Raja Adal, Beauty in the Age of Empire: Japan, Egypt and the Global History of Aesthetic Education (Columbia University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Raja Adal (RA): This book came out of two experiences. The first was my experience growing up between the Arab world and the United States. The second was my time in Japan, seven years to be precise, from my graduation from college to the start of my PhD studies in the United States. When I first arrived in Japan, it was as a scholarship student at a small graduate school, the International University of Japan, a place surrounded by rice fields and then, a bit further out, mountains. I got off the plane and took two trains that shuttled me through the high rises and neon-lit streets of Tokyo before delivering me to the doorstep of a university where the staff were granted a two-week spring break to plant rice in their rice paddies. The contrast was stark, and it led me to see the Middle East and its history differently. It also began a lifelong process of thinking about Japan and the Middle East simultaneously, first informally and then as the topic for my PhD dissertation. This is where the framework of this book, which looks at Japan and Egypt as two societies on the receiving end of Western expansion, was born.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RA: The history of societies on the receiving end of Western expansion is often told in terms of acceptance of or resistance to the wealth and power of Western empires. Acceptance welcomed Western empires as a civilizing force, while resistance opposed them as a colonial project. This book suggests that the line separating the perception of Western empires as civilizing or as colonizing is aesthetic. Aesthetics is important in all modern societies, but it was all the more important for societies on the receiving of Western expansion, which could not claim to be wealthier or more powerful than Western empires—only more beautiful.

In order to understand the role of aesthetics in societies on the receiving end of Western expansion, this book compares Japan and Egypt. More specifically, it compares drawing, music, and calligraphy education in modern Japanese and Egyptian primary schools from their birth in the early 1870s, to the mid-twentieth century. Modern primary schools are especially useful for the comparison because they constitute a global archive. Every modern society has modern schools and all of these schools produce very similar sources: curricula that tell teachers what to teach; textbooks that help them teach it; and teaching manuals that tell them how to teach it. Having such an archive, which is both global and circumscribed, was key to tracing the flow of texts, ideas, and practices between the West and Egypt, on the one hand, and between the West and Japan, on the other—before comparing Egypt and Japan’s engagement with the West.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

RA: My previous work was either about the Middle East or about Japan. I have published several articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries, as well as the journal of an index about the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman and Arab thinker and activist, Shakib Arslan. These earlier works were intellectual histories, tracing Arslan’s thought, or social histories, tracing his transnational network. In this project, I decided not only to do a genuinely comparative project that is equally grounded in Middle Eastern and Japanese studies, but also to change my focus from intellectual history to cultural history.

The transition to cultural history entailed shifting from the study of a seminal thinker like Shakib Arslan to the study of hundreds of educators who were often both educated in and employed by state-run institutions, such as ministries of education and teachers’ colleges, but who were also public intellectuals with their own ideas and agendas. Even more importantly, it meant shifting from discussions of ideas meant to be consumed by adults, to discussions of embodied performances, such as singing, drawing, and writing, which were meant to be practiced by children. Throughout the manuscript, for example, music education is often discussed as an education of the heart, while drawing is considered an education of the eye, and calligraphy a disciplining of the hand, the body, or the spirit. In this way, this project differs from my previous work in that it is globally comparative, focused on sources produced by hundreds of mid-level actors instead of a few elites, and discusses not ideas but embodied practices.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RA: Culture is usually treated as something local, national, and specific. I think my book shows that cultural policy, which I study in the context of aesthetic education, occurred on a global stage. European and American texts, ideas, and practices influenced Egyptian and Japanese educators so much that music, drawing, and calligraphy education in Egypt and Japan came to resemble each other without ever having been in direct contact. In chapter four, for example, I show that the introduction of the most nationally specific styles of drawing, Arabesque in Egypt and the use of the brush instead of the pencil in Japan, into the primary school curriculum of these two societies was in response to global forces that affected both Egypt and Japan in the late 1880s and early 1890s. I hope that my work will be of interest to scholars of the Middle East and of Japan, even if they are not engaged in world history, by helping them rethink the construction of culture in global terms.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RA: When I was working on chapter two about writing and calligraphy education, I came across references to the Arabic and Japanese typewriter. These references led to my current project on global scripts and writing technologies, which traces the intertwined history of the few dozen scripts that have survived and are still used to write languages across the world, on the one hand, and the writing technologies used to write them, on the other.

What I call the century of the typewriter, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, was a moment when writing technology mattered more than ever before, or ever since. Before the age of the typewriter, it was possible to write any script with a pen, brush, or quill. After the age of the typewriter (actually a decade or two afterwards, starting from the turn of the twentieth century), the Unicode Standard made it possible to type almost any script in the world on a standard electronic device like a computer or a smart phone. But during the age of the typewriter and in its immediate aftermath, writing a different script meant either purchasing a new device or, if none existed, inventing one. In 1900, for example, any language written with the Arabic script could only be handwritten. If one wanted to type, one had to either write another language or type Arabic with a Latin typewriter. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century, the printing press had already established the dichotomy between handwritten and printed texts that we are familiar with today. Printed characters, whether printed with a printing press or typewriter, were associated with the public realm while handwriting was associated with the private realm. So, when the first Arabic-character typewriter was commercialized around 1904, it was welcomed as a savior for the Arabic script.

This project explores the long-standing relationship between modern scripts and the instruments used to write them. I think that such a material history of writing is important today, when letters are increasingly rare while emails, posts, and tweets are growing more common; writing is de-territorialized, produced anywhere in the world including by non-human bots; and the consumption of written texts is often supplanted by other media like video. As the instruments for writing change, I am interested in the question of how our relationships to the text, to the scripts in which it is written, and to technology also change.

J: What sort of methodologies do you use in your work?

RA: I have always believed that different approaches reveal different things about a topic. So, textual sources tend to reveal things that are different from visual sources, like images or material artefacts. And a close reading of a small number of documents reveals something different from a distant reading of thousands of documents using digital methods. This book uses texts as well as images. As a historian, I was trained to use texts, but if I was going to use images to develop my argument, not just as illustrations for things that I had already discovered through reading texts but as an analytical method in its own right, I had to familiarize myself with methods used by art historians.

As I was finishing my first book, I became interested in using another method, what is often referred to as the digital humanities or computational humanities, to analyze thousands of documents. This does not mean that I no longer do a close reading of sources. On the contrary, I find that there is a synergy that emerges out of using these various methods. So, a close reading of texts is complemented by a distant reading of a large number of texts and by a visual analysis of images related to these text. Each of them illuminates the same topic in complimentary ways.

Excerpt from the book


In the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, music is an uncanny source of desire:

The town of Hamelin was infested by rats. A piper promised to rid the town of the vermin in exchange for payment. The townspeople agreed, but once the sound of the piper’s flute had led all of the rats into the river, they reneged on their promise. In revenge, the piper played his flute again, this time leading the town’s children into the mountains where they disappeared and were never seen again. Thereafter, on the street where the children of Hamelin had followed the piper, music and dance were forever forbidden.

When modern bureaucrats and schoolteachers decided to overturn centuries of custom and use music to educate children, they overcame the fear that the Pied Piper would come and take their children away. Or rather, they decided to become the Piper and use the power of music to try and attract children, not into a river or mountain but toward the school and its teachings. The government committee that introduced music in Japanese schools in 1886, for example, imagined music as instilling a moral discipline into children’s inner lives:

Music moves the heart (shinjō), whether toward happiness or sadness. When a disciplined song is heard the heart becomes disciplined, when a comforting song is heard the heart is comforted. At such times evil does not enter the heart. If good songs are listened to in childhood, a child’s upbringing will be virtuous. Music moves people in unison and is therefore used in the military. To win on the battlefield the power of music is necessary. The teacher, like the general, can utilize music to achieve harmony in children’s hearts.

Only a few years earlier the French republican composer and educator Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray sounded a similar note when he approved of the introduction of music into French schools. Music, he wrote, is an “all powerful educational tool.” In fact, across the world, the justification for including music in school curricula was much the same. In 1930s Egypt, for example, the director of the Egyptian Institute of Education, Aḥmad Fahmī al-ʿAmrūsī, gave many of the same reasons for teaching music to children that his French and Japanese counterparts from half a century earlier gave:

In the human soul there are deeper regions that lay farther from the mind (al-ʿaql), and these are the regions of inclinations, sentiments, and desire. So if we wish to give children a complete education, we cannot limit it to an education of the mind. We must go to the bottom of their souls (nufūsahum) and to the depths of their hearts (qulūbahum) and nourish them with musical sounds.

Similar references to the power of music can be heard across late nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature on primary school education. Although they rarely if ever referred to the Pied Piper, these educators deployed music like modern pipers seeking to elicit desire in children’s hearts.

This book is about the uses of enchantment, attraction, and desire in modern schools. By looking at the modern school, it suggests that the power of enchantment never disappeared from the modern world. Only its location changed, from sites like the court, the church, or the village festival to modern institutions like the school. The source of enchantment was no longer limited to the pageantry of rulers, the smells, sounds, and sights of religious ceremonies, or the sensory intoxication of village festivals but could also be found in government schools ringing with the sounds of national anthems and brought alive by beautiful, colorful paintings. The narrative of modernity has often been one of disenchantment and rationalization. Max Weber’s iron cage famously expunged enchantment from modernity. Yet the pleasures that suffuse modern life should push us to consider how moderns found ways to systematically enchant new spaces like the school, manipulating children’s inner selves not through punishment and control but through attraction and desire.

