SOAS University of London

Japan Research Centre

The Senses and the Meanings of Modernity in East Asia, 1890–1945 and beyond


Date: 18 June 2018Time: 10:00 AM

Finishes: 18 June 2018Time: 6:00 PM

Venue: Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: S116

Type of Event: Workshop


Reflecting recent shifts towards the study of embodied subjectivities and embodied cognition, the senses have re-emerged as objects of inquiry that span the arts, humanities, hard and social sciences. The senses, however, are not only hard-wired, inert physiological givens; as the young Marx stressed as early as 1844, ‘the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.’ This awareness of historical sedimentation and cultural entanglement-in-the-world can often be missing from current work on affect, sensing and embodiment that assumes unchanging bodies and universal subjects.

Modernity always tears older structures of perception and brings in a new distribution of the sensible. In East Asia these processes were condensed, uneven and particularly traumatic as they involved the real and symbolic violence of colonialism (China, Korea) and state-sponsored modernization (Japan). Visuality was paramount in the Japanese empire’s regime of power/knowledge in both the metropole and the colonies. Local practices of the body and the senses, some rooted in centuries of cultural training, were remade into universal quantifiable units and trajectories. Larger, transnational historical and technological forces worked to separate the senses, amplifying single sensory pathways.

This project proposes the senses as an overarching framework that can help us reconceptualise the social, cultural and technological histories of modernity in East Asia. The senses let us think beyond established disciplinary divisions, such as those between modernism as a network of aesthetic practices and the material developments characteristic of modernity. They can help us challenge the determinist narrative of imported Western technological inventions transforming a social field from the outside and restore subjective and social agency to the histories of media in East Asia. Modernity requires perspectives that can capture the flows of objects, bodies, and representations beyond the boundaries of the nation. Border-crossing forms of knowledge are urgently needed in the study of East Asia, as the geopolitically-driven approaches of ‘area studies’ still insist on the nation-state as a validating category, isolating China, Japan and Korea from each other and positioning them into the linear teleologies of modernization, with Western experience as the norm.

How did older modes of perception and the inherent intersubjectivity of certain sensory experiences encounter the monadic, self-contained subject demanded by capitalist modernization? How did cultural practices and critical discourses in China, Japan and Korea respond to the new domination of the eye? Do we find only resistances and tensions or are there resonances and alignments between the non-visual arts and the dominant visual regime? Can approaches centred on the senses help us scrutinize the juxtapositions between ‘high’ art, music and literature, and burgeoning mass visual and auditory cultures? Do we need a rigorous historical anchoring of these explorations, as proposed in the title of the project, or should we look for perspectives that cross not only geographies and disciplines, but also time periods?

Provisional Programme

9.45                   Coffee and self-introductions

10.00                Welcome and opening remarks (Dr Irena Hayter, University of Leeds)

10.15­–11.45     Session I: Four presentations plus discussion (Chair: Irena Hayter)                       

  • Jinhee Choi (King’s College London): Home is Where the Kitchen Is: Little Forest (2014, 2018)
  • Loli Kim (Surrey): Transition to Transnational: A Semantic Approach to Violence in South Korean Cinema
  • Emilie Tullio (Strasbourg): Korean Gastro-Diplomacy: Engaging the Senses in Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding in ROK and beyond
  • Angela Becher (Manchester): Doors of Perception: VR and Postnarrative Trips in Chinese Visual Arts

11.45–12.30     Lunch  

12.30–14.00    Session II: Four presentations plus discussion (Chair: Jonathan Service)

  • Stephanie Su (SISJAC): Media and Senses in the Historical Imagination of Modern China
  • Margaret Hillenbrand (Oxford): tbc
  • Jeremy Taylor (Nottingham): Performing and Interpreting the New Citizens Movement in Wartime China: Methodological Challenges in Analyzing the Political Culture of "Collaboration"
  • Angus Lockyer (SOAS): Against the Gaze: Modern Times and Unseen Things

14.00–14.15    Coffee

14.15–15.45    Session III: Four presentations plus discussion (Chair: Irena Hayter)

  • Jonathan Service (Oxford): Writing the History of Music: Concept and Metaphor in the History of the Senses in Japan  
  • Maki Fukuoka (Leeds): Occasions to See a Portrait in Early Meiji: 5 Ws and 1 H
  • Tomoko Tamari (Goldsmiths): The Luxury Sensibility and the Consumer Culture Lifestyles: Modernization and Department Store in early 20th Japan
  • Yue Zhuang (Exeter): Public Parks and Politeness: An Imported Modernity? A Case Study of the Western Hills, Beijing, from the Late Qing to the Republic of China  

15.45–16.00    Break  

16.00–17.00    Session IV: Three presentations plus discussion (Chair: Margaret Hillenbrand)

  • Irena Hayter: For the Eyes Only: The Sensory Politics of Japanese Modernism
  • Boram Lee (Edinburgh): Korean Artists’ Sentiments on the Local Colour Movement, 1922–1930s
  • Jess Son (SOAS): Visualising the Nation State: Early Attempts of Modernisation through Imagery in Pre-colonial Korea (1880-1910s)

17.00–18.00    Future plans: potential partners and collaborators, funding, impact  

Free and open event: everybody welcome!

Supported by the Strategic Research Development Fund at the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and SOAS Japan Research Centre.

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