Welcome to the Sixth Edition of the Carnival of Bad History! I’m going to start with that most excellent material — that which is found and nominated by someone else — and then exercise my droit de rédacteur* and include some material I’ve gleaned over the last few months. The big news here is that after this last quarterly edition, we are going monthly! So don’t delay: get your posts in soon for the next one!
I will be hosting the next edition of the Bad History Carnival here on
Mondayearly Tuesday: you have until Sunday morning to get me the worst atrocities and best smackdowns of the web since mid-March. There’s a lot out there: I’ve already got some submissions, and I’ve got a few tucked away in my files, but I know there’s more, and I want to see it get the attention it deserves! BHC will be going monthly from this point forward: we’ve got hosts (I’m pretty sure) lined up through about November, but there’s always room for more!
The next edition of the Asian History Carnival is scheduled for Friday, July 7th: We’re still looking for a host, though, as well as for future editions; if you can’t do it this time around, look ahead and find a month you like, because the field is pretty open at this point.
A book I’ve been waiting for for a long time is finally almost out [PDF]. Adam Kern, an old friend from graduate school, has been working on Edo-period humor, especially kibyoshi visual humor:
Curious, he brought some of the books to his literature professor, who offered no comment because, he said, kibyoshi were really art. So Kern brought the books to his art professor, who also offered no comment because, he said, kibyoshi were really literature.
This is one of those cases, obviously, where the old disciplinary boundaries have created gaps in our knowledge that didn’t need to exist. No more. There have been books on the history of Japanese humor before, but I’ve never felt that they captured any of the actual fun being had by the authors of haikai, senryu, satirical enga or kyogen. It’s a cliche that the best way to kill humor is to analyze it, and I don’t think it’s entirely true, but that’s certainly been the model to date. Adam, however, is a genuinely funny, and very smart, guy and I look forward to seeing the results.
At the other end of the Charles (I say that, but of course neither MIT nor Harvard is anywhere near an “end” of the Charles, except in the solopsistic Cantabridgian sense), Prof. Peter Perdue has offered another review of the MIT Visualizing Cultures controversy. Most interesting is his differentiation between the censorial rage of “Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student group comprised of graduate students from the People’s Republic of China,” and the “Chinese alumni of MIT [CAMIT]“:
If some future social scientist used this correspondence as “data” for a research project, she might conclude: “A content analysis was done of the opinions contained in the complete database of e-mail correspondence, arranging them on the following ordinal scale from 1 to 5: 1. Dower and Miyagawa were completely justified in their project; the students’ actions were ridiculous and embarrassing; 2. The Website contained some unintentionally offensive portions, indicating the need for some clarification, but it should be restored as soon as possible with warnings about the need to view its content carefully; 3. The site was unbalanced, because it leaned too much toward the Japanese perspective; it needed to include Chinese materials and be substantially revised; 4. The Website indicated such bias against the Chinese people and in favor of Japanese militarism that the Website should be suppressed, MIT should apologize, and Profs. Dower and Miyagawa should be fired; 5. Even more violent threats…
“A frequency distribution of the responses would find them arrayed in a normal distribution with its median at about 3.0, with the median response from members of CAMIT lying one or more standard intervals to the left (< =2.5), and the median response from members of CSSA lying one or more standard intervals to the right (>=3.5). There is most likely a significant statistical difference between the two populations, but this subject requires further research.”
This tongue-in-cheek chi-test comes from his own correspondence after he published his first defense of Dower and Miyagawa: the CSSA, though it’s been defended vigorously, if not entirely honestly, on H-Asia, was quite unrestrained in its attacks (the image of a student presenting Iris Chang’s unbalanced book to War Without Mercy author John Dower to “educate him” pretty much says it all) and demands. The MIT alumni were considerably more balanced and nuanced in their approach, and made it possible to find a solution, as Perdue says, pretty much in line with position 2, though he himself is working with Miyagawa and Dower to implement some more Chinese content to supplement.
Recently I stumbled upon an adulatory book review I wrote of Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashô, a book that made a big impact on me while writing my dissertation. I was desperate when a graduate student to publish a book review, and I tried submitting the piece to several journals, only to learn that book reviews are by invitation only! I wondered if perhaps the real problem was that Traces had already been assigned to more learned “scholars” than myself. (The Shirane review, by the way, ended up as a post on my about.com site at the time, the now defunct japaneseculture. I was the first “guide” for that site, between 1997-2000, when I jumped ship before going on the job market.)
I decided to write a review that no one would have been previously assigned because it was either too esoteric or on too boring of a topic. I chose a catalog from the Edo-Tokyo museum that I needed to read anyway for my research, and submitted the review to the ever generous but seriously peer-reviewed journal Early Modern Japan. Success at last! Something to put on my CV! Feeling confident, I took another shot with a review essay I wrote on a topic that was guaranteed to have slipped under the radar screens of competitive book-review writers the world over: catalogs of ceramics! I tried Monumenta Nipponica but was told even review essays were only by commission, alas, but struck gold with the online British Columbia Asia Review. I can only begin to imagine what a miniscule role these two humble pieces of criticism must have played in my job-hunting efforts, but they seemed important at the time.
Once I began publishing actual scholarship based on my own research, I discovered that journals ASK you to write reviews. I suppose this amounts to a kind of review process for reviewers? My most exciting review moment came about a year ago when the Journal of Japanese Studies asked me to review Andrew Watsky’s Chikubushima: Deploying the Sacred Arts in Momoyama Japan. I immediately and gleefully accepted this charge, largely because I wanted to receive a free copy of Andy’s beautiful but hardback-only book. (This perhaps reveals too much about the finances of an assistant professor living in an expensive metropolis . . .)
But AFTER I hit “send” on my acceptance message, I began thinking about the possibility that my review would represent a conflict of interest. First of all, Andy is my sempai. He went to Oberlin. I guess he is actually my triple sempai, if such a thing is possible. He also attended the Associated Kyoto Program and graduated before me from the Ph.D. program at Princeton, though in a different department. Perhaps more importantly, one of his essays appeared in an anthology I edited, Japanese Tea Culture. Did this plethora of connections mean I would be unable to review his book objectively?
In fact books are reviewed by friends, classmates, felllow disciples of this or that professor, and even former students and former teachers quite often. In my case, I tried to over compensate for our friendly connections by being quite critical in the review. (Andy’s book won the John Whitney Hall Prize, so you can see how sensible that choice was.) In other cases, though, you see reviewers playing softball and providing no meaningful constructive criticism whatsoever when reviewing books by friends or former classmates. Not helpful.
So is it our responsibility to declare such potential manefestations of giri? Do debts of gratitude have a role in criticism? Should friendship be “balanced” by severity?