Posts Tagged ‘historiography’

Following up on my review of Stacy Kamehiro’s The Arts of Kingship, the next of my reviews written in the course of studying for comprehensive exams.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992; revised ed. 1997)

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, 1995

The debate between Obeyesekere and Sahlins over whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a “god” is described by Borofsky as one of the greatest recent disputes among scholars of the Pacific. At issue is the question of how “natives” think, with each scholar launching virulent attacks on one another for their approaches.

Obeyesekere’s book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook comes as a harsh response and critique of Sahlins’ Islands of History, published several years earlier, and which I have admittedly not yet read. Sahlins then responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in How “Natives” Think.

In a nutshell, Obeyesekere alleges that all humanity is united in its ability for commonsense “practical rationality,” arguing that the Hawaiians could not have been so foolish as to genuinely mistake Captain Cook for being a “god,” that the myth of Cook being taken to be a god was constructed and perpetuated by Europeans (and later adopted by Hawaiians, though it was not originally their idea), and that to suggest otherwise is terribly Eurocentric and does discursive violence of an imperialistic nature. Sahlins responds that treating Western conceptions of rationality as universal and ignoring cultural particularities is a Eurocentric, Orientalist, and anti-anthropological approach. Further, that not all non-whites think alike, or possess the same culture, and so Obeyesekere’s assertions from the position of “authority” as a fellow “native,” a fellow non-white, despite his lack of expertise in Pacific (let alone Hawaiian) history, is a deeply flawed and damaging claim of “authority.”

I have not been to the Big Island, let alone to Kealakekua Bay, so I’m including some of my photos of Oʻahu here. This one, a view from Makapuʻu

Both accuse the other of misinterpreting or misusing the sources – chiefly journals and the like written by members of Cook’s crew, and histories written by Hawaiians beginning in the 1820s (thirty years after the events). Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of being insufficiently critical of these Hawaiian sources, the most prominent of which were written by students at the Lāhainā missionary school, and present the events of Cook’s coming through a powerfully Christian and anti-pagan lens. Further, he alleges that these writers have adopted the European-created myth of Cook’s apotheosis (deification), and are merely repeating the myth, not recording what “actually” happened (or how those events were actually perceived at the time, in 1779). He also argues that much of the sequence of the ritual protocols of the Makahiki rite were not formalized until the reign of Kamehameha I (r. 1810-1819), and that Sahlins is anachronistically applying these sequences and dating backwards to an earlier time when such things were not yet systematized in such a form. Sahlins counters that, in countless places, Obeyesekere’s account simply does not accord with the documentary sources, or with what is known of Hawaiian beliefs and practices. He writes that Obeyesekere invents much of what he asserts whole cloth, “interpret[ing] the historical events by notions concocted out of commonsense realism and a kind of pop nativism” (Sahlins, 60). Obeyesekere’s narrative has Captain Cook being installed as a high chief, not welcomed as a god, and offers interpretations for the meaning of each step of the ritual within the context of this “installation ritual,” which he claims was invented on the spot in order to deal with this unprecedented event. He also claims that Sahlins is unconvincing in pressing that each episode of Cook’s time at Kealakekua so perfectly aligns with the ritual sequences of the Makahiki. Why should the Hawaiians take the British Cook, who neither speaks their language nor demonstrates knowledge of the proper ritual protocols, to be a Hawaiian god? Obeyesekere asserts that Cook and his men were not (accidentally) performing the sequence of the rituals of the Makahiki, but rather quite to the contrary, they were violating the kapu (taboos) the entire time (Ob. 101).

Sahlins counters that Obeyesekere’s interpretation shows little understanding or appreciation for Hawaiian cosmologies, politics, or customs. To begin, it is typical throughout Polynesia that the “gods” are regarded as foreign, as coming from across the sea (and specifically from the heavenly place / distant island known as Kahiki), and their forms, language, and thoughts as unknown or unknowable. Thus, Cook coming in ships with white banners, like the white banners associated with Lono, circling the islands before landing at Kealakekua as the Lono image does in ritual procession, and saying he is coming from Tahiti (H: Kahiki), matches quite well with Hawaiian conceptions – as do his foreign appearance and language.

The view from the Pali Lookout.

