Theme: Divination, Prediction and the Very Idea of the Future
By contrast, despite its actual popularity, divination has the character of a marginal aberrance in societies where it was not prominent (such as ours), and it could be argued that this marginality is a hallmark of modernity. (The sociologist Anthony Giddens, for example, makes a distinction between "modern" notions of risk and earlier notions of fate, fortune and divine intervention). Within the context of the ancient world, we propose to explore the kinds of rationality expressed in the play of divinatory procedures, oracular symbolisms, and the classificatory systems they employ to manipulate and interpret information. We also propose to explore these themes in literatures of emergent modernity.
Divination and prediction emerge as significant elements in Meiji Japanese literature. Inoue Enryo (1858-1919), a Japanese Buddhist philosopher and educator, was deeply involved in the "modernization" and "Westernization" of Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). His first major monograph was an attempt to debunk a fortune-telling game that was explosively popular during the 1880s. The practice, known as Kokkuri, was a procedure whereby traditional Japanese spirits from the "otherworld" were called upon to inhabit a small bamboo structure and provide information about the future. Enryo and other ideologues of "civilization and enlightenment" (bunmei kaika) saw Kokkuri as a dangerous form of "superstition," a hindrance to Japan's progress as a modern nation-state competitive with the West. Enryo's explanation of the operation of Kokkuri serves as a paradigmatic example of the way in which Western scientific thought (Faraday, Carpenter) was appropriated by Japanese "enlightenment" theorists in order to destabilize traditional spiritual notions. Ironically, however, it was not only the rational and scientific practices that were imported from the west; as Enryo himself notes, the divination procedures that developed into Kokkuri were themselves derived directly from Western practices of "table-turning" associated with the Modern Spiritualist Movement. Study of the various discourses surrounding the practice of Kokkuri will reveal interactions between notions of tradition and progress, native and foreign, mystical and scientific during this particularly exciting moment of cultural transition, in which competing discourses and practices become starkly outlined. It is also important to understand how notions of divination change during this period. Another of Enryo's works, for example, is provocatively entitled "Philosophical Divination" (Tetsugaku uranai), and provides insight into shifting attitudes toward shamanism, spirit possession, philosophy, and the (im)possibility of reading the future.
Themes of prediction, divination and the manipulation of time are standard fare in both contemporary Western science fiction and in modern and late imperial Chinese martial arts literature. In particular, the works of the contemporary writer Jin Yong combine supernatural themes (including divination and magic) and a strong focus on the empowerment of women (His novels have, indeed, inspired a whole generation of young Chinese women, two of whom are graduate student participants in this project.)
A workshop focusing broadly on notions of divination and predicting the future would provide a solid cross-cultural and theoretical base for our various explorations of Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Roman practices in the ancient and emergent modern worlds. We are interested to explore correlations both with regard to divination methods as well as socio-cultural attitudes toward divination. Exploring notions of reading the future from a broader theoretical perspective than our individual research can provide will help all of us identify and articulate key themes in our own work. We anticipate 10 to 12 interdisciplinary workshops or presentations over a one-year period. These will range from formal papers by invited speakers to informal presentations of our own research, and literary discussions across the humanities and social sciences. The potential audience for our discussions includes specialists in anthropology, Classics, Comparative Literature, East and Southeast Asia, history, philosophy, religion and sociology.