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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The ethnographic politics and poetics of photography, skin and race in the works of Yoko Tawada Redlich, Jeremy


This dissertation is a literary studies analysis of select German-language prose, poetry and essays by the contemporary Japanese author Yoko Tawada. In this study I utilize and expand upon Tawada’s own concept of ‘fictive ethnology’ as a highly critical and self-reflexive literary approach that can be located throughout her texts. I argue that this fictive ethnological or counter-ethnographic literary technique is what directs the political charge behind Tawada’s poetics. My focus then is on how Tawada’s texts as cultural critiques undermine binary distinctions of ‘otherness’, destabilize the position and authority of the author/narrator representing the other, and reveal the ideology and power structures behind representing, constructing and classifying difference. Unlike the descriptive and textual model of ‘writing culture’ that engraves and freezes culture into words, Tawada’s fictive ethnological texts stress the fluid and performative dimension of culture and identity. Therefore, I also demonstrate how these texts are much more about inventing, rather than finding, the self, and about denaturalizing taken-for-granted assumptions about cultural, ethnic and racial differences that are anchored in essentialist, biological and binary logics. The core chapters of this study braid together representations of photography, skin and race and their variegated deployments in Tawada’s texts, and then explicate their ideological underpinnings. Photography, skin and race, as textual and visual representations, metaphors and themes, are fundamental to how Tawada’s protagonists are commodified and racialized as ethnographic objects; how they self-identify and are read by others according to restrictive cultural literacies; and how they are classified and made meaningful according to their bodies, especially when these bodies are seen as racially and ethnically marked. Yet, Tawada’s texts do not simply represent bodies and identities as they already are, but rather the processes, rituals, discourses and social practices that make them intelligible as raced, gendered, or ethnically marked beings. Each chapter therefore highlights, in connection to theories of gender and racial performativity, how Tawada’s texts convey the quotidian, repetitive and ritualistic performance of gendered, racial and ethnic identities, but also how these identities are transgressively (mis)performed against the script.

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