Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times. Mirriam Silverberg

Silverberg, Mirriam. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

Instead of definition of erotic as pornographic, grotesque as malformed or unnatural, and nonsensical as silly (and thus meaningless), Silverberg redefines (and expands) what she considers the modern period in pre-Pacific war Japan with the term ero-guro-nonsensu to be erotic as “an energized, colorful vitality. Grotesquerie is culture resulting from such deprivation as that endured by the homeless and by beggars. Finally, nonsense makes a great deal of sense, as the filmmaker Itami Mansaku pointed out for us. The boisterousness of popular vaudeville can, and in modern Japan did, challenge relationships of domination of one class, culture, or nation-state by an other.”  She attempts to resituate the term so it is no longer just associated with a decadence where sensual pleasure is celebrated while politics and militancy are forgotten.

Silverberg examines what she calls a ‘liminal moment of the early 1930s’ through “writings about mass culture and writings circulated within that cultural formation.” She wants to think through not the state formations during the time, but the popular mobilizations (though she positions them ‘within capitalist structures of domination’).  Via a kind of Fiskian move she uses the term “consumer-subject” to refer to those who lived during the modern years of the 1920s and 1930s, seeing them as both “a subject of the emperor and a subject with agency.”  In period, after the Kantō earthquake of 1923 through the 1930s, the consumer market went through an unprecedented expansion (along with the publishing industry – referenced in Suzuki as well). The economy swelled and then collapsed, in one sense driving Japan to increase colonial holdings on the Asian mainland. In conjunction with these developments, there emerged an increasingly complex, cosmopolitan, and hybrid culture of the “modan” that profoundly transformed Japanese life and expression.  “[M]y reading challenged the still widely accepted thesis that a consumer culture was displaced by a decadent, pornographic, escapist hedonism on the eve of fascism.”  “The modernity of the Meiji state was indeed a product of scientific and technological progress, of an industrial revolution, and of “sweeping economic and social changes” brought about by capitalism. In this sense Japanese modernity corresponds to Calinescu’s first, “bourgeois” modernity. But because the capitalist order in Japan was imposed largely from above and without, Calinescu’s second, “cultural” modernity, a modernity defined by “radical antibourgeois attitudes,” is much less relevant in Japan than in Europe. When cultural radicals from within the Japanese Proletarian Arts Movement indicted a Japanese bourgeois order, it was economic oppression based on class differences, rather than a Japanese bourgeois sensibility, that was usually the object of attack.”  The book is constructed around two organizing ideas: the phrase “erogurononsensu” and the idea of “montage” as a critical practice. The second section is devoted to sites of “ero:” writings on the new social categories of women (imagined and real) represented by the “modern girl” and “the café waitress,” the film magazine Eiga no tomo (Friends of the Movies) and the mass market women’s magazine Shufu no tomo (Friend of the Housewife), and found in Asakusa. She also uses documentary writing on Asakusa marginal groups (vagrants, hawkers, and juvenile delinquents) to find guro (the grotesque), which she defines provocatively in terms of “the social inequities and ensuing social practices of those living within a consumer culture defined by the economic hardships of the depression” (p. 30). Finally, the book concludes with a brief consideration of nansensu centered, again, on Asakusa and the visual spectacles found there in the 1930s.  She suggests that montage was not only her guiding principle of critical organization, but that the consumer-subjects in these periods and the print culture of the time was engaged in montage as a practice – they are skeptical agents, not uncritical consumers.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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