LettersMedia & Publics

Otaku Philosophy

I started going to Tokyo some time in the 80s. I had access to an apartment in good location, thanks to someone who would later become rather powerful in the media world, whose name I hesitate to mention. Since my host was a workaholic, I was left to my own devices.

Tokyo was a real metropolis centuries before any European city got much beyond the small town stage. By the 80s it had a heavy overlay of pervasive media culture, of a kind that would not happen anywhere else for decades. The contemporary media-urban landscape was born here. Not speaking the language, I learned what I could by walking the city, in the company of foreigners who made a living by teaching English to bored housewives, or by wrestling naked in milk.

What prompted me to go there was the video art of Peter Callas, who worked in Tokyo for a time. That and Chris Marker’s essay-film Sunless. But it was hard to find much to read about this postmodern, mediated Tokyo. You could see classic modern Japanese art cinema and read some high points of its literature, but the transformation of everyday life was not much documented for foreign readers.

Akira Asada had published a surprise bestseller in 1983 called Structure and Power, which introduced French theory to a Japanese readership, and which offered the tools for analyzing what was happening. Fragments of his work appeared in translation in various European languages in all sorts of avant-garde magazines.

In Japan itself it seemed as if theory had been absorbed the same way Japanese media culture absorbed everything else – by turning it into a spectacular subcultural style. But unfortunately there was very little interest in Japan’s ‘New Academicism’ in the west. Which was a shame. If we had paid attention to Japan in the eighties we might not have been so surprised by things that happened in the west twenty years later.

All this is by way of explaining my amateur interest in Japanese media culture and Japanese theory. I think it should be a bigger part of the global conversation. Fortunately, there is now a small band of scholars and translators generating new material to help facilitate that. (Check out he Mechamedia journal). Unfortunately, Japan may also be ahead of the United States in the plan to abolish the study of the humanities in the university, so time may be running out.

This brings me to the work of Hiroki Azuma, two of whose books are available in English. Born in 1971, he is of a younger generation to Asada (b. 1957) and Kojin Karatani (b. 1941), whose major works are now being translated. Azuma’s work first received attention in 1993 a journal those two more senior theorists edited, back when New Academicism was still in full swing.

As Asada said when he introduced Azuma in 1998: “Azuma’s future will prove that his ‘otaku philosophy’ is not at all the same thing as an ‘otaku of philosophy.’” This bears at least a couple of comments. An otaku is usually a young man with an obsessive interest, sometimes in anime or manga, but sometimes in other things. It was a phenomena about which there was a moral panic in Japan in the early eighties, but it is by no means restricted to Japanese culture. Indeed, there seems to no shortage of theory-otaku around these days, who know everything about it as consumers and curate their collections of it on blogs.

Asada put his finger on something profound, even if in a throw-away line, in proposing a possible path from the obsessive cultivating of theory as media to coming up with a theory native to this culture and this mode of its communication. Although Asada had shown upon our radar, and even Azuma, those of us trying to do netkritik in the 90s on listservs like nettime.org (or as blog theory a bit later) did not know much about this parallel development in Japan.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Minnesota 2009) is a translation of a book by Azuma from 2001. It is different from the New Academicism of Asada in fully inhabiting a pop media universe without ironic detachment. It translates theory into the media rather than vice versa. Thanks to another great interview by Krystian Woznicki, nettime.org readers got a taste of Azuma’s work in the late 90s, but only a taste.

Like Francis Fukuyama’s End of History (1992), and Asada’s essay on ‘Infantile Capitalism’, its point of departure is Alexandre Kojève’s Marxist-Hegelian philosophy of history. Where Fukuyama celebrated the end of history as the victory of liberal capitalism, Azuma was rather more interested in the ‘last humans’ obliged to inhabit such a moment.

Kojève had noted in a throw-away footnote that postwar America had actually realized a certain terminus that both Marxist and Soviet thought had long anticipated. All basic needs could immediately be sated, and there was thus nothing to desire and struggle for. At the end of history desire is foreclosed and man reduced to an animal state, for man no longer desires to negate nature and make history.

