We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Imperial Genus: The Formation and Limits of the Human in Modern Korea and Japan, published by the University of California Press. The book’s author is Travis Workman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
Imperial Genus begins with the turn to world culture and ideas of the generally human in Japan’s cultural policy in Korea in 1919. How were concepts of the human’s genus-being operative in the discourses of the Japanese empire? How did they inform the imagination and representation of modernity in colonial Korea? Professor Workman delves into these questions through texts in philosophy, literature, and social science. The book focuses on how notions of human generality mediated uncertainty between the transcendental and the empirical, the universal and the particular, and empire and colony. It shows how cosmopolitan cultural principles, the proletarian arts, and Pan-Asian imperial nationalism converged with practices of colonial governmentality. It is a genealogy of the various articulations of the human’s genus-being within modern humanist thinking in East Asia, as well as an exploration of the limits of the human as both concept and historical figure.
We thank Professor Workman for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project.
Could you explain what the title “Imperial Genus” means?
As the subtitle suggests, imperial genus essentially refers to the human as an idea and as a being undergoing formation, a formation that creates limits between it and the remainder of the world. I take up this figure of the human being in two ways. Firstly, I argue that in modernity the human being gains the status of a “genus,” or homo, a generality containing multiple species and a being around which entire epistemologies and ideologies are structured. Secondly, the title refers to the intersection between the human as historical generality and colonial discourses and imperial projects. The book is concerned with those concepts of the generally human—those philosophical, social-scientific, or literary articulations of the genus-being—that had practical effects for Japan’s imperial project and responses to it on the part of intellectuals in colonial Korea. I try to narrow these concepts down to three, each of which is relevant to other imperial contexts: self-legislated morality, productive labor, and nation-state subjectivity.
Thus the title refers both to the ultimately incorrect notion that there is some general characteristic or general conceptual determination that allows us to integrate the whole of humanity within a single system of knowledge, and to the ways that such concepts of human generality can come to contribute to an imperial project, in this case Japan’s.
How did you become interested in the particular concept of the human ‘genus-being’ in Korea and Japan? Why did this topic stand out to you?
When I began this project, the concept of “culture” was at the center of my analysis, because I wanted to connect culturalism in Japan proper with cultural policy in colonial Korea. I was looking to contributing to critiques of the type of culturalist analyses of Japanese empire and Japanese fascism that emerged with Ruth Benedict’s cultural anthropology and modernization theory in the US and continue to influence writings on that period. I intended to do so by showing how culturalism in Japan, like these postwar discourses, had both its cosmopolitan and its ethnocentric aspects, and also had many of the same intellectual roots and will toward universality and empire that we find in Cold War US intellectual history. By connecting culturalism and cultural policy I hoped to show that the idea of “culture” in relation to East Asia has never referred simply to ethnicity, but always intersected with universalist epistemologies and were foundational to colonial governmentality.
In many ways culture remains at the center of the book; however, my turn to “genus-being” occurred as I was thinking about how the three primary fields I was analyzing—culturalism, Marxism and the proletarian arts, and imperial nationalism—might be connected to one another. It was actually through reading the works of the philosopher Sŏ In-sik that I came to see genus-being as an important thread that wove through these three seemingly disparate modes of thought. Sŏ was an extremely erudite Marxist-Leninist thinker and later developed a philosophy for the East Asian Community from the position of a colonial intellectual, but throughout his works he was concerned with a dialectical critique of “general intellect” in both its Kantian and Marxian meanings. When he appropriated some of the philosophy of the nation-state put forward by Tanabe Hajime, he explicitly transformed his understanding of the generality of the human being from productive laborer to state subject, arguing that only state subjects could really participate in world history. In this sense, he positioned the subject of the East Asian Community where he had previously positioned the international proletariat. I am very interested in this kind of translation of one theoretical position into another, beyond what has been said about ideological “conversion.” I found that one primary thing Sŏ had to do was to transform how he understood generality, and yet analogies and continuities remained between his idea of genus-being as productive labor and his articulation of the Japanese state as a mediation between the individual and general humanity.
