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An Ethics of Self-consciousness in Modern Japanese Literary Writing


In my dissertation, "An Ethics of Self-Consciousness: Modern Japanese Writing about Literature," I argue that for one line of modern Japanese critical and literary writers, investigations into the form of the novel as a genre took on ethical dimensions that impelled dramatic changes in their writing styles. Drawing broadly on the literary theories of Kamei Hideo, Suzuki Sadami, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man, I suggest that reflexive narrative acts constituted ethical practice for these writers because such acts revealed the norms of recognition (which include politico-historical situations as well as the grammar of the language through which subjects identify one another) that determined what counted as legitimate subject positions. They experimented with self-conscious literary and critical writing to expose the limits of such norms, which they found inscribed in the language and form of the novel.

The ethical reflexivity these writers came to value required an increasingly self-conscious theoretical language to account for it. Accordingly, these writers also experimented with multivalent critical languages that would not reinscript the language of the novel into the very social structures the novel attempted to critique. By examining their arguments about literature in relation to transformations in the structure, style, and rhetoric of their criticism, and by paying attention to the interplay between their criticism and their novels, I link for the first time transformations in the language and forms of their writing with developments in their theoretical approaches to the ethical responsibility of the novelistic form itself.

In the first two chapters I examine the work of one of the progenitors of both modern Japanese criticism and fiction, Mori Ōgai (1868-1922). I argue that Ōgai discovered in self-conscious novelistic writing a means of critiquing the novel's social and ethical commitments to representing subjects "authentically" in ways that the rational, philosophical language of his early criticism could not accomplish. Drawing on theories of the novel by Mikhail Bakthin and René Girard, I show that Ōgai adopted a dialogic writing style that put competing voices in tension to expose the conventions of novelistic representation that legitimize the perspectives of his narrators at the expense of the authority and autonomy of other characters, and, even, his readers.

My third chapter focuses on Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927), whose compelling, carefully wrought and highly intellectual prose style symbolized the heights of Japanese modernism for many contemporaries as well as future generations. I draw on theories of aesthetics and ethics by Paul de Man and Geoffrey Harpham, among others, to suggest that for Akutagawa literary representation bore an ethical responsibility to reflect on its potentially determinant constructions of the self and others. In his late (1925-27) critical and literary writing, Akutagawa adopted an increasingly reflexive, fragmented style that created what Judith Butler calls an "ethical opacity," deliberate narrative obfuscation that vexes the transparency with which discursive norms constitute the subject as such, in order to expose what he saw as the terrifying solipsism of modern literary constructions of the self.

By putting these writers together for the first time through the concept of an "ethics of self-consciousness," I provide a new means of organizing the history of modern Japanese theories of the novel. At the same time, I help clarify the reciprocal relationship between transformations in the forms of the novel and literary criticism. Finally, this research paves the way to construct a genealogy of the development of modern critical writing into something like we call "literary theory."

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