Notes on Azuma’s Otaku Database Animals (5. Snobbery and the Fictional Age)

Part Four

Today, we go back to Azuma’s second question:

If, in postmodernity, the notion of transcendence is in decline, what becomes of the humanity of human beings?

First, we look for the meaning of the rise of database consumption within a broad world historical view, rather than a Japanese one. To do this, we start by looking at an idea of Hegel’s (a philosopher from the early 19th century). In Hegel’s philosophy, History is the process of struggle between the Human and the Other that moves us towards knowledge, freedom, and civil society. In his opinion, this process ended in the beginning of the 19th century for Europe. In other words, the arrival of modern society was the end of History.

What Azuma’s interested in here though isn’t Hegel’s own ideas, but rather a footnote to Alexandre Kojève’s interpretations of Hegelian thought. Kojève discussed what modes of existence were possible after the end of Hegelian history, and found the first one he found was in America, which he called a return to animality. This is to describe the consumer behavior which lives in harmony with “nature” (our surroundings) rather than struggle against it. His interpretation of the American end of history is somewhat amusing, so I’ll quote it here:

“After the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.”

Basically, once our needs are all met, we dissolve into a classless society, but this is accomplished by making us like animals. By living in harmony with nature, we no longer differentiate ourselves from nature, and we lose what it means to be man. Angsty liberal interpretation: we are like dogs to the master of capitalism. (Sorry for that!)

Kojève thought this was the destiny of man until he traveled to Japan. In Japan, another posthistorical mode of Being was discovered, one which had existed for centuries! In the absence of conflict (due to isolationism), what replaced historical modes of Being was “snobbery”. Rather than denying nature for any essential reason, snobbery denies nature based on formalized values. For example, ritual suicide is committed because of the values of honor and order. These aren’t natural values. This is a man giving his life in defiance of nature, in the name of artificial values.

So, this footnote, which became famous in Japan, was only based on a short stay. Despite its many inaccuracies, the core argument was one that resonated. One place where the posthistorical snobbery can be seen is in the rise of otaku culture. If you’ll recall all the way back to my first installment in this series, Japanese otaku constructed a psuedo-Japan in response to the defeat of traditional Japanese culture. This is why Japanese-ness is a big thing in anime and manga, it’s a cultural snobbery that stands apart from the animal.

Now, Azuma makes a different argument for why otaku culture cultivates Japanese snobbery in this section, and it is a bit more obscure. It has something to do with detaching form from content in order to create opposition and preserve conflict. This allows man to resist animalization, this is the snobbery he speaks of. Apparently, this is what otaku do when they consume the same kinds of narratives with the same kinds of settings. The individual works have no meaning in this case, but the form has meaning. Recall that in the postmodern perspective of otaku, the increase of simulacra raises the value of the original works. Thus formality, thus snobbery.

The Twentieth Century Ruled by Cynicism

Fast forwarding to the present, this snobbery is further analyzed by Slavoj Zizek, who calls it “cynicism” instead. His example was Cold War Stalinism, where he insists that Party unity was a lie, that there were wild factional struggles behind the scenes, but that the maintainance of the appearance of Party unity is a priority. Supporters of Stalinism all preserved a cynical distance from it, yet enthusiastically maintained the appearance of supporting it. In Azuma’s words: “Even knowing it to be a lie, people believe in Stalinism; even knowing it is meaningless, people commit seppuku.”

According to Zizek, this paradox is related to human psychology. However, Azuma disagrees. He has many reasons, but only gives one: the fact that this theory of cynicism was built on German critic Peter Sloterdijk’s theory, where he describes cynicism as a phenomenon of the twentieth century. In his words, “[t]he experience of World War I and the subsequent ruination of Europe thoroughly devastated the nineteenth-century trust in enlightenment and reason.” Azuma contends that the analysis of the twentieth century mentality that underlies Zizek’s theory of cynicism is born in the outcome of the War. For example, Zizek frequently cites Lacan who derived a lot of his insight from the later works of Freud, which were written during and after WWI. Azuma seems like he has a lot more to say on this subject, but he admirably relents in order to keep the book focused.

Azuma puts postmodernity’s origins way back in WWI, where the decline of grand narratives first began. He ends this transtion from modernity to postmodernity in 1989 with the end of the Cold War and the dissapearance of the last grand narrative, “communism”. In Azuma’s eyes, Zizek’s thoery reflects this transitional period, where belief in grand narratives was declining but the semblence of these beliefs was cynically maintained.

The otaku snobbery, from this perspective, appears as a manifestation of this global trend towards cynicism. Thus, otaku build a faux-grand narrative that they know is fake, yet refuse to relinquish. Not to equate otaku with Soviet citizens under Stalinism, but they both can be seen here clinging on to a narrative that they don’t truly believe in.

This snobbery, this trend towards cynicism, Azuma equates firmly with the *transition* to postmodernity, not with postmodernity itself. So, in other words, when otaku consumed narratives, this was their correct characterization. But, he believes this transtion ended with the Aum Shinrikyou incident of 1995, which happens to line up chronologically with the shift to database consumption.

What I really like about Azuma’s approach to this topic is how clearly he divides the transition to postmodernity from postmodernity itself. So many writers are eager to proclaim something as postmodern when it still has the lingering essence of modernity to it. Azuma looks forward a little bit more, identifying traces of modernity in what we had considered postmodern.

Part Six

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