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While at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to see RDK Herman’s exhibit “E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation,” I also got to see the museum’s long-term exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” Treaties – or their absence – are a major feature in the histories we tell of the interactions between China, Japan, Hawaii, and other non-Western nations on the one hand, and Western powers on the other. The Treaties with the US, France, and the Netherlands which showed the Ryukyu Kingdom was recognized as a sovereign member of the international family of nations prior to its unilateral abolition and annexation by Imperial Japan. The Unequal Treaties imposed upon China by the British, and shortly afterward by the other major Western powers. The similar treaties signed with the Western powers by Japan, and the use by Japan of similar treaties to bring Korea out of its special tributary relationship with China and into independent sovereignty in a “modern” sense, so that Korea might be a “free” and “independent” diplomatic and trading partner with Japan. And the absence of a treaty of annexation, the absence of any treaty at all by which the Hawaiian Kingdom agreed to give up its sovereignty or its land to the United States, is arguably one of the most prominent elements in most tellings of the history of Hawaiʻi.

Of course, it would be a true victory of/for cultural relativism if we were to convince ourselves that all societies are truly worthy of our respect regardless of their political character or configuration. But, that remains a difficult thing to achieve, as we all (myself included, of course) are burdened by various biases based on the values and attitudes of our upbringing and the culture in which we are immersed, and so on. And thus, I think something like this is a valuable intermediate step. In the end, notions of the “nation” and indeed of “treaties” and the objectivity or universality of European/Western cultural practices of diplomacy & law, need to be questioned, and I think this exhibit does a rather good job of beginning to break that down – it shows that Western notions of these things were not necessarily better, or more logical, or more advanced, but were simply different, and that the Native Nations had every reason to think their own way was equally valid, or even more valid and true than the Western way. But, even as we try to question this and break this down, to get the average museum visitor to question and relativize things, at the same time, we need to cater to their biases to a certain extent, I think, to argue that, even within this biased Western notion of “nations” – even within this notion that one must be a real Nation to be worthy of certain kinds of respect – these Native Nations do constitute Nations, or should.

Native peoples are more than just another ethnic or cultural minority. They are more than simply another group whose particular needs, attitudes, and interests need to be incorporated into the US American societal, political, and legal landscape cares about or attends to. Native peoples are qualitatively something different from merely a descent group. While Asian-Americans and African-Americans are, by one means or another, diasporic groups, distanced from their ancestral Nations, Native peoples are not, and they constitute those Nations still, down to this day. Or, even if we might apply the term “diaspora,” it is like the Jewish diaspora, exiled from their homeland and scattered, but still a nation in exile, with rightful claims to past nationhood, and to a future return to sovereignty.

Native Nations are groups with which the US – and other members of the family of nations, e.g. Britain, France, Mexico, and Spain – signed Treaties, meaningful (if not necessarily actually binding) under international law. They are groups whose National governance and political identity was (and is) recognized to at least some extent, and who possess(ed) lands. They truly do (or at least did, once) fulfill most if not all of the fundamental features, or qualities, that characterize a sovereign nation according to our general conceptions of that notion – something than cannot be said of other ethnic groups.

And so, while there is most absolutely value in trying to garner support and respect for Native Americans through the typical avenues of identity politics, respect for minority cultures, attacking racism, and so on and so forth, I think that it is through discussion of the history of Treaties that their Nationhood, and not merely their Peoplehood, comes to the fore, highlighting or emphasizing all the more so their rights and claims, and the unjustness of the injustices that have been committed against them. Racism is something to be assaulted, to be combatted, to be dismantled, most certainly. But racism is also intangible and debatable in ways in which (inter)national rights and so forth are not – if we recognize Native Americans as merely a minority, then questions of what does and does not constitute racism against them, or of in what ways and to what extent their culture should be respected, versus an idea that they ought to behave like any other US American, are more debatable- but, by contrast, if we recognize Native peoples as independent, sovereign nations, whose independence and sovereignty has been unlawfully or wrongfully violated, and whose rights to practice their own systems of law, cultural practices, etc within their own sovereign communities have also been violated, I think this makes it more stark, and less debatable.

Turning now to the actual content, and approach, of the exhibit, from the very beginning, and throughout the exhibit, the displays place the Native perspective first, presenting it in a fashion that shows its logic, its reasonableness. It’s amazing how powerful and meaningful such a small, subtle, move can be. In doing so, this exhibit avoids entirely the stereotype of Native ways as superstitious, or illogical, cutting right through all that rhetoric and instead showing the museum visitor (1) how different cultures can simply have very different ways of understanding something, or of performing certain processes, without either one being inherently better, or more logical, and also (2) that Western notions, and ways of doing things, were honestly quite superstitious and illogical themselves. I was reminded of Greg Dening’s article “Possessing Tahiti,” in which, after the English come to Tahiti and claim the island by planting a flag, the French then claim it by burying a plank of wood, and a bottle with the French ship’s crew’s names on papers inside; the Spanish then come and plant a giant cross. Is any of this fundamentally more logical or reasonable, or inherently less superstitious, than the Native practices?

