Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Japonist Remnants

There's exciting news on the academic front: Lina is presenting at her very first conference. It's just a graduate symposium, but it's being held in the sunny locale of UCLA. I really liked the paper idea that I proposed for the conference, so I'm very excited that is was chosen, but now the problem is that I actually have to write the paper!

The theme of the symposium is "Remnants," which I can only assume was dreamed up during some sort of beach-side drug-induced powwow. It's a typical term for academia in that you thought it referred to something fairly specific, something left over or a surviving remainder, but once you try to define what might be and not be a remnant you realize that the term could encompass literally everything. As the symposium's organizers themselves pointed out, the entire "field of art history can be conceived of as a discourse of the remnant."

So the challenge in submitting an abstract to a symposium about everything is how to make your paper topic sound like it fits the theme without (a) sounding like everyone else's abstract and (b) using the word "remnant" 15 times in one paragraph. I wanted my topic to relate to Japonisme, but I also wanted the opportunity to write about something new, something I hadn't had a chance to discuss yet in my seminar papers. So I returned to some images I had come across last year that depict Japanese women for a western 19th century audience.

Basically, the abstract points out that even though some scholars have argued that Japonisme (the western interest in Japanese arts and society beginning in the mid-19th century) helped objectify Japanese people as having certain essentialist characteristics, visual representations of Japanese people have rarely been analyzed for how they might have contributed to this problem. So my paper argues that images of Japanese people that circulated in the west represented them as remnants, that is, not just as the remains of another far away culture, but also as the remains of a long ago civilization. By constructing Japanese people as remnants of an "old" Japan that was still going on, Japan gets constructed as a place living in the past, as a decidedly non-western, non-modern place.

I'm particularly into this image, which I found more recently, that represents a "Japanese Village" that was set up as a kind of amusement park in London. Newspaper articles from the time suggest that it was incredibly popular, with an average of 3,000 daily visitors, so popular in fact that an eager entrepreneur decided to set up an "Indian Village" along similar lines. Despite the different political relationships England had with India (its preeminent colony) and Japan (merely an economic and military dependent), the cultures of India and Japan were presented to the English public in sometimes similar ways. My favorite example of this is the Great Exhibition in Brussels, in which the English pavilion contained both an Indian village and a Japanese village, the latter graced with a statue of Queen Victoria. You really can't make this stuff up.

No comments: