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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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ukiyo ad


Some thoughts toward a theory of representation, social structuration and cultural values

todd joseph miles holden
Todd Joseph Miles Holden

Professor, Mediated Sociology

Department of Multi-Cultural Societies

Graduate School of International Cultural Studies

Tohoku University

Sendai, Japan

japanese media and identity
Japanese Media and Identity

Much of my work to date has involved the intersection between media and identity (in Japan)

mediated identity defined
Mediated Identity: Defined

(1) Interactions

  • In and through institutions

(2) And involving significations

(3)  conveyed through representations of:

  • sameness
  • difference

(4) by media

(5) And brought into relief by:

  • user’s references to:
    • Socially-constructed group traits
    • Their depiction of relationships between/amongst:
      • Themselves
      • Their group
      • and/or other groups
previous research on mediated identity
Previous Research onMediated Identity
  • “Adentity”: the filtration of messages about self, group, individuality, freedom (and contraint) through TV advertising.
  • “Welcome to my Homepage…”: sampling of Japanese home pages in focused areas revealed evidence of rather unified selves, intentionally constructed for an unknown public to consume.
  • “Adolechnics”: how young cell phone users employ communication technology to frame, enhance self-presentation, and better understand themselves.
  • “Sportsports”: daily news reports about Japanese athletic performance overseas has the effect of creating hyper-awareness of national and cultural identity.
  • “The Overcooked and Underdone”: the various ways that masculinities (and femininities) are mediated in Japanese TV food shows
today s discussion
Today’s Discussion
  • Looks at 2 media or, better, two forms of expression
    • Ukiyo-e
    • Advertising
  • And their interrelationship
  • Ontologically – beyond media – I want to think about what it means that historically continuities can be seen in cultural values and practices, as played out in different epochs, through very different media.
today s discussion8
Today’s Discussion

Because this particular session addresses communication, identity and values, I wish to think about matters of form and content.

  • Specifically, what are the relationships between these twin communication forms and Japanese cultural ideas.
  • Where I would like this discussion to move is toward matters of societal nature;
  • And also, to some degree, questions of values and identity
today s discussion9
Today’s Discussion

In the process, we will talk about the following key media practices:

  • Representation
  • Intimacy
  • Uchi/Soto
  • Mass-mediated “bindingness”
  • Persistence of core cultural values
today s discussion10
Today’s Discussion
  • As for specific content bearing on cultural values, we shall consider:
    • Privileged Space
    • Class
    • Social Organization/Order
    • Celebrity
    • Nature
    • Sexuality
to begin
To Begin
  • About Contemporary Media
    • TV
    • Advertising
  • About Ukiyo-e
the centrality of television in japan today
The Centrality of Television in Japan Today
  • In Japan today, there are 6 TVs for every 10 people
  • and a diffusion rate of 100%.
  • TV is viewed by virtually every Japanese every day – 95% of the population.
    • This has been the case since the 1960s when the rate was also 95%.
  • This far exceeds other popular forms of information processing: newspapers (86%), cellphones (73%), and the Internet (27%).
the centrality of television in japan today13
The Centrality of Television in Japan Today
  • A 1990s NHK study found that, on average, at least one TV set played 7 to 8 hours a day in each Japanese dwelling.
  • Another study found that TV viewing is deemed as “indispensable” by 43% of the population.
the centrality of television in japan today14
The Centrality of Television in Japan Today
  • Today, the average for personal viewing per day approaches 225 minutes, and has constantly topped three hours since 1960.
  • A recent European survey places the number in excess of four hours, ranking Japan third in the world.
    • 261 minutes, this ranks ahead of the U.S. (at 255 minutes) and behind Mexico (265) and Bosnia (287). In the most recent assessment, Japan came in second only to Bosnia.
the centrality of tv advertising in japan today
The Centrality of TV Advertising in Japan Today
  • Japan’s advertising market is the second largest worldwide
  • Some Facts/Figures:
    • Advertising outlays for TV outdistance all other media sources
      • At 34.1%
      • Its closest alternative conduit is newspapers (at 19.9%).
    • It amounts to $223,250,000 just for television
    • Dedicated to 957,447 ads
    • Consuming 6,016 broadcasting hours per year
      • Source: Dentsu Koukoku Nenkan, ’02 – ‘03 [Dentsu Advertising Yearbook, 2002 – 2003], Tokyo: Dentsu, 2002; pp.57,90,89.
the centrality of tv advertising in japan today16
The Centrality of TV Advertising in Japan Today
  • Advertising serves not only a major motor for Japanese television; it also works as one of the major means by which cultural communication occurs.
    • Ads serve a powerful socializing and ideological function, narrowly and repetitiously re/producing images of gender, cultural values, history, nationalism, and political, social and personal identity (among others).
  • On advertising and gender, see Holden 2000
  • On advertising and cultural reproduction, see Holden 2001
  • On advertising and nationalism, see Holden 2002
ukiyo ad17