The exception was postwar Japan. There the ruling class had laid down its arms and devoted itself to cultivating a purely ceremonial and ritual culture, which kept desire alive in form but not in substance. Kojève thought postwar Japan had overcome its militarist interlude by reverting to this ‘snobbish’ practice. The snob keeps desire going, and with it the possibility of being human, through the negation of the world. But the world that was negated was no longer nature and the result was not longer historical action.

Azuma manages to twist this story – well known in Japan since Fukuyama’s famous book – into something else. He notes that Japanese culture had become thoroughly ‘American’, in being a consumer culture of the immediate gratification of needs. The otaku cultures of the 80s and 90s were actually the furthest shores of it. Rather than pathologize otaku, Azuma treats them as an contemporary aesthetic practice, rather like Dick Hebdige’s treatment of British subcultures.

The otaku subculture passes through three stages. The first wave of otaku were born in the early 60s. The emblematic media work for them to obsess over was the tv anime Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), along with b-grade monster and sci-fi movies. The second was, like Azuma, born around 1970 and watched Megazone 23 (1985). The third were born around 1980 and for them the emblematic work is the tv anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), along with mysteries and computer games.

Some, such as the famous ‘superflat’ visual artist Takahashi Murakami thinks of otaku as connected to Edo era Japanese woodblock print art, with its supposedly unique approach to derivative works, where artists recycle motifs from each other. But for Azuma, otaku is a product of a transnational postmodernism.

Its origins are in cultural forms imported from the United States after the war. “The history of otaku culture is one of adaptation – of how to ‘domesticate’ American culture… Otaku may very well be heirs to Edo culture, but the two are by no means connected by a continuous line. Between the otaku and Japan lies the United States.” (11)

A key example is animation, borrowed as a technology from the United States after the war. One strand of it developed Disney and Looney Tunes character animation, which would result in the masterpieces of Hayao Miyzaki. The other developed limited animation, a cheaper method more suited to the small budgets of television. A classic early instance is Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy, although as a little kid I preferred Prince Planet.

Whereas in the United States only character animation was really developed to a high level, in Japan limited animation became something of an art-form, particularly in Mobile Suit Gundam, a TV show with no parallels in American models. But for Azuma this is an instance of a hybrid rather than a purely Japanese cultural form.

Postwar Japanese culture was obsessed with Japanese-ness because of a lack of continuity. “Lurking at the foundations of otaku culture is the complex yearning to produce a pseudo-Japan.” (13) This took a strange turn in the 80s, and accounts for the globally unique popularity of postmodern theory in Japan under the banner of New Academicism. The idea was that since Japan had never quite managed to be a proper modern society, it could get a jump-start on being a postmodern one. “Whereas modernity equals the West, postmodernity equals Japan.” (17)

As I remember well, there was a certain charm about Japanese cultural confidence in the 80s, but a certain willful blindness as well. As Azuma notes, celebrating an obscure footnote from Kojeve fit into this quite nicely. “Nothing better expresses the reality of Japanese postmodernists’ desires than this choice.” (18) It was a way of forgetting the recent past and celebrating the present and future, at least until the economic bubble burst.

In the anime Megazone 23 (1985) by Noboru Ishiguro, 1980s Tokyo turns out to be a computer simulated world created on a futuristic spaceship. Azuma: “Japan in the 1980s was entirely a fiction. Yet this fiction, while it lasted, was comfortable to dwell in.” (19) Until the economic bubble burst, at least. But for otaku the simulated, CGI Japan kept on going.

The preferred worlds to simulate were either sci-fi or Edo period Japan, as if the two breaks of the Meiji restoration (1868) and the occupation (1945) had not happened. Azuma links simulation to the practice of détournement or the fan-based making of derivative works, which ‘official’ products then borrow from in turn: “the products of otaku culture are born into a chain of infinite imitations and piracy.” (26) Simulacra thus float free from both the notion of an historical time and from the authoring of original works.

Azuma sees otaku cultural practice as a response to what Jean-François Lyotard called the decline in grand narratives, which is perhaps not unrelated to what Jodi Dean and other Lacanians call the decline in symbolic efficiency. In the Lyotard version, there’s a loss of faith in an underlying story of historical time, particularly its Marxist form, but perhaps also liberal-capitalist grand narratives of progress tied to reason, technology, peaceful trade and consumer comfort.

