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.