This approach was applied to explain competing cultural notions regarding land & land ownership, law, and the use of language in securing promises or agreements, as well as to show Native & Euro-American perspectives on each of the different treaty negotiations featured. I wish the exhibit had gone a little farther, to explain the Native perceptions, or practices, in each of these realms a little further, since the all-too-brief labels often left the visitor having to fill in the gaps themselves – and most visitors would not possess the knowledge to be able to do so. For example, why and how was it that many Native peoples found oral agreements more meaningful, and more binding, than written ones? How does oral tradition, and the transmission of oral agreements, function in their political culture? For another example, my father said he found the description of Native & Western leadership structures to be too vague, leaving him rather unclear as to just how Native Nations were governed, or politically organized. One thing that was quite interesting, and compelling, however, in this section of the exhibit was the competing, or incompatible, practices, between Western notions that a written and signed agreement (such as a Treaty) was secured for all time, versus the common Native notion that “treaty” relationships had to be constantly renewed, through the performance of actual interpersonal friendship. In other words, just as friendships between individuals shift and change, and are only maintained through actual ongoing friendly interactions, relationships between peoples, too, could not simply be determined in a single moment, and set down on paper for all time, but just the same had to be constantly engaged in, in an ongoing fashion. This same label also reminded us that European notions of treaty law, and international law, were only in their infancy at this time (in the 18th century, when the first treaties between Native Nations and British colonists were being worked out) – it is not as if European/American systems of international relations were already well-worked-out and mature.

“Audience Given by the Trustees of Georgia to a Delegation of Creek Indians,” by William Verelst, 1730s. Reproduced in the exhibit; photo my own.

I also appreciated the nuanced and at least somewhat sympathetic view the exhibit presented on the Westerners, showing that attitudes do change, that relations were once on a more equal basis and could be again. That maybe, just maybe, a lot of the suffering, dispossession, death, and so forth came about for reasons other than just pure, unadulterated, racism and greed, but that rather they came about, at least in part, due to misunderstandings, difficulties in reconciling very different cultures; ignorance and naivete; conflicting needs of two peoples; and so forth, alongside, yes, at times, horrifically racist, even genocidal, attitudes. And, also, that even amidst such racism, arrogance, and aggression, there were also prominent US figures who were far more sympathetic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’ve read my other blog posts, I hope you’ll know that I am as sympathetic as could be with the Indigenous cause. But, I appreciate the allowance of some suggestion, some hint, that even someone like Andrew Jackson may not have fully understood the implications of what he was doing – that the journey itself would be exceptionally difficult, bringing great suffering and numerous deaths; that dividing a people from their land meant disconnecting them from their history, their ancestors’ burials, their folkways; from the plants and mountains and rivers they knew, and how devastating that would be to their culture – and that he may have, at least to some extent, at least at this early stage, have had some greater respect for the Native Americans, and a desire to actually live in peace with them, albeit by removing them to other lands, so that their original lands could be settled by Whites. Cultural relativism is of vital importance as we seek to understand and respect others’ histories and cultures – and I think it of the utmost value that we should work to see Native cultures, histories, and Nations as equally valid, as equally worthy of our respect, as equally deserving of sovereignty and freedom and wellbeing. But cultural relativism has to cut both ways – just as we seek to understand and be sympathetic towards other cultures, we must not forget to also seek to understand and be sympathetic towards our own.

In any case, I was glad to learn a bit more, a bit deeper, about this history. And the exhibit did an amazingly good job of giving equal coverage to many corners of the country. Haudenosaunee Nations (New York/Quebec area) were covered in several sections, Pacific Northwest in another, California in another, the Southwest in another; and the Muscogee (Creek) and the Lakota/Sioux, the Cheyenne, and so on and so forth.

As we learned, unsurprisingly, there was a wide range, a diversity of experiences and interactions and results, as different Nations came up against the colonists or the US government, at different times. Some Treaties are actually still being honored, at least in part; other Nations got no Treaties, and many others’ experiences were in between. Some actually won negotiations, and even gained land or stronger assurances of independence, even if these didn’t last in the end. Others were utterly dispossessed, ruined, with the US using treaty law as a weapon, as a tool for dispossession, rather than as a means of respectful and mutually beneficial agreement. Still, of course, there are great similarities and connections across all these Native experiences – to have it spelled out explicitly, in a gallery label, that no Native Nation, not a single one, retained its land & sovereignty as the end result of contact with the US, is a pretty powerful thing to realize.

And, we learned that the Cherokee Trail of Tears was by far not the only story, or experience, of Removal. Not by a long shot. Some Natives felt this basically meant they could keep only their land, or their sovereignty, not both. Some, for a time, tried to stay. They simply said, “these are our lands, period. That is it. We are not talking to you any more,” and they simply stayed put, for as long as they could manage to resist. Others moved to new lands, but found this brought drastic changes in lifestyle. People lost their folkways – knowledge of those specific lands, of the weather, of the plants, were in many cases no longer valid in the new lands. Further, the actual process of walking to the new lands was exceptionally grueling, and for all too many, deadly. The exhibit leaves it somewhat open as to whether this was “genocide”. Was the utter and complete destruction of these peoples the intent? Or was the incredible extent of death, suffering, and cultural loss an unexpected effect, due to White naivete? I think this nuance, this complexity, is important.

