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  • Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability by Morgan Pitelka
  • Timon Screech
Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability. By Morgan Pitelka. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016. 240pages. Hardcover $49.00.

This is a wonderful example of the new-style microbook. In the past, scholars made their points succinctly in articles, with at most two or three in succession on the same theme. Then came the era of the 350-page book (still the norm for North American “tenure books”). Now it seems we have settled into something in between. The body of Morgan Pitelka’s text is just 130 pages. Perhaps people today lack the attention for more. But the purpose of a microbook is not to offer reams of data, nor to provide insights only for readers with access to learned journals. It is, rather, to lead into new ways of thinking about subjects on which we may already consider ourselves well informed. “Are you so sure?” is the question such books have in common.

Pitelka opens with an arresting anecdote, contrived to immediately unsettle us. On New Year’s Day, 1574, Oda Nobunaga invited his senior warriors to a party. After copious food and drink, three beautifully lacquered and gilded objects were positioned before the assembly, set on status-according trays. They looked like art, and perhaps they were, but more immediately they were the severed heads of Nobunaga’s chief enemies.

We need to put ourselves back into a world in which this can have occurred. We need to dismantle and rebuild our categories. Did the guests gasp at what confronted them, or were they used to such displays? Was it Nobunaga’s clever mitate (unexpected aesthetic juxtaposition), or part of a recognized practice? Was it a good or a bad thing to do? Pitelka’s book has been written less to answer these questions, which perhaps cannot be done, than to highlight the contradictions they seem to pose in order to help us reconceptualize an important period of history.

Pitelka’s project is to encourage a reassessment of Nobunaga, whom we all know as a rapacious collector, as after him were Hideyoshi and Ieyasu (oddly, only the last of whom is mentioned in the book’s title). Generally we define “collections” as assemblies of paintings, tea vessels, and the like (much later, Buddhist icons could be included, though not circa 1600). But this is a misguided definition informed by our modern idea of art. We also know that warriors took and gave children as hostages, and married and gave daughters in marriage—that is, collected bodies, and, in extremis, also each others’ heads. Pitelka jolts the two together, or rather, by suggesting how the two once were together, asks if we have not disciplined our field incorrectly. Since neither “art” nor even “collecting” will quite serve the purpose, Pitelka borrows Simon Schama’s concept of “spectacular accumulation.”

Items ripe for such gathering-in could be “art,” or human beings (or their heads), but could be other things too. A comprehensive list might be meat for a doorstop publication, but Pitelka is content to make his point with elegant brevity and leave [End Page 84] readers, if they wish, to envisage more. He provides only one additional suggestion, “raptors” (that is, hunting birds), of which we know Ieyasu was fond, but which we hardly thought worthy of much attention before.

The concept of “accumulation” allows us to build a different architecture for the aggregation and circulation of material objects. Pitelka sees it as the “continuity of a set of medieval power formations,” but believes that these have been submerged by historians ransacking the period under the wrong sets of terminology, and doing so most egregiously, when looking for pointers toward Japan’s early modernity, thus failing to engage with the age on its own terms (p. 15). “Spectacular accumulation” was therefore something medieval, but the sixteenth-century wars gave it greater centrality. Here we look backwards rather than forwards. I presume also relevant (though this is not stated) was the greater availability in the sixteenth century of rare material objects from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, which overturned Japanese...


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