Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael K. Bourdaghs reviews Beyond Nation

Richard F. Calichman. Beyond Nation: Time, Writing, and Community in the Work of Abe Kōbō. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2016. 288 pp.

Review by Michael K. Bourdaghs

Abe Kōbō’s medium of preference was sand; he wrote in sand, about sand, through sand. In this excellent study—and in its companion volume,  The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō (2013), a collection of the novelist’s theoretical writings—Richard Calichman argues compellingly that Abe’s writings in sand remark our world with an ethical claim that continues to resonate today.

Abe (1924–1993) was first introduced to English readers in the 1960s as Japan’s premier novelist of existentialist alienation. There is something to this—like many intellectuals in Japan and elsewhere who came of age after 1945, Abe found in Jean-Paul Sartre a touchstone. But Calichman demonstrates that the introduction of Abe in the Anglophone world took place through a rigid framework of oppositionality—freedom versus repression, for example, or Japan versus the West—that erased the complex ways he implicitly and explicitly problematized such binary logic. Movement and fluidity were primary to his thought—hence his fascination with sand, in which form and flow blend into one another. For Abe, identity could only be achieved retroactively, and its relation to difference was never one of simple opposition; all identities are inherently contaminated as a condition of possibility for existence. Engaging in the inherently temporal act of writing was for Abe a means of exploring possibilities for moving beyond closed modes of identity, especially those associated with the nation-state and its nostalgic (and violent) fantasies of purity.

Calichman takes up major novels such as Woman in the Dunes (1962) and Face of Another (1964) as well as Abe’s essays and the problematic history of his reception in Anglophone Japan studies. As this volume’s subtitle suggests, a Derridean ethics of reading guides the argument here—Jacques Derrida more by way of his engagement with Heideggerian ontology than Marxian hauntology. The latter does appear from time to time, but this reader would have appreciated a more explicit engagement with Abe’s own engagements with Marxism (he was until the early 1960s an active cultural leader in the Japan Communist Party), another strain in his work that Japan studies tended to efface.  

Calichman argues we should read Abe not so much for the content of his works as for the challenge his thought presents to our scholarly methodologies. Area studies often treats its fields of knowledge as something like paint-by-numbers projects. Each new study fills in a predefined space on a given grid, coloring in another blank to provide a more detailed picture of the object—say, Japan. As a result, area-studies scholarship, even that which self-consciously adopts oppositional approaches—critical approaches to, for example, race, gender. sexuality, or fascism—tends to deal with its objects of study in terms of their seemingly given content, ignoring the ideological forces at work to generate the sense of givenness.

Abe insisted, though, that we start probing not with given objects but rather at the limits of our frames, at the edges of our methodologies, questioning how they discursively produce both subjects and objects. Beyond Nation points to how we might read a writer like Abe beyond and against the grid of area studies—and, implicitly, world literature. The lines that create grids on our field of knowledge are, after all, written in sand.