Tomie Hahn's new book moves with conviction

I just wrote a review of Tomie Hahn's new book Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance. It should come out in Women and Music, a journal that explores issues of gender, music and culture, next year. Here's what I've come up with:

After the recent release of Spielberg’s blockbuster hit Memoirs of a Geisha, Björk’s Homogenic, and a series of music videos by Madonna, Missy Elliot, Ginuwine, and Christina Milian, the kimono-clad Asian woman figure has become one of the icons of Asian chic in pop America. With the 19th century French fad of Japanese art and culture known as Japonisme in our nearly remote hindsight, the exoticized and eroticized body of Japanese women is certainly not a new trope in Europe and North America. One wonders what cultural impact this Western fascination with the Asian/Japanese female body has on women who practice traditional arts in Japan.

Tomie Hahn’s ethnography Sensational Knowledge: Embody Culture Through Japanese Dance provides a powerful dissonance to the widely circulated objectifying images of Japanese women. In the introduction, Hahn invokes her subversive impulse to “reappropriate the exotic mystique of the ‘fan dance’ stereotype of the demure ‘Oriental lady’ who entices the onlookers’ gaze by revealing and concealing her body… to reappropriate the fan, kimono, and hair ornaments to tell a very different story of Japanese performing women” (14-5).

Hahn’s monograph on the embodied transmission process of Japanese dance (nihon buyo)—narrating while analyzing the author’s fieldwork and experiences of learning the dance for over thirty years—is rhetorically captivating and intellectually nuanced. Hahn draws methodological and theoretical ideas from a number of disciplines including “ethnomusicology, dance studies, anthropology, performance studies, and Asian philosophies of the body” (2). As Hahn indicates, the book’s organization poetically corresponds to the unfolding movement of a sensu, a paper fan supported by a bamboo backbone, often used in nihon buyo. The first chapter introduces reflexive ethnographic methods and the framework of cultural transmission with a focus on body knowledge and multisensory experience. The second chapter narrates the recent social history and structure of the practice of traditional Japanese dance. Chapter three elucidates the relevant concepts and aesthetic principles of Japanese arts. Chapter four details the transmission process with a substantial section devoted to discussing each of the senses involved. The last chapter explores issues of codeswitching, identity formation and articulation, and cultural transformation involved in the embodiment practices of fieldwork and performances.

Hahn locates her body as a deposit of her field experience. The field site is conceived as a broad landscape, at the center of which is her own body, and from which extend other important social actors such as her teachers and colleagues and the audience of her performance. This frame of knowledge appears and disappears, depending on how her body engages with the history of the dance and the memories of her dance teachers (xiv). Echoing recent feminist dance and performance scholarship, Sensational Knowledge’s emphasis on the body as a key epistemological locus diffuses the historical mind-over-body baggage in Western scholarship. Hahn’s adherence to the cultural specificity of the Japanese traditional practice and principles—specifically, the interdependence of mind and body, theory and practice—illuminates her implicit critique of the masculinist Western Cartesian split.

Sensational Knowledge encounters the challenging task of translating movement into text head-on with keen details and descriptive specificity written in elegant prose. “I crave specificity and a semblance of physical presence in dance scholarship. Limbs. Breath. Shoulders. Muscles. Gaze” (6). Inspired by the dance writing by Barbara Browning and other dance ethnologists since the mid-1980s, the moving (physically and affectively) quality of Hahn’s prose achieves kinesthetic sensation and empathy experienced by the reader. In Hahn’s writing, dance is not just composed of movements and techniques but is a stream of sensations, experiences, meanings, and emotions.

Hahn follows feminist ethnographers Lila Abu-Lughod, Ruth Behar and Michelle Kisliuk to write with vulnerability and reflexivity. Rather than passive, non-participatory, quantifiable and objectifying observations, Hahn foregrounds social relationships, revolving around her relationship with her teachers. Her framework and analysis are informed by the poststructuralist and feminist critical requisite of elucidating authorial positionality. In relevant ways, Hahn explicitly exposes her identity and authorship allowing her reader to position her/himself in relation to her point of view to navigate through the passages. The specificity of Hahn’s social position(s) within her research field sheds light on “the complex process of comprehending the relationship of self to other, and the embodied knowledge of the participant-observer-research, as a resource within the research” (10).