There is a lot more that could be said by way of summarizing or analyzing the various aspects or elements of these two scholars’ arguments, but the most important is what has already been said, above. The debate has resonances and importance far beyond our interpretation of Cook, however, and even beyond Hawaiian or Pacific Studies alone. I think if I ever teach a grad seminar in Historiography, I will assign this debate. Robert Borofsky has a nice summary of it, so that one does not actually have to read entire books; his summary is available on Scribd here, as well as on JSTOR.

The most fundamental of these broader issues is the very fact that this is a debate over the validity of sources, and of interpretations. This makes it particularly difficult as a reader to determine what to believe. All told, I am much more inclined to believe Sahlins, as he is an experienced and prominent expert in the field, intimately familiar not only with these sources in particular, but with Hawaiian cosmologies and cultural practices more broadly. Obeyesekere is, of course, a very experienced and intelligent scholar in his own right, but Hawaiʻi/Polynesia is not his field of expertise. As Sahlins points out in his point-by-point dismantling of Obeyesekere’s book, there are numerous places in which Obeyesekere makes assertions about ritual significances or practices, or about “native” conceptions of divinity, that simply do not mesh with what the scholarly consensus – or with Hawaiian traditional practitioners both today and writing in the past – indicate. Further, Sahlins points out numerous places where Obeyesekere contradicts himself, or where his arguments otherwise fail to hold water.

However, Sahlins’ own account is disappointingly standard, and to my mind insufficiently nuanced, and insufficiently critical of itself. I had hoped to see Sahlins more explicitly reject the standard interpretation of Cook as Lono, Cook as god, replacing it with a more nuanced or more culturally specific account. I would have much preferred to see Sahlins declaring boldly that the standard story of Cook’s apotheosis is a myth, deriving from a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, of traditional Hawaiian modes of historical understandings, and then presenting us instead with a new and different interpretation. Something along the lines of saying that of course the Hawaiians did not think that Cook was Lono, but perhaps thought that his coming was somehow blessed by Lono, that Cook’s coming was seen as occurring in concert with the Makahiki “coming of Lono,” rather than being the coming of Lono. I don’t know nearly enough about Hawaiian mythology and traditional beliefs to know what explanation precisely would or would not fit in to those beliefs – I’m basically just spitballing, as Obeyesekere was. But, still, I would have liked to see Sahlins give a more nuanced and revisionist interpretation, rather than simply reiterating exactly the myth that we all learned in elementary school (or wherever), the same myth that Obeyesekere is so critical of, asserting so straightforwardly that Cook was seen as the god Lono, and that just about everything Cook did coincided with the ritual schedule of the Makahiki.

Plaque in honor of Capt. Cook, at Westminster Abbey.

We are left believing Sahlins’ account based solely on one of two possible bases, both of which are potentially quite problematic. We can believe Sahlins on the basis of his experience and prominence in the field, taking his assertions more or less at face value because of his presumed expertise, which is essentially an argument from authority, one of the classic logical fallacies. Or, we can believe (or disbelieve) Sahlins based on whether we find ourselves convinced, by whatever combination of logic (reason) and intuition. Yet, this judgment based on Western rationality and on intuition based on Western cultural assumptions, is very much what Sahlins lambasts Obeyesekere for doing; he points out that Obeyesekere’s argument relies heavily on what “seems strange” or “hard to believe,” versus what seems “more natural to suppose,” inserting Western rationality for an understanding of Hawaiian beliefs (Sahlins 9). As a result, I am left with no idea what to believe.

Returning to the question, or the issue, of practical rationality versus culturally particular understandings, I think Greg Dening, in his article “Possessing Tahiti,” does a far better job of balancing and nuancing the two, than either Obeyesekere or Sahlins. Where Sahlins simply takes the standard narrative, reifying it wholesale and explaining out how this works according to certain frameworks or structures of traditional beliefs, Dening explores the interaction between “literal” (rational, practical) and “metaphoric” (cultural, cosmological) understandings, asserting that they can be overlapping or concurrent, and not contradictory. He notes that Europeans perform “rituals,” too, and understand actions as having metaphorical or symbolic efficacy, pointing to the example of the planting of a flag as a means of claiming possession of a land. Further, Dening speaks of the ways in which the Tahitians could view the coming of the HMS Dolphin as a sacred event simply because of its momentousness, its unprecedented nature, without thinking the captain, crew, or ship to be, explicitly, “a god,” and without thinking the events, at that time, to have been prophesied or to fit into expectations. Rather, by contrast, he suggests that the mythic associations surrounding the coming of the Dolphin were created in consequence of the event, with that approach to the marae (temple/treasure house) coming to be considered a particularly sacred path – or merely of historic significance – because the Dolphin entered via that path, and not the other way around.

