Saturday, August 30, 2008

Remnant Redux

Following the basic rule of academia that no conference paper should actually correspond to the abstract you originally submitted for it, I've written my UCLA paper along slightly new lines. I was originally planning on tying in the whole "remnant" idea by talking about how the images medievalize Japanese people, that is, represent them as living in a colorful but outdated feudal society. But the problem with art history is that, contrary to popular belief, you can't just claim that the image looks like whatever you want. You need actual visual evidence, enough to convince a room full of people that they can see in the image what you can see. And the more I looked at these images, the less evidence I saw of medievalizing tendencies.

But what I did see more and more in the images was a certain theatricality. Platforms and stages, curtains, audiences, subjects directly addressing viewers: everything suggesting that Japanese people were seen not just as remnants of an "old" Japan, but also as performing remnants of their ancient civilization for western audiences. What's interesting about this emphasis is that these exhibitions were still seen as authentic, as providing a picture of "real" Japan, even when the exhibitions were frankly discussed as performances. Much like how a "staged" photograph was considered much more realistic in the 19th century than it would be today.

If westerners saw Japanese culture as more or less a performance, than the inevitable outcome is performances like Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, in which "Japanese" culture can be performed not just for westerners but also by westerners. And in the inevitably unequal power relations of the time, Japanese people were not given the same privilege of being able to perform western culture. In fact, Japan was aggressively westernizing at the time, reforming their government, education system, and military along western lines, wearing western clothes, etc. Some of these policies were praised in the West, but others, particularly wearing western clothing, were openly ridiculed. So we get things like this image, which was an apparently hysterical picture of Japanese men in western dress, when it first appeared in an English periodical in 1877. It's humor lies mostly in how the man on the right is trying to get on his horse on the "wrong" side, and how the men on the left have top hats and clothes that don't fit properly by English standards. Images like this one confirmed the idea that Japanese people belonged in their "ancient" costumes and would never be able to out-westernize the West.

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