Yet, still, regardless, the outcome was devastating – words fail me, to express how profoundly tragic and injust, we realize this was. Imagine the situation reversed, where some other people has taken over all of Europe, and everyone there is reduced to being regarded as simply “Native Europeans” – the distinctions between English, French, German, and Italian largely ignored, overlooked, and all just considered to be differences between cultural/ethnic minorities, and not Countries, Nations, Kingdoms, that once were sovereign and independent states of their own – and, further, equals, with the potential to have remained equals, as sovereign nations on the world stage. This is what has been lost – self-determination, freedom, sovereignty, land, equality, prosperity. The potential to have been free and prosperous people, sovereign in their own lands, and treated as equal members of the family of nations. The Western/modern concepts of the nation-state, territory, and sovereignty may be Western concepts – not universal, not inherently more right or more logical or more reasonable or more natural – but, even while there is incredible value in breaking down the false universality of such notions, and seeking to respect Native notions of nationhood, of sovereignty, etc., I think there is also value in emphasizing the ways in which Native Nations are still Nations, no different from any other Nation, and worthy of just the same respect.

This lesson of their equality, of their Nationhood, of the validity of their culture and their peoplehood, and this lesson of the horrific losses they have suffered, is a lesson that *must* be learned, shared, by US residents/citizens, and by people around the world, to appreciate the profound extent of the loss, of the destruction, and how it came about. To realize and respect what has been lost, what might have been, and to not only work to ensure that such things do not happen again, but also to seek to make restitution. I am so glad to see the NMAI up and running, and well-attended. The next step is to get this stuff into our textbooks, and to quit the whitewashing of our history.

All photos my own.

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Video tour of the exhibit by curator RDK Herman

I don’t recall where I first heard that the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was doing an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but when I heard, I blogged about it, and decided to try to make sure I would get to DC to see it.

E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation is described by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (in an article hidden behind a paywall but fortunately available on CA Legislation Action Hub of all places) as “the culmination of more than five years of research and development.” In that same article, curator RDK Herman is quoted as saying that this is “the first time Hawaii’s story has been told publicly in Washington, D.C.,” and it was accordingly celebrated with a number of presentations, performances, and events, including a sizable symposium on “The Future of Hawaiian Sovereignty,” much of which is visible on YouTube. And, paired with the “Nation to Nation” exhibit on the history of formal treaties between Native American Nations and the US, makes the exhibit all the more timely and powerful, by connections in themes and historical parallels. So, you can imagine my excitement about this exhibit.

From what little I know of Hawaiian history – I am still very much a novice – I have come to believe strongly in the importance of Hawaiʻi’s story being taught, and learned, and known, by Americans across the country. There is so much to Hawaiʻi’s history which helps us to understand the devastating impacts of capitalistic ideologies that place corporate profits over popular well-being; the power of ideals of pure democracy to steamroll over the rights of specific (minority) peoples; and the beauty and powerful validity of different cultures, and alternate modernities. Hawaiʻi’s history is also an excellent case which helps us to complicate our understanding of American history, and to come closer to a more inclusively complex understanding of our country – there is much more to US history than Whites and Blacks, and Britain and Spain and Mexico, and slavery and civil rights, and Manifest Destiny and the frontier, and the numerous other issues and topics that we tend to make central and prominent in our discussions of mainland US history and issues. Hawaiian history is American history, too, now, as a result of the overthrow. The people who live there are Americans, too, and their stories, their problems, their experiences of racial/ethnic identity, are just as authentically, genuinely, part of the US American story as anyone else’s.1

The NMAI is an incredible place – its “Nation to Nation” exhibit, which I saw the same day, was top-notch – and I had no doubt they would do an excellent job of this. I could not wait to see an exhibit that brought the story of the Hawaiian Kingdom, in all its glory and its tragedy, to the nation’s capital, bringing to DC museumgoing audiences something approximating the experience of visiting the Bishop Museum – an immersive exhibition, loaded with artifacts, from the feather cloaks of the aliʻi to the letters, treaties, petitions, and/or other documents associated with the overthrow.

Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum, Feb 2010. Photo my own.

What a shame, then, that “lack of adequate funding … forced Herman to downsize the exhibit.” I appreciate that there are complicated politics involved here, as they are in any museum exhibit, that museum budgets are generally far tighter than the public imagines, and that having this exhibit come together at all is still a massive accomplishment. Not to mention the fact that this is the National Museum of the American Indian, and there is undoubtedly, and quite understandably, politics surrounding the inclusion of the Hawaiian people, especially where it might take away space and attention from the Ho-Chunk, Chumash, Snohomish, Seminoles, and other mainland Native Nations. I appreciate the difficulties, and I appreciate the accomplishment that this exhibit still nevertheless represents, and so I feel bad to criticize at all. Indeed, I trust that all involved did as much as they could, and so there is no person or institution to criticize – rather, it’s just the circumstances, the limitations of budget, security, space, and so forth; and thus, not a criticism, but simply a shame.

The historical narrative and its powerful lessons are still told in rather good detail, however, in this small exhibition. As you can see in Herman’s video tour (above), and in my own photos (there is unfortunately no exhibit catalog), the beautiful, well-crafted, well-curated, panels cover everything from Hawaiian literacy, symbols of sovereignty, and treaties, to the annexation, to cultural resurgence, sovereignty movements and prospects for the future. And, the panels included some really excellent information, such as treatment of the kingdom’s use of both Native and Western modes of symbolizing sovereignty, a chart of demographic changes over time, and a 2012 anti-annexation (Kū’ē) protest on the National Mall, which I had not known about.