Right: A statue of Capt. James Cook at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (England).

Certainly, I am no expert in Hawaiian cosmologies, and for all I know, Sahlins may be perfectly correct. We may never know. However, given the scarcity and unreliability of the sources available on this subject, the fact that Sahlins does not wrestle with multiple possible interpretations, nor entertain the possibility of alternative notions, not even in order to refute them, seems suspect. Perhaps rather than Cook being Lono, he was merely accompanied by Lono in an abstract, incorporeal form, the momentousness, the historic nature of the event in and of itself making it “sacred.” Or perhaps there is some more concrete way to explain more precisely what kind of manifestation or instantiation of Lono Cook was believed to be, and how exactly that particular manifestation relates to “the” Lono. Obeyesekere’s attitude and approach are deeply problematic in a number of ways, and I find Sahlins’ dismantling of Obeyesekere’s narrative quite convincing. Yet, neither am I convinced that Sahlins’ narrative is definitively, and flawlessly, “accurate” or “true.” Even if for nothing else, Obeyesekere’s efforts to cast doubt on Sahlins’ interpretation, and to call for the possibility of “plausible alternatives,” is therefore quite valuable.

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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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A week or so ago, a colleague pointed out to me a new journal article by theatre scholar Steve Tillis, entitled “The Case Against World Theatre History.”1 Don’t be fooled – the article really should be called something like “On the Case against World Theatre History,” or “Against the Case against World Theatre History,” as this is precisely what Tillis argues. In the article, he lays out a number of the most common arguments made against “World Theatre History” as a subject for scholarly study, and then rebuts each of them. There is great relevance to this discussion for anyone thinking about “world art history,” “world music history,” or “world history” in general. Why is it that we study history on the global scale, and is it a valid, relevant, and useful pursuit?

This is a fascinating issue, far more intriguing and engaging – and far more relevant to my own interests – than the needlessly dense Theory essays I’m reading right now for my mandatory Historiography seminar. In crafting my response/review for this article, I couldn’t help but to write quite a few pages before I decided I ought to scale it back and focus in, rather than posting pages and pages here on the blog. For that reason – i.e. for the sake of length – I have omitted discussion of “world theatre history” or “world art history” as a subject of undergraduate courses, i.e. as a mode of organizing teaching the subject. Perhaps I will consolidate my thoughts on that matter into another blog post. In the meantime, this post has still ended up quite long, and for that I sincerely apologize. After sitting on it for roughly a week, I figured it was better to just get it out there than to put it off until I felt like refining it down – it might have gotten left for a pretty considerable amount of time had I done that.

So, please try to bear with me as I try to summarize the arguments & rebuttals in this paper, along with my thoughts, regarding “world theatre history” as a subject of research and study.

The stage set for a jingju, or Beijing opera, “The White Snake,” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Winter 2010.

First, we have to see what it is Tillis means by “world theatre history.” According to him, it is not simply a matter of describing theatrical traditions in a variety of places around the world. Rather, “world theatre history” in his eyes is about considering the cultural exchanges and connections between traditions from around the world, as well as the slightly more abstract or theoretical-level underlying phenomena of how “theatre,” regardless of culture, functions. In his own words,

[“World theatre history”] seeks to investigate and explore the linkages between theatre forms of different world regions … and it seeks to understand how those linkages reveal structures that might have had a widespread effect on theatre: the relationship between theatre forms across the breadth of Eurasia, for example, or the widespread propensity to make use of meta-dramatic figures to supplement the dramatic characters themselves. And it seeks, finally, to analyze whatever interregional trends might be discovered in those links, such as the rising importance of urban forms of theatre (p381).

