Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 by Mark Driscoll

Driscoll, Mark. Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Mark Driscoll attempts to (along with other contemporary scholarship) explain “the mutually constitutive nature of the colonial periphery and the imperial center” of Japan.  An avowed postcolonial studies subalternist and Marxist, he maintains we must understand the rise of centers of power in relation to “human life and labor, especially that inhabiting the margins and peripheries far away from centers of power.” By making the study of the periphery his priority he argues Japanese in the colonies not only profited from the subaltern and colonized, but also that the center adopted the techniques of the periphery. “Although violent, martial forms of capital accumulation were taking place inside Japan as well at this time, postcolonial studies adduces that the “state of exception” characteristic of imperialist tactics in the outer circle allowed accumulation to advance more quickly, benefiting from novel (and often criminal) techniques that were adopted later in the inner.” (p. xi)

He defines the ero-guro-nonsensu as “the dominant form of mass culture modernism in Japan from 1925 to 1934 and included sexology, detective fiction, graphic art, soft-core pornography, and urban anthropology.” (p. xi)  And so he takes up as his subjects the Chinese coolie, pimp, human trafficker, Korean tenant farmer, Japanese sex workers and middle-class women attempting to escape patriarchal Japan, Japanese pimps and human traffickers, and then finally those who were involved in ero-guro modernism itself, suggesting that it spawned ” key neuropolitical subjectivities they spawned: sexologist, detective novelist, revolutionary pornographer, and the street subjectivities of the modern girl (moga) and modern boy (mobo).” (p. xiii)

Driscoll, plays with Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower, suggesting a tight relationship between life and death in the subjugation of populations in the colonial periphery. He charts an arc of transformation under capital of living labor: the first section, “Biopolitics” is the rise of the first colonies 1985-1920s is about control of living labor, the second “Neuropolitics” covers the 1920s through 30s examines the extension of that control not simply to the laboring body, but penetrating into the nervous system constituting specific subjectivities, and finally “Necropolitics” from 1930s to 1945 where the dead, objectified labor is a kind of “living-dead” or “undead” because there is no concern for the reproduction of workers, reflected in a popular culture fascinated with murder and suicide.

The only concern I have with Driscoll’s reading is that the pervasiveness of capitalism and its ability to subsume even the nervous system leaves absolutely no room to resist, escape, be a critical consumer, be ironic, be savvy, or have any agency.  The body is helpless against the “stimulation and stupefaction” the human is alienated “down to a zero-degree state before [capitalism begins] hammering them into pulp and casting them into a new mold, a new image.” (140)


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
This entry was posted in japanese history, japanese literary studies, mass and popular culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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