Visitors to E Mau Ke Ea in early May 2016, Photo my own.

I saw quite a number of people make their way through the exhibit while I was there, talking, pointing, questioning – so I do think this exhibit, however small, will make a significant impact. The inclusion of audio stations playing songs evocative of the various periods & historical moments, and of the video Act of War were excellent, and do a lot, too, towards imparting a fuller, more culturally immersive, impact upon visitors.

Yet, still, there were by my count only six artifacts in the gallery, four of which are from the 2010s, and one of which was a reproduction,2 despite the originals being held by the National Archives (NARA) – an institution under the very same broader umbrella organization as the NMAI, namely the federal government, and located only a five-minute walk away, literally. Similarly, I would be very surprised if the Smithsonian doesn’t own, somewhere in one of its various museums, other Hawaiian artifacts. Whatever the conservation concerns may be, and security concerns, it’s hard to imagine the NMAI could not have handled it. It’s not as if they don’t have conservation and security for the rest of their exhibits… But, then again, I don’t work there, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes true details of the situation. Herman’s video would seem to suggest that it was simply security concerns, and the Star-Advertiser budget concerns… So, it is a shame, but, sometimes it truly is the most mundane logistical circumstances which do us in, and sometimes that’s just how it is.

Based on the catalog, it sounds like the 1980 exhibit Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was everything this exhibit might have been. I do not know if there have been other such exhibits since, but regardless, I think it is time to see such an exhibit again – large-scale, filling a major gallery (such as the one “Nation to Nation” is in now, or one of similar size and prominence at the American History Museum across the Mall), and filled with numerous significant, precious, and impactful artifacts, conveying a fuller, more thorough narrative and more immersive experience of Hawaiʻi’s greatness, and its tragedy.

Someday. Hopefully, soon. In the meantime, though, my congratulations to Dr. Herman on the accomplishment – an excellent and historic exhibit, the successful culmination of many year’s work, bringing the story of Hawaiʻi’s history to Smithsonian visitors, and an exhibit which I do think will have a significant impact, teaching visitors important and shocking truths of which they had been unaware. My sympathies to him as well that it could not (yet, in this iteration) be all that he had hoped for. I eagerly look forward to seeing the project continue, and grow, and hopefully reach greater successes in future – and I look forward to hopefully being in some position someday where I can contribute somehow to helping to make that happen.


1. With acknowledgement, of course, for the fact that many Native Hawaiians (and people of many other indigenous Nations) do not recognize US authority over them, and do not consider themselves Americans. Still, I think this makes it all the more incumbent upon us to know about their history, their struggles.

2. A pre-overthrow human hair necklace (lei niho palaoa) was the only pre-2010s artifact on display.

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In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.

Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:

This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.

The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.

The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)

In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .

Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.

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Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2006.

Time for another book review from my exams. I thought we were at an end, which would have been sad, but there are still a few more to go.

In Escape from Impasse (David Noble, trans.), Mitani Hiroshi details attitudes and events relating to Japanese relations with Western powers, from the time of Matsudaira Sadanobu in the 1790s and the Russian incursions of the 1800s, through the signing of treaties with five Western powers in 1858.

Among his arguments is that the concept of sakoku, of a “traditional” “ancestral” policy of keeping the country closed against formal diplomatic or trade relations with other nations (with only strictly limited exceptions), originates in the 1790s-1800s, and marks a significant change or shift from earlier attitudes about foreign relations. In support of this, in addition to descriptions of Shizuki Tadao’s Sakokuron and other writings, he notes a number of shifts in wording or terminology in official documents. First, he points to the fact that the original so-called sakokurei (鎖国令, “Closed Country Edicts”) of the 1630s only specified the expulsion of specific peoples (the Spanish and the Portuguese), rather than expressing a more all-encompassing policy of seclusion or isolation from intercourse with all foreign powers; it was only in the 19th century, in Mitani’s estimation, that the shogunate explicitly pursued such a policy stance. He also points to the identification of China, Holland, Ryukyu, and Korea as the only countries with which Japan engaged in intercourse (tsūshin tsūshō 通信通商) – to the exclusion of all others – as being first articulated only in the 19th century. At that time, for the first time, China and Holland were formally named (in a letter to Russia) as the only countries with which the shogunate had only trade relations (tsūhō) and Korea and Ryukyu as being the only countries with which Japan had diplomatic relations (tsūshin).

An 1832 woodblock print depicting the street procession of a Ryukyuan mission to Japan. These diplomatic/tribute missions received in audience by the shogun in Edo were a key element of tsūshin relations. University of Hawaiʻi Sakamaki-Hawley Collection. Photo my own.

