Golley, Gregory. When Our Eyes No Longer See: Realism, Science, and Ecology in Japanese Literary Modernism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2008.
In which I attempt to discuss this book in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
This blog’s founding mission was as a document of my qualifying exams study, in which I will take up questions of Japanese media studies, posthuman embodiment, and (including this book) the place of genre fiction in the literary history of 20th century Japan. None of that would appear to be of direct relevance to the presidential election that has just concluded in the United States, but the symbolism behind Trump’s victory — the seemingly bottomless, horrific symbolism regarding the state of the nation in the 21st century — cannot in my mind be ethically put aside at this moment, either in my blog, in my research, or in my teaching. I’m trying to become a scholar because I think it is one of the best and most direct routes, in its educational capacities, to improve the society in which we live, regardless of the discipline in which we do it.
So how to address myself to the travesty of politics, widely compared to the rise of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the early 20th century, that occurred two nights ago? How, indeed, to maintained focused on the task at hand (namely, this blog and my looming exams) while not irresponsibly retreating into intellectualism or, worse yet, the narcissistic, self-pitying despair of the white male academic in times of crisis? My thoughts are still inchoate, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I talk it out.
Let me just say first and foremost, I really liked this book, and it’s one of those books I’ll return to in the very near future, I think. One that makes the reading strategies for exams particularly frustrating. I wanted to read it cover-to-cover, but I don’t have the time, so through the digest we go. Golley pushes back on the notion that Japanese modernist literature was this semiotic game of free-floating signs that were all anti-realist and could only pessimistically deconstruct the act of representation and the hope of finding common ground in a “reality”. He does this through recourse to scientific discourse at the time (i.e. the Taisho and prewar Showa periods), which itself had come to recognize the fundamental effects of observation on the “reality” we perceive, symbolized in Einstein’s theories of relativity. This didn’t mean that there ontological ground didn’t exist for “reality,” merely that we couldn’t objectively, universally see it. To return yet again to Haraway, this was the beginning of the idea of “situated knowledge,” the consciousness of our own positionality as observers affecting in very profound ways our interactions with the world. This might seem like a fiddling distinction to make (especially as the central thesis of one’s book), but its effect is to dispel the idea of modernist authors as nihilistic anti-realists and reconnect them with broader conversations and politics at the time concerning the nature of reality and literature’s ability to depict it.
I read his chapter on Tanizaki, despite the fact that some reviews held it as the chapter that strayed the farthest from his thesis, because I see Tanizaki as an important figure in my own work on the pre-history of Japanese sci-fi. It’s true that much of the chapter was spent reading Tanizaki’s work against commodity capitalism and new media rather than scientific discourse itself, but the readings were nevertheless incisive as hell and compellingly written. Of particular interest to me was a reading of “Jinmensou” aka “The Tumor with a Human Face,” that essentially echoed a paper I wrote a couple years ago on the same short story (along with Kon Satoshi’s Perfect Blue). Glad I didn’t know about this book at the time, or I would have been stuck just repeating everything Golley said already! In any case, in that reading as well as his reading of Naomi aka Chijin no Ai that takes up the majority of the chapter, Golley theorizes image commodity capitalism as inflecting reality in much the same way as a microscopic view of something. It’s a different dimension to reality, one we can’t observe with our naked eye, yet one which is inseparably indexed to a “real” object or person. The film camera, in its superhuman attention to detail, shows us a reality we cannot ourselves see, despite our claims that the camera is a perfectly neutral observer that doesn’t impose anything on the image. With such means of recording becoming increasingly mainstream through film, photography, and advertising, filmic visuality infiltrates our means of describing the world, as with Joji’s “close-up” descriptions of Naomi or the way he sees her intertextually superimposed on Mary Pickford. If I were to extrapolate a bit, it becomes a “secondary visuality” akin to Ong’s secondary orality: we present ourselves with subconscious attention paid to how we would appear as images. Golley argues that it is not, therefore, that these images are entirely divorced from us, floating around in the commodity market, but rather that they gain their value precisely through their indexical relationship to our very physical selves. It’s the pornographic realism (as he calls it following Linda Williams) that imbues an image with value because it is able to serve simultaneously as an index of a real, sensuous human body and as a hyper-visual vehicle for idealized fantasy.
So that gets the normal book review part of the post out of the way. How does this help us in an era of Trump? For one, it’s a call for academics, authors, and creators of all kinds to remain meaningfully engaged with the world. Don’t get bogged down in one set of optics, when those optics obscure so much. It’s a recapitulation, perhaps, of the “echo chamber” threat of social media. You see one reality. It’s well-educated, socially liberal, and attentive to structures of oppression in society. But the exact same facts, the exact same reality, can be flipped just a few wavelengths down the spectrum and made to look entirely different. Rising diversity in the US isn’t a hard-won victory to be cherished, it’s the threat of globalism, the threat of (non-white) immigrants coming in to steal your jobs, mooch off of your social services, and denigrate your pride in nation, (white) culture, and (white) history. Urban gun violence isn’t a problem to be solved with more gun control, but less. Your optics on the world make it seem like everyone is in the same boat, but other optics would see the population split up along all kinds of lines. This isn’t “us” and “them”. That’s a dangerous binary to be avoided at all times. This is consciousness of the multiplicity of perspectives one can take on society and its fault lines.
