- Vicarious Language: Gender and Linguistic Modernity in Japan
More than a mere debunking of cultural assumptions about Japan, language, gender, and modernity, Vicarious Language is a scrupulous study of how these assumptions penetrate contemporary social life in Japan and beyond as a productive site of subject formation. Inoue's historical-cum-ethnographic investigation searches for the semiotic foundation of the "discourse of Japanese women's language," a "socially powerful truth" (1). Why does this "language" appear transparent to the social actors who invest it with cultural values? Her aim is to render this transparency visible.
Or rather audible. Inoue starts her discussion by arguing that "the modern Japanese woman came into being as a culturally meaningful category in and through her imputed acoustic presence" (39). This is an intriguing move. While existing research on modern sociocultural forms tend to privilege visuality—"gaze," "spectacle," "hidden" history, etc., Inoue here opens up a critical perspective for the study of the modern that gives silence, loquacity, overhearing, echoing, and other semiotic qualities of the "acoustic presence" due analytic attention (41).
Reverberating in and out of this book, then, are the overtones, to use one of Bakhtin's metaphors for language in society, that constitute this "language." [End Page 295] It is clear that this book avoids simply repeating a modern liberatory desire of revealing hidden histories of the underrepresented. The overtones are all too present rather than hidden, working their way into the habitus of a listener, even when she doesn't "hear" them. Inoue's task is thus to ethnographically locate women's language with respect to the historical sedimentation of these overtones immersed in cultural consciousness and to undo the discourse of women's language to articulate the moments of its failure.
Two vectors of demonstration may be identified here: how women's language as a new register, a new norm of language-in-society and a new way of regimenting social life, can be generated at various historical conjunctures in Japan's national and capitalist modernity; and how such a semiotic creature comes to mobilize sign users toward varying interests in its subsequent sociopolitical life.
Inoue's retelling (and undoing) of this story of enregisterment introduces a complexity that has been taken for granted in previous research, a complexity that it has been necessary for any "research" to leave unexamined in order to maintain its episteme. She discovers that the story hardly represents a coherent project, that it is filled with unintended consequences and misrecognized objects.
We learn that it was urban male intellectuals in the Meiji era whose serendipitous act of "overhearing" created the category of "schoolgirl speech," sampled (so to speak) from the soundscape of the Meiji city (Ch. 1). But no Meiji writer was fully aware that schoolgirls' "vulgar" speech, associated with this new type of social beings at that particular historical moment, would transform into the quintessential Japanese female voice transcending all historical moments. Neither was there any one type of agency or institution that anticipated that women's language, this imperfect echoing of a "modern," "national" language (Ch. 2), would survive into the late twentieth century as an object of very public discussion in the context of the Equal Employment Opportunity legislature. And linguists, pollsters, and journalists today are not necessarily, or not always, aware of the historical condition of the fetishization of gender and speech, even while they help reproduce this condition each and every time they try to discern the formal and functional features of women's language (Ch. 4).
If, however, the state, the market, or the elite could never primarily but only vicariously be liable for the "maturing" of women's language into the ethos of modern Japanese femaleness, then what allowed for such misrecognition that is nevertheless effective in keeping the discourse of women's language intact? [End Page 296] Inoue attempts to explain this by looking from within this assemblage of semiosis called the discourse of women's language in order to scrutinize its social consequences for those who are summoned to the discourse.