MUST5 July 2013 – July 2018
MUST5 July 2013 – July 2018
I wrote this essay half way as a presentation for a MUST5 conference in Hongkong in 2013 - and finished it this summer of 2018. I am including a screenshot of one of the slides of the presentation, since the presentation and the drafting of it became part of an artwork exchange with Santtu Kivimäki, who plaited it all into a work of hers. See our online discussion Invitations.
“The Pillow Book” was written in Heian Japan by a gentlewoman in the court of Empress Teishi, who was the High Consort between 990 – 1000a.d. The gentlewoman wrote it presumably on a bundle of precious paper given to the Empress in 994, and the book was “probably completed in the first years of the eleventh century”. The author’s family name was Kiyohara, and “tradition has it” that her personal name was Nagiko. The Book she wrote under the name “Sei Shonagon”, where Sei can be conceived as an alternative reading for the name Kiyo, and Shonagon the name of a bureaucratic post, translated as “Junior Councellor”. (The Pillow Book, the cover and introduction)
The book tells about Sei Shonagon’s life at the court, but it is not a diary or an autobiography. She writes lists of all kinds of things: infuriating things, disgusting things, delightful things, things that should be small, things that make your heart beat fast. She also lists rivers, villages, topics for poetry, horses, ox-drivers, temples, games, tales, buddhas… but these are no exhaustive or systematic lists, instead they seem to reflect her moods and tastes, as do everything else in the Book. She records incidents and anecdotes from her life and of the court – often to show off her good taste, intellect, wit and learning, especially concerning poetry. In fact later commentary and critique often claims this to be a serious fault of the book, since there is no red thread of a plot or even an autobiography. She also depicts scenes to discuss how lovers or temple-goers or officials should or should not behave. These scenes may or may not refer to actual experiences. She paints vivid images especially of people’s clothing, describing painstakingly and to the detail the costumes and their fabric and colors. She makes constant reference to poetry and tales, either quoting or ingeniously paraphrasing something. She always casts her own mood and feeling over, however small an entry might be (two things that imitate: yawns and children) – and the book is bathed in the feeling of “okashi” – delightful, charming, amusing – a word that is repeated to the extent that the English translator feels it has to be varied not to cause rejection by a modern Western reader.
What is the Pillow Book? It is, as stated, not a diary or an autobiography. It is not a handbook for ladies at court or about general genteel etiquette. It definitely is not a novel, a romantic tale either of pure fantasy or drawing from real life. Its striking characteristic is to be “an extraordinary jumble”, as the translator says. She also warns us that any feeling of familiarity and intimacy is a mere illusion, since Sei Shonagon (Kiyohara Nagiko) lived in a world “we do not know”. Yet reading the book I could not shake off a feeling of familiarity – definitely not with the customs and values described, but precisely with the puzzling jumble of the format, down to the assumed alias.
Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book would be/is a perfect example of a present-day digital online diary, or rather postings under a profile within an online board or platform – say Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. It would be perfectly reasonable to find a jumble of lists of things one likes/ does not like (name 10 books that come to your mind; which way do you think toilet-paper should hang; what is your totem animal, which country should you live in?) amidst anecdotes, shared stories, personal moods, and opinions about customs, weather, times of year, festivals, clothing, poetry. Oh yes, the poetry – we litter our statuses and posts with references and links to popular songs and classic music, news videos and cuts from movies. And we ornate it all with images, taken by us with our smart phones or found online. And we definitely want to show off our wit, good taste, intellect and learning, to our intimate circles and the world at large.
Then there is the alias, the avatar, the username. Allegedly based on the person’s own name and position in life, not really giving the true identity away, nor yet completely covering it. In fact, as with online board profiles, so with Sei Shonagon: who is she really? Do we know – do we really know for sure? As an author Sei Shonagon arouses the issue of authenticity, indeed the issue of what is an author.
