Dialectics of the (In)Edible: Colons, Colonies, and Colonialism in Abe’s The Green Stockings

I

Bernard Beckerman once called theatre a “glutton”: “It will swallow any kind of material and experience that can be turned performance” (1970: 11). Beckerman’s frame of reference was western experimental theatre of the 60s and 70s, but where else can we take this metaphor of theatre’s gluttony? I’m interested in the politics of this gastronomic metaphor, which become acute when we posit ‘theatrical gluttony’ within an international context, such as that of Japan’s emergence as a nation state in the 20th century — following the opening of its borders to transnational circulation in 1868. We might consider all of the concurrent “performances” through which Japan began to consume “western” notions of “modernity” — ex., the gluttonous “theatricality” of Japan’s identity as it performed the role of Western colonizers, mimicked the dehumanizing efficiency of western industrialism and the positivistic sciences and so on.

Indeed “gluttony” is a salient metaphor for Japan’s modernization, especially in terms of the gluttony for Western ideology (subsumed within which was its colonial Sinological gluttony). The conflation between West and Modern is of course problematic but it was nonetheless the case that anxieties in Japan towards Modernization were also anxieties towards Westernization. One fear was that in consuming and performing the role of colonizer, for example in China and the Korean peninsula, Japan was at one and the same time asserting itself as a modern subject and subordinating itself to a Western paradigm of international relations.Japan desired to consume and be consumed by its Western colonial Other (to absorb it and thus to become itself a colonial subject, one that exerted itself aggressively upon the rest of asia), paradoxically in order to avoid becoming consumed by it (to avoid, in other words, becoming its colonial object).As such, Japan’s autonomy and self-reliance was both dependent upon and threatened by its Western Other, in relation to which Japan was both the colonizer and the colonized, the consumer and the consumed.

II

Abe Kobo’s The Green Stockings is symptomatic of this ambivalence towards the consumable/consuming Other. In The Green Stockings, the ‘craving’ to consume the Other as well as the anxieties that accumulate against it are addressed in terms of their physical affect, i.e., how they play out — how they are performed — in and through the consuming body. Abe’s protagonist — a man who is being metamorphosed into a new species of “herbivorous man” — reacts to the internalized Otherness of his endomorphic transformation with an ambivalence analogous to Japan’s own complicated relationship to the rest of Asia, to the West, as well as to its own native identity. The transformation of the man’s colon, his induction into the exotic alter-community (the colony) of insects, as well as anxieties towards Japan’s colonial/colonized identity are all condensed in the dreamlike logic of the narrative.

The play begins with the rumbling noises of a human digestive tract, and then the curtain rises to reveal a Man who begins to tell the story (first with photographs, then actors) of a scientist and his assistant, who are trying to solve the problem of world hunger by harvesting termites as a food source. To their dismay, the National Food Agency and the United Nations have ignored their research. The assistant laments that it’s “just plain conservatism. People are unbelievably conservative when it comes to their stomachs” (Abe 1993: 80).

When The Man’s family finds out that he has a panty fetish (especially green stockings) he tries to commit suicide but ends up being rescued by the aforementioned scientist and his assistant. They offer him money to be their test subject in a new research project that aims to “reform of the topological structure of the intestines” (88) and thereby create a Herbivorous Man. Their project, evidently, is no longer to raise termites as food, but to “reform” human beings into termites that can eat anything: grass, straw, wood, paper, and so on.

The Man’s son and fiancée soon find out where he is being kept and come to rescue him. He doesn’t want rescuing, however, and expresses instead his desire for freedom and solitude, which be believes will be afforded to him by his new life as a herbivorous man: “Grassy meadows waving in the wind will be my dinner table,” he says (94). However, as the experiment progresses it becomes more and more physically uncomfortable: “it feels like a snake’s running wild inside my guts” (94). His stomach begins to make strange noises as a side-effect of his new digestive process, and what’s worse, in “resolving cellulose” The Man becomes extremely flatulent. His sense of the grandeur of the experiment fades: “there’s such a thing as dignity. And pride. Man does not live solely to eat” (97). The assistant, no longer so idealistic either, reasons that the man will at best make “a fine circus attraction” (98) which they will sell to radio and television shows.

The man resolves to run away at this point but is discovered. Later, stagehands, who also interact with the characters, enter and place sheets over everyone as the man goes to the washroom. One stagehand becomes a nurse while two others turn into a cameraman and a reporter, and proceed to conduct an interview with The Man and the scientist concerning his transformation. The cameraman and interviewer discuss who will buy their film, suggesting a toothbrush company or perhaps a dairy supplier. The scientist applauds the man as “our last ray of hope, the lifeline of humankind, the pioneer, the prophet, the explorer, the vanguard, the morning star, the first to clear the barrier” (118). But the man contemplates, “am I the star of hope for this world? A hero who will radiate light on tomorrow? […] No, I’m just a laughingstock, a cripple rejected by society” (116). As the scientist delivers a soliloquy on the glory of being finally free from the fear of hunger, The Man vanishes. Everyone searches for him until they find him inside a painting of green fields that fills the rear of the stage: “he’s running. It looks as if he’s escaping” (130). The scientist, however, smashes his fist against the painting and says, “It was a bug! Just a stupid little bug!” (130). This marks the end of the play.

