Irony as postmodern rhetoric [an essay from this spring]

L—-, who teaches literature courses at a college in —–, uses the following model to introduce the themes of modernism and postmodernism to her students.  First, imagine two emoticons.  The frowning emoticon on the left is the face of modernism, and the smiling one on the right is postmodernism.  The caption for each emoticon informs us that “Everything sucks.”
She hastens to qualify that this is merely the introduction for her lecture, and that by the end of her course the students compare and contrast modernism and postmodernism with proper jargon like post-colonialism, pastiche, and kitsch.  The more I study recent art history and theory, however, the harder it is to dismiss that smiling emoticon.
The irony implied by that foul-mouthed smiley face, and especially the predilection for expounding on serious topics with flippant witticisms, is a common feature of postmodern art.  Irony can be a conceptual underpinning for the eclecticism (of materials, points of view, cultures, and time periods) of contemporary art.  Many artworks are tricksters and unreliable narrators whose ostensible propaganda or points of view are intended by their creators to drive viewers to a different conclusion entirely.  As Thomas McEvilley puts it, “ironic indirection, entering into any other category of content, criticizes that content at the same time it states it, and alters the charge of meaning” (Art and Discontent 82).  Indirection, stories within stories, irony, and entertainment serve as rhetorical tools to manage the short attention spans of today’s society.
Kara Walker’s installations provide visual guidebooks for these qualities.  Her oeuvre challenges dominant historical themes through parody.  As her website summarizes:

By poking fun at our constructions of race and character, power, and history, Walker presents slavery as an absurd theater of eroticized violence and self-deprecating behavior, and she dares to laugh at authority, be it the slave master or the whole of official history.

These erudite installations present layered symbolism that shifts viewers’ thoughts from humor to serious concerns.  To quote her website once again, “Walker’s amusements intersect with shame when one realizes one is laughing at suffering.”

Walker’s silhouettes beautifully support the observation that wit and circumlocution in the right hands are powerful persuasive tools for visual artists, but let us honor this paper’s puckish theme by investigating the use and effect of irony and layered storytelling in a less well-defended (and even less direct) visual artifact.

Fumi Yoshinaga’s graphic novels earn very mixed reviews.  Her most recent series is either brilliant or trash.  I read it (despite my usual disinterest in reverse-harem manga) because it was praised by a graphic novelist with trustworthy taste.  “I bought Ooku the other day and while I had some issues with the artwork (the characters look far too similar), the writing was charmingly sly,” wrote Faith Erin Hicks in a blog post on January 4, 2010.  Several months later, she upgraded that evaluation by blogging that “I don’t know how else to describe it except that [Yoshinaga] probably has some kind of giant brain uniquely suited to writing great characters” (14 Nov. 2010).  After much consideration, I argue for a further elevation of this series’ merits.  It is not only entertaining, clever, and occasionally charming; this series raises powerful questions about history, feminism, and sexuality.  I only partially apprehended these strategies until I began working on a series of paintings to reconcile my attitudes towards tradition and modernity, at which time aspects of Yoshinaga’s work suddenly seemed familiar.

Yoshinaga’s multi-volume Ooku[1] series presents itself as a slice in the life of a Japanese political leader whose decision to read private government records provides a convenient framing device for flashbacks.  The effect would be stultifying indeed without the following hook:  Yoshinaga inflicts a gender bender on Japanese history.  The gimmick is absurd, but she develops to near-profundity through complex parallel structure, irony, and historical literacy.
Ooku depicts and subverts Japanese history during the Edo period.[2]  Japanese culture at this time period should be familiar to American imaginations:  Hiroshi Inagaki’s Chushingura is only one of the best-known examples of this setting for period films.[3]  This preconception is no accident, since, as Peter Duus explains in Feudalism in Japan, “many, and perhaps most, premodern Japanese historians organized their narratives around the rise and fall of the warrior class, and so do many popular historical writers of today” (11).  As he concludes, “looking at premodern Japanese history from this perspective allows us to see it as many Japanese themselves have seen it” (11).  Any Japanese author basing an alternative history work in this time period would expect her characters and main plot points to be familiar to the even the lowest common denominator.[4]

On the surface, rewriting the Tokugawa shogunate as a matriarchy is nothing more than a nonsensical hook.  What makes her graphic novels valid examples of postmodern irony is the fact that this account reverses expectations in every way; the series even double-crosses itself.  Yoshinaga’s single historical alteration transforms every event that follows and yet nothing changes.

