Rethinking the Zombie:
A Response to Joshua Fogel

By Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2015)

Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider, eds., The Challenge of Linear Time: Nationhood and the Politics of History in East Asia. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014. 301 pp. ISBN13: 9789004260139; E-ISBN: 9789004260146 (Hardback: €115, $149)

Viren Murthy and Axel Schneider, eds., The Challenge of Linear Time: Nationhood and the Politics of History in East Asia. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014. 301 pp. ISBN13: 9789004260139; E-ISBN: 9789004260146 (Hardback: €115, $149)

We are grateful to Joshua Fogel for providing us an opportunity to reflect on our edited volume, The Challenge of Linear Time, and giving it some publicity. We of course take full responsibility for the various typographical and grammatical errors that Fogel points out, and we recognize his work in the field of Sino-Japanese cultural and intellectual history. However, Fogel’s lengthy review brings out another side of him: he seems engaged in a war against theory, which perhaps stems from an insecurity about his own mode of scholarship.

We can catch a glimpse of this insecurity already in 1994, when Fogel reviewed Stefan Tanaka’s Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History. Fogel’s book on Naitō Konan appeared in 1984, and was one of the first English-language books on Japanese sinology. However, the early 1980s were also a time when the linguistic turn and a number of critical theories were beginning to influence the humanities and Area Studies. In 1993, the publication of Tanaka’s Japan’s Orient took the study of Japanese sinology to a new level. Tanaka drew on a huge range of theories to rethink the role of Japanese sinology in relation to larger theoretical and epistemological issues connected with the Japanese empire and the construction of geographical space. Whether we agree with Tanaka’s analysis or not, we cannot deny that he made an immense contribution by engaging with theoretical issues. In this context, Fogel might have perceived his own mode of research slipping into the past and in 1994, he wrote a fairly hostile review. He claimed that Tanaka’s enmity for Japanese orientalists “comes across in snide comments as well as a new style that seems to have come of age with postmodernism, argument by innuendo rather than by evidence (which, presumably, still smacks of benighted enlightenment positivism).”[1]

It is difficult to read this sentence without thinking of the aphorism, “Each time we point, we simultaneously point three fingers back at ourselves.” As part of a larger movement to defend positivistic scholarship and shield area studies from theory, Fogel himself has written reviews filled with snide remarks and innuendo, and we have to understand his review of our book in this context. Our book of course does not offer a sustained argument as did Tanaka’s, and rather than postmodernism, this time Fogel singles out Marxism for attack.

Fogel provides a key to understanding his own review of our work when he offers us advice about how we could have organized our edited volume: “One theme that would have been good to treat thematically throughout the essays is the zombie-undead.” For the most part, Fogel is silent about why the zombie would be a theme that runs through the book, but at the end of the review, he recalls a conversation he had with Frederic Wakeman:

Many years ago, I mentioned to the late Fred Wakeman that I had actually read a work that dated the emergence of postmodernism to 1972. He responded (as best I can remember): “[expletive deleted], that’s just when Marxism died.” The idea occurred to me that Marxism, like the religion that it has become, may be the undead philosophy of our time. When postmodernism arose and most thought Marxism dead and gone—and then especially after the collapse of the Stalinist dictatorships around the globe and melioration of all but one or two—we entered the era of the culture wars. It was not a happy time in the academy with the advent of political correctness, but at least the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere seemed to be headed for better times. But, now that postmodernism is moribund or perhaps dead and gone, zombie Marxism is on the rise, stalking the world, reminding everyone to never forget class (who would?), that “global capitalism” is an ever-present threat, appearing in rustification theme restaurants in China, and the like. Might I suggest that everyone dust off their tattered copies of One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse and (re)-read it? Either that or rent Love at First Bite (1979), starring George Hamilton.

This passage suggests the larger goals that motivate Fogel’s review, such as a critique of what Fogel perceives as the return of Marxism, which according to Fogel is dead. However, we must ask: What allows Fogel to make such claims? When we ask this question, we see that the real undead animating Fogel’s review is not Marxism but two paradigms that we thought had long passed away: the Cold War paradigm, with its characteristic anti-Marxism, and its twin, the Area Studies paradigm, with all its essentialism. Despite the many critiques that have been issued of both these paradigms, like zombies they haunt Fogel’s review.