I find this argument less than entirely convincing, however, relying as it does on shifts in wording, rather than on fundamental shifts in policy stances. Attitudes and interpretations of policies can change over time, and Mitani certainly provides compelling and extremely detailed evidence that this took place, but if there were major policy changes enacted in the 1790s, 1810s, or 1820s, to fundamentally alter the core of the so-called “sakoku” policies put into place in the 1630s, these are not evident in Mitani’s narrative. Further, despite his emphasis on changing ideas of “sakoku” in the 1790s-1850s, Mitani makes no mention of the concept of kaikin 海禁, or maritime restrictions, and the associated arguments by Arano Yasunori, Nagazumi Yoko, and others, who assert that the concept of sakoku, essentially coined by Shizuki Tadao in 1801 as a translation of a foreign (mis)understanding of Japanese foreign policy positions, and seen in only a handful of uses prior to that time, is an inappropriate framework for understanding a policy position that was neither one of isolation nor seclusion, but rather one of seeking to exercise strong control over the archipelago’s engagement with the world beyond. While there are certainly other points on which Mitani offers decidedly intriguing and compelling alternatives to standard scholarly interpretations, for him to neglect discussion of this matter seems a glaring omission.

The major strength of Mitani’s volume is its incredible degree of detail as to every single step in the process of encounters and negotiations between the Japanese and the Westerners, particularly in the densely complex and contentious period of the 1850s. There is so much more to this – so much more – than any simple narrative of Commodore Perry coming and “opening” up the country and boom bam that’s it. No. There were French and English and Dutch and Russians, and the Japanese negotiating with each of them under slightly different conditions, as the situation shifted and changed with each new development.

A Korean mission makes its way through the streets of Edo, in a painting by Hanegawa Tôei. Image from blog ペンギンの足跡II.

Yet, despite Mitani’s astonishingly detailed attention to these episodes of encounters and negotiations, and of policy debates both within the shogunate and among “private” intellectuals of the time, he neglects to address how Japanese officials and intellectuals of the time conceived of diplomatic relations, in contrast to Western understandings. At times, Mitani seems to take the ideological, political, or practical/logical reasons for Japanese positions as given, as understood, without explaining more deeply or extensively the reasoning behind them. For example, why was it that the Japanese wished to avoid formal diplomatic relations with Western powers at the outset (in the 1800s-1850s, when Western ships started coming with greater and greater frequency), and what, more precisely, did “formal diplomatic relations” mean, or entail, in their minds? Hellyer, Roberts, Ravina, and Toby each in different ways provide for their reader some understanding of how people of that time conceived of their nation, and how they conceived of the nature of commercial intercourse and its potential benefits and drawbacks. James Hevia, in Cherishing Men from Afar, places particular emphasis on the great disparities between how a British envoy and the Qing Chinese court in the 1790s conceived of diplomatic relations, including what constitutes diplomatic intercourse, how it is undertaken, and for what purposes. He explains, to cite just one example, why the British concept of the establishment of a permanent consulate in Beijing was so foreign to the Qing, and in doing so suggests that the reader should reconsider the notion that either the British or Qing ways of thinking, and of performing diplomatic interactions, are rational or natural; both are arbitrary, and reflective of different conceptions of the nature of the “nation,” and of international relations.

In Escape from Impasse, we see scraps of treatment of these matters here and there throughout the book, in discussions of the attitudes of a number of different officials and commentators, but there seems to be no coordinated discussion of Japanese conceptions, attitudes, and intentions such as would help the reader form a broader and more solid conception of what the Japanese thought diplomatic relations entailed, how it should be performed, and why. When Mitani mentions how shogunal officials resisted having the shogun sign the treaty with Commodore Perry, because that would mean this treaty constituted formal diplomatic relations, something the shogunate wished very much to avoid, I found myself skimming backwards, scrambling to find any broader or deeper discussion of just what did and did not constitute diplomatic relations in the Japanese view, and just why it was that they were seeking to avoid formal relations, beyond merely the idea of adhering to precedent, and to supposedly “traditional” “ancestral” laws.

Still, Mitani’s work is profoundly informative, and there are a number of ways in which Escape from Impasse contributes significantly to the scholarly discourse on Japan’s engagement with the West in the first half of the 19th century. His point that the Russian incursions of the early years of the 1800s marked a significant moment, awakening fears of Western expansion and military force, is something echoed too by Hellyer and others. As Mitani explains, there was considerable disagreement as to how to respond to these events, with some seeing them as passing crises, not something to be concerned with after the fact, and others deeply concerned, their sense of crisis spurring many government officials to action, or at least to discussion and debate; if this does not mark the very beginnings of pushes for the expansion of coastal defenses, discussions of the expansionist (or not) intentions of the Western powers, the need for more solid claims to the northern territories, etc., it certainly marks the beginning of these topics being discussed, and acted upon, in a more extensive, serious, and prominent way.

Detail of monument to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Newport RI. Photo my own.

Mitani’s exceptionally detailed narrative also provides a more nuanced view of this process of Japan’s “opening” to the world, revealing elements which, in their absence, cause rougher summarizing overviews to misrepresent the process. As he explains, Commodore Perry did not, in fact, press for the opening of trade relations in 1853-1854, but rather the focus of his mission was on opening ports for the repair, coaling, and supplying otherwise of American ships; along similar lines, we are told that Perry asked for the stationing of an American consul in Shimoda not as part of a push for the opening of true diplomatic relations, but rather primarily in order to oversee the behavior and treatment of American sailors operating in these newly opened ports. This is an important contrast with the understanding of Perry we learned in high school, or which the average person on the street might relate. Mitani also discusses a number of differences between American, Russian, Dutch, British, and French desires, intentions, and interactions with the Japanese, and between interactions and events over time; to name just one example, we see how the Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854 came about almost by accident, as a result of misunderstandings, and not as part of a coordinated effort by the British to “open” Japan for full diplomatic and commercial relations. Further, Mitani notes stark differences among the Western nations in their economic desires, with the British seeing Japan as a market for their industrially manufactured goods, while the Americans were more interested in access to Japanese export goods. Just as the Industrial Revolution did not happen in the same way throughout the West, and we should take Britain’s experience of it to be an exception, rather than the rule, so too we are led to a clearer understanding of the diversity and differences in the attitudes & desires of the various Western powers vis-à-vis Japan, and in the precise contents of the treaties and relationships which resulted.

