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Today, just my thoughts/response on something a friend posted.

A few years ago, there was an interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

Emphasis my own.

A friend then posted a link to a recent commentary/response which includes the following:

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

Hm. I dunno. On the one hand, yes, when it comes to opinions and interpretations, absolutely, it’s good to have a constant reminder that the news is biased, that it comes from an agenda, and that it can, simply put, be flat out mistaken sometimes. “Because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly.”

And, certainly, as one of the commenters wrote, “Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.” But, even putting aside the idea that a PhD, or any professional credentials, does mean that you have more extensive knowledge, experience, or training, that you understand certain types of matters better than most, or simply that you have more experience & training in critical thinking, and even acknowledging the post-modern turn that says there is no truth, that everything is multiple perspectives, etc etc., I think that there is absolutely a need for credible, reliable, trustworthy sources. If those sources are no longer the professional media, so be it. But, whether it’s on Wikipedia, or on a blog, the implication is that we should go check the sources ourselves. But, what about those sources? Are they reliable? And what about the sources those guys are drawing upon? This is what the news is for. This is what scholarship is for. To have qualified professionals do the research, do the analysis, sum it up so that the rest of us can consume it. If everyone had to double-check every fact for themselves, all the time, a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do the job due diligence.

Yes, I take the point that in many cases, when it comes to discussion, perspective, social and political commentary, an amateur might very well be more insightful, more experienced in that particular thing, might offer a more valuable perspective in whatever way or for whatever reason than a professional. But let us not go too far down the rabbit hole of believing that absolutely everything everything is relative, that absolutely everything everything is just opinion or perspective. By all means, if some blogger talks about, say, feminism, in a new and different way, or just in a more insightful way, puts a valuable spin on it, or just makes a point more eloquently than another source does, then by all means, regardless of who that blogger is, or their professional credentials, that’s great. But if a blogger, or a news agency, or a scholar, says that 42% of women are in X situation, I want to believe that I can trust that source, because of professional credentials, or because of citation to something that has professional credentials, without me having to go double-check the numbers myself, for every single fact or figure anyone ever cites on any platform.

I do think we need to be more circumspect about the corporate agendas and rampant lack of professionalism throughout the “professional” media which cause all kinds of biases and mistakes and problems. And I do think we need to be aware that “accountability” doesn’t do nearly as much as we might wish it did. But, even so, I do think that Sorkin has a very valid point when he says that “When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.” We need to be able to trust some sources over others. We need to know that a given newsman, or scholar, is professional and trustworthy and reliable. And we need to trust professional credentials to at least some extent over others. Because the alternative is every man’s word against every other man’s word, and absolutely no certainty on anything whatsoever unless you’ve researched it yourself.

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I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.

In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.

This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.

An early 17th century painting of a scene from the “Ivy” (Yadorigi) chapter of the Genji. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.

The Genji, as represented on the back of the 2000 yen bill.

But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.

It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.

A mural in the underground shopping arcade at Kyoto City Hall subway station.

As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.

All photos my own.

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Last week, following a lively discussion in one of my seminars about how media outlets all too often overlook historians as consultants, op-ed writers, or sources for better historical context – or, to put it the other way around, that historians and our perspectives are not seen enough in the media – I found a friend had shared on Facebook a fantastic recent Asahi Shimbun interview with Prof. Carol Gluck (Columbia U). In it, she offers not only very interesting assessments of ongoing issues in Japan today, but also a few juicy quotes pointing precisely to this issue – the problems that result when journalists do not consult historians, or do not themselves take a sufficiently historical perspective in their work.

Since these quotes are just so good, I’ll let them speak for themselves, and try to avoid offering too much commentary myself.

To begin, in response to a question about the “recent” rightward swing in Japanese politics:

News about Japan in the global media often appears in extreme terms. During the economic surge of the 1980s Japan was going to take over the world. During the recession of the 1990s, Japan was finished. After that for a while Japan disappeared from the front pages. As a historian I know that history doesn’t work this way. It doesn’t careen from extreme to extreme. History is not a sprinter, either.

I am no expert on contemporary politics, and so I am essentially in the dark on this issue, relying on the media to provide me relatively accurate and informed information on the subject – I remain unclear as to whether this rightward swing is in fact recent, and if so how recent, and just how, in what ways, and for how long things have been building up toward it. Is it recent, or is it only recently on the radar of the journalism crowd?