III

Utopic and idealistic exuberance towards the man’s transformation is met with equally strong expressions of fear, dismay, confusion, and resistance. On the one hand, The Man’s herbivorous transformation is a radical means of nomadic escape from unwanted social and subjective realities. On the other hand, this is accomplished only at the sacrifice of his human dignity and freedom, as he is re-inscribed within a capitalist economy and reduced to a sub-human commodity for spectacular consumption. He is both the “ideal human being” liberated from social constraints but also a machine with an insect-like diet of pure “economic efficiency.” This transformation, then, is framed simultaneously within the desire for nomadic transgression and within the limitations of industrial capitalism. There’s a dream-like self-contradictoriness to the play which seems to hold both possibilities (both valences) up in the air without allowing for any resolution.

In this play, the most contested space wherein this unresolved dialectic plays out is within The Man’s body. Otherness is surgically implanted into his body and colonizes him from within. The insect-like reconfiguration of The Man’s stomach, and its vocal acts of rebellion — flatulence and other noises — make it clear that his body becomes recalcitrant, manifesting in ways that had been previously repressed. As a result The Man becomes “foreign to [himself],” as Jean-Luc Nancy might say (Nancy 2008). His destabilized body becomes an unstable and mutually contested space wherein oscillating categories of self and other vacillate without any sort of resolution.

IV

Thus, if in Abe’s play the body is this contested space wherein the presence of an intrusive Otherness, in all its edible and inedible (that is, assimilable and unassimilable) contradictoriness, is dramatically asserted, then this is most clearly illustrated through its endomorphic transformation.  [Show slide 3: insect scenes from Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes]

The insect frequently plays the role of the “Other” in our collective imagination. They are fundamentally different from our taxonomy of the self, making them both objects of transgression but also of fear and revulsion. Stephen R. Kellert outlines five “motivational factors in the human tendency to dislike and fear arthropods,” which are interesting in how they overlap with the colonialist imagination of “subhuman, primitive” colonies: they have vastly different survival strategies, they work in ‘swarms’ and apparently lack individuality and selfhood, they have “monstrous” shapes, they lack feelings and have no ‘minds’, and they are radically autonomous from “human will and control” — they are impossible to domesticate, and have no respect for our boundaries of public and private space  (Kellert 1993: 57-58). In Julia Kristeva’s terms they would be “abject,” a taboo prohibited and separated off as impure in order to establish the boundaries between “nature and culture, between the human and the non-human,” and hence the limits of the “clean and proper body” (1982: 75).

For this very reason however, insects can also become objects of transgressive fantasy and desire. Hence Sarah Gordon points out that in the imaginative realm of literature it is often the case that “images and representations of entomophagy entail transgression, play, and spectacle” (2006: 343). In these instances the prohibition and separation from the insect world in the construction of the “proper” boundaries of the human is alienating rather than comforting. The insect is conceived still as a kind of ‘madness’ or ‘monstrosity’ but one that exerts a seductive pull towards alterity, a desire for radical rupture with the current logic of the self and with prevailing modes of thought (this includes of course the logic of capitalism, that absolute form of separation to end all separations, which precludes genuine contact with the Other). There’s a rebellious flavour contained in the hardened carapace of the insect, one that is, as an aside, distinctive to childhood. Children know no taboo, they eat worms and insects without guilt or loathing. The child’s ability to play beyond conventional boundaries and re-imagine what is edible and what is not, and thus what is human and what is not, destabilizes the various meanings by which we establish the boundaries between ourselves and Others. The insect itself contains, in its hardened carapace, a lost childhood, and to penetrate the shell, like the entomologist with his pins, is symptomatic of an impossible desire to savour the transgressive possibilities of childhood again, within which resides the missed promises of a utopic and revolutionary malleability of the self and world.

Did Abe eat bugs as a child? We know at least that as a young man living in Manchuria he developed a serious interest in insect collecting, becoming somewhat of an “amateur entomologist” (Rosenstein 2006: 114). His Woman in the Dunes moreover has an entomologist as its protagonist, Niki Jumpei (who was born in the same year as Abe), and there are significant examples of entomology to be found in several of his other writings. Moreover, the process of writing itself was for Abe a kind of capturing and compartmentalization of the miniature that shares many traits with the entomologist’s method [Show slide 4: Abe’s notes].

