ASP Abridged: Fate, Nature, and Literary Form by Kinya Nishi

We are pleased to present the latest in a new series of blog posts, ASP Abridged, in which authors give readers a short and sweet introduction to their latest book.

Here, Kinya Nishi introduces us to his new book, Fate, Nature, and Literary Form: The Politics of the Tragic in Japanese Literature.

Tell us what Fate, Nature, and Literary Form is about in simple terms.

The book involves critical analyses of classical and modern literary texts in Japan, from medieval nō plays through Bashō’s haiku through contemporary novels by Ōe Kenzaburō; and all this is done in a comparative framework, providing a wider perspective upon the predominantly European tradition of tragic art. But this study is probably more “theoretical” than one might assume. In a sense, it is more important for me to reconsider the implications of multicultural discourse currently prevailing, rather than simply adding an East Asian perspective to literary studies. To be sure, multiculturalism since the 1970s has successfully promoted radical pluralism in terms of race, gender, social class, and so forth. Yet as some critics—notably Terry Eagleton—have pointed out, today’s cultural theory has been heavily influenced by anti-foundationalist or anti-universalist drives of postmodern thought. More worryingly, as the academic discourse on non-Western cultures became institutionalized and lost the sense of historical change, it started to approve non-European traditions on account of their “timeless” essence, as if they were eternally cut off from general human history.

Tragic literature is chosen for the broad topic of my study, partly because it enables us to reflect on particular cultural production as the synthesis of diversity and historical continuity. As the eminent authors like Raymond Williams and Jean-Pierre Vernant suggest, great tragic art emerges from the tension between an established worldview and newly introduced set of values at a certain historical moment. This is the reason that, in part one of my book, I attempt to interpret a list of major tragic works in Japanese literature as the registers of cultural transformation. On slightly more abstract level, a collection of monographs in part three deal with artists’ tragic endeavors to mold new literary forms by altering conventional methods to express their lived experience. The intermediate part two (focusing on modern Japanese intellectual history) explores the ways in which an ideological formation of cultural identity in terms of “nature” repeatedly discouraged political activism, inducing the nation to accept the status quo as “fate.”

How does Fate, Nature, and Literary Form make a unique contribution to the field?

Perhaps because of the favorable assessment of minor cultures in postmodernism, studies in non-European literature tend to avoid problematizing the anti-universalist premises of contemporary theory. In this sense, my approach combining a historical overview of Japanese literature and the critical interrogation of postmodernism might be seen as pioneering. Of course, I am aware that some readers would disagree with my argument and that the book is still a sketchy research, but hopefully it could lay the groundwork for more rigorous investigations which will help correct the bias of prevalent multicultural stance. An example of my polemical approach is that I deliberately tried to highlight a generation of liberal intellectuals who made an enormous collective effort to introduce Western humanist ideals in the 1950s. During the following decades, when scholars invented “uniquely Japanese” traditions, the major achievement of this older generation was discredited, probably due to the anti-Marxist sentiment since the 1970s. Looking back from now, though, it is more interesting and instructive to examine the conflict between universalist visions and the historical situations they were in, rather than simply erase their endeavors from memory. And if we manage to shift our paradigm in this manner, it would contribute to the re-evaluation of other cultural traditions, too: various powerful ideals that have been neglected because of their European origin are waiting to be revealed and reinterpreted in their own historical contexts. So, I hope this book will encourage the reader to regard non-European cultural history not as the location of exotic encounter, but as a place of imaginative search for a common process of human progress involving the West as well as the non-West.

Kinya Nishi is a professor of aesthetics and intellectual history at Konan University, Japan. He has published books and articles exploring the discursive formation of cultural tradition in the context of modern Japan. He has held visiting research positions at the University of Sussex and Queen Mary, University of London.