Saturday, January 14, 2006

Congressional Kabuki

In coverage of the Alito confirmation hearings, references to "Kabuki," "Kabuki dance," or "Kabuki theater" keep coming up. Even participants in the hearings like Senator Joe Biden made them.

MSNBC commentator Flavia Monteiro Colgan writes: "Most of the public that could have been interested in weighing these issues had tuned out because of the air of inevitability that Democrats had fostered--or they were turned off by the Kabuki theater of the previous days." Commentator Carol Platt Liebau writes, "we’re treated not to a hearing, where issues and concerns will be thoroughly but impartially aired, but instead to a stylized kabuki ritual, where Judge Alito’s adversaries will attempt to draw blood...." ("Draw blood"? That's some ritual!)

The Jurist has an article entitled "Of Kabuki Dances and Subtle Minuets."

The cliched phrase is usually used to refer to highly regulated yet empty movements, though Salon bungles that somewhat. They've got: "The moribund hearings have been as predictable as a Kabuki drama." Predictable? Can you really imagine the Salon writer in a Kabuki theater slapping his forehead and saying, "Not this again!"?

While in Japan, I never caught a Kabuki performance, but I did see a Noh play. I thought Kabuki was the highly-stylized and ritualistic Noh's wilder offspring. Maybe Noh is what these commentators really mean.

Anyway, "Kabuki" or "political Kabuki" seems to be a meme that's gathering steam, as Language Hat predicted a while back. Here is an old blog entry on the topic from Semantic Composition which traces its usage.


Matt said...

Kabuki's a little wilder than Noh, but that's like saying that Ohio is a little wilder than Minnesota (not that I've ever been to either place. Sorry, folks.)

I think it's the slow pace of (a lot of) the dancing that invites the metaphor -- even if it's no more choreographed than a regular ballet, if it's mainly confined to one person posing carefully at a time rather than troupes of folks leaping and twirling, it SEEMS more boring and lifeless.

IbaDaiRon said...

but that's like saying that Ohio is a little wilder than Minnesota

Do you mean as in "a happenin' place" (OK) or "more wilderness" (ahem)?

I tend to agree with Amida that they're confusing Kabuki with Noh (which I've only seen on TV. I think it's cool, though, that the name is also the proper reply to an invitation to!). At the very least, the kakegoe from the Kabuki audiences has always kept me from dozing!

(Here's a little something you might find amusing:

amida said...

Yeah, I know what they are getting at when they use this phrase, I just think it is a little unfortunate that the primary meaning of "kabuki" in English is "dull and overly-stylized set of rote motions." I mean, how many who're using it have actually seen Kabuki and know first-hand what they are talking about?

The Noh performance I saw was a great experience that I think I would never want to repeat. It was fantastically boring, but it lulled me into a sort of trance. Then came a battle scene (Benkei fighting a Taira spirit), things sped up (I believe this is known as the "kyuu" section), and I sort of snapped out of it. Coming out, I felt as if I had been doing zazen for 90 minutes.

The play, Funabenkei, was put on as a part of a "Get to Know Noh" event. I think they chose that one for its, uh, exciting qualities.

amida said...

IDR: That reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon in which some culture vulture turns to his neighbor in the theater and says irritatedly, "What part of Noh don't you understand?"

Anonymous said...

Actually, Kabuki came much later than Noh, and isn't really related at all. Kabuki came from the dance performances of prostitutes.That said, Kabuki does rely on flashiness and effects, which some people do consider "empty". I would say it's being evoked here for it's exotic effect, and maybe as a way of saying "I know more than you, I'm referencing foreign theatre". And of course, there are no blood rituals.