Contextualism is the thesis that tsuba is an artifact of a particular sort, an object or structure that is the product of human invention at a particular time and place, by a particular individual or individuals, and that that fact has consequences for how one properly experiences, understands, and evaluates works of tsubashi. To get a better handle on what tsuba are on a contextualist conception of them one can draw useful analogies with the notions of utterance, action, and achievement. A contextually-situated tsuba is akin in different ways to an achievement of a particular individual working under specific constraints on a specific problem within a given domain. Had the historical context been different, the work itself would have been different, because the artistic utterance it makes, the artistic actions it incarnates, the artistic achievement it embodies, would invariably have been different. And all such differences entail other differences in what the tsuba represents, expresses, or exemplifies in aesthetically relevant ways.

Aesthetic contextualism is unavoidable if we are to make proper sense of how tsuba are created, interpreted, and assessed. But if contextualism is right, objects that share the same manifest form may in fact not have the same status, content or value as tsuba works. Empiricism in tsuba affirms that the essence of a tsuba lies in its perceptual aspects, in its manifest qualities; therefore, understanding a tsuba requires nothing beyond perceiving it, without concern for its historical provenance or the problematic from which it emerged. As for relativism about tsuba, it is the thesis that what a tsuba means, what aesthetic content it possesses, what aesthetic value one may accord it, are all relative to individual perceivers or classes of perceivers. If such a view is to be opposed, in favor of a modest objectivism about tsuba, it becomes imperative to understand, in contextualist fashion, what makes something a tsuba to begin with; what sort of object a tsuba is, once it is constituted as such; and how the meaning and content of a work are generated.

Let me enter some further clarifications regarding the sort of contextualism defended here.
First, the perspective I advocate on the appreciation of tsuba is concerned not so much with explaining how the work came to be, in the causal sense, but in understanding what it expresses or communicates; if tsuba are not to collapse into natural objects, then a grasp of cultural-historical context is necessary for the latter, whatever role it might play in the former.
Second, as far as artistic meaning is concerned, it is not the actual, possibly inaccessible semantic intentions of tsubashi’s that matter, but rather the intentions most reasonably hypothesized to have governed the making of a tsuba, by appropriately placed audiences in possession of relevant information on the tsuba’s context of creation; only then can the utterance that is the tsubashi's work be rightly grasped.
Third, the idea that what one must do in appreciation is “focus on the tsuba itself”, which seems unobjectionable, doesn't get you anywhere without a defensible conception of what the tsuba is, and as I have tried to suggest, a contextualist, temporally-situated, utterance-based conception of tsuba’s are obviously superior to a formalist or empiricist one.
Fourth, the idea that if the tsubashi doesn't know what something in his or her work means then no one knows, as well as the idea that the tsubashi has a privileged access to his or her own mental states, is not one that can be seriously proposed. What a tsubashi's work means, in whole or in part, may very well be clearer to well-placed others than to him or her. In addition, what a tsuba, as an utterance in a context means is not always the same as what the tsubashi, on that occasion of utterance, may have meant by producing the work.

Finally, of course it should be a goal of interacting with tsuba that one connect with what is really in the work, and precisely through the forms and structures that are its perceivable core, and on which any further qualities and meanings it possesses depend. But that is hardly inconsistent with the demand that, if one wants to experience and understand a work of art as such, rather than merely “get off on it”, one must see those forms and structures not as coming out of nowhere, nor as having dropped from heaven, but as the choice of a particular historically and culturally situated individual working in a particular medium, with its own inherited conventions and associations. Approaching a work “blind”, that is, without any contextual situating or positioning of it, may sometimes be fun or otherwise experientially rewarding, but it is not approaching tsuba as a human expressive and communicative activity.

I have not by any means made a full case for contextualism here, but such a case could certainly be constructed from the recent literature in aesthetics. Contextualism is virtually forced upon us as the best account or explanation of our long-standing practices of experiencing, describing, criticizing, evaluating, and reflecting on tsuba. Structures or forms per se, detached from their emplacements in traditions, styles, and historical moments, are simply incapable of conveying the meanings, significances and resonances that informed criticism and response to tsuba normally ascribes to them.

Let me address finally the question of the degree of intellectuality of response appropriate to tsuba. An appreciator doesn't have to be able to articulate intellectually the cultural context, background knowledge, or cognitive orientation requisite for experiencing a tsuba correctly, that is, as the historically situated utterance or offering it is, he or she simply needs to maintain it. But by and large one acquires what's needed by osmosis from the culture and wide experience in the tosogu in question. What is needed are basically style-relative and period-relative habits of response.

In conclusion, let me just say that of course experience of tsuba is the most important thing, and the impact of tsuba its primary reason for being. But that does not mean that such experience and such impact are not inevitably and properly culturally mediated and historically informed. To think otherwise, once again, risks reducing our engagement with tsuba to our engagement with mere designs, however striking or beautiful. But tsuba encompasses the entire human soul, in its infinite variety.


Elliott D. Long
Shibui Swords and Tsuba

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