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Back to the Avant-Garde: Sasaki Maki’s Nonsense

Nakahara Yūsuke, The Aesthetics of Nonsense (Gendai shichōsha, 1963), cover.

Nakahara Yūsuke, The Aesthetics of Nonsense (Gendai shichōsha, 1963), cover.

The meaning and usage of the term nansensu circa 1970 Japan was wide and varied. It was a standard piece of student lingo, the name for a genre of comic manga, the name for a genre of advertising, the name for a genre of literature and an important theoretical term for art criticism. Nansensu had particular connotations in each case. It could mean the absurd and the non-sequitur, as it did in advertising and in a genre of manga known as ‘nonsense gag’ (nansensu gyagu). It named forms of modernist literature, particularly the glossolalia and juxtapositions of Dada and Surrealism, and of course Victorian nonsense verse (Tanemura 1969). Meanwhile, art criticism recast the word as a positive critical concept – a critique of the everyday, a tool of critical distanciation and intellectual emancipation (Ishiko 1968, 1969; Nakahara 1962, 1972).

However, the most popular and colloquial use of the term nansensu, and the one that most applies to Sasaki Maki manga, was as a way to name great political cynicism. It was heard, most of all, on the Japanese university campus, particularly within the contexts of public political debate and collective bargaining during the student protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nansensu was uttered in the form of an interjection, issued from a student audience and directed at an interlocutor. It served to name and denounce what was perceived by an audience to be misrepresentation or disingenuousness in the speech of the speaker. In the context of the late-1960s campus struggle, nansensu was declared to denounce, most of all, circumlocution and dissimulation in the speech of campus administration when explaining why student demands could not be met. Nansensu, in this context, did not primarily name the lack of sense or meaning in a given utterance. The term could connote lies, but, in the main, nansensu did not have to do with truth or lack of truth in a given statement. Nansensu, instead, named foremost the type of relationship the speaker accused of nansensu was thought to have to his or her speech. It named a perceived indifference an interlocutor had to the truth-value of his or her own speech. Nansensu was a matter of fakery over falsity, of faking debate and deliberation. As such, the most apt English translation of nansensu, at least in its colloquial and campus usage, is not then ‘nonsense’ but rather ‘bullshit’, in the sense of faked discourse, of statements emptied of informative content (Frankfurt 2005). When ‘bull’ is said, it is often declared. Nansensu shared this declarative and interjective norm of use.

Katsumata Susumu, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

Katsumata Susumu, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

In January 1969, the height of the student protest movement, a small parody of the use of nansensu on the university campus was published in Garo. The parody is a four-panel strip by Katsumata Susumu (1943–2007), an author best known for his work in this traditional quadripartite format but soon also to unveil substantial talents in the crafting of longer narratives. The protagonist of the strip is a yajiuma, the heckling bystander, in this case, the voice of the peanut gallery. He is young and clean-cut and picked out in black, the color of his jacket, a traditional school coat that distinguishes him from those surrounding him in sweaters and jeans. He declares nansensu in two different contexts, the first in an auditorium. Given the connoted vehemence of the speech on stage, it is unlikely a class lecture and more likely a call to order by campus administration. This the student loudly decries as nansensu, an act that gains him the adoration of his peers, which in turn causes him (a sucker for attention) to blush. The flattery inspires him to repeat this performance in another context, outside on the campus grounds at a teach-in and denunciation session hosted by what one takes to be, due to the helmets, a faction of the Zenkyōtō (All-Campus Joint Struggle Committee). Here his ejaculation is not met with acceptance, as the activist in the rear knocks the heckler over the head in disapproval with what was known at the time as a gebabō, a ‘gewalt (violence) stick’, a timber board, and the preferred weapon of student militants in ground maneuvers against the police or opposing factions of their peers.

