Peter B. High j45843a
Tue Jul 27 08:06:05 EDT 1999

Aaron Gerow wrote:
> But while I think Peter's ur-stories have a lot of promise and can be 
> utilized quite fruitfully, I wonder if we should be wary of such stories 
> for the same reason there were problems with structuralism.  There is the 
> tendency to see them as "natural," which often leads to a kind of 
> functionalism; they become "defined" (often though a central binarism) in 
> ways that occlude the fissures and deferrences of signification; they 
> focus on texts and signification at the expense of reading; they tend to 
> write out the messiness of historical moments in favor of longue durees; 
> etc. (others can add to the list).

As often happens among scholars whose point of view and/or area of interest 
tend to  coincide as closely as  Aaron's and mine, we often feel the need 
to interject a "yes, but..." in order to stake out our own territory, and 
insights. This I believe is what Aaron is doing in the paragraph above; and 
quite rightly so. However, since I feel the above paragraph contains a key 
misconstruing of what I said (mea culpa, indoubitably), I want to see if I 
can set things right. 

I am of course aware of the rebuttal of the structuralist position Aaron 
refers to here and believe it is well taken. However I am not aware of how 
this very good advice relates directly to what I said. I am also not quite 
clear about what he means by "functionalism" and am therefore equally 
unclear about why I need to be wary of that  frumious bandersnatch. In 
other words, while Aaron warns that my idea of "ur-stories" may be caught 
up in the Structuralist Fallacy, I must complain that I am being subjected 
to the debater's categorical fallacy (in other words, that I have been 
thrust into the wrong "ism" box).

The key element of Aaron's criticism (of the structuralists) is that "they 
tend to write out the messiness of historical moments in favor of longue 
durees;  etc." This of course reflects the anti-historical bias of their 
discipline and would signify a grave failing in any historian. 

The point I want to make here is a tricky one since I have to recycle some 
of the very terms Aaron uses, but in a different context. I am suggesting 
that these ur-stories represent (archetypical?/traditional?) forms 
pre-provided within a specific culture for the casting, as news and/or 
entertainment, developments of the day. In fact they do function to "write 
out the messiness of historical moments," since they represent patterned 
forms of representation.  I would add that they also tend toward  an 
essentially conservative interpretation of the world and therefore , by 
implication at least, have a role to play in signification. However, since 
the content is invariably "current events" taking place within the 
radically different circumstances of each era, ideology included, they also 
completely vulnerable "defferences of signification." Take for example the 
American "Horatio Alger" ur-story.  We can find it at work in contemporary 
accounts of the life of Thomas Edison, up through the twenties. On the 
other hand, it turns into a parodic weapon to be wielded against Dick Nixon 
in the late sixties and early seventies. We even find it in the background 
sketches of the rise of Apple Computors. Complicating matters is the fact 
that ur-stories can intertwine in the same account--Apple was even more 
often cast as David in combat with the IBM goliath.

In any case, I don't think it is any more tenable to hold that ur-stories 
characterize any particular era than it is to attempt a similar 
characterization by simply invoking its incidents, scandals and what-not. 
The latter are indeed "messy," being subject to constant reinterpretation 
as to their facts and significance. But we must also recognize that as 
patterned forms of representation purveyed to the public, ur-stories seem 
to have a life and career of their own in the real world. Why was America 
swept up in grief at the death of JFK,jr.? Why, because he was the last 
prince of "Camelot" of course!

Actually,  the line of inquiry which fascinates me most is the way in which 
the narratives of what I called the MEGA-sphere (of politics and other 
events of High Historico-social Import) tend to be "counterpointed" by 
stories (scandals, affairs etc) in the minor key, spawned by the popular 
media dimension. As I have already pointed out, the Manchurian Incident was 
quickly followed by public fascination with the Lovers' Suicide Rage; the 
Feb. 26 coup incident was counterpointed by the Abe Sada Incident. Now, in 
the midst of millenialist fears and all the stuff going on in the Diet, 
millions seem more concerned with the  Satchi affair. My hypothesis is that 
the counterpointing (popular press) stories, while clearly unrelated in 
their details to the "crisis" of the  MEGA-sphere,  still, on some 
virtually subliminal level, vibrate with an allied significance.  Both the 
*bidan* tales of valor spewed out on the front page during the Manchurian 
Incident and the lovers' suicides were all sagas of death, and  therefore 
thematically linked--the region where they interpenetrated being the issue 
of Fascism ("fassho") which was just then dominating public discourse.

So what would be the significance vibration shared by Satchi and the major 
domestic news issues of the moment? The flag and anthem issues arise amidst 
a wider, and increasingly nationalist, discourse about Japan and the War 
(guilt/responsibility/factuality), Japan as an "independent, full-fledged 
nation" and the sense that Japan must  re-emerge on the international stage 
as a full-fledged national entity. At the fringes of this discourse is the 
persistent debate about Japan having lost its identity, its old values and 
traditonal virtues of straightforwardness. One of the most prominent 
incarnations of Satchi herself was as the sharp-tongued moralist, attacking 
members of the loose-living younger generation. At the same time, she 
represent(ed) a travesty of the old,traditional image of the proper, 
selkf-effacing "obasan." Enter Asaka Mitsuyo, the proxy representive of the 
good old (semi-mythical) world of chambara drama (she was an *onna kengeki* 
actreess). ASsaka proceeds to publicly prosecute Satchi for her duplicity 
(her distortion of factuality) and lack of "common-sense" (she borrowed 
things and failed to return them--a nearly unforgivanble sin in the old 
moral order). Seen this way,  motifs of both the MEGA-sphere and the 
counterpoint clearly intertwine, or "vibrate" as I have been putting it. 
Quintessentially, we find vaguely analogous issues of identity--who are 
you? who are we? Also there is the very Japanese iassue of "midare wo 
tadasu" (correcting things out of order/ finding and adopting the correct 

Once again, any comments?

Peter B. High
Nagoya University 


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