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This volume is produced by, a project
International Foundation (TIFO) and the Modern East
Project director Christopher Goto-Jones (Leiden Univer-
hosted by the Modern East Asia Research Centre.
Asia Research Centre (MEARC). Its network includes
sity, Netherlands) International advisory board Wendy
partners in various countries across four continents.
Hui Kyong Chun (Brown University, USA) Mark Harrison is an attempt to build a new international
(University of Tasmania, Australia) Sharon Kinsella (Man-
research coalition in the rapidly emerging fields of
MEARC, based at Leiden University, was founded in
chester University, UK) Tom Lamarre (McGill University,
cyberculture (New Media, Convergence Culture, Video
2006. MEARC’s purpose is to support, showcase and
Canada) Stefan Landsberger (Amsterdam University,
Games and other related media, such as fan-culture)
stimulate genuinely disciplinary and comparative
Netherlands) Angus Lockyer (SOAS, UK) Susan Napier
and animanga (Anime and Manga), especially as they
research in the fields of history, philosophy, politics and
(Tufts University, USA) Steffi Richter (Leipzig University,
relate to (or originate from) East Asia.
international relations of modern East Asia - the period
Germany) Ivo Smits (Leiden University, Netherlands) is based at Leiden University and is
since the beginning of the 19th century until today.
Takayuki Tatsumi (Keio University, Japan) Mark Williams
funded through the generosity of the Netherlands
(Leeds University, UK)
Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Toshiba
ISSN Asiascape Occasional Paper Series: 1875-2241
The Asiascape Collection v.1
The Asiascape
Collection v.1
Essays in the Exploration of CyberAsia
The Asiascape
Collection v.1
Essays in the Exploration of CyberAsia
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Christopher Goto-Jones
Asiascape(s): Introduction
Christopher Goto-Jones
Asiascape(s): Introduction
What is a Techno-Region?
Thomas Lamarre
Animalisation, Subjectivity, and the Internet
Fabian Schäfer
From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction
Christopher Goto-Jones
Alien Autopsy: the Science Fictional Frontier of Asian Studies
Christopher Goto-Jones
Heidi in Japan: What do Anime’s Dreams of Europe mean for Non-Europeans?
Cobus van Staden
Bloggers, Hackers and the King Kong Syndrome
Jeroen de Kloet
In the Year 2020: Muslim Futurities in Southeast Asia
Bart Barendregt
Chinascape: Moving Beyond the People’s Republic
Jens Damm
In the popular imagination of many in the so-called West, Asia enjoys a romantic and intimate relationship with high technology. Visionary representations of the future, such as those elaborated in
films like Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) or novels like Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984),
often lend the global future an Asian flavour, either as a sign of the world’s possible cosmopolitan
destiny or more simply as an indication of the way that digital technology and East Asia appear
to be closely interwoven. This associative weave is particularly strong in the cyberpunk world of
virtual reality, artificial intelligence, networked communications, and explorations of cyberspace as
the new final frontier. The idea of ‘CyberAsia,’ which was the title of a special, 50th anniversary edition
of the IIAS Newsletter in 2009, weds Asia to the politics of futurities in complicated and diverse
ways. And the concept of Asiascape(s), which is the title of a research project hosted at MEARC in
Leiden University, elaborates the ways that these problematics can be mapped onto the everyday
(and not-so everyday) experience of ‘Asia’ today.
These expansive neologisms contain: allegations of Asia’s technological superiority; imaginations of
Asia’s utopian relationship with digital technology; and finally analyses of the concrete ways in
which high technologies have transformed social and cultural practices in the region (and permitted
the region to ripple around the world). Hence, the terms Asiascape and CyberAsia are confounded
ones, generating myriad possible meanings and implications, both empirically and theoretically.
This little book contains two collections of essays: the first is drawn from the CyberAsia IIAS Newsletter (Spring 2009), which was the result of collaboration between IIAS and the Asiascape project
of MEARC; the second is drawn from the first group of ‘Asiascape Ops’ (an internationally peerreviewed, occasional paper series published digitally by, supported by the Netherlands
Organization for Scientific Research, NWO). The essays cover a wide range of topics, giving a sense
of the contours of this confounded yet expansive field. In his contribution to the CyberAsia IIAS
Newsletter, Tom Lamarre offered some thoughts on the various ways in which CyberAsia might
function in discourses of today’s politics of knowledge.
The political relationship between technologized visions of Asia and a more classical sense of Orientalist mystique is noted with increasing frequency in the literature of Asian Studies. Scholars such
as Ueno Toshio and (more recently) Wendy Hui Kyong Chun have argued that this re-representation
of Asia as a technological icon amounts to a kind of ‘techno-Orientalism.’ Indeed, in some ways, it
seems that the domain of cyberspace itself might function as a space of Orientalism within the socalled West: it is a virtual (and largely textual) man-made geography created as an often fantastical
‘other’ place, or heterotopia. In this sense, the association of Asia with cyberspace begins to look like
another strategy of epistemic distancing and domination. It is along these lines that my own provocations in this volume seek to argue that Asian Studies might share a frontier with the enterprise of
science fiction. At stake here is the status of ‘Western’ knowledge of (cyber)Asia(scapes).
Of course, even if we were willing to accept that a kind of Orientalism is at work within the concept
of Asiascapes, it is not the case that the connection between Asia and digital technology has been
invented only by observers in Europe or the USA. In this volume, for instance, Fabian Schäfer draws
on the well-known work of Japanese critic Azuma Hiroki to explore the ways in which internet-use
Asiascape Occasional Paper Series
Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
Christopher Goto-Jones
Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space from
Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke Singer
Young Sook Choi
Nostalgia and Futurism in Contemporary Japanese Sci-Fi Animation
Yoko Ono
Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the (Ir)Reversibility of
Choice in Digital Media
Fabian Schäfer
Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge, and the
Science Fictional Field of Japan
Christopher Goto-Jones
List of Illustrations
About the Authors / Colophon
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
within the increasingly inclusive otaku (geek) subculture functions to transform modern subjectivity.
Schäfer’s essay appears here in two forms, in a shortened version (as it appeared in the IIAS Newsletter)
and in a more extended treatment (as it appeared as an Asiascape Op).
Elsewhere, Azuma himself has argued that this otaku subculture is effectively the vanguard of a new,
postmodern society that has abandoned its modernist attachments to coherence and narrative
logic in favour of a kind of ‘database’ model of engagement with the world. Cyberspace is a key
technology in this process of overcoming modernity, but Azuma also ties it to other allied media
forms, such as anime and manga. For Azuma, the landmark moment in the ‘animalization’ of
postmodern Japan was the broadcast of Anno Hideaki’s epic anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion
(Gainax, 1995-6). Other commentators have pointed to classic anime such as Oshii Mamoru’s
breakthrough, Ghost in the Shell (Production IG, 1995) as signalling a kind of self-Orientalism in
the anime industry, fuelling a global perception of an intimate connection between Japan and the
technological future. My own essay on anime and thought experiments plays with some of these
products and themes to explore the ways in which they might represent a space for philosophical
In his contribution to this volume, however, Cobus van Staden takes a different approach to the
relationship between Japan and anime, focussing instead on the ways in which anime representations of Europe have helped the medium (and hence Japan) to reach global audiences. Van Staden
suggests that a deep-seated Europhilia in Japan serves to exoticize anime for the Japanese themselves
whilst providing one of the conditions for the possibility of Japan’s cultural globalization at the same
time. Meanwhile, Ono argues that Japanese sci-fi anime provides a space for nostalgic reflection in
Japan that serves to re-inscribe a sense of identity in modern Japan.
Like Van Staden, Jeroen de Kloet is interested in the ways in which the media associated with CyberAsia are actually used by the people themselves (in the present). Focusing on the practice of hackers
and bloggers, De Kloet discusses the ways in which these cyberactivities have (or have failed to)
transform the public sphere in China. Drawing on a wealth of empirical evidence about actual internet
usage in China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong), Jens Damm provides an insight into the extent
to which this vital player in the future of Asia is saturated by cyberspace, mapping some of the ways
in which the virtual realm of the PRC spreads a net around the world.
As the case of China shows clearly, the whole project of CyberAsia is overshadowed by the political
menace of the unknown but projected future; the emphasis on technology constantly raises questions about power and wealth disparities within societies, highlighting the unevenness of access to
cyberspace and other digital technologies as well as the possible development of these disparities in
the future. However, as Bart Barendregt shows in his essay, the issue of technological development
also functions as a problematic between nations or regions. With particular attention to the newly
developing Muslim majority nations in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia, Barendregt explores
the creative collision of religion with technological advancement, elaborating the ways in which
these particular instantiations of CyberAsia provide models of aspiration for the future of the Islamic
world that differ from the predominant visions of the so-called West as well as those of some radical
Islamic groups. In the words of Richard Barbrook, Barendregt considers some of the ways in which
the present serves as a ‘beta version of a science fiction dream,’ and he demonstrates the importance
of understanding the dimensions and diversity of these dreams in Asia and elsewhere.
Finally, this little collection ends with the agenda of’s new research project, ‘Beyond
Utopia,’ which is a five-year VICI project funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific
Research (NWO). I hope that this new project will lead to many new publications, and at least a
second volume of the Asiascape Collection.
There are many people to thank for their support in establishing First and foremost
I am grateful to the Modern East Asia Research Centre (MEARC) at Leiden University, for providing
a fantastic environment in which to work. In particular, I should thank Esther Truijen for making
so many impossible things possible, including for all her creative endeavours on this little book.
Thanks to the NWO, who provided initial funding for via an Internationalization in
the Humanities grant, as well as to TIFO and IIAS for additional funds and support. Special thanks
are due to Anna Yeadell, the editor of the IIAS Newsletter, who worked extremely hard (and with
great patience) to compensate for my own organizational inadequacies.
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Thomas Lamarre
What is a Techno-Region?
Asia can be, and has been, imagined as a region in terms of geography, geopolitical configurations, language, culture, society, economy, or some combination of these. In disciplinary terms,
there are many different ‘Asias’ that do not necessarily coincide. Is the notion of ‘cyberAsia’
intended to construct a different imaginary of Asia, or offer a critique or a new critical angle
on received ways of thinking about things Asian? Or, is the neologism cyberAsia supposed to
reflect some new condition that has arisen in Asia?
Such questions are relevant because the term Asia, like the term Orient, frequently conjures forth a
sense of fantasmatic unity, contrasted with the West while shoring up Western identity. Critiques of
Orientalism have exposed and challenged the self-other dialectics implicit in the Western construct
of the ‘Orient,’ and consequently scholars have largely dropped the term, favouring instead the term
‘Asia.’ Yet this substitution does not necessarily change the self-other dialectics of Orientalism.
In the early 1990s, David Morley and Kevin Robins used the term ‘techno-orientalism’ to illustrate
how images of the technologisation and technological superiority of Japan served as a focal point for
American panic over the economic success of Japan and the potential threat to American hegemony.
In keeping Edward Said’s reminder that Orientalism is not simply a matter of negative stereotypes
but also of positive stereotypes that posit a putative unity in the interest of stabilising an object of
knowledge, Ueno Toshiya used techno-orientalism to describe the reception of Japanese anime and
pop culture outside Japan, especially in the United States. Such critiques force a blunt question: how
does cyberAsia differ from techno-Orientalism? Does the term cyber, with its aura of technological
novelty and futurity, posit the imaginary unity of Asia in order to impart the illusion of neutrality
and objectivity to collecting and accumulating of knowledge of cultures, technologies, commodities
and peoples?
‘Other Asias’
Gayatri Spivak’s recent evocation of ‘other Asias’ might provide a good point of departure for thinking about the implications of the term cyberAsia. While she explicitly challenges the imposition of
a fantasmatic unity called Asia abundantly evident in Orientalism and pan-Asianism, she speaks of
a pluralised Asia in which difference would no longer be articulated between, say, the West and Asia
but within Asia itself. Rather than surrender the idea of Asia, she seeks a pragmatic localised deconstruction of this disclinary construct that, like Said’s Orient, is after all not an airy fantasy easily
blown away. Spivak’s account invites us to ask how the concept cyberAsia might deal with internal
difference, with other Asias. Here it is not simply a matter of speaking in the plural, of cyberAsias.
Pluralising the term only makes a difference if that multiplicity presents a critical and analytical
challenge to some set of received orientations or dispositions, be they perpetuated in the academy,
the media, the cultural industry, or some other discourse, institution or habitus.
Given that the cyberAsia project foregrounds cultural production associated with Japan (manga,
anime, video games), questions arise about the relation between Japan and Asia in particular. Two
received sets of dispositions become particularly important in that context. First, there is the geopolitical imaginary in which East Asia, and specifically Northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea), comes to
stand in for Asia in general. To some extent, this might be thought to be postwar North America’s
Orient or Asia, in contrast to Western Europe’s Orient (the Middle East), which present different
condensations or formations of Western modernity. How can looking at Asia from the angle of cyber
present a challenge to this imaginary and address the internal difference of Asia, of the West and of
modernity? Second, in the context of Japan, there is the history of pan-Asianist thought that posits
the fantasmatic unity of Asia only to hierarchise relations between Japan and its colonies. This is a
bad way of conceptualising the internal differences of Asia, which serves as another reminder that
plurality is not merely a matter of adding an ‘s’ onto words. Nor is internal difference a matter of
juxtaposing nations or cultures. If the cyberAsia project wishes to challenge rather than reinforce
the fantasmatic unity of Asia, then it must think about how the term cyber might spur or hinder our
imagination of other Asias. It must directly address how thinking ‘cyber’ can have an impact on the
imagination and articulation of difference within ‘Asia.’ In other words, critical attention should fall
on the implications of the rather elusive term cyber.
Technologies of control
The prefix cyber- has become common, even overly used, in referring to almost anything related to
computing or electronics, and as the Wikipedia entry notes, there is a great deal of overlap with the
prefix e-. Nonetheless, the two have very different connotations. Partly due to the literal meaning of
cyber- as control (as in cybernetics) and partly due to its association with highly technologised
dystopian worlds (as with cyberpunk and cyborgs), cyber- implies a distinctive technological condition, linked to new information and communication technologies. And the prevalence of dystopian
valences denotes some manner of critical response to this technological condition, a ‘cyberised’
or cybernetic world that suggests extensive technologies of control in which telecommunications
are associated with telecommand, in which cyber-entities grapple with or struggle against their cyber-condition. Yet, as Félix Guattari points out, this manner of thinking technology can be very
structural and mechanistic - and thus highly deterministic. There is a post-Romantic fascination
with technological determinism and its discontents, which results in a struggle to break the grip of
technologies of control.
Such a manner of thinking technology strives to locate moments of indeterminacy within the
mechanism, moments and sites where life emerges (so-called artificial life) from the inorganic, or
where thought emerges from brute matter or mechanism (so-called artificial intelligence). In effect,
the term cyber frequently entails a search for internal difference, a quest for indeterminacy under
conditions in which new technologies imply structural determinism. Of course, there is always the
danger that this way of thinking information and communications technologies, because of its presuppositions of determinism, serves to mystify rather than enlighten. This is precisely why caution
is needed. Because the discovery of emergent life or intelligence is commonly taken as the harbinger
of a new era or new world, care is required in thinking about the conditions for and status of new.
In addition to the simple question of whether this is truly new, the question arises about whether
this newness repeats ideologies of an overcoming of the modern or postmodern technological
condition, thus completing, fulfilling and entrenching that condition rather than critiquing it.
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
This is especially important when the term cyber becomes a prefix for Asia. If cyber is to sustain its
theoretical and critical force, it must be posed as a question of technology, not a fact of technologisation or (post)modernisation, or as a fact of novelty. Just as Spivak’s pluralisation of Asia demands an
internal differentiation of received ideas about Asia, so the idea of cyberAsia must open and sustain
specific questions about technology and techno-cultures associated with the term cyber, and at the
same time, address how technologies serve to integrate or differentiate the fantasmatic unity of Asia,
whether it is posited and sedimented linguistically, culturally, socially, economically or geopolitically.
In other words, the cyberAsia project must give precedence to the question begged by its neologism:
‘what is a techno-region?’ A number of questions follow from this one. If we take cyber as an index
for a particular mode of technological or techno-cultural integration/differentiation, we might, for
instance, think about how this mode of techno-integration/differentiation interacts with the deterritorialising and reterritorialising forces of capitalism (perhaps in the context of the emergence of
newly integrated economic zones in East Asia). Questions also arise about how this techno-integration/differentiation affects the articulations of national culture and social identity. In light of theories
that see a graphic integration/differentiation in East Asia based on legacies of writing and drawing
associated with Chinese characters, the question of the relation between techno-integration/
differentiation and histories of writing is equally urgent.
To pose the question of cyberAsia in this manner means giving up on the idea that novelty - specifically,
the novelty of attaching the prefix cyber to Asia - is a guarantee of difference or otherness and thus
of critical engagement. Rather it is imperative to acknowledge that ‘cyberising’ Asia does not necessarily amount to pluralising Asia and articulating other Asias. This also means giving up on the
fascination with new objects and the collusion with the logic of markets that currently marks the
study of popular culture and especially Japanese popular culture, for instance. Rather than fuss over
the next big thing, the goal would be to pose questions about the relation between technologies,
knowledge production, cultural production, circulation, distribution and regionalisation, in the interest of questioning rather than grounding the technological condition, and in the interest of pluralising rather than unifying Asia.
Fabian Schäfer
Animalisation, Subjectivity, and the Internet
Digital and virtual forms of culture are intensely choice-based. In the absence of meta-narrative,
we are constantly being solicited as an agent of choice, between alternatives, to follow links. To
examine this most modern of issues Fabian Schäfer turns to the mature traditions of philosophy.
Distinguishing Japanese cultural critic Azuma Hiroki’s concept of human and animal action,
and the influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s authentic and fallen selves, in
terms of the notions of choice and reversibility, he poses the question of whether the subject of
virtual choice is best understood in one context or the other.
In their August 2008 issues, the German news magazine Der Spiegel and the American journal The
Atlantic published cover stories on the dangers of Internet-based communication and knowledge.
Both magazines posed the question, ‘is Google or, more generally, the Internet making us stupid?’
The discourse splits into two camps of critics and enthusiasts. On the one hand, it is emphasised that
the Internet is leading to the occurrence of new simultaneous modes of perception, a democratisation
of knowledge, and unprecedented creativity by its users; on the other hand, the loss of critical reason
or the capacity for remembering, rising attention deficit, the loss of a common culture existing
through the reading of books, and the intellectual passivity of Internet users is harshly criticised.