Advertisements as Strips

  • Japanese ads often adopt the form of panels.
  • Ukiyo-e paintings of the 17th and 18th century serve as their cultural precursor
  • Like ukiyo-e, ukiyo-ads are fully realized (or else pieces of fully-realized) worlds.
  • They are “arbitrary slice(s) or cut(s) from the stream of ongoing activity.” (Goffman 1974:10). Video still-lifes, if you will.
the reality of strips
The “Reality” of 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

the scenario
The Scenario

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

the scenario continued
The Scenario (continued)

She raises her eyes suddenly to meet the man’s

…and winks

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

the scenario continued22
The Scenario (continued)

She meets his touch

Then directs his fingers to her face

the scenario concluded
The Scenario (concluded)

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?"

some media theory bindingness
Some Media Theory: Bindingness

In recent work (Holden 2004, Holden and Ergul, forthcoming) I argue that TV in Japan is a “binding mechanism”.

  • TV is one of only a few institutions and set of fixed activities with a finite set of codes, languages, customs and meanings that are shared (at least interpretable) by the entire society and engaged in routinely, in a narrow, consistent set of ways.
some media theory
Some Media Theory

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”.

  • One effect is to create a near-national uchi
    • A privileged space
    • Offering “familial”-like membership
    • A direct link between the viewer’s world and the invented, hidden, non-existent world of celebrities
    • An ontological configuration predicated on in-group “secrets”; whose currency is automatic, unconditional warmth; one which daily produces an ongoing collective history.
ukiyo e a precis
Ukiyo-e: a precis
  • As most of you probably know, ukiyo-e refers to “the floating world”.
  • Generally, this referred to:
    • Transience and pleasure
    • Likely because ukiyo-e came of age during the Edo period…
      • a time during which a rising merchant class began to emphasize (and subsidize) worldly pleasures;
      • they frequented the so-called “pleasure-quarters” and patronized theaters.
    • These two sources became the early subject matter for woodblock prints
explaining ukiyo e structurally
Explaining Ukiyo-e Structurally

There are 2 key dimensions to ukiyo-e’s inception and proliferation.

  • Production
    • Factors associated with its development and distribution.
  • Consumption
    • Factors associated with its maintenanceand use.
explaining ukiyo e production
Explaining Ukiyo-e: Production

The early woodblock prints were generally commissioned by the Kabuki and Noh-Theaters and by actors as a form of advertising.

marrying media kabuki and ukiyo e
Marrying Media: Kabuki and Ukiyo-e
  • Ukiyo-e artists produced theater posters and playbills.
  • These prints, which depicted famous actors, helped promote and then preserve the aragoto style of acting.


wedding commercialized culture and communication
Wedding “Commercialized” Culture and Communication
  • Ukiyo-e prints were created for a mass-market, and their publishers dominated the creative process. As such:
    • publishers determined the subject matter
    • commissioned artists
    • oversaw the creation of the woodblocks, and
    • marketed the finished products.
  • To heighten public demand, publishers developed series of prints which they sold in installments.
  • Source:
explaining ukiyo e consumption
Explaining Ukiyo-e: Consumption

At ukiyo-e’s inception there was a fixed social hierarchy:

  • Warriors, farmers, and artisans stood above merchants, who were the wealthiest segment of the population
  • Having their political power effectively removed by the shogun rulers, the merchant class turned to art and culture as arenas in which they could participate on an equal basis with the elite upper classes.
      • Source:
explaining ukiyo e consumption33
Explaining Ukiyo-e: Consumption
  • Ukiyo-e provided not only the merchants, but those in the city and in less traditional professions a chance to participate in society.
  • This offered a means of attaining cultural status outside the sanctioned realms of shogunate, temple, and court.
      • Source:
  • The key actors in this consumption process included actors, artists, townspeople, and publishers.
ukiyo e art high or low
Ukiyo-e: Art High or Low?

At its inception, Ukiyo-e was not considered a fine art, rather it was a commercial art.

communicative arts and cultural continuity
Communicative Arts and Cultural Continuity

This distinction between High-Low / “Fine” versus “Commercial” art merits comment.

  • As Buruma recently observed, “even court painters of the Kano School made little distinction between decorative and fine art.” (NYR, June 23, 2005:14)
  • The same could be said in other (and all) cultural realms in Japanese cultural communications: where a tendency to separate high from low was not strictly adhered to – even prior to Modernism.