With this as his working concept, Tillis addresses seven arguments against “world theatre history” – three practical, and four ideological. As you will see, (spoilers!), I agree with Tillis on some of these, and disagree with him on others – as to what constitutes a problem, and as to the solutions or rebuttals he proposes.

(1) The problem of manageability – World history, as the argument goes, is simply not manageable – to address every period in every culture would result in a complete chaos of dissimilar, disconnected, cases and narratives.

Of course, this is not what Tillis is really talking about. Yes, in an undergraduate survey course, one could get into problems of how to fairly cover everything, and to do it in a cohesive way. But, for scholars trying to examine “what is theatre?” from a global perspective, I don’t think this idea of “completeness” or manageability is the problem. The problem comes in how you generalize, something we’ll get to with some of the later arguments.

(2) The second argument that Tillis addresses is the problem of detail. How do we cover all of the history of the theatre of the world without inevitably skipping over really big name individuals or events? Or, rather, how do we skip over subjects generally seen as of extreme significance and get away with it, justifying such omissions in pursuit of the study of the whole?

By way of solution, Tillis offers simply that every level of scale has its merits, that the global scale has its merits too, and that all of that lost detail is still there – to be addressed by other scholars, in other works. It’s not lost. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Still, there are serious dangers in generalizing too broadly, in essentializing cultures, and in ignoring significant counter-examples.

Reading this article, I find myself also thinking about the inevitable choice I will have to make as to my ‘fields’ of study for my PhD qualifying exams. There is a lot of pressure to do “world history,” but, if that “world history” is the same as that which Tillis is talking about here – focusing on the interconnections and broader themes – then that is decidedly not the type of history I am interested in, personally. In theatre, as in art and in history in general – I am interested in color, sound, movement, and stories. I am interested in the vivid ‘world’ of a specific time and place, such as the cities and post-towns of early modern Japan, as composed of the architecture, clothing, systems of social classes, logistics of travel and urban planning, elements of elite and popular culture, and the countless other aspects of that time and place that, when taken altogether, combine to provide some semblance, some hint, of the feeling of actually being there and experiencing it. I am not interested in how “societies” (in general) work, how “regimes” (in general) rise and fall, or how “art” or “theatre” function in some universal, pan-cultural, human sociological or psychological fashion; and I am most certainly not interested in taking historical events or cases as mere examples in arguing some broader point. I’m interested in the specifics, and in putting the specifics first, as interesting and worthy of attention in their own right. So, I think I need to talk to my professors about what exactly a study field in “World History” means, and whether I would be better or worse to focus on something that more specifically, directly, interests me, such as “Early Modern Britain & the Netherlands.”

The Noh stage at the Ôe Nôgakudô in Kyoto.

(3) Tillis’ third argument addresses the supposed problem of the world historian’s reliance on secondary sources, but, frankly, I see no problem with this. Operating on that scale requires one to understand (or at least claim to understand) a very wide range of cultures, events, trends, structures – in the case of theatre and art history, perhaps the most relevant word is “traditions” – and so, of course, one would have to rely on the syntheses produced by other scholars. No one can know enough about every culture, about the complexities of the cultural context in every historical period, nor possess sufficient language skills, to do sufficient research from scratch to understand each of these different traditions well enough to talk about them in a comparative mode – not to mention the inconceivable amount of time it would take. Besides, what use is it, really, to be examining a 17th century playbill or translating an 18th century play, word by word, when your argument concerns kabuki (or jingjiu or Randai) as a whole? The idea that the reliance on secondary sources is problematic seems, to put it plainly, stupid.

The trick is, simply, that the scholar does need to be relying on reliable sources, and to have a good idea what she is talking about. The danger in using secondary sources is that one can get an incomplete or misguided understanding of the subject – but, so long as one reaches out sufficiently to his colleagues, experts in those respective theatre forms, to help guide her to the right sources and the right understandings, the reliance on secondary sources should not be seen as such a problem. Moving on.

At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, as reconstructed in London today.

Thus, we finish with the practical problems, and move ahead to the ideological ones.

(4) The next issue Tillis presents is the argument of Western dominance – that is, the argument that it is only natural that a treatment of “world history” (or “world theatre history”) would focus chiefly on the European path.

