Noel Burch, To the Distant Observer

Ch. 2, A System of Signs

In Chapter 1, "A System of Contradictions," Burch alludes to Japan's reputation as a world-class borrower, with a "faculty for assimilation" and a "sense of tradition," which translates into highlighting Japan's lack of originality. But he points out that there is an ideological underpinning to such a point of view, one that places special value on originality. In turn, he points out, this is rooted in a "specifically bourgeois notion that the artist is the creator and the proprietor of his work" which "is utterly meaningless within the framework of the traditional arts of Japan."

In Japan, Burch argues, the whole social construct denies the very concept of originality and "owning" one's product, and accepts, instead, "the material reality of the circulation of signs." In other words, language is taken for what it is: a system of pointing to a series of signifiers, something that should be celebrated and accepted for what it is. So Japan lacks the European middle-class, capitalistic notion that we create literary works much the way God created the universe and have "rights" of ownership to that product.

 

So in Chapter 2, Burch points to the Japanese writing system, a hybrid, "double" system which is partially phonetic and partly ideographic (the Chinese characters or kanji with which Japanese is written). "the Japanese are the only people in the who, for over a thousand years, have practiced simultaneously and in close symbiosis a phonetic and non-phonetic writing without taking either as the privileged centre of language." (37) So Burch's point is that Japan doesn't necessarily assign priority or "privilege" either one of the writing systems over the other whereas in the West, writing has always been seen as the passive aspect, the transcription of speech, which is where truth resides "because the voice, as producer of the primary symbols, is in a relationship of essential and immediate proximity to the soul. As a producer of the primary signifier, the voice is not just one signifier among many. It signifies the 'mood of the soul'....." (38) This reification of the spoken word Derrida calls logocentrism and he points out that the west is generally governed by phonetic writing system which may have helped give rise to scientific thinking.

Burch speculates that the Japanese, enjoying the benefits of both a linear mode of representation similar to that of the west, and a phonetic one, have occupied a unique position in the world, one that enabled them to be creative and productive not so much in science and philosophy, but in arts and letters, poetry, painting, and the like. Referring to Jacques Derrida, he notes that "the Japanese writing system occupies a privileged middle ground, nearer perhaps than either the Chinese or the Indo-European systems to a dialectically constituted level of reference of languages. It may therefore afford access to both a linear mode of linguistic representation, such as that of the West, and to an 'oriental' mode which it is legitimate to regard, in a theoretical perspective. as a 'practical' critique of linearity." (40) This has meant that Japanese writers and film makers are much less concerned with linear causality that their Western counterparts might be. For more on Derrida and Deconstructionism, see http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/derrida/