Certainly, such melding is characteristic both of ukiyo-e and advertising.

cultural continuities
Cultural Continuities

There are some aspects of ukiyo-e and contemporary advertising that warrant special note. Both possess:

  • Production-consumption systems
  • Promotional dimensions in their communication
  • Referencing of cultural, political, social and moral aspects of the surrounding society
  • Melding of high and low forms of communication
  • Requirements for extremely advanced (popular) cultural literacy by their audiences in decoding texts
societal system commercialized culture and communication
Societal System, Commercialized Culture, and Communication
  • The fact that ukiyo-e possesses socio-economic dynamics similar to the contemporary scene is significant.
  • The presence of a promotional system (an agency/promoter), celebrities, mixed in with depictions of everyday life, and the commercialized process of advertising these elements publicly leads to the spanning/melding of societal sectors.
  • It also produces societal bindingness between message producer, medium, content/consumed object, and message consumer.
the historical continuities of communication culture
The Historical Continuities of Communication/Culture
  • This historical continuity in media/system matters because I believe it suggests a seamlessness between (Japanese) culture and forms of communication.
  • As such, not only modes of communication, but the content of communication persist, helping to unify a culture across time.
    • Despite political, economic, ideological and technological changes, much of what came before is found in the present; what was found in a prior (and very different) medium continues into the current moment.
ukiyo e as new media
Ukiyo-e as “New Media”
  • Katsuhiko Takahashi (1992) has argued that rather than a form of art, ukiyo-e was akin to modern mass media, with the functions of information, advertisement and play.
        • See: Edo no nyu media (The New Media of Edo)
    • Viewing ukiyo-e as a fine art is limiting insofar as it ignores the functional value of ukiyo-e during its time.
ukiyo e as new media40
Ukiyo-e as “New Media”

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.

  • In some ways this makes it closest to the “wide show”
  • It also bears strong resemblance to TV advertising
how to read ukiyo e
How to Read Ukiyo-e

Takahashi concludes in a way similar to semioticists who work with advertising or cultural studies researchers who assess media texts:

  • ukiyo-e prints should be viewed as objects for social anthropological analysis rather than art history.
  • This is similar, then, to work conducted by, say Goffman (1968) concerning gender in North American magazine advertising and Holden (2000) in Japanese TV advertising.
static media
Static Media?

One issue of concern to media theorists – but possibly less so to those engaged in Japanese Studies – is whether media are static, discrete entities.

  • Are they individual in their ontological characteristics, their operative aspects, and their effects
  • Or do they share similar ontologies, operations, and effects
a theory of mixed media
A Theory of Mixed Media?

Media Studies tends to distinguish between media forms

  • TV differs from radio, comics are different than the Internet

But is it possible that media are melded?

  • Do they share “readability”
  • Is the way one encodes messages the same as the way other media encode?
  • So, too, is the manner in which one medium is decoded by its audience the same as the way in which another is decoded?
a theory of mixed media44
A Theory of Mixed Media?

On this account:

  • ukiyo-e might bear considerable relationship to comics (manga);
  • So, too, would it be related to advertising – either in its tropes of representation, or its specific content.
  • One might claim historical continuity in both form and content (across media).
ultimately ontological similarity analogic breakdown
Ultimately: Ontological Similarity, Analogic Breakdown?
  • Ukiyo-e and TV advertising share extensive similarities. Above all:
    • Their polysemy
    • Focus on celebrity
    • Attention to everyday life
    • Enabling surveillance of privileged, unnavigable worlds
    • De-centered dissemination of knowledge and information
    • Reproduction of popular culture
distinct media
Distinct Media

Ultimately, though, we are talking about media with different “feel”, approach and perspective.

distinct media47
Distinct Media
  • Despite similar themes or subjects, these are not identical means of communication;
  • Moreover, the political, economic and cultural systems from which they emerged and within which they operate(d) differ.
ultimately ontological similarity analogic breakdown48
Ultimately: Ontological Similarity, Analogic Breakdown?

Above all, some key differences emerge:

  • Different communication strategies
  • TV ads embellish and draw viewers into the world of celebrity
  • They help forge more intimate links with personalities in society who are inserted into viewer’s lives through other genre (and media), at other times.
  • Thus, ads provide greater genre-spanning
  • Ads also manifest a greater bindingness function
deeper ontologies
Deeper Ontologies
  • As you may recall, I have somewhat whimsically, perhaps foolishly grandiosely, sub-titled this talk “some thoughts toward a theory of representation, social structuration, and cultural values.”
  • The theory I have in mind is about communication and cultural continuity despite quite radical societal change.
  • This is what I will now address in the second half of this talk.
deeper ontologies i representation
Deeper Ontologies I: Representation

Let me begin with Representation.