In Woman in the Dunes, indeed, the insect-like colony of the dune people does represent a kind of Other-community radically different from the Capitalist form of social organization. Insects are deployed metaphorically as a stand-in for socialism. However the publication of Suna no onna coincides with Abe’s renunciation of Communism, and it is possible to draw a more pessimistic and critical conclusion regarding the enforced community of the dune people. The insect becomes thus both a symbol of nomadic transgression and also a symbol of enforced integration. Camouflage is the insect’s most ambiguous trait in this respect: it is, as Sean Homer has suggested, the precursor to the mirror stage, a manifestation in the insect world of how we shape our identity based on images (2005: 22). Camouflage is thus not so much a form of escapism as it is a form of integration: it’s ‘blending in’ in the sense of ‘fitting in.’ In The Green Stockings then the final attempt at “camouflage” (when the Man attempts to blend in to the green fields and escape the antagonistic paralysis between his family and the scientists) is an ambiguous act that signifies both radical escape from paralyzing confinement, but also reinscription within the boundaries of communal, imaginary identification.

VI

We have seen how anxieties generated by the Other belie a certain embodied trauma of colonization: the destabilization of the boundary between human and insect (colonies) belies a certain anxiety towards the break-down of the body (its colon) under the pressures of colonial occupation. The antinomy of edibility and inedibility in the play  —  which is the same as a conflicting desire for and resistance to ‘consuming’ (and thus becoming consumed by) the Other — reflects a complex and tenuous relationship between self and Other that permeates all of Abe’s work, as well as the collective imaginary of 20th century Japan — in its desire to subsume itself within and also its need to resist against its colonial Others. As we see in the case of Japan, resistance (in the form of mimicking the colonial Other) can slide easily into erasure, as the strategy of resistance becomes a simple reiteration of the subordinating regime. If the trajectory of Abe’s play is from eating insects (termites) to eating like an insect (a herbivorous man), and in turn, in the end, becoming ‘an insect’, “a stupid little bug” squashed against the wall, then this speaks to the perceived futility of Japan’s nationalistic and colonial desires in the post-war period. Moreover, if consumption in this play is a highly ambiguous semiotic field, perhaps this has to do with the over-consumption implied by the termite-like gluttony of the Herbivorous Man, and his reduction to Capitalist commodity, embedded in which is a critique of consumerism in the context of Japan’s modernization, and a critique of a gluttonous “integral reality” in Baudrillard’s terms in which radical alterity has been devoured and in which there is no longer a ‘beyond’ to the green fields, no longer a space for praxis.

The insect then becomes, again, both a nexus of alterity but also a symbol of erasure through relentless integration. Abe’s most sustained topic of concern has indeed always been this antinomy between belonging and individualism, community and nomadism, self and other. The Green Stockings oscillates between these valences, without resolving their contradictions. Yet perhaps if we hold the two sides — self and other — together at once, like a fly in amber (Benjamin’s “dialectics at a standstill”) we can imagine the final (unattainable) Utopia Abe strove for, which Timothy Iles articulates as “a return to nomadism within an urban setting” (2000: 13), or which Motoyama Mutsuko calls a “search [for] individuality within community” (1995: 323), what we might call, in more pragmatic terms, a search for agency within colonial discourse. [Slide 5: physiological theatre (play as transgression)] In any case it is the very tension (rather than resolution) of this relation that charges the space of Abe’s writing.

Sources

Abe, Kōbō. 1993. Three Plays, ed. Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press.

—. 1979. Abe Kōbō no Gekijō : Nananen no Ayumi, eds. Kōbō Abe, Abe Kōbō Sutajio. Tokyo: Abe Kōbō Sutajio.

Beckerman, Bernard. 1970. Dynamics of Drama. Theory and Method of Analysis. New York: Knopf.

Brown, Eric C. 2006. “Introduction.” In Insect Poetics,  ed. Eric C. Brown. Minneapolis, London: U of Minnesota Press.

Gordon, Sarah. 2006. “Representations of Insect Eating in Literature and Mass Media.” In Insect Poetics, ed. Eric C. Brown, 342-362. Minneapolis, London: U of Minnesota Press.

Hardin, Nancy S., and Abe Kōbō. 1974. “An Interview with Abe Kōbō.” Contemporary Literature 15 (4) (Autumn): 439-56.

Homer, Sean. 2005. Jacques Lacan. New York: Routledge.

Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe Kōbō: An Exploration of his Prose, Drama and Theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.

Kellert, Stephen R. 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington: Island Press.

Keene, Donald. 2003. Five Modern Japanese Novelists. New York: Columbia U Press.

Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.

Motoyama, Mutsuko. 1995.  “The Literature and Politics of Abe Kobo.” Monumenta Nipponica 50 (3): 305-323.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2008. Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.

Rolf, Robert T. 1992. “Tokyo Theatre 1990.” Asian Theatre Journal 9 (1): 85-111.

Rosenstein, Roy. 2006. “The End of Insect Imagery: From Dostoyevsky to Kobo Abé via Kafka.” In Insect Poetics, ed. Eric C. Brown, 112-128. Minneapolis, London: U of Minnesota Press.

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