Discourses of the Vanishing: modernity, phantasm, Japan by Marilyn Ivy

Ivy, Marilyn. Discourses of the Vanishing: modernity, phantasm, Japan.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Ivy’s amalgam of cultural theory, anthropological research, and cultural criticism investigates peripheral sites she sees as vanishing “displacing Japanese ‘culture’ as a stable signification.” (21) Japanese culture is not a monolithic entity, but rather she suggests postwar culture is centered around the “coincidence of capitalist and technological modernity with a totalizing drive to reunite its disunities within an archaic, continuous, and harmonious culture” (15).  This drive can never recover a stable subject because “Japanese investments in the continuity of tradition disclose a phantasmatic structure” (22) and that structure is based on Freud’s notion of “deferred action” where the “second event – when the moment emerges as an event to consciousness – is thus the first instance: the origin is never at the origin; it emerges as such only through displacement….It means rather that loss can never be known simply as loss, as originary loss.” (22) She isn’t seeking to deny history happened, but is pointing out that the mechanism of recovery and rembrance is always based on the emergence of the event to consciousness, and this is always a “temporal deferral.”  She looks at the process of nostalgia to think about this, because nostalgia is an attempt to recuperate something that always enunciates its distance from the object – the desire to return is always underscored by the distance one is from the object of return.  She sees figures of doubling, ghostliness, and spectral vanishing as “uncanny” (the strangeness of that which is most familiar, “place out of place”) but also that it is in these phantasms that she attempts to “contest the interior certainties of Japanese culture.” She proposes a tight linkage between nation and culture, calling it national-cultural, so that the production of the nation is never forgotten in her discussion of cultural activity.

Her first chapter looks at two different campaigns aimed at metrople Japan, “Discover Japan” in the 1970s and “Exotic Japan” in the 1984 and how they set up an idea of Japan for the Japanese that could be traveled to (in fact, must be traveled to) not only to revisit the past, but also to establish a sense of the self; and then how that nostalgic traditional Japan notion transformed into the “exotica of the continental East” (49). “No longer is there the lure of tabi as self-discovery and holistic encounter with the scenic naïve, but rather the seductiveness of rare objects within a fragmented yet sumptuous space.” She notes that “Japanese nativist ethnology, in its attempts to rescue disappearing worlds of narrative and practice from oblivion, rehabilited them in the guise of the folkloric. Such an endeavor offers the reassurances of knowledge, even of knowledge that radically troubles the premises of modernity.” (242)

Chapter three thinks through the production of folklore as an accessible and concrete object of study through the production of Tono Monogatari. “The Tales of Tono anticipated a newly imagined Japanese subject, a subject seemingly immersed in the immediacy of spoken language, subsisting outside the depredations of print culture and the technologies of modernity. Yet that subject only achieved discursive perdurability by means of modern ghastliness of the writing that situated it.” (98)

Chapter five investigates the practice of recalling the dead on Mount Osore, problematizing the acts of memorial by suggesting they are “a double displacement in the national-cultural allegory of Japanese modernity” (192) of both “scandalous falsity” at the very moment it “emerges as most powerfully authentic.” The result of this attempt of recovery of both the search for the places of Tono, and the ghosts of Osore, is in “the midst of domestication, these places and practices continue to disturb; they are not what they are imagined to be…to act as constitutive reminders of modernity’s losses.” (243)

Chapter six examines taishu engeki (a lowbrow form of theatre) because it “momentarily emerged as yet another vanishing species of folk performance…as a suitable object of a neo-nostalgia that focuses on moments of modernity overcome, its eccentricity seems to embody an older world of speech” (194)  In the dream realm of the taishu engeki it thematically recovers the Japanese past and layers over it a comfort of “calibration of duty with human feelings was unquestioned” (244) but this only exists transiently in the dream realm.

She notes the “very search to find authentic survivals of premodern, prewestern Japanese authenticity is inescapably a modern endeavor, essentially enfolded within the historical condition that it would seek to escape.” (241)


About kathrynpagel

Professor of Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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