Literature, Modernity, and the Practice of Resistance:
Japanese and Taiwanese Fiction, 1960-1990

By Margaret Hillenbrand

Reviewed by Bert Scruggs
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2009)

Margaret Hillenbrand. Literature, Modernity,    and the Practics of Resistance: Japanese and Taiwanese Fiction, 1960-1990 Leiden: Brill, 2007. pp. 374.  	    ISBN-13: 978 90 04 15478 0; ISBN-10: 90 04 154787 (Cloth).

Margaret Hillenbrand. Literature, Modernity,
and the Practics of Resistance: Japanese and Taiwanese Fiction, 1960-1990
Leiden: Brill, 2007. pp. 374.
ISBN-13: 978 90 04 15478 0; ISBN-10: 90 04 154787 (Cloth).

In Literature, Modernity, and the Practice of Resistance: Japanese and Taiwanese Fiction, 1960-1990, Margaret Hillenbrand argues convincingly for a regionalist approach to the study of East Asian literature, provides nuanced, fresh readings of authors as disparate as Huang Chunming and Yoshimoto Banana, and clears discursive space for scholars and critics of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean literature. On a more theoretical or critical level, she probes the liminal boundary between the imaginative and mimetic uses of literature, and offers a bracing, perhaps alarming, exploration of the libidinal economy or “discourse of deviance” so prevalent in fiction written by Taiwanese and Japanese authors between 1960 and 1990. And, significantly, her study seems truly interdisciplinary inasmuch as she reads geopolitical history alongside or against fiction, neither subjecting literature to a positivist search for cultural or national realities nor subordinating it to history or historical contextualizations.

Concisely structured, her work is comprised of four chapters and includes a brief introduction and conclusion. The introduction sketches broadly her concerns for an intraregional and interdisciplinary approach as well as the logic that leads to her focus on aesthetic dissent. Hillenbrand describes the critical terrain and explains the rationale for her study in the first full chapter. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 develop and complicate particular tropes through historical analyses and close readings. In her conclusion, she reasons that we should understand the resistive and interventionist fiction from Japan and Taiwan between 1960 and 1990 as something beyond “the materiality of verbal language” (307) and problematizes the very nature of the resistance, or dissent, which she traces throughout her study.

Chapter 1, entitled “The Scope of the Enquiry,” is a sustained meditation and discourse on the state of modern East Asian literary studies. In particular, Hillenbrand points out that although sociologists and historians, among others, have willingly made the move toward regional approaches, scholars and critics in literary studies remain ensconced in their own national or cultural trenches. At once underscoring and exploring this lingering disciplinary embarrassment of ours, she provides a synopsis of “old school comparativism” and “the theory conundrum.” Old-school comparativism, by her account, comprises a configuration of “literary sleuthing” as well as utopian and universalizing notions of World Literature (Weltliteratur), which relies on a European West as the de factopoint of departure. Hillenbrand writes, “old school comparativism is compromised on two counts, which are at once separate and perniciously interlinked: the Eurocentrism with which it invites collusion, and the self-Orientalizing tendencies which a good many of its practitioners exhibit quite happily of their own accord” (38). Theory, which at first glance appears to be an escape from the grip of old-school comparativism, proves in the end to also be problematic. Practitioners of theory are all too often guilty of uncritically accepting Western theory or effecting what David Palumbo-Liu has called “tropological transformations” on texts, either practice in turn leads to an unproductive backlash from the more conservative sector of the East Asian literary “knowledge-economy” (43-45). Equally worrisome, both approaches harbor the specter of what Shelly Wong has called “literary strip-mining” (93), which Hillenbrand mentions in her discussion of methodology. At the end of the day, old-school comparativism is a dead end, and much of what has been done with theory reads disappointingly as refurbished reiterations of wakon yôsai (Japanese spirit, Western technology) or zhongti xiyong (Chinese essence, Western application) rhetoric (48). In her exploration of the spectrum between these critical approaches, Hillenbrand discloses what appears to be an inescapable and often overlooked return to an East-West bifurcation on the part of European, American, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese scholars. She naturally asks, “how best can theoretically-driven comparativism reconfigure its old-school predecessor without simply replicating in slightly different form the latter’s habits of deference to the West?” (46). An intraregional approach, she argues, is the escape from this dilemma.