Therefore, my use of “genus” is a translation of a translation, because I first had in mind the ways philosophers in the 1930s and 1940s used the Japanese term for genus, or the rui of jinrui (humanity), as well as the Korean translation yu, in order to situate the Japanese empire and colonial Korea within the general process of world history. Such references to general humanity were often stated negatively by that time; philosophers such as Tanabe and Sŏ were aware that nothing like a single “world state” representing all of humanity could exist positively in the political context of interimperial war. However, the concept of the genus was nonetheless very significant for such universalist thinkers, because it allowed them to imagine that the Japanese empire, although a particularity, could aspire to represent the interests of humanity as a whole, as a “concrete universal” in world history. This confusion of generality and universality, which is everywhere in Sŏ’s works, is one of the clearer instances in which an idea of the human genus, even if articulated in a negative way, allowed for both metropolitan and colonial intellectuals to justify their support of the expansion and violence of the imperial states.
Philosophy in the 1930s was the beginning point for my interest in this term “genus.” However, in tracing the theme of the genus backward into the 1910s and 1920s, I realized that the language and politics of the human being as genus did not begin there, but also featured prominently in earlier discussions of “general culture” in culturalism (bunkashugi) and of productive labor as the essence of the human in Marxism and the proletarian arts. Although many historians have pointed out that the Japanese empire employed cosmopolitan rhetoric in its colonization of Taiwan and Korea, often dismissing such rhetoric as merely ideological, I became interested in seeing if tracing ideas about the essence of the human being, particularly those positing its fundamental practice as a historical subject, would allow for a comparative framework between Japan and Korea and between movements that were considered opposed to one another. Once I began seeing the problem of the human genus-being appear within culturalism, Marxism and the proletarian arts, and imperial nationalism, and to analyze the political stakes of this interest in human generality, I was able to look for resistance to imperial discourse not in national identity or class identity, but rather at the very limits of the concept of the human. I thought that if I write about the formations of the human being in these various discourses and then looked to how bilingual writing, other chronotopes of modernity, and alternative ontologies all intervened to expose the limits of these formations, then that would be one way out of a number of traps concerning resistance and collaboration, ethnic national oppositions, and other aspects of Cold War understandings of the Japanese empire. I also thought it would provide a way to connect the Japanese empire very clearly to a transnational and global context of modernity, because humanism is certainly everywhere in modernity.
Can you provide an example of how the Japanese imperial concept of the human affected concepts of humanity for Koreans living under colonial rule?
One of my chapters deals with Yi Kwang-su’s texts in literature and thought. Yi Kwang-su is well known as an important novelist and “founding father” of Korean literature, but is also infamous for taking a Japanese name and advocating total cultural, linguistic, and political integration into Japan in the 1940s. His texts on politics and culture are fascinating, because they call for a “fundamental reconstruction” of all of human life in Korea. At the center of his revolutionary ideas was the figure of the person, in’gyŏk in Korean and jinkaku in Japanese. By this time, the time of the “philosophy of culturalism,” the concept of the person was situated within a neo-Kantian epistemology, which viewed personhood as a kind of ideal moral subjectivity and as the ultimate purpose of cultural-historical development. Therefore, Yi’s ideas about the total reconstruction of cultural life, including social mores, consciousness, and daily practice, were all connected to an ideal figure for the human.
The genus-being of the human in this case is deeply connected to morality, but Yi was very critical of any kind of externally dictated morality and he blamed the external and heteronomous moral laws of Confucianism for the stagnation of the Korean national character. Therefore, when I discuss the genus-being in relation to culturalism, I specify that it is self-legislated morality, meaning basically that a proper human must be able to internally and autonomously dictate and apply to itself a potentially universal moral law. For Yi, it was exposure to aesthetics and art, and particularly the emotions conveyed through literature, that this capacity in the human could be cultivated.
