Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 2 – Simulacra and Metanarratives

These are a series of notes compiled over time concerning Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, what I think is one of the most insightful books in the absolutely enthralling subfield that is anime(-related) studies. See Part 1 for context.

Part 2. Simulacra and Metanarratives

Notes on the notes:
All the text formatting is on my end. The bold is meant to highlight key sentences, concepts, and explanations. The italics (oh the the irony of self-negating italics…) is meant to indicate running commentaries in response to bricksalad’s notes (which I’m drawing heavily from) except when indented where it simply is used for emphasis. Portions of his notes have also been altererd where I’ve either rearranged things or inserted some of my own thoughts (e.g. the pictures). Sections that have been explicitly cut out are noted by ellipses (“…”). Any use of a non-italicized ‘I’ is from the perspective of bricksalad, while an italicized one refers to me (Josh).

The nucleus of otaku culture is the derivative works market (keep in mind my conclusion from the last installment that this interpretation of otaku culture is specific to modern Japanese otaku, and that applicability to those of us in other countries who call ourselves otaku might vary). Failing to consider these derivative works means we can’t grasp the trends of otaku culture. Baudrillard predicts that in a postmodern society, the distinction between original and copy weakens, and the “simulacrum”, neither original nor copy, becomes dominant. Even the originals are simulacra if they create worlds through citation and imitation of other works (instead of real life). Thus, the insular nature of otaku culture propagates simulacra.

Commentary (3): 
I think bricksalad’s being overly conservative here. Since this piece was written, we’ve seen drives that the nucleus of otaku culture worldwide is derivative works, not just in Japan. Or if not necessarily derivative works, at least something that goes beyond the works themselves (which might include expanding the definition of what we mean by “derivative works”). This stuff that goes beyond the media – this “social energy” that surrounds anime – might then be seen to crystallize in the production of derivative works/participatory fan culture. So we’d shift our view from the media itself to how the culture surrounding the media gives it meaning/importance. The rise in popularity for AMVs, merchandising and consumerism, fanfiction, translated doujinshi, anime conventions, and more clearly indicate that this “derivative work” market/”social energy” is true beyond Japan. Condry’s The Soul of Anime attempts to outline what exactly this is, and is worth a read because it helps patch some of the holes concerning how and why these simulacra propagate  I’ll hopefully write a review of his book eventually.

We actually can see a bit of commentary on doujinshi culture from OreImo, both in terms of what the show itself explicitly says, what it seems to imply, and the actual fan works that have followed.

We actually can see a bit of commentary on doujinshi culture from OreImo, both in terms of what the show itself explicitly says, what it seems to imply, and the actual fan works that have followed.

The word “otaku” is actually quite interesting, because it literally translates to ‘your home’ or ‘your family’, but in a very formal way – one that identifies one not by personal relations but by a relationship to one’s territory. This territory is sort of like a snail-shell: it’s the books, magazines, scraps, and whatnot that they (otaku) carry around. It’s just a natural impulse really – once paternal and national authority have been toppled (in a postmodern society, this is the “collapse of the Grand Narrative” that Azuma refers to), they still must search for a group to which they belong. They carry their world with them defensively; their affiliation of a group keeping them mentally stable. For them, fictional reality trumps social reality.

Here, Azuma suddenly jumps to the defense of the otaku. Otaku “generally possess the ability to distinguish fiction from reality”, he offers, but explains that for them, fiction is simply more effective. Otaku shut themselves in a hobby community because, as social values and standards are dysfunctional, they feel a pressing need to construct alternative values and standards.

The replacement of a single and vast social standard with countless smaller ones is just like the replacement of the “grand narrative” with small narratives. This tale of narrative decay is told by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard as the tale of postmodernism. The postmodernists no longer trust grand narratives such as “the history of man is class warfare” (Marxism) or “man is fundamentally a rational being” (Enlightenment). While the modern period was ruled by the grand narrative, the postmodern period was traumatized by its absence.

Commentary (4):
This last statement needs a little bit of context. The modern period tended to always include and subvert perceived underlying structures to try and show just how fragile and constructed they really were. In my opinion, much of the “meta”-ness surrounding LN (I group them as “meta-aware” in my LN post) tends to fall into this category. You can look at this as the intellectual epiphanies that can take place starting during adolescence that can lead you to become overconfident and full of yourself. Postmodernism, on the other hand, tries to assert that the ideas of these structures themselves is a construct, and so we don’t even need those. Thus it spends most of its time deliberately trampling over these structures rather than subverting them, reveling in the fact that things are really just random, unconnected, and meaningless and that the only meaning they have is what we give them. This is more like the jaded, disillusioned, cynical adult, who can see just how meaningless the structures really are but also the power that they hold over us. Obviously, these categories tend to blur fairly quickly and the examples I’ve used are quite biased, but the core ideals are what’s important here.

These concepts can be applied to world history, which is what Azuma is referring to throughout the book, with the rise of consumerism focused on related things (e.g. spin-offs, character goods, etc., in the style NGE helped pioneer) rather than worldbuilding (e.g. the related nature of original Gundam goods). The former is a postmodernist consumerism while the former is a modernist consumerism. Both are self-aware, but they function on a fundamentally different level. 

Is that a Type-Moon spin-off I spy?

Is that a Type-Moon spin-off I spy?

The otaku’s “construction of shells of themselves out of materials from “junk subcultures” is a behavior pattern that can fill this void. God and society are taken away, and replaced with junk subculture. This sounds like a bad thing, but only from a modernist perspective. However, the modernist still clings to the grand narrative, perhaps making him the more delusional one.

Speaking of "junk" subculture, here's those Eva Coffee figures I mentioned I'd grabbed a while back. Totally worth it.

Speaking of “junk” subculture, here’s those Eva Coffee figures I mentioned I’d grabbed a while back. Totally worth it.

Azuma poses two questions in the light of this:

  1. In modernity, the cause of birth of an original was the author. What is the cause of birth of the simulacra? How do they overtake the originals and copies?
  2. In modernity, god and society secured humanity. How will humans live in a world where “god” and “society” must be fabricated from junk subcultures? What becomes of their humanity?

How Azuma addresses the first of these questions will be explored in the next section. The thing I was left wondering about after this is his peculiar turn of phrase “junk subcultures”. So, I’m going to take a stab at what I think this means:

I think the junk he’s referring to constitute simulacra. A simulacrum is not an original creation – it is constructed through citation and imitation of original creations. An imitation of an original is just “junk”. It would be nothing in comparison unless it somehow exceeded the original. Not discussing whether this is possible (watch Nisemonogatari for more thoughts on that), we can just generally assume that a mere imitation is inferior. These inferior bits are the constituents that we can build simulacra with, thus the subculture of simulacra is also the subculture of junk. Fiction is the recycled bits of reality.

I'm going to say upfront I unabashedly love everything Shinbo. And that I think both Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari are worth watching.

I’m going to say upfront I unabashedly love everything Shinbo. And that I think both Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari are worth watching.

Further Reading

Shance on Doujin Material


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