She begins by using a plague to wipe out three-quarters of Japan’s male population.  Her graphic novels predict that this population imbalance would force society to shift its patterns of inheritance and gender roles.   As women become domain lords and shoguns while sparing men from all demanding tasks, it is easy to claim that Yoshinaga’s version of history is a complete break from reality.  What is truly subversive (and ultimately a powerful feminist statement through fatalistic humor) is that this paradigm shift proves illusory.  In Ooku, men remain the most valued members of society, albeit for rarity and procreative value rather than physical or political dominance.

In Yoshinaga’s version of events, the remarkable peace for which the Tokugawa shogunate is credited5 is a consequence of female leadership and a Machiavellian shogunate.  The connection between Japan’s simultaneous isolationist policy and domestic peace has been noted by historians; as Reischauer and Craig explain, “the Tokugawas might not have been able to maintain so stable a system of rule or such great social rigidity if they had not also isolated Japan from the upsetting foreign influences that had poured in during the sixteenth century” (Japan 89).  In this account, women use men’s names for official records and pursue an isolationist foreign policy in order to conceal Japan’s lack of men and consequent military weakness.  Yoshinaga’s female version of Tokugawa Iemitsu simply adds these to the list of reasons recorded by history.

Yoshinaga ascribes a different reason for the isolationism, but the effect is the same.  She dramatically sets up a story that purports to change history, but enacts a history that remains safely within the limits of extant records.  Like the female shogun who is shocked to learn that her way of life is a farcical parody of its origins, so also can readers be startled by the parallels between this fiction and reality.  In a passage on the insidious power of quotation, Susan Stewart points out that “Fiction allows us to see that repetition is a matter of reframing, that in the repetition difference is displayed in both directions” (On Longing 21).  These graphic novels grow to have a bizarre near-plausibility.  As Thomas McEvilley puts it, “A work that features contradictions among its levels of content thereby gains yet another level involving concepts like paradox, inner struggle, tension, and negation of meaning-processes (Art and Discontent 85).  Yoshinaga uses this paradoxical alternate history to highlight the fact that our understanding of the past is highly (if not completely) dependent on the victors’ accounts.  She also implies neither superficial changes nor reverse discrimination in modern society constitute a silver bullet for equality.

Implied attitudes towards sexuality within this series are another topic about which Ooku coyly delivers content.  Yoshinaga’s early graphic novels almost invariably included explicit sex scenes between male characters, but similar scenes in Ooku are more than a mercenary nod to a preexisting and prurient fan base.  The series earns its “Explicit Content” warning by depicting infidelity, rape, incest, voyeurism, prostitution, and multiple heterosexual and homosexual pairings.  Comparing these incidents within currently published series reveals a notable absence of judgment.  The narrator never states a position, the characters voice contradicting opinions, and the overall implication is that context and consent are more important than laws or taboos.  The clearest example of this is in the two instances of incest:  one dynamic is clearly abusive and unconscionable (Fig. 2), while the other daringly implies that the ends justify the means when no participant objects (Fig. 3).  Through the range of opinions and consequences presented in the Ooku series, Fumi Yoshinaga encourages readers to reconsider their mores under the guise of mere entertainment.

Finally, consider the implications of using soft-cover graphic novels as a medium.  Many argue that comics might finally be on track to become an artistic and literary genre on par with more established forms.  Ooku’s second volume includes repeated significant references to Murasaki.  The translator’s notes remind readers that the name is connected to The Tale of Genji.  It is up to the reader to either know or learn that this was the first novel written in any language, that it was written by a woman, and that the name Murasaki was shared by the author and her novel’s most important female character.  For a female author and illustrator working in a relatively new medium to pointedly reference Murasaki is no insignificant or meaningless choice.

