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Cultural Demarcation and the Boundlessness of the Beautiful

Anna Zschauer

This PhD project should analyze how aesthetics functioned as intercultural mediator in the opening process of Japan during the 19th century, leading to an assessment of its value for a re-conceptioning of culture as discursive category. A leading question thereby is: How could the concept of aesthetics be globalized while aesthetic rhetoric was concurrently used to demarcate cultural boundaries?

To scrutinize this issue, Japan seems a promising example, as up until today aesthetic stereotypes like ‘aesthetic nation’, ‘people of mono no aware (aesthetic sensibility)’ or ‘incomprehensible yūgen (profundity)’ prevail in Japan’s common image. However, also within the academic approach to Japan, an aesthetic tendency prevails, wherefore Richard B. Pilgrims “religio-aesthetic tradition” can be named as an early example (1977) and Eiko Ikegamis “aesthetic networks” that sustained the “Bonds of civility” (2005) as a rather recent one.

The phenomenon that can be observed here and which I want to question was called ‘aestheticentrism’ by Karatani Kōjin, who defined it with recourse to Kant’s aesthetics as esteeming a seemingly timeless essence of “Japaneseness” by simultaneously “bracketing out” of the real nation of Japan. Understanding this phenomenon as discoursive tendency, I want to deconstruct it by inquiring its historical roots. Michael Marra observed that Meiji period intellectuals acquired aesthetics as a hermeneutic tool to express their cultural identity to the West, which is why I deem it worthwhile to analyze early attempts to “Japanize” western aesthetics in the later Meiji years (1880-1912). Thus, both the historical entanglement of discourses as well as the anticipated universal quality of aesthetics should become obvious.

While it is often said that up to Nishida Kitarō the adoption of aesthetics mostly from England and Germany ignored the fact that epistemological foundations were different, I want to shed light on the work of three thinkers that contributed to the generalization of aesthetics by systematically scrutinizing and appropriating philosophical theories of primarily German origin:

Ōnishi Hajime, who was raised as a Christian, could be named the first critic of unquestioned academic eclecticism and argued for a creative transformation of philosophical theories selected from China, India and the West. Ōtsuka Yasuji and Fukada Yasukazu, the first two chairholders of aesthetics at Tokyo resp. Kyoto University, worked to establish an academic discipline of aesthetics and clarify its boundaries to other newly established fields like philosophy or religious studies.

As later development saw the emergence of ‚aesthetic nationalism‘, and as Japan counts as the first nation to establish chairs for ‘aesthetics’, it becomes clear that aesthetics had been successfully installed as medium of intercultural exchange and intracultural self-understanding.

I want to inquire if there were already aesthetic concepts of ‘Japaneseness’ previous to this nationalization; if new aesthetic categories were required; how aesthetics was delimited against religion, philosophy or ethics; and how “traditional” thinking (theory of Nō, Sadō, Zen) was selected and interpreted as ‘premodern Japanese aesthetics’.

My thesis is that aesthetics were received so prominently in Meiji Japan because it was itself a split science: born as the attempt to logically argue for the epistemological value of sensual perception (“aesthesis” according to Baumgarten), it had until the end of the 19th century bifurcated into both a speculative idealism and an empirical psychology, leading to “antinomies”, whom, as Johannes Volkelt demanded 1898 (“Ästhetische Zeitfragen”), one must finally acknowledge in the field of aesthetics.

What could have done better in entertaining the exoticism towards Japan and sustaining Japan’s own rhetoric of particularism than to present Japanese culture as essentially aesthetic – obviously inaccessible for Western rationality? Yet, it was precisely the aesthetic discourse that enabled mutual understanding.

Thus, I argue that thanks to its integration of ambiguity and antinomies, aesthetics bear a huge potential and should not be ignored for the communicative tasks evolving in a globalized world.