The first ideological argument seeks to justify a Eurocentric approach by appeal to what it takes to be historical fact. Europe, it argues, has been at the centre of history for many centuries – in theatre history and general history alike. To deny this centrality is to deny the facts of history. We can call it the argument of Western dominance. … For many centuries, the argument contends, only the West experienced historical progress. (p384)

Wow. I couldn’t say this more boldly or directly if I tried.

For anyone who has studied (anti-)Orientalist theory, in the vein of Edward Said, the above statement that only the West has history or progress is not only patently absurd, but downright offensive.

I am sorely tempted to hold onto this article to assign to my eventual future students. Sure, the overall argument of the paper – the topic of whether or not we should consider ‘world history’ a valid field of study – along with the theatre focus, might not be perfectly relevant to, for example, a general course in Historiography. But, the paper is decidedly historiographical in its approach, and addresses numerous important points, addressing and refuting arguments for a Eurocentric or Westcentric approach to history, and introducing the reader to the basic concept of Whig History, as well as to the Orientalist idea that only the West has history while the non-West is unchanging, and saying it all boldly, clearly, and directly.

Tillis goes on in this section to talk about the argument that since non-Western art forms tend to remain fairly constant, like animated museum pieces (as we do see, admittedly, to varying extents in Noh, kabuki, etc.), these cannot be so relevant to a history of the evolution/development of theatre. In other words, if Noh and kabuki are relatively unchanging, then all innovation and progress is to be found in the West. This is an argument that we very often see argued, as well, in regard to Modern Art. We can see this at play in Wikipedia’s article on Modern Art. Twentieth-century developments in the non-West (e.g. Nihonga, Guohua, not to mention the countless prominent non-Western modern and postmodern artists, from, for Japan, High Red Center and Gutai, to Murakami Takashi) are ignored at the “global art history” scale to instead devote attention almost exclusively to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, up through Fluxxus, Warhol, Pollock, Mondrian and the like. A Westcentric mindset as to what constitutes progress, or what is to be defined as “modern art,” imposes itself upon the choice of which artists, artworks, and movements to discuss.

This idea is supported by the assertion that since Western theatre (or art) has been so influential all around the world, and so widely adopted, this justifies focusing on it. Tillis rebuts this, saying that “the notion that we should study Western theatre history because of its current global status is … both politically motivated and breathtakingly teleological. Because it looks at history only as a pathway to the present, it cannot help but offer a deeply skewed vision of the past” (p385). Tillis rejects, of course, these assertions, saying that in fact Western theatre has remained extremely conservative in certain respects as well – note the proscenium stage; the architectural form of the theatres we build and use follows much the same form throughout the Western world that it has for at least 100 years. And opera, to name one example of a Western theatrical form, hasn’t changed much either.

Preview/excerpts from a University of Hawaii performance of Randai, a Sumatran theatre form combining dance and martial arts with dialogue and plot.

(5) The Argument of Western Relevance – A similar, but less biased, argument, argues that we should focus on the West not because it’s inherently better or more important, but because it is more relevant to what the students (whether as performers or as audience) will encounter and experience. Nationalism plays a part in this argument as well, as it is felt there is a need to devote considerable time/attention to American theatre history when teaching in the US, or to British history in Britain, French art history in France, etc.

Tillis rebuts this one quite nicely, as well, writing that even putting aside other arguments as to the relevance, importance, or simple appropriationability of other traditions in developing one’s own art, at the very least, the global perspective is important in allowing performers within the Western tradition to see that tradition from an outside perspective. To not take things for granted, but to recognize and be aware of the artificiality of our assumptions. Assumptions about the shape a stage should take, the structure of a play or of a cast (i.e. how many lead actors, what it means to be lead), about the way the audience ought to behave, and about the way the actors ought to interact with (or ignore) the audience. Rethinking our assumptions helps us understand our own culture in much fuller, more complex, more nuanced ways, and thus helps us to be creative, innovative, inventive with it.

(6) The Argument of Western Inevitability – In short, the argument that all the world has come to perform theatre in a Western way, and that therefore, it’s okay to use Western definitions/conceptions of “theatre.”

It is true that “world theatre history,” like “world art history,” like “world history” in general, all too often rest on Eurocentric definitions of what does and does not count as “theatre” or as “drama” (or as “art”, or countless other descriptors). This results in statements like: “With a few possible exceptions, there is no tradition in Africa of artistic performances which include all the elements which might be demanded in a strict definition of drama – or at least not with the emphases to which we are accustomed” (387).

This makes me wonder if even Western theatre necessarily always contains all the elements which might be demanded of such a strict definition. What is necessary? There is not always music. There is not always a set, or props. Sometimes there aren’t even costumes – see: Naked Boys Singing. (Better yet, don’t.) There is not always a stage. There is not always a curtain. I suppose there must always be performers. But, there need not necessarily be dialogue. There need not necessarily be a plot or narrative.

On page 388 we find another of Tillis’ brilliantly bold and direct statements – a wonderful rewriting of the typical Eurocentric discourse: “At least until recently, [Europe] has been a dependent part of the general development of civilization. Rather than standing astride history like some Colossus, Europe spent numerous centuries playing catch-up with the rest of Eurasia.”

The first part of the Kumi Udui play Nidô Tichiuchi, a theatrical form from Okinawa.

(7) The Argument of the Metanarrative – Tillis ends with the argument against “world theatre history” that

Any totalizing metanarrative [e.g. some attempt to explain or to investigate “theatre” as a whole, regardless of when or where it occurs] will advance one or more particular ideological positions, and in doing so, will distort history to an unacceptable degree. … Such [master or grand] narratives offer totalized versions of history that use a homogenizing process in which a dominant ideology is imposed on any text … thereby eliding its diverse elements. (388)

Tillis concludes by arguing against this idea, that is, arguing for metanarratives, saying they are essential towards avoiding the chaos of disconnected mini-narratives. Of course, this is true. And there is, certainly, some merit to the kinds of investigations that question the effect of an actor on an audience, or what (in general) it means to “perform,” or any number of other, similar, fundamental or basic “performance studies” types of questions. However, in the end, I do believe that the argument about ideological impositions being inevitable is a valid one, and that we must either learn to live with that and be okay with it (as we do in all of our scholarship), or acknowledge the serious flaws with any sort of meta-narrative that claims to understand everything from Shakespeare to Broadway to kathakali to manzai, taishû engeki, and kagura, to Native Hawaiian forms of storytelling, well enough to draw conclusions valid to all of these traditions.

What do I have to say myself, in conclusion? I don’t know. There’s just so much here. I think that shifting both the academic discourse and the content of what we teach away from a Westcentric-perspective is of profound importance.

Personally, I am far more interested in the specific case – in kabuki, or Noh, for those things that make those particular artforms particularly interesting. My own scholarship will never address the “big questions” on a global scale, nor those that operate on a particularly fundamental level, nor those on a theoretical one. Some of these questions, many of these questions, are quite valid and of great importance. But I also am very hesitant about arguments that claim to speak for all traditions, all cultures, overlooking the possibility of counter-examples, of difference.

I guess I still stumble, or quibble, on the point of it being world “theatre” history. Sure, if you’re going to restrict your comparative studies to those art forms that match certain criteria – the focus on entertaining an audience, and lack of religious ritual purpose being a key one to my mind – then I suppose you could go and call it “theatre” history. Otherwise, if you’re going to include all sorts of ritual dances, then perhaps you’d be better off calling it “world performance history.” Yet, this still produces problems. Noh, for example, is very widely accepted as a form of “theatre” or “drama,” but is highly ritualistic, with a powerful spiritual component, and even in kabuki, which is absolutely a popular entertainment form, there are many ritual or ceremonial performances, which once may have been thought of as truly being performed ‘for the gods’ yet which are still today associated with bringing good luck, good fortune. And perhaps most problematic, ironically, is modern (Western) experimental theatre and the like. No one would argue that this is not theatre. And yet, it often disturbs, confuses, or thought-provokes rather than entertains, and often lacks discernable plot or characters, as well as, perhaps, costumes or sets. If we are to include this in our definition of “theatre,” but exclude cham dances or kagura performances not meant to be performed in secular contexts, on a stage, for an audience, then how do we define theatre? I guess I’ve set it up for the religious/ritual element, and/or the presence of an audience, to be the key deciding factor. But is this the case? Is this something we can agree upon? How do we define “theatre” in a non-Eurocentric, and culturally sensitive way? How do we approach and study theatre in a globally-minded way, guided not by Eurocentric assumptions? Or, do we not care that we are working based on Western assumptions?