But critically, the seemingly postmodern assertion that the state of the world can be radically different depending on your perspective DOES NOT MEAN that all perspectives are therefore equal. One of the things I really struggled with in this election was trying to reconcile the fact that we were living in the dark side of the radical relativism I had come to adopt as a result of buying into the postmodernity thesis. This was commonly known in hot-takes as the “post-fact society,” and I had to admit that I had myself sometimes come close to saying that there’s no such thing as facts, only what we can observe. Faced with the consequences of that line of thinking being turned around on me, I qualified my own position as saying that there still wasn’t anything like “objective” truth that we ourselves could access, but that all philosophies and worldviews must still be subject to a kind of ethical assessment. That is, in order to be valid, views must be internally consistent and also stand up to an agreed-upon ethics of equality or of life, liberty, pursuit of happiness kind of stuff. That still felt like I was on rocky ground, though. What this book gives us is the idea that, yes, there is a “real” out there against which we can judge political positions, just not one that is directly observable. It’s something we have to get at in a partial, specifically-located, and relational way. It’s a real that we find by collectively feeling its contours in the world. And it provides the stable ground upon which to reject positions that would reject the very notion of truth wholesale and say that their fantasies are just as good as anything offered by positions that at least attempt to work within the bounds of the real. The latter are of course fallible, and can of course miss the mark of the real because of biases in their mechanisms of observation, but they can then self-correct their trajectory and try again. In an election where facts and truth seemed to lose to triumphal falsehoods, Golley gives us the ammunition to confidently say that’s not how it needs to be.
In another, broader sense, this is a book about our current moment. Tanizaki was writing Naomi under the shadow of the rising Japanese imperialist project, and the novel’s serialization was halted temporarily by increasing censorial pressure. He did an interesting thing in that moment. He announced publicly his intent to find a new publication venue, and eventually settled on the consumerist, female-targeted magazine Josei. Golley reads this as part of Tanizaki’s project to poke holes in the elitist institution of “pure literature,” with its male-dominated, ego-stroking I-novels. Tanizaki, in this reading, becomes the egalitarian who wants to represent traditionally denigrated voices (female, popular, mass, consumerist) as a way of opening up the practice and institution of literature to a broader public. At the same time, this represents an appropriative move, insofar as Naomi herself is depicted as a consumed object rather than an individual. Nevertheless, Naomi (and, it is implied, the young urban women she represents) takes the role of vampish moga to the nth degree and ultimately abandons Joji and the domineering masculinity he represents. Read optimistically, we can see Tanizaki as identifying women (specifically urbane “modern” women) as a group with the cultural power to overcome the patriarchal project underlying fascist politics and colonialist expansion. Tanizaki skewers the “cultured man” like the bundan authors of the time as deluding themselves into thinking that they are masters of the situation, when in fact they are simply sugar daddies who are ultimately left behind. In today’s politics, then, it is the voices of women and other marginalized groups that we need most. They are the voices that can take the rug out from under the masculinist nationalism that pushes toward cultural and racial “purity” and economic protectionism (all narratives, we could note with a smirk, that hinge on not allowing the national body to be penetrated from the outside) and relativize those men as simply one voice among many. We must, in other words, take seriously the radical potential of “low art” to effect political change and defuse the dangerous rhetoric driving the Trump machine.
All of these things are ways that Golley’s book might help us now. They are some specific points of advice I could offer my students who are struggling to come to grips with the message American politics have sent them. More generally, the political implications of my study of Japanese sci-fi are this: SF is a genre of literature that is inextricably bound up in the world. It is hypothetical literature, meaning it extrapolates from the world as it is now. To a greater or lesser degree, SF authors and creators look at the state of the world or at some specific detail of the world, and they imagine it forward. Either they identify a troubling trend in the world and craft a cautionary tale of what may come if that trend is not shifted, or they find what is good in the world and build a story around how that goodness can lift us up as a species. In a very real sense, then, we are all SF authors insofar as we are conscious of the world around us and mindful of the implications of it. We are all, perhaps always, crafting an image in our minds of how the world may yet be. This week, that image has been dystopic for most of us. But we need to remember that we are not locked in to history. We can still imagine and strive to realize a better future. We do this by listening to the voices that are left out of the narrative we reject. Trump’s America is a white, male, nationalist America. If we reject that narrative, those optics, we can start by asking for the stories of those made invisible by that America. Indeed, studying SF through a cultural studies lens teaches us that we must attend to those voices without trying to reduce them to our own narrative frameworks; we must engage them in all the complexity of their experience. Cybernetics and posthumanism teach us that we have never been wholly severed, wholly closed off from our worlds and each other, and so we must show Trump’s America that it is a fallacy to try to live that way. Fear of the Other has put a bigot in charge; we must be constantly mindful of what catastrophes bigotry has visited on us before and constantly imaginative of a better way forward. We must do this by protecting our friends and loved ones and defending their right to contribute to the narrative of America.
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