Writing up the report on Mark Erdmann’s paper on Azuchi Castle got me thinking. Discourses of legitimacy play a major role in my field of research; when Ryukyuan ambassadors journeyed to the shogun’s castle in Edo, it contributed to stories the shogunate told about itself, and stories others told about the shogunate, which represented the shogunate as being so powerful, and so virtuous, that envoys from foreign kingdoms would, of their own volition, purely out of awe and respect for the Shogun as a shining source of virtue and civilization, come to pay their respects. Of course, the truth was much more complicated, more political, and not nearly so freely performed at it might have seemed. But that’s besides the point – things may not always be what they appear to be, but appearances have power.
“Discourse” sounds like a big fancy academic-type word, but basically all it means is these kinds of stories, these tellings and retellings of meaning; conversations people have with one another, or with themselves, repeated again and again and transmitted throughout a society, creating and reinforcing a given set of ideas, associations, or meanings.
Now, it’s not hard to see how an embassy like I just described could contribute to discourses of the shogunate’s power and legitimacy. Big castles sitting high atop a hill, overlooking the city and visible from many places within the city, are also not particularly difficult to understand, in terms of their discursive impact. Whoever lives in the castle has the power to continue to hold that castle, and the money to build, maintain, and operate such an expansive and lavish living space. The power to see without being seen, the power to look down upon people, which also plays a key role in the discursive power of a castle, is a bit more complicated to explain, but is also a major concept in “discourse theory.” In fact, it’s such a major part of so much that I’ve read and been taught (see, the power of the gaze, and the panoptic), that I’m surprised Foucault spends so little time on it in his famous book Discipline & Punish; I fully expected that a majority of the book, rather than just one brief chapter, would be devoted to this important concept.
And, with certain cultural understandings, certain systems of symbolism in place (widely understood by the populace), we can easily understand how certain symbols worn by a king, or certain artifacts wielded by an emperor, would enhance perceptions of his legitimacy. This sort of thing can be seen in countless other examples too; riding a horse and wearing swords at one’s belt is a symbol of one’s martial/warrior identity, and is not only imposing and intimidating on a fundamental level, but is also tied into discourses of samurai identity and social class within that particular society. When considering the case of someone seen (or, rather, not seen) riding in a palanquin, it is easy to imagine the thought process, of understanding that only people of a certain class get to ride in palanquins, and that, bumpy ride though it may be, the very idea of not having to walk on one’s own feet – to not get one’s feet dirty, calloused or chafed, and to not have to put in the energy and effort of walking (rather than growing tired, sore, and thirsty) – implies something about the person’s high station. And, of course, by being hidden within the palanquin’s basket, going back to this whole issue of the gaze, we can understand that they are someone too important to be seen by just anyone; they have the power to see you, but you don’t have the power to see them.
But, finally getting to my point, how is it that someone like Nobunaga can create his own discourses of legitimacy? Sure, his castle is big and impressive, and it represents his wealth and power insofar as that he built it, and has the military power to hold it. But, supposing that no one considered him the rightful ruler to begin with, how would appropriating imagery from past shoguns or emperors change that? No one can be king, or emperor, unless the people (whether than means just the nobility, or whether it means the masses) regard him as that. Without that recognition, he is merely a pretender.
If Nobunaga had simply moved into the shogun’s palace, and begun performing the role of shogun, thus allowing people to situate him within already-established systems, that would be one thing. Even then, he might simply get called a false shogun, an interloper or “pretender.” But, Nobunaga isn’t doing that. He’s not calling himself Shogun or Emperor, and he’s not dressing himself up as the next in a line of succession of a position that already exists. No. He’s building a castle, and filling it with all sorts of different artistic and architectural symbols of legitimacy, but, what does that really do for him? Sure, it’s impressive, and anyone who sees it will surely think of him as having wealth and power. But, anyone with sufficient wealth and power can build a replica of the Kinkakuji, and a Mingtang, and have them filled with paintings of great Emperors of the past, by way of trying to associate oneself with those Emperors; commissioning a building, or a painting, doesn’t make you rightful ruler any more than commissioning some local smith to make you a crown and scepter would.
So, in all sincerity, I ask you, my fellow academes, how does this work? Symbols of wealth and power, I understand. Exacting formal titles and such from the Emperor, as symbols of legitimacy, I understand. But as much as I love architectural and art history, and am fascinated by ideas of symbolism and discourses, I just don’t get how surrounding yourself with architecture or paintings recalling themes of virtuous rulers functions, discursively, to actually enhance your legitimacy among your followers, among your enemies, or among the masses. Your thoughts and input would be most appreciated.