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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Wearing, Wrapping, and Signing Culture

Wearing, Wrapping, and Signing Culture
Originally uploaded by timtak
Not only does Brian Mc. Veigh (Wearing Ideology: state schooling and self-presentation in Japan, insert top left) have a lot of interesting things to say about uniforms, cuteness, and fashion in Japan, he goes further; he explains how these things can have meaning in and of themselves.

Using a “dramaturgical analysis” originating in Goffman ("The presentation of self in everyday life") McVeigh describes how selves can be constructed on stage, and consisting in and bounded by their presentations. If the self can be constructed on stage, then there is no need of a third term, the actor that with a narrative to grind. Meaning can be brought out onto the stage and be worn. This is wearing ideology.

Roland Barthes and Joy Hendry point out how visual signs and visual exteriors are important in Japan. But both expect there to be something else, a center, a something that is wrapped.

Barthes has already explained in "Mythologies" (inset bottom centre) how visual signs (magazine photos particularly) have the structure of an 'alibi'. "I was not there, I was somewhere else." Barthes does not believe in Mythology. Alibi's and signs, Barthes says, point off, salute a meaning somewhere else.

Then Barthes came to Japan and found that there are lots of signs, but they seem to point nowhere. For example, used to beautiful tasty French food, where the look indicates a different spicy flavour Barthes found Sushi in all its significant visual splendour, and all tasting the same, of wasabi and thick soy sauce. He found an empty space in the center of Tokyo signifying the massive power of an emperor, who does not rule. Japanese signs, Bathes says, have an empty center.

Likewise, Joy Hendry (in "Wrapping Culture" inset top right) points out the Japanese attraction for wrapping. But almost nowhere, except in her discussion of Barthes and towels given as gifts does she examine the possibility that Japanese "wrapping" is not exactly wrapping at all. The surface is not there to contain anything. The towels and the wrapping are consummatory. While the wrapping looks like a vector, or medium, it has meaning. The "wrapping" is the real Mcluhan.

Both Hendry and Barthes do not have a theory for explaining how symbols and surfaces can also be centers and selves. Brian Mc.Veigh however, using the self-on the stage tradition (of Goffman), proposes a mechanism for how the self, and meaning, can be constructed, consist and be bounded by presentation. Wearing is not an alibi for ideology somewhere off stage, but rather ideology is worn, and the visual is meaningful.

In his other great book, "Higher Education as Myth," Mc. Veigh weighs in against the lack of the logos in Japan. So I am not sure how much his revisionism in "Wearing Ideology" is intended. In any event this is the only book of Japanology that I can think of that seriously attempts to bring the center back on stage; the only book watching a mime show that presents a theory of mime, rather than harp on about the lack of a script.

Having said that, the book is not an easy read and feels a bit like a graduation thesis wherein the theory has been added because theses need theory, rather than that the author believes what he is writing. So perhaps, Mc. Veigh is an accidental apologist, a reluctant revisionist of the theory of Japan. Either way, his books are essential Japanology!

Finally, I don’t think that Mc.Veigh, or Goffman, go far enough. They still use the metaphor of a stage with its implied audience, and heteronomy. Actors live on stage, performig for the sake of others off stage, rather than for each other and themselves. As James Mead (Mind Self and Society) argues, actors can can only make visual gestures meaningful for themselves is if they see the faces of their audience or stand in front of a mirror. In my view, the actors in Japan carry their audience, or a mirror with them. The Japanese are wearing ideology, because they have mirrors in their heads.

A review of three of the best books about Japan
Joy Hendry "Wrapping Culture"
Roland Barthes "The Empire of the Signs"
Brian Mc.Veigh "Wearing Ideology"
written on the occasion of giving a lecture on Japanese fashion.

This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.