Brown – Tokyo Cyberpunk

51wpq92bxecl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Brown, Steven T.  Tokyo Cyberpunk: Posthumanism in Japanese Visual Culture.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  2010.  Publisher’s webpage.


You ever get that sinking feeling that someone may have already written your project seven years ago?  That’s kinda how I felt when I first encountered Steven T. Brown’s book.  I mean, just look at that subtitle!  Granted, when I first came across this slim volume, I didn’t yet have a project as such, so I still had the flexibility to do something else, and in the end, it was moot.  Brown isn’t doing here what I hope to do in my own work, though his questions and objects of study often come close.  Precisely because it looks so similar from the outside, I felt like I needed to have a really firm grasp of it so I can articulate what makes my work different.  I think I have that now, so let’s have a look.

This book gives me a lot to wrestle with, as well as a lot to push against. (My grammarian mother would kill me for dangling that many participles, but let’s keep going.)  Brown describes his work as a rhizomatic reading of Japanese narratives of posthumanism in film and anime.  Following Deleuze and Guattari’s postmodernist lead, he advocates for non-hierarchical, highly intertextual reading strategies that would position texts within narrative and discursive topographies that go beyond simplistic questions of influence and authenticity.  Over the course of three Parts (not chapters, for whatever reason) and a substantial Conclusion, he performs this manner of reading on a number of prominent media texts, from Ghost in the Shell: Innocence to Kairo (aka Pulse) to Serial Experiments Lain in order to address a wide array of social and theoretical issues in Japan and posthumanism.  Hegemonic masculinity, the uncanny, hikikomori, digital addiction, and more all see their moment in his analysis.

It all sounds very exciting and glamorously po-mo, but I was left very dissatisfied.  My foremost issue is that rhizomatic reading, at least as Brown construes it, illuminates little that a conventional close reading wouldn’t.  In other words, Brown makes much of discarding metaphorics of “depth” and “deep meaning,” but still circles back around to looking for social issues as they are reflected in media texts.  He traces through labyrinthine connections (David Cronenberg, H.R. Giger, and Hans Bellmer, to name just a few) that supposedly illuminate new, hidden angles on the texts under consideration, but all that he wants to argue can be argued by simply sticking to the source text.  Schematically, this creates a chapter structure throughout that boils down to, “A looks like B looks like C because they’re all talking about X,” without much consideration given to issues of generational or cultural difference.  Media difference, too, is glossed over, with film, manga, anime, television, and critical theory all blending together into “narrative.”  Wherefore, then, the emphasis on rhizomes?

One answer is a point to which I’m sympathetic: rhizomatic reading – in straight up ignoring national borders – can help get around cultural essentialism and isolationist understandings of what constitutes “Japanese culture” that only reinforce state political boundaries.  This would go a long way toward putting Japanese material on an equal footing (academic value-wise) with the Western texts to which it has long been considered inferior in one way or another… except that there are vanishingly few Japanese sources cited beyond the media texts themselves.  Azuma makes a brief appearance, as does Saito Tamaki (whom we’ll be getting to on this blog in the coming days), but overall very few Japanese thinkers get anywhere near the amount of ink that Deleuze and Guattari, Susan Napier, Jeffrey Sconce, and other Euro-American writers do.  Rhizomatic reading promises to do away with hierarchical notions of authenticity, but I can’t help but feel like Brown is still trying to legitimate his object of study by way of canonical Western theorists.  This sense is heightened by the fact that a lot of the writing feels like we’re playing Deleuze & Guattari Mad Libs, with stock phrases and circumlocutions that only seem to obfuscate meaning for the sake of a “flavor” of scholarly seriousness.  The following quote from the introduction about one of Akira‘s plot threads is illustrative:

Through the lens of Tetssuo and his friends and rivals in The Capsules biker gang, especially Kaneda (the gang’s leader), who stand in opposition to the military-industrial complex depicted in the police state of Neo-Tokyo, AKIRA reimagines bosozoku as lines of flight that attempt to elude, escape, disrupt, and resist the lines of segmentarity (in the form of the municipal and national government, the scientific and medical apparatus, the military, the police, and the school system) subjectifying the citizens of Neo-Tokyo with mechanisms of social control that channel, classify, compartmentalize, and exclude. (6)

That was one sentence, for those of you keeping track, with (by my count) 2 words that are entirely made up and 4 or so redundant, synonymous verbs.  Similar performances of listing and bandying about of buzzwords (lines of flight!  deterritorialization! and of course rhizomes!) abound.

I’m not against jargon where it’s necessary, so it’s not the inclusion of made-up words in itself that bothers me (I study sci-fi and play D&D as a hobby, for god’s sake, imaginary words are my bailiwick).  But in this case, it comes with a certain imprecision surrounding other key terms, namely “technology” and (at least until a bit of explication in the conclusion) “posthumanism.”  The approach to “technology” as a concept is particularly noticeable, with all of the standard promise and peril commonly ascribed to contemporary consumer technologies by society at large showing up here, as well.  Technology addicts us, makes us antisocial and impersonal, while also connecting us as never before, expanding on the very idea of community.  This appears to apply equally to TV as well as the Internet, cell phones as well as video games.  SF, meanwhile, mostly serves as a cipher for these issues, occasionally offering critique, but never engaging in anything more complex than univocal enunciation.  Questions of reception or of conditions of production that might be significant to the text in question are not raised.

All in all, then, this book largely serves as something against which I can push to define my own work.  It’s unfortunate, because so many of the issues that could be studied through posthumanism in Japanese visual culture are knotty and messy and deserving of much (dare I say) deeper attention than the relatively button-down conclusions reached here of, “Japanese visual culture contains representations of posthumanist issues of X, Y, and Z.”  Giving a negative review like this one feels bad, but this really feels like a missed opportunity of a book.  And when the topic is so very near and dear to my own, that loss feels all the more keen.


One thought on “Brown – Tokyo Cyberpunk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s