Another of Mitani’s arguments, going against what he identifies as the standard interpretation, concerns identification of the key moment when the balance shifted from aims of maintaining or returning to sakoku policies being dominant among the top shogunate officials, restricting as much as possible formal intercourse with foreign powers, to the pursuit of finding ways for Japan to embrace fuller open engagement with the world while preserving its own “national polity” and protecting its interests, economic and otherwise, becoming dominant. Mitani identifies the Dutch treaty with the Japanese in 1856 as marking this shift (262). In fact, of course, there can be no one single moment, as these are ideas which had been discussed in one form or another for quite some time, and which had gained currency due to a combination of factors. Still, it is interesting to see him explicitly point out his argument against interactions with Townsend Harris as being the key stimulus (264).

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of this book, overall, is that it reminds us to not think of either Perry’s time in Japan in 1853-1854, or the Treaty signed with Harris in 1858, as hard and fast dividing lines in historical periodization, as if political thought, or the political atmosphere of the time, was something sharply divided and entirely separate from that of the rest of the Edo period. Mitani’s narrative shows us how Perry arrived in a Japan very much dominated by ideas and political structures of a continuity with the past, and that even after he left, it was only in fits and starts, piece by piece, as the result of a series of events and other influences, that different ideas and political paths began to gain dominance and prominence. The Bakumatsu period cannot be seen as a wholly separate thing from the rest of the Edo period, and neither the Western powers nor the Japanese response should be seen as monolithic.

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Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).

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Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…

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“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:

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Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

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In the course of my research, I have begun to come across highly detailed references to which time of day events took place. I don’t know yet whether I will end up having anything to say about the ritual, political, or social significance of the fact that such-and-such an event took place at such-and-such a time, but at least on a basic logistical level, just trying to visualize whether people were going up to the castle in the morning or in the evening, how long an audience with the shogun lasted, and so on, so long as my sources are telling me what time it was, I might as well make a note of it, and make an effort to understand what time that was. Over the years, I’ve skimmed over quite a few different explanations or guides to telling time in early modern Japan. Perhaps one of the best online is that posted by the late Anthony Bryant on his website, SengokuDaimyo.com. Even so, I never quite managed to grasp it, until this week.

Above: A Japanese clock from 1678, on display at the British Museum. Not quite as impressive as this other one also at the BM, but I think the face and mechanics are a bit more visible here, because of the size. Photo my own. Apologies for the graininess that emerged as I brightened the photo.

I think a large part of what makes it so difficult to grasp is simply because our own timekeeping culture is something we learn from such a young age, and use so ubiquitously in our lives, it is so deeply ingrained, that it seems almost natural, and so it can be hard to conceive of other systems. Of course, the fact that there were several different ways of telling time in early modern Japan (by numbers that don’t correspond to our 12pm, 1pm, 2pm system, and by zodiac symbols which I have never managed to memorize the order of), and that Japanese “hours” shortened and lengthened with the seasons, doesn’t exactly help.

Thanks to Japanese blogger Chihuahua Luke for this diagram.

The day was divided into six koku (刻 – though often referred to as “hours” 時 or 時分 in the documents), and the night another six koku, for a total of 12 koku corresponding to each of our 24-hour days. You can see on the above diagram, the six “hours” of night on the top half, and the six “hours” of day on the bottom half. Midnight is at the very top, and noon at the bottom, with sunset at the left and sunrise at the right.

So, since there are 12 koku in each day+night cycle, each is roughly equivalent to two hours in our modern 24-hour reckoning. Kind of. The thing is, daylight was always six koku long, and night was another six koku. So, depending on the seasons, as daylight grew longer and shorter, so too did the koku. As this diagram below shows, in winter, there is less daylight each day, so the daytime (昼) koku are shorter, and the nighttime (夜) koku longer. In summer, this is reversed. When mechanical clocks were first introduced to Japan by Europeans in the 16th or 17th century, their mechanisms – designed in Europe to tell regular time, one hour per hour, 24 hours per day, like clockwork (literally) – had to be modified to allow for these shifts in the “hours” (or koku) with the seasons. Basically, the small weights which drove the clockwork (and which you can see under the bell on the image at the top of this post) had to be adjusted every day, or every few days, to accommodate the days growing longer or shorter. If you’re interested in further details on how these clocks worked, wristwatch company Seiko has a nice description on their website.

Another diagram from Chihuahua Luke. Thank you! This one shows how daylight hours shifted across the year. The small 1-24 numbers on top and bottom are our modern hours, while the numbers given in kanji are the bell system I describe below. You can see on top how in summer, with sunrise around 4am and sunset around 7pm, the six daylight hours (from 明け六ツ to 暮れ六ツ) were lengthened. And the reverse in the winter, shown on the bottom.

