In Memory of Dr Hajime Nakatani


Published: 24Sep2013
 Dr Hajime Nakatani

It is with very great sadness that the department announces the death of Professor Hajime Nakatani. Hajime served as assistant professor of East Asian art history from 2004 to 2010, jointly appointed in the departments of Art History and Communication Studies and East Asian Studies. He left McGill in 2010 to join the Department of Intercultural Studies at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Hajime died in Tokyo in June 2013 at the age of 46.

Situated at the intersection of art history and media theory, Hajime’s important body of writings, which he termed ‘think pieces,’ completely transforms our understanding of the history and aesthetics of Chinese writing. His extensive training in Chinese, French, and Japanese allowed him to bring to the analysis of writing a historical scope and theoretical depth rarely seen in his field. His work made a particularly important intervention in the growing body of literature on the materiality of writing and the connection between the body and calligraphy. In contrast to the predominant paradigm for understanding Chinese characters in terms of communicative instrumentality or lack thereof, Hajime’s serious attention to materiality drew on critical French philosophy. Although Derrida’s deconstruction of Western logocentricism in particular captured his imagination, Hajime also took to heart Derrida’s warning that Chinese writing should not be considered in terms of logocentricism, but in terms of another powerful movement of civilization. Hajime thus set himself the very ambitious and important task of providing a detailed history of the manner in which script and its perception created a canonical vision of order that persistently aligned social, cultural, and cosmological formations in early and medieval China. He eventually came to call this ‘the graphic regime.’ In keeping with the highly tuned critical edge of Hajime’s thought, the graphic regime was not intended as a neutral descriptive turn, but like Derrida’s logocentricism, was calculated to afford new insight into the material practices and medial operations of Chinese empire. The graphic regime is also an imperious regime.

Such an approach is both evocative and abstract, yet the strength of Hajime’s research lay in its meticulous attention to detail and technical care with documents ranging from calligraphy, portraiture, landscape, to primers, dictionaries, commentaries, criticism, and dynastic histories. “The Empire of Fame: Writing and the Voice in Early Medieval China,” published in Positions (2006), attests to the archival scope and depth of his project. Drawing on the extensive literature on the prestige of names and the desire for fame in medieval China, Hajime carefully historicized how it extends and departs from the prior Han regime. With his characteristic combination of lucid historical delineation and expressive finesse, Hajime thus describes the stakes of his study, which are nothing less than a thorough historicization of self and society:

It was in this absolute, totalizing sense that fame formed a regime in medieval China. As the gentry’s collective self-identification as eminent personalities already implies, to claim membership in this community of eminence meant to submit oneself to the dense traffic of renown, to insert one’s distinctive gestures, countenances, words, and deeds into the flow of voices circulating through the communal body like its vital juice. And the communal texture of fame formed the privileged surface on which the gentry recognized the forces shaping their world — its hierarchies and typologies, centers and peripheries, alliances and dispersals, and so on. Then, if fame served the gentry’s sociopolitical interests like the pursuit of prestige or the gauging of one’s standing in the sociable universe, it was not because fame supplied a transparent medium for a sociopolitical order existing outside of it. On the contrary, it was because in medieval optics, what we moderns would isolate as “society” or “politics” merged indistinguishably into a unified field of practices governed by the logic of fame. In this sense, fame orchestrated what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari would call a “regime of signs” — a system of practices and interpretations distributing bodies and orchestrating their interactions around specific semiotic operations.” (541-42)

Similarly, in Imperious Griffonage: Xu Bing and the Graphic Regime,” published in Art Journal (2009), through an analysis of the use of Chinese characters in the installations of contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing, Hajime provides an incisive account of what it is at stake in looking at Chinese writing as a graphic regime:

With a sensory tangibility that overrides even the ideological content of the texts being copied, writing repeatedly summons and subjugates bodies to the scene of its self-perpetuation. The profound complicity between the operation of power and the physical act of writing is a crucial component of what I call the graphic regime. Perhaps elsewhere as well, but especially in China, the sheer physicality of writing has continuously defined the ground parameters of what culture is.” (7)

Hajime’s research also ranged far beyond the history of writing and art in China into the fields of popular culture and media ethnography. As a member of the editorial board of Mechademia, for instance, Hajime not only solicited, reviewed, and edited essays related to Japanese popular culture, but also translated and introduced key essays and thinkers, such as the work of film critic Yomota Inuhiko and manga scholar Natsume Fusanosuke.

This broad range of interests and talents extended to his teaching, his supervision of graduate students, and his interactions with colleagues. Hajime Nakatani will be remembered as a brilliant scholar, and also as a warm, generous, humorous teacher, interlocutor, and friend. He was integral to the social fabric of this place. Equally at home conversing about brushstrokes in medieval Chinese texts, poststructuralist theories of writing, the history of anthropological thought, and the political aesthetics of cinema, he found ways to connect with people on many different levels. He was also a quintessential dinner and movie companion, the departmental expert on wine, and an ideal party guest. He possessed a rare combination of boundless intelligence and genuine humility. As one former student put it, Professor Nakatani had a great deal of knowledge, but—more importantly—he had wisdom. He touched many lives while at McGill and he was truly beloved by all who were fortunate to know him. He made many friends here, and we especially miss his sense of humour—how he made us laugh while also making us think.