Kojin Karatani

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= Japanese philosopher and literary critic

Author of the key book: The Structure of World History/

For an intro, see: Introduction To Modes of Exchange


"Kojin Karatani was born in 1941 in Amagasaki city, located between Osaka and Kobe. He received his B.A. in economics and M.A. in English literature, both from Tokyo University. Awarded the Gunzo Literary Prize for an essay on Natsume Soseki in 1969, he began working actively as a literary critic, while teaching at Hosei University in Tokyo. In 1975 he was invited to Yale University to teach Japanese literature as a visiting professor, where he became acquainted with Yale critics such as Paul de Man and Fredric Jameson. After publishing "Origins of Modern Japanese Literature" in 1980, Karatani proceeded from literary criticism to more theoretical studies ranging from "Architecture as Metaphor: language, number, money" to "Transcritique: on Kant and Marx. At the same time, he made a political commitment to editing the quarterly journal 'Critical Space' with Akira Asada. "Critical Space" was the most influential intellectual media in Japan until it folded in 2002. In 2000, Karatani also organized New Associationist Movement (NAM). Since 1990 he has taught regularly at Columbia University as a visiting professor of comparative literature. He has also taught as a visiting professor at Cornell and UCLA. He was a regular member of ANY, the international architects' conference which was held annually for the last decade of the 20th century. In 2006, Karatani retired from teaching in Japan to devote himself full-time to his lifework.

Major books in English:

  • Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, Duke University Press,1993
  • Architecture as Metaphor; Language, Number, Money, MIT Press,1995
  • Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, MIT Press, 2003


A profile of the author, by Carl Cassegard:

"Karatani Kojin’s (1941- ) recent thought offers a novel way of grappling or dealing with the dilemma which we pointed to in Yoshimoto and Asada, namely how the aspiration to work for societal change could be combined with an affirmation of the masses’ withdrawal from public involvement. The question is particularly timely since the 90’s has been a decade in which much discontent with the system has taken the form of exit – from school, marriage, the labor market or (in the case of the social withdrawal) from social life tout court. Can such discontent be turned into effective forms of resistance? Can it be channeled in ways that could further social change? Today questions such as these have gained renewed importance.

The thought of Karatani follows a trajectory that can be described as almost the reverse of Yoshimoto’s, with Karatani growing increasingly critical of capitalism and affirmative of social movement activism. [10] In early texts, from the 70’s and 80’s, his point of departure is a search for “exteriority” in the “intercrossing” spaces outside or between discursive systems, states or communities. The market provided a model for such a space. The global market, in his view, was a liberating and deconstructive tool that undermined the autonomy and closure of national and local communities. In opposition to communal space where rules were shared, it was a space existing in-between communities where participants confronted each other as strangers without presupposing common norms. It therefore offered liberating possibilities of otherness (Karatani 1995a:182; 1995b:143ff).

In this celebratory stance to the market and critical stance to the state or nation, there is a similarity to Yoshimoto and Asada. During the 80’s, however, Karatani was hardly comfortable with the status quo. He repeatedly warned that Japan was trapped in a complacent discursive space that lacked exteriority (ibid 1989a:272). His main concern was with the closed, amorphous system of Japanese power to which he believed that the market could offer an antidote. Japan’s plunge into a prolonged recession following the burst of the ‘bubble-economy in the early 90’s was therefore a breath of fresh air. Looking back in 1997, he writes that he had “felt almost suffocated in Japan during the 1980s”, when people were euphoric and Japanese capitalism seemed triumphant. With the onslaught of global capitalism in the 90’s, the “self-sustained and self-complacent space of Japan” was gradually collapsing (ibid 1997). With the victory of the market, however, Karatani adopted a more critical stance towards it. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War were pivotal events in this shift. Deconstruction, he writes, “could have critical impact only while Marxism actually ruled the people of many nation-states. In the 1990s, this tendency lost its impact, having become for the most part a mere agent of the real deconstructive movement of capitalism”. Instead of going along with the “deconstructive” movement of capitalism in order to undermine the closure imposed by states, he now felt that contributing something constructive, not in order to support mainstream society but in order to provide new alternatives, was the urgent task (ibid 2003:ixf).