Still with me? It gets a little more complicated. If you read Edo period documents, or look at Edo period clocks, you won’t see the hours identified in a simple progression from one to six, or one to twelve. Nanatsu-toki 七つ時 or nanatsu-jibun 七つ時分, which we might call “7 koku” is not the seventh one of the day, and it does not come after six. Rather, each koku was assigned to one of the twelve “zodiac” animals, progressing from Hour of the Hare at dawn, to Hour of the Horse at noon, Hour of the Cock at dusk, and Hour of the Rat at midnight. These “animal” names for the hours can be seen in numerous sources, including in Utamaro’s ukiyo-e woodblock print series “Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara” – twelve prints depicting courtesans at various hours of their day. The print for the Hour of the Hare shows a courtesan presenting her client with his jacket, as it is dawn and it is time for him to go.

Right: The Toki no Kane (“Bell of Time” or “Bell of the Hours”) in Kawagoe. Photo my own.

The time was also announced in the big cities by networks of belltowers, which rang nine bells at noon or midnight, progressing down to eight, seven, then six bells at dawn or dusk, then five, and four, before jumping back up to nine. I have pasted a copy of a chart of this up on the wall by my desk, and have been consulting it frantically, as I was just a little too overwhelmed with the complexity, was having a really hard time remembering which numbers corresponded to which time of day, and just didn’t think I was going to be able to memorize it. As I made my way through my sources, I took meticulous notes of the corresponding times – for example, where the source says 七ツ時 (7 bells), I wrote “3-5am,” as it says directly on my chart.

But, then my advisor reminded me that it really doesn’t correspond directly to our regular hours; rather, it shifted over the course of the seasons. (EDIT, 3/13: Besides, let us not forget the idiosyncrasies of our own system, which includes setting our clocks forward or back by an hour each spring and autumn.) Oy gevalt. But, complicated as this all is, I had a sort of “aha!” moment today, and realized two things, which spurred me to be writing this post.

First, no one had wristwatches or anything like that at the time, and in an age before railroad timetables, very few things were done strictly according to schedule (i.e. directly on-time). So, really, it’s the rough time relative to dawn or dusk, or relative to noon or midnight, that is perhaps most relevant – and this gives us a stronger sense of the actual look/feel of the day. 七ツ時 (7 bells) is shortly before dawn, so that means it’s dark out. People would have put out paper lanterns to help light the way; these will be extinguished right around dawn. Are people up yet? Are they milling about? Are they just sort of first starting their day, starting to get things ready? The source tells us it was snowing that day… So, I think I may simply change all my references to “3-5am” to instead read something like “shortly before sunrise.” While this is vaguer, it is also less inaccurate, and arguably perhaps more directly indicative of the time of day relative to dawn, dusk, etc.

Second, while I do think I’ll be leaving the chart up for reference, I think once you manage to learn/remember that six bells is always sunrise or sunset, that nine bells is always noon or midnight, and that the bells count down from nine to four, and then jump to nine again, everything else falls into place. Five bells (五つ時) is the early morning or the early evening, four bells (四ツの時分) is late morning or late evening, and then we jump back up to nine bells for the time around noon, or midnight. Eight bells is either early afternoon, or very early morning (i.e. the hours after midnight), seven bells is either late afternoon (approaching dusk) or the hours approaching dawn. And that’s actually about it.

People milling about, possibly getting their day started? Or, perhaps it’s closer to sunset, and closing time? A model of the Echigo-ya, one of Edo’s most major department stores, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Photo my own.

It was quite common for people in early modern Japan to rise during the period of seven bells (七つ時), that is, within the last koku before dawn (the last hour or two before sunrise in our modern conception), to begin to get ready for the day. While on the road, we find that Ryukyuan missions very often departed a town around dawn (thus implying they’d already been awake for a bit, to pack up and prepare for departure), and arrived places by around dusk. Still, there were many occasions when they arrived considerably after dusk, and fure were circulated around the town ordering that homeowners & shopowners put up paper lanterns (chôchin), taking the lanterns down at dawn.

When traveling up to Edo castle for formal audiences, the missions generally got prepared around 8 bells (that is, two koku before dawn) – as, one supposes, there were a lot of preparations to be done – and then departed the mansion for the castle shortly before sunrise, arriving at the castle after daybreak (6 bells). It’s certainly something to think about, that they would have been marching through the streets, in their colorful costumes, banners, palanquins, and everything, and blasting street processional music, at such an early hour – and in the faint light of dawn. One supposes the popular crowds came out more when the missions came back down from the castle later in the day? But, then again, we should not presuppose based on modern-day conceptions of what feels too early in the day according to our own modern lifestyles…

As for how time was actually calculated in order to know when to ring the bells, I’m not actually sure. But, both for individuals and institutions (e.g. castles, temples), there were a number of other ways in which time was counted as well. Perhaps one of the most obvious is to simply look at the sun – I haven’t actually read up on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the most common method out in the countryside. Shuri castle maintained a water clock – water was allowed to drain out of a large tank in a controlled manner, such that the level of water could be used to tell how much time had passed. This was used in combination with a sundial to tell the time, which was then announced to the castle and the city by drums. Though this is a Ryukyuan (Okinawan) example, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it were used in Japan as well. So, various kinds of water clocks and sundials. Candles could also be burnt to tell the time – just keep track of how far down the candle has burned, or how many candles you’ve gone through. In the Yoshiwara, a client’s time with a courtesan was measured based on how many incense sticks had been burned, and he was charged on that basis.

