obvious in retrospect, but I found it an eye-opening look at fantasy as a double-edged sword.

I’ll be interested to compare this version of ratiocentrism with the kind that would arise — and quickly be made weird again — in detective fiction a few decades later.  Is it the same kind of “twilight” that Ranpo finds in his weird detective fiction?  What might have pushed Meiji youkai out of the margins and into the urban centers, where they would continue to stalk the modern city-dwellers as murderers, burglars, and other criminals?  It might also be productive to look at the specificities of these youkai, specifically the bodily deformations that always seem to accompany them.  Figal relates this to Western medical discourse’s emphasis on a normative body, but could we push farther than simply “non-normative” in thinking about monsters?  Sitting here in the twilight writing this, it’s certainly an intriguing thought.  I wonder what sorts of uncanny monsters I might encounter on my way to the grocery store?


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