For Azuma this decline in grand narratives is connected to loss of prestige of paternal and national authority. There is neither a big picture story or authorized story-teller. Kinji Fukasaku’s film Battle Royale (2000), in which the state compels the seniors of the most troublesome school to kill each other might stand as an emblem of that loss.

Otaku refer to themselves as otaku, a word related to home and family – perhaps meaning something like ‘homeboy’. With their libraries of magazines and anime and figurines, they create a carapace in which to live. Azuma: “we can view otaku’s neurotic construction of ‘shells of themselves’ out of materials from junk subcultures as a behavior pattern that arose to fill the void from the loss of grand narrative.” (28)

Azuma proceeds by asking: what kind of culture can be made out of simulacra, and for what kinds of human, or maybe post-human life? What is curious about his account is that the decline of grand narratives does not give way to a precession of simulacra, to decoded flows, or to open-ended language games, or to blank-parody – to give the code words for some versions of the postmodern. Rather, what replaces the grand narrative ‘behind’ the text or the screen of the individual work is not an invisible grand narrative, but a database.

Otaku extinguish the grand narrative in stages. The first wave replace the official grand narratives of postwar progress with fictional ones. The second wave care more about the detailed exposition of an alternative universe that all particular works abide by. By the third stage the database itself emerges as the organizing principle behind particular cultural artifacts.

Key tot his is the emergence of chara-moé, where moé means the emotional appeal of some point of detail of a character. The word probably comes from one meaning budding or blooming. Where the otaku fans of Mobile Suit Gundam insisted on the stability of the worldview underlying the various anime series and peripheral products, Azuma thinks things are different once we get to Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose fans would rather draw erotic pictures of its heroine Rei Ayanami.

Evangelion is not so much an original as itself already a copy of popular anime elements, “an aggregate of information without a narrative” or a “grand non-narrative.” (38) This results in part from industrial changes. By the 90s, any product can spawn all the others: a series of stickers or a company logo could bloom into a series of manga, TV or film anime, games and more. By now “the narrative is only a surplus item” (41)

One level of fan attention attends to moé-points out of which characters are assembled, such as pointy hair, cat’s ears, glasses, maid costumes, or the flat affect popularized by the Rei Ayanami character in Evangelion. There is even a website – tinami.com – where you can search for characters by specifying which moé-points you like. Characters start to appear with excessive moé-points – bells, cat’s ears antennae hair all on the same character. Attention shifts from the production of narratives or worlds to the production of characters who can appear in various product lines independently of either unifying narrative or world.

One could push back a bit on Azuma’s insistence on a break with the past. In Evangelion, the Rei Ayanami character and others are named after world war II Japanese naval ships. The allegorical may still be with us. But surely one of the struggles in critical thought is to detect the appearance of the new as something other than a binary reversal of the old; or worse, to simply erase novelty as a mere appearance of an underling sameness. Hence I think its worth speculatively pursuing Azuma’s line of thought to see where it goes.

Azuma thinks there’s a new kind of double articulation, of database and simulacra. The latter do not float free but are constrained by the database, and here he differs from much postmodern writing in not seeing the loss of an old cultural architecture as leading to something wild and anarchic. The tension of simulacra versus database replaces that of grand narrative versus allegorical fragment, and hence the world cannot be cognitively mapped in the way that (for instance) Toscano and Kinkle, following Jameson, still seek.

Here we are closer to Alex Galloway’s concept of interface as simulation. “A copy is judged not by its distance from an original but by its distance from the database.” (61) In that sense Walter Benjamin’s contrast of copy and original no longer gives much purchase either. “The surface outer layer of otaku culture is covered with simulacra, or derivative works. But in the deep inner layer lies the database of settings and characters, and further down, the database of moé-elements.” (58)

Gone is the narrative and cinematic passage through the world. (Which was taken to its logical conclusions with the theory and practice of free indirect discourse in Pasolini.) Rather, it’s a matter of the mediation of database and simulacra by search engines and interfaces, which make actual and material the intuition of an earlier phase of otaku culture about the database behind the particular work.