“The author” is much less an individual human being who has produced a text than a function within a specific kind of discourse of literature, is the answer given by Michel Foucault in his article titled precisely “What is an Author”. To be more precise, “the author” is a characteristic of the existence, circulation and functioning of the discourse. (MFA 148) The author’s name allows to create coherence and homogeneity within the “work” – in fact, it allows to construct the “work”, what to include and what to exclude. (MFA 145 – 147)
Foucault cites the Church Father Saint Jerome who defined what we need to identify an author and the work of an author: 1) constant level of value, i.e. the different writings must have the same literary quality and worth; 2) conceptual coherence so that the reader can always be sure in what sense a specific concept or perspective is meant; 3) stylistic unity, this being very much tied to the constant value of the writing; and 4) the texts must be historically placed, in the sense that the author cannot discuss things that happened after his/her death. (MFA 151)
Even modern literary criticism, according to Foucault, sees the author as a principle of coherence and homogeneity: the author as a historical person and through his biography serves to explain events and developments in the work (places the texts historically, as required by Saint Jerome). The author is the principle of a certain unity of writing, so that differences within disparate writings can be explained through a progress and development of the author, or external influences experienced by the author, be they personal or contextual. The author is the point where potential contradictions in the text can be resolved and incompatible elements are tied together. And finally, as with Saint Jerome, also for modernists the author is a source of coherence of expression and style. (MFA 151) Thus the author, says Foucault, is an ideological product (a discursive product) marking “the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning” (MFA 159).
We can see how Sei Shonagon flows beyond the space and boundaries defined by “the author”. Her work is composed of texts of different value and style, mere lists like Horrid filthy things– Slugs. The tip of the broom used to sweep a shabby wooden floor. The bowls in the Privy Chamber.; moods like It is lovely to see, on a day when the snow lies thick– or Women without prospect-; descriptions of life and persons at the court like When Her Majesty was mourning for the previous Regent. Sometimes an entry begins as a list but turns into an anecdote, or a more evolved pondering of one item, disturbing the conceptual coherence. And as the translator explains, even if the peculiarities of Japanese language make possible the use of nuances one cannot translate to English, on the other hand in Japanese the use of verbs does not necessarily involve markers that tell if the writer is speaking in past tense, or if she is speaking in passive sense or as herself. “Is it I, or you, or we, or perhaps she, who is experiencing this?” Historical placement seems to hang on the contextual markers in the text, not on the person of the author. Thus, instead of dating from a time and experience completely removed from ours, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book is a work taking place in the context of the contemporary disappearance or death of “the author”.
Foucault states he has no interest in the death or disappearance of the author as such. What he is interested is what can emerge when this unifying discursive product fails to create an order, and true to himself he takes this to spatial metaphors: he is interested in in “a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears”, in locating “the space left empty by the author’s disappearance”. (MFA, beginning and end; my italics) What is the space where The Pillow Book takes place, the space of the author’s disappearance?
In another famous article Foucault has indeed defined that our epoch is no more an epoch of history (which focused on the subject and its authenticity), but an epoch of space. And for our epoch the issue about space is not about the site and placement, nor yet about extension any more. We conceive space inherently as “relations between sites” – relations of proximity (or distance), storage, circulation, marking, and classification of human beings. (MFH, 1 – 2) Now initially I had the idea of combining these two articles and questions, and to consider the “heterotopy” as the space into which the author keeps disappearing. But heterotopias are maybe still too much “nurtured by the hidden presence of the sacred” as Foucault says, meaning they still refer to specific given oppositions and to concrete fixed places. Foucault defines as the principles for studying and understanding heterotopias for instance that heterotopias are linked to “slices of time” (MFH 6 – 7) and presuppose a system of entrance and borders, “opening and closing” (MFH 7); even if heterotopias may juxtapose in a single real place several spaces that are mutually incompatible (MFH 6). Heterotopias seem still linked to the disciplinary society that operates through differentiation, instead of the society of control where the main issue is “how to govern the many as many”, how to control but not destroy the “mobility, flexibility and perpetual differentiation of the multitude” (Hardt & Negri, 22 – 30; 344). And while the author starts to disappear all through modernity and therefore also within disciplinary practices, I would place this disappearance in the heart of the present society of control.
