moratoria: “western” edition

Some of you who know me well (academically) will probably not be surprised by this post, but here I go anyway. I just need to vent a little.

I am typing up handwritten notes right now, getting organized. I am typing some words over and over (used by the authors of the things I took notes on, not me): “western,” “european” and their “influence”.

Okay, I am officially calling you out on this, scholars. This, as far as I am concerned, is about as INTELLECTUALLY LAZY as you can get.

I am inspired by a particularly headache-inducing piece I’m reading right now by my new academic hero, Hara Hideshige (原秀成), who spends 40 pages going into extreme detail, with lots of quotes, on WHO and WHAT influenced Japanese publishing and newspaper ordinances, HOW (via who read them or were they actually involved with specific people in the government), and then also goes on to tackle the active involvement of German and French scholars in the writing of the Japanese constitution of 1889. This guy does not stop with “there was continental European influence but ultimately Japan went with the UK/US system because it was closer to the pre-existing emphasis on ‘copy’ rather than ‘right'”, he provides actual quotes and then compares them meticulously to the actual constitution. THEN, he quotes from the ordinances that got passed afterward (or beforehand) and how they functioned constitutionally.

Okay, actually I should back up. Here’s the things he’s doing that are in fact NOT intellectually lazy:

– differentiates between historical copyright systems in continental Europe (differentiating German, French, and Italian laws and their variations depending on date), AND that of US/UK , again citing specific laws that were translated and used when developing publishing ordinances and the constitutional “protection” (or limitation, really) of free speech, press, and association. (ie. the 1842 UK copyright act).

(Given how different these systems and traditions were at the time (to oversimplify, continent = authors’ rights emphasized; UK/US = time-limited monopoly over making copies, similar to patent law), any attempt to simply brush it off as “Japan was influenced by Western ideas of copyright and authorship, and the Berne convention (which the US didn’t even sign onto until the 1970s)” is TOTALLY INSANE and historically inaccurate and simplified to the point of absurdity. In my opinion it’s unbelievably lazy scholarship and it really gets to me because I am running into it SO MUCH in my research right now – from American scholars (who have no clue about copyright/authors’ rights history but insist on writing articles about its influence on Japan) as well as Japanese.)

– does not use the word “western” (西洋) except when it’s being used by one of the people he’s quoting – ie., he’s sensitive to the historical distinctions in the meaning of the word.

– does not use the word “Europe and the US” (欧米) which I am discovering everyone in my field loves to use. Given the above distinction I’m making you can see how this is beginning to drive me out of my mind. When the word is used, it’s used in historical context and/or in quotes from people in the 1800s talking about what they’re doing.

– devotes a few pages to various terms used in publishing and copyright law, including the idea of civil law, and points out that often we are not sure what people were really talking about then because the terms weren’t consistently used or defined and there was no legal system in place to back them up anyway. reminder that we have to recognize that the terms overlap and we may not be able to distinguish whether someone is talking about authors’ rights or publishers’ rights.

– does not suddenly drop a nice complex argument by using a quoted ahistorical English word – my favorite (read: i hate it the most) is “authorship” or “author” – to reduce the conclusion to a meaningless sentence because of the lack of nuance or specificity in the quoted word.

– does not use historically-specific words and concepts in an ahistorical way.

…. sigh. Of course, I am being forced to type up in my notes arguments and word usage that are the opposite of what Hara’s articles are like. Maybe it will motivate me to type more quickly so I can get on to typing up my notes from the ones I read by him (most recent).

Okay, thanks for letting me get that out. For the record, my hatred is not just for “Western” – it extends to “modernity” as well. Don’t even get me started. Let’s just say I consider them ideological, ahistorical, and completely non-reality-based ideas that make me see red. 😛

3 thoughts on “moratoria: “western” edition”

  1. Is this a repost from LJ or somewhere else? I feel like I’ve read it and commented on it before. Nevertheless, I feel like commenting (again?).

    1) A very minor point, but I’m a big fan of “Western” rather than “western”. Where “west” is a compass direction and a general term that can refer to the western parts of just about anywhere, “the West” is a proper noun that refers somewhat abstractly and artificially to a number of cultures, societies, and states.

    Western influence on Edo is, basically, European and American influence. By contrast, “western influence” on Edo comes from Kansai, Shikoku, Kyushu, or the western regions of Honshu.

    2) Yes, I think you’re absolutely right that quite often academics can be quite lazy and careless in the overgeneralizations, conflations, or even outright inaccuracies they create or imply by using broad terms like “Western”. Were Edward Said more explicit about his book being about British and French attitudes towards Arab cultures, rather than referring to Britain and France as “the West” or “the Occident” and the Arab nations as “the Orient” or “the East,” I would think his argument far far far more compelling, more well-written.

    But, quite often I think that use of such terms is not a matter of laziness, but a matter of expediency and efficiency. One of the things that annoys and frustrates me the most in academia is the excessive attention paid to the meaning of words and the careful choice usage of words. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certainly very important reasons that we need to be careful about how we use words, and important reasons that we constantly question our own assumptions about what is modern, what is feudal, what is fascist, what is Western.

