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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

Zone of Intermediacy
Aiko Okamoto MacPhail (
Department of Comparative Literature, Indiana University

The Japanese historian Amino Yoshihiko defines a border as an opening, because the border is a zone of mediation, an interface to another culture. By applying the notion of border as a zone of intermediacy to Medieval Japan, Amino deconstructs Japan as a geographically and historically isolated political unit. His notion of border becomes an interesting tool of analysis if applied to the humanities in general. This notion challenges conventionally defined borders as insufficient to support cultural authenticity.

The notion of authenticity is tied to the historical myth of origin, which may be called historical essentialism, according to which the more events and facts are tracked to an historically ancient past, the closer they are to the origin and therefore to the true nature of things. My first aim is to question this essentialism. To have history is a luxury for many cultures in the world. Many ancient civilizations did not have writing, and not all civilizations which had writing wrote their own history. Past narratives which endow countries with a founding mythology (for usually the founding myth is related to the origins of actually existing countries regardless of the many discrepancies between ancient and modern boders) authenticate cultural values. If the comparative study of two historically unrelated zones is difficult, that is because our critical language is trapped in this historical essentialism which a critical language itself has created.

As such the difficulty we encounter is one of method, and not any lack of connection either direct or usually indirect in the case of East and West. To have separate histories does not mean that two zones have had mutually unrelated lives. To posit two zones, for example Europe and Japan, as historically separate is a problem of history. Because history makes them separate, they become notionally separate, whereas the two zones were connected by a succession of intermediary bodies and a sustained material flow of objects.

To demonstrate that unrelatedness is a myth, I will present an example of Impressionist painting and the flat surface taken from Japanese woodblocks. Japanese artists encountered Western style paintings in the sixteenth century, and adapted perspective and shading, both Western pictorial techniques, in the eighteenth century for works addressed to the mass market. The most influential woodblock artists, namely Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, were also the most adept at Western perspective, and their adoption of Western techniques made their works especially significant. The Impressionists saw in their pictorial technique an otherness unrelated to the method of Western arts, and in this way Japanese artists authenticated Western visual presentation of space by adapting it as their own pictorial language. Authenticity, independent from historical essentialism, resides in this personal investment and committment to cultural forms regardless of their national origins.

Then, is it a negative thing to be unrelated and authentic? On the contrary, they are the prerequisites to create cultural dynamics.

Aiko Okamoto Macphail finished her Ph.D. dissertation last November with the title Imagining Modernity: Japanese Westernism and European Japonism in the Comparative Literature Department of Indiana University, and she is currently working on a book manuscript based on her dissertation. As a comparatist, her training includes nineteenth-century French and eighteenth-century Japanese Literatures and her new project is the eighteenth- to nineenth-century Edo novelist Takizawa Bakin and his theory of the novel.

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