Postmodern artists irreverently appropriate and subvert any and all of history, literature, and culture and adopt ambivalent stances as a calculated strategy.  If considered carefully, the naive shallowness of postmodern pastiche, eclecticism, and irony are sophisticated dialectic maneuvers.  These qualities, just like beauty and entertainment, are hooks by which artists and writers can capture the absurdly short attention span of our contemporaries.  Disguising serious ideas as entertainment or beauty is simply pragmatic.  Kara Walker’s silhouette-inspired art and Fumi Yoshinaga’s most recent graphic novels are both artistic examples of alternative history that use anachronism and blatant historical inaccuracy to emphasize current socio-historical trends.  As Walker states in an Art21 interview, “Everything I’m doing is trying to skirt the line between fiction and reality.  It’s not just examination of racial issues in America today…it’s a part of it.  It’s part of being an African American woman artist, but it’s about ‘how do you make representations of your world…given what you’ve been given?”

Walker’s and Yoshinaga’s works’ beauty and humor entices viewers to read them a first time, and complex layers and internal contradictions reward rereading.  That rereading both rehearses the message in viewers’ minds, and also allows viewers to have multiple different (though linked) experiences of the same visual text.  We should enjoy, but never underestimate, this type of art.  The validity or authority of an artwork is no more linked to its straightforwardness of execution than it is inversely related to its beauty.


1 Its alternate English title is The Inner Chambers.  This is, without the switched gender ratios, an accurate historical reference to the living quarters for the shogun’s wife and concubines in Edo castle.

2 The Tokugawa shogunate and their use of Edo (aka Tokyo) as a capitol lasted from 1603 to 1868 CE.  A frequent criticism of Ooku’s English translation is the use of diction reminiscent of Shakespeare’s early modern English.  The setting for this series is contemporary with Shakespeare, so that diction is yet another creative decision for this series which appears superficial but strongly supports the overall content.

3 Americans who avoid foreign films may be familiar with the origins of the Tokugawa shogunate via James Clavell’s Shogun. Outstanding Japanese films set during the Edo period include:  Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Red Beard, and Yojimbo; Masaki Kobayashi’s Seppuku; Hideo Gosha’s Goyokin; and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy.

4 This approach accords with a passage from Virginia Woolf’s wry feminist masterpiece, A Room of One’s Own:  “Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping” (4-5).  Yoshinaga sets up an enormous and obvious lie with her historical gender reversal.  By conspicuously maintaining accord between her plot points and historical record, she salts that lie with enough truths to demand further consideration.

5 Reischauer and Craig assert that:

For exactly two and a quarter centuries after the suppression of the Shimabara revolt in 1638, there was no significant political change or any warfare in Japan–only occasional riots by villagers or townsmen or perhaps a political assassination.  This was probably the longest period of complete peace and political stability that any sizeable body of people has ever enjoyed.  (Japan: Tradition and Transformation 91)


Works Cited

Duus, Peter.  Feudalism in Japan. Third edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993. Print.

Hicks, Faith Erin.  “Fanart a Week: Flower of Life.” And Then Canada Exploded: a comic-centric blog by faith erin hicks, a cartoonist-type. 14 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 April 2013.

—.“TWO THOUSAND AND NINE: Was and Wasn’t.”  And Then Canada Exploded: a comic-centric blog by faith erin hicks, a cartoonist-type. 4 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 April 2013.

McEvilley, Thomas.  Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium. New York: McPherson and Company, 1991. Print.

Reischauer, Edwin O. and Albert M. Craig.  Japan: Tradition and Transformation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1989. Print.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

Walker, Kara. “Themes in the Work: Humor.” The Art of Kara Walker. Web. 20 March 2013.

—. Interview.  “Stories.”  Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 2. PBS, 9 Sept. 2003. Web.  24 April 2013.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt, 1957. Print.

Yoshinaga, Fumi.  Ooku: The Inner Chronicles.  Trans. Akemi Wegmüller. 7 vols.  San Francisco: Viz Media, 2005-2012. Print.

One response to “Irony as postmodern rhetoric [an essay from this spring]”

  1. […] category allows me to add Dylan Meconis, Erika Moen, Faith Erin Hicks, and Fumi Yoshinaga.  (See “Irony as Postmodern Rhetoric” for my defense of Yoshinaga’s Ooku series as feminist-literate.)  Actually, adding graphic […]

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