Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 5 – Snobbery and the Fictional Age

It seems that research plus doing things in Tokyo is taking up much more of my time than anticipated, and some things have really fallen off as a result. As I’m sure you guys have noticed, I’ve been essentially on an anime hiatus for the past two weeks or so and’ve completely missed the start to the new season (aghhhhhhhhhhh). I’ve also been behind trying to keep all of you up to date with my travels/activities here (although I have a couple posts I finally managed to start pounding out so hopefully those’ll be up in the next week or so), as well as posting about anime in general.

Given this, from hereon out I’m going to put blogging in general and chronicling my activities here as a priority over trying to finish up shows from last season or beginning many of the newer ones, at least until my work calms down a little bit. I mean pulling these 12+-hour workdays is fine and all because I enjoy doing research, but I’m starting to get edgy. Anime withdrawal, perhaps?!



Anyways, just wanted to let you guys know about how things are on my end. Other than being quite busy, I’ve been having a great time! And most importantly, I’ve managed to head down to Akihabara pretty much every weekend ;)

Although sadly enough not THIS great. Damn you Shinji.

Although sadly enough not THIS great. Damn you Shinji.

So: on with the notes!

Notes on the notes:
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.
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. 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).

Part 5. Snobbery and the Fictional Age

Now let’s 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. 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 aren’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 animalityThis 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…

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 (e.g. seppuku)…

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 this 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 pseudo-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.

I mean, just look at that Japaneseness. Such snobbery! (I've discovered during my stay here that schoolgirl uniforms really ARE this stylish and popular though, at least in Tokyo, so there is something there!)

I mean, just look at that Japaneseness. Such snobbery! On a side note, I’ve discovered during my stay here that schoolgirl uniforms really ARE this stylish and popular though (or at least in/around Tokyo).

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. 

Commentary (8):
This said, however, the core reason for why he uses the term “animal” in the title is because the way otaku work, the seem to very much behave according to “base” desires and impulses in many things. So while otaku are “database animals”, consuming in order simply to satiate desires, the values that have arisen around this consumption constitutes a form of snobbery. Are the two always in conflict, or are they by chance non-dual? (This concept comes up a lot in my Kino’s Journey and Buddhism post.) Desires are created through value, and value involves some sort of interpretation (or some interpreting interpretation, perhaps?) and thus some form of snobbery, right?

So something like this, right?

So something like this, right?

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 maintenance 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… (The reasons are unimportant)

Azuma puts postmodernity’s origins way back in WWI, where the decline of grand narratives first began. He ends this transition from modernity to postmodernity in 1989 with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance 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 semblance 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…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 transition ended with the Subway Sarin incident of 1995, which happens to line up chronologically with the shift to database consumption.

Commentary (9):
Notice that this historical reading of postmodernity’s rise is again tied to national trauma, similar to what he does concerning Japan’s construction of a pseudo-identity in anime/manga following WWII and in opposed to the 1990’s economic downturn. Do these traumatic events really have that much of an impact on psyches? Are they really that “national” or “global”? Can they characterize an age? Well, if Natasha’s powerful post concerning trauma in Flowers of Evil can be extrapolated towards group psyches, the answer seems to most definitely be yes.

Hana ga saita yo...?

How insidious is it? Just how far both within and without does the flower reach?

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 (e.g. Waiting for Godot, which seems to display both). Azuma looks forward a little bit more, identifying traces of modernity in what we had considered postmodern.

3 responses to “Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 5 – Snobbery and the Fictional Age

  1. Just so you know, I am reading all these posts, just waiting until the last installment until I come out with a grand, sweeping statement >:3

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