ahorbinski: A DJ geisha (historical time is a construct)
Bibliographic Data: Azuma Hiroki. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel & Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Main Argument: Drawing on postmodern and critical theory, Azuma argues that otaku--Japanese fans of anime, manga, and video games, called in Japan the "contents industry"--are a new, postmodern type of human being (shinjinrui) whose subjectivity has no need for the "grand narratives" that framed the modern era. Instead, otaku care only for little narratives at the level of simulacra, i.e. at the level of the actual media they consume, and for "grand nonnarratives" at the level of meaning behind those media, which Azuma terms a database. In their ability to instantly gratify their desires with little narratives, Azuma sees otaku as animals in the Kojévean sense, but in his view they do maintain a vestigial humanity, in the Enlightenment sense, at the level of the database. Thus, they are database animals.

Postmodern, database, animal )

Critical assessment: It's been two years since I first read this book, and my reaction to it now is much more complex. It was obvious to me in 2009 that Azuma was bringing brilliant theoretical insights to the table, and that is still very much true, but on the other hand, the flaws and weird gaps in his argument are much more obvious this time around. Also, the book is now ten years old despite the fact that the English translation only appeared two years ago, and its age is beginning to show; someone very much needs to bring out Azuma's newer books such as Tokyo kara kangaeru and Yûbinteki fuantachi, to say nothing of the sequel to this book, Gêmu teki rearizumu no tanjô.

I more or less agree with most of what Azuma says in the second, principal chapter of the book concerning the idea of the 'database' and otaku (fan) consumption of its elements; with only cosmetic (surface) changes of terminology, these premises apply readily to English-language media fandom, and they're quite insightful. I have problems with Azuma's treatment of factors that he relegates to the periphery of his argument, namely (in no particular order) gender, queerness and sexuality, passive versus active consumption, and the uniqueness of Japan vis-a-vis global (post)modernity and capitalism.

To take the last of these first, Azuma buys into really tiresome (and tired) ideas about the rupture in Japanese modernity constituted by the American Occupation of Japan from 1945-52 after Japan's defeat at the end of the Asia-Pacific Wars and consequently, to my mind, overplays the uniqueness of otaku subculture as an inheritance of the Edo period (?!), when in reality, I think, the more interesting frame in which to interpret otaku subculture is to consider it as a local form of a praxis that emerges as an effect of advanced capitalism globally. Despite his (rightly) criticizing Murakami Takashi for Murakami's appropriating otaku aesthetics to turn a profit in the pop art world, Azuma more or less agrees with Murakami's superflat thesis. He also is, on the whole, pessimistic about the possibility of forging genuine emotional connections and alternative social spaces and economies through otaku praxis, which seems to me wholly unwarranted. Even more infuriatingly, Azuma notes in passing that not all fans of the contents industry in Japan are male, but proceeds to assume that all otaku are heterosexual men (and to mention homosexuality and pedophilia in the same breath as behaviours of choice) and to more or less follow Saitô Tamaki's offensive, and wrong-headed, Freudian interpretation of anime and manga and to bend that interpretation back on otaku. As people like Fujimoto Yukari, Sandra Annett, and many others have made clear, otaku are not the sum total of Japanese fans, and to assume a priori that all otaku are heterosexual men is deeply problematic. Azuma also underplays, to a criminal extent, the fact that otaku and fan praxis worldwide is defined not by passive consumption, but by investment and involvement in media to an active degree that wider society regards as abnormal at best. Fans aren't passive consumers; that's wider society. Fans are the people who actively take apart, reassemble, tinker with and critique the media they love, in all metaphorical registers of those words--Azuma is dismissive of such central otaku sites as the doujinshi (fanworks) markets, which seems--and I use this word in the full knowledge of how Azuma employs it in text--snobbish, despite the fact that half the examples in this book are drawn from girl games.

It will be clear from these remarks that my own estimation of these matters, including the nature of the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, is much closer to the line that Tom LaMarre takes in The Anime Machine, though I don't think that even Tom goes far enough in reckoning with gender. The thing I really think Azuma misses about otaku is--two things, actually. I mentioned his wrongheaded ideas about the nature of otaku consumption above, but the other thing I think he doesn't grasp, or at least doesn't talk about, is the fact that otaku consumption is knowing. Fujoshi and otaku know that they're primed to like characters with hair that sticks up because the hair is a moe thing, and they like those characters despite recognizing the conscious manipulation. There's a middle ground to fan subjectivity that Azuma barrels past, and I think teasing it out is important. Still, Azuma is an essential thinker in these matters, and someone with whom we must all reckon (and riddle) before we proceed.

Finally, the translation is very good overall, but contains some minor factual errors (Cardcaptor Sakura is a manga by CLAMP, for instance) and a few infelicities of English terminology (no one calls AMVs and vids "mad movies").

Further reading: Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine; Anne Allison, "The Cool Brand, Affective Activism, and Japanese Youth"

Meta notes: The Sherlockians give themselves a lot of press as the first fans--and the "good" ones, whatever that means--and it seems to me that, as much as widespread fandom is clearly an effect of advanced capitalism globally, just like capitalism has always carried within it the seeds of its advanced form, elements of fandom can be discerned going as far back as, say, the 1840s, when fans of Dickens gathered on the wharfs of New York City to find out about Little Nell's fate. The seriality of media is an essential precondition for the fannish impulse.

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ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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