  • It can be thought of in terms of any number of elements. Among the most salient may be:
    • Medium
    • Subject
    • Perspective
    • Modes of address
    • Aim
    • Tropes
deeper ontologies i representation51
Deeper Ontologies I: Representation
  • Today, in the interest of time, I will only look at a few similarities and differences between the media
  • Working toward understanding ways that they articulated with the larger culture and society.
  • First, I will consider Medium
    • In what way(s) was ukiyo-e a different kind of medium
    • In what way(s) can ukiyo-e be thought of as a medium that is similar to or different than advertising
  • Next I will focus on Perspective
    • In terms of modes of address, juxtaposition of images, and the construction of a set out of serial scenes
    • Although this involves Tropes this analysis will not delve into that microscopic medium comparison
japanese painting as medium a quick history of forms
Japanese Painting as Medium: A quick history of forms

Numerous media have been employed in Japanese painting over the centuries. These include:

  • emakimono (Horizontal scrolls)
    • Created by pasting single sheets together to form a long roll.
    • Images were viewed from right to left
    • Among the oldest forms of Japanese painting
  • kakemono (Vertical scrolls)
    • Mounted on a wall
    • Has a roller on both ends
    • The top roller has a string attached to enable vertical hanging
    • The bottom roller serves to straighten the image due to its weight
    • Became popular during the Edo era
    • Comes closest to the Western framed canvas painting
  • byobu (Folding screens)
    • Came from China to Japan in the 7th century
    • Because of size, use was limited to temples and palaces
    • As merchant class grew, so did the demand for byobu in rich towns
    • The subjects were similar to those on ukiyo-e
  • fusuma (Sliding doors)
  • Shoheiga (interior walls)
    • During the Muromachi (1333-1573) and Momoyama (1573-1603) periods
    • Commissioned by powerful feudal lords for their castles
  • uchiwa (fans)
      • Source:
ukiyo e as medium
Ukiyo-e as Medium:

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.

woodblock prints as media
Woodblock Prints as Media
  • The Woodblock Print of Ukiyo-e were iterated media; if not “mass”, then “multiple-produced” media.
  • Unlike paintings, ukiyo-e prints could be produced rapidly, inexpensively and in large numbers,
  • The production of a print involved an artist, a printing shop and a publisher.
    • After a publisher's approval was secured, an artist's drawing went to a printing shop where a copyist traced it onto transparent paper.
the media culture link
The Media Culture Link

In this way, ukiyo-e were very responsive to daily life and culture.

  • Here we see connections between media – in particular ukiyo-e and advertising.
  • Herein also lies a link between representation and cultural values/practices.

In terms of how it communicated, ukiyo-e employed certain approaches to subject and perspective that reveal both similarities and differences to contemporary advertising.

tropes of representation 1 serial and set views of a subject
Tropes of Representation 1: Serial and Set. Views of a Subject

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.

serial and set advertising
Serial and Set: Advertising

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

serial and set advertising61
Serial and Set: Advertising

Here, a Pretz campaign employs the SMAP star, Goro, who engages in a succession of shared snacks/near-kisses with women and young girls…

serial and set advertising62
Serial and Set: Advertising

Ranging in race, age, and attractiveness

serial and set advertising63
Serial and Set: Advertising

In the process, the ad builds discourse about topics such as monogamy

serial and set advertising64
Serial and Set: Advertising

Ethnic and/or international union

serial and set advertising65
Serial and Set: Advertising

Culture, Occupation, Class

serial and set advertising67
Serial and Set: Advertising

And identity…

… if not homosexuality

tropes of representation ii shifting perspective
Tropes of Representation II: Shifting Perspective

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:

deeper ontologies ii structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Structuration
  • Social Structuration can be thought of in terms of elements such as:
    • Class
    • Group
    • Gender
    • Economy
    • Polity
    • Institutions (such as family, religion, military, entertainment)
deeper ontologies ii structuration70
Deeper Ontologies II: Structuration

Social Structuration in all these dimensions are present in both ukiyo-e and advertising

deeper ontologies ii social organization structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Social Organization/Structuration

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.

deeper ontologies ii class structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Class/Structuration

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.

deeper ontologies ii class structuration73
Deeper Ontologies II: Class/Structuration

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.

deeper ontologies ii group structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Group/Structuration

Just as ukiyo-e depicted relations among people of like characteristics, ads often develop portraits of those within social groups.

deeper ontologies ii group structuration75
Deeper Ontologies II: Group/Structuration

So, too, do ads represent relations or accent differences between different groups.