Reading this article has gotten me quite curious, and interested, to go out and read more about contemporary historiographical debates on these subjects. How do we address “theatre history” or “art history”? How do we address “world history”? How should we maybe be doing it better? There are, I am sure, pages and pages and pages of journal articles on these subjects… Perhaps the 2004 issue of Theatre Survey, a special issue focusing on historiography, might prove a good place to start.

1) Tillis, Steve. “The Case against World Theatre History.” New Theatre Quarterly 28:4 (2012). pp379-391.

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After going to a Medieval Studies get-together yesterday, I got to thinking, a bit, about whether we can or should call Tokugawa Japanfeudal,” or “early modern.” Of course, I am sure there is a ton of scholarship that I have not read on how precisely scholars of medieval and early modern Europe define and apply these terms, and on debates about it. But, one of the wonderful things about writing a blog is that, unlike in formal academic writing, I can jot down thoughts here and share it with you without having to do due diligence of reading and carefully considering all of that discourse. If I did have to do so, I can guarantee that this essay would have just sat on my hard drive, unseen by anyone, for years and years while I worked on it, polished it, worked on it some more, tried to find a journal that would publish it…

So, anyway, just drawing upon the ideas and associations I’ve come across in the seminars I’ve taken and the scholarship that I have read, I get the impression that the general consensus these days on the concept of “feudalism” is that the term, as it applies to describing a very particular set of structures and frameworks in England and/or France in a very particular frame of time, really shouldn’t be applied even to Germany, Italy, or Spain, let alone to anywhere further afield. It’s a convenient translation for the traditional Chinese term used to describe certain circumstances in ancient China, a term which Japan later adopted to refer to certain conditions within its own history, but… I think one of the key arguments against Japan being “feudal” in the Tokugawa era is that Japan wasn’t at war with anyone, and thus the crucial element of the “feud” in “feudalism,” the military service demanded of lords by their king, e.g. their provision of knights to help go fight the French, or the Crusades, that element wasn’t there under Pax Tokugawa. But, I counter, Japan still had castles, and lords, and fiefs. It still had a political system that relied more than anything else upon oaths of fealty/loyalty from regional lords, who paid some share of taxes, as well as corvee labor and such, in return for a considerable degree of power and autonomy within the lands in which they were enfeoffed. And while I hesitate to compare samurai too directly to the English or French knight, or bushidô to any European system of chivalry, it is relevant that the land was ruled by a warrior class whose power derived from having rallied other lords (military allies) around oneself, and then militarily seizing that power, regardless of whatever kinds of ideas of Divine Right (in the West) or Imperial recognition (in Japan) were claimed afterwards.

Returning to the idea of military service, of course, it is true that the shogun did not really call upon the lords’ armies to go launch military expeditions abroad, as the “feudal” lords of England and France did in being forced to contribute knights (and other warriors and equipment? I’m not sure) to wars in France, wars in the Holy Land, etc. But, there were domains which were relied upon for their military service in defending the ports / coasts from incursions – Fukuoka and Saga domains, for example, were among those charged with ensuring the defenses of Nagasaki harbor (harbor and city of Nagasaki themselves were under more direct shogunal control, and were not part of any lord’s domain), while Matsumae domain in the north was charged with the defense of the north against Ainu, and especially Russian, incursions. All of these domains were permitted reduced sankin kôtai obligations in exchange for their service, and Morioka domain, for example, was at one point granted a great increase in power/rank (a doubling of its kokudaka) in recognition of its contributions to the defense of the realm. Furthermore the sankin kôtai, or “alternate attendance”, system by which lords had to maintain residences in the shogunal capital of Edo, and had to travel great distances with a large entourage to come and personally appear before the shogun once every few years, has been identified by Constantine Vaporis as being very much a form of military service. Now, I’m not sure if Vaporis would use the word “feudal,” and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he does argue, in Tour of Duty, that this was a form of military service, and that just about everything about it, from the processions to the mode of dress, to the lord’s presentation of himself to the shogun, were military acts. And so far as I’m concerned, the combination of this military character of the system, combined with the “flavor” elements of that we have things that we can call castles, lords, and fiefs, is more than good enough for me to make Tokugawa Japan merit the term “feudal.”