What this assertion of the human as autonomous moral subject did for Yi in both his literature and his political essays cannot be overemphasized. From The Heartless (1917) and “On National Reconstruction” (1922) to his Japanese-language texts, such as “You Can Become a Soldier” (1943), he was interested in representing the process whereby an unconscious subject lacking in autonomous thought and morality comes to determine his or her own destiny and the destiny of his or her own people. Therefore, the concept of the person derived from German neo-Kantianism and translated into East Asia by Kuwaki Gen’yoku and other philosophers of culturalism, had profound effects on the first formations of modern Korean literature and culture.
In Marxism and the proletarian arts, the concept of the genus-being as productive labor wielded a similar power, because it caused critics and writers, such as the social scientist Paek Nam-un and the literary critic Im Hwa, to try to make the particular economic, social, and cultural conditions of colonial Korea adequate to a model of universal history. Especially powerful was the stage theory of history, which asserted a diachronic series of syncronically integrated social systems with the relations of production at their foundation. The problem with applying this concept of the development of human productive labor to colonial Korea, or to Japan proper for that matter, was that multiple modes and relations of production coexisted. It is the attempt to even out historical experience through an abstract idea of the human that interests me, particularly as it contributes to the assimilation of colonial intellectuals into empire.
What kinds of sources and archives did you consult in your research?
I relied mostly on Japanese, Korean, German, and English books, rather than journals or newspapers. In particular I found that exploring the complete works of intellectuals in Japan and Korea allowed me to trace the development of their thinking and writing over time and to see how their texts were connected with others both within the Japanese empire and globally. Therefore, I was very dependent on the tremendous editorial work done by scholars in Japan and Korea to create complete works and anthologies. I made some use of the National Diet Library in Tokyo and the National Library of Korea in Seoul.
Because what we call the “archives” are much more accessible now (at least within the privileged academic contexts that supported me), borders between scholars and archival materials are often not physical borders anymore, but linguistic or ideological borders. For example, tracking down Sōda Kiichirō’s German language texts was not difficult once I knew to look for them and was inspired to do so. I did not have to go to Germany specifically to find them, but I did have to consider it important to read those texts and to have ability in the language. I ended up discovering fascinating statements, not only in his economic arguments, but also at the margins of those texts, where he reflects on his own position within the German academy and neo-Kantian cosmopolitanism. Eventually, when I was reading in Yi Kwang-su’s complete works, I saw how he also developed a fraught relation with cosmopolitan thinking as an exchange student, this time in Tokyo. Such connections emerged once I was more concerned with the borders of the transnational and colonial discourse of culturalism, rather than finding its center, a method that was absolutely aided by not having to visit another state or country every time I was in search of a specific text. The willingness of libraries to send rare books across the world is remarkable. One of the biggest surprises finding resources digitally occurred when I requested an extremely rare Nakanishi Inosuke text only because the title, The View of Life of Death Row Inmates, sounded too interesting to pass up. I ended up discovering a whole critique of Kantian culturalism that came out of his institutional analysis of the 1920s prison system in Japan proper and colonial Korea. So, Foucault before Foucault in some respects, and likely not something I would have had the time or the inclination to discover before the advent of the tremendous digital library network now available to scholars.
More important than finding the right physical archive was a dedication to transnational work and being able to make conceptual and discursive connections across the three languages, as well as a reliance on technology. There is a tendency to invoke the archive when one wants to establish one’s expertise and authority over a region of knowledge or geography. I was more interested in following translations and other transnational interpretations within and outside the Japanese empire, rather than asserting power over a bounded object of inquiry, including one national literature or history. Of course, spending long periods of time in Japan, South Korea, and Germany was necessary before I was able to work that way successfully.
Did your research findings surprise you or challenge some of your initial assumptions about this topic?