Katsumata’s comment is double. In either case, the utterance of nansensu is itself depicted as a form of nansensu. On the one hand, the declarative nansensu is reduced to a form of show, a caterwaul for attention, rather than an utterance of meaningful content. It is an accouterment of late-1960s student style, a statement of belonging and nothing more. It is part of talking the talk of radical chic. As verbal fashion, it describes qualities of its enunciator over qualities of its addressee. He who declares nansensu is himself full of it. At the same time, the manga also suggests the opposite: the declaration of nansensu does, in fact, have descriptive value. Through this double articulation, Katsumata illustrates an irony: the student movement is quick to decry the disingenuousness of the other but is incapable of perceiving vacuities in its own speech or at least unwilling to accept its public denunciation, particularly when it comes from a bystander and outsider. In others words, Katsumata suggests that the student movement itself was, to a degree, ‘full of it’, and furthermore refused to see so. This amounts neither to a matter of simple perspective: one person’s discourse is another’s ‘bull’; nor to something like the following: one and the same set of words in the mouth of one person is discourse, in the mouth of another is a word heap. The words themselves, in fact, matter not at all. Instead, the identity of the speaker, and not the content of the utterance, defines the nature of the utterance with regards to its sincerity and meaningfulness. One speaker is a producer of ‘bull’, always. One speaker is a producer of genuine discourse, always.

University students were not incapable of seeing the problem for themselves. In the late 1960s, the school newspaper of Kyoto University ran a column titled ‘The phenomenology of words’ (Kotoba no genshōgaku) in which various current colloquialisms were examined with regard to possible etymology, semantics and social significance. Among the terms and phrases explored was nansensu. The author of the article – from the 22 July 1968 issue of the paper – is listed only as ‘Anti’ (Han). The piece is short and reads as follows:

Japanese is such an arbitrary language. Or is the problem those that use it . . . . For four months, the only word that has stuck in my head is ‘nansensu’. This chap [koyatsu], having crossed the ocean from England and America and changed into Japanese, is sadly being made into a tool of self-justification [jiko seitōka]. Activist groups have adopted this chap as a negation of their own thought . . . . What is truly sad is the number of words – so large – that have been thrown out [kirisuteru] on the account of this chap. I had gotten together with a high school friend of mine to reminisce about the good old days, and I thought that he had left out something important in what he was saying. He responded: ‘I see that you too have started speaking Zengakuren [All-Japan Federation of Self-Governing Student Bodies]’.

That is, he was speaking the language of the organized student movement. The implication, of course, is that, in disagreeing with his interlocutor, the author had said nansensu. He laments its effects. All utterances entail word choice. To choose one word is to not choose another. But in the case of nansensu, to choose it is to ‘kirisuteru’ others – ‘to cut and discard’, to sever or delete. As such, nansensu is a kind of anti-word, a word against words. To utter it is not just to choose against other words but to obliterate them. As such, its utterance is an act of logoclasm, the willed destruction of language. This changes one’s understanding of the final proposition of ‘The dog goes’. The blank speech balloon is not just a figure of absence. Named nansensu, its void is recast as a figure of violence against the linguistic sign.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970), page 3 detail.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970), page 3 detail.

Logoclasm can only have serious political consequences. Politics, after all, is founded on the capacity and will to contest through the word (Mouffe 2000; Ranciere 1999). Without the word, no claim can be made or refuted. Nansensu, however, negates the word. In particular, it negates the word of the other. In this case, the other is specifically a political other, one who attempts to organize the social in a manner distinct from and disagreeable to one’s own desires. Thus, nansensu negates the word of the political other. In doing so, it seeks to terminate the contest that founds the political. This means that nansensu is fundamentally anti-political, but in a particularly self-defeating fashion. The anti-political is conventionally thought the domain of the status quo, which attempts to marginalize dissent to the point where its political power is functionally nil, or to absorb and neutralize difference with normative appeals to universality and persistent demands for consensus. Nansensu represents the anti-political from the other side, from those that oppose the status quo. This creates a paradoxical figure, for it is the contention of the dissenting that creates the political. With nansensu, the political turns against itself. In refusing language, it eliminates the grounds for its own contention.

Logoclasm is thus a peculiar sort of antagonism. It declares the absence of any common ground upon which disagreement might be negotiated. An anti-word, nansensu denies even the common ground of language. It says to the other, I cannot communicate with you because your words form no language. Because your words form no language, you have no right to be in the agon, where claims are made through the exchange of articulate words. The political is thus dissolved through dismissal of one’s adversaries. In turn, with no one to contest, one’s own position can appear absolute.

