Saito, Tamaki. Beautiful Fighting Girl. Translated by Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson, with an afterword by Azuma Hiroki. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Publisher’s webpage.
Silverberg, Miriam. Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Publisher’s webpage.
(Note: This post was originally part of a write-up I did for one of my committee members that included Brown’s Tokyo Cyberpunk, covered on this blog last week. I’ve trimmed most of my discussion of Brown here due to redundancy, but his name still pops up here and there.)
Here’s another quick post for today (and it has to be quick: we’re at T-minus 8 days until the exams!) to work through some of my mounting backlog. I think of Saito Tamaki’s and Miriam Silverberg’s respective books as two potential approaches to posthumanism “in action” in a cultural studies project. I had included them on my list in the hopes that they might model a unification of theory and text, a problem with which I frequently struggle in my own work. Let’s see how they did!
If Steven Brown misses the trees for the forest – that is to say, performs an overly broad analysis that misses the important specificities of his objects – Saitō Tamaki has the opposite problem. His book, originally written in 2000, is a psychoanalytic reading of contemporary Japanese popular culture and one of its more visible avatars, the “beautiful fighting girl” (sentō bishōjo). Through an analysis of this trope, he arrives at a psychoanalytic take on otaku – the avid fans of anime, manga, and games in Japan who had recently gained global visibility and scrutiny due to the explosion of popularity of Japanese pop culture abroad around the time this book was written. The sentō bishōjo is defined as a “phallic girl” (opposed to the “phallic mother”), which Saitō defines as a character who experiences jouissance through violent battle by identifying with the phallus in an almost shamanistic way, divorced from the originary trauma that defines the phallic mother. Continuing in his Lacanian idiom, Saitō claims that the beautiful fighting girl is essentially representing an id prior to symbolic castration, onto which the otaku viewers can project their own polymorphous desires while avoiding a confrontation with sexual difference.
Yet there are a number of contortions Saitō must perform to make this argument while still sticking to his political project of recuperating the otaku image from the contemporary stereotype of antisocial, sexually perverted, and possibly dangerous obsessive fans who lack the ability to differentiate reality and fantasy. In short, he wishes to make the above argument while still claiming that the otaku’s relationship to beautiful fighting girls exists in a separate social sphere, not having any impact on the heteronormative development of the socially-acceptable otaku subject. This means that women are completely effaced from the identity of “otaku,” despite the quantitative evidence to the contrary, and that queer sexualities that might threaten the heteronormative nuclear family development are suppressed. Furthermore, Saitō seems to recognize the otaku’s emerging position as an ambassador of Japanese culture (the government was in the process of constructing the “Cool Japan” initiative, which would aggressively promote Japanese pop culture abroad to try to revive the economy), and appears to want to capitalize on the cultural cachet this could lend the otaku as the new face of Japanese culture. Thus, he tries to make the claim that the appearance of the sentō bishōjo is fundamentally unique to Japan, and that it is only starting to appear abroad as other cultures absorb elements of Japanese culture. Like other cultural critics in Japan at this time, he thus inverts the evaluation of otaku from social outcasts to the misunderstood vanguard of the future. His view of the beautiful fighting girl trope thus cordons her off as the privileged territory of the heterosexual male otaku, excluding all other possibilities. Combined with the Lacanian focus on sexuality as the single affect that conditions all of human subjectivity, we’re left with a view of a cultural formation that only admits normative male sexuality from Japanese cis-males as its terms of understanding. Taken in terms of posthumanism, this seriously limits the kinds of subjectivities we might read in co-extension with the media product of the beautiful fighting girl.
Miriam Silverberg, then, gives the most compelling application of posthumanist theory in the realm of cultural studies. Her book, a cultural history of the “erotic grotesque nonsense” that is said to have driven 1920s and ‘30s Japanese mass culture, bases its methodology on the cinematographic technique of montage, skipping between objects of analysis in a manner somewhat similar to Brown’s rhizomes (though if we follow through on our metaphor, the montage keeps a sense of time and sequence that rhizomes would discard). Put in more posthuman terms, we might think of this method as cyborgian, cutting between different scenes, people, and discourses in a thoroughly hybrid assemblage that constructs piecemeal what Japanese modernity was like.
One of the elements of this methodology that I like most was its attention to space, demonstrating the ways in which the affects of eroticism, grotesquerie, and nonsense were constructed, represented, reproduced, and resisted in contextually bounded spaces. Ginza cafes and movie theaters (two of Silverberg’s “modern spaces”) were not just the backdrop to eroguro nansensu, in other words, but actively involved in shaping it. What’s more, her close reading of spaces of all sorts (physical and discursive, for example) is tied together with the practice of code switching, showing us how different spaces and objects demand and condition different responses to them.
The codes Silverberg identifies are explicitly national, gendered, and class-based codes of interpretation. Thus we can begin to see the relevance of her study to posthumanist questions of technology’s construction of racialized and gendered bodies in passages like the following:
What is important for a rethinking of Japanese modern culture is not that Yasuda and others determined that Japanese actresses and actors failed at foreign gestures. What is significant is that such statements reveal the extent to which such new gestures were enacted and the ambivalence that critics exhibited as they tried to associate nation with gesture. (114)
While Silverberg does not say it explicitly, what we should take from this passage is that modernity engendered certain affects, and that these affects were interpreted through a nation-state lens. In other words, advances in material culture altered the affective landscape of culture, but in ways that were always interpreted through a political lens of cultural and sexual difference. Silverberg expands on this a few pages later:
[The author of a magazine article on nonsense films] added that the idea that nonsense meant “nothing” was accepted at face value, as a non-ideological truism, by most, without any recognition that apparently nonsensical behavior that might appear without import could very well carry a political punch. My premise goes further. I contend that the concept of nonsense and the notions of ero…, guro, and the composite ero guro nansensu, as they appeared in such popular media sites as Eiga no Tomo, have mistakenly been seen as apolitical. (117)
Silverberg’s study can therefore be read as a history of the means by which affect was created and deployed in everyday life through the workings of popular media. In her reading, eroticism, grostequerie, and nonsense were all a part of the everyday affective landscape of modern urban living in Japan, and it was only gradually – and with great effort – that they were replaced by total war mobilization and state-sponsored propaganda. Despite her study of an era earlier than most posthumanist works, the posthuman body is very much present in Silverberg’s book. It is the modern body informed by mass market magazines and tied into the material fields of its (gendered, classed) everyday life, affectively orienting itself in diversely coded discourses of both Western and Japanese origin to carve out its existence.