Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Worcester State University
Coined by the Japanese philologist Motoori Norinaga, “mono no aware” refers to the moving power of things as they are encountered in experience as well as the sensitivity to the moving power of things in experience. For Norinaga, mono no aware was crucial to the capacity for art, specifically poetry and literature, to move the human kokoro, or heart-mind, in its consumption. It is the embodiment of mono no aware in poetry through the skilled organization of words that enables art to connect the kokoro of individuals across time, distance, and social position (Marra, 189). For Norinaga, the cultivation of mono no aware through consuming works of art enables an individual to cultivate their capacity to sense mono no aware in other realms beyond the aesthetic, including in social relationships.
Kokoro in Norinaga’s mono no aware and Japanese philosophy broadly, refers to the combined rational and affective capacity of an organism. Translated as “heart/mind,” the kokoro “involves a propensity for engagement, a sensitivity expressed as either being in touch with something else or being touched by it” (Kasulis 7), and it thus enables a mode of intersubjective responsiveness between the individual and the world. For our purposes, the movement of the kokoro in response to the encounter with the world is what gives rise to poetry as the articulation of an unbearable “aware” for Norinaga. While such aware may be released through a cry or a shout, or other emotional outburst, it is through poetry and art that the pent up aware within the human kokoro is given an articulate form so that other individuals might be moved by it and respond appropriately to the aware that moved the artist (Marra, 189).
Aware is therefore the movement of the kokoro in response to the encounter with the world around us. As such, aware includes a wide range of affects including, joy, charm, sadness, delight, love, and the social position of individuals as we are moved by our encounter with them (Marra, 184). In his commentary on painting and aware, Norinaga makes clear that painters should strive to match the bearing and affect of the individual represented, fictional or otherwise, such that the kokoro is moved as if the perceiver stood in the presence of the individual depicted (Marra, 139). For Norinaga, accurate representation was less a matter of pictorial accuracy and more a matter of capturing the attitude or bearing of the individual depicted: we should be moved by our encounter with the work in the same way that we would be moved by the encounter with the individual.
There is one final element of Norinaga’s mono no aware that is relevant for comics and comic art before we can proceed: the capacity for art to embody the aware of an event. Like the individual described above, events also have their own aware and their own kokoro. Events, for Norinaga, are also things that the kokoro responds to through its movement, and thus possess their own aware (Wehmeyer, 22). In its embodiment of the aware of a person or event through the appropriate arrangement of words, literature makes present the kororo of an event as experienced such that the individual engaging with the work comes to recognize the aware of the event and learns to respond appropriately to it in their own lived experience (Harper and Shriane, 12317-20). It is in this way that literature and art engages in the cultivation of mono no aware through placing the kokoro of the perceiver in communication with the kokoro of the event or character such that they learn to respond appropriately to experiences distinct from their own (Marra 172-3).
Here, we can turn to comics. For Norinaga, the purpose of art in general, and literature in specific, was the accurate articulation of the mono no aware of an event or an individual such that those who engaged with it could come to recognize it in their own lives (Harper and Shriane, 12317-20). In Norinaga’s view, this is also the role that comics should play in their integration of images and text to articulate a narrative. That is, comics should strive for the representation of the mono no aware of diverse experiences such that comics readers and comics fans can come to recognize the aware of the situations experienced by others. Thus, for Norinaga, questions of representation in comics and the kinds of narratives comics articulate are questions of the ways that we want comics to engage with the cultivation of the self. To this end, the following from Eve Ewing, author of the 2019 run of Ironheart, is valuable:
I think that Riri’s very existence and the stories we can tell about her have the potential to be revolutionary. It’s important to me that Riri is not a superhero who happens to have melanin. She is a Black superhero. There are things about her worldview and her perspective that are shaped by her cultural identity and who she is. (Ewing, “interview”)
In the above, Ewing makes the distinction between a “superhero who happens to have melanin” and a “Black superhero,” a distinction that can be accounted for through Norinaga’s mono no aware. For Norinaga, a “superhero who happens to have melanin” is not informed by the experiential context of being black: their heroism, and the aware it articulates within the narrative, do not reflect the world inhabited by Black people. Insofar as the social worlds, like the social positions of individuals, have a unique aware that emerges through the ways people interact within them, the distinction Ewing is drawing is one of the ways that Black superheroes draw upon the experiences of the “Black world” to inform how they respond to the broader world through the movement of the kokoro.
In this vein, Ewing provides the example of Riri treating a young thief with compassion based on the compassion that she received in a similar situation. That is, Ewing depicts Riri’s kokoro as having been cultivated by the experience to recognize the similarity in aware in the situation of the thief and Riri’s own situation such that the response of her kokoro is one of compassion (Ewing, “interview”). In Norinaga’s view, the depiction of Riri’s compassionate actions in response to the aware of the situation, and the aware that emerges through Ewing’s depiction of Riri in that moment should serve to cultivate the reader’s kokoro such that they have an understanding of the aware of similar situations and, in keeping, how to respond to those situations. More specifically, Ewing’s articulation of Riri’s Black cultural identity serves to communicate the aware of that cultural identity, the way that it shapes how the kokoro interacts with the world, to readers who cannot have that experience.
To the extent that Ewing, as a Black woman, drew upon her own experiences of being Black in society to give life to Riri’s kokoro and the kokoro of the events she experiences, Ewing creates a context wherein readers can engage with the aware of the Black cultural context such that they can come to recognize that aware in spaces beyond the pages of comics. Here, Ewing’s description of Riri as “revolutionary” (Ewing, “interview”) is telling: because comics, the narratives they tell, and the aware they articulate have predominantly emerged from the kokoro of white authors and creators, from the experiences of white authors and creators, the articulation of the aware of a non-white experience in a world organized around whiteness is a revolutionary act, one which is in keeping with Norinaga’s mono no aware.
Thus, If the role of mono no aware in art is to enable the cultivation of kokoro sensitive to the aware of a variety of experiences in the world, then, for Norinaga, the concern of comics and the representations therein, should be enabling the cultivation of the kokoro of its readers such that they respond to the aware they encounter in the world with compassion.
Sceritz, John Robinson IVAKA. “Interview: Eve L. Ewing.” Comics Horizon, 1 Feb. 2019, doyouevencomicbook.com/2019/02/interview-eve-l-ewing/.
Harper, Thomas and Shirane, Haruno. ed. Reading The Tale of Genji: Sources from the First Millennium, Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
Kasulis, Thomas P. “Cultivating the Mindful Heart: What We May Learn From the Japanese Philosophy of Kokoro.” The Ohio State University and Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture Roche Chair for Interreligious research, 2006
Marra, Michael F. The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey. University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.
Wehmeyer, Ann (trans). Kojiki-den: Book 1. Cornell University East Asian Program, 1997
Johnathan Flowers is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Worcester State University. His research focuses on the affective ground of experience and embodiment through American Pragmatism, Phenomenology and East-Asian Philosophy. In applying his research to comics studies, Flowers focuses comics as an affective experience through Japanese and Pragmatist aesthetics, as a mode of philosophical writing, and cross-cultural approaches to comics including affective experiences of marginalization and representation through comics and the comics community.
Due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, ICAF was forced to cancel its events at the 2020 Small Press Expo. Over the next 16 weeks (give or take), we will be publishing