Next, in response to a question about “breaking away from the postwar regime”:

People have been talking about breaking away from the sengo taisei (“postwar structure”) for decades. It is a fact that no other country involved in World War II still talks today about being in, or breaking away from, the “postwar.” Most countries stopped being “postwar” sometime during the 1950s, so this suggests something particular to the stability of Japan’s postwar. One reason for this is the role of the United States, which froze Japanese memory of the war and the origins of the postwar Japanese system in an immediately postwar shape in 1945-47. Many Japanese found this shape comfortable, accepting the emperor is a symbol and Japan as a peaceful, democratic country.

I’m not sure so much on the details of this – surely there have been changes over the years that have left things changed, not “frozen” in a 1945-1947 shape; beginning with the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the 1952 end of the Occupation, the institution of the so-called 1955 System, the 1972 return of Okinawa, the Nixon Shocks, the incredible rise, the bubble burst, the so-called Lost Decades… but, nevertheless, I think the fundamental point is valid and important. Namely, take a historical view. Understand the past context. Of course we shouldn’t suggest that structural forces determine everything – people do make choices, and things do change, and so recent developments are relevant. But the most recent of developments are not all that’s relevant – it’s a failure, or a refusal, to understand the particularities of Japan’s situation that leads to all too many major US news outlets speaking of Japanese politics as wacky, irrational, bizarre. I certainly think there are lots of things they could and should do differently, but I recognize that if one were to study it further, as political reporters professionally should, things would not seem so bizarre.

I think that’s all I want to say on that. But, if you’re interested, please do check out the fuller excerpted interview at Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch.

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Back in January, I finally got around to watching the film Princess Kaʻiulani. It really got me thinking, as I expected it would, and I wrote most of what follows as I watched, pausing for stretches to write. … I think my thoughts have changed somewhat since writing this originally, but it represents therefore my continual process of consideration, exploration, and hopefully growth or progress.

I find it so difficult, since returning to the mainland, to feel like I am sufficiently sympathetic, sufficiently, I don’t know what the word is… politically aligned, I suppose. When I lived in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel like I was on the right side, to feel like I was engaging with these issues every day, and learning from them, and growing. As someone doing Okinawan Studies in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel that I could count myself as an anti-colonialist, anti-Orientalist ally, or whatever the right term may be. I felt I could consider myself fairly well-informed/enlightened, and on the right side of thinking about these things, even if not actively activist. One can certainly be a feminist without being a particularly actively activist – a descriptor of your positions, not of your activity – but is there an equivalent word for being anti-Orientalist, pro-indigenous, and such?

Today, of course, I still feel terribly sympathetic, and I feel I want to be more so. I want to believe that I can truly count myself as thinking, knowing, believing correctly on these issues. But ever since returning to the mainland, I find it much more difficult to do so.

I watch a movie like this one, and of course I’m terribly sympathetic for Hawaiʻi’s plight, and wholly opposed to the actions of the Americans. But I cannot help but worry if my sympathy is too superficial, too weak. And to worry if I am, in fact, still a colonialist/imperialist at heart, an Orientalist, or, worse. I want so much to change, or to feel that I have changed, and while I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt that I had. But I fear that I am, simply by being removed from it, sliding backwards. Even as I edit this post right now, rewriting what I wrote a few months ago, I feel much more hesitant to call myself a “champion” or “advocate” for anything… after all, who the hell am I, and what do I know? I lived in Hawaiʻi for only three years, and though surrounded by certain issues and discourses and whatever everyday, actually took very few real courses or seminars explicitly discussing Hawaiian history or indigenous issues.

I hear the drums and the chants in the film, and see the hula dances, and smile; I feel a jolt of happiness in my heart. But is this the happiness of an Orientalist, who loves it simply for being exotic? As much as I might wish otherwise, it is not, it cannot be, the happiness of a Hawaiian local, much less that of a Native Hawaiian, who can rightfully claim some sense of belonging, growing up within that culture. On the plus side, though, I’ve certainly come to have a negative gut reaction, too, when seeing performances that are Orientalist and potentially offensive… so, that’s something. And, though I hesitate to feel too proud of myself or anything, since it was just last week, but after reading Adrienne Kaeppler’s survey of Polynesian & Micronesian art last week, I do feel that I’ve gained a better understanding and a new appreciation for certain core elements of Pacific cultural attitudes – e.g. about the sacredness of objects. I’ve been terribly busy this quarter, but hopefully I’ll get around to posting thoughts about that book more fully in a separate post sometime soon.

