May 6, 2019/ 3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

352 Haines Hall

Uncanny Capital: Rethinking Automata in Early Modern Japan

Ellen Schattschneider (Brandeis University)

In this paper I propose a preliminary re-interpretation of the emergence of mechanical puppets or automata (karakuri ningyo) in early modern Japan. I give particular attention to the rise of multilayered festival floats topped by performing automata, under which were housed visible human puppeteers. My points of departure are two evocative tropes deployed by Freud. He introduces his discussion of the Uncanny with reference to a beautiful female automaton, a profoundly disturbing locus of fear and longing, who is both intensely familiar and irreducibly Other. In turn, in his analysis of dream work, he characterizes the function of the unconscious as the “capital” that drives and energizes the work of the “entrepreneur,” the fragmentary images of the day’s residue that become manifest in each dream. In certain respects, the layered dashi karakuri ritual float appears to have embodied an emerging structure of mind under conditions of early Japanese capitalism, revolving around a complex shadow play of illusion and partial representability. The juxtaposed spectacle of human-like mechanical puppets and human puppeteers, who initiate but who do not directly control the repetitive action of the automata, highlights a set of profound cultural problems in a fraught historical moment. Is the animating power of commodities contained within themselves, or are they only the mystified projections of underlying, and often invisible, human labor? Are the divinities and mythic figures made manifest in these gear-driven mechanical beings empowered solely by autonomous spiritual power or is ritual efficacy itself constituted by the uniquely human capacity to engage in mimetic acts of representation? Is the power of capital itself homologous with mass up-swellings of unconscious desire amidst the endlessly proliferating spectacle of commodity culture?

About the Speaker

Ellen Schattschneider (PhD, University of Chicago) is a sociocultural anthropologist and Associate Professor at Brandeis University, specializing in psychoanalytic, phenomenological and practice approaches to culture and society. She has strong ethnographic interests in East Asia, especially Japan and the Pacific. Dr. Schattschneider's academic writings give particular attention to ritual performance, gender and embodiment, spirit mediumship, sacred landscapes, visuality and the power of images, popular religious experience and comparative capitalist cultures. Her book, Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain (Duke University Press, 2003) explores healing, self-fashioning and embodied psychodynamic processes on a sacred landscape associated with a Shinto shrine founded by a rural Japanese woman in the 1920s. She is currently completing a book on the ritual dynamics of the human figurine and legacies of mass violence in wartime and postwar Japan.

Download file: Schattschneider-flyer-3-mq-wmh.pdf