But how do we study desire? The Piper attracted the children of Hamelin through their senses. Like the Piper, the interdisciplinary field of aesthetics is concerned with attraction toward objects of desire and with how these objects of desire are perceived through the senses. The modern school is well suited for examining not so much the experience of attraction itself as the quest by educators to use attraction to educate children’s inner selves. Three curricular subjects were particularly suited for this project: music, drawing, and writing education. All were concerned with sensory experiences, with music training the ear while drawing and writing trained the eye. These three subjects will serve to introduce some of the ways in which a modern institution like the government school sought to use sensory experiences to attract and enchant. In this book, these three subjects will collectively be referred to as aesthetic education.

Aesthetic education was part of modern primary school education across the globe. Most of the sources in this book come from Japan, Egypt, France, Great Britain, or the United States. Educators in all these societies, and we can safely assume in most every other society with a modern school system, sought to use aesthetic education to inculcate children with attractions toward a nation, an ideology, or any other normative object of attraction. In this book, aesthetics has a broad meaning, referring to not only to personal attractions but to collective attractions that bind individuals together into a community of shared pleasures. For Friedrich Schiller, aesthetics was the force that was tasked with creating a cultural community in the face of a cold technological modernity. It was the repository of the particular, which for nationalisms is national identity, as opposed to the undifferentiated universal technologies of modernity. Aesthetic education in modern primary schools was part of a larger concern with culture, identity, and community.

Although aesthetic education was important for forging community in Europe and North America, it was even more vital for societies on the receiving end of Western expansion. In an imperial age pervaded by colonialism, or at least the threat of colonialism, aesthetics was a rare terrain where non-Western societies could claim to be superior to the wealthier and more powerful Western states. This can be seen in a popular nineteenth-century slogan that promoted a “Japanese spirit with a Western technique” (wakon yōsai). Its premise was that if modern Western techniques were universal, the “spirit” was particular to Japan. This spirit, like the spirit of all nationalisms, was aesthetic. It resided in Japanese art, literature, nature, and other sites that were a source of pleasure. The association of technology, universality, and power with the West and spirituality, particularity, and aesthetics with the indigenous self was not unique to Japan. A contemporaneous Egyptian discourse spoke of “the spiritual and the material” (al-rūḥi wa al-mālī), where the spiritual was the Egyptian self—whether located in the Arabic language, Egypt’s pharaonic past, or the Islamic religion—while the material consisted of universal Western technology. If Western techniques were powerful, the indigenous self was beautiful.

The sources used to write this book make it particularly well suited for placing aesthetics on a global terrain where power is unequally distributed. Although this book includes sources from France, Great Britain, and the United States, most are from Japan and Egypt. Like other non-Western societies in the nineteenth century, Japan and Egypt were faced either with Western colonialism or with the threat of colonialism. The very use of the word “colonialism,” of course, has negative connotations. It is usually understood as the exploitative control of one society over another. The flip side of “colonialism” was “civilization,” with all the positive connotations associated with it. The seminal thinker in nineteenth-century Japan Fukuzawa Yukichi frequently referred to the West as a source of civilization (bunmei), just like his equally famous Egyptian counterpart Rifaʿ al-Tahtawi sometimes spoke of the West as a source of civilization (madaniya and ḥaḍāra). Western expansion could be described as either a colonial project or a civilizational one.

The difference between them was primarily aesthetic. If the foreign and the indigenous came to share in the same attractions, morals, and beliefs, then the difference between them would be erased. Both the colonizer and the colonized would disappear. There would be no nationalist movement that would demand separation from the colonizing power because the colonizing power would be conceived as part of the national self. Examples include all those parts of the world that became a part of larger national entities, from Corsica to Hawaii to Okinawa. For young nations on the receiving end of Western expansion like Japan and Egypt, the wealth and power of the West risked seducing their populations and erasing any distinction between the national self and the Western other. In the face of the superior wealth and power of Western empires, these non-Western nations were particularly concerned with establishing a national aesthetic. This book traces their efforts to create an aesthetic national subject that could anchor their national identity in Japanese and Egyptian government schools.

In the next two sections I briefly introduce the study of aesthetics in one place and in no place and, in so doing, clarify the ways in which the often contested and sometimes nebulous concept of aesthetics has been used. Then I turn to the study of aesthetics in many places. Once we think of the Piper in a global context, we begin to hear the sound of his flute everywhere. It becomes an intricate part of a modern world that has always had its enchanters, not only in its popular cultures but in quintessentially modern institutions like the nation-state and the modern school. These enchanters can be heard everywhere, but they were not everywhere the same. The sound of their flutes resounds across an asymmetrical global terrain that is inflected by multiple competing relations of power.