Ukiyo - ad. Some thoughts toward a theory of representation, social structuration and cultural values. Todd Joseph Miles Holden. Professor , Mediated Sociology Department of Multi-Cultural Societies Graduate School of International Cultural Studies Tohoku University Sendai, Japan.
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Some thoughts toward a theory of representation, social structuration and cultural values
Professor, Mediated Sociology
Department of Multi-Cultural Societies
Graduate School of International Cultural Studies
Much of my work to date has involved the intersection between media and identity (in Japan)
(2) And involving significations
(3) conveyed through representations of:
(4) by media
(5) And brought into relief by:
Because this particular session addresses communication, identity and values, I wish to think about matters of form and content.
In the process, we will talk about the following key media practices:
Advertisements as Strips
Ukiyo-ads often stand as enclaves of invented reality which, nonetheless, are based on and transmitted into the “real world” as their own reality
The constant communication of their values and practices works to re/produce society in accord with that worldview
A woman enters a bar alone
She’s wearing a clinging, shiny red dress
A young man in a white shirt is behind the bar
The woman sits alone at the bar, caressing the stem of her glass
She raises her eyes suddenly to meet the man’s
Shocked, the man drops the glass he’s holding
As it shatters the woman’s lips part
Entranced, the man reaches out to to touch the woman
She meets his touch
Then directs his fingers to her face
She regards herself in the mirror of her compact
We see her embrace the man forcefully
In a voice-over the man utters: "is it okay to touch your skin?"
In recent work (Holden 2004, Holden and Ergul, forthcoming) I argue that TV in Japan is a “binding mechanism”.
Moreover, despite a variety of genres, the communication tropes, constantly recycled personae, and relatively narrow range of content work to draw the viewer into an intimate web of proximity and “common cultural currency”.
There are 2 key dimensions to ukiyo-e’s inception and proliferation.
The early woodblock prints were generally commissioned by the Kabuki and Noh-Theaters and by actors as a form of advertising.
At ukiyo-e’s inception there was a fixed social hierarchy:
At its inception, Ukiyo-e was not considered a fine art, rather it was a commercial art.
This distinction between High-Low / “Fine” versus “Commercial” art merits comment.
Certainly, such melding is characteristic both of ukiyo-e and advertising.
There are some aspects of ukiyo-e and contemporary advertising that warrant special note. Both possess:
An aesthetic and class-based theory is implicated in this, but Takahashi’s examples are most salient.
The author observes that ukiyo-e reported on games, depicted scenes from scandal sheets, served as commercial messages, as fashion shows, and lampoons.
Takahashi concludes in a way similar to semioticists who work with advertising or cultural studies researchers who assess media texts:
One issue of concern to media theorists – but possibly less so to those engaged in Japanese Studies – is whether media are static, discrete entities.
Media Studies tends to distinguish between media forms
But is it possible that media are melded?
On this account:
Ultimately, though, we are talking about media with different “feel”, approach and perspective.
Above all, some key differences emerge:
Let me begin with Representation.
Numerous media have been employed in Japanese painting over the centuries. These include:
Thus Ukiyo-e represented a departure from its national precursors.
It was in some ways closer to European approaches to the presentation of art than earlier Japanese models.
Its mass-produced nature served to bring it closer to lithographic print or even later-evolving media such as records, movies, and television.
In this way, ukiyo-e were very responsive to daily life and culture.
In terms of how it communicated, ukiyo-e employed certain approaches to subject and perspective that reveal both similarities and differences to contemporary advertising.
Two of the most famous ukiyo-e artists, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), produced famous series of portraits revolving around the singular object, Mount Fuji.
In advertising, the fact that multiple scenes can be embedded in one communication can be exploited to create a serial/set effect.
The result is often conveying a variety of perspectives, opening into discourse about various themes… no different than ukiyo-e
Here, a Pretz campaign employs the SMAP star, Goro, who engages in a succession of shared snacks/near-kisses with women and young girls…
Ranging in race, age, and attractiveness
In the process, the ad builds discourse about topics such as monogamy
Ethnic and/or international union
Culture, Occupation, Class
… if not homosexuality
What ukiyo-e was less adept at handling (that ads can) is changes in perspective. While the former is rather uni-dimensional, the latter is more able to change viewpoints, as in the following example:
Social Structuration in all these dimensions are present in both ukiyo-e and advertising
Ukiyo-e – perhaps unintentionally, via the simple representation of what was “out there”, effectively conveyed social configuration/order.
Ads, of course, can do the same, but given the democratization of the public lifespace and the aim not to disenfranchise consumption communities, may do so less often.
