Kōjin Karatani’s Structure of World History is a book so strange and ambitious, and of such striking theoretical imagination, that any approach to it risks misrepresenting its object.footnote1 It is a bid to refound Marxist theory and historiography in general, unearthing the fundamental structures of human society and tracing their transformations over time, from the earliest nomadic hunter-gatherer bands to the present, in a sort of universal history. In doing so, Karatani offers to remedy a deficiency that he traces back to Marx: the lack of an adequate concept of the state or the nation and a reductive—arguably bourgeois—understanding of ‘the economic’. It is also a philosophical work, exemplifying Karatani’s mode of Kantian–Marxian ‘transcendental critique’ in its re-examination of the essential structures of society. Finally, it is an attempt to revise the strategic orientation of his Transcritique (2003), anticipating how a simultaneous world revolution might yet be possible.

Transcritique was essentially a meshing of heterogeneous themes that had first been developed in articles for a literary magazine. This new book, written since Karatani’s retirement from Japanese academia in 2006, is an attempt at grand synthesis. His signature intellectual procedure over the years has been the striking reinterpretation, in clear, accessible prose, of some small detail from a work of philosophy, political economy or anthropology, which then precipitates a broader, unanticipated shift of perspective. While The Structure of World History attempts something more systematic in the way of theoretical and historical construction, it bears the imprint of its author’s distinctive politico-cultural history.

Born in 1941 in Amagasaki, in 1960 Karatani entered Tokyo University at the height of popular struggles over the Japan–us Security Treaty. There he joined the Kyōsandō (Communist League, or ‘Bund’), a left split from the Communist Party with roots in the post-war student movement, that had been playing a central role in the anti-Treaty protests. After the defeat of the campaign a majority turned left again, to form a new proletarian vanguard party. Rejecting this course, in 1961 Karatani wrote a manifesto calling for a reorganization of the Shagakudō (Socialist Students League) as an association of activists, free of any centralized party—an orientation to spontaneity he would later recognize as anarchist.

In these years, Karatani studied the work of heterodox Marxist economist Kōzō Uno, counter-intuitively a core element of the Tokyo University curriculum at the time. Uno’s theorization had focused particularly on the formal structures of exchange, effectively treating merchant capital as the key form of capital per se—an emphasis that would pass into Karatani’s thinking, and take on a new importance there. However, after a first degree in economics, he opted for postgraduate studies in literature, and it was in this area that he launched his intellectual career, making his name as a critic with an award-winning essay on the Meiji novelist Natsume Sōseki.footnote2 In these years too, he developed a close association with the later-famous burakumin [outcaste] novelist and essayist, Kenji Nakagami, that would last until the latter’s early death in 1992: an instance of the critic–novelist pairing that Akira Asada has characterized as a standard feature of Japanese intellectual life.footnote3 Karatani’s cultural turn was not necessarily a step back from politics, though; by Asada’s estimate, up to the end of the 1970s literary criticism was the main arena in which Japanese intellectual and political debate occurred, more engaged than other areas with a broader reading public. A continuation of the work on Sōseki, Man in Awe, was published in 1972, followed three years later by Meaning as Illness, an investigation of the literary construction of sickness.

At this point Karatani was invited to lecture on Japanese literature at Yale, where he formed connections with Paul de Man and Fredric Jameson. The book that emerged from these lectures, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (1980), was lightly poststructuralist in manner, displaying a somewhat Foucauldian or Nietzschean genealogical orientation. It examined the points of genesis, through the years in which Japan underwent its breakneck conversion to industrial capitalism, of a number of new cultural constructs—landscape, interiority, confession, the child—not so much under the mere ‘influence’ of Western culture as spontaneously produced in response to the social logics of a capitalist epoch. Another book of the same year, Architecture as Metaphor, which drew on a series of essays from the 1970s, was an avowedly deconstructionist project, attempting to grapple with a ‘will to architecture’ that had supposedly been at the core of Western thought since Plato, and probing the question of structure in town planning, mathematics, language, philosophy, and Marxian political economy.footnote4

But Karatani’s postmodern moment, unlike that of so many of his peers internationally, did not amount to a straightforward retreat from the radicalism of the 1960s, or a rejection of Marxian theory tout court. Indeed, he was distinctly ambivalent about any wholesale embrace of the postmodern, viewing this in a Japanese context as a kind of facile escapism from the ‘ineluctable nature of modernity’.footnote5 Looking back from 1992, he doubted the supposed radicality of Western-style poststructuralism in a culture which was, he thought, already constitutionally predisposed to a certain ‘deconstructionism’.footnote6 Here, it was more radical to engage in positive, architectonic construction. The cognitive dissonance of his dual position on these issues appears to have precipitated some sort of crisis and reorientation, eventually to be thematized in the ‘parallax view’ of Transcritique.footnote7

Around that time, Karatani and Asada launched the quarterly journal Critical Space, which aimed to draw together Japanese and Western critical traditions, with articles on culture, politics and philosophy.footnote8 Then in 2000, with others, they initiated the New Associationist Movement (nam), amid deepening economic stagnation, and cynicism about the party-political system after the Socialists had squandered their one chance in government. Drawing its name from the lexicon of the early socialist movement, associationism was a utopian programme that sought to transcend capital, nation and state—seen as three mutually-reinforcing moments of a ‘Borromean knot’footnote9—through the creation of federated worker and consumer cooperatives, boycotts, and local currency schemes, which were supposed to sow the seeds of a post-capitalist mode of production in the midst of capitalist society. Justification for this orientation had come from Karatani’s reading of Marxian political economy, which viewed the moment of consumption as one of greater leverage for workers than that of production, since capital has no direct power to enforce the purchase of its products.