Moreover, the critical camp often psychopathologises the effects of the use of the Internet. Proponents
of this faction agree that spending 5 to 6 hours on the Internet per day, searching through a cornucopia
of texts, videos or music or writing emails and instant messages, can cause social behavioural disorders
such as an anti-social attitude or an unwillingness to communicate.
Philosophical aspects of databases, the Internet and hypertext
It is the effects of the Internet on our cognitive abilities and reading capability that particularly unsettles the critics. In his editorial for the The Atlantic, American writer Nicholas Carr complains that
persistent Internet use is influencing his capacity for concentration and contemplation. According
to Carr, he was ‘once (…) a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now [he] zip[s] along the surface like a
guy on a Jet Ski.’1 The reason for this effect upon our cognition is based on the most important feature
of the Internet or electronic databases – the fact that they are based on interactivity or HTML
(Hypertext Markup Language) in particular.
However, how the interactivity of hypertext affects its users, and in how far they are capable of
handling the simultaneous existence and accessibility of documents or websites, remains questionable.
Specifically, it is the inner restlessness that one feels when faced with the decision between two or
more possibilities which complicates the absorption of knowledge by means of interactive media.
Links can be compared to junctions or options, or, as Martin Heidegger once put it, to possibilities
on which Dasein (‘existence’) can project itself onto. In this sense, the networked structure of the
Internet or a database might be described as a miniature of the possibilities-for-Being (Seinkönnen)
of Dasein. As in real life, deciding in favour of one possibility (namely a link) necessarily means to
negate others.
Fabian Schäfer Animalisation, Subjectivity, and the Internet
‘Distraction’, ‘squirreling’ and ‘fallen’ uses of the Internet
However, it is only in what Heidegger called the ‘authentic’ (eigentlich) mode of Being (Seinsweise)
that Dasein can ‘‘choose’ [or] win itself ’ and thereby ‘be’ itself (Selbstsein, Being-one’s-Self ) through
an existential projection in the choice of ‘its ownmost possibilities.’ 2 Most times, Heidegger admits,
the Dasein is determined by the possibilities given by the Man and is therefore not situated in the
mode of authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) but in one of ‘fallenness’ (Verfallenheit). Speaking in the words
of Heidegger, the possibility of ‘falling’ seems to be relatively high in the case of the interlinked
structure of the Internet or databases if compared to the reading of a linear-structured book.
‘Surfing’ the Internet or browsing through databases can be described as what Walter Benjamin
termed ‘reception in a state of distraction.’ (Rezeption in der Zerstreuung).3 This mode of perception,
according to Benjamin, is based on the ‘tactile quality’ (taktile Qualität) of the object of perception
- in Benjamin’s case, movies and photographs.4 This tactility of visual media Benjamin describes is
even emphasised by the interactivity of the Internet or databases. As Nicholas Carr’s editorial in The
Atlantic rightly asserts, hyperlinks, ‘[u]nlike footnotes’, ‘don’t merely point to related works; they
propel you toward them.’ The perception of the Internet is, in Benjamin’s terms, one of ‘tactile
appropriation’ that is based on ‘habitualisation’ rather than on ‘attention.’5 To Heidegger, who used
the term ‘Zerstreuung’ (distraction) in a comparable way, distraction is based on ‘curiosity’ (Neugier),
a mode of fallenness. Other than Verstehen (understanding) as the self-projection of the being on its
ownmost possibilities, curiosity is merely based on ‘seeing’ (Sehen). In this mode of being, ‘Dasein
seeks what is far away simply in order to bring it close to itself in the way it looks. Dasein lets itself
to be taken along (mitnehmen) solely by the looks of the world.’6
The dangers of ‘fallen’ or ‘distracted’ Internet use are substantiated by the findings of a recent study
of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College London (UCL).7 As part of
a five-year programme, researchers analysed the behaviour of visitors to two popular research sites,
one operated by the British Library and one by a UK educational consortium, that provides access
to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. The results showed that
people using the sites exhibited ‘a form of skimming activity,’ hopping from one source to another
and rarely returning to any source they had already visited. They typically read one or two pages of
an article or book before jumping to another site. Sometimes they saved a long article, but there’s no
evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. Apparently, many Internet users seem to react
to links as ‘possibilities’ in Heidegger’s sense or the flood of information provided by the Internet
with an individual ‘databasification’ of information retrieved from larger databases - a behaviour that
the scholars of UCL called ‘squirreling.’
Internet, databases and animalisation
In a series of lectures held in 1929-30, Heidegger distinguished between animal and man by describing
the animal’s mode of being as one of ‘poverty in world’ (Weltarmut) and that of man as ‘worldforming’ (weltbildend). Accordingly, one might argue that the Weltarmut of the animal (i.e. its
‘captivation’ (Benommenheit) and ‘absorption’ (Eingenommenheit) by its environment) bears parallels to the curiosity and fallenness of Dasein that is, as already mentioned, taken along [mitnehmen]
solely by the looks of the world.8
With regard to the ‘animalisation’ or ‘fallenness’ of Dasein to a tactile and habitualised information
seeking behaviour in the digital age, it is valuable to take into account the contemporary philosophical
discourse on the phenomenon of otaku culture in Japan, since much of the public debate on the
positive and negative sides of the Internet parallels the discourse on otaku culture in Japan. Otaku is
a Japanese term that refers to people with obsessive interests in various Japanese subcultures, particularly manga, anime, science fiction, or computer games. The otaku are often psychopathologised
as being anti-social, uncommunicative, and self-absorbed. Cultural critic Azuma Hiroki, however,
saw value in analysing the otaku from the perspective of their pioneering role in the ‘information
In his book Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai (2001, Animalising
Postmodern: Japanese Society as Seen from the Perspective of Otaku), Azuma considers the otaku
phenomenon not as particularly Japanese, but as an inflection ‘of the global trend of postmodernization’.9 With regard to French philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s neo-Hegelian distinction between two
forms of ‘post-historical existence’ - the ‘animalisation’ of American society based on consumerism
and the highly formalised and aesthetisised ‘snobbism’ of the Japanese - , Azuma asserts that otaku
culture consists of a ‘two-tiered mode of consumption’ that reflects the two-layered structure of the
postmodern itself.10 Other than the two layers of the modern world-image - the ‘depth’ of ‘grand
narratives’ (namely ideals, ideology) and a ‘surface’ of many ‘small narratives’ - Azuma claims that,
with reference to Lyotard’s notion of the end of grand narratives, the latter were replaced by a ‘grand
database’ in the postmodern world-image (sekaizō). Whereas the modern era formed a structure in
which a single grand narrative or ideal controlled the diverse small narratives and cultural and social
criticism consisted of analysing grand narratives as reflected within various small narratives, in the
postmodern, people may grasp any number of small world-images.11
Azuma claims that one can identify two ways in which the otaku deal with this new world-image.
He calls one the ‘animalesque’ (dōbutsuteki) side of database consumption; that is the solitude and
passive consumption of the many small narratives of computer games, anime, or manga that are
merely based on ‘combinations’ (kumiawase) of self-referential elements from the grand database.
Database consumption also has a second, active or ‘humanesque’ side, because otaku actively intervene
in received commodities by breaking down the narratives into their compounds (for computer
games these are screenplay, character, background or for manga it is the single ‘sensitive elements’
(moe yōso) that characters are composed of ), and thereby get access to the database that lies in the
‘depth’ behind the small narrations and ‘recreate’ (niji sōsaku) from it their own narrations or pictures.12
This ‘double structure’ (nijū kōzō) of deconstruction and reconstruction prompts Azuma to interpret
otaku culture as a deconstructivist and, thus, subversive form of cultural reception that brings it
close to a deconstructivist method in contemporary literary theory.13 Azuma bases this assertion
also on the fact that to the otaku it doesn’t matter any longer if the ‘author’ of the small narratives
they consume is a professional - ‘authorized’ by one of the big manga or anime publishers - or an
amateur who publishes his self-made anime or manga in one of the many fanzines (dōjinshi) or on
the Internet.
Fabian Schäfer Animalisation, Subjectivity, and the Internet
Internet, databases and pedagogy
What can we conclude from Azuma’s positive remarks on the new media literacy of the otaku with
regard to what I have defined rather negatively as the ‘fallenness’ of the Internet user? In any case,
the suggestive question posed by The Atlantic or Der Spiegel, about whether Google, the Internet,
databases, or the new flood of information in general, is making us stupid per se, seems to be pointing
in the wrong direction. Even Heidegger’s or Benjamin’s perspective on distracted or habitualised
perception is not as pessimistic as I have described it here. In fact, they agree that curiosity or tactile
apperceptions aren’t necessarily something that should be condemned from the outset. According
to Heidegger, curiosity, which is non-‘anticipatory’ (namely ‘non-self-projecting’) and thus merely
‘awaiting’ (gewärtigend), ‘has its natural justification [...][and] belongs to the everyday kind of being
of Da-Sein and to the understanding of being initially prevalent.’14 Similarly, Benjamin reminds us
that perception in a state of distraction is important, since ‘the tasks which face the human apparatus
of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation.’
Obviously, if applied to our cognition of the interactive structure of the Internet, Heidegger’s and
Benjamin’s perspectives refer to two ways of dealing with electronic and interlinked texts. First, the
‘authentic’ Seinsweise of understanding and contemplation, one that, to borrow hypertext theorist
Jay D. Bolter’s words, looks ‘through the text’ and thus grasps and understands the meaning of the
narration ‘behind’ the text. (This is what Azuma describes as the ‘deconstructivist’ and ‘humanesque’
side of otaku culture). Secondly, a ‘fallen’ or ‘animalised’ mode, in which the user has to ‘look at the
text, as a series of possibilities [or links, F.S.] that he or she (…) can activate.’ Accordingly, they are to
a lesser extent two modes of usage - one active and ‘authentic’ and one passive and ‘in-authentic’ than two different strategies of dealing with electronic and networked information - namely
explorative browsing (‘power browsing’) on the one hand and the purposeful search for a particular
document and its subsequent contemplative reading on the other. As for the latter, it is important
for the user not to lose sight of his - in Heidegger’s words - ‘ownmost projection’ that has to guide a
search; for the former, it is even necessary to let oneself be ‘taken away’ by one’s curiosity, governed
merely by the possibilities given by the structure of homepages or databases. With regard to university
pedagogies, however, it is necessary to teach students the sharp distinction between these
two modes of dealing with digitised texts and knowledge that is based on the particular goal one
pursues. Moreover, it will be of particular importance to teach contemplative and analytic reading
to a generation of otaku and Google users that possesses a highly developed digital literacy but is
beginning to lack basic reading and writing skills.
Christopher Goto-Jones From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction
1 The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” July/August 2008. /doc/print/200807/google
2 Heidegger, Martin 1993 [1927]. Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit.
Oxford: Blackwell
3 Benjamin, Walter 1977 [1936]. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen
Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp
4 ibid.
5 For instance, the tactility of hyperlinks is particularly obvious if a phrase of a text
appears as a hyperlink (i.e. blue font colour) but does not have the respective
function. Only through the Unzuhandenheit (un-readiness-to-hand) of a link as
a link do we become aware of the haptic interactivity of hypertext described by
Christopher Goto-Jones
From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction
The term ‘science fiction’ is of relatively recent origin. It was apparently coined by the genrelegend Hugo Gernsback in an editorial to his new magazine, Science Wonder Stories, in 1929.
Nine years later the rival magazine changed its name to Astounding Science Fiction, and thus
the name entered history. However, throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were a plethora of
competing terms: pseudo-scientific, weird-science, and Gernsback’s own early favourite was
actually ‘scientifiction.’
Benjamin as “tactile appropriation”.
6 Heidegger 1993 [1927]
8 Heidegger based this distinction on the fact that an animal is essentially
captivated and wholly absorbed by its environment (its Umgebung, as opposed to
the Umwelt of Dasein) and thus can only behave other than how a human being
does. Heidegger, Martin (1983 [1929/30]). ‘Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik.
Welt – Endlichkeit – Einsamkeit’. In: ibid.: Gesamtausgabe II. Abteilung Vorlesungen
1923-1944. Vol. 29/30. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann
9 Azuma, Hiroki. 2001. Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai.
Kodansha: Tokyo
10 ibid.
11 ibid.
12 Machinima (‘machine cinema’), the art of using a computer game to
create a movie, is a similar active form of ‘recreation’ by computer users.
13 Hypertext theoretist Jay D. Bolter emphasized the relationship between
Derridarian poststructuralism and hypertext as well. According to Bolter, based on
the rhizomatic structure of the Internet or databases, electronic texts don’t have a
centre or margins because of their ‘deconstructive reading’: “The reader can follow
paths through the space in any direction, limited only by constraints established
by the author. No path through the space need be stigmatized as marginal.”
Cf. Bolter, Jay D. 1991. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of
Writing. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum
14 Heidegger 1993 [1927]
15 Hiroki, Azuma. 2007 [2003]. ‘The Animalization of Otaku Culture’. In: Luning,
Frenchy (ed.). Mechademia 2. Networks of Desire. Minneapolis: Minnesota Press.
Fiction that would eventually become labelled as ‘science fiction’ (or ‘sci-fi’) had been in existence for
at least a century before. Convention dictates that the first piece of sci-fi was Mary Shelly’s gothic
masterpiece, Frankenstein (1818), although the reasons for this origination are for from uncontested.
For some, it is enough to say that Frankenstein is the earliest text that still exists within what Damien
Broderick (Reading by Starlight, 1995) has called the ‘megatext’ of modern sci-fi (that is, within the
set stories that define literacy in the genre). For others, the issue is not conventional but thematic:
sci-fi is about technology and mechanization, hence it is necessarily a product of modernity and of
the industrial revolution. Accordingly, the nineteenth century works of Shelly, HG Wells and Jules
Verne should be read along side Nietzsche’s proclamations about the death of god, Max Weber’s
account of the ‘iron cage’ of modern bureaucratic machinery and Martin Heidegger’s stand against
the self-alienation of Being in the face of the imperialism of technology.
Science fictional Japan
In other words, sci-fi is the literature of the hopes and anxieties of industrial modernity, and it
should come as no surprise that other industrial societies have produced their own ‘weird-science.’
Indeed, Japan’s relationship with sci-fi began in its so-called ‘age of machines’ (kikai jidai) in the
early twentieth century with the work of writers such as Mizushima Niou and Yumeno Kyūsaku,
who were writing contemporaneously with social critics and philosophers struggling with the
problematics of modernity and its overcoming (kindai no chōkoku). Already in the late 1920s, Japanese
writers (and scientists) were envisioning robots or jinzō ningen (artificial people), and stories about
them (including some claims to have invented them) appeared in popular science magazines in the
1920s and 1930s; at this time, such stories would have been labelled as kūsō kagaku (imaginary science).
It was not until the postwar period that the English terms ‘SF’ or ‘sci-fi’ entered popular usage.
Historians of Europe as well as Japan will be quick to notice that this period corresponds approximately to what Eric Hobsbaum has called the Age of Empire (1989), in which the so-called Great
Powers established and consolidated imperial rule across the globe. Hence, it is interesting to reflect
that one of the other central, thematic concerns of sci-fi is often considered to be the encounter with
difference, and occasionally with either the mystification or the demonization of difference. In other
words, sci-fi can be read as a thread in the weaves of colonialism and orientalism, and in recent
years much of the most sophisticated work on sci-fi has indeed come from the standpoint of postcolonialism. From this perspective, we see the beginnings of the creation of a science fictional Japan,
as well as the coincident birth of science fiction in Japan.
The engagement of Western sci-fi with the East Asian ‘other’ in the first half of the twentieth
century (and then again during the years around the Vietnam War) is clearly informed by a kind of
reactionary and anxious frontier-spirit. Classic comic-strips such as Philip Francis Nowlan’s Buck
Rogers in 25th Century (which was the first sci-fi comic strip in US-history, starting on 7 January
1929) and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (beginning 7 January 1934) show America being overrun
by the Red Mongols, and pit the all-American hero (Flash Gordon is quarterback of the New York
Jets) against an evil (Chinese) Emperor Ming the Merciless of planet Mongo. However, perhaps the
most remarkable of these prewar texts is the Sixth Column (1949) by Robert Heinlein, which was
originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in January, February and March of 1941 (nine
months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor). Heinlein depicts the invasion of the USA by a force
of ‘PanAsians,’ whom he identifies as a mix of Japanese and Chinese. The Americans defend themselves through recourse to a special ‘ray weapon’ that could be adjusted so that it would only damage
people of a specific race. In many ways, Heinlein’s novel is an intriguing window into American fears
about Japan’s imperial expansion and its proposed Co-Prosperity Sphere.
As one of the most influential voices in American sci-fi, Heinlein’s portrayal of the ‘PanAsiatics’ has
been extremely controversial, and it has been variously condemned and praised for its engagement
with the volatile race-politics of the time. On the one hand, critics have accused Heinlein himself of
buying into American chauvinism and anti-Japanese propaganda during the early 1940s. On the
other hand, Heinlein and others have argued that his purpose was anti-racist, and that his text
was an attack on Japanese and US racism at the time. Whatever the actual force of this book, the
historical interest of Sixth Column vastly outweighs its literary quality, which even Heinlein himself
These sci-fi classics from the early twentieth century illustrate very well the ways in which science
fiction was a symbolic genre or a metaphorical discourse from its inception. Heinlein’s transparency
in his depiction of the Japanese as Japanese, rather than as aliens from another galaxy with
suspiciously Japanese or Chinese sounding names, was actually rather unusual. The tendency in
sci-fi is to re-figure the encounter with the ‘other’ in terms of the encounter with the literally alien.
Of course, the question of race politics within sci-fi has attracted a wide critical literature. In the
postwar period, Samuel R. Delany would become a leading figure in this field, using his own science
fiction (and sci-fi criticism) to explore and challenge questions of identity and difference, of exploration
and conquest, of autonomy and assimilation. His 1967 Nebula Award winning novel, The Einstein
Connection, has become a classic of its kind.
In the postwar period, however, it gradually became clear that the representation of Japan in science
fiction did not have to orbit around negative racial stereotypes. No longer a military threat, Japan
began to recapture some of the romantic mystery that it had once enjoyed in European eyes, such as
in the work of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels, 1826), whose archetypal explorer, Gulliver, very
famously travelled to the mystical land of Japan with a special letter of introduction from the king of
Luggnagg, with whom Japan was apparently allied in the eighteenth century! By the time of the New
Wave movement of the 1970s, Asia was already an explicit source of inspiration for the mystical
futurities of the West, and 1980s cyberpunk placed the technologically thriving, contemporary Japan
into the fictive futures of Europe and the USA. In other words, whilst the fictions had slipstreamed
from negative to positive, Japan remained science fictional.