That this is an organized culture is key: “the simulation that are filling up this society have never propagated in a chaotic fashion… their effective functioning is warranted first and foremost by the level of the database.” (60) The author is no longer even a producer of copies. Rather, in place of the creative agency of the author is the permutation of moé-elements.

What becomes, not just of the author, but of the human, after this erasure of the invisible depth behind the work once provided by the grand narrative, whether in the form of the Marxist totality or the completion of enlightenment rationality or post-industrial progress?

Here Azuma returns to Kojève. The human is not human in itself, as the human is merely another animal. What makes us human is the struggle to negate nature and make ourselves something other. History is the struggle to negate both nature and human animal-nature. Azuma does not note the class dimension to this in Kojève, for whom the master is the one who faces the threat of death and forces the other to bow before him. Only the master appears fully human, in forcing the servant back toward nature and animality. The slave fulfills the masters needs, but also the masters desire, which is for the other’s desire, for command over the desire of the slave. We’ll come back to this missing part of Kojève in Azuma later.

The problem with postwar modernity for Kojève is that industrial production fulfills immediate animal needs so completely that it erases the struggle against nature, and even against the human nature of the other that might ground a desire and an act of making history. Kojève made of a tourist’s glimpse of Japan the thought that the Japanese snob-culture found another way out. The snob creates a purely formal game of desire. Seppuku or ritual suicide is then Kojève’s emblem of the snob making a formal distinction between human honor and animal instinct, by overcoming the latter with the former.

Cultural clichés aside, perhaps the otaku reverses the snob’s formal construction of the human with a kind of formal and artificial construction of the animal. The otaku know they are dealing only with simulacra, but the moé-points extracted from the database enable real emotions. These simulacra immediately sate emotional needs, foreclosing the formation of the desire to overcome and negate nature. The post-historical human, or post-human animal, detaches form from content and no longer aims to transform the content, only the form, the simulacra.

Azuma dates postwar culture in three stages: the idealistic age (1945-70), the fictional age (1970-95) and the animal age (1995 onwards). Azuma sees the cynical relation to grand narratives thematized by Zizek and Sloterdjik, or the snob as it appears in Kojeve’s Japanese admirers, as only the second of these stages. The third stage of the otaku no longer needs to maintain a negative relation to grand narratives. They dispense with them in favor of the database. Hence with the otaku the collapse of modernity is complete. If it is an acceleration it is not an acceleration of modernity, but of and as something else.

It is curious that while there are erotic works that appeal to otaku, in Azuma’s account the erotic is subordinated to the emotional. For example, “games produced by Key are designed not to give erotic satisfaction to consumers but to provide an ideal vehicle for otaku to efficiently cry and feel moé, by a thorough combination of the moé-elements popular among otaku.” (78)

Nevertheless there is a tension in otaku needs between small fragments of narrative that deliver emotional pay-offs and the interest in understanding the underlying database. Some would even take something of a hacker approach and extract the content files from the software to make derivative works directly with the game or other content materials.

While needs can thus be sated, desire cannot, as desire is always for Kojève desire for the other’s desire. Here we have something akin to what Bernard Stiegler calls short circuits of subjectivation. For Azuma this also explains the difference between the sometimes rather conservative sexuality of otaku and their tastes for what might otherwise be considered highly fetishistic material. The latter efficiently satiates a genital need disconnected from residual notions of love and sex and desire.

Azuma deflects the idea that otaku behavior is fetishistic, although it is a topic that could do with some elaboration. In the now classic Freudian screen theory popularized by Laura Mulvey, the male gaze partakes in a scopophilic desire to look, but is threatened by the castrating power of the image of the woman. One strategy for containing that threat is fetishism, where the body of the woman is reduced to a fetishistic part. Perhaps Azuma is talking about a second-order development. Having reduced the threatening image of the female body to parts it can then be reconstructed out of the database at will as ensembles of moé-points. The movie Ex Machina (2015) might be the furthest end point of this theme so far.