He sketched his new “constructive” endeavour in his 2001 work Toransukuritiku (published in English as Transcritique in 2003), a work on Marx and Kant which has already gained considerable international attention (Cf. Zizek 2004, 2006). In this work he advocates the idea of “transcritical space” serving as a crossroad in which relations with others are possible without the risk of totalitarian closure. To Karatani, this is a model of critical thinking that escapes the closure of system thinking as well as a model for possible social networking and activism in the form of “associations” that escape the centralizing tendencies of traditional hierarchical organizations and movements. The model is now no longer provided by the capitalist market. Even though associations are just as open to strangers and to heterogeneity as such markets, they are entered into by a wish for mutual help, not for making profit. They also lack the coercive mechanism of “plunder and redistribution” typical of states and the narrow-minded intolerance and exclusion typical of the nation or community. They therefore offer means of “counter-acting” what Karatani calls the entire “unholy trinity of capital, nation and state” (Karatani 2003).

Karatani’s new activist stance is manifested in the founding of the New Associationist Movement (NAM) in Osaka in June 2000, whose goal was to resist this “unholy trinity”. NAM numbered close to 600 members a year after its inauguration, but it was soon beset by various problems – a small number of members, increasing bureaucratization and personal tensions – and the organization was dissolved in 2003.

Despite its failure, a study of the ideas that led Karatani to conceive of it is instructive. What I find especially interesting is the extent to which he conceived of NAM in terms of exit. The turn to movement activism and the establishment of NAM in no sense signifies an abandonment of Karatani’s championship of people’s right to turn their back on public involvement, and is better understood, I suggest, as his answer to how social movements can be organized in an age when many have chosen to do exactly that. Significantly, a strong emphasis on the individual’s right to withdrawal, privacy and anonymity is retained in his thought even after his turn to movement activism. Although not a follower of Yoshimoto – they have criticized each other on a number of occasions [12] – Karatani carries on the legacy of the latter thinker in an important sense, namely in pointing to the emancipatory aspects of withdrawal and in the resistance to the totalitarian collective, the state or the unitary system of thought. Unlike both Yoshimoto and Asada, however, Karatani insists on the need to exit not only the state and the mainstream public sphere, but also the capitalist market. Unlike them, he tries to affirm privatization and flight in a way that makes it possible to utilize the rhetoric of exit for the purpose of social movement activism. On both these points, Karatani’s thinking marks a new departure in the development of the rhetoric of exit in Japan." (http://apjjf.org/-Carl-Cassegard/2684/article.html)

Four Modes of Exchange

Carl Cassegaard:

"Karatani uses a model focusing on four modes of exchange, which he believes are equally basic and irreducible:

A: Reciprocal exchanges within a community, a norm that lives on in our time in the idea of the nation.

B: The exchange of "plunder and redistribution" typical of feudal lordship and basic to modern states.

C: Commodity exchange, which is central to capitalism.

D: Egalitarian sharing through associations between free individuals (singularities) that transcend the community.

While A-B-C are all integral parts of the closed circuit of nation, state and capital, D is external to it. It lacks any historical embodiment except as a recurring utopian element in millenarian movements and modern social movements, but Karatani sees it as a viable model for a possible communism which would also be a Kantian world republic." (http://carlcassegard.blogspot.be/2015/08/karatanis-structure-of-empire.html)

Copy at http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-UM5PGWZ-_BA/VO7cQS0SDII/AAAAAAAAA34/Afhs3bbEYrk/s400/b8ef2912abe8228285356e52a108bbfe.jpg

From Deconstruction to Construction


"It is customary to describe the 1990s in Japan as a ‘lost decade’ plagued by a widespread social malaise and an oppressive feeling of deadlock.