  • Something found less often in ukiyo-e.
deeper ontologies ii gender structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Gender/Structuration

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.

deeper ontologies ii economic structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Economic/Structuration

Ukiyo-e was also effective at revealing the contours of the economic organization of Japan at that time.

deeper ontologies ii economic structuration78
Deeper Ontologies II: Economic/Structuration

TV ads do the same:revealing the contours of the economic organization of Japan today.

deeper ontologies ii institution structuration
Deeper Ontologies II: Institution/Structuration

Ukiyo-e occasionally represented institutions like religion, the military or family.

deeper ontologies ii institution structuration80
Deeper Ontologies II: Institution/Structuration

For ads, it is more often the family, the corporation, and (increasingly) the celebrity/cultural entertainment system that receive attention.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values
Deeper Ontologies III: Cultural Values

Cultural values can be thought of in terms of ideas and practices embedded in these communications, such as:

  • Nature
  • Sexuality/eroticism
  • Groupism
  • Consumption
  • Celebrity
  • Cultural Identity
deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning nature
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Nature

Both ukiyo-e and ads focus on nature as a theme

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning nature83
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Nature

Both ukiyo-e and ads focus on nature as a theme

– both as central focus…

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning nature84
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Nature

… as well as feeling-inducing background

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning sexuality eroticism
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Sexuality/Eroticism

This is a theme that continually appears in both media…

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning sexuality eroticism86
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Sexuality/Eroticism

A continuity that is meaningful in ways that help us see deep historical threads transcending media differences.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning sexuality eroticism87
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Sexuality/Eroticism

Although ads are more chaste and tend to highlight female sexuality and same sex contact (as opposed to overt sexual acts).

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning consumption
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Consumption

While ukiyo-e did include images of consumption, this was not a central focus.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning consumption89
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Consumption

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.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning celebrity
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Celebrity

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.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning celebrity91
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Celebrity

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.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning celebrity92
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Celebrity

Certainly, by today, the link between celebrity-star and advertising is firmly established.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning cultural identity
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Cultural Identity

Identity is a theme that courses through contemporary advertising; it touches on self, class, gender, cultural, and national identity, among others.

deeper ontologies iii cultural values concerning cultural identity94
Deeper Ontologies III:Cultural values concerning Cultural Identity

Ukiyo-e, as a more privileged or targeted form of communication may have done this less, though identity discourse is present

deeper ontologies iv media and surveillance
Deeper Ontologies IV:Media and Surveillance

Ukiyo-e, in its heyday, was about the representation of (if not the invitation into) private, privileged space.

  • There was a furtive, surveilling element
deeper ontologies iv media and surveillance96
Deeper Ontologies IV:Media and Surveillance

This space was not accessible by all

  • Though via consumption of the medium, there was an ability to gain access
deeper ontologies iv media and surveillance97
Deeper Ontologies IV:Media and Surveillance

Ads work in the same way, treating us to stolen glimpses inside…

deeper ontologies iv media and surveillance98
Deeper Ontologies IV:Media and Surveillance

The worlds of domestic athletes living and playing in foreign lands;

media divergence
Media Divergence

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

ukiyo e today
Ukiyo-e Today

The style persists today

But often associated with erotica, divested of the other cultural and social elements that ukiyo-e was noted for.

ukiyo e today103
Ukiyo-e Today

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.

advertising the truer ukiyo e of today
Advertising: The “Truer” Ukiyo-e of Today

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…

  • i.e. privileged space, celebrity, social order, nature, and consumption
media divergence105
Media Divergence

Beyond this advertising performs communication functions, such as education & cultural reproduction, but also historical reinvention – elements not exploited as much by ukiyo-e.

intimacy and uchi
Intimacy and Uchi

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.

ukiyo ad intimacy and uchi
Ukiyo-ad, Intimacy and Uchi

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.

conclusion getting through so what
Conclusion: Getting through “So What?”

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.

conclusion getting through so what109
Conclusion: Getting through “So What?”

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.

conclusion getting through so what110
Conclusion: Getting through “So What?”

Suddenly what we are talking about is:

  • Less FORM of expression than CONTENT being expressed
  • Not simply framed activity, not only carefully staged scenes…
  • Social organization, practices and values which, despite major political, economic and cultural changes over the years, still bear great similarity.
  • As a form of communication, ukiyo-e barely persists today (or at least not with the impact and cultural position it once had)…
  • But as a means of concretizing Japan – its social structure, cultural practices and values – it stands as a vital communication precursor to the way we represent and interpret the world around us today.

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.