The old model of grand narrative and allegorical fragment lent itself to a hermeneutic procedure in which the fragment of a particular work could be read as lost or ruined bit of a larger historical time. But perhaps the new model is no longer a depth model. Azuma calls this hyper-flatness. He anticipates Lev Manovich’s insistence on the software layer as a generalized meta-medium. For Azuma, there’s only view control. You can look at the data different ways, but there’s no way to read through the fragment to the underlying truth of the totality to which it belongs, other than as database.

Otaku reading practices can only go sideways, as it were, from one view of the database to another. “All such information is consumed in parallel, as equivalents, as if to open different ‘windows’. So today’s Graphical User Interface, much more than simply a useful invention, is a marvelous apparatus in which the world image of our time is encapsulated.” (104) There’s no path from what is visible on the screen to the actual database, only other ways of representing fragments of its content.

In a later work, Azuma explores the political implications of the database. General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google (Vertical Books, 2014) is about a moment after a loss of confidence in political institutions. This book too is a kind of derivate work, détournement or simulacrum, reusing not Kojève in this case but Rousseau’s The Social Contract.

From Rousseau, Azuma cuts the concept of the general will, or popular sovereignty. For Rousseau it is a fictional construct. “He probably never dreamed that it would become possible to see and feel the texture of the ‘general will.’” (7) In political theory, the general will was a symptom of a repressed desire for a non-deliberative form of government. Now it is a latent content beginning to use information as the tech of its material actualization.

In Rousseau’s version the social contract creates the social, and the sovereignty of this sociality is the general will. There is first the social, and then secondly a government. There is a difference between sovereignty and government. The latter is merely the instrument of general will. The social contract thought in this manner does not legitimate any existing government, but rather the possibility of revolution when governments fail the general will.

General will is an ideal construct, perhaps part of a grand narrative, which can generate critical purchase on the corruption of actual governments. But the general will in Rousseau is not public opinion.

Public opinion can be false; the general will is never false. The general will is a shared interest, whereas public opinion is merely a motley of particular interests. Public opinion is the sum of wills; general will is the sum of the difference of wills.

Azuma offers a useful analogy: public opinion is scalar, the general will is vectoral. Public opinion is an averaging of the ‘masses’; the general will is the sum of differences between velocities. Rousseau sometimes writes as if the general will is computable, a mathematical entity. He posits a matheme of collective intelligence centuries before it could exist.

Rousseau is a problem for theorists of democratic governance because of his aversion to not only public opinion but also representative democracy and parties. The general will does not come from citizens communicating with each other at all. “Rousseau thought that the general will is generated not through a process of members of a group affirming a single will cancelling out the differences but instead all at once, through allowing diverse wills to appear in the public sphere will retaining their respective differences.” (33) The general will is a sum of all differences.

The hidden ideal model underlying actual polities and according to which they are to be judged is a politics without communication. The general will belongs to the order of things, not to the social world. It is not a politics made by the social, but a politics conforming to nature. (And in this sense pointing away from Kojève.) Like the otaku, Rousseau preferred solitude to public life. For Rousseau (and subsequently for Fourier) civilization with its cultural artifice is the origin of all evil.

Azuma is skeptical of the value of normative models of deliberative democracy, such as one might find in Hannah Arendt or Jürgen Habermas. For this school of thought, the public sphere detached from labor is where one might find the conditions of rational communication necessary for deliberation. This would be not a mere gathering of needs or desires but their transformation through rational deliberation.

Azuma distances his approach both from deliberative democracy and from one other very different idea of the political: Carl Schmitt’s concept of politics as the making of friend versus enemy distinctions and the ontological extermination of the enemy. Just as the general will does not deliberate, nor does it distinguish between friend and enemy. Perhaps it is the domain of that rather more interesting part of politics, which is always about the non-friend and the non-enemy.

So if the general will is neither a deliberative democracy nor the fight to the death, what is it? For Rousseau it is a regulative ideal, but for Azuma it is rapidly becoming a kind of reality: it’s the database. Ubiquitous computing extracts patterns of unconscious need directly from environments – in the form of big data – quite without the conscious participation of citizens – or should I say – users. The general has been made concrete, but also privatized – its Google. “No-one being conscious of Google, but everyone rendering a service to Google – this contradiction is the crucial point here.” (58)

Some might immediately thematize this as surveillance or biopower or neoliberalism, and not without justice. But Azuma’s approach is at least novel in relation to such received ideas. It seems the otaku were onto something: that underlying the moé-points of attraction there’s a database unconscious. People’s wants become a thing. “Rousseau… remarked that the general will is etched into the hearts of citizens. Therefore, it cannot be perceived. On the other hand, the general will 2.0 is etched into the information environment.” (63)

But where general will 1.0 was a mythic grand narrative, general will 2.0 is an actual database. “So far, access to general will 2.0 is exclusively in the hands of private corporations.”(64) This is a point Azuma chooses not to linger over, however. To put it in my own conceptual language, which here neatly fits with Azuma’s: the governmental power that can be extracted from the database are in the hands of a ruling class – the vectoral class.

Azuma distances his approach from that of Tim O’Reilly and other Silicon valley boosters of the tech industry fraction of the vectoral class, however. To some extent his database general will is still something of a regulative ideal, indeed even a grand narrative. It is in potential, rather than in actuality, a means to supplement a deliberative democracy that can no longer function as such. Politics has in his view become too complex for deliberation by all citizens. But perhaps the database of needs can come to their assistance, and enable a combining of rational deliberation with “a government guided by the unconscious.” (72)

One might expect a great deal of push-back at this point from intellectuals for whom ‘The Political’ is still something sacred and transcendent. But it has to be acknowledged that actual politics is in rather poor shape in much of the (over)developed world. It turns out we human animals are not very good at using reason to overcome our particular sympathies and strive instead for the universal. Reason does not trump empathy, nor universality particularity, nor communication private interest.

Communication leads to networks, not universality. It creates island worlds and echo chambers – as anyone who uses the internet these days would know. What people want from their media tools now is the reduction of information complexity, not endless deliberation. How can there be deliberative democracy when nobody writes comments except trolls and nobody reads them – except other trolls?

Perhaps we need a whole new architecture for politics. One that can visualize unconscious needs and desires. Something like this turns up sometimes in utopian fiction, such as Bogdanov’s Red Star and Vangeigem’s Voyage to Oarystis. But it is also in dystopian fiction such as Zamyatin’s We.

If psychoanalysis is a way of uncovering an individual unconscious unknown to the subject, then the database is a way of uncovering the collective unconscious unknown to the people. And just as in dream analysis, there is no negation. Take Google’s Pagerank, for example: it measures links to a given page, but it does not judge that page. Hence if you Google a ‘sensitive’ term such as ‘Judaism’ it is likely that among the top hits is some anti-Semitic bile. It is possible that anti-anti-Semitic sites that link to it to attack it are part of what generates its high rank.

But perhaps there is a bit missing here. Who owns and controls the database? If the old grand narratives were products of the superstructure, then as Pasolini had already noticed, the new forms of cultural power are actually directly infrastructural. What I would call the vectoral class ends up in charge of the means of detecting the general will as the social unconscious. They use it mostly to make a buck off rewarding our animal needs with simulacra. As Lazzarato has noted the affective life of the species is now one of machinic enslavement.

Still, there’s a certain pleasure in reading Azuma’s writing, in selecting it from the database. He seems to have grasped sooner than many that the material conditions of theory-writing and reading had themselves changed, and become also part of the database. His own writing works like otaku practice, moving sideways through simulacra, whether of anime or philosophy.

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

  • Justin Stanley

    Great article! Now I want to pick up those Azuma books. Question for you: is anyone doing similar work in terms of Korea’s mass culture? Arguably it’s a deeper rabbit hole than Japan’s, as participation in the cultural simulacra is less ironic and taken to greater extremes.

    • mckenziewark

      Good question! I don’t know.

      • Justin Stanley

        And my Google Fu fails me. Well, good dissertation topic for an enterprising media scholar.

Previous post

Who Bankrolled Jim Crow?

Next post

Blog-Post for Cyborgs