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Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 237-241

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Theatricalities Of Power: The Cultural Politics Of Noh. By Steven T. Brown. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 209 pp. $49.50

This book claims an important shift of perspective. It aims at disclosing historically specific networks of cultural production, circulation, and reception of the art of no starting from this basic assumption: "Rather than simply mirroring the sociopolitical contexts in which they were performed, these plays constituted an active, productive force in the theatre of the medieval cultural imaginary by engaging specific sociopolitical issues and problems" (cover flap). The author acknowledges thereby an important "scientific turn" that has been taking place for some time now within the humanities—the shift from an essentialist perception of cultural phenomena to a focus on their performative function. The representatives of this trend—sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and philosophers—stress the impact of reiterated social acting ("performance" in a broad sense of the word) on the shaping of mentalities, sensibilities, emotionality, and social institutions. In this perspective, art appears not so much as an "expressive" as a "performative" act. Its role is not so much to disclose identities but rather to produce, by its performative acts, these very identities. To put it in linguistic terms: the stress falls on the illocutionary and perlocutionary functions of art (and, in fact, all other cultural institutions and media). Just as, several decades ago, J.L.Austin set out to teach "how to do things with words," Steven T. Brown sets out to investigate how to do things with (no) theatre. As he declares from the start, he is not so much interested in "what a text means" as in "what a text does" (p. 1)—thus [End Page 237] promising an investigation of the "micropolitics of culture" (p. 2) that would encompass religious, political, and economic discourses in their intricate relations to theatrical conventions and practice.

This is a highly welcome stance in the case of no when we think not only of the eminent role it played in both representing and actively legitimizing political power, but how it shaped public discourses throughout its history. No was a leading medium in society all through the Muromachi age; even more so in the wake of Japan's unification in the sixteenth century (from Nobunaga to Hideyoshi and Ieyasu); during the Edo period (1603-1868) when it functioned as a ceremonial art (shikigaku) of the shogunate; and, finally, during the rapid modernization that relied so strongly on nationalist ideology and rhetoric (from Meiji to World War II). The implications of the politics of power shaped and advanced within and by the no are far from having received due attention.

All the more welcome, then, is the project of this book, which relies on a huge amount of recent research to make its point. The author declares his familiarity with the new trends set by studies "on the poetic (Ito, Tyler, Matisoff, Goff), stylistic (Yokomichi, Kitagawa, Takemoto, Hare), performative (Yokomichi, Brazell, Bethe, Emmert), aesthetic (Yokomichi, Omote, Kato, Takemoto, Hare, Nearman, Rimer, Thornhill), biographical (Kobayashi, Omote, Domoto, Nishino, Hare) and historical (Nose, Goto, Omote, Nishino, Amano) aspects of noh" (p. 2). He is equally familiar with the poststructuralist debates in European and American humanities, showing high awareness of trendy topics: gender construction and "performing gender identity" (Butler); questions concerning social habits, instauration rites, or the circulation and manipulation of "symbolic capital" (Bourdieu); poststructuralist positions on text, body, identity, and alterity and aesthetic notions such as mimesis (Derrida, Deleuze, et al.). And, rare for an American scholar, his readings also encompass not only studies in European cultural history (for instance, Greenblatt's seminal books on the English Renaissance) but even the research of German Japanology. Indeed, the book displays an unusually wide horizon of knowledge and uses it to back an argument of crucial importance.

Such an ambitious project calls for close historical investigation. Micropolitical transactions imply the circulation of social energy in ever changing configurations along the time axis, to be grasped in the tensions between sociocultural artifacts and their discursive networks. This...


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