For more on timekeeping in Edo period Japan, check out Dissertation Reviews’ review of Yulia Frumer’s recent PhD dissertation, “Clocks and Time in Edo Japan.” The dissertation itself is sadly embargoed until November 2016. Hopefully Frumer will be getting her work published as a book in the near future; I’ll be looking out for it.

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Prof. Doris Sommer came and gave a talk here the other day, on the value and importance of art and beauty, and boy was it inspiring. The topic, ostensibly, was related to the defense of the humanities, the defense of the importance of the arts, as fields such as STEM, economics, business, continue to gain greater and greater traction with students, parents, university administration, and lawmakers alike.

Above: Not apparently a true quote. But a powerful and important notion nevertheless.

We so often don’t know what it is we have until we lose it, and shifting from an Art History department to a department of History, I never suspected that a cultural, or aesthetic, view of the world would be so lacking in the latter. Or that I, who had been steeped in such a view for so many years, would so quickly and so easily forget it, lose it, and become adrift. Some art historian I am. I adore my colleagues, and faculty mentors, in History, but whereas that love of the value of the aesthetic was so taken for granted in my Art History program, here I feel it’s left up to me to keep that energy, that perspective, in my work, as my professors can’t advise me in that direction … and so I am struggling to retain that art/culture aspect to my work, amidst (even unintentional) pressures to focus on “real” political concerns, and more than that, subtle pressures simply to see the world in a different way, a way other than that of the aesthetic or cultured lens.

The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote on this aesthetic view in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” In one section, he writes:

Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, … Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…

(Emphasis added.) Reading this quote, I cannot help but think of Chinese landscape paintings. For centuries and centuries – and most certainly after the writings of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were taken up as the orthodoxy – painters in China rejected realism as a mere parlor trick, embracing as the true artist’s talent the ability to paint things not merely as they appear, but as they truly are. In other words, capturing the spirit of the thing, or the place, and not just its visual perceived appearance.

And I do think there’s something wonderful and powerful and inspiring about this notion of seeing things not merely as they appear, but as they are – thus cutting through to a deeper sense of the character or nature of a thing – as well as this notion of making objects unfamiliar and forms difficult, so that we might better recognize and appreciate the vibrant aesthetic world of colors, shapes, and textures all around us, rather than taking these for granted and thus allowing them all to fade to grey. To be sure, Shklovsky’s aesthetic lens makes everything we encounter in life new, novel, and interesting by alerting us to color, form, texture. And I imagine we could extend this too to the modernist art of the 1890s-1960s, that put aside realism, or naturalistic illusion, to ask viewers to consider the materials and forms themselves – the texture of the canvas, the thickness of the paint, the greenness of the pigment, the squareness of squares, the coldness of stone, the warmth of wood. But I don’t think we even need to go that far to simply say, let us appreciate the vibrant, colorful, exciting, cultural diversity of our world. Let us revel in, and take some enjoyment from, the myriad forms that things take, and not focus only on their function.

As wonderful as Shklovsky’s quote is, I think I like Prof. Sommer’s paraphrase (as it appears in my notes, likely somewhat misquoted) even better:

“Habituation kills everything – it kills my relationship with my wife, it kills how I dress, it kills my fear of war. Art makes me fall in love with the world again.

After all, when we get bogged down in our daily routines and personal family obligations, and when we get caught up in all the great many political and social ills in our world, it can be severely demoralizing. But, thinking about all the beauty in our world, the power of human creativity, can really revive our love of the world, and our desire to contribute to it, or even just to keep moving forward.

I did not get into the study of history so I could think about oh-so-grey things like economic forces or political structures, policy papers or ideological writings. I got into history because I was excited by, enthralled by, enraptured by, the sights and sounds of the culturally diverse worlds of the past. The architecture, the costumes, the admittedly rather romanticized imaginings of what it looked and felt like to be there, in that time and place. I want to highlight the colorful, the vibrant, the musical, in order to contribute to enlivening the world, by introducing my reader to something beautiful and exciting. Our world is full of such beauty, and I think that highlighting this, emphasizing it, getting my reader, and my students, to see that beauty and to expand their love of the world, is just as important – if not, arguably, even more important – as making some argument about our interpretation of political or social structures or patterns.

I have written things like this on this blog so many times – I am ashamed to have forgotten it, to have lost that vision, and the passion for that vision. And so I am so thankful to Doris Sommer for reminding me, reminding all of us in that room, of the power of art and the importance of aesthetic vision.

I don’t know if I will be taking the time to read Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Hannah Arendt’s lectures on Kant, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, and Doris Sommer’s commentary on all of these. But, I do think I will continue to struggle, with renewed determination, to find ways to include the color, the vibrancy, in my work in a way that centers and foregrounds it, and in a way that my advisors find is essential enough to my argument for it to be allowed to remain included within the paper (the dissertation).

Thanks to Flickr user duncan c for making this image Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 licensed.

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