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Posts Tagged ‘discourse’

Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

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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.


The reconstructed Fushimi-Momoyama castle, looking mighty impressive.

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.

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I guess my blog has in recent weeks become nothing but reposts… I promise, soon, I’ll find the time to post my own fully formed posts again.

In the meantime, though, the Shogun-ki blog, the official blog of the Samurai Archives Japanese History Page, has posted an excellent interview with amateur historian Samuel Hawley, author of The Imjin War, a thick 664 page book on Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s. I must admit that I’ve never been too interested in the Imjin War, for whatever reasons, but from what I gather from the interview, it sounds like the general consensus on the Samurai-Archives Forum is that Hawley’s book is the best one out there right now in English, and is also one of the first.

If I’m not interested in the Imjin War, why would I bother posting about this interview?

I’m glad you asked. It’s because I really like Hawley’s attitude and approach to history, as revealed in some excellent quotes:

So why didn’t some history professor with much better language skills than me write a book on the Imjin War first? The reason, I think, is that the topic is too big, too wide-ranging for an academic to tackle. Academics tend to choose very narrow topics to specialize in (i.e. “The Impact of the Imjin War on Rice Production in Cholla Province”), then spend the rest of their careers protecting this little quarter-acre of ground. It’s the safe approach. I mean, once you become the foremost expert on Cholla rice production in the 1590s as it relates to the war, no one is going to be able to criticize your work, right?

“The book, you’ll note, is narrative history, not a dissertation. In other words, its purpose is to “tell the story,” not to advance any particular core thesis.”

“I wasn’t trying to put any sort of revisionist stamp on anything because I saw myself as a chronicler and storyteller (heck, it’s an interesting story and deserves to be told well), not as an academic trying to come up with some new interpretation.”

About the warrior monks, I’ll just say this: If I had written a dissertation on them, I bet I would have concluded that they had played a bigger role too. And if I had written a dissertation on the role of the Ming army in beating back the Japanese, hey, I bet I would have concluded that they had played the crucial role too. And if someone comes out with a book on the role of women in the Imjin War, I can tell you right now that the thesis will be that they played a darn big role. That’s the way it works when you set out to prove some sort of core thesis. My own book is not a dissertation; I didn’t have any core thesis to push, for example that the Koreans could have won the war on their own or something like that. I speculate on things along the way and express opinions, of course, but my ultimate purpose was just to tell the story.

And there it is. I could write pages on my thoughts on the subject, on how the academic drive to constantly find new interpretations and the obsession with having an argument obscures the actual historical narrative and interesting facts and discoveries you may have found… But I think I’ll just leave it there. Of course Hawley does not represent my view 100%, but suffice it to say, I appreciate what he has to say, and stand on his side for the most part, against the view that in academia the evidence must always be subsumed by the argument, and that narrative history – putting the facts, the events out there in the clear, chronological, expositionary, sometimes humorous and sometimes dramatic, way that really engages reader and researcher alike – is no good.

*Disclaimer, though, that I am fully aware of the issues surrounding the question of just how factual facts can be, how we can never really be sure about the real historical truth, how repeating the same versions of the story without questioning them is just perpetuating a possibly incorrect and flawed discourse, etc etc. Yes, I know. And I take that into account and everything. But, even so, does not new scholarship twist and skew the truth, too, by emphasizing one element (e.g. the importance of Cholla Province, because you haven’t bothered to research any other provinces) over others? Even if we accept that true objectivity can never be attained, does not the picking and choosing of this evidence but not that evidence in order to support your argument add extra subjectivity? Should not the goal be to represent history as truthfully as possible, and not through a lens?

… I’m starting to rant. I’m going to stop myself there.

If you’re interested, please do check out the full interview at the Shogun-ki blog, and keep your eyes open for other exciting stuff the S-A guys (and girls) are up to!

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Something I thought of today, several days after writing down the thoughts expressed in my previous post, is a most frustrating thought about the freedom of the artist and the limits on the historian. As a historian, I am limited not only by an obligation to present factual information, but also by the expectations that I have read, am familiar with, and am not overlooking or ignoring, discourse. This applies not only directly relevant writings, such as, in the case of Edo period Japanese provincial histories for example, the writings of Wigen, Toby, Ravina, and Howell, but also everything from Said to Foucault, to Derrida, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Kant, Heidegger, and all sorts of other philosophers and theoreticians I’d much rather not deal with. One is expected to be intimately familiar with theory, and also with previous scholarship in one’s specific niche as thoroughly as absolutely possible. One is restricted by the expectations and the standards held by the academic community, and also by trends, and by what niche or place one can find within a discourse.

Artists are of course subject to trends in the market, the standards and expectations of critics, etc. But, by contrast, they are quite free to be inspired by whatever sources they may choose, and while one of course would be chastised and criticized if one is too derivative, completely copying another artist’s style, forms, or ideas, to a large extent one is free to jump between media, themes, and subjects as suits one’s fancy.

Raad mentioned that he was quite inspired by the writings of Jalal Toufic, and in particular a work which addresses theoretical approaches to analysing culture and society, through the lens or conceit of being a book on Vampires in Cinema. If I, as a historian, were to adapt Toufic’s theories to my own historical writing, the academy would look at me like I was crazy, accusing me of having not read Ravina and Toby, of not fitting into the pattern of the issues and analytical approaches raised by Totman and Howell, and of doing all the things so criticized by Derrida, Foucault, Said, or Saussure. But when Raad does it, no one questions who or what his other sources are; he takes refined artistic skills and talents, combined with Toufic and whatever other sources or inspirations he wishes, and creates.

Perhaps I should give up being a (art) historian, and turn to being an artist.

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