Of course, as I hope most historians would point out, the real issue is not the question of whether or not Tokugawa Japan was “feudal,” but rather the question of whether this is a useful term, or in what ways it is useful, for helping us understand, and describe, the political structures of Tokugawa Japan. And the same goes for the term “early modern.” It is important that we remember this, that we keep this in mind as we consider or debate these things. Still, I do find such terms useful enough that I do think this exercise (i.e. the writing of this blog post) is worthwhile – there is most definitely a point at which I will argue that we need to stop worrying about whether or not Japan was quote-unquote “fascist” in the 1930s-40s and need to instead focus on the details of precisely how the government functioned at that time, regardless of what we call it. There is a place for such terminology debates, and there is a limit to their usefulness.

But, like “feudal,” I do think that “early modern” has a place. Granted, we no longer believe that all societies go through the same processes, as if there is only one path to modernization, one path to civilization, and that all societies are simply at a different place on the path, a path that Europe (of course) has forged ahead the furthest on. We no longer follow this Whig History concept of progress. But, nevertheless, I think that there is some validity to applying categories that have some universal meaning, rather than just sticking to East Asian or Japanese concepts of periodization that would leave any efforts at comparative or “world” history at a total loss.

One of the key reasons behind calling Tokugawa Japan “early modern” is to draw attention to certain dramatic developments that took place over the course of the period, especially in terms of urbanization, the rise of the urban merchant/commoner class, intensely integrated nationwide (archipelago-wide) economic/trade and travel networks, and the power of popular publishing. By the end of the 18th century, Japan had one of the first futures markets in the world, and a complex system of merchant trade networks, reliable courier services, and functioning post towns following well-established and relatively safe highways and maritime routes. Agricultural land reclamation, mining, and logging were pushed essentially to their maximums, to the point at which Japan actually suffered from dearths of precious metals and of timber for lengths of time. Cottage industries emerged, and were closely tied in to urban merchant networks, such that goods were produced in the countryside in a “mass manufacture” kind of way (though not in a fully mechanized or industrialized way, to be sure), and then transported all across the archipelago, earning money for merchant houses (some of which went on to become modern “businesses” or “corporations” in the late 19th century) based in the cities. A system of IOUs, scrip, or paper money, whatever we want to call it, and a system of what we might call proto-banks, likewise emerged.

Edo and Osaka were among the largest cities of the world, and some scholars have indeed identified some of the above developments in Japan as truly rivalling where England (the world leader in being the first in industrialization, etc.) was only a century or so before. So, if there’s anyone out there who still believes that Japan was totally backwards, static and stuck in an unchanging pre-modern state of affairs until Commodore Perry blew the doors open, that’s all hogwash.

Japan also had the benefits of European “Enlightenment” thought and scientific discoveries in the Edo period, as Western medical books, globes, telescopes and microscopes, and various other tools and knowledges did enter Japan via the Dutch. Plus, of course, Japan’s own intellectual development was plenty active at this time as well.

So, can we safely call Tokugawa Japan “early modern,” in that the period is marked by dramatic developments, improvements, progress away from the “medieval,” and in setting the stage for the sort of industrial “true” or “full” modernization that was to come? I would argue a resounding Yes.

However, there is just one thing. Those who are serious scholars of medieval or early modern Europe might claim a much more nuanced dividing line here, but on the surface of it, I’d wager that global exploration, mercantilism, and the beginnings of colonialism are crucial elements of the early modern experience in Europe. England, France, Holland only were what they were in the early modern period because of what those countries were doing in, and what they were getting from, the New World, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific. The tea, silks, spices, and porcelains England was getting from China in this period, alone, even putting all sorts of other factors aside, played a huge role in making English culture and economics what it was at this time. So, given that Japanese were not exploring, journeying, or colonizing, are they still “early modern”? How crucial is this element to the definition? I dunno. Given all the domestic developments, urbanization, cottage industry, publishing, and all of that, I would very much hesitate to call Japan “medieval” or “pre-modern” or “not-yet such-and-such” just because of this one element is not present. But… it’s something to think about.

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