Burch, Chapter 3 A Boundless Text


This chapter identifies two key characteristics of Heian era literature which bear on Japanese texts down to the present:

Polysemy--or more than a single meaning associated with the same phonetic sound--and

Intertextuality--the way in which one text incorporates a part of, references, or interfaces with another text


In talking about Polysemy, Burch follows other writers on Japanese literature, most notably Brower and Miner, who are convinced that a poet like Hitomaro, dating back to the Manyoshu era, was interested in "not so much the actors as the actions, not so much the issue of responsibility as the integrated nature of the process of complex experience."(46) In other words, it is less human-centered' or individualistic than it is contedtual, seeing the human experience as rooted in nature and the world and the flow of events that constitutes our world. It's not always about "us" which may be something that is less true of western literature. Hence, Burch can sa that by use of "Double-functioning verbs and adjectives...Hitomaro manages to integrate all the elements of the poem into one continuous poetic and linguistic process, into one experience." (pp. 46-47) And in doing so, Japanese writers and readers tend to be more open, more transparent about the whole process of transmitting human experience through language. It IS a process, and as such is kind of artificial, but Japanese writers anad readers embrace or at least accept the process for what it is and don't try to cover it over and pretend that it is something else, someform of a pure, uncomplicated transmission of "the truth" by means of words or signifiers.

Kakekotaba or Pivot Words mean two or more things at once; for example nagame means both reverie and long rains (naga ame), while matsu can means both pine and wait. Burch notes:

In the West it was in the eighteenth century, which witnessed the rise of the bourgeoisie and the reassertion of logocentrism and the emergence of an ideology of representation suited to the needs of the bourgeoisie, that the masking of the process of the production of meaning became as important, on its own level, as that of the process of production of goods. This ideology continues to dominate our notions of representation to this very day. As we shall see in he next chapter, it is this ideology of the transparency of the sign which dominated the emergence of western film from its 'primitive' stage. Conversely, no Japanese artistic practice, from the earliest known poetry under discussion up through the theatre and literature of the Edo (i.e., Tokugawa) period, ever subscribed to such a notion. This observation may be regarded as central to my thesis. The poem by Hitomaro...is 'about language', it is about the process by which we make meaning and in the original Japanese can scarcely be called representational at all, so compressed is the syntax. It is this inscription of the signifying process in the 'text' which is such an essential characteristic of the traditional Japanese arts and which was to influence the development of Japanese cinema in this century. (Burch, p, 47)

The other important concept for Burch is Intertextuality, a practice that connects various texts through incorporation of poems, sounds, ideas and imagery from one into the body of another. In this way, the reader can simultaneously be exposed to more than one "text" at a time. Burch finds that it is a practice which contests the western myth of the closed or "bound" text, sealed off from all others and independent, which, of course, is reinforced by the western notion of originality that he pointed to in Chapter Two. Hence his title for this chapter is "A Boundless Text" means that when we read Japanese texts, we have to consider the way in which it refracts, echoes, suggests or directly incorporates other texts within it. In talking about the poetic anthologies of classical times like the Kokinshu and the "New" or Shinkokinshu, Burch notes that "The organization of these anthologies, which is both intertextual and polysemous, manifests the fundamental need for refined patterning in all human activity--from religious sculpture and architecture to the arrangement of flowers and food--which has informed Japanese culture for centuries." (48)

Burch goes on:

The anthologies were marked by another feature which is also of interest to us here: with increasing frequency, the poems were prefaced by explanatory headenotes (kotobagaki), which generally amounted to a few lines about the situation in which the poem was composed....From our viewpoint, however, it primarily embodied the fact that poetry was an activity within a context, either private or public. This awareness is in sharp contrast with traditional Western attitudes which tend to close off the text, not only form other texts but, above all, from the social 'text' in which it is nonetheless inevitably inscribed. This presence of the context is a permanent feature of Japanese difference, in both Heian literature and modern film practice. (pp. 48-49)

We might add modern literature to Burch's list as well for many modern authors, as their predecessors did as well, echo or refer to other well known literary texts in their own narrative. So we as the reader encounter the simultaneous presence in both a contemporary narrative and a narrative rooted in another time and place but which is present, again, in the text we are reading. Consider something like renga or linked verse from the Edo period where multiple authors composed and declaimed poetry together, word jamming or improvising like jazz musicians would do later, and then some of the participants edit, revise, reorder and integrate these diverse poetic expressions and create something new. Burch finds in this practice a "profound equivalence of reading and writing [that] speaks directly to modern artistic practice and theory. Eisentstein's materialist conception of film-making, as described in the following statement, can be seen as related to this attitude: "It draws the spectator into a creative act in which is own personality is not dominated by that of the author, but fully develops in harmony with the author's conception, just as the personality of a great actor fuses with that of a great playwright in the process of creating a classical image on the stage." (52)

NOTE: While Burch makes some very interesting points that are useful for our view of literary textx in this course, his views are not uncontested. Aaron Gerow, in his book Visions of Japanese Modernity: Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, 1895-1925 (Berleley: University of California Press, 2010) points out that while Burch's notions do work for certain directors that he focuses on, like Ozu, and that his valorization of early Japanese cinema as kind of alternative film practice that is very different from the standard Hollywood approach is instructive, Burch is guilty of a kind of Orientalist reduction of Japan and the West as binary opposites. It is never that simple. "Burch," claims Gerow, "does not interrogate the actual contemporary discourses on tradition, modernity and intertextuality, instead assuming a figure such as the benshi [an in-theater narrator who speals to the audience and explains the film] to be a traditional object with a given meaning or effectiveness and never exploring how that might have been mediated in the intense debates over the relationship between benshi and text." (4--5)

For more on intertextuality click here. See also this brief definition of intertextuality taken from the online Britannica:

The complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.

Copyright 1994-1999 Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. and Merriam-Webster, Inc.


And also:

What is ‘Intertextuality’?
Terence Hawkes suggests in Structuralism and Semiotics that:

Most works of literature, in emitting messages that refer to themselves, also make constant reference to other works of literature. As Julia Kristeva has pointed out, no ‘text’ can ever be completely ‘free’ of other texts. It will be involved in what she has termed the intertextuality of all writing. (144)
Often our reading or understanding of a particular play is dependent on a working knowledge of other texts.



So Burch concludes Ch. 3 with 4 basic contentions:

1. Tradition inclines the Japanese reader to read any given text in relation to a body of texts.


2. The sacrosanct value placed on originality and the taboo against borrowing are absent in Japan as is the western notion of Individualism and the primacy of the person or subject.


3. The linear approach to representation is not the privileged one.


4. The precedence given in the west to content over form, and meaning over the process of its production or construction, does not always predominate in Japan.