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  • When Our Eyes No Longer See: Realism, Science, and Ecology in Japanese Literary Modernism
  • Joseph Murphy
When Our Eyes No Longer See: Realism, Science, and Ecology in Japanese Literary Modernism By Gregory Golley. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. Pp. xii + 394. $39.95.

There are two main theses in Gregory Golley’s provocative first book. The first is a literary historical argument that Japanese modernist writers, who have commonly been taken to be concerned with the self-reflexive play of language, were in fact engaged in a realist project about things that were not visible. The second is a theoretical argument about the relation of this project to contemporary developments in scientific description. The book argues that the domain of scientific description became populated with a multitude of strange new objects in the early twentieth century, and that Japanese literary modernist writers were both directly influenced by these scientific developments and inspired to use similar means to expand their own engagement with the world. As a point about literary history—and in opposition to the common interpretation that modernist writing, like painting, involves the progressive refusal of the representational function of art and becomes a self-referential exercise in the surface properties of the medium—this book argues that Japanese literary modernists (represented here by Tanizaki Junichiro, Yokomitsu Riichi, and Miyazawa Kenji) were engaged in a traditional realist project, however one that dealt with aspects of reality not available to perception. As a point about literary theory, and contrary to the Saussurean position that language is an arbitrary, closed, abstract system in which signs refer only to other signs, this book argues straightforwardly that there is something external to human subjectivity—a world (or an ecology) of [End Page 559] entities, organisms, and processes with which we are in an ethical relation—that both literary language and formal description in the sciences attempt to depict accurately.

The concept of realism, or scientific realism, is set out over the first seventy pages in the prologue and introduction, in which a new realism as a reaction against the positivism in the sciences derived from Ernst Mach and a skeptical idealism in culture, frees both science and the literary avant-garde to explore and describe vast new realities. Fredric Jameson defines a “realist epistemology” as one that “conceives of representation as the reproduction, for subjectivity, of an objectivity that lies outside it”; that is to say, it is one answer to the question of the relation of organism to environment, of how we miraculously interpret the content of our minds as signals from an external world. For Jameson, this produces “a mirror theory of knowledge and art, whose fundamental evaluative categories are those of adequacy, accuracy, and Truth itself.”1 This is probably a fair description of what Golley has in mind by realism. However, by arguing that the project that Einstein and literary modernists were engaged in was the accurate depiction of a reality external to the subject but not visible to it (hence the title), Golley seeks to defuse the caricature that such realism requires a “mirror” theory of knowledge, with its attendant centering of the perceiving subject, and associations with the mythical bourgeoisie who like their pictures right. Golley maintains that both positivism and structuralist theory, by limiting what can be known to sense data or the constructions of language, accept human subjectivity (understood differently in each case) as the limit of knowledge. Schematically, then, if poststructuralism seeks an openness or an ethical relationship with a difference or an other that is itself radically unknowable, Japanese modernist authors rather sought an ethical relationship to a world that is knowable but not available to experience. Golley uses words like accuracy, objectivity, and realism, not as straw men to be skeptically dismissed; rather, he uses them affirmatively and critically. His writing is suffused with an “abiding faith in a material reality external to human consciousness” and in the decentering and ethical relationships that this faith implies. This unexpected and vigorous affirmation of a realism [End Page 560] “stigmatized by theoretical currents in the humanities” (pp. 127, 213–30) is one of the principal interests of the book.

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pp. 559-567
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