    But, I don’t like the idea of having to define my terms in every paper I write. How long should our footnotes be to explain what we mean by “Western”, by “modern”, by “Japan” in the context of any given paper? Or should it be in the content of the paper itself, devoting lengthy sentences, paragraphs or whole pages to very explicitly and specifically describing what is being referred to?

    How does this professor refer to things when he is avoiding a term like 欧米? Does he write something like 「イギリスの(アメリカ、フランス、オランダもある程度同じようですけど、イタリア、スペイン、カナダ、ノルウェイは別な方法があります)」?

    How would you suggest referring to Japan’s “process of Westernization and modernization in the Meiji period” without taking more than, let’s say, 15 words, to do it? If not “Western” or “modern”, then what words can we use or should we use, that allow us to refer to such complex subjects in as efficient a manner, without making our footnotes ridiculously lengthy, or our main text unwieldy?

  2. One – yes, it is a repost. I finally got around to migrating the more substantial posts from my LJ over here, where I can start just writing them here and reposting them there with comments off.


    But, I don’t like the idea of having to define my terms in every paper I write.

    Maybe this is the point where I should start. My point here is not that we have to go on and on about what we mean by “modernity” or “western” ad nauseum in footnotes that are longer than what we are trying to say. My point, and maybe I didn’t make it clear enough (I plan to write a lot more about this in the future), is that we should stop using these words entirely because they fundamentally have no meaning and signify only ahistorical, ideological concepts. In other words, they only meaning they convey is an ideological framework based in their history, and one that implies many ahistorical (and unexamined) assumptions on the part of the author.

    I do not want this kind of thing associated with my own work, and it drives me up the wall to see other people just proceeding on using these terms as though they are not something that themselves are very troublesome.

    My solution here, and I realize it’s imperfect and not something everyone agrees with, is to just be specific. Don’t say “modern.” Just say what is going on. The author I am praising in this piece does not say anything like the sentence you provided. He says, “this law in 1875 was based specifically on the English copyright act of this year in the 1800s and here’s a direct quote to support that.”

    If he said “in the 1800s Japan westernized its copyright laws” it would not only be vague and nearly meaningless, it would also be quite misleading and this is my major issue with this kind of word usage. It assumes that there is such a thing as “westernizing” (exactly what are we even talking about here?), and that “copyright laws” are something ahistorical and universal. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    One of my preliminary exams culminated in a 25-page smackdown of the use of the word “modern” and “modernity” (specifically in the context of book history). Talk about self-gratification in the name of proceeding to a doctoral candidate. (ha) But personal beefs aside, I was making a legitimate point. It’s the one I mentioned above: that these words are a cop-out, they’re ideologically based, they’re ahistorical and nearly meaningless, and say much more about the author than what they’re trying to write about.

    HOWEVER. This is a huge problem with this too. As I discussed with one of my professors, what other terms do we use to describe what’s going on, in the interest of comparative study? This is especially important in the case of marginalized areas like Asia (again, especially in book history) – well, anywhere outside of France or England honestly. In order to “legitimize” this study as something that book historians (usually scholars of French and English lit/history) NEED to be reading because it’s part of the field, we need to be able to put it in terms where it fits within a framework of global book history.

    In other words, specificity but also commonality with other things which happened in different times and places, under different circumstances. Not in the interest of generalization, but in the interest of pushing our own analyses, pushing ourselves harder, and moving toward greater intellectual rigor AND communication.

    So if I’m not using “early modern period” what the hell do I call it? And is not “Tokugawa period” a totally arbitrary timeframe too? But what’s the point of picking dates – it’s not like time stopped and began again at 1867. People were born before then and continued to live. It’s not like there isn’t continuity throughout all time no matter what political, economic, etc. shifts are going on.

    I’m really rambling here, sorry.

    As to your last question – how would I reger to “Japan’s process of Westernization and modernization in the Meiji period?” You’re going to hate me for this one, I think. I would not ever describe it that way. Because I don’t think it happened.

    I don’t think any country underwent “modernization.” I think it’s a completely meaningless term that should be banned from academic discourse. Hence, my series title. MORATORIUM.

    Oh, I just realized I’m getting ahead of myself. This is still “Western” version. I’m arguing the same thing though. Western European countries, the United States, and Canada (among others) had very different historical situations, policies, cultures, interests, politics, and laws during the time we call the Meiji period. They do now. To say “the West” as though it exists (or, 欧米 and 西洋) is just as bad as Said’s Orient. In fact, that is one of his major points in the book that also drives me nuts because most people who talk about the book don’t get that fundamental argument. His argument is not that we don’t problematize what he argues is a fictional, ahistorical, and ideological concept called Orient. It’s that the Occident doesn’t exist either.

  3. Also, I am not trying to pick a fight with you here, but your first point seems to directly contradict your argument in the second. Please elaborate on how your distinction between “Western influence” and “western influence” is not deliberate and careful word choice, and sensitivity to it. (and I argue that you’re exactly right. I may have forgotten to capitalize West out of my own laziness in writing and given that THAT reflects badly on my argument, you are right to call me out on it.)

    As a side note I personally would argue that overseas influence in Edo came primarily from what are now Holland and Portugal, as well as the Ryukyu Islands, Korea, and China (via Satsuma-han). I don’t think calling Holland and Portugal “European influence” is historically accurate especially given their very different approaches and influences, and historical outcomes.

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