According to Hillenbrand, there are three reasons to adopt an intraregional comparativist methodology: updating our understanding of the long history of communication between East Asian cultures or traditions; modifying and bringing forward a viable concept of World Literature; and opening up “a space within which we can begin to ponder the notion of a meta-theory for the literatures of contemporary East Asia” (53). The approach she eventual uses to examine the fiction of Taiwan and Japan does little to aid our understanding of more recent developments in communication between East Asian cultures, and it would be hard to argue that this study makes a significant contribution to how we currently conceive or regard the conundrum of “world literature,” but she does indeed clear much needed discursive space for contemplating and theorizing literature, particularly fiction, in East Asia.

The remainder of the longer first chapter is devoted to developing her analytical idiom by elaborating on “the dystopian impulse” and Western modernism, inventorying the themes and tropes of sex and the city, and clarifying her time frame and rationale for comparing Taiwan and Japan. The timeframe is quite straightforward, structure dby milestones such as the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, 1958 US-ROC Joint Communiqué, the lifting of martial law in 1987, and the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble in 1990. Her development of the case for comparing Taiwan and Japan is particularly insightful. Factors which suggest a comparison include infrastructural and institutional similarities stemming from the fifty-year colonization of Taiwan by Japan and the influence of traditional Chinese culture and post-liberation China on both. She notes with respect to the latter that, “China has bequeathed Japan and Taiwan not only an enduring cultural proximity, but also a shared mentor to outgrow and a common foe to resist; and China past and present continues as a core constituent of the genealogy in imagination of the modern in both societies” (75).

Chapter 2, “Rest and Recreation in the City: Dystopian Visions of US Power in Cold War East Asia,” explores the metaphorical prostitution of Taiwan and Japan to the United States on a Cold War street-corner through the literature of Ôe Kenzaburo, Nosaka Akiyuki, Huang Chunming, and Wang Zhenhe. “Rest and Recreation” delineates a simple but powerful triangular trope: victims of war, disaffected youth, enterprising local merchants, and the government are assigned the role of the pimp; naïve or desperate women, the nation, and traditional culture are literally and allegorically prostituted; and the United States, particularly G.I. Joe, plays the role of the willing and eager john. Hillenbrand’s detailed literary and political history as well as her close readings demonstrate that the prostitution trope is indeed commonly employed by writers of widely varying degrees of political engagement and that among other things it destabilizes and rearranges the social order, forcing a questioning of collective memory and forgetting. Moreover, by scrutinizing the narrative texture of fiction by these authors she demonstrates that an “inversion of the mainstream/marginal hierarchy tends to be carried out in deliberately unrhetorical ways, and with a patina of blasé naturalness cast over taboo or stigmatized proceedings that is ultimately more shocking to readers than any sensationalism” (90).

Chapter 3, “Discord at Home: The Ruptured Family in Postwar Fiction,” relocates taboo and stigmatized proceedings from the red light district to the dysfunctional home in fiction written by Wang Wenxing, Bai Xianyong, Murakami Ryû, and Yoshimoto Banana. These “narratives of unhomeliness” that are anchored in reality, she asserts, prove to be venues for a protest against family destruction and distortion stemming from state-stewarded modernity. The inclusion of Murakami Ryû’s Coin Locker Babies in “Discord at Home” alongside works by more obvious choices such as Wang, Bai, and Yoshimoto especially demonstrates Hillenbrand’s uncommon imagination as well as rhetorical and analytical finesse.

Though the libidinal economy and the discourse of deviance are key constituents of each analytical chapter, the works by Mishima Yukio, Murakami Haruki, Li Ang, and Zhu Tianwen explored in chapter 4, “Sex and the City: Commodities of Choice,” seem the most visceral examples of sex as commodification and the commodification of sex. It is also perhaps in this chapter that Hillenbrand best clarifies a critical, literary argument running throughout her analysis: rhetoric and the dialectic of realism and anti-realism are more important to understanding the authors and the fiction of this era than is a concern for literary mimesis. These texts with their wide array of temporal and cultural contexts, according to Hillenbrand, share the “deployment of more or less identical strategies for representing the consumer epoch. More specifically, the tight mix between realist and anti-realist modes that is pursued across these texts serve as the broad narrative form for a schema of metaphor that is shaped, once again, around the recurrent tropes of the city and sexuality” (296). Regarding these works and their iterations of consumerist modernity, she concludes that “subsumed within the consumption order, eroticism becomes a kind of lifestyle ‘duty’ in these writings, an activity engaged in for reasons of money, goods, and status that ultimately connotes work far more than any kind of pleasure” (297). In this and the previous chapter, an acknowledgement of the work of Fran Martin and others would have added to her explorations of the commodification of sex.

In her brief conclusion, Hillenbrand again underscores the critical importance of the intraregional approach to provide for “more self-referential modes of interpreting non-Western experiences of modernity” (299) and contemplates the very nature of the resistance she reads so closely throughout the study. Arguing for intraregional readings, she first lays out a constellation of commonalities, such as domestic resistance to the oxymoronic twins of “friendly totalitarianism” and “soft authoritarianism,” especially critiques of local counterparts to the US hegemony in each locale rather than the US per se (she also neatly uses this phenomenon to neutralize Jameson’s “national allegory”); a textual fabric woven with a warp of narrative modes as diverse as magical realism, stream of consciousness, and allegory, and a woof of mimetic realism; and the particularly local “retrograde set of ideologies” (302) delivered by many authors. She then suggests that we read this constellation as something beyond language or, in the words of Rey Chow, as “aesthetic media, sign systems, and discourse networks” (307). In other words, by reading the modes, narrative strategies, and ideologies of the literature of Japan and Taiwan rather than their national literatures we escape the East-West bifurcation and clear space for truly self-referential study. Stemming from this mode of inquiry, she surmises that though the authors studied resist to varying degrees the social decay that seems to come with modernity, it is the act of protest rather than offering an alternative that may drive such protest. In short, “the mere presence of alternative voices can begin to count for more than what those voices actually have to say” (311). And with regard to fiction, “its identity as a site of protest arguably ended up meaning more than the exact nature, or indeed the sum total, of that protest: fictional practice was counter-cultural simply because it was contentious, and semi-dissident for the principal reason that it expressed dissonant voices” (311).

Hillenbrand’s prose is a pleasure to read and some may worry that they are being seduced by her rhetorical flair rather than her reasoning and close readings, especially given the sweeping nature of her bold taxonomy of other studies of modern Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese literature. All the same, after some reflection and a closer look at the structure of her argument most will, perhaps uncomfortably, find themselves in agreement. There is little to fault with Hillenbrand’s study, but I do have one minor nitpick. One of the strengths of Literature, Modernity, and the Practice of Resistance is the survey of Japanese and Taiwanese social and cultural matrices, Bourdieu’s “habitus,” during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in the pursuit of a more coherent understanding of “the mutually inflected relationship that literature maintains with the open fields of culture and society” (5). However, some scholars may find the survey lacking or patchy. Though she mentions Ôe Kenzaburo’s and Mishima Yukio’s politics, as well as the debate between the Nativists and Modernists in Taiwan, there is no extended comparative discourse on literary currents during the epoch. It is possible that a more sustained examination of manifestos or literary debates in Japan and Taiwan might lead to a deeper understanding of her thesis that the moral imperative behind the resistance to modernity stems in part from an East Asian tradition of remonstrance. Hillenbrand’s project is expansive as it is, and to ask for a comparative study of both the literature and the literary field in one book would be presumptuous; nonetheless, in the spirit of regional comparativism, more literary history might have increased the momentum of an already suasive text.

Literature, Modernity, and the Practice of Resistance will likely become a benchmark in East Asian Studies for its rigor, breadth, and clarion call for an intraregional approach to East Asian literary studies. Hillenbrand’s in-depth explorations of the literary and political realms of Japan and Taiwan between 1960 and 1990 and her provocative state-of-the field assessment, offers a promising alternative avenue of inquiry and clears more than enough discursive space for anyone willing to venture out from their national or ethnic literary trenches to explore the intraregional episteme.

Bert M. Scruggs
University of California, Irvine