Elevate Difference

Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan's Imperialism, 1895-1945

Mark Driscoll, an associate professor of Japanese and International Studies at the University of North Carolina, here presents a very thorough reassessment of Japanese imperialism of Asia in the first half of the twentieth century. Driscoll focuses his attention on the fringes of the colonized Asian peoples, writing about the Chinese coolies, Korean farmers, Japanese pimps and trafficked women of various Asian nationalities that moved Japan's empire along and provided the behind-the-scenes energy that created such an empire. Japan's rise to a capitalist power—and its expansion of its empire—is identified by Driscoll as happening in three distinct phases, each marked by exploitation of people, land, life, and labor: biopolitics, neuropolitics, and necropolitics.

Driscoll's reading of biopolitics as it applies to Japanese imperialism and capitalism is the same as Michel Foucault's: faire vivir (improving life) and laisser mourir (letting die off). Biopolitics most often involves public health, disease prevention, maternity clinics, and hygiene campaigns. It directly ties in to the concept of laissez-faire capitalism, its aim being for some lives to be improved and for others to be left to fare for themselves. In neuropolitics, the exploited worker in the capitalist society has a life that no longer belongs to him but to the object into which he puts his life (often his job); therefore, he must try to buy back his own life in the form of “commodity substitutes.” (Think of Fight Club and its message of “the things you own end up owning you.”) Citizens in a neuropolitical state are “shocked into stupefaction,” and then tricked into buying a “second life” back from the capitalist regime in the form of consumable goods. Necropolitics, the third phase of Japan's capitalist imperial expansion, is defined as the state in which workers, forced laborers, and colonized persons are aware of the constant threat of omnipresent death, and perceive life as a constant struggle against this threat of death. The imperialistic powers over the colonized peoples subjugate their lives with the power of death.

Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque is a highly fascinating book, though occasionally dry and academic. This is no fault of the writer or subject matter, but simply my own Western/Caucasian mind not having these lingual-neural pathways, but I had trouble keeping up with the many Asian names sprinkled liberally throughout the text. There is plenty in here to intrigue those with an interest in twentieth century world politics, Marxism, sex workers, the failures of capitalism, the deplorable treatment of women in war conditions, poverty, gender, race, political corruption, and the swift rise and fall of empires. Driscoll also covers pornography and drugs in Japan's colonization of Asia, and includes some grisly photographs from “erotic-grotesque” magazines, the idea of these being that the two concepts were not so different from one another.

Written by: Natalie Ballard, December 4th 2010