When I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt okay about claiming some association; I may be a haole, and I may not have grown up there, but by virtue of living in Hawaiʻi, and being so warmly accepted by so many people and communities there, it felt only natural to feel some rightfulness in considering myself a member of a community… for months after I left, I felt like I still belonged. I felt like I still had a community, that I had changed and learned and grown in Hawaiʻi, and that I could rightfully consider myself associated with the islands. But, as the months have gone by, I find myself questioning more and more what right do I have to say anything, what right to consider myself a supporter, or an activist, or whatever the word should be. What right do I have to call myself a supporter when I feel so inadequate both intellectually, and emotionally, in understanding these issues, in feeling that passion, and most importantly, so inadequate in articulating the core, fundamental notions of indigenous rights and post-colonial activism? I follow quite a few feminist blogs, for example, which are so brilliantly written… and I don’t feel that I can speak so eloquently, so appropriately, to Hawaiian issues. I fear that in any attempt to say anything, I will say something wrong, or not say enough. I will leave out some crucial aspect, or I will not go far enough in expressing my support. Even just using words like “support” here, I feel like it’s too weak. There surely is a stronger word, but it doesn’t come to mind.

On an intellectual level, I tell myself that Hawaiʻi, just like Ryūkyū or Japan or Korea, just like England or France, was a noble, rightful, proper kingdom unto itself, with its own history and traditions and should not be in any way regarded as lesser. So, I’ve got that. But, I see people all around me, who come from all over the world, calling one another “brother” and “sister” and sharing a connection, some kind of “fellow non-whites” connection, that I simply do not truly feel in my heart, much as I wish I did.

Statue of King Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) in front of Aliʻiōlani Hale, across the street from the ʻIolani Palace.

I can go forward, taking courses and reading books, and hopefully someday teaching my own courses and writing my own books, speaking of the nobility of the Ryukyuan and Hawaiian peoples, and decrying the wrongs done to them; I can teach my students that the US is, and was, an imperialist power, and that our government has indeed inflicted great injustices around the world. But, as of right now, at least, there is still a piece missing. If I hang a postcard of a Hawaiian flag upside down on my wall, I feel like a poser, or like I have no proper right to consider myself an ally, a supporter, on these issues. I feel like it’s too easy, like I’m not doing enough, like someone else is going to turn around and tell me I have no right, because I don’t appreciate well enough, or feel strongly enough… And, it’s certainly true that I have marched in no protests, written no diatribes, shouted no slogans.

I feel I wish I had people around me who could validate my attention to these issues, to tell me I do have the right to speak as a supporter of Hawaiian rights. Because it is far too easy, as a white American man from the mainland, as a student and an academic, to feel like I am simply giving lip-service, like I’m simply siding with the radical, liberal side as fashion or something, and not out of genuine feeling. Is that who I am? Sometimes I worry it is. It certainly is terribly easy to feel that one appears that way. … But, even to have a group to affirm that they see me as genuine, is that not itself self-serving, and selfish, and all too easy? And is that not flirting dangerously with problems of authenticity and the cliché of “I’m not racist – I have black friends”?

I’m not sure I’ve ever faced something like this in my life. I sometimes feel I cannot rightfully consider myself a supporter unless I go all the way. Truly all the way. To really immerse myself in cultural community, and to become truly active in political discussions and protests… To put aside all else and truly devote myself to activism in support of these issues – or elsewise, shut up and go home. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered or engaged with issues that have such strong feelings of ownership as Hawaiian issues (or Pacific Islander issues more broadly). I never needed anyone from Japan to confirm for me that how I felt about, or spoke about, Japan was “right,” or if I did, I got past that long ago, but with Hawaiian (and to a lesser extent, Okinawan) matters, there is such a strong pushback against anything perceived to be offensive, and so – quite understandably, with good reason – it makes it very difficult to ever feel I’ve adopted enough, incorporated enough, of the proper pro-Hawaiian, pro-indigenous, attitudes and understandings. Not that I mean to place the blame on others; I do not mean to say “they” make it difficult. It just is what it is, and I find it so hard to navigate. I hope that in reading more about Hawaiʻi, and in taking seminars on indigenous issues, I might come to feel more secure in my understandings, in my positions, and in feeling a right to speak. But can a few books and a few courses be enough? I certainly feel I have learned and grown and changed a lot from the few courses I have taken in Hawaiʻi, and from the few things I have read. But, perhaps it is a fuller immersion that is required. But when, and how, will I ever get the chance to live in Hawaiʻi again for any extended period? And even if I do, will it all fade and weaken once I leave the islands again, as it has this past year and a half?

