- Commensurable Distinctions:Intercultural Negotiations of Modern and Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture
Over two decades have passed since the end of the Cold War when two leading proponents of Japanese studies in the United States, the literary scholar Masao Miyoshi and the historian Harry Harootunian, declared that “Japan in the world as an isolated national entity is no more meaningful than any other claim to a unique national identity.”1 And more recently it has become commonplace to hear, for example, that art is undergoing a “progressive denationalization” induced by “globalization and worldwide mediatization.”2 Whether or not the demise of the nation is in fact at hand, this discursive environment problematizes the once unthinkingly accepted link between the first two terms of the field “Japanese art history.” For how can Japanese art alone be studied if Japan has no meaning “as an isolated national entity”? And how promising is continued investment in the adjudication of differences between Japanese and non-Japanese art amidst a “progressive denationalization” of art? While recognizing, as even historians of globalization have, that Japan and other nations remain “preferred settings” for organizing group identity and articulating shared aims,3 we would like to explore a less dichotomous logic than has often been deployed, at least with regard to the modern and contemporary periods during which Japanese art has been deeply and increasingly imbricated with other parts of the world.
We propose “commensurable distinctions” as an alternative logic to suggest the mutually reinforcing dynamics of increasing sameness and increasing difference that unfold in contact zones arrayed in a strikingly uneven global geography. Historians of post-Edo Japanese art have often prioritized the uniqueness of Japanese transformations or revisions of Euro-American art and privileged purported continuities or vestiges of earlier indigenous practices. Consequently, the closeness of modern Japanese art to transnational ideas and forms has often been overlooked, regretted, or derided for being imitative and lacking in originality. This is a view of modern Japanese art that sociologist Bruno Latour [End Page 1] might regard as exemplifying the modernist “Great Divide” that has historically reduced intricate transcultural entanglements to schematic monumental dichotomies such as nature and culture, or more specifically in this case, Japan and the West, the West and the Other.4 To adhere to this divide is to fail to recognize things and occasions that mediate, travel, and translate between multiple regions and places. Our approach, then, seeks to apprehend the critical role of relations of convergence, similarity, or identity—in conditions where such relations blur and confuse the definition of national culture as well as conditions where they produce artistic tropes of Japaneseness. Focusing on fluidity, mutations, and interstices as opposed to modes of analysis based on contained national and cultural forms, this approach examines the benefits of compatibility and global passages of transfer that lead to situated distinctions and complex drifts. “Commensurable distinctions” may be defined as visual features of the art of a nation or region generated by a transnational framework (format or genre) that positions artists (and artworks, styles, movements) in relative measure to some standard presumed to have global reach or authority.
Commensurability is perhaps better understood in other areas of culture than art. The global maritime network of port cities, for example, comprises a well-developed infrastructure dictated by the need for common measurements. The inter-regional standardization of weights and measures began in antiquity, while the wharves, docks, and loading equipment of the vast maritime network of container terminals around the world today are virtually indistinguishable.5 Yet the contents of these standardized containers, sometimes including works of art, often encompass far greater diversity than the hardware used in their transportation, and the circulation of these commodities and search for new markets stimulates further diversification. The currency and exchange of the capitalist market system have been central to these processes driving commensuration and differentiation. In a study titled Ethnicity, Inc., the anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff describe new developments in the commodification of all kinds of cultural properties and the incorporation of identity itself: “Those who seek to brand their otherness, to profit from what makes them different, find themselves...