In the early 1980s, Fogel could pretend as if Marxist and postmodern theory did not exist, but by 1994, when such theories became salient in the study of Asia, he began to lash out at books attempting to bring theory and scholarship together. In his reactive fervor, Fogel apparently internalized the Cold War and Area Studies zombies. Because Fogel misrecognizes these zombies, his review of our book reveals that he is either not able or not willing to engage carefully with the core themes of the volume.

If Fogel himself had probed some of the ideas he mentioned in the above passage, he might have navigated a bit more successfully through the essays in the volume. By invoking Marcuse, Fogel shows that he is at least aware of new interpretations of Marxism, which conceive of capitalism as more than merely an economic system. However, if Fogel really understood the books that he cites, then he would not have been prone to such misunderstandings of the essays in our volume.

We can see this by examining his reading of Murthy’s essay. The essay is important to Fogel not because its author is one of the editors of the book but because it is the only one among the ten essays in the volume that explicitly invokes a Marxist project. So the fixation on zombie Marxism in such a volume, while perhaps flattering to Murthy, reveals to us Fogel’s fear of Marxism’s return, along with his incomprehension of the Marxist project.

After asserting that Murthy’s study of Tan Sitong’s famous Renxue is “unobjectionable,” Fogel goes on to ask questions about the author’s use of Lukács. He asks “Did Tan or Zhang live in a capitalist society? Were they at all engaged in anything related to capitalism?” If Fogel were even a casual reader of Lukács and Marcuse, he would have understood that the very definition of capitalism is at stake here. The “long citation” of Lukács to which Fogel refers is precisely about modern bureaucracy, which Lukács sees as intimately connected to capitalism. Lukács wanted to expand our conception of capitalism beyond the market and economics to include the cultural and political structures that made market exchange possible. Murthy grants that in late-nineteenth-century China, unlike in England, we would not find a fully developed market. However, since the Self-strengthening Movement in the 1860s, Chinese elites were involved in a project to make China wealthy and powerful in a way that would be incomprehensible outside the context of capitalism and imperialism. In other words, since the various unequal treaties associated with the Opium War, China was thrust into the global capitalist system of nation-states and consequently intellectuals such as Tan and Zhang could not avoid contending with issues related to the modern capitalist world, including new forms of time, constitutions, and concepts of equality and freedom. Lukács makes a controversial claim that these various aspects of capitalism become generalized because of the spread of the commodity form. Fogel might disagree with such a statement, but his review merely issues blanket criticisms while ignoring the arguments.

Because Fogel overlooks the nature of Lukács’ call to conceptualize the commodity at a more fundamental level that includes thought and culture, he fails to grasp Murthy’s various references to philosophy. For example, Murthy mentions Aristotle in his discussion of the notion of linear time. Fogel comments, “correct me if I am wrong, but Aristotle did not live in anything remotely resembling a capitalist society.” Georg Lukács (in the book that Fogel himself cites), Alfred Sohn-Rehtel, and others have written about how Plato’s and Aristotle’s respective philosophies were conditioned by the partial prevalence of commodification in ancient Athenian society, but their theories need not detain us here. More important, Fogel just fails to read what Murthy wrote: “While this vision of time can be found in Aristotle, we must emphasize that it becomes widely institutionalized and universal in capitalism” (52). Aristotle can be useful in discussing linear time, even though such abstract notions of time were not generalized in ancient Athens.

Fogel’s reading of Murthy shows how Cold War zombies prevent him from understanding Marxist theory, but in his critique of Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik’s essay, the zombies produce statements that are even more out of place in a scholarly review. Fogel suggests: “Why not come right out and say that Mao had lost his marbles and this whole campaign was insanity run amok?” Do such statements really shed much more light on the Campaign to Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius than Weigelin-Schwiedrzik’s essay does? Fogel’s critique, if one can even call it that, fails to consider how the intellectual discourse of the 1970s concerning Legalism and Confucianism was not only connected to issues of politics, privilege, and equality, but to a debate about history and time. According to Weigelin-Schwiedrzik’s argument, in this campaign, Mao, who had been a proponent of linear time, returns to a cyclical understanding of time. Fogel, in his obsession with fending off Marxism, again fails to read this article properly.