Dance, expression, and embodiment are all multisensory experiences. To analyze the transmission process of nihon buyo, Hahn first sets the scene by providing a multisensory account of physical and social structure of her dance school in Tokyo, Japan and then she launches a detailed analysis of the embodied learning of the dance. Here she organizes her close reading of the dance practice by sense: visual, tactile, and oral/aural.

Hahn recognizes the recent incorporation of video technology and media in nihon buyo pedagogy, as she self-consciously incorporates it in her field research and ethnographic representation. The ability to rewind and watch the video in slow motion allows a close-up access to the subtlety of transmission process and the embodied practice of dance. “Curiously, kinesthetic sensations (the sense of motion and orientation) often fell over me when I observed the videotapes, and some guided me through the analysis. It seemed that the videotapes were reinforcing my physical understanding of movement/sound while my body also informed the analytical process”(78). Hahn’s convincing argument that video (and other forms of media such as dance notations) can be consumed in holistic and kinesthetic ways has a feminist implication. Hahn’s intimate implementation of video technology and media in her body-centered study implicitly provides a rupture in the historical Western gendered dichotomy between the feminized body/nature and the masculinized machine/technology.

The account of gender, however, is not central in Sensational Knowledge, as noted in the introduction. Hahn is concerned more with gendered embodiment than with gendered meanings. Furthermore, she is not interested in producing a narrative that risks reinscribing the age-old Orientalist prototypes of sexualized Asian female body. Instead, she aims to carve out a legitimate discursive space for Japanese women dancers to assert their agency through the practice of nihon buyo in their contemporary lives. The issue of embodying stylized stereotypes in Japanese dance is contentious. Hahn argues against the assumption that these women merely reinscribe or are confined to stereotypical images of themselves and thus reinforce male domination in their society. She asserts that “the metaphoric shifting present in nihon buyo choreography empowers women through the transformative, shared, embodied experience of multiple identities as well as flexible notions of self, within a society that has historically restricted their expression” (162). Hahn’s conception of codeswitching, a performance or shifting of identity in creative and everyday life, is a product and means of survival. It would be theoretically fruitful to juxtapose this idea with Judith Butler’s concept of gender as performance. What seems lacking in Butler’s interpretation about drag performances, to me, is a convincing account of the role of self knowledge and reflection. In nihon buyo, the process of codeswitching as a practice of transforming into an Other requires “a clear knowing and establishing of self” (162).

Hahn makes a few explicit observations about gender, commenting on the recent transition from male-headed school to female-headed school and the fact that most nihon buyo practitioners have been women. In a close reading, Hahn notes that a man feels awkward or “verdant” in his dancing attire whereas females dancers feel quite at home with the fashion and movement of the practice (92). Confronting these observations, I wonder if the feminine connotations of nihon buyo produce anxiety for (heterosexual) men practitioners. We’ve learned from Hahn that women practitioners seek liberating moments in the dance form apart from their everyday life. But how do men relate to the traditional dance form? Is there any linkage among the gendered movements, the gendered relations within the group, and the gendered identity of the participants? How has the gendered dynamic within nihon buyo social system changed over time? What role does the gendered dichotomy between modernity and tradition play in the contemporary practice of traditional Japanese dance? This line of inquiry can be examined in light of the postcolonial feminist critiques that have investigated the oppressive feminization of non-Western and “traditional” practices and values in contemporary postcolonial, transnational settings.

Sensational Knowledge reveals its politics and ethics when Hahn narrates her embodied experiences of being biracial in her performing and everyday life. Multiracial individuals have to negotiate the boundaries of ethnic, national and racial construction not only in performance situations, but also in their daily lives. Their everyday lives become a performance or a display of an interruption of cultural and ethnic lineage. Not only that, mixed raced individuals represent the threat of miscegenation and ethnic and racial impurity (169-70). In her reflexive and persuasive examination of the ideology of race, ethnicity and nationality, Hahn’s theoretical parallel between performance and everyday life deconstructs the biologistic definitions of the body. She takes seriously the body as a site of accumulation, transmission, and transformation of cultural knowledge, ideals and ideology, and as a potentially triumphant location of human agency. Embodiment is a meeting ground between social structure and human agency.

In Sensational Knowledge, passages flow; pages turn; concepts resonate. Reading and interacting with it, my mind is engaged and my body touched. Hahn’s monograph on Japanese dance positively illuminates the relationship between the flow of cultural knowledge and the body; it also demonstrates the possibility of coalescing text and performance, mind and body, theory and practice, and research and ethics.

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