Beginning with the notion that culture is a necessary evil, David Pollack argues that since the self (already a culturally determined option) emerges through a process of inclusion and exclusion, the study of other cultures is never innocent. This is not a new idea. However, Pollack frames the issue in way that actually opens up new possibilities for the present discourse on culture. To read against culture is to be able to stand "simultaneously inside and outside" of one's own and that of the Other. This requires us "to accept and simultaneously to resist culture's distinctive maneuver of including the one always at the price of excluding the other."
This is a call to hold all human possibilities in one's mind at the same time. As the author admits, it is not an easy task. But it is worth a try, since this state is the very balm of cultural relativity, a notion that Pollack would accept as a truism. How else could we know culture if not in a relative sense? Holding to this higher, rigorously imaginative standard, Pollack finds Roland Barthes's understanding of Japan too clear in its motivation to find a not-France. And for similar reasons, he must read Edward Said's brand of orientalism as "pathetic" in a literal sense, that is, engendering pity rather than understanding. True understanding is "dialectical free play." It is our embrace of "heterogeneity" or "living generously with all but homicidal difference." The end of cultural reading is, then, accepting everything but murder, a statement that stops just short of the absurd since the author is, after all, giving us tools for taking ideas apart rather than for putting a society together.
Such a liberal understanding is foe to exoticism and, on the other hand, any theory of reading that claims to be culturally neutral. We can have French semiotics and Japanese semiotics, for instance, but no semiotics that is untainted by culture. Essences matter, then, because essences are a reality through which we learn something more complicated. Willing to show his own cultural colors, Pollack goes on to situate a number of prominent Japanese novelists in their cultural complexity: Natsume Sōseki and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō as they reflect upon the problem of the modern self; Kawabata Yasunari and Abe Kōbō as they illuminate the hegemonic force of ideology; Yukio Mishima and his nativist critique of the novelistic form; and Ōe Kenzaburō and Kaikō Takeshi as they deal with the restrictive nature of culture. (Against established custom, Pollack gives all Japanese names except two—Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai—in English word order.) The readings are engaging. Moreover, they are faithful to the spirit of standing on all sides at once.
Well versed in many aspects of Japanese, Chinese, and Western culture, and also widely read in several areas of literary and cultural theory, David Pollack is qualified to write a work of such sweeping dimensions. In its evocation of something more committed and informed than sympathy, Reading [End Page 448] Against Culture takes us beyond Orientalism. It stands as a guide to the issues confronting students of Japanese (or any other) literature, and is a record of one mind's impassioned engagement with the questions of the day. [End Page 449]