—Tanizaki Junichirō, In Praise of Shadows (1933)
Published in 1933, Tanizaki Junichirō’s In Praise of Shadows has widely been read as a strangely beautiful, if perverse, meditation on the lived spaces and cultural sensibilities proper to Japanese subjectivity. In a play of light and shadow already supplied with the visual grammar of photography, film and printing, Tanizaki presents an aesthetics irrevocably altered by Western technology. He is not only preoccupied by artistic judgments and perceptions, but with the fate of national culture in the wake of the epochal transformations of writing and the rise of mass media since the late nineteenth century. Tanizaki grants himself license to imagine an alternative modernity that is significantly expressed through a dual sense of writing technology: making reference to actual implements of writing such as pens, brushes and typewriters, and the act of writing about (writing) technology itself. Indeed, I would argue writing technology becomes the organizing trope of the text as Tanizaki deftly enfolds art, architecture and cinema into a broader framework of inscription and projection (utsushi); in essence, a discourse of writing. In this paper I wish to read against the grain of Tanizaki’s playful, yet deceptively obfuscatory views of writing technology in Japan and the West to re-examine the origins of a unified national language and modern Japanese literature in the Meiji period (1868-1912), notably the phonocentrically transparent codes of “transcriptive realism” (shajitsushugi) foreclosed by his rhetoric of shadows and silence.
Seth Jacobowitz is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities Department at San Francisco State University and for 2006-07 a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Reischauer Institute at Harvard University.