- Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895–1945
In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a paragraph muses about the meaning of colonies. It is prompted by the (fictional) “racial suicide” via negative birthrate of those (real) native Herero of German South-West Africa who survived a (real) genocidal extermination program at the hands of their colonial masters from 1904 to 1907:
How provoking, to watch one’s subject population dwindling like this, year after year. What’s a colony without its dusky natives? Where’s the fun if they’re all going to die off? Just a big hunk of desert, no more maids, no field-hands, no laborers for the construction or the mining—wait, wait a minute there, yes it’s Karl Marx, that sly old racist skipping away with his teeth together and his eyebrows up trying to make believe it’s nothing but Cheap Labor and Overseas Markets. . . . Oh, no. Colonies are much, much more. Colonies are the outhouse of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit. Where he can fall on his slender prey roaring as loud as he feels like, and guzzle her blood with open joy. Eh? Where he can just wallow and rut and let himself go in a softness, a receptive darkness of limbs, of hair as woolly as the hair on his own forbidden genitals. Where the poppy, and cannabis and coca grow full and green, and not to the colors and style of death, as do ergot and agaric, the blight and fungus native to Europe. Christian Europe was always death, Karl, death and repression. Out and down in the colonies life can be indulged, life and sensuality in all its forms, with no harm done to the Metropolis, nothing to soil those cathedrals, white marble statues, noble thoughts. . . . No word ever gets back. The silences down here are vast enough to absorb all behavior, no matter how dirty, how animal it gets.1 [End Page 145]
After making the appropriate translations of geographic location, cultural attributes, and historical context of the European scramble for Africa alluded to here, this passage would be at home in Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895–1945, Mark Driscoll’s provocatively argued and spiritedly written exposition of the unsavory infrastructure of Japan’s scramble for Asia. Karl Marx is indeed skipping throughout Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque, brandishing the banners of Cheap Labor and Overseas Markets from Taiwan to Manchukuo, but, à la Pynchon, Driscoll convincingly demonstrates that Japanese colonies were much, much more than mere capitalistic animals binging on native bodies and purging cheap products. The economic had cultural-political accomplices in the construction of the outhouse of the Japanese soul where well-known empire builders guzzled and wallowed and rutted elbow-to-elbow with the lesser known and nameless homesteaders, hustlers, pimps, pushers, peddlers, and profiteers who all pitched in for a Greater East Asia Empire even as their pursuits were primarily for personal gain.
Where Driscoll is more nuanced than Pynchon in the case of Japan’s colonies lies in his astute analysis of the evolving nature of the cultural-political relationship between colonizer and colonized over the temporal span of Japan’s empire, from its first full-fledged colonial acquisition of Taiwan in 1895 to its war defeat in 1945. Where Pynchon sees a relationship that only configures the colony vis-à-vis the metropole as a kind of play-ground of the Id overflowing with excessive life, Driscoll, seizing on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower and running with it, discerns a changing dance of life and death in the subjugation of populations in the colonial periphery (although it may be argued that the colonizers are indeed guzzling, wallowing, and rutting the same throughout). This relationship of colonial administration toward colonial territory and its...