- Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction by J. Keith Vincent
What happens to a desire deferred? Especially since desire itself is— at least in some definitions—a kind of deferment? J. Keith Vincent’s excellent new study, Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction, traces the ghostly afterlife in modern Japanese literature of nanshoku, the male-male sexuality that was pursued openly in Japan through the late nineteenth century but that became something of a historical scandal in the twentieth. In exploring this question, Vincent rewrites the history of the development of modern norms for fictional narration: he argues persuasively that even novels containing no overtly homoerotic content are implicated in this shift. Combining theoretical tools from narratology, queer theory, and Freudian psychoanalysis, he has written one of the most original and important studies of modern Japanese literature to be published in recent years.
Some of the best recent scholarship on Japanese modernity has dealt with it not just as a temporal phenomenon, but as a question [End Page 348] of temporality itself. Stefan Tanaka and Harry Harootunian, among others, have explored modernity in terms of the emergence of new discourses and modes of time. In literary history, likewise, the late Mitani Kuniaki saw the rise in the Meiji period of the genbun itchi (unification of written and spoken language) narrative voice as the result of the adoption of the past-tense conjugation marker –ta as the primary mode of narrative voice. This collapsed the vast array of tense and aspect markers (for example, ki, keri, or tsu) that was available to premodern writers down to a single linear temporality in which a narrator standing at the endpoint of the narrative claims mastery over the depicted events.1 J. Keith Vincent implicitly builds on this previous scholarship but goes beyond it in significant ways—specifically, he queers it. The temporality of modernity, in particular in the structure of narration in modern Japanese fiction, is, he declares, “two-timing.” The flirtatious nature of the phrase is a good instance of one of the pleasures the book provides: Vincent’s language is itself often delightfully two-timing, dotted with keywords that pledge soberly to denote one meaning but then play around on the side with other tantalizing connotations.
Two-Timing Modernity also makes an original and important contribution to a growing body of scholarship on modern sexuality in Japan. Vincent cites and discusses at length much of this important work, including the English-language writings of Jeffrey Angles, Barbara Hartley, Gregory Plugfelder, James Reichert, and Paul Schalow, as well as the work of numerous Japanese scholars, including Atogami Shirō, Furukawa Makoto, and Ueno Chizuko. He defines his own theoretical position carefully: he wants to synthesize feminist and queer studies critiques to develop an approach to the relation between the homoerotic and the homosocial at the level of literary form, not literary content. This allows Vincent to fold into his argument authors who, at least in terms of narrative content, have little interest in dealing with the possibility of male-male sexuality. In doing so, he demonstrates even more successfully than previous scholarship the importance of including perspectives from queer studies in any understanding of Japanese modern literature. [End Page 349]
Citing René Girard (pp. 15–20), Vincent argues that desire should not be understood as a manifestation of an individual’s essential nature, nor as a natural response solicited by the desired object, but rather as a structure of mediation involving relations with multiple others. Narrative, with its triangular structure suspended between speaker, listeners/ readers, and characters populating the story world, hence provides an apt site for working out the complexities of desire, so that the rise of a new literary narrative form signals the emergence of a new structure of desire. Working productively with Eve Sedgwick’s argument that modern sexuality is characterized by a rupture in the continuum between the homoerotic and the homosocial (in which relations, including those of desire, between men are mediated through...