I entered graduate school with the naïve assumption that oppression and resistance go hand-in-hand, so that if I looked toward the material foundations of colonial rule I would find not only social inequality based in class relations and the racialized economy, but also politically coherent and truthful responses to those conditions on the part of colonial subjects and critical imperial subjects, particularly intellectuals. What led me to the topic of the book was a confrontation with the power of knowledge to obscure or even to justify such inequalities, and not only due to the class interests of single intellectuals creating and reproducing knowledge, but also to the capacity for certain concepts and narratives to provide a false sense of coherency to historical experiences. It is not a unique insight at all, but more and more I saw how humanist models of History, whether in the form of liberal culturalism or certain Marxian theories of development, had provided a framework for both metropolitan and colonial intellectuals to see the project of empire as a worthwhile and historically necessary pursuit, regardless of the contemporary horrors caused by the empire’s political and economic activities. Although I was aware of how ideology works, I was still surprised by the power of those ideas that allowed imperial subjects to put resistance in abeyance, and not simply out of fear of direct response from the state.
What truly surprised and inspired me, however, was to see how intricate and complex the debates and discussions around the human being became in the Japanese empire under these political conditions, and in particular to see how literary texts were alternative kinds of knowledge that developed counter-discourses and rhetorics, not within a vacuum of artistic creation, but rather in direct tension with dominant notions of the human. Although the sheer power of systematic humanist knowledge was surprising to me, so were the ways that the limits of these systems were exposed when texts described social space and time differently, when they were written between languages or even between species, or when they developed other possibilities for ontology than the ones offered by imperial humanist discourse. I was constantly surprised, because each text spoke to the others in ways I could not have imagined beforehand. I think this intertextuality testifies to both an unexpected degree of communication within the discourses of culture and the human across national and disciplinary boundaries during this period, as well as a great deal of nuance and variation in the strategies of subversion. The picture of empires and the knowledge that sustains them that emerged at the end was completely different than the one I had at the beginning, and in general I think research should enact such transformations, without leading one to a wholesale change of one’s basic principles.
How have some of the notions of human generality that you studied in this book informed contemporary thought and society in East Asia? How have some of those notions changed?
A lot of time has passed since the collapse of the Japanese empire, so I think one can distinguish between contemporary thought and society and, broadly speaking, the Cold War era. As I point out briefly in the introduction, much of what I discuss in the book extends into the era of US empire and occupation in East Asia and, in the case of North Korea, Soviet occupation and state socialism. An Ho-sang, who published an article on Hegel in the leading philosophy journal Philosophical Research in the early 1940s, went on to become the Minister of Culture in South Korea during the Syngman Rhee’s presidency and to propose a philosophy of “one-nationism” that depicted communists as immoral animals. Therefore, the humanist moral philosophy that An developed in conversation with the Kyoto School ended up becoming one of the most powerful philosophies of the nation-state during the Korean War. In the case of North Korea, Paek Nam-un, who studied with Hani Gorō and was in conversation with the debates on Japanese capitalism during the colonial period, was appointed Minister of Culture in the late 1940s and travelled to Moscow during the Soviet Occupation. In that case, the Stalinist stage theory of history, which I see as a humanist discourse because of its abstract assertion of historical transformations in productive labor, became influential on the other side of the Cold War and Korean War. Later on in North Korea, we can see another echo of colonial period humanism in Juche Thought, which asserts, “man is the master of all things.” One could also point out that Ruth Benedict and cultural anthropologists responsible in part for the establishment of area studies in the US drew from some of the same German cultural science that the governor-general of Korea had already appropriated for empire in early 1920s.
As for contemporary thought in East Asia, I think that despite Foucault’s prognostication that the human would someday be washed away like a face drawn in the sand on the seashore, all of these problematic notions of the human being continue to be employed, because they are able to link everyday life to a transcendental and transhistorical notion of practice. That is a very powerful type of political rhetoric of the human that is not likely to disappear soon in East Asia or elsewhere, but as the human genus confronts large-scale ecological disasters of its own making, such as we see with Fukushima, placing the human at the center of all knowledge and politics will become more and more untenable. As a continuation of this project, I am interested in thinking about the Foucauldian approach I took in this book in relation to this need to further create modes of practice that do not take the human being as their primary object, in the manner of governmentality.