Adventures in Criticism: Otaku 2

Well, OGT warned me, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. The second chapter of Otaku is pretty epic. O_o It’s where most of the meat of the book lies, actually. So. Chapter two: “Database Animals.”

This is the part you’re familiar with. Azuma posits that otaku, and postmodern media consumers, have stopped consuming in the traditional manner and have adopted, instead, a kind of database consumption. An aside: if you like Azuma, you’re contractually obligated to be OK with random philosophy/theory references; this chapter is full of them, from Freud and Lacan down to Zizek and Hegel. It was pretty crazy. In fact, Azuma’s theory is indebted to Hegel and readings of Hegel by Kojève. Hegel claimed that once history died (history being the phenemological struggle for self-hood against a similar-in-kind Other), only two routes would be available for the actualized person: animalism and humanism. Hence the database animal. Hegelian animals live in harmonious co-existence with their environments, as contrasted to humans, who fight their environments and shape them.

The database is a collection and collation of material from media, spread out in a kind of nebulous web from which creators and consumers alike draw. Indeed, Azuma claims the database is the fundamental way in which fan artists, such as doujin creators or amv remixers, are able to do their work. Without a sense of connectivity between elements that aren’t actually connected in any way (for instance, at no time does Linkin Park actually do soundtrack work for Naruto), such remixes, fan creations, and even “official” peripheral creations would be impossible. His example of the latter is the Eva spin-offs, created by GAINAX but just as removed from the show as anything else. In fact, remember all that good Baudrillard stuff from last time? Azuma brings him up specifically, and claims the media itself (the show, NGE) and the fan art are equally simulacra – that is, hyperreal, removed from “original” and “real” as opposed to “fake.” He has good reason to say this… but he doesn’t use his good reason – the contemporary manufacture and consumption process. He claims they’re hyperreal because they draw from the database. But he also brings up something that, in Japan, is called “anime realism.” It works on the prevalence of anime ideas. They’re so widespread, the habit of thought goes, that referencing them is like referencing reality. The viewers accept it as something that appears.

This, especially, doesn’t seem like something specific to anime or Japan. It’s the whole of the backing of genre theory, it seems to me – the understanding in the audience that some things simply appear. Suvin’s theory of SF talked about nova, or estranging things. Space ships might be an example. And that makes sense, but the concept of “anime realism” points out that fans of space ship shows or books simply expect the space ships to be there. They’ve read/seen so much of them that it’s simply a facet of the genre that’s true.

The database is supposed to be Azuma’s illustration of how we no longer use grand narratives. And in the nineteenth century way, he’s right – there is nothing comparable to, say, the Victorian grand narrative of one’s duties, privileges, and obligations. But between this chapter and my experience, both personally and with other fans, is that the database allows people to build a different kind of “narrative.” It allows them to build an identity. Think of all the people you know who, as fans, identify themselves with certain database elements. Some people go with whole shows, like giant robot fans, or romance fans. Others identify as loli-con, or glasses fans, or even zettai-ryouiki fans. Instead of grand narratives, society-wide, users of the database build personal (or small in-group) identities based on certain specific cullings of the database. This has a lot to offer the studies of genre, specific genres, and, of course, anime.

Anime is a genre, of course.

Yes yes, don’t boo me just yet. Let me drop the tiniest amount of Derrida on you. He pointed out that the term “genre” had been stretched too far from its original base. Now, in light of that, I’m not trying to reclaim the term. We use it the way we use it. However, the original meaning of the word was a particular kind of media. For instance, in the original sense one couldn’t read more than one genre of novel – novel was the genre. The distinctions of what happens inside them are actually, in the traditional sense, “modes.” So in the classical sense anime is a genre, and there are many modes within it.

So what? There are a lot of arguments about what makes up certain genres. That’s genre in its modern sense; mode, in the traditional vernacular. The distinction allows us to see that there are database markers that have to do with the way something’s made – animation styles, designs, etc., as well as database markers that have to do with content – character behavior (GAR is one example), plot points, so on.

That’s the argument Azuma makes that works but is most alien to me personally – that plot and setting are database elements as much as characters. But it makes sense. Into the database go traditional plots, like the “meatball” structure of a shounen, or the young woman gets pulled into another world thing. The database is basically the undercurrent where our knowledge of tropes lives.

I’m used to thinking of plot as something that emerges from the bringing together of characters and setting, even though I know many plots are shared across stories and even across media.