The development of the thought of the philosopher and critic Karatani Ko¯jin (1941–) evinces the cultural effects of the changes during this decade.

For a long time Karatani was probably best known for his pioneering use of deconstructionist and genealogical methods in literary criticism. However, as he himself states, his thinking underwent a radical change in the early1990s under the influence of the end of the Cold War, the impact of the globalization of neoliberal capitalism and the long Japanese economic recession. From now on, he states, the emphasis is less on deconstruction than on construction: ‘Beginning in the 1990s, my stance, if not my thinking itself, changed fundamentally. I came to believe that theory should not remain in the critical scrutiny of the status quo but should contribute something positive to change the reality.’

This new stance was manifested in the founding of the New Associationist Movement (NAM) in Osaka in June 2000, which represented the culmination of a long process of his growing political engagement." (https://www.academia.edu/372790/Exteriority_and_Transcritique_Karatani_Kojin_and_the_Impact_of_the_90s)

His Changing Views on the Market

Carl Cassegaard:

"Karatani’s glee at the impact of globalization on Japan is easily comprehensible in light of his earlier views on the market. In the 1980s, he described the global market in positive terms as a liberating and deconstructive tool that undermined the autonomy and closure of national communities. In opposition to communal space where rules are shared, the market is an ‘intercrossing space’ existing in between communities where participants confront each other as strangers without presupposing any common norms. Like the cogito, it exists in the ‘gap’ between communities, in a position of ‘exteriority’ to them.

This celebratory equation of the market with exteriority is certainly crude, and we need to remember that we find it mainly in writings belonging to the period when the prime target of his criticism was still the closed, amorphous system of Japanese power. Neoliberal globalization was welcomed not because he saw the market as good in itself but because he hoped that the collapse of the Japanese model would liberate buried alternative traditions. In the 1990s, however,the victory of the market led Karatani to a stance which is more nuanced and more critical of the capitalist world economy. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War were pivotal events in the introductory stages of this shift.

Deconstruction, he writes, ‘could have critical impact only while Marxism actually ruled the people of many nation-states. In the 1990s, this tendency lost its impact, having become mostly a mere agent of the real deconstructive movement of capitalism.’ A more urgent task than criticizing the closure imposed by states now existed. Instead of going along with the ‘deconstructive’ movement of capitalism, he now felt the need to contribute something constructive, not in order to support mainstream society but in order to provide new alternatives. The problem that ‘deconstruction’ lacked critical edge in a ‘centreless’ context was firmly resolved by opting for a constructive endeavour, namely, transcritique." (https://www.academia.edu/372790/Exteriority_and_Transcritique_Karatani_Kojin_and_the_Impact_of_the_90s)

The Capital-State-Nation trinity

"In Transcritique and other recent texts, the source of exteriority is no longer the global market but ‘associations’, and the market is instead increasingly envisioned in such negative terms as‘empire’. Consequently Karatani redirects his criticism from the ‘centreless’system of Japanese power to the system of global capitalism and lays a general ground-work for a theory of global capitalism in Transcritique. The market is now no longer conceived as a force bringing exteriority, but on the contrary as part and parcel of a system in which it has entered into collusion with the state and nationalism, forming what Karatani calls a ‘trinity of state, capital and nation’, in which the three elements support each other, making it futile to attack any single one of them without at the same time attacking the others.

It is this trinity, rather than the Japanese system of power per se, that he now sets out to counteract. Unlike in certain currents of the contemporary critique of globalization, he refuses to call for a strengthening of the nation-state. ‘When facing this fear-less trinity, undermining one or the other does not work. If one attempts to overthrow capitalism alone, one has to adopt statism, or one is engulfed by nationalist empathy. It goes without saying that the former appeared as Stalinism and the latter as fascism.’ (https://www.academia.edu/372790/Exteriority_and_Transcritique_Karatani_Kojin_and_the_Impact_of_the_90s)

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