The ukiyo-e of Edo, in particular was rife with images of samurai, as well as nobility, geisha and entertainers.
All belonged to specific classes or orders in Japan of that tie.
Advertising, as well, is capable of capturing social grades – from salaried workers, to celebrities who move in higher society, to people with money enough to engage in leisure pursuits.
Just as ukiyo-e depicted relations among people of like characteristics, ads often develop portraits of those within social groups.
So, too, do ads represent relations or accent differences between different groups.
Ukiyo-e generally depicted women indoors; occasionally they were engaged in domestic labor.
Ads may be more extensive in the roles they allocate for women, but very often they are also indoors and performing domestic labor.
Ukiyo-e was also effective at revealing the contours of the economic organization of Japan at that time.
TV ads do the same:revealing the contours of the economic organization of Japan today.
Ukiyo-e occasionally represented institutions like religion, the military or family.
For ads, it is more often the family, the corporation, and (increasingly) the celebrity/cultural entertainment system that receive attention.
Cultural values can be thought of in terms of ideas and practices embedded in these communications, such as:
Both ukiyo-e and ads focus on nature as a theme
Both ukiyo-e and ads focus on nature as a theme
– both as central focus…
… as well as feeling-inducing background
This is a theme that continually appears in both media…
A continuity that is meaningful in ways that help us see deep historical threads transcending media differences.
Although ads are more chaste and tend to highlight female sexuality and same sex contact (as opposed to overt sexual acts).
While ukiyo-e did include images of consumption, this was not a central focus.
Ads, of course, aim to stimulate consumption and so that is often what is depicted.
Surprisingly, as I have shown in other work (Holden 1999) concerning “product-least advertising”, ads often de-emphasize or ignore consuming goods.
We have already considered how the aim of advertising Kabuki, Noh and their actors served as a major spur in the development of ukiyo-e.
It could be argued that the celebrity culture so pervasive in Japan today can be traced back to the Kabuki/Noh promotional culture of Edo.
Certainly, by today, the link between celebrity-star and advertising is firmly established.
Identity is a theme that courses through contemporary advertising; it touches on self, class, gender, cultural, and national identity, among others.
Ukiyo-e, as a more privileged or targeted form of communication may have done this less, though identity discourse is present
Ukiyo-e, in its heyday, was about the representation of (if not the invitation into) private, privileged space.
This space was not accessible by all
Ads work in the same way, treating us to stolen glimpses inside…
The worlds of domestic athletes living and playing in foreign lands;
While we have spent much of this talk thinking about similarities between media, there are important ways in which they diverge.
One is their presence in contemporary culture
The style persists today
But often associated with erotica, divested of the other cultural and social elements that ukiyo-e was noted for.
In some cases, the cultural and social elements for which ukiyo-e was noted are still featured; above all, nature, performers and human subjects.., although often in more grotesque or aberrant ways.
However, both in terms of quantity (ubiquity) and quality (themes covered) advertising comes closer to filling this social role today.
It treats all the themes once at the heart of ukiyo-e…
Beyond this advertising performs communication functions, such as education & cultural reproduction, but also historical reinvention – elements not exploited as much by ukiyo-e.
The claim that is harder to show in the context of this talk is the one that I pursue in my research on TV.
Looking at Wideshows, Cooking Shows, News, Quiz, Dating and “Reality” shows, one see that way that uchi or an inclusive grouping is created via such media.
Advertising plays a decided role by creating an invented, shared space, often invoking many of the same human figures and themes that exist out in the real world, as well as on the daily news and entertainment programs on TV.
In some ways this takes us away from ukiyo-e, but in other ways it doesn’t.
For here, what we encounter is privileged, bracketed, inclusive but private space.
Viewer-consumers are invited as spies, but are also made complicit in their participation.
Ukiyo-ad is the medium that secures this social configuration and creates a national community.
If it was only about similarity in the style or modes of representation, that would be nothing more than a curiosity;
To some it would also seem less than profound as we are talking about shared forms of expression in a society that possesses historical continuity.
However, if it is about identical themes reproduced in two different forms of communication, separated by one to two hundred years of cultural development, then that actually stands as a fact of significance.
Suddenly what we are talking about is:
A bit troubling is what this means for other theorization I have formulated concerning globalization (Holden 2003).
There, I advance a notion of distinct “careers” that nations evince based on set of factors such as their resource and ethnic mix, political and economic institutions, and the like.
In light of today’s paper, one must ask: “What does it mean if a nation like Japan has an exogenous profile based on temporal diversity – a set of genotypically distinct careers – but an endogenous profile based on continuity of cultural values?”
Is this a problem of ontology or of epistemology?
But I will leave the adjudication of that dispute for another day.