There is a contradiction to Azuma’s arguments thus far; within otaku culture, there is an increasing interest in the drama within a work. If there is no need for a grand narrative, real or fake, then why is there more interest in narratives?
To answer this question, Azuma first goes off and looks at eroge. This is a type of visual novel that gained popularity in the late 90’s, the basic format is that the player tries to win over a female character and if successful, is treated to some erotic illustrations. However, the main features of the game are simply text and illustrations, the player is much less active than in most games. Due to the fact that they were mostly images and text, they evolved over time to effectively trigger emotion with the texts and evoke moe through the images. This development has made them into a genre that efficiently reflects the passions of the otaku.
Nowadays, as a result of this development, many of these games don’t focus on pornographic elements any more. He uses the example of Air, in which any sorts of pornographic elements are concentrated in the first half, delivering the “goal” right away. The second half is pretty much a straight up melodrama, very typical and abstract. It combines many moe elements such as “incurable disease,” “fate from previous lives,” and “a lonely girl without a friend.” It’s a barebones structure of combined settings that seems to leave important questions unanswered, yet it was a great commercial success. The reason for the success was the masterful combination of moe elements, not a coherent or deep story.
The structure of these games is thoroughly postmodern, the substance isn’t in the individual story route, but in the system that generates these story routes. Traditional literary or film criticism breaks down when trying to analyse these games due to their peculiar structure. Rather than a narrative, they are a collection of simulacra generated from a database. But the database isn’t abstract like it has been in previous discussions, this is a literal database specific to one work. In other words, it structurally mirrors the larger moe-database from which otaku works are created.
The resolution to the contradiction, if you haven’t figure it out yet, is that the postmodern otaku are interested in small narratives and large databases, and there is no paradox in preferring small narratives to grand narratives.
“Modern individuals need a path back from small narratives to a grand narrative; individuals at the transition from modernity to postmodernity needed snobbism in order to bridge the gap between them. However, postmodern individuals let the two levels, small narratives and a grand nonnarrative, coexist separately without necessarily connecting them.”
Obviously, the database is connected to the small narratives in a sense that it generates them, but that is just an abstract connection. For example, going back to eroge, the protagonist is not defined as a man who sleeps around and deflowers all the innocent virgin heroines. Instead, “destiny” and “pure love” are emphasized. Each time. Every narrative is disassociated, despite their relation. All these parallel stories are not given meaning by a grand narrative, they create their own, temporary, meaning.
The Animal Age
According to Alexandre Kojève, animality and snobbery are the two choices post grand narrative, and this book has argued that the role of snobbery was merely transitional. Indeed, snobbery was part of the transition to the animal. Now, Azuma goes into a needlessly vague description of the differences between the human and the animal based on the differences between desire and need, but I’d rather present this difference in my own way. Basically, the animal simply obtains what he needs while the human can not be satisfied without the other. The animal consumes, the human communicates. The animal buys prostitutes, the human must desire and be desired by his romantic partner. It strikes me as a somewhat silly dichotomy, but it gets the point across.
In this perspective, it is clear that the moe-otaku is an animal rather than a snob. His interaction with otaku media is more like a drug dependency than a hobby.
Okay, now what about the conservative sexuality of the otaku? Why is it that there are so few real pedophiles among the lolita fans, so few homosexuals among the yaoi fans, so few womanizers among eroge players? Well, this is simple from the anmalization perspective: human sexuality is being eliminated in favor of satisfying animalistic needs. Instead of communicating with a sexual partner, he can simply satisfy his genital desires with imagery. Consuming so many perverse images means that there is less of a need for actual perversion.
Here, Azuma notes that he is going to be calling the post 1995 era the “animal age”. This is going by a convention of the author Osawa Masachi who refered to the era of 1945 to 1970 as the fictional age and the era before that as the idealistic age.
It is possible to object here; perhaps the otaku’s attitude towards a work is animalized, but aren’t otaku known to be quite social with each other? However, Azuma argues that this sociality is sustained not by necessity, but rather by desire to exchange information. Unlike modern humans, they always reserve the freedom to depart the conversation. Another way to look at it that might make Azuma’s point more clear is that communication is now governed by need. If an otaku desires to talk to someone, then he can. It’s not the complex relationship of human communication unless this complicated relationship is actually what he desires. It is a mimicry of the communication by necessity that characterised modern and pre-modern humans. The substance of communication is gone, only the form remains.
The otaku sociality can be understood better by going back to the double-layer structure of database and simulacra. The consumption of otaku media is divided between a desire to consume the database and a need for drama contained in the small narratives. The need for narratives is usually satisfied in isolation (an eroge isn’t a multiplayer game), but the desire for database requires sociality. The creation, purchase, and selling of derivative works is a social activity, and is not an emotional one. The social and the emotional are more or less split apart.
The postmodern human is animalized and consumes databases. Hence the phrase “database animals”.
This was his second question:
If, in postmodernity, the notion of transcendence is in decline, what becomes of the humanity of human beings?
“The reduction of meaning to animality, the meaninglessness of humanity, and the dissociated coexistence of the animality at the level of simulacra and the humanity at the level of database”
This concludes the theoretical side of the book. In the next chapter, Azuma will discuss the application of his theory discussing “hyperflatness and multiple personality”. It’s not all that interesting, so I won’t cover it except as a brief sketch. Basically, he first makes the incredibly obvious comparison between his model and the internet. Yay, the internet represents postmodernity, and the model from which his database analogy derives matches with his database analogy! He comes up with all sorts of terms like “hyperflat” to describe elements of this analogy (layering windows in this case). He also talks about an eroge named “Yu-No” which blatantly makes the double structure visible by having a plot that invokes crossing between the different routes to find the missing father. Sort of like an eroge relative of Steins;Gate I suppose. Next, he talks about multiple personality disorder as a postmodern phenomena, and connects it to eroge such as Yu-No. And thus his book concludes.
Now is the time for me to comment on it.
The first thing I must do is raise an obvious objection: the tale of the grand narrative declining and humans becoming database animals in response is a grand narrative itself. In other words, his theories are broad and universal, yet the broad and universal are supposed to be rejected in a postmodern society.
When Lyotard posited that the postmodern condition was one of skepticism towards grand narratives, he was not expressing anything so grand as what Azuma here expressed. It was just a trend: people in general will distrust these grand narratives. It wasn’t saying that all grand narratives are necessarily false. Therefore he avoided self-contradiction. Perhaps it was just subtle wordplay that let him get away with it, and perhaps in other works (I read “The Postmodern Condition”) he defined the postmodern condition differently.
But still, what I’m getting at is that Azuma gets too darn cocky in his “this is how it is” sorts of statements. As far as I’m concerned, he developed a convenient model for looking at postmodernity, but got too attached to his model to realize the contradiction of using it as a grand narrative. Easing off a bit by pointing out places where his model wasn’t applicable, and perhaps toning down the “animal” rhetoric (even if it’s the future, we aren’t all the way there yet), these two steps could have improved the strength of his arguments significantly. As it is, he comes across a bit like the stereotypical postmodern cynic.
I highly recommend this book regardless. I’m sure my blog coverage was a bit opaque and spotty at parts, and Azuma really has a gift for translating jargony complex philosophical concepts into everyday language the lay reader can easily comprehend.