Right: Honolulu, seen from the air.
I watch this film, Kaʻiulani, and I want to feel that I understand better, that I feel deeper, than the average filmgoer because of my connection to Hawaiʻi. But do I? Do I really? Can I claim that? I know the names, and the very basic outlines of the history, better than your average filmgoer for whom these events, and the names Kaʻiulani, Kalakaua, etc., are completely new and unfamiliar. And I recognize ʻIolani Palace and Queen Emma’s Palace, and know something, too, of their histories, where the average filmgoer might see these spaces as generic, not understanding the great accuracy with which the film portrays these places (were they filmed on location? Or was it reproduced?). But, so what? Is that enough?

Do I truly have any real connection to Hawaii, that’s more than just something petty, temporary, and tenuous? Is it okay, or is it inappropriate, to claim that? How, and when, if ever, can I feel confident enough to make these claims? And if I cannot, then what?

And, of course, all of these worries simply carry over into my pursuits in Okinawan Studies… I feel far fewer barriers in making these claims in Okinawa – I’ve certainly spoken with enough people in Hawaiʻi, both Okinawan & Okinawan-American students, as well as professors, and members of the local community, plus professors in Okinawa, and so I am able to feel much more comfortable and secure in allowing myself to claim some association with Okinawa, and to speak about Ryūkyū. But, the discourse of “authenticity” is powerful, and the doubts it inspires are powerful, and I simply do not know how to overcome them… though some have tried to reassure me that, at the very least, the fact that I’m thinking about these things, and worrying about them, rather than just striding in un-self-consciously, is an important start.

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Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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This question came up in our research seminar today. I’d actually been thinking about it for awhile, as I consider myself a “cultural historian,” but when pressed, wasn’t actually sure exactly what I meant by that. And, perhaps more importantly, because we hear the term a lot, and I’m never quite sure that others are always using it in the same way. In a seminar last year, we read sections from Lynn Hunt’s The New Cultural History; we were told this was itself a seminal text in, or was representative of, the “cultural turn,” whatever that means. As with most Theory/Historiography books I’ve been assigned, I came out of it with little clear sense of what it was talking about. And so, finding this book to be dramatically different from my own understandings (or assumptions) as to what constituted “cultural history,” I began to wonder, What is Cultural History?

I have long considered myself a cultural historian because I find myself chiefly interested in visual and material culture, in art, architecture, performance, spaces, display, representation, and in the overall appearance, aesthetic, style, feel, atmosphere of a particular place and time. To put it another way, I consider myself a cultural historian because I’m interested in “culture” more than I am politics, economics, or social history (social history includes class hierarchies, gender roles, family structure, and some other key things I’m sure I’m forgetting). In essence, though I don’t think I ever managed to articulate it for myself before, I think I might say that in this particular understanding of it, (1) cultural history is the history of cultural practices, forms, identity, and difference. It includes concrete or specific topics typically said to belong to the disciplines of art history, theatre history, music history, architectural history, such as the biography of an artist; analysis of a particular object, image, movement or dance, piece of music, festival, or work of literature; or discussion of stylistic developments. But it also includes a myriad of topics that simply emphasize or highlight such things.

The Buddhist temple Sensô-ji, in Asakusa, Tokyo. Photo my own, taken June 2013 from the new Asakusa Tourist Center.

Because of my interests, I tend to associate “culture” with the arts – with visual and tangible stylistic or aesthetic elements. When I think of “Japanese culture,” I think of architectural styles, styles of painting, forms of theatre, styles of music. But, of course, there’s also the idea that “culture” means attitudes, values, ways of doing things. And there are those who, when they hear the term “Japanese culture,” might immediately think of Confucianist or Buddhist values, group mentality (vs. individualism), politeness, certain attitudes about gender roles, or the like. This is no less valid, though it does certainly complicate things.

I never considered it a political statement to say I did cultural history, but simply a matter of personal taste, or preference. And so, imagine my surprise when I was exposed to Marxist history, and to the idea that economics drives everything, and that culture is merely the dressing. This is the idea that regardless of whether you’re in 14th century Mali, 3rd century China, 18th century Hawaii, or 20th century Paris, the most significant forces driving historical change are struggles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and shifts in control over, or availability of, labor, land, and capital. (I’m sure that Marxist historiography is much more complex than this, but, no doubt there is, or was, a school of thought that took this as its fundamental jumping-off point.) This is certainly a political statement, a particular position. And, in contrast to this Marxist history, (2) cultural history is that which takes culture, rather than economics, to be the chief force in driving historical change.

Angus Lockyer’s “A Short History of the World,” glossing over differences in visual or material culture, and emphasizing the impact of the balance of land, labor, and capital, in driving the most major overarching threads of world history.


On the one hand, the land/labor/capital triangle can explain a great many things, regardless of the time, place, or cultural context. As can economics theory more broadly – supply & demand, the impact of taxation upon those two, the idea of externalities, etc. etc. Whether you’re talking about saké or Merlot, silk or cotton, transported by horsecarts or by container ship, purchased with gold coins or with credit card, much of the “laws”, formulas, and models of economics will apply just the same. And issues of scarcity, of ease of access to certain goods, of the economic benefits or dangers of using certain materials (e.g. the economic losses if your stone building collapses in an earthquake where a wooden building would have survived), can certainly have a profound influence upon the form that cultural forms take. But, on the other hand, there are surely many cultural forms that arise largely independent of economic concerns – the Impressionists’ emulation of elements of the style of ukiyo-e prints, the popularization of particular hairstyles at this or that time, or the advent of particular stylistic aspects of kabuki, purely on the basis of aesthetic decisions or other types of cultural influences and artistic decision-making. That is, unless you want to attribute all of it to commercialism, and simply doing what will sell best.

There are also cultural aspects that have profound economic impacts – Confucianism teaches that concerning oneself with monetary matters is vulgar, and base, and that a cultured scholarly gentleman should not concern himself with such things. This ideal was adopted by the samurai class in Japan, who as a result did not embrace, allow, or encourage commercialism and proto-industrial developments as strongly as they might have otherwise, and who therefore declined considerably as the merchant class – who Confucianism said were low, base people for their greedy obsession with material wealth – grew more and more economically powerful and influential. Another example of cultural concerns might be the use by Ryukyuan ambassadors to Japan of Ming Dynasty robes, representing their association with the great Chinese civilization. Of course, in truth, both economics and culture are irrevocably intertwined. Economic concerns influence and shape cultural forms, and cultural forms have economic impacts, and to say that either trumps the other is, to my mind, misleadingly reductionist.

Ryûkyû-jin tôjô no gyôretsu 琉球人登城之行列 (Procession of Ryukyuans Enroute to Edo Castle), 1710. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library.

But, returning to the point, there is a third definition of cultural history. As it has been explained to me, the “cultural turn” of which Lynn Hunt’s book is apparently representative was all about the assertion that “history” did not have to be political or economic history, or whatever the classical, conservative, standard, traditional mode of history had been. History does not need to be about “big men” (great historical figures who brought about great changes), or about the rise and fall of political entities, or about development and progress towards certain abstract ideals, such as “civilization,” or “freedom.” History could be about culture as well. Now, on the surface, this seems perhaps not so different from my own definition of cultural history, presented above. But, I get the impression that the cultural history of the so-called cultural turn was less about artistic, aesthetic, or stylistic developments, or even about nameable religious movements or guiding philosophies, but rather, (3) cultural history is about attitudes, mentalités, or “the social process[es] whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and define their beliefs and values.”1 It’s all very theoretical/conceptual – post-structuralist, something something.

And then, finally, there’s the fourth definition of cultural history, one I came across for the first time today. As a result of Googling “what is cultural history?”, I came across this wonderfully clearly written blog post entitled “Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?” To summarize, the blog post suggests that since the cultural turn, “cultural history” has expanded to “a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.” So, if cultural history encompasses so much, then what is not cultural history? A very compelling, interesting, and important question, and if you’re interested, I definitely recommend checking out the full blog post over at And After That The Dark.

But, to jump to the part that’s most relevant for my topic of today, this blog post defines (4) cultural history as “the analysis of the significance of events in the past to those who experienced them, and how these meanings changed over time. … All history that concerns itself with meaning and belief is cultural history. Any history that does not ask, ‘but what did it mean?’ is not cultural history.” Well, that’s certainly interesting. It’s certainly a form of historical inquiry I’m particularly interested in, and it’s certainly one that seems particularly strong these days.

So, to bring this thing to an end, which one of these four definitions best matches your understanding of “cultural history”?

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(1) Stephen Best, “Culture Turn,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online (2007).

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Mind Your Mind

In honor of my 600th post, something broad and conceptual, about what we do as graduate students. I am so thankful for so many things in my life on this Thanksgiving, not least of which is the privilege to spend my time pursuing my interests.

Think about what you think. Think about what you know. Think about what you think you know.

Why do you think what you think? How do you know what you think you know? Why do you think you know what you know you think?

A T-shirt I bought at WEGO this past summer, in Harajuku.

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