I do think Azuma goes a little too far in some of his claims. His historical account of the shift from grand narrative to database doesn’t take into account the different reading habits of different sorts of fans over time. That is, no postmodernist would deny that the grand narrative was strong in Regency-era England, yet Catherine Moreland and her friend, in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, read Gothic novels more like database animals than any fusty “grand narrative seeking” reader. I suspect what’s really going on is that fan behavior adheres to the database, no matter when it’s happening. If one is a fan of something, one follows it through all its permutations, even when it looks different or does something out of the ordinary. Scholars trying to define SF in traditional terms have flailed around for years because there’s no single shared element. But there is a database pool of things that are associated with SF, including certain plots. That’s how Peake’s Gormenghast novels can be fantasy even when nothing unrealistic happens (at least, not in the first novel). Because the characters and setting are drawn from the sub-database of fantasy as much as from anything else, and the plot is, well, odd.

Can there be many databases? I think Azuma does imply there is only one, though he is specifically examining otaku culture, so he may not have felt the need to discuss any others. However, in a book claiming otaku culture is a microcosm for all postmodern culture I would have expected at least some work connecting the two in that particular way.

As I said, I suspect this is more fan behavior than any new postmodern thing, though I certainly believe the postmodern condition shaped the rise of mass fandoms. The otaku look like microcosms for everyone simply because, in our postmodern world, most everyone is a “fan” of something. Not just a follower, but a fanatic. C.f. Genshiken.

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  1. I too have thought of anime as a medium and not genre, and forgot about how media is/are actually means of delivery and/or production e.g. Print, Radio, Television, Film, and perhaps Web Hosting. Within such there are modes of how content is presented (not delivered): the novel, short story, poetry, illustrations, sequential illustrations, motion pictures, animated motion pictures, and the like.

    I also like how you identified database animalism in modernist media consumption — as it’s easily imagined how readers of Shelley and Stoker or perhaps Conan Doyle didn’t necessary read them for the grand narratives, but more for the tropes and elements fans of such have come to love.

    I want to look more into potential mashups of intention (arrgh intention). Macross Frontier is very database in that it wants to get along and survive amidst the animals, deliver the old fan favorite feelings, as well as offer elements newer to the franchise that appeal to those who are not interested in its grand themes and narratives.

    Nonetheless, Macross and its current incarnation DOES have a grand narrative, reinforced over and over: Songs are Culture, Culture is Love, and Love is what triumphs in the Galaxy. The expansion of the human race throughout the galaxy may be escorted by advanced combat potential, but ultimately cultural exchange (or Terran cultural hegemony) is what makes the important things happen.

  2. I think it was you who pointed it out, somewhere, at some point: it’s less that the grand narrative*, with all its glorious Meaning, has died out, to be replaced by a vacuous, empty database that transforms itself simply to create more consumer goods (which is what Azuma means, I think, by his “database animals” concept), it’s more that the database is newly operationalized and split off from the grand narrative.

    Which means that rather than having preferred means of revealing Meaning (formalism), creating a hierarchy of culture (high-middle-low), we now have the understanding that Meaning is not inherently tied to a particular form and that you can utilize elements from any given form(s) to point at a Meaning beyond the shuffle of forms in the foreground (c.f. Scott Pilgrim OH YEAH I WENT THERE). Of course, now we also have pleasure taken just from the shuffle of forms in the foreground (and damn any extrafictional Meanings), so it’s a double-edged sword here.

    What seems to be happening in culture in general, as a result of this, is that you have all sorts of differing forms competing with one another, trying to assert themselves as the new “high culture” (SF is Important Philosophical Literature for the Modern Age arguments, Anime is the Vanguard of Groundbreaking Revolutionary Animated Narratives arguments, and so on). This gets so bad that many seem to get much more concerned with whether or not their favored form(s) are considered high culture (or upset that they’re considered low culture, or pissed off at the arrogance of other claimants to high culture, or embarrassed about their enjoyment of low culture, or whatever), which links status not to societal position, but to which forms of fiction one enjoys.

    *Surely to God we can think of a different word to phrase that concept as so that it stops sounding so terribly confusing.

  1. OGT on Post-modernism, or Post-post-modernism, or Post-post-post-modernism « The Ghosts of Discussions
  2. What I learned about symbolism and magic | Wondrous Windows
  3. Superfluous detail in fantasy and science fiction | Wondrous Windows
  4. One or several Lupins | HEARTS OF FURIOUS FANCIES

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