For is the babbling social media and incessant life publishing under the guise of avatars not properly a phenomenon of our present age? Which of course is not merely seeing enormous multiplication of collective production, expressed through such fundamental concepts as “general intellect” or “multitude”, but as a counterpart to and simultaneously the foundation of the multitude, also a rise of “the singular” (Negri). Singularities defined by Giorgio Agamben as “whatever” beings (quodlibet) – beings that are not defined by any one property (to be red, French, Muslim, small, gentle, limping…), but which are not “whatever” in the sense that it would not matter what they are. These “whatever” beings are precisely and simply what they are, and desired as such (Agamben 17 – 18).
This is not a singularity that sets one apart, except momentaneously, at the level of event. As Maurizio Lazzarato states of the monad: it is simultaneously singular and multiplicity, containing all the relations that constitute the world of which it is part. “The monad is itself a society, a public space”. (Lazzarato, 29) As for Sei Shonagon, so for a singularity, identity and authorship is a play where the multiplicity of the singularity itself is put to work. Who created a meme? Who cares? As Michel Serres once noted in passing, we really have no ontologically “private” property: everything we own and are thus made of is mass-produced (though we make it private again by murder and pollution, but that is another story) (Serres, 33). Clothes, tools, mementoes, books, language, culture… singularity is a singular event within the inherent multiplicity, a momentuous constellation.
The writing subject disappears into the space of production of the singular multitude. Which has no one place, not even a heterotopia. Sei Shonagon seems to be employed precisely as we are: constantly producing cultural value and consequently wealth out of every little detail of her life. Just like biopower covers the entire life instead of differentiated moments of it in differentiated ways, so has production of value extended to cover the entire sphere of life. Spaces of work and production are no longer distinguishable from spaces of consumption and leisure. (Hardt & Negri, 357 - 358) We produce value while we consume. We produce value in all the spaces of our lives.
Remuneration of our constant production of value is another story, as are the necessary struggles and conflicts and resistances connected to it, always local, never fixed, and as is the significance of the author as a brand or an element of the brand. The discursive product of the author falls into the omnipresent and fluctuating space of cultural production. What concerns me here is the claim made in passing by the painstaking translator of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book: beware of feeling familiarity or intimacy with the book as it stems from a world we do not know. I think just the opposite is the case: finally, because of the form of the book, which we do share, through the shared yet singular lives we have, we can feel the familiarity, even the intimacy, just as we instinctively know already, without warnings, that the familiarity and intimacy may be a trick of our reading. We’re not bothered by the momentaneity and proliferation of meanings, it is after all the basis of our own existence as cultural beings and producers. We can happily announce ourselves and “friends” and “followers” of Sei Shonagon and (presumably) her Pillow Book.
Agamben, Giorgio: Tuleva yhteisö (La communità che viene/ The Coming Community). Gaudeamus. Tampere 1995.
Foucault, Michel: Of Other Spaces. Utopias and Heterotopias. (MFH) Originally published in 1967, English translation e.g. in Diacritics 16/1986. I am using an online version from Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité October, 1984; “Des Espace Autres,” Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec
Foucault, Michel: What is an Author? (MFA) In Textual Strategies. Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ed. Josue V. Harari. Methuen & Co.Ltd 1979
Hardt, Michael & Negri Antonio: Empire. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusetts/ London, England 2000.
Lazzarato, Maurizio: Les révolutions du capitalisme. Les Empêcheurs de penser en ronde. 2002.
Negri, Antonio: Approximations towards an ontological definition of the multitude. 2002 Generation Online http://www.generation-online.org/t/approximations.htm
Shonagon, Sei: The Pillow Book. Translated with Notes by Meredith McKinney. Penguin Classics 2006