A Trespasser's Legacy

Work Reviewed:
Miyoshi, Masao.
Trespasses: Selected Writings. Ed. Eric Cazdyn.
Durham: Duke UP, 2010. xxxiii + 344 pp.

No obituaries appeared in the major American newspapers when Masao Miyoshi, the author of Accomplices of Silence(1974), As We Saw Them (1979), and Off Center: Power and Cultural Relations between Japan and the United States(1991), passed away on October 1st, 2009. Solely his academic department and his publisher informed briefly about the passing of a scholar who still seems to be fairly unknown outside the field of Asian Pacific cultural studies. Yet Miyoshi, a Japanese-born, naturalized American émigré intellectual, whose long career saw him teach at UC Berkeley, University of Chicago, and UC San Diego and whose work shares much common ground with the oeuvres of his friends Noam Chomsky, Frederic Jameson, and Edward Said, deserves more wide-spread consideration. The lack of immediate posthumous public appreciation is now compensated by the recent publication of Trespasses: Selected Writings. The great range and scope of the texts compiled in this anthology and the clarity and urgency of voice and vision which characterizes Miyoshi’s critique will indubitably bring his ideas and concerns to a wider audience.

The eleven pieces put together by Eric Cazdyn represent Miyoshi’s oeuvre over thirty years, from 1979 to 2009 (though publications from the 1980s are conspicuously absent). The first part of the anthology is primarily dedicated to Miyoshi’s contributions to Asian Pacific cultural studies. An excerpt from Miyoshi’s ground-breaking As We Saw Them(1979), which illustrates how he extends Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism to the Far East; a review which highlights how cultural exchange occurs when translation becomes interpretation; a critique of the ways in which English literature in Japan serves exclusively as a means to a specific career strategy; and a caustic reprisal, in which he highlights the self-serving motives behind one of his critic’s attacks, reveal the sweeping scope of Miyoshi’s cultural criticism. The two most provocative pieces of this section, “Who Decides, and Who Speaks?” (1991) and “Japan Is Not Interesting” (2000), critique the manner in which Japanese forms to theorize subjectivity have served to promote depoliticized intellectuals, which are blind to ongoing abuses of power, and how the unquestioning obsession with and lacking critical discourse of the idea of Japan by its people has suppressed recognition of homogeneity.

But Miyoshi is much more than an expert on Asian Pacific cultures. “What is important,” he argues in the interview which concludes Trespasses, “is the willingness to go outside one’s national, cultural and disciplinary borders” (284). Following this dedication to cross-cultural and interdisciplinary approaches, Miyoshi throughout his career constantly explored new areas. As such other essays in Trespasses explore the ways in which postmodern architecture and city planning are co-opted by global capital to produce maximum exclusion and how capitalist commodity culture has curtailed the possibilities of counter-hegemonic art.

Miyoshi’s arguably most important critical contribution, however, is to be found in a train of thought which begins with his essay “A Borderless World” (1993). Written right after the end of the Cold War, Miyoshi draws an astute, and horrific, portrayal of the world at the turn of the twenty-first century, a portrayal which has only gained in validity since its first publication. Observing that an increasingly tight network of global investments has turned multinational corporations in transnational corporations, Miyoshi warns that ours “is not an age of postcolonialism, but of intensified colonialism, even though it is under an unfamiliar guise” (148). Nation-states have, in fact, become more and more inoperable, impotent, and are prone to be manipulated by transnational capital (a fact which in the US has recently been further enhanced by the ruling of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission).

Transnational corporations operate over distance, regardless of national boundaries to “rationalize and execute the objectives of colonialism with greater efficiency and rationalism” (148). When the need arises, however, corporations will still demand the support of their host nation’s military forces. “The military, in the meantime,” Miyoshi writes in regard to the Gulf War, “is increasingly assuming the form of a [transnational corporation] itself–being nearly nation-free” (148). Written almost two decades ago, his words could not be more current and his voice more urgent than today in the age of Blackwater Worldwide. While Miyoshi’s model at times exudes a neigh paralyzing irredeemability, it is not without hope, though it seeks that hope in an unlikely place. As such, Miyoshi argues that “[f]ar more truly transnational and universal than even the [transnational corporations], the effects of environmental violence inescapably visit everyone, everywhere” (147).

Three related and more recent essays, “Ivory Tower in Escrow” (2000), “Literature and Diversity, Ecology and Totality” (2001), and “Literary Elaborations” (2009) take these explorations further and focus on the emergence of a global academic industry. Therein, Miyoshi suggests that today “[t]ransnational scholars, now career professionals, organize themselves into an exclusionary body that has little to do with their fellow citizens, in their places of origin or arrival, but has everything to do with the transnational corporate structure” (228). Learning has been converted into intellectual property, teaching into an openly and increasingly competitive occupation, scholarly expertise has been standardized and commercialized to the utmost, the university has been shaped after the global corporation, and “culture as a historical force is inexorably absorbed by consumerism” (13).

Education’s dilemma, Miyoshi points out, is further amplified by the increasing factionalism, territorialism, and tautology brought forth by identity exceptionalism. “It is common today,” Miyoshi notes, that the university and society on a whole alike are characterized by “a mutually icy-distant silence, which allows everyone to escape into her/his womblike cocoon, talking minimally to the fewest contacts possible” (238). Multiculturalism, in this sense, is seen as a contradictory and troubled project in which “each group, minority or majority, demanding its own autonomous and independent, that is, incommensurable space” (258). While the firm establishment of group identities was necessary for self-protection during the struggle for greater recognition, identity politics through its policy of self-promotion has produced a climate within which groups privatize and monopolize exclusionary self-identities.

Playing into the hands of transnational corporatism, this alienation of fragmented groups which treat their identities as a commodity, “as a private investment, as capital” (237) calls for interdisciplinary work. “[T]he universities, torn asunder by the professionalism and territorialism of their departments,” Miyoshi calls out with unusual cynicism, “want some appearance of reintegration” (8). He identifies the future of the global environment as such a core site for unlimited inclusiveness. Because nobody will be able to escape the environmental deterioration of the planet, Miyoshi argues, environmental studies is uniquely transdisciplinary and inclusive. Calling for a saturation of all courses in every discipline with environmental and social consciousness, Miyoshi prophesies that environmental justice is the only field which could resuscitate the waning humanities.

In a recently published obituary entitled “A Trespasser” Kojin Karatani mourns the death of Masao Miyoshi yet he also declares that his colleague had “been ready to go for some time.”[1] While Miyoshi might have considered his own boundary-defying intellectual journey to be complete, Trespasses, his selected writings clearly call out for a continuation of his project by other scholars. Promoting his dedication to “[i]ntercultural, international, interethnic, interracial, and other intercategorical thought,” Miyoshi’s oeuvre constitutes a brutally honest portrayal of the corporate forces which shape our world and a vitriolic critique of the moribund humanities. But his work does not promote surrender to these forces, but an urgent and indicting call to arms. “As the transnationals try to “globalize” their operation,” Miyoshi warns his readers emphatically, “we have serious work to do–to resist and survive, and to help our neighbors also resist and survive. For the only alliance that is needed now is the alliance of all the exploited regardless of the categories of difference” (204).


[1] Kojin Karatani, “A Trespasser – Mourning Masao Miyoshi,” Transl. Mari T. Hoashi, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies11.3: 427.

Balthazar Becker