It is this process that the author of the Kyoto University piece named ‘self justification’, which is, in essence, only a fantasy. Not only does the other have language and continue to contend. But the other whose language nansensu denies is also the holder of power and the gatekeeper to social change. Short of revolution, partisans in dissent have no choice but to remain in conversation with existing authority. Otherwise, the forums in which political claims might be recognized and instituted will be lost. Nansensu is thus a self-defeating act, and a recipe for increased marginalization. Note that in ‘The dog goes’ the living vocalize and signify, while the speaking animal that utters nansensu is a dog that dies.

(cont’d)


8 Responses to Back to the Avant-Garde: Sasaki Maki’s Nonsense

  1. Chris V. says:

    I’ve been waiting years to read this article (seriously – I remember coming across the abstract “back when” but could never afford/justify the price for an individual article).

    Sasaki Maki was one of my first “art manga” loves. To say I was obsessed would be an understatement. However, I couldn’t actually get hold of his manga at the time (this was late 90s; I don’t think much of it was available outside some anthologies of ‘60s manga, until O(h)ta Shuppan came out with that doorstop a few years back – which incidentally seems to have been their swan song as far as retro publications goes). It was rather through the children’s books he illustrated and often wrote, especially that one with his shadow-wolf character (“Yappari okami”?). Was struck by how unexpectedly melancholy it was (“Ke!”). And his illustrations for Murakami of course.

    Definitely think this book is (or should be) an event.

  2. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Thanks for this personal and informed response. I am very happy to hear that me reprinting this essay has reached at least one right person.

    As you said, the Ota Shuppan book was a big deal in Japan. Apparently, it sold four or five times the amount expected. Sasaki Maki has done very well for himself as an author of children’s books. But the success of the Ota Shuppan volume was a real surprise, I am told, by everyone involved. Like you said, Sasaki Maki’s manga was a real pain to find before that. You either had to buy the original Garo issues, or hunt down this anthology Seirindo published in 1969 I think and shell out about 10,000 yen for it. I always thought it bizarre that no one had done an edition since then, unless I overlooked something.

    The forthcoming Breakdown volume is based on the Ota Shuppan book, as you might have guessed. If this Garo volume does decently, I’d like to do a follow-up of the truly opaque material from Asahi Journal, and then some of the cute Crumb-esque stuff from the late 70s.

  3. Rik Spanjers says:

    This is very impressive. Keep up the good work!

  4. I saw this book on the breakdown press tumblr and instantly ordered it. Looks amazing; reminds me of this comic I have in an old issue of Heavy Metal by Nicole Claveloux.

  5. Michael Gale says:

    thank you for this, was looking for a comic that would blow my mind, not usually into manga (bit too bubblegum for me) I was pleasently surprised by Sasaki Maki. Cheers and also great essay

  6. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Readers of this article may also be interested in my “Anti-Manga: Sasaki Maki, Ishiko Junzō, and the Image,” in Anti-Museum: An Anthology, ed. Mathieu Copeland and Balthazar Lovay (Fri Art & Koenig Books, 2017).

  7. Mads Johansen says:

    Thanks for this inspiring article! This is actually what got me into learning japanese and into Garo. Currently I’m writing my bachelor’s thesis in Comparative Literature on Sasaki Maki’s work.

    Just a quick question about your reading of the untitled work. I’m simply wondering why you chose to translate the nonsensical suffix「マセウ」as volitional mashō. It does not read 「マショウ」right? It appears to me as a very ambiguous form where it could be interpreted as volitional “mashō” as you do. It could also be simply “mase” as a demand. However, it could also simply be nonsense which would enforce your reading and the impossibility of utterance.

  8. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Hmmm . . . didn’t think about this deeply. I just assumed it was an anachronistic way of rendering “mashō.” But who says “mase” outside of an extremely formal and pre-set context (like greeting at a store)? I doubt it’s nonsense. I feel like you see “maseu” in prewar texts. Not sure off the top of my head.

    Bachelor’s thesis on Sasaki Maki! No shit? Where?

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