As the previous example already shows, the zombies haunting Fogel prevent him analyzing the core theme of the book, i.e. linear time. Axel Schneider’s essay is brushed away with the awkward remark that it has been published before, as if this would invalidate its argument. Schneider introduces Liu Yizheng’s conservative critique of linear time and progress, a critique that recently has become the focus of much research in China. This critique, in Schneider’s view, ultimately had to fail, because Liu wasn’t able simultaneously to argue for a theory of history based on Confucian ethics and bring forward concrete plans for China’s political and economic modernization. Dismissing this essay with the aforementioned remark, Fogel simply ignores the analysis presented and hence he also overlooks how Kuo Ya-pei and Schneider each deal with the theme of the book, linear time, in different ways. Another missed opportunity to engage with the volume in a meaningful manner.

This lack of understanding and of earnest engagement pervades Fogel’s review. But let us move on to how his review embodies the ghost of Area Studies and promotes its essentialism. With respect to the opening essay, Fogel writes: “Can there be a bigger mistake in East Asian studies than beginning an anthology with an essay by Naoki Sakai? Maybe, but doing this virtually ensures setting the stage with incomprehensibility.” We are tempted to rewrite Fogel’s question with him as the object of critique. “Can there be a bigger mistake than to allow Joshua Fogel to review anything theoretically sophisticated? Perhaps, but asking him to write such a review will clearly lead to useless mudslinging and misunderstanding.” The review is in tone condescending and partly insulting. It is polemical, ideologically motivated, and thus an intellectual failure—we were surprised to see a review published in this form. It reminded us of the wise dictum “suaviter in modo, fortiter in re,” which of course turned upside down means that a failure to keep good manners is more often than not an indication of the author’s unwillingness or inability to bring forward substantial and sober arguments.

Once we ask why Fogel fails to comprehend and bring forward sober arguments, we find certain structures of Area Studies emerging. In particular, based on the Area Studies model, scholars have interpreted Japanese thinkers in terms of indigenous traditions and contexts. Sakai’s work has been path-breaking precisely because he refuses this paradigm and underscores how many if not most Japanese thinkers were extremely well versed in European thought and consequently go beyond the dichotomy of East and West. However, because of Sakai’s attention to the philosophical contexts of Japanese thinkers, his essays, and, in particular, his contribution to our volume, require seriously engaging with philosophical concepts.

Fogel appears unwilling to engage the philosophical complexity of Ienaga’s, Maruyama’s, or Sakai’s arguments and consequently makes embarrassing comments. For example, he cites Sakai saying, “history is invariably a story, and also tied to narration,” but naively asks: does this mean “we just make it up as we go?” Such statements overlook the vast literature about narrative, fiction, and history, which is not all simply relativistic. We do not experience time in terms of discrete now-points or linear time, but rather in terms of a narrative or story. This fundamental structure informs our lives, fiction, and, of course, the writing of history. None of this implies that “anything goes.” Moreover, far from being a relativist, it is Sakai rather than Fogel who forces us to think seriously about the fascist and imperialist pasts of Japanese postwar liberal intellectuals.

Fogel and the zombies do not allow us to understand the complexity of postwar Japanese texts. Fogel cites Sakai saying, “The second problematic is that of the negativity in terms of which they articulated the issues of subjectivity to the formation of historicist consciousness” and comments “your guess is as good as mine.” Fogel’s use of this common expression is an excellent example of negating the heterogeneity embodied in “you,” the reader(s). In Fogel’s statement, the I is the same as the “you” (the reader), so of course “your guess would be as good as mine.” He has totally receded from the Sakai statement in despair and then attempts to universalize his bewilderment by suggesting that faced with Sakai’s prose all guesses are equally valid. This would only be true in a land where all readers were Joshua Fogels or at least shared his framework—he negates readers with different orientations and backgrounds, who might not need to guess. But such a homogenizing perspective actually conceals the conditions of Fogel’s own review. It is ironic that, even as his review embodies (a somewhat crude) negativity, he fails to understand what negativity means. Sakai’s point is that because Japanese thinkers, and Ieanaga and Maruyama in particular, were immersed in German idealism and other philosophical texts, they were fascinated by the problem of negativity, the ability to distance oneself from an object, criticize it and eventually change it. They further understood negativity, subjectivity, and historical consciousness together. Being conscious of making history implies being able to re-conceptualize, criticize and change things based on one’s own perspective—a negativity that emerges from the subject. In Sakai’s view, despite their emphasis on negativity, neither Ienaga nor Maruyma could avoid the pitfalls of positivist essentialism, especially when it came to discourses about geographical space.

When Fogel recedes from Sakai’s text, he expresses a purely negative relation to the words on the page and it is precisely this stance that makes it impossible for him to make sense of the concepts in front of him. However, because Fogel does not understand this negativity, he unknowingly grafts the results of his retreat from the words and concepts on the page onto the text itself. Such a lack of consciousness of the negative often leads to positivism and essentialism—the projection of an essence onto an object, while eliding one’s own subjective activity in constructing the object.

In his critique of various authors in the book, Fogel makes the ghost of positivist essentialism shine through. Take the following examples. When discussing Schneider’s work, he writes: “Unlike the previous two essays [Sakai and Murthy] which salt and pepper their paragraphs with German expressions, but who do not appear to know the language, Schneider is a native speaker.” No evidence is given to show that either Sakai or Murthy made mistakes in German or used German carelessly. In Fogel’s eyes apparently only native German speakers appear to know German and have direct insight into German philosophical terms. The zombie of essentialism strikes again. If that is the case, then shall we assume that Fogel and other non-Japanese who study Japan do not really know Japanese? This point would not be worth belaboring if Fogel did not make a similar assumption with respect to Sun Ge. He writes: “Nakajima has the distinct advantage over Sun Ge in that he clearly knows something about the work of Takeuchi and the context in which it emerged.” Why is this so clear just from reading the two essays? Of course, it is because Nakajima is Japanese and has an innate access to Takeuchi’s work, just as Schneider was born speaking philosophical German. I suppose it is of no import that Sun has published a monograph on Takeuchi, which has been well-received in both Japan and China, along with numerous articles on the subject, while, as far as we know, this essay is one of the only essays that Nakajima has published on Takeuchi. Such assumptions along with a lack of knowledge about Takeuchi make it difficult for Fogel to understand the content of Sun Ge’s essay. Consequently, Fogel cannot understand why Takeuchi is associated with the right wing. Sun’s point is precisely that Takeuchi defies the usual Cold War categorizations of right and left. Indeed, although Takeuchi praised Mao, he could be associated with the right because of his support for the Greater East Asia War, his essay on Ōkawa Shūmei, and his continued promotion of pan-Asianism, which was intimately associated with imperialism. Here again, when Japanese and Chinese intellectuals fail to conform to Fogel’s preconceptions, he stops reading. The zombies take over.

We should thank Fogel for providing us a key in his final paragraph to understanding his review. We would like also to make one comment with respect to how to understand our book. Fogel begins his remarks by noting that the “only thing that keeps the book together, then is the binding.” It is true that there is no overarching ideology or theoretical framework that brings the book together. The book was a result of a conference on nationalism, modernity, and history writing, and all of the essays grapple with how intellectuals in China and Japan wrote history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and how they reconstructed narratives about the past in various media. Given that this was the period when the discourse of linear time and progressive history began to dominate East Asia, most authors discussed in the volume could not avoid dealing with this issue. Fogel’s review points out the ways in which Murthy and Kuo attempt to address the theme of linear time, and in this response we have shown how Weigelin-Schwiedrzik and Schneider deal with this central theme of the book. We could list the ways that other essays address this theme and perhaps should have done this more effectively in the introduction. But we hope that readers of the book will enjoy the variety of styles encompassed in the book, and we look forward to further dialogue about our volume.

[1] Joshua Fogel, “Review of Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History.Monumenta Nipponica vol. 9, 1 (1994): 108-112.