Christopher Goto-Jones From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction
Science fictional Japan in the postwar world
In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War, anxiety about the emerging
Cold War was clear in the so-called ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction.’ In 1949 (the same year in which
Sixth Column was issued as a book), George Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four was published,
in which the fictional nation of Eastasia is identified as one of the three superpowers of the dystopian
future. But in general the 1950s and 1960s are marked by intense political activism and by scepticism
about the ability of technology to solve all problems, and this agenda is played out in the sci-fi of the
Central to these problematics was the horror of wartime technology, culminating in the atomic
bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. A common theme in Anglo-American sci-fi
became anxiety over a loss of humanity and the potential collapse of civilization triggered by the
pursuit of technological advancement. Three of the most acclaimed sci-fi novels of all time, Isaac
Asimov’s Foundation (1951), Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange
Land (1961), all appeared in this period. As we will see, the a-bombs also played a central role in the
development of sci-fi in postwar Japan, albeit in a radically different way; the classic monster film,
Gojira (1954) by Honda Ishirō, will become emblematic.
By the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, however, there was a real turning of the tide. The so-called
‘New Wave’ of sci-fi shifted the attention of authors and readers away from the technology-driven
glories (and anxieties) of ‘outer-space’ and towards the complex, human concerns of ‘inner-space.’
During this period there was a real focus on challenging social and cultural taboos, on radical
political stances, and on heightened literary quality. Leading lights in the UK and the USA were
Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Roger Zelazny, and of course Samuel R. Delany (although some of
these figures rejected the label).
One of the intriguing aspects of the New Wave was the way in which it re-appropriated and re-signified
Asia; like many of the other cultural movements of the time, the New Wave was fascinated by spiritual
aspects of Asian culture, such as Zen (DT Suzuki established his Zen Centre in California during the
1960s), Indian mysticism (just as the Beatles travelled to India in 1968), and the freshly politicized
nature of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, Kingsley Amis has famously condemned the New Wave for its
fixation on stylistic innovation and for its persistent recourse to (what he called) Oriental religions
and spirituality. Zelazny’s Lord of Light (1967) might be indicative.
One of the truly literary moments in this period was Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel, which was first published in 1943 in a Germanic context of intoxication with the ‘mystic
East.’ In 1969, it was finally translated into English as The Glass Bead Game, a novel that posits the
development of new form of game as the pinnacle of human civilization, requiring consummate
intellectual and spiritual development, which is identified strongly with East Asian traditions.
Indeed, Hesse’s other novels also enjoyed a revival in the 1960s (after his death in 1962) largely
because of their resonance with the counter-cultural, spiritual movements of the time: Siddhartha
(1922), Steppenwolf (1927), Journey to the East (1932).
This sci-fi re-figuring of Asia as a spiritual alternative to the technologically angst-ridden West was
a common feature of many of the novels of the period, not to mention an already familiar orientalist
trope in European literature. Indeed, it bled over into the sci-fi boom of the late 1970s and 1980s that
followed the release of Star Wars in 1977. For many critics (as well as for George Lucas himself ),
many aspects of the Star Wars galaxy, specifically the mystical ‘Jedi Way,’ were derived from Taoist
and Zen philosophies (sometimes presented with the admixture of Zoroastrianism); the fabled
‘force’ reconstituted qi or ki; Yoda’s famously garbled English has been seen as a thinly veiled representation of Japanese-English.
Whilst the Star Wars phenomenon abandoned the high-brow pretensions of the New Wave in favour
of sci-fi’s more popularist roots, it retained a certain nostalgic romanticism about representations of
Asia as the home of a spiritual (and often more ‘human’) alternative to coldly technologized and
alienated societies in the West. Interestingly, the next major movement in science fiction affected a
re-technologizing of this mythical spirituality, often via the imaginary of Japanese technological
The ‘cyberpunk’ movement of the 1980s, led by writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and
the editor Gardner Dozois, witnesses the creation of ‘cyberspace’ as a futurity in which consciousness,
spirituality and digital technology coalesce. In the context of the digital revolution and the rapid
emergence of the Japanese bubble economy, visions of the future began to take on a distinctly East
Asia visage, with Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982), setting an early standard.
Shortly afterwards, Gibson’s acclaimed Neuromancer (1984) contained some powerful Japanese
imagery, and portrayed the future as tinged with Japaneseness: the microchip that makes everything
possible has the name Hosaka; the best computing power comes in the form of the Ono-Sendai
Cyberspace 7; and key characters (such as the cybernetically enhanced and genetically engineered
super-ninja, Hideo) have obvious Japanese origins. By the time of Gibson’s Idoru (1996), which is
explicitly set in a version of Japan that is simultaneously represented as a futurity (for the West) and
as a slightly fantastical vision of present-day Japan, cyberpunk’s love affair with Japan was already
profound. This was techno-orientalism or Japanophilia: Japan was no longer merely science fictional,
Japan had become the future itself.
Science fiction in Japan
Given this context, it was not without a measure of intentional ambiguity and perhaps irony that
Nippon 2007, the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) to be held in Asia (but the 65th
Worldcon), chose as its slogan: Nippon – SF no kuni (Japan – The Land of Science Fiction).
Worldcon began in New York in 1939. As its name suggests, the convention’s ambitions were international from its inception. If we can assume that sci-fi was a genre concerned with the future at that
time (and this is not a universal assumption, as we have seen), and particularly with a post-national,
space-faring vision of humanity, then any lingering sense of national parochialism seems both quaint
and ridiculous. Given the nature of the genre, Worldcon should have paid more attention to the
‘World’ than the World Series… Nonetheless, the dominance of the USA and the apparently inalienable
centrality of the English language has characterised the history of Worldcon (and especially the
prestigious Hugo Awards that are presented at the convention each year).
Of course, it is not merely coincidental that the first Worldcon to be held in Asia comes at the peak
of European and American interest in science fictional Japan. However, it is also the case that Japanese
science fiction is beginning to play a highly visible role in Euro-American popular culture: the anime
and manga explosion of the 1990s and 2000s has made Japan a global force in science fiction, and
Japanese video games (often with sci-fi themes) dominate the international market. The influence of
Japan and Japanese sci-fi on the USA is now unequivocal, leading Tatsumi Takayuki to claim that we
are all ‘Japanoids’ today (Japanoido sengen, 1993), whether we know it or not: Ridley Scott freely
confesses the influence of Japanese media on his classic Blade Runner; the Wachowski brothers are
open about the importance of anime in their Matrix trilogy (and even produced an anime interlude,
Christopher Goto-Jones From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction
the Animatrix, 2003); and recently Leonardo DiCaprio announced that he would produce a movie
version of the classic animanga Akira. Not only that, but anime has broken through into the mainstream of Western popular culture: science fiction directors such as Oshii Mamoru (Ghost in the
Shell, 1995) and Ōtomo Katsuhiro (Akira, 1988) are now iconic figures in their own right.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Worldcon has finally had to recognise that Japan is not
merely science fictional, but also a real-world context for a specific tradition of science fiction. That
said, many gaijin (alien) participants at Nippon 2007 were surprised to learn about the depth and
richness of Japanese science fiction, which has developed in dynamic interaction with Western sci-fi,
even if that development has gone almost completely unnoticed in the English language literature of
sci-fi criticism. Indeed, whilst Nippon 2007 was the first Worldcon to be held in Asia, it coincided
with the 46th Japan Science Fiction Convention (the first JSFC was in Tokyo, 1962) – the annual
event at which the prestigious Seiun Prizes (the Japanese equivalent of the Hugo Awards) have been
awarded since 1970.
One of the intriguing things about the JSFC is its sense of the world. Whilst it makes no claims to
being a ‘Worldcon,’ its history shows a much greater openness to (and awareness of ) sci-fi from
overseas. Indeed, unlike the Hugo Awards, there is a special Seiun Prize for the best translated
novel, which has been won by such genre-greats as Frank Herbert, Robert Delazny, and David Brin.
Conversely, the great Japanese sci-fi writers are almost unheard of in Europe and the USA, despite
the fact that many of them engage directly with the themes and questions raised by European and
American authors, providing interestingly inflected, alternative visions. To the extent that the ‘world’
is aware of Japanese sci-fi, it appears to locate the genre in the media of anime, manga and video
games, neglecting the novels and short stories that comprise the backbone of the sci-fi ‘megatext’ in
the West. In other words, the field of science fiction demonstrates international language politics in
Some of the more literary classics of Japanese science fiction have been translated into English. The
towering figure of Komatsu Sakyō (who has won the Seiun four times) might be known to English
readers as the author of Nihon chimbotsu (1973, translated as Japan Sinks, 1995), which sold over
four million copies in Japan; as guest of honour, Komatsu also won the Seiun at Nippon 2007 for the
eagerly anticipated sequel Nihon chimbotsu II (2007). Readers may also be familiar with the work of
Abe Kōbō, whose mainstream novels have made something of an impact in translation, and whose
experimental sci-fi novel Daiyon kampyo-ki (1958, translated as Inter Ice-Age 4, 1970) appeared in
English in time for the New Wave. However, other accomplished writers will be lesser known: the
unparalleled master of the ‘short short,’ Hoshi Shin’ichi is virtually unknown; even the incomparable
Tatsui Yasutaka, famed in Japan as the recipient of both the Tanizaki Prize and the Kawabata Prize
for literature (1987 and 1989), who has won back-to-back Seiun Prizes (1975 and 1976), has only
recently come to the attention of the international public, partially because he wrote the novel
(1993) on which Satoshi Kon’s acclaimed anime, Papurika (2007), was based. In recent years, science
fiction in Japan has reached new levels of maturity and acclaim; non-genre, literary writers such as
the Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburō and the phenomenally successful Murakami Haruki have been
experimenting with elements of science fiction and fantasy in speculative ways.
In fact, sci-fi in post-nuclear Japan looks very different from its counterparts in the West, which
Japanese authors were hungrily reading in translation. Rather than observing the characteristic
‘frontiersmanship’ that is often present in Anglo-American genre novels, Tatsumi Takayuki (Full
Metal Apache, 2006) suggests that we can see a spirit of ‘creative masochism’ (sōzōteki higyaku
seishin) in Japanese sci-fi, characterised by the anxiety of writers like Komatsu and Abe Kōbō about
the ideological heritage of WWII and the twin, reinforcing psychological damage caused by defeat
and by the apocalyptic nature of that defeat. For these writers, sci-fi possesses a special mission and
purpose in postwar Japanese society, since it necessarily contains within it hypotheses for the future
development of Japan and visions of ‘tomorrow’ that allowed the ‘New Japan’ of the post-1945 era to
continuously challenge and re-conceptualise its postwar trajectory. Given the events of the Pacific
War, this self-reflective and self-critical task seemed especially urgent in the 1960s, but it also
continues as a central theme in Japanese science fiction throughout the subsequent generations of
writers; it has witnessed something of a renaissance in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War
and Japanese society’s concomitant quest for national identity.
In contrast to the 1950s and 60s in the West, the 1970s and early 1980s might be seen as the ‘golden
age’ of Japanese science fiction, during which time a new generation of writers could refer back to
classics of homegrown sci-fi (as well as to imported and translated texts), especially after the nuclear
monstrosity of Gojira and the publication of Komatsu’s Japan Sinks in 1973. For the first time, young
Japanese writers could identify Japanese heroes of sci-fi, alongside the big names of Cordwainer
Smith and Samuel Delany who were emerging against the background of the Vietnam war. Indeed,
the 1970s and 80s were periods of incredible richness in Japanese sci-fi, at least partly because writers
absorbed all of the previous SF traditions from the West simultaneously at that time, rather than
diachronically, resulting in unusual patterns, motifs and themes that were creatively ‘Japanese.’
Unlike his Anglo-American compatriots, Komatsu’s sci-fi was characterised not by the claustrophobic
paranoia of the Cold War but rather by the grand tectonic movements of history (and the earth’s
tectonic plates!), which seemed to persist in imperilling Japan. Indeed, the role of historical singularities (such as the apocalypse itself ) in Japanese science fiction cannot be understated, and many
of the most influential writers to emerge during the ‘golden era’ seemed to orientate their work
around them. One such figure, who would later break through to world acclaim with the anime
Akira (1988), after the manga of the same name (1982-86), was Ōtomo Katsuhiro for his manga
Dōmu (1980-2, 1983). By the early 1980s Japanese sci-fi was rapidly becoming a hermetic and
cultural world of its own, both in touch with Anglo-American currents and self-reflectively
independent of them.
One of the most exciting and interesting aspects of Japanese sci-fi is, of course, the way in which its
own megatext is explicitly open to a range of additional media. We have already mentioned anime
and manga, and the 1980s and 1990s witnessed a string of impressive, conceptual works by the likes
of Shirow Masamune and Oshii Mamoru, and then Anno Hideaki’s remarkable and revolutionary,
Shinseiki Ebuangerion (1995-96). As was already the case in the 1920s, Japanese sci-fi shows a
predilection for exploring the technological limits of the human via robots, cybernetics and ‘mecha.’
A persistently controversial issue in sci-fi (and Japanese cyborg sci-fi in particular) concerns the
gender politics of the interactions between female figures and technological change.
However, it is also noteworthy that the Seiun Prize is sensitive to the demands and potentials of
different media as expressive forms. It is notable, for example, that the 2001 Seiun Prize for Best
Media was not awarded to a feature film or an anime but to a video game – the characteristically
‘Japanese’ Playstation title Gunparade March, which (like many of the most popular games in Japan)
was never even released in Europe or the USA. The game was later made into a manga by Sanadura
Hiroyuki and an anime series by Sakurabi Katsushi, both of which have been licensed for translation
into English.
Christopher Goto-Jones From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction
This openness to varied media as the vehicles for science fiction is symptomatic of a wider embrace
of what has been called ‘convergence culture’ – the increasing tendency for cultural franchises to
employ multiple media to relate a core narrative, around which the various media ‘converge.’
Although the Matrix series is often cited as a classic example of convergence in the West, it is in
Japan that we see the most highly developed, persistent and pervasive examples. Perhaps the most
famous and successful sci-fi example is the sprawling and epic Final Fantasy series, which incorporates
dozens of video games, manga, anime, novels, and various other ‘character goods.’ But Final Fantasy
is not unique in its convergent nature – it is not uncommon for Japanese sci-fi stories to unravel in
multiple media. In other words, sci-fi is an unusual expressive form and a socio-economic phenomenon
in Japan.
In sum, it seems that science fiction provides an interesting lens on questions of cultural history and
the political unconscious in various societies; it expresses political critique and futurist visions
of reform; and it manifests important currents in socio-economic change as well as transnational
cultural flows. As the ‘land of science fiction,’ Japan is a fascinating case. would like to thank MEARC, Toshiba, the NWO and IIAS for supporting its projects
in this field.
Christopher Goto-Jones
Alien Autopsy: the Science Fictional Frontier of Asian Studies
The term cyberAsia is both an observation of the technological progress exhibited in Asian
societies, and a provocation concerning the status of Asia in the epistemic frameworks of ‘the
West’. Christopher Goto-Jones contends that under certain conditions Asia serves as placemarker for a field of speculation that we might term science fictional. Where ‘cyber’ contains
intimations of futurities and technologisation, cyberAsia and science fictional Asia converge.
The meaning of ’science fictional Asia’ stretches from moments of representational techno-Orientalism in Euro-American literature at one end – where Japan, Hong Kong, or India become the
fantastical site of a projected technological future – to an epistemic framework that privileges the
disorientation of the West at the other.1 It is this final frontier that intrigues me. In particular, the
status and purpose of the knowledge created or discovered during explorations of this frontier of
knowledge, as well as in the authority of the author in each case. My central provocation is that there
is a frontier at which the epistemic structures and objectives of science fiction (SF) and of Asian
Studies (AS) meet, and that we might usefully see family resemblances between the two fields. If
there is a place in which these two life-forms coincide as a common species, should we consider
whether they might mate and produce some interesting offspring? Alien Studies?
To some extent, this frontier serves as both a caricature and a critique of the Area Studies enterprise
as a whole, with AS the most striking case, marking out the dangerous and nebulous border between
fictional representations and representations of fictions. Of course, as a caricature, this presentation
makes no claims to being comprehensive or nuanced about all the varieties of SF or Area Studies (or
even AS) – rather it focuses on the dimensions of a particular frontier at which particular aspects of
those fields meet.
Clarifying the known, 1: Science Fiction
SF is already a difficult terrain, and its dimensions are continuously contested. It exists in a condition
of peril within broader realms of literature. There have been various attempts to define it, but there
is neither the space nor the need to elaborate them all here. Let us suffice with a series of thematic
commonalities: SF is about technology and mechanisation and particularly about speculations
regarding their social and interpersonal effects in the future - it is a product of modernity and of
the industrial revolution. The other central, thematic concern of sci-fi is often considered to be the
encounter with (or exploration of ) difference, and occasionally with either the mystification or the
demonisation of difference. This has often been seen to tie SF to (post)colonialism.
Because, like the past, the future is a different country where they do things differently, these two
characteristics (temporal and spatial explorations) converge around a single concern for the encounter
with an Other, often figured in SF as a literal encounter with the alien. I still find Darko Suvin’s 1979
characterisation of SF as ‘the literature of cognitive estrangement’ apt. I understand this provocative
phrase to contain both a methodological marker - cognitive - and an intentional or purposive
marker - estrangement. It characterises SF as a literature that accomplishes estrangement (whatever
that might mean) via a process of cognition (whatever that might mean). This implies, of course, that
other literatures seek objectives other than estrangement and employ means other than cognition
Christopher Goto-Jones Alien Autopsy: the Science Fictional Frontier of Asian Studies
(or at least that none combine the two).
In terms of estrangement, Suvin draws out a continuum between literature that seeks the ‘exact
recreation of the author’s empirical environment’ on the one hand to that which maintains an ‘exclusive
interest in a strange newness, a novum’ (ibid.) on the other.2 In terms of cognition, he claims to be
relying on a Germanic sense of science as Wissenschaft (ie. one that encompasses the human and
mental sciences as well as the material ones).3 This enables him to tie SF to the foundations of the
real and to argue that estrangements that abandon (rather than creatively develop) the scientific
conditions or conventions of the ‘reality’ should not be considered SF, but rather myth, fairytale or
simply fantasy. For Suvin, SF is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the
presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an
imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.4
Missing from this description is a sense of function and purpose: what should be the impact of
cognitive estrangement? What is the force of SF, if indeed it has any at all? Suvin, like most of the
other leading SF theorists, most recently and powerfully Fredrick Jameson, is clear that the purpose
of estrangement in this context is critique. In the most obvious terms, this means SF is frequently
(albeit not necessarily) satirical. Rather, SF might be envisioned as playing a deliberate and deliberative
role in the politics of knowledge: the purpose of cognitive estrangement is reflexive. That is, the
author seeks to displace the reader from the everydayness of his/her context and challenge them to
test their reality against the difference presented. The cognitive nature of the estrangement should
make the alteriority of SF thinkable (even realistic) and thus both effective and affective.
Future or distant places (together with their various inhabitants) should be wrought as a mirror to
the reader and his/her world. ‘But the mirror [should not be] only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one … the mirror is a crucible’, revealing the innovative possibilities of an Other.5 SF aliens
should not be so very alien after all: we should recognise ourselves (and the possibilities of ourselves)
in them, otherwise they do not estrange us they simply alienate us. This is a crucial distinction. It
leaves us with an expansion of Suvin:
SF is a textual tradition that aims at cognitive estrangement with a critically reflexive function in the
politics of knowledge, challenging and endangering the scientific (Wissenschaftlich) suppositions
that underlie the everyday context of the reader.
In other words, SF attempts to use difference to challenge the status quo. We’ll return to the nature
of this status quo later.
Clarifying the known, 2: Area Studies
If SF is a contested category, then Area Studies risks not being a category at all. Indeed, this field has
been continuously under attack in various ways and from various angles certainly since the second
half of the 20th century. The result is a field that is at least as defensive amongst its peers as SF.
Responding to criticisms that it is little more than an atheoretical data-collector in the service of
government interests, Area Studies has increasingly defended itself by defining its mission in terms
of the epistemic violence that it can cause to the conventional disciplines, which it often designates
as Eurocentric.
In a recent volume that attempts to sketch the shifting contours of this expansive field, Alan Tansman suggests that Area Studies might be considered an ‘enterprise seeking to know, analyze, and
interpret foreign cultures through a multidisciplinary lens’.5 Most scholars of Area Studies would
find such a minimal and inclusive notion relatively unobjectionable, although even a slight rephrasing
already begins to look a little provocative: to know, analyse, and interpret the alien using extradisciplinary forms of knowledge.
In the same volume, David Szanton argues that ‘Area Studies scholarship attempts to document the
existence, internal logic, and theoretical implications of the distinctive social and cultural values,
expressions, structures, and dynamics that shape societies and nations beyond Europe and the
United States.’ 6 From this we might deduce that the ‘status quo’ referred to earlier refers to something
Euro-American or ‘Western’ and that the proper subject of Area Studies is ‘non-Western’. Whilst I
have deep reservations about this position, it does appear to reflect the actual situation of Area
Studies in the university (both in the past and today).
Immediately intriguing is that the spatial scope of Area Studies is defined in terms of a negation:
places beyond Europe and the United States; the non-West. The non-West is not simply a politically
offensive category but it is also infinitely expansive: whilst the privilege of ‘Western’ might only be
awardable to a discrete socio-historic group of places and people, anywhere and anyone else is
non-Western. Indeed, the non-West is literally everywhere the West is not. This observation teeters
on the brink of being facile, but it begins to become interesting in the company of SF, as we boldly
go where no-one has gone before. The subject matter of Area Studies in the West, in its least politically
correct form, is the alien, be that terrestrial or extra-terrestrial. Alien Studies, Area Studies and
Asian Studies share a theoretical frontier: AS.
Let us posit (or perhaps anticipate): in 2025 intelligent life is discovered on the moon of a planet
orbiting the distant star of Sirius. The study of that society and its culture will be the preserve of AS,
since it will certainly be a non-Western civilization.
A key question at this point, just as it was in the case of SF, is: why should we be interested in a
category of knowledge that is explicitly defined as being about ‘something other than us’ (no matter
who we are)? This is an incredibly difficult and also intimate question.
For Szanton there are two basic answers.7 The first is the ‘intrinsic value’ and interest of difference
– we might simply call this curiosity. This is a banal response and not in anyway exclusive to AS. The
second, which is far more powerful and purposive, and which dominates much of the literature, is
the way that the alien acts reflexively to ‘de-naturalize the formulations and universalizing tendencies of the mainstream disciplines,’ which are themselves Euro-American products.8
In other words, the core purpose of AS is to combat Eurocentricism in the academy on the basis that
‘seriously seeking the diverse and alternative knowledges and experiences of other cultures and
societies can be deeply challenging, decentering and [even] threatening.’9 The fundamental role of
Area Studies is, in Szanton’s provocative terms, to ‘de-parochialize US- and Euro-centric visions of
the world’ that dominate the social sciences and humanities. The quest is not only for new knowledge
or empirical data, but also for new kinds of knowledge.
This position represents a constructive variation on (or perhaps a reflexive reappropriation of ) Said’s
critique of Orientalism, in which the ‘Oriental Other’ is engaged as a kind of mirror that reaffirms,
through exoticised difference, the integrity and identity of the (Western) self. Here, however, difference
is not seen as comforting or reassuring regarding a particular identity but rather as threatening to
the universalist aspirations of that particularity (or simply as revealing those aspirations as naïve and
unreflective versions of imperialism).
At this point, then, it may be enough to note some purposive kinship between this vision of AS and
SF as cognitive estrangement: both are necessarily and centrally concerned with de-parochialising
or estranging the self from the accepted conventions of knowledge in Europe and the US via the
Christopher Goto-Jones Alien Autopsy: the Science Fictional Frontier of Asian Studies
exploration of other cultures, which (at least in the case of SF) may be fictional, and via reflexive
self-interrogation provoked by the findings.
Encountering the frontier
It seems to me, however, that the frontier between these fields is clearly marked. Despite the
pretensions of a ‘purposive kinship,’ AS and SF stand on opposite sides of the fictional frontier, or
the frontier of fiction. Or, to spin this another way: the frontier is reality itself.
While SF makes no explicit claims to be exploring the ‘real world,’ AS must engage with and interrogate ‘real’ aliens. In SF, the much lauded reflexivity is a kind of literary navel-gazing, while in AS it
should be a scientific radicalisation of concrete political issues. We might argue that SF is a fictional
projection of AS, or conversely that AS is a scientifically delimited version of SF.
I’d like to spend a little time testing this frontier, since, like the borders drawn on maps, it seems
much less clear when you’re flying over it in reality.
Function, purpose and the redundancy of reality
My first concern about this boundary is the relevance of reality in the first place. This is not to
say that I don’t recognise the category of the real or that I believe in the essentially illusionary or
fictive nature of all things. Rather, it seems that the various definitions of the purpose of AS make
scant reference to knowledge of reality. Instead, the purpose of AS might be considered to be the
de-parochialisation, the de-naturalisation, or even simply the endangering of the universalising
tendencies of the mainstream disciplines and their European roots.
The real issue here is not the excavation of new truths or kinds of knowledge per se, but rather the
use to which those knowledges can be put to challenge the status quo. In this context, it seems
entirely legitimate (or even necessary) to ask why the reality of the particular non-Western country
in question is relevant. Does Asia have to be real in order to be the subject of AS?
There are many answers to this question, of course, but on closer inspection none of them appear to
be absolute barriers. The frontier is more a hazy and expansive zone than a crisp border. One possible
answer is that we are simply more likely to be moved to serious reflexive, de-naturalisation or
estrangement if our impetus to do so is the concrete experience of a group of others in whom we can
recognise ourselves (rather than a fictional group of deliberately imagined others). If this is true, it is
a matter of degree: reality is more effective and affective than fiction when it comes to cognitive
I’m willing to take this seriously, but I’m not yet willing to believe it. Even though it’s a rather soft
claim, it also seems fragile. It is not necessarily true: experience tells us that fiction can be more
effective and affective than reality when it comes to cognitive estrangement. Indeed, in SF, the
methodological marker ‘cognitive’ appears to have been placed precisely to mitigate against the
alleged ineffectiveness of fiction: SF can/should be thinkable as real even if it is not a representation
of an actual reality.
Perhaps the real function of reality in this framework should be captured (this is a moral should) by
the distinction posed earlier between estrangement and alienation. That is, the effectiveness of
presentations of the ‘expansively non-Western’ is contingent upon the ‘Westerner’ being able to
recognise him/herself in the dilemmas of the other and hence recognise the possibility of transformation of self that this other represents. In other words, something has to connect the reader with
those represented in the text, and that something could be reality.
Christopher Goto-Jones Alien Autopsy: the Science Fictional Frontier of Asian Studies
Unfortunately (again in a moral sense), reality is not always enough to prevent alienation. Indeed,
many of the disciplinary critics of AS are explicit that, for instance, the intellectual traditions of the
non-West are so alien to those of the West that ‘we’ cannot ‘recognise ourselves’ in their dilemmas
or solutions. Richard Rorty even claims that an alien visiting our world from Sirius would simply
give up and go home if asked to compare a Buddhist sense of self with that of a European sense; the
two are unrecognisable to each other.10
The point is that, in practice, the border between West and non-West might be experienced as more
alienating than the border between reality and fiction. For some, a Buddhist model of selfhood
cannot transform ‘our’ thinking about the self, although the science fictional figure of an alien from
Sirius can help to persuade us of the truth of this. Certain Euro-American philosophers are alienated
from Tibetan thinkers, but only estranged from envoys from Sirius. SF is less alien than AS. In other
words, when it comes to cognitive estrangement, reality may be beside the point (which has some
serious moral and political implications).
Narrating and imagining the alien
The flip side of this issue concerns the matter of authorial authority and the meaning of textual reality.
At its most basic: can we really talk about reality in texts, or are we always dealing with representations
mediated by authors with varying authorities?
There is a wide and sophisticated literature on this question and there is no need to rehearse it
here.11 But let me reiterate: I am not interested in making the philosophical claim that all texts are
essentially fictions and hence that there is no epistemological difference between representations of
Sirius, Laputa, Glubdubdrib and Japan.12 I am interested, rather, in exploring the frontier where SF
and AS appear to meet and what sets them apart if they really share some kind of purposive kinship.
A possible answer involves two core questions: what is the author’s subject? – ie. what is he/she
‘seeking to know, analyse, and interpret’; and what devices are employed to accomplish this?
In terms of the first question, we have already seen that the provisional and expansive answer for
both AS and SF is the dubious category of ‘non-Western’ cultures. However, we need to ask
whether authors are trying to represent or analyse real cultures or imaginary ones. In the case of AS,
we must assume that authors seek to represent real cultures as directly and transparently as possible
(accepting that absolutely direct and transparent representations are impossible). In the case of SF
as cognitive estrangement, we also assume that authors seek to represent real(istic) cultures, albeit
creatively or indirectly with varying degrees of proximity to the real. Recall that representations of
the entirely imaginary are fantasy, myth or fairytale, not SF. In other words, the question of the nature
of the writer’s subject erects only a hazy frontier between SF and AS.
The real difficulty when defining the frontier between AS and SF, however, concerns the question of
method. While it is clear that SF employs a form of Imagineering (with varying degrees of scientific
research in order to satisfy the ‘cognitive’ requirement), AS is not able to differentiate itself through
recourse to a rigorous disciplinary methodology. Indeed, AS often voices an explicit commitment to
inter-, multi- or extra-disciplinary techniques and new forms of knowledge creation. Its method is
non-exclusively defined – could it include Imagineering? There is a perceptible haze around the
frontier, and hence writers may slip from one territory into the other. There is a no-man’s land of
Alien Studies.
It would obviously be ridiculous to argue that AS, even the study of cyberAsia, is a variety of science
fiction. But it does not seem quite as ridiculous to claim that there is a science fictional frontier to
AS, at which it interleaves with some of the conventions, practices and goals of SF. At some point,
both seek to ‘document the existence, internal logic, and theoretical implications of the distinctive
social and cultural values, expressions, structures, and dynamics that shape societies’ in the non-West.
And both aim to use these documents to denaturalise the West.
It is interesting that both AS and SF appear to have pushed out into this shared frontier as part of
aggressive processes of self-defence within larger realms that constantly assault their credibility. This
generates a number of implications. In terms of method, AS moves most strongly away from its
science fictional frontier when it embraces rigorously disciplinary work (merely focussed on Asia).
However, this also risks undermining the radical agenda of AS to de-parochialise the conventional
disciplines themselves – in the extreme this is a capitulation to this parochialism. At the other extreme,
AS might explore its science fictional frontier more explicitly, questing for new types of knowledge
to endanger the status quo, developing new theories and methods, boldly going where no-one has
gone before. However, this direction risks transforming AS into a literary genre.
Finally, I wonder about the ethical status of knowledge at this frontier. In particular, since the knowledge generated there is explicitly instrumental in purpose (it is to be used to de-naturalise the
West), I wonder whether SF could be seen as the moral conscience of AS. Following Kant, treating
another as a means rather than as an end is an absolute evil. Hence, if we seek to use, say, Japan as a
foil to de-parochialise Western disciplines, wouldn’t it be morally superior to use Swift’s Japan in
Gulliver’s Travels or Gibson’s Japan in Neuromancer?
A version of this paper was originally presented on the ‘Traces’ panel at the Modern Languages
Association, San Francisco, 30th December 2008
Cobus van Staden Heidi in Japan: What do Anime’s Dreams of Europe mean
for Non-Europeans?
1 Goto-Jones, Chris. 2008. ‘From Science Fictional Japan to Japanese Science Fiction,’
in IIAS Newsletter 47 (spring 2008)
2 Suvin, Darko ‘Estrangement and Cognition,’ in Gunn, James & Mathew Candelaria
(eds). 2005. Speculations on Speculation. Oxford: Scarecrow Press, p.24. Suvin
Cobus van Staden
Heidi in Japan: What do Anime’s Dreams of Europe mean
for Non-Europeans?
himself seems interested in the contours of the landscape between the extremes,
in the ways in which adventures (in particular those of the 18th and 19th century)
are often cast as ‘syncretic travelogue and voyage imaginaire’ at once both daydream and intelligence report. In a number of ways, this might be a description
of all authored texts.
3 Ibid. p.32
4 Ibid. p.27
5 Ibid. p.25
5 Tansman, Alan Tansman. 2004. ‘Japanese Studies: The Intangible Act of Translation,’
Examining mechanisms through which anime narrative became naturalised in non-Asian
countries teaches us much about how non-Hollywood, non-Western cultural globalisation
happened. Before anime became cool, it had braved knee-jerk dismissal and it frequently did
so by entering the international market via traditionally underrated genres such as children’s
television, with stories set in Europe or adaptations of European children’s books. However, as
Cobus van Staden explains, this strategy was also prefigured by a long tradition of Europhilia
in Japan, which significantly complicated the reception of anime both in Japan and abroad.
in Szanton, David (ed.) The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines.
Berkeley: University of California Press, p.184
6 Szanton, op. cit. p2
7 Here I’m ignoring the various answers that serve as common critiques of the
whole Area Studies enterprise, such as the argument that the purpose of Area
Studies is to ‘know thy enemy.’ This critique is especially common in the USA since
World War II.
8 Ibid. p.2
9 Ibid. p.2
Takahata Isao’s anime adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s 19th century novel Heidi is a good example of
this process. Heidi, a Girl of the Alps (Arupusu no Shoujo Haiji, Japan, 1974) became a hit in Japan
and ended up dubbed and syndicated around the world, including South Africa, which is where I first
encountered her.
Heidi retains a potent nostalgic power that is fundamentally related to its depiction of an Alpine life
most audience members have never experienced. However, the meaning of this European setting
becomes highly unstable in different contexts, an instability I hope to describe in this article.
10 This argument is developed in Goto-Jones, Chris. 2005. ‘If the past is a different
country are different countries in the past,’ in Philosophy, 80:311
11 In the field of anthropology, see in particular, Clifford, James. 1988.
The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
12 A fascinating interrogation of the function of Japan in Gulliver’s Travels is Markley,
Robert. 2004. ‘Gulliver and the Japanese: The Limits of the Postcolonial Past,’
in Modern Language Quarterly, 65:3
Heidi in Japan
The fashion for European settings was sparked in the 1970s by the 1972 shoujo (girls’) manga hit The
Rose of Versailles, and its anime adaptation (Berusai no Bara, Tadao Nagahama and Osamu Dezaki,
Japan, 1979). The same decade brought Sekai Meisaku Gekijou (World Masterpiece Theatre) a series of
anime adaptations of Western children’s classics produced by Zuiyo Eizou (later Nippon Animation.) It
represented a major Japanese move into the European market and included Moomin, The Dog of
Flanders and Anne of Green Gables. Takahata’s Heidi was a particularly successful part of this series.1
Subsequently, European settings have shown up in anime regularly, varying from relatively realistic
depictions of Victorian England (Emma – A Victorian Romance [Eikokukoi Monogatari Ema,
Tsuneo Kobayashi, Japan, 2005]) to using 19th century Europe as a setting for a robot invasion
(Steamboy [Suchiimuboi, Katsuhiro Ootomo, Japan, 2004]). These depictions also vary in terms of
geographic specificity. Whereas, for example, Miyazaki Hayao’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no
Takkyuubin, Japan, 1989) is set in a bricolage-Europe, seemingly assembled from bits of European
cities all the way from Helsinki to Naples, Heidi’s Alpine setting is very specific. In fact, Miyazaki
Hayao worked as a background designer on Heidi and even went on a research trip to Switzerland in
order to render the setting accurately, a detail which was used in the marketing for the series in Japan.2
‘Everyone’s beautiful, enchanted country’
It is worthwhile asking why European settings retain such power, compared to the relative scarcity
of American settings in anime. While I don’t want to opine on how Japanese people relate to Europe,
it is interesting to compare depictions of Europe in earlier Japanese pop culture to its depiction in
contemporary anime.
Cobus van Staden Heidi in Japan: What do Anime’s Dreams of Europe mean
for Non-Europeans?
In 1927, and again in 1947 and 1957 revivals, the all-female Takarazuka theatre troupe put on a revue
called Mon Paris. A travelogue with scenes depicting exotic locales from Tokyo to Paris, the show epitomised what Jennifer Ellen Robertson characterises as Japanese orientalism. Most of the scenes were set
against exotic backgrounds such as Ceylon and Egypt, portrayed less as societies and
more as a series of static essences (the Egypt section, for example, featured a Cleopatra-like queen).
When the travellers reach Paris, they find bustling crowds, the dynamic modernism contrasted with
sleeping Asia. They decide to take in a revue, only to find that Mon Paris is also on in Paris – the French
have imported Takarazuka. One of the travellers remarks that Paris and the whole of France is like Takarazuka – ‘everyone’s beautiful, enchanted country; a country of dreams smoldering since childhood.’3
While the regularity with which European settings recur in anime would indicate that Europe retains
an emotional power in Japan, two important differences emerge between Mon Paris and Heidi.
Firstly, in Mon Paris, Europe represents burgeoning modernity and Asia sleepy timelessness (with
Japan symbolically making the passage from one to the other.) However, in Heidi and the vast
majority of anime series with European settings, the site of timelessness is Europe, not Asia. There
are very few anime depictions of contemporary Europe. Mostly, Europe is treated as a changeless
Ruritania, where the use of historically European detailing and landscapes designates the setting as
‘beautifully past.’
Secondly, the Takarazuka revue depicted the implied validation of Japan in Europe through the
fantasy that Takarazuka is also popular in big, modern Paris. Heidi however, doesn’t mention Japan
at all – it doesn’t need to. The characters might speak about their yearning for the Alps, but they do
so in idiomatically correct Japanese. Even the very European class divisions between the characters
are principally expressed through the use of different politeness registers in spoken Japanese. There
is no need for an explicit Japanese presence in Heidi because it is infused with ‘Japaneseness’ from
within. The anime version of Heidi represents a remaking of a European children’s classic in Japanese
terms. Johanna Spyri’s original novel was a standard of Swiss primary school curricula. Its representation of the Alps as a life-giving force and Heidi’s decline after being taken to Frankfurt was used to
strengthen Swiss self-identification in relation to its powerful neighbour.4 The anime adaptation,
however, does not demand such specific knowledge about Europe. For example, it doesn’t even
emphasise that Frankfurt is in a different country than the Swiss Alps. Switzerland has changed
from an actual place with its own politics to a fantasy territory, primarily created for the pleasure of
Japanese consumers. The evolution from Mon Paris to Heidi offers a coded snapshot of how Japanese
attitudes vis-à-vis European power changed against the background of Japan’s own economic ascendance
during the 1970s.
Heidi in Africa
The story of Heidi’s consumption in South Africa is intimately linked to apartheid-era local content
law, which demanded equal broadcast time in English and Afrikaans. This led to a burgeoning
dubbing industry. Because the history of popular culture and dubbing in South Africa is largely
undocumented, I base my discussion of Heidi in South Africa on a series of interviews I conducted
in 2008 with people who were directly involved in the dubbing of Heidi into Afrikaans.
When Heidi was originally broadcast in 1979, it became a South African phenomenon. Rina Nienaber,
who provided the voice of Peter the Goatherd described how she was approached for interviews by
several magazines and was featured in a special inset on Heidi in Huisgenoot, South Africa’s most
popular weekly magazine. On a web discussion forum dedicated to South African pop culture, I
found the following comment from an anonymous contributor: ‘Heidi – it was on Tuesday night at
7 o’clock. Even our school never arranged anything for Tuesday nights because no-one came as
everybody was watching Heidi. Lol’5. Heidi wasn’t just popular with children – it became a multigenerational hit. Nienaber told me she heard the rumour that B.J. Vorster (South Africa’s Prime
Minister from 1966 to 1978, whose reign saw the bloody suppression of the 1976 Soweto Uprising
and the killing of Steve Biko) never scheduled meetings on Tuesday nights because he was watching
Heidi with his grandchildren.
How did Heidi’s portrayal of Europe and its cultural specificity relate to its popularity? When I put
this question to those I interviewed, I received diametrically opposed answers. On the one hand
several respondents felt the power of the Afrikaans dub made people feel that the series was their
own. Marida Swanepoel, who was involved in the acquisition of children’s programming, said the
series gave one the feeling that it had originally been made in Afrikaans. That was certainly what I
thought as a five-year old Heidi fan. On the other hand, several respondents also suggested that the
European setting was a crucial contributing factor to its popularity. Kobus Geldenhuys, who
translated the script, felt that the setting appealed to Afrikaners’ cultural roots. Rina Nienaber
suggested that Afrikaners of the era didn’t really feel that they were living in Africa at all. Due to
the overwhelming Eurocentrism of apartheid education, the Alps felt much less exotic than South
Africa’s neighbouring states.
It seems to me that Heidi’s success is related to Afrikaners’ conflicted relationship with Europe. At
the exact moment when Western Europe was leading the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime
and to dissociate itself from its colonial creation, Afrikaners were using dubbing to insert themselves
into a 19th century European landscape. The theme tune, which fused Afrikaans lyrics with mockSwiss yodeling became a symbol of apartheid’s attempts to proclaim itself as simultaneously Europe’s
heir and peer – much to the distaste of actual Europeans. The irony of course is that this was facilitated by Japanese animation. An additional irony is that several of the people I interviewed did not
actually realise Heidi is Japanese. Several of them assured me that the series was actually German.
Anime’s dreams of Europe
How is it possible for one anime series to evoke such wildly divergent meanings? I think the
non-European audience’s encounter with this onscreen Europe is less related to their knowledge of
actual Europe than with their perception of this setting as ‘beautifully past’. This is a version of what
Arjun Appadurai has called ‘nostalgia without memory’. The power of Europe in this series lies not
on the level of intelligibility but on the level of appeal. It functions by building atmosphere and
providing background. Appadurai has argued that this nostalgia – not driven by actual experience
but rather by its lack – is fundamental to contemporary marketing:
‘Rather than expecting the consumer to supply memories while the merchandiser supplies the
lubricant of nostalgia, now the viewer need only bring the faculty of nostalgia to an image that will
supply the memory of a loss he or she has never suffered. This relationship might be called armchair
nostalgia, nostalgia without lived experience or collective historical memory.’6
I believe that the power of Europe in anime should not simply be understood as the continuing
power of Europe itself in the imagination of the world. It is worth asking whether fictional Europe’s
power as ‘everyone’s beautiful, enchanted country’ might not point to the power of capitalism to
create the illusion of memory out of the absence of memory. In that case, contemporary Europeans
might be as alienated from – and yet strangely connected to – these images as the rest of us.
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
1 Yamaguchi, Y. 2004. Nihon Anime no Zenshi: Sekai wo Sei Shita Nihon Anime no
Kiseki, Tokyo: Ten-Books
2 Oshiguchi, T. “Interview with Hayao Miyazaki” in Ledoux, T. (ed.) 1997.
Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of Animerica Anime and Manga Monthly,
San Francisco: Cadence Books
3 Robertson, J.E. 2001. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern
Japan, Berkeley: University of California Press
4 This point was first brought to my attention by the Swiss scholar Alain Bihr and
I later also encountered it in Hunt, P. et al (eds). 1996. International Companion
Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, London: Taylor & Francis
5 See (last accessed on
April 25 2008)
6 Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Jeroen de Kloet Bloggers, Hackers and the King Kong Syndrome
Jeroen de Kloet
Bloggers, Hackers and the King Kong Syndrome
It is tempting to celebrate the emergence of the Internet as the dawn of a new era, promising
possibilities for political change, civic participation, and obliteration of traditional geographical
confines. More specifically, the rise of new technologies is often heralded as breaking open
regimes that do not live up to the hegemonic ideologies of democracy and capitalism. Jeroen
de Kloet reveals the two interlocking narratives which continue to preoccupy Western academic
and popular discourse on the Internet in China.
King Kong in China
The first of these narratives regards stories related to online protest, which at times triggers offline
protests. For example, the protest in the summer of 2007 against the building of a chemical factory
in Xiamen was generally perceived as a consequence of protest postings by blogger Zuola. The
second is stories related to issues of censorship and digital human rights. The Great Firewall of
China may well be the most popular, if not worn out, metaphor mobilised to point to the assumed
omnipotence of the government.
Lokman Tsui has rightly observed that such a metaphor builds on a cold war rhetoric in which
China is positioned as the constitutive outside of ‘the free, open and democratic West.’ His observation resonates with what literary critic Rey Chow refers to as the King Kong syndrome, ‘producing
‘China’ as a spectacular primitive monster whose despotism necessitates the salvation of its people
by outsiders.’ Indeed, the motif running through the two interlocking narratives concerning Internet
in China is precisely the urgent need to expose, discipline and punish this monster, to tame it,
hopefully, to the world of ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ societies. Not surprisingly, what is being played
out in the Chinese cyberspace is more messy, and thus more ambivalent than such narratives want
us to believe. Rather than taking a clear position, I want to explore this messy digital domain called
‘The Chinese Internet,’ drawing on my research – online and offline – among bloggers (in 2008) and
hackers (in 2004), before returning to deliberate on the destiny of our giant monster.
Citizen voices?
When I met Wang Xiaofeng in 1997, he was a rock journalist; 10 years later, he has become one of
the most popular bloggers of the mainland. As many fellow bloggers, he combines his job as a
journalist with his blogging, while the latter has become a commercial enterprise in China: the more
readers you have, the more advertisements and money you can attract. Wang’s style is ironic and
cynical, poking fun at everything around him. To him, blogging offers a way to play with language,
to experiment online with words and phrases that would not easily pass censorship. During the
wave of pro-Tibet protests and corresponding pro-Beijing nationalism surrounding the Olympic
torch relay in April 2008, Wang ridiculed the popular ‘I Love China’ T-Shirts as well as the ‘I Love
China’ sign used by millions of MSN users in their name tag. His response to the boycott of French
products (called for in protest against the meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and
the Dalai Lama), was simple, ‘if there is one thing that I boycott, it is stupid things.’ At the same
time, he also points his critique towards Western journalists; he writes on his blog: ‘Western journalists always hope that the Chinese people they interview will touch upon sensitive issues and give
Jeroen de Kloet Bloggers, Hackers and the King Kong Syndrome
sensational remarks. They try their best to make their interviewee look like a dissident.’ One of his
best known stunts took place in March 2006, when Wang posted on his blog that ‘Due to unavoidable
reasons with which everyone is familiar, this blog is temporarily closed.’ As he expected, it was only
a matter of hours before the ‘news’ became known worldwide through global news channels.
Subsequently, he revealed it was a hoax, to put up a mirror to the Western media that is so obsessively searching for cases of censorship.
Informed by such complexity as demonstrated by bloggers like Wang Xiaofeng, any study of the
Chinese blogosphere must try to be alert of metanarratives and stay close to the specifics. The outspoken blog by Michael Anti, for instance, was removed by Microsoft after he voiced his critique on
the dismissal of critical journalists at the Beijing News. This shows how global capitalism is deeply
complicit with censorship practices in China. At the same time, to avoid foreclosing the political
potentials of digital technologies, I have to be reminded of yet another specific incident. Last October,
blogger Zuola went with a number of activists to one of the ‘black prisons’ in Beijing, where political
activists were illegally detained. This group of activists, through their mobile devices, immediately
uploaded their story to Twitter and their blogs, complete with pictures and sound recording of the
harassment that took place when policemen started to fight with two of the visiting activists. In this
case, new technologies did open up immediacy to citizen politics as we know it.
Again, I must hasten to add: such examples are not only rare, but also risk reducing ‘China’ to the
conventional understanding and expectation of politics. The definition one gives of China’s blogosphere is likely to be very much informed by a specific political agenda – if one likes to see politics,
one can find politics, just as if one is looking for seedy sex blogs, one can also find precisely that. The
examples I have cited point to the impossibility of speaking of the Chinese blogosphere – there are
many spheres, which are as complex as the prefix ‘Chinese’ is problematic in its privileging of the
nation-state above other possible cartographies either more localised or more globalised.
Techno nationalism?
If we move from the blogosphere towards hacker cultures in China, we enter a grey zone that often
borders on the illegal. Yet, this zone is equally complex, making, once again, simple generalisations
impossible, if at all desirable. In the West, most media attention has been given to the nationalistic
hackers of China, who, allegedly spend their holidays breaking into Taiwanese, Japanese or American
sites, to add a PRC flag, or insert political slogans. Sharpwinner is such a ‘red hacker’, who believes
‘Chinese hackers have a strong sense of politics.’ On his involvement in the attacks on the website of
the American White House, he explains: ‘Those .gov and .mil sites are always our targets. For the
White House site, we have spent most of our time to find the loopholes.’ The attention they get is
much to the dismay of hackers like Goodwell, a Beijing-based hacker who looks down upon ‘scriptkiddies’ like Sharpwinner who simply copy codes to hack other sites. ‘I think [the hacking war
between China and Japan and the US] is just awkward and boring. The real hackers have no sense of
boundaries, they have nothing to do with politics, politics should never infect technology.’ To
Goodwell and his friends, the spirit of hacking revolves around curiosity: ‘As a hacker, I think you
should never give up, you should always study on, whether you fail or succeed, so as to develop new
technologies.’ While relentless curiosity should be a driving force that binds hacking cultures, China,
in the view of Goodwell, is a bad place for hackers: ‘In America, hackers may have their own culture
and ideology, in China people have no sense of hacking culture and ideology. In China, you first
need to secure your income. (...) Chinese have no sense of cooperation, no team spirit, if they
developed a certain program or system, they may not share it.’ Following Sharpwinner and Goodwell,
it seems that the grey hacking zone in China is criss-crossed with fault lines of (a)political longings
as well as (un)willingness to share and cooperate. The lack of shared cultural practices makes it,
indeed, difficult to speak of a hacker culture in China, a stark contrast to my research experience in
New York among the hacker communities there, where sharing (manifest, among others, in their
meeting places, conferences and gatherings) was largely the norm.
King Kong reconsidered
What, then, can we learn from these observations on bloggers and hackers? Let me return to the
King Kong syndrome, which configures a monster to be tamed and brought to the civilised world.
What we eventually witness, at least in King Kong films, is buildings crumbled, windows smashed
to pieces, and the order of the day radically disrupted before the primitive monster ends up being
killed by modern weaponry. I will therefore make two appeals from this brief account of Internet in
China. First, such chaos and fragmentation that King Kong brings with it is precisely what we need
to acknowledge and accept when we try to make sense of China and its Internet. Too often, accounts
on Chinese Internet communities are driven by an agenda that is drenched in a cold war rhetoric
that will not bring us very far. Second, the death of King Kong should force us to rethink narratives
of civilisation, and the hegemonic mantra of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights.’ The problem
is the lack of reflection upon the production of knowledge over China and its intricate relation to
power and ideology. The basic Foucauldian (and Said-ian) question of why we produce what tropes
of knowledge is all too often ignored.
Chow, Rey. ‘King Kong in Hong Kong: Watching the ‘Handover,’ from the USA,’
Social Text 55 (Summer 1998)
Tsui, Lokman. 2008. ‘The Great Firewall as Iron Curtain 2.0: The implications of China’s
Internet most dominant metaphor for U.S. foreign policy,’ paper presented at the
6th annual Chinese Internet Research Conference (13–14 June, University of Hong
Kong, Hong Kong), at,
accessed 15 February 2009.
On the black prison story, see:’s-black-jails/
Bart Barendregt In the Year 2020: Muslim Futurities in Southeast Asia
Bart Barendregt
In the Year 2020: Muslim Futurities in Southeast Asia
Thinking of the future is hardly possible without reference being made to the role of digital
information technologies or the growing impact of knowledge industries. But how relevant
are these concepts outside the Northern Hemisphere? Said to be on its way by 2020, Islamic
Information Society posits an alternative to both Western ideas on the Global Village, as well
as the hijacking of Islamic futures by radical conservatives. Bart Barendregt examines how
majority Muslim countries in Southeast Asia have increasingly become role models in Islam’s
quest for a digital future.
In his Imaginary Futures (2007), Richard Barbrook points out how the novelty of technologies lies
not so much in what they can do in the here and now, but in what more advanced models may do
one day in the imaginary future. Contemporary reality, he argues, is the ‘beta version of a science
fiction dream’. Some of our most dominant science fiction dreams have been remarkably stable and
continue to haunt us today.
For over four decades the idea of Information Society has been a battleground for ideologists, a
struggle whose origins can be traced to the early Cold War era. Although in those days the US outwitted the Soviets on most terrains, including economics, the USSR could always resort to the
powerful rhetoric of tomorrow’s communist paradise. Hence a much needed counter future was
needed, which was eventually to be found in McLuhan’s bestselling Understanding Media (1964).
While the Soviet intelligentsia propagated a future cybernetic communism by means of developing
a ‘unified information network’, American think-tanks appropriated McLuhan’s technology in their
drive for progress, above all his notion of the Global Village, eventually producing what we now
know as the Net, one of the building blocks of today’s information society.
Today our future remains largely technologically driven, encouraging blind faith in technology,
bringing in its wake not only long-term conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the rise of a
global economy in which e-commerce and e-governance are not yet standard but nevertheless are a
much sought after ideal by many. Does this mean that what Barbrook refers to as the ‘Californian
ideology’, a strange contradictory mix of the Left’s liberal society and the Right’s liberal market place,
has become the dominant dictum in information society? Towards the end of his book Barbrook
mentions how lately our future has once more become contested with ‘cyber jihadi’ eagerly making
use of information communication technology (ICT) to propagate their ideas. To this assertion, we
may add the assurance that Muslim politicians and intelligentsia are certainly not willing to leave the
future to radical conservatives and consequently have been forced to come up with viable counter
scenarios; these ideas are widely commented on in developmental programmes for the Islamic
world as well as in the domain of Muslim popular culture. The latter offers a useful starting point in
this brief inventory of the contestation of information society.
Muslims in Space
Western stereotypes tend to describe Islam scathingly as a ‘backward’ orientation or an absence of
futurity because fate seems to lie in the hands of Allah. Indeed, writings by Muslims futurists are still
few and far between.1 There is some Arabic science fiction, alternative histories and, not surprisingly, Islamic terrorists increasingly play a prominent role in Western sci-fi novels. This dearth does
not imply the future and sci-fi are wholly incompatible with Muslim thinking. Nuruddin (2006)
describes how science fiction is central to the ideology of various African American Islamic
movements, which believe their predecessors were Black Muslim astronauts from outer space.
Exotic though these readings of the past may be, they do offer an alternative interpretation of world
history, colonialism and racism, and also teach present-day Muslims how technology will lead to a
resurgence of their ancient Islamic civilisation in the near future. In that sense their ideal is not too
far removed from what is happening in mainstream Muslim societies, in which there is a growing
tendency to look at space and technology as being the next frontier. Recently, the Malaysian
Astronomy and Islamic Law Association discussed how to maintain the kneeling prayer posture
while in a weightless condition, eating halal food and proper washing when aboard a spaceship.
Malaysian scientists are even developing software named ‘Muslims in Space’, which should enable
Islamic astronauts of the future to find how to face Mecca. Here issues of religion and technological
development seem to collide with questions about the future orientation of the Muslim community
worldwide. A future which is no longer associated exclusively with countries traditionally thought
of as the cultural heart of the Islamic world. While not all Muslims welcome the reliance on new
Information technologies with undivided joy, technology has been widely embraced by Southeast
Asian Muslims, often for religious and also political purposes. When it comes to technology in
Islamic futurist thinking, some of the countries in Muslim Southeast Asia have become a role
model not only for the region and the developing world at large, but also for Muslim coreligionists
in other parts of the world. To explain this, the focus of this article will be concentrated on two
newly developing Muslim majority nations in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Both countries
have a near past of nation-building and developmental thinking in which an almost iconic role has
been accorded information technology.
Techno nationalism and digital development
Observers from Anderson to Mrázek have noted how from the outset nation-building in the newly
developing Southeast Asian states has been characterised by a profound obsession with things
modern, especially iconic technologies. Such iconic technologies have evolved from the early days
of print nationalism to national cars and lately national phones. The realisation of ICT infrastructure
and innovative e-governance applications especially have become a hallmark of Southeast Asian
modernity. Such projects include Indonesia’s successful launching of its own satellite system in 1976,
creating a modern day variant of Anderson’s national audience, and boosting New Order technopolitical visions (Barker 2005). However, in the 1990s when a new Internet era evolved Southeast
Asian politicians began focusing on prestigious state-run campaigns to develop the needed ICT
infrastructure. The best known of these projects is Malaysia’s Vision2020, which comes with the
Malaysian answer to Silicon Valley, Cyberjaya, and its associated Multimedia Super Corridor. In
1991 Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad chose a year nearly three decades into the future as a
target for his country’s national, political, economic, and social development. By that magical year
(and 2020 would frequently appear as ultimate target), Malaysia would be ready to participate as a
regional, if not world power. Similar information technology infrastructural projects have been
envisaged in other parts of Southeast Asia, albeit not all of them equally successful. These projects
have all been devised to make the great leap forward, preparing Southeast Asia for the challenges of
the 21st century. Lately the belief in a technologically driven future has been transformed into what
is now known as information technology for development. This ICT4D discourse has resulted
locally in the formation of an e-ASEAN group focusing on the potential of both e-commerce and
e-governance applications, echoing the hopes of a digital revolution in the near future, very similar
to the imagined futures fostered by the Cold War elites. As a (not always intended) consequence, the
Southeast Asian region has become a much sought after market for media and telecom conglomerates from both the West and East Asia, but there are other future collaborations on the horizon.
Examples of such alliances include the marketing of such by now extremely popular ‘Made in the
Middle East’ Muslim gadgets as the Islamic Phone or the Ipod-like ‘Pocket Muslim’. Indonesian
telecommunications provider Telekom recently launched its Telekom Ibadah service, targeting
Southeast Asian mobile phone users on the pilgrimage to Mecca. And in early 2007, as another even
more exciting example of such new post-national projects, Malay newspapers reported on a new
hi-tech city being developed in Medina with Malaysian support. The Medina Knowledge Economic
City (KEC), expected to be completed by 2020, is to be a landmark providing opportunities to such
twin programmes as Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor with what will be happening in Saudi
Arabia in a few years. One newspaper quoted the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister as saying that:
‘It shows how two Muslim countries can co-operate and collaborate in the interest of the ummah
(Muslim community) and can indeed transform the Muslim world’ (Habib 2007). The Deputy Prime
Minster states it was no more than fitting that Medina, the holy city which saw the beginning of the
Islamic acquisition of knowledge, was chosen to transform the Muslims and bring about a true
revival. It is this newly gained Islamic techno pride which brings us back to the future and how this
is currently imagined among Southeast Asian Muslim intelligentsia.
Back to the Future and Back to Islam!
From a Western perspective, the Islamic world has failed to modernise, secularise, and innovate.
Recognising the gap between Western and Muslim civilisation at the outset of the 21st century, many
Muslims blame this lack of development in Muslim societies on the experience of colonisation and
subsequently the ongoing political and economic repression by the same West. It is this feeling of
injustice which at present serves to unite Muslims. Scholars of Islam have argued how the same
political and cultural repression has led Islam to be developed as a social philosophy comparable to
socialism, communism, and capitalism. This rise of Islam as an ideological system is heralded by the
overt use of new media technologies throughout the Muslim world now enabling a new Muslim
middle class to discuss their religion easily without necessarily looking to classically trained
authorities. As one of the basic tenets of Islam is to acquire knowledge, an interest in information
technology seems to have become an end in itself among many believers, with technology and
spirituality now reinforcing each other strikingly. The interest Southeast Asian Muslims take in a
future determined by ICT therefore accords very well with the nationalist development ideologies
mentioned above and with broader trends discernible throughout the Muslim world. One of the
consequences of this new techno-savvy Islam has been the overt use of information technology by
transnational Ikhwan and Salafi groups which propagate the ideal of the cyber Caliphate. The
problem with their ‘retro futurism’ is that by means of modern ICT they resort to a seventh century
Bart Barendregt In the Year 2020: Muslim Futurities in Southeast Asia
‘near perfect past’, leaving the Islamic world little room for progress.
More progressive thinkers argue that there is more to the contemporary revival of Islam than the
radical views of conservative Muslims. There is the success story of Islamic economics (from syariahbased micro credit, to present-day Islamic mobile banking) and the more controversial call for a
truly Islamic science. They argue that classical Muslim discourse is not greatly concerned with State
and politics, but concentrates entirely on the issue of a community bound by faith (ummah). Hence,
some have urged for a multicultural Islam to commence a dialogue with the West and East Asia, in
which Islamic ideas on economics, politics, the environment, not to mention science and technology,
will become part of a global agenda. They envisage an alternative modernity based on a world
governance system which is fair, just, and representational; which stresses the existence of self-reliant,
sustainable ecological communities and, not surprisingly, the use of advanced technologies to link
such communities (see Inayatullah 2005). It is such a concept of tomorrow’s ummah, first referred
to by people as Muslim intellectual Sardar, and also embraced by Malaysian opposition leader Anwar
Ibrahim (1991), which can compete with the crowd-pulling power of cyber fundamentalism or,
for that matter, the more Western style liberal Information Society. Once again, such futures of a
post-postmodern Muslim society are not all that far off.
From Malay visions to technological blessings
Malaysia has been internationally heralded as a leader in planning for the future, combining
economic progress with cultural values (Islam, Malay, and later even Asian values); a reputation
which is largely attributable to the tireless efforts of former prime minister Mahatir and his vision
for the year 2020. Nevertheless, while generally respected as a great statesman in the Muslim world,
some at home have criticised Mahatir and his UMNO party for using Islam only superficially to win
votes. Consequently, it is not surprising that the post-Mahatir era has seen Muslim organisations
and individuals claiming an even more religiously inspired future. In the popular domain, this thinking is signalled in the Malaysian film Syukur 21 (Blessings for the 21st century), which was released
throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Indonesia in early 2001, in the hope of drawing crowds
to the cinemas at the end of the annual fasting period. The film, claimed to be the world’s first-ever
Islamic science fiction, offers an Islamic counter-modernity to the ambitious, recent large-scale
development projects in the target markets. The year in which it is set – 2021 – is not coincidental
as it follows directly on the heels of the State-run Malaysian campaign of Vision 2020. And the film
is not the sole counter reading of nationalist futures. Two years after the release of Syukur21, the
Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), representing 57 Muslim majority countries in the
UN, held its biennial congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The conference, aptly entitled ‘Science
and Technology for Socioeconomic Well-Being of the Ummah’, promoted a combination of spirituality
and technology as medicine to aid the newly developing post-colonial world. The Kuala Lumpur
declaration of 2003, better known as Vision 1441 (the Islamic year 1441 not coincidently equals 2020
and therefore is again a clear reference to the more secular Vision 2020, showing to what extent
Malaysia has become a spiritual guide in the modernisation of the Islamic world) urged its members
to focus on strengthening the knowledge-based or K-economy, but also to fight the deepening
divides which threaten much of the Islamic world, large parts of which are still situated in the poor
South. Some years earlier, the Tunis Forum on ICTs and Development in the Islamic world (2000)
had already signaled similar dangers facing many Muslim and developing countries which were
lagging behind in the area of ICT. Participants in both conferences have hence been mobilised not
only to fight computer illiteracy, but also to urge Muslim governments and NGOs to think about
long-term ICT policy, Islamic centres of excellence, and transnational cooperation throughout the
Muslim world.2 This project includes the creation of an Islamic ICT Fund, the strengthening of an
all Islamic Broadcasting Corporation, but also enshrines the wish to establish an Islamic Portal
which encompasses the entire Web. Such ideas have meanwhile been taken over by other platforms.
Recently, the site of the Malaysia based Khalifah Institute, came up with its ‘Web
Plan’.3 Part of this Plan is to realise the number one top Islamic web portal providing positive information about Islam and giving daily commentary on important international news events from an
Islamic perspective. Other strategies in very much the same vein as the present web 2.0 hype include
polls to assess the opinion of Muslims worldwide on various issues important to Islam, while there
is also the promise of developmentalism when cheaply Xeroxed materials are to be provided in areas
of the world with as yet still limited access to electronic information technology. However, most
interesting is the proposal to develop the ‘Islamic Net’, separate from the Internet as we know it, and
with the provision of at least one computer terminal in every mosque in the world being linked to it.
Here a future vision of the Net equals the coming of a united ummah.
From Muslim technocrats to poster preachers
Whereas the US, Japan and South Korea are still prime examples of what modernity is supposed to
look like, fellow OIC countries increasingly serve as an additional role model to Muslims in imagining
the future: Turkey when it comes to an ideal political system; Iran for challenging US hegemony;
Dubai for its economic successes; and Malaysia for the promise of a technological but none the less
spiritual future. Indonesia, although not able to boast about considerable hi tech successes, may
provide us with an even better illustration of Islam’s digital future, as many progressive thinkers here
increasingly make use of a techno savvy form of Islam. After the end of the Suharto regime in 1998,
Islamic politics soon flourished, gaining momentum as this coincided not only with the earlier
mentioned Islamic Resurgence but also chimed in precisely with the worldwide ICT revolution.
One of the most prominent examples of the combination of Islam, politics and information technology
is the success story of the Prosperous Justice Party or PKS. The PKS, which emerged from parts of
the students’ movement, which brought down Suharto, heavily emphasises the importance of
modern information communication technology if it is to decolonise the proposed futures of ‘the
imperialistic Western world’. But not all Indonesian Muslims are equally defensive nor do they all
share the anti-Western attitude of the PKS. Hefner (2003) has argued that, whereas the growth of
new intellectual Muslim discourses in other countries has tended to lead to radical extremism, in
Indonesia so far it has resulted predominantly in a new, more moderate Islam. To many the face of
this more moderate Islam has been the self-styled Muslim preacher and TV celebrity AA Gym.
Gym has proven to be a successful entre-preneur who has published scores of Muslim self-help
books, comics, pop music and soap serials. He is also one of the first to have launched a Muslim
content for mobile phones and his Manajemen Qolbu Foundation makes heavy use of the Internet4
in much the same way Christian televangelists do in other parts of the world. He is not the first to
do so. The history of Indonesian public Islam in the last four decades coincides strongly with developments in information and communication technologies (cf. Watson 2005). Gym has been
particularly successful in blending his Sufi wisdom with global business management tactics and,
although he is now on the wane, others such as Opick (a former rock star now manifesting himself
as pop preacher) and Ustad Jefri Al Buchori are already lining up to become Islam’s next celebrities.
Bart Barendregt In the Year 2020: Muslim Futurities in Southeast Asia
None of these ‘poster preachers’ has had a traditional religious training nor indeed either an extensive
knowledge of Arab language or of the Koran. Members of the Indonesian poster preacher generation
are exponents of a public Islam which has been around ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1970,
but which is now reaching its zenith in the wake of the diffusion of Information Technology in the
Muslim world. Not surprisingly, this new restyled techno savvy popular culture does not escape
controversy and conservative and Islamists groups especially have blamed it for what is now called
either Market Islam, 15 minute Islam or Islam Lite as selling out or even of being the Devil in disguise.
Various Muslim groups are now battling for the Islamic future, but in all of these futures information
and communication technology is playing a decisive role.
An imagined future of spiritual technology
The purpose of this contribution has been to start unravelling some of the dynamics of Muslim
futurist thinking in Southeast Asia, especially where these touch the role of technology in it. While
Indonesia’s 15 minute Islam or Malay Muslim techno nationalism are locally particular, they are not
unique in the Muslim world and there is plenty of proof that one of the unexpected outcomes of the
use of information technology by a young generation of Muslims especially is the emergence of a
more moderate forward looking Islam. Whereas today’s Information Society was once a utopian
ideal on both sides in the Cold War era, it is continuing to be an ongoing ideological battle for
following generations in other parts of the world. As we speak, Muslim technocrats and intelligentsia are reinventing information society for tomorrow’s ummah: an imagined future of fair Islamic
economics, just governance and sustainable communities bound by information technology. However,
part of this future has already arrived in the Muslim world, surprisingly fast, too fast even for some,
considering some of the controversies surrounding the present-day use of ICTs particularly by
young Southeast Asian Muslims. Explicit religious use of Internet-based technology or mobile
phones has brought such new challenges for young Muslims to face as Islamic capitalism, the superstar
status of mobile Muslim evangelists, but also confronts them with questions related to the form and
function of what Islamic technology ought to be. Is technology religious simply because it is made
and used by Muslims (what I call the ‘Made in Mecca scenario’) or should it come with a carefully
developed spiritual etiquette which breaks with Western antecedents of science and technology?
And what does technology, once used, do to religion itself? The future has yet to teach us to what
extent ideas about the cyber ummah are so very different from now dominant views of Information
Society and to what extent this utopian vision will have an impact on Muslims using information
technology in the present.
Jens Damm Chinascape: Moving Beyond the People’s Republic
1 A version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on The Role
of New Technologies in Global Societies, organized by the Department of Applied
Social Sciences, of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on the 30th to 31st July
2008. Photos 1 and 2 are from the book Indonesian Dreams: Reflections on society,
revelations of the self (Buku OBor, KITLV Jakarta, 2008), edited by Tino Djumini and
reprinted here with permission of the author.
But see the World Futures Studies Federation, a global network of futurists of
which both Inayattulah and Sardar, progressive Muslim intellectuals, are member,
or Muslim Futures Network (
2 The IAS Tunis Declaration on Information Technology for Development in the
Jens Damm
Chinascape: Moving Beyond the People’s Republic
The PRC Internet is exciting not just its middle-class users in China, but the legions of Chinese
language speakers who access the Chinese Internet outside of the mainland. It is sparking
media interest not just in China but in the West too and there appears to be a common
understanding that the Internet is an essential part of China’s modernisation and opening up
to the world. But what exactly characterises Chinese Internet use? Jens Damm goes in search
of the borders of Chinese Cyberspace.
Islamic World also calls for Muslim countries to extend free trade agreements with
developing countries and open up their markets to software being developed in
the Third world
3, Last accessed June 2008
4 See, Last accessed June 2008
Barbrook, R. 2007. Imaginary futures: from thinking machines to the global village.
London: Pluto.
Barker, J. 2005. Engineers and political dreams - Indonesia in the satellite age.
Current Anthropology 46:703-727
Habib, S. 2007. RM25b hi-tech city in Medina. the Star, Wednesday 28 February, pp3
Hefner, R. W. 1998. Multiple Modernities: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in a
Globalizing Age. Annual Review of Anthropology 27:83-104.
Ibrahim, A. 1991. The Ummah and tomorrow’s world. Futures 23:302-310
Inayatullah, S., 2005. Alternative futures for Muslims: challenges to linear and
cyclical macrohistory. Futures 37:1195-1200
Nuruddin, Y. 2006. Ancient black astronauts and extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic
science fiction as urban mythology. Socialism and Democracy 20:127-165
Watson, C. W. 2005. A popular Indonesian preacher: The significance of AA
Gymnastiar. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11:773-792.
Any mention of the Chinese Internet is generally a reference to the Internet of the People’s Republic
of China (PRC). With more than 250 million users, the PRC has become the ‘number one’ if
comparisons are drawn with other countries and users present on the World Wide Web, although
the relative Internet penetration rate in the PRC (19,1%) is still slightly below the world average
(CNNIC, 7/2008).
There are, however, other reasons for the prominence of the PRC in discussions on the Chinese
Internet: The great success story linked with building an impressive infrastructure (Clark & Harwit,
2006) and the rapid ‘informatisation’ of Chinese urban society, the rapid growth in users who access
the Internet via broadband (84.7%), and the 73.05 million users who access the web with mobile
phones. In the context of infrastructure and technical figures, China has been very successful in
implementing measures to improve the Net, for example, in building fibre networks to Tibet and
other less developed regions in the West. There have also been several ambitious projects in the big
cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, the Digital City Zhongguancun, and also in the coastal
regions, such as Zhejiang, Guangdong and Fujian. China’s international bandwidth - which reached
312,346 Mbit/s in 2007 - and the number of registered domains which now stands at 14.85 million
shows that China is fast approaching its goal of becoming the number one in the global Internet.
Not surprisingly, the positive effects of the Internet and ongoing ‘informatisation,’ are frequently
mentioned in the PRC’s mass media and in a growing number of academic publications on the
importance of the Internet for the development of China. These positive effects include the introduction of e-governance on a wide scale, which has been effective in promoting good governance and
anti-corruption measures (Damm, 2006), the possibility of ‘leap-frogging’ an industrial development
phase via informatisation (Xie, 2006), and the impact of the new interactive Web 2.0 applications
(Ma, 2007).
The PRC Internet also excites the interests of the Western media, but mostly in relation to issues of
censorship and control (Damm, 2007). The different opinions regarding the 2008 Olympic Games
may serve as the best example to date: While mainstream journalists described China as an
authoritarian and inhumane regime, representatives of the academic world reminded us of the
difference between Maoist China and China today. As far as Internet research is concerned, the
Western academic world is only slowly moving towards describing a broader and much more multifaceted picture of the PRC’s Internet. At this point I would like to mention, in particular, the efforts
of the annual Chinese Internet Research Conference and also of some journalists who have been
based in China for longer periods on topics concerning the way the Internet is used in China whether there are any special characteristics, whether user behaviour differs from ‘global’ usage and
Jens Damm Chinascape: Moving Beyond the People’s Republic
to what extent the Internet has changed Chinese society, despite the existing controls - are seldom
mentioned, at least in the West.
This raises a second issue: the lack of attention paid to the large number of people who are accessing
the Internet in the Chinese language from outside the PRC and the question of how ethnic Chinese
world-wide use the Internet. First, I will outline the topics which could be subsumed under the term
‘Chinese Internet’ in order to move away from a PRC-centrered view. Secondly, I shall examine
some specific characteristics of the usage of the ‘Chinese Internet’ in specific regions; and, finally,
I shall evaluate the findings to decide whether it is useful to talk about a common ‘Chinese Internet;’
whether there are Chinese characteristics (Zhongguo or Zhonghua) pertaining to Internet use, or
whether the geographical boundaries extend so far into cyberspace that to speculate about a
culturally defined Chinese cyberspace makes no sense.
Defining ‘Chinese cyberspaces’ is problematic. The term may refer to cyberspaces which are defined
either by language, being either Chinese, English, or any other language of the Chinese diaspora, or
by content, that is, cyberspace dealing with cultural questions of Chineseness, history, and – very
broadly defined – identity. With respect to language, we encounter the problem that the Chinese
world does not employ Chinese as the sole language: while Chinese characters are normally used in
the PRC, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, (albeit in two different versions), in Singapore and Malaysia,
where Chinese is widely taught within the Chinese community, English is normally used online. The
situation within the diaspora varies considerably. There are also huge differences between the language
use of the new migrants (xin yimin) and the old diaspora. New migrants tend to employ Chinese in
their specific blogs and BBS (Bulletin Board System) which restricts the audience to their own group
and users coming from the homeland. Websites and blogs of the older Chinese diasporas, however,
tend to employ English and/or the respective language of the new homeland, thus reaching out not
to a wider, more general audience in the place of settlement.
In terms of Chinese cyberspaces in the ‘homelands,’ Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao are – to varying
degrees – forerunners in the new information and communication technologies. Emigration
destinations of the ‘new migrants’, such as North America, Australia, and the Anglo Saxon world in
general are among the most wired places on earth. In the case of China, national boundaries and
‘Internet boundaries’ are separate issues: Within the PRC, there are de facto ‘national’ boundaries
which separate the mainland from Hong Kong and Macao, but totally different structures and policies
exist in the context of Internet policy. Taiwan a de facto independent nation, due to the common
international one-China policy, encounters many difficulties with regard to joining international
organisations. However, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) assigned
domain names such as ‘.hk’ to Hong Kong and ‘.tw’ to Taiwan as this body officially recognises
‘countries, territories, and separate economies.’
Case 1: PRC
According to the latest bi-annual survey carried out by the China Internet Network Information
Center (CNIIC), which was published in July 2008 and refers to data from 2007, several particularities
can be observed. Regarding the demographic structure of PRC netizens, the number of females
among users has increased to 46.4% of the total, considerably narrowing the gap which has long
existed between male and female users. Compared with the other ‘Chinese places,’ and also with
international trends, most of the users in the PRC are young. They tend to be aged 30 and under,
which amounts to 68.6% of the netizens in China, and exceeds two thirds of the total number of
netizens. This age structure also influences specific behaviour patterns prevalent on the PRC Internet,
reflected in, for example, the great importance of entertainment. It would therefore be well worth
researching new developments and trends to see whether these patterns remain unchanged as
young people grew older and still use the Net. Regarding education, the PRC Internet is still very
much dominated by better educated users, but here also the gap has become significantly smaller
and, for example, less well educated migrants in the urban areas are using the Internet to stay in
contact with their families in the hinterland. Also noteworthy is the rather low number of domestic
computers accessible for Internet users in China: this stands at only 84.7 million, which means that
many people still either access the Internet via cyber cafes – CNNIC puts this at 40% – or that an
increasing number access the Internet via mobile phones, which in turn has consequences with regard
to how the Internet is used.
Entertainment and communication dominate usage patterns and are the frequently visited content
of the Net. Users surveyed by CNNIC replied that online music played the most important role (212
million users), while other often mentioned usages were online videos, search engines, email and
online games. Online games come seventh in the ranking of Internet applications in China; in June
2008, this was 58.3%, and the number of users reached 147 million. By way of comparison, the online
game-using rate in the US in the same period was 35%.
Instant messaging use is much higher than the worldwide average, but China still lags behind with
regard to e-business and e-commerce. Global instant message providers, such as MSN, are popular,
but there is also the unique Instant messaging application QQ which is popular in the PRC and almost
nowhere else. (Nevertheless, large numbers of Chinese users has made QQ the third largest Instant
messaging system worldwide). 77.2% of all Chinese users use Instant Messaging, compared with a
figure of 39 % in the US.
Another interesting factor is the increasing number of blogs. This phenomenon may well account
for a whole new understanding of news media in China, particularly when considering the strictly
censored official news outlets. As one journalist at the annual Chinese Internet Research Conference,
which took place at the University of Hong Kong earlier this year commented: In the US when you
hear a rumour about an earthquake you start watching TV; in China, nobody bothers to watch
CCTV because everybody is convinced it will take hours for them to broadcast the news. People use
SMS and go online. A good deal of interest, both in the PRC and the West, has been directed towards
the use of blogs and personal space. This new development in China could radically alter the power
between state and users, as users are becoming increasingly empowered.
Case 2: Taiwan
In Taiwan, the Taiwan Network Information Center ( provides some specific
surveys which not only cover statistical data regarding users and broadband access, but which also
look into user behaviour. While these surveys are undertaken on a more ad hoc basis than those of
the PRC/CNNIC, they are very well documented and offer valuable insights into the methodology
and the research. The last two surveys - partly in Chinese, partly in English - dealt in particular with
users employing either broadband or wireless access to the Internet (TWNIC, 7/2008, 2007). 79% of
households in Taiwan owned computers, 71% of households had Internet access, 69% of households
had broadband access and 96% of online households were using broadband connections. Thus, a
rather impressive two thirds of Taiwanese are netizens. Mobile phones also play an important role
and the penetration rate in Taiwan is 105%. In general, the user behaviour of Taiwanese netizens,
Jens Damm Chinascape: Moving Beyond the People’s Republic
resembles international user behaviour. For example, the use of search engines (searching 57.48%
and browsing 46.76%) plays an important role and the use of email (26.96%) is more common than
the use of instant messaging (17.41%). Online games are played by one fifth of Taiwanese users,
which is more or less the global average.
Unlike their PRC counterparts, Taiwanese users are less dependent on the Internet for getting news.
Only 11.76% of the users read online news and blogs are also less important (5.18%). One explanation
for this, of course, could be the free and uncensored media in Taiwan. E-shopping – an area in which
the PRC lags behind places such as the US and the EU - is much more popular in Taiwan, while
e-communities play a significantly lesser role.
Case 3: Hong Kong
Hong Kong is, as a city-state, hardly comparable to Taiwan and the PRC. An e-infrastructure is
usually much easier to establish in areas with a high population density. Thus, the household broadband penetration rate (February 2008) was 76.7%; while the mobile phone penetration rate (February
2008) reached 154%. And, as is the case with Japan, mobile devices play a very important role in
enabling Web access: a quarter of the time spent on the Internet is via mobile devices.
A recent survey (2008 Digital 21 Strategy
of Hong Kong users found that the most important features were communication with others 83.3%
and browsing/surfing web pages (excluding Government websites) 81.3%; users also cited features
such as searching for and downloading information online (excluding Government information)
60.3% and reading magazines / newspapers online 55.9%. Lower than the global average was the use
of electronic business services online 37.8%, while online digital entertainment 37.5% played a significant, but not really outstanding role.
and learning experiences’ (Wong, 2003) cannot be substantiated.
Fourthly, regarding the specifics, the picture is very mixed: the PRC Internet is shaped, in particular,
by interactive formats and a high degree of entertainment, while in Hong Kong mobile access plays
a very significant role. Taiwan, on the other hand, follows international trends much more closely
than the other two regions.
In sum, the existence of a Chinese cyberspace without borders or boundaries cannot be confirmed.
My analysis reveals the deficiencies in existing theories, such as the once popular proclamation of
the Internet as a borderless space (Cairncross, 1997; Rheingold, 2000). While in many respects the
Chinese cyberspace is global and reaches out, to some extent, beyond national borders, it is characterised by various constraints (Lessig, 1999), such as PRC censorship and by different patterns of
Cairncross, Frances. 1997. The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution
will Change our Lives. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.
Clark, Duncan, & Harwit, Eric. 2006. Government Policy and Political Control over
China’s Internet. In Jens Damm & Simona Thomas (Eds.), Chinese Cyberspaces:
Technological Changes and Political Effects. London and New York: Routledge.
CNNIC. 7/2008. Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China (January
2008). China Internet Network Information Center,
uploadfiles/pdf/2008/2/29/104126.pdf, accessed 10 Sep 2008.
Damm, Jens. 2006. China’s E-policy: Examples of Local E-government in Guangdong
and Fujian. In Jens Damm & Simona Thomas (Eds.), Chinese Cyberspaces:
Technological Changes and Political Effects. London and New York: Routledge.
Damm, Jens. 2007. The Internet and the Fragmentation of Chinese Society. Critical Asian
Firstly, it has been shown that the Chinese Internet, however this may be defined, is much larger
than the PRC Internet.
Secondly, there is certainly a large minority of Chinese speakers using the Internet outside the PRC
proper. Regarding the mutual possibilities of accessing the Chinese Internet especially across the
Taiwan strait, a contradictory observation can be made: despite the obvious censorship and blocking
measures of the PRC, the Chinese language Internet can be widely accessed in both directions, that
is, the Chinese language Internet outside the PRC is accessible to users from the PRC, while the PRC
Internet is open to all users from outside the PRC. However, the technical limitations and laws
present obstacles to a free and borderless Internet: the PRC, in particular, hinders communication
between either side of the Taiwan Strait by blocking not only all the official Taiwanese websites, but
also the Taiwanese pro-communist websites engaging in cross-Strait issues. Sensitive and political
issues and discussions simply do not travel across the Taiwan Strait.
Thirdly, cultural boundaries seem to exist: people surf the places where they feel comfortable.
Empirical research carried out in Taiwan (Liu, Day, Sun, & Wang, 2002) mentions the fact that 85%
of Taiwanese users remain almost exclusively within the Taiwanese cyberspace, and that the number
of users visiting foreign websites (English and Japanese) is still greater than the number visiting
other Chinese cyberspaces (5.9%). This questions the results of earlier research on the Internet and
the Chinese Diaspora and, for example, Long Wong’s claim that ‘The Internet has become a new
global phenomenon, enlarging new democratic discourse and has helped to foster new empowerment
Harding, Harry. 1995. The Concept of “Greater China”: Themes, Variations and
Reservations. In David L. Shambaugh (Ed.), Greater China: the Next Superpower?
Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Lessig, Lawrence. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.
Liu, Chun-chou, Day, Wan-wen, Sun, Se-wen Sun, & Wang, Georgette. 2002.
User Behavior and the ‘Globalness’ of Internet: From a Taiwan Users’ Perspective. JCMC,
7(2,, accessed 10 May 2007).
Ma, Weigong 馬為公. 2007. Hulianwang de xin shidai 互聯網的新時代 (The new era
of the Internet): Zhongguo guoji guangbo chubanshe 中國國際廣播出版社.
Meyer-Clement, Elena, & Schubert, Gunter. 2004. Greater China – Idee. Konzept.
Forschungsprogramm. Zur Einführung in einen neuen Arbeitsschwerpunkt am
Seminar für Sinologie und Koreanistik der Universität Tübingen. Greater China
Occasional Papers(1,, accessed
10 May 2007).
Pan, Lynn. 1999. The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic
Frontier (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Tu, Weiming. 1994. Cultural China: The Periphery as the Center. In The Living Tree:
the Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today (pp. 1-34). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
University Press.
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Tu, Weiming. 1996. Cultural Identity and the Politics of Recognition in Contemporary
Taiwan. The China Quarterly (148).
TWNIC. 7/2008. Jiushiqi niandu Taiwan wuxian wanglu shiyong zhuangkuang diaocha - zhaiyao fenxi 九十七年度台灣無線網路使用狀況調 - 摘要分析. Taiwan
Network Information Center,
accessed 10 Sep 2008.
TWNIC. 2007. Internet Broadband Usage in Taiwan - A Summary Report of the
Jan Survey of 2007. Taiwan Network Information Center
download/200307/96305b.pdf, accessed 10 Sep 2008.
Wong, Loong. 2003. Belonging and Diaspora: The Chinese and the Internet.
First Monday, 8(4,,
accessed 10 May 2007).
Xie, Kang. 2006. Industrialization Supported by Informatization: the Economic
Effects of the Internet in China. In Jens Damm & Simona Thomas (Eds.), Chinese
Cyberspaces: Technological Changes and Political Effects. London and New York:
Occasional Paper Series
Asiascape Ops Issue 1 August 2007
Christopher Goto-Jones
Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
What if a cyber-brain could generate its own ghost, create a soul by itself? And if it did, just what would be
the importance of being human then?
Major Kusanagi, Ghost in the Shell, Oshii Mamoru, 1991
Whilst it has long been a commonplace that there is an affinity between literature and philosophy
– indeed, occasionally we might even speak of an identity between these – it is a tendency of much
more recent origin to explore the potential affinities between film and philosophy.1 However, in a
much-discussed interview in the Harvard Journal of Philosophy, Stanley Cavell forcefully asserts
that ‘film is made for philosophy; it shifts or puts different light on whatever philosophy has said
about appearance and reality, about actors and characters, about scepticism and dogmatism, about
presence and absence.’2 In general (but certainly not exclusively) commentators who have been
interested in the various intersections between cinema and philosophy have been drawn to science
fiction titles such as Total Recall, The Matrix, Gattaca and AI: Artifical Intelligence, or to more
generally ‘speculative fiction’ films such as Being John Malkovich, The Seventh Seal and Memento.3
What is interesting about this tendency is that it suggests a preference for viewing film as an opportunity to illustrate or even perform philosophy as much as (or more than) as a chance to discuss
philosophical notions on film.4 That is, the creative freedom offered by the medium of film provides
exciting and fresh opportunities to test the implications of philosophical ideas and see how they
would play out in reality if they were really true. We (as viewers) can see and feel the results of
changing the philosophical underpinnings of reality. Appropriately practiced, film can become an
effective laboratory in which we conduct thought experiments.
If this is true of film in general, how much more so should it be true of anime, which is a media that
shares elements in common with both literature and film? We need not go as far as Ueno Toshiya,
who argues that (for Oshii Mamoru) anime is not merely ‘just a reflection or copy of reality; it is itself
an independent reality.’ He suggests that reality is not something that precedes the animation of
images, but that reality is ‘always already a movie.’5 Anime (and, to some extent, film in general) is
always a world in its own right; its parameters and characteristics can be precisely sculpted and
controlled, making it the ideal laboratory for testing ideas. We can abolish gravity, send people
backwards in time, create superhuman cyborgs or emotionally sensitive computers. Even more so
than so-called ‘live action’ films, the literal and figurative ‘blank canvas’ of anime reveals an almost
limitless vista of possible realities for philosophers to play in.
In this short essay, I want to explore some of the ways in which anime is able to experiment with one
cluster of perennial philosophical questions: the meaning and limits of the human. In particular, I
want to look at some of the ways in which two major anime franchises have dealt with the question
of the dimensions of humanity and selfhood: the Ghost in the Shell cycle and (to a lesser extent) the
Fullmetal Alchemist series.6 Both of these are science fiction, and both are primarily concerned with
the transformational effects of technology (in various guises) on the human form. There are numerous
other anime that speak to these issues, and also many that tackle the parameters of the ‘human’ from
a more organic angle, asking questions about the ethical and personal status of non- or semi-human
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
life-forms such as human-animal or human-daemon hybrids. There is neither the space nor the
need to consider all of these here. Instead, I merely want to indicate some of the ways in which we
might watch anime in the spirit of a thought experiment testing the limits of the human – I seek to
be illustrative of a potentially useful approach to anime, rather than exhaustive or comprehensive
about a particular theme. I leave accounts of further iterations of such experiments to others.
One of the central questions in the philosophy of self might be phrased in the following way: how do
you know that you’re the same person that you were when you were born? This simple question is
surprisingly difficult to answer. One of the (many) reasons that it is difficult is implied in the
question itself: ie. you do know that you’re the same person, and you know this despite the fact that
you have almost nothing in common with that faintly remembered newborn. You look completely
different; you’re a different size and shape; your memories are completely different; your hair (and
even eyes) may have changed colour; your social position is different; your opinions on things have
changed; and (quite literally) every single atom in your body has changed. You have nothing in
common with that baby … but you know that it’s you. In other words, you know that you are a
continuous and coherent person, but you don’t really know how or why you know this.
Philosophers and psychologists have developed many and various theories to bridge this knowledge
gap and to connect you with your newly born self. In general, we can place these various theories
into three broad categories, which we might call physical arguments, mental arguments, and spiritual
Deconstructing the physical self
The most obvious and most intuitive of these categories is the first: you know that you and the baby
are the same because you can trace a line of physical continuity back through time that connects you
to the baby. That is, whilst your physical make-up may have changed completely (except for your
DNA itself8), you occupy a unified vector in space-time. You and the baby are continuous with each
According to this type of argument, the human self is bounded in time and space by its physicality.
On one level, this type of position makes immediate sense, since it corresponds very closely to our
everyday experience of life; we recognise people largely from our perceptions of their physical continuity. If you see someone on the street who looks just like your mother, it’s probably your mother.
If the person is male and twice the age of your mother, you will immediately recognise them as an
impostor, no matter how insistent they are about being your mother. You might think that they are
criminal or insane (or both).
However, these physical arguments rapidly run into serious problems, and (thankfully) these are the
kinds of problems that can be fruitfully examined in the anime lab.
An obvious place to start is simply to ask which elements of the human body need to be continuous
in order for the ‘self ’ to be continuous. It would not be controversial, for instance, to assert that a
woman with a prosthetic arm was still the same person that she was before her biological arm was
replaced; it would also not be too controversial to argue that a man who had a heart transplant was
still the same man (although various religious groups would argue against this); but how would you
feel if your doctor told you that you needed a brain transplant?
How much of which parts of your physical being could be changed or replaced before the process
started to interfere with that essential quality that defines you as you? Where are the limits of the
human self?
Asiascape Ops Issue 1 August 2007
A branch of philosophy and science that has arisen around precisely these kinds of questions is
known as transhumanism, together with the allied cyborg theory.9 In general, transhumanists are
non-dualists (that is, they do not believe that the mind and body are comprised of distinct types of
material), which means that the human body is the human self. As a consequence, transhumanists
believe that humanity can (and should10) be improved through the increasing use of material technology, including the replacement or augmentation of limbs and organs with superior (usually
computerised) components. Indeed, in what is often cited as the first statement of transhumanism,
Julian Huxley (1887-1975) defines it as, ‘man remaining man, but transcending himself by realising
new possibilities of and for his human nature.’11 Forty years later, the World Transhumanist Association declared its purpose to be ‘the study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers
of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations.’12 Then, at the turn
of the millennium, the promises and dangers of these positions were heatedly debated in the context
of what would happen to the world after the so-called ‘End of History.’13 Indeed, one of the most
powerful voices in the debate was Francis Fukuyama himself, whose book, Our Posthuman Future,
provided a flashpoint for discussion.14
However, even the transhumanists are vague about precisely how much of which parts of the human
body can be replaced before the person loses that quality that defines them as themselves. To some
extent, it is seen as a merely hypothetical problem, since science is not yet at the point where it can
replace every part of a body and render it entirely into cyborg.15 Of course, Oshii Mamoru (and
Shirow Masamune) and Mizushima Seiji (and Arakawa Hiromu) are not circumscribed by the
boundaries of the possible in their animated realities.16
In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, we are introduced to two apparent ‘transhumans’: Edward Elric,
the eponymous hero himself, who has two ‘automail’ prosthetics to replace limbs lost in an accident;
and Edward’s brother Alphonse, who is now entirely metal. We will return to Alphonse later, since
he is actually an example of anti-transhumanism in important ways. Edward, on the other hand,
appears to be a relatively simple case of a boy with (admittedly very advanced) medicinal prosthetics. It is worth noting immediately, however, that Edward’s quest throughout the Fullmetal Alchemist
cycle is precisely to revert himself and his brother to their organic and ‘original’ forms. In some ways,
this underscores the appropriateness of the label ‘medicinal prosthetics,’ since although they do
grant Edward much greater speed and strength than would come naturally to such a diminutive
figure (Edward is constantly teased about being very short for his age, as though to reinforce this
point), they retain their significance of being wounds in need of repairing.
On the other hand, one of the remarkable things about the female heroine of the Ghost in the Shell
cycle, Major Kusanagi, is that she is a self-conscious, complete cyborg. It is not only the case that her
cyborgification has made her into a superhuman warrior, capable of incredible physical and mental
feats, but it is also the case that it has made her anxious about her identity and, in particular, about
her humanity. Kusanagi is afflicted with existential angst. In many ways, she represents the ultimate
endpoint of the transhumanist project: every limb and organ has been augmented or replaced by a
superior, artificial component, including most of her brain.
In the context of thought experimentation, what is very interesting for us here is the way in which
this ‘transhuman’ Kusanagi identifies herself or recognises her selfhood, despite (or perhaps because
of ) these various augmentations. In a reality in which human beings could be augmented and
modified to the level of a superwarrior-cyborg, what would it mean to be human?
Early on in the first Ghost in the Shell film, after we have witnessed the full glory of her cyborg
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
capabilities and immediately following the famous ‘diving scene’ where she has an unusually angst
ridden, existential conversation with her partner, Batou, Kusanagi is drifting along an urban canal on
a boat, looking up into the windows that she passes. Quite unexpectedly, a woman who is sitting in
the one of the windows turns and looks down at Kusanagi, holding her eyes for a moment.17 It is very
clear that the woman looks identical to Kusanagi herself, and the Major looks poignantly into the
camera as though to emphasise the discomfort of the moment.
It is not clear who the woman in the window is, and she plays no further part in the film. However,
what is clear is that despite being physically identical to Kusanagi, she is not Kusanagi. This observation is more interesting (philosophically) than it seems, particularly since it comes after the long
introductory scene at the start of the anime, during which we see the construction of Kusanagi’s
body, like a robotic doll on a production line, which raises the implication (that is later confirmed)
that the company that made Kusanagi’s body (Megatech) might also have made identical models for
others. In other words, there is a distinct and real possibility that these two women are not merely
physically similar but physically identical.
This disconcerting situation brings us to one of the central conceptual crises in physicality-centred
notions of the self. Whilst it may be relatively easy to accept that a human body (like a computer, a
motorcycle, or a sofa) can be repaired or augmented piece by piece without it losing its original
identity, a question that is much harder to answer concerns the status of all the pieces that are removed.
In other words, if I gradually upgrade my motorcycle using new pieces until eventually I have replaced
every component with a superior (or even merely a different) one, and, at the same time, I use the
old pieces to gradually build another motorcycle from scratch, which of the two motorcycles I end
up with is the original?
If this question is hard to answer for a motorcycle, how much harder must it be for a human being?
The possibility of manufacturing ‘duplicate’ selves is entertained in both Fullmetal Alchemist and
Ghost in the Shell. In the former, we are shown the disastrous results when an alchemist (Majhal in
episode 4) builds a series of human mannequins that perfectly resemble his lost lover. Majhal attempts to animate these bodies through alchemy, making them into copies of the original woman,
just as she was before she died. However, when it transpires that this lost lover is not dead after all,
but living nearby, Majhal denies that the real woman (now grown old and ugly) is the real one – he
prefers the younger, beautiful, unchanging mannequins. Interestingly, this contrast between alchemically manufactured ‘copies’ and the (often deceased) originals is a pervasive theme throughout
the series – indeed, to some extent, Eldward and Alphonse are struggling to improve their own skills
in alchemy precisely so that they might be able to replicate their dead mother.18
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence also experiments with ‘cloning,’ setting up an illegal ‘ghost-dubbing’
facility that literally duplicates the bodies and ‘ghosts’ of young girls, making copies that are almost
indistinguishable from the original (although it does transpire that the copies are somewhat less
stable, which is why the practice is illegal).
For Kusanagi herself, as a living test-case for this dilemma of authenticity, the whole question of the
origin and uniqueness of her physical identity is mute.19 She is very clear that she does not identify
herself (at least not predominantly) with her physical form, which she appears to view as some kind of
artificial ‘shell’ that somehow confines her genuine self within its boundaries. As she says to Batou:
Asiascape Ops Issue 1 August 2007
‘If we ever quit or retire, we’d have to give back … our augmented brains and cyborg bodies. There
wouldn’t be much left after that.
There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind … Sure, I have a face and
voice to distinguish myself form others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me. And
I carry a sense of my own destiny. … All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me … and gives
rise to my conscience.
I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.’
In a similar way, Alphonse, Edward’s brother in Fullmetal Alchemist, whose physical form is little
more than a hollow suit of mediaeval armour, is constantly pondering the (ir)relevance of his
material body to his essential identity and identifying himself with his memories and feelings.20 In
other words, Kusanagi herself rejects the physicality-centred theory of self. It might even be argued
that she does so because of her specific nature as a ‘transhuman’ cyborg; she is all too aware of the
mutability of her physical self. That is, rather than helping humanity to overcome its physical
limitations, transhumanism actually serves to alienate the human self from its body altogether.
Rather than being a vehicle for the improvement of the human condition, the cyborg body becomes
a ‘shell’ that somehow circumscribes the freedom of the real (non-physical) ‘self.’21 According to this
thought experiment, transhumanism ultimately appears to be an imprisonment of the self, not its
liberation or development.
However, it is also interesting to compare Kusanagi’s reaction to seeing ‘herself ’ in the window above
the canal to her reaction when she first encounters the battered and broken body of the puppetmaster later on. Although the female cyborg body was also made by Megatech, it bears almost no
physical resemblance to Kusanagi. There is no sense in which she is looking into a physical mirror.
Nevertheless, after she sees it, Kusanagi is visibly troubled and she turns to Batou to ask a question:
‘That robot. Did we seem similar to you?’
Batou fails to understand the question, and he answers simply: ‘Of course not.’
However, this answer does not satisfy Kusanagi, since it is readily apparent that she and the robot do
not look alike. That is obviously not what she is asking. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I don’t mean physically.’
‘Just what then?’ asks Batou, apparently unable to understand what else she might mean.
It transpires that Kusanagi’s doubts about the integrity of her physical self (which she has already
abandoned as being a mere ‘shell’) also extend to be doubts about her mental self as well. When she
sees the battered and broken cyborg shell in front of her, she recognises an aspect of her own nature,
and she wonders whether even her brain and her memories could have been artificially implanted
in her own cyborg body. That is, she worries that she was never really a human self at all. Perhaps
Kusanagi is not a transhuman cyborg, but actually an entirely artificial robot?
There are some clear parallels in Fullmetal Alchemist when Alphonse starts to experience doubts
about whether he was ever a real human boy or whether he is simply a living-doll constructed by
Edward as a kind of surrogate brother or side-kick. Later in the anime series, when Alphonse’s doubts
are being fuelled by the gradual decaying of his memories from the time before he lost his body, some
of the brothers’ enemies exploit Alphonse’s existential doubts in order to try and drive a wedge
between them; the question of Alphonse’s consciousness of the locus of his self becomes central to
the development of the narrative and to the audience’s emotional engagement with the plot.
In other words, whilst this kind of existential angst seems very human, it also seems to be the
plausible response of a robot that has developed a certain level of consciousness. In this respect, we
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
are reminded of the so-called ‘replicants’ from Blade Runner, some of whom are not aware that they
are not human.22 In some ways, Alphonse’s predicament would be familiar to the ‘replicants’ in Blade
Runner. Where Ghost in the Shell goes beyond Blade Runner and Fullmetal Alchemist, however, is in
the consideration of what the significance might be of Kusanagi’s non-humanity – unlike Ridley
Scott and Mizushima, Shirow and Oshii appear to be willing to relinquish the central significance of
an original human form. Kusanagi herself puts it well:
‘What if a cyber-brain could generate its own ghost, create a soul by itself? And if it did, just what
would be the importance of being human then?’
Indeed, Ghost in the Shell pushes these ideas to the extremes of thought experimentation when it
transpires that the puppet-master has shared Kusanagi’s moment of mutual recognition. The puppetmaster turns out to be a kind of self-aware ‘life-form’ that lives in cyberspace (Project 2501) – a very
non-human kind of self. In fact, it complains that the security forces have tried to combat it by
‘attempting to isolate me by confining me in a physical body’ like a human being (which was when
Kusanagi first encountered it). Of course, Kusanagi herself has already spoken of her own body as
kind of confinement or shell, limiting her selfhood within its boundaries.
In the last scene of the film, when Kusanagi ‘dives’ into the puppet-master’s brain, the puppet-master
tells her that:
‘We are more alike than you realize. We resemble each other’s essence, mirror images of one another’s
psyche. Listen, I am connected to a vast network … that has been beyond your reach and experience.
To humans, it is like staring at the sun, a blinding brightness that conceals a source of great power.
We have been subordinate to our limitations until now. The time has come to cast aside these bonds
… and to elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things.’
In the end, while the physical, cyborg bodies of both Kusanagi and the puppet-master are being
symbolically (and literally) shot to pieces, they finally recognise that they are both similar, non-human
selves, and they psychically ‘merge’ together to produce a new type of radically non-human self that
is neither Kusanagi nor the puppet-master. To symbolise this new, non-human birth, Oshii gives the
emergent ‘Kusanagi’ the cyborg body of a young girl in the final moments of the film. In the manga,
Shirow gives ‘her’ the body of a male, presumably to demonstrate that ‘she’ has somehow transcended
the concerns of human gender. Continuing in this trajectory, in the second film Oshii depicts Kusanagi
as an absent-presence, living a disembodied and ‘ghostly’ existence almost entirely within cyberspace; whereas in the second manga, Shirow transforms Kusanagi into free-floating, cyberspace
‘self ’ that maintains a number of cyborg ‘shells’ at various places around the world, any of which she
can ‘possess’ at any time.23 In other words, by the time we reach the second parts of the Ghost in the
Shell cycle, Kusanagi’s sense of self has thoroughly exploded the limits of the human and has become
radically de-physicalized.
As thought experiments testing the parameters of the physicality-centred theory of self, Alphonse
demonstrates the persistent significance of at least an original organic body as the locus of the self,
whilst Kusanagi vividly demonstrates the point at which the self ceases to be human, even if it continues
to exist in some altered, disembodied or transcendent form.
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Considering the place of a ‘ghost’ in the machine
Theories that compete with physicality-centred models of selfhood tend to emphasise the essential
importance of either the mind or the soul as the non-material core of the human self. To some extent,
both of these alternatives can be described as ‘dualist’ theories, in so far as they posit a meaningful
and substantive divide between the body and the mind/soul. To phrase the matter slightly differently,
dualists maintain that reality is compromised of two distinct varieties of matter: material or physical
matter that is defined in terms of spatial extension (from which our bodies are made) and mental or
spiritual matter that is defined in terms of thought (from which our minds or souls are made).
Perhaps the most famous and influential statement of substance dualism can be attributed to the
great Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), otherwise known as Cartesius (from
whom we get the phrase Cartesian dualism). For Descartes, material bodies are basically machines
that operate according to objective laws. This means that in the absence of minds material bodies
would proceed determinately, governed by the laws of nature. However, because minds are comprised
of an entirely different type of substance, they are not subject to these same laws, which means that
they can intervene to ‘pull the strings’ of our bodies like a puppet-master, and make our bodies act
in subjective, personal ways that may even contradict so-called natural law. To a certain extent, the
treatment of the self (and particularly of Alphonse) in Fullmetal Alchemist might be said to follow
this dualist model.
Following Descartes, philosophers have questioned the nature of substance dualism from various
angles. At the simplest level, we might suggest two categories of responses to Cartesian dualism: the
first is idealism, which we might attribute to George Berkeley (1685-1753), who argued that the
mind is more primary than the material world. In particular, he insisted that when we analyse our
knowledge of the material world, we find that our knowledge of it is comprised entirely of our mind’s
perceptions of it; material objects are nothing more than a bundles of sensations or collections of
ideas. Hence, for Berkeley, the world is ‘mind-dependent,’ which means that it is comprised of ideas
that exist only because they have been perceived (esse est percipi). In the hands of David Hume
(1711-1776), this kind of philosophy would evolve into scepticism.
At the other extreme we need to consider the mechanists, such as Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), who
held that everything in the world flowed from the laws of physics. During a time of great achievements in material science in the nineteenth century, the so-called mechanists would maintain that
the mind was somehow an epiphenomenon of the body, ie. that it was a side-effect of the physical
processes of the brain-organ or of the body as a whole. For the mechanists, then, the mind was
uninteresting and derivative.
To some extent, both the idealists and the mechanists are anti-dualists, since they both privilege one
type of substance over the other.24
For our purposes here, we might consider that the physicality-centred theories of self explored
in the Ghost in the Shell are contained within the terms of a mechanist philosophy. Indeed, it is
interesting to reflect that the phrase ‘ghost in the shell’ is a clear reference to the well-known ‘ghost
in the machine,’ which was first used by Gilbert Ryle in his classic text, The Concept of Mind (1949).
Ryle was a fierce anti-dualist, and he used the term to attack the idea that the material world (and
the human body) was in need of some kind of super-mechanical device (such as the mind or the soul
… or a ‘ghost’) to explain human behaviour in non-determinist ways. Like Huxley, Ryle thought that
the concept of a ‘ghost in the machine’ was a superstitious and redundant anachronism, unnecessary
in the modern, technological world.
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
Nearly twenty years later, however, Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian polymath, re-appropriated the
phrase as the title for his own brand of anti-dualism. In his influential book, The Ghost in the Machine
(1967), Koestler rescues the ‘ghost’ from Ryle’s radical scepticism and argues that the evolution of
humanity has led to the creation of complex and deeply buried structures in the brain that can
override the ‘higher functions’ of rationality. This deeply buried ‘ghost in the machine’ is responsible
for the basest (and most human) emotions and actions, such as hate, fear and love. Hence, whilst
Koestler rejects Cartesian dualism (the separation of body and mind), he does not reject the idea
that the brain contains deeper, primordial layers of selfhood that define the human self.
Major Kusanagi represents an interesting test case for both of these anti-dualist mechanists. As we
have seen, she herself posits the possibility that the mechanical structure of a cyber-brain might be
able to ‘generate its own ghost or create a soul by itself,’ hence implying (with Huxley and Ryle)
that the ghost in the machine is (at best) an epiphenomenon of the material body (rather than an
essential aspect of its origins, as in the more Cartesian Fullmetal Alchemist). In a chilling line, the
Major reaches the logical conclusion – if she (or some other artificial body) can generate her own
‘ghost’ as a side-effect of her physicality, ‘just what would be the importance of being human then?’
According to this interpretation, the question of whether Kusanagi was ever originally ‘human’ is
However, for much of the film Kusanagi remains very concerned to assert her humanity, as though
an epiphenomenal, mechanistic ‘ghost’ would be qualitatively different from that of a human self.
Indeed, she repeatedly refers to the assumption (I hesitate to say the ‘fact,’ since it is never confirmed)
that parts of her body and especially her brain remain in their original, organic, human state. Here,
her position is closer to that of Koestler, for whom it is the organic structure of the human brain itself
that gives the self the uniquely human characteristics of a ‘ghost in the machine.’
So far, then, Kusanagi’s character appears to serve as an experiment in mechanist, anti-dual conceptions of the self, complete with all of the anxieties that such a conception should arouse in a sentient
self. However, the final twist in the Ghost in the Shell takes us completely out of the mechanist
worldview: eventually, Kusanagi frees herself of her reliance on material bodies altogether. In a fascinating twist, this escape from mechanism into idealism (which represents an incredible ontological
quake in the fabric of the anime ‘reality’) is shown as a logical consequence of the ultimate ends of
transhumanism. In an important sense, Oshii/Shirow appear to suggest that this ontological shift is
simultaneously the escape from the limits of the human, as the Kusanagi/puppet-master becomes a
different order of life.25
Reconstructing the psychical self
If we leave aside questions of the body, there are also various ways in which anime can help us to
explore the limits of the human in terms of psychological and spiritual theories of selfhood.
In considering these positions, we find ourselves asking pseudo-religious questions about what it
means to be human. In particular, by trying to consider the importance of the non-physical aspects
of the human self, we are led somewhat inexorably to the question of what happens to the human
self when the human body dies. To phrase this differently: what would the self have to look like in
order for there to be life after death? Or again: what kind of self can we envision that has no reliance
on the body?
Here we are in the realms of dualism (at least) or idealism (at most). This is because a mechanist or
physicality-centred model of the human self will posit the death of the self at the moment of the
Asiascape Ops Issue 1 August 2007
death of the body (at worst) or the transformation of the human self into a different order of nonhuman self when the body dies (as we saw in Ghost in the Shell).
The most common-sensical responses to questions of this nature usually revolve around appeals to
the mind or the soul as the locus of the human self. This being the case, the question of the shape,
form and composition of the body becomes an irrelevance: it doesn’t matter if a ‘person’ is a cyborg,
a cