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  • Transformations of Sensibility: The Phenomenology of Meiji Literature
  • Douglas Howland (bio)
Transformations of Sensibility: The Phenomenology of Meiji Literature. By Kamei Hideo. Translation edited and with an introduction by Michael Bourdaghs. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2002. lxxii, 300 pages. $60.00.

This is an expert translation of Kamei Hideo's monumental work of 1983, Kansei no henkaku, which figured prominently in the revitalization of Japanese literary criticism during the feverish 1980s. As the discipline turned away from routine emphases on the positivistic construction of literary history, the publication history of given texts, and author studies (p. lx), Kamei's unique contribution to this retheorization of Japanese literature was to investigate the literary expression of "sensibilities." These sensibilities include both overt and incipient attitudes and awarenesses on the part of an author and the characters that he or she creates, and they are objectified in the language of an author's narrative, which makes them available as knowledge of—and for—authors, characters, and readers. Kamei is especially interested in how objectified sensibilities contribute to self-knowledge and self-consciousness, for he argues that the transformation of sensibilites in literature can be related causally to the transformation of sensibilities in readers. This is literature's critical effect upon the world.

Michael Bourdaghs has done a commendable job of editing the work of a team of translators into a consistent whole; they artfully balance a faithfulness to Kamei's original and a judiciousness with his dense syntax. But Kamei's book is difficult. The argument is painstaking and finely nuanced; it also meanders as it develops—a quality in part due to the fact that the book was and remains in translation a series of articles. One wishes for points of summation, integration, and clarification; instead, the reader must turn back and forth through the book in order to gather an understanding of [End Page 431] key concepts and their interrelations. That said, the effort is rewarding, for Kamei's readings of texts both minor and familiar are original—many still fresh after two decades—and the book as a whole offers a rich understanding of the relations between Meiji and Edo-period prose. Bourdaghs has added a helpful introduction for readers new to Kamei and the scholarship of modern Japanese literature (pp. vii-xxviii); and Kamei has included a fascinating new preface for this English translation (pp. xxix-lxxii), which locates the impetus for his work in the context of Japanese linguistic and literary theory of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In particular, Tokieda Motoki, Miura Tsutomu, and Yoshimoto Takaaki, who developed original critiques of Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic theory, and theories of self-expression and subjectivity, compose the group who informed Kamei's point of departure.

Perhaps to better situate the book among theoretical perspectives, and to lend a greater coherence to the whole, Bourdaghs and Kamei have added a subtitle to this English translation: The Phenomenology of Meiji Literature. But what is a phenomenology of literature? Kamei dispenses with any formal discussion of phenomenology—his sole reference to phenomenology, the "phenomenological reduction," occurs early in the text (p. 2). Instead, he foregrounds his central concept of "visual intentionality," a technical adaptation of phenomenological theory (pp. 5, 30). To make sense of Kamei, understand that phenomenology began as a theory of knowledge based on perception, which proposed a distinction between perceptual properties (or perceptual phenomena) and abstract properties (or essences). When we look at a ball (or some other real object), for example, we see a round object that, as it reflects light and shade, appears in a number of instances of blue; but we will describe it as "blue" on the basis of our shared understanding of blueness, an abstracted essence. This is an example of the phenomenological reduction of perceptions to essences, which Kamei wants to undertake with passages of narrated prose, description, direct and indirect speech, and other elements of literary language, in order to identify "essential" types of narrators and sensibilities. Kamei asserts that literature is "the site where the sensibility-laden expression of an object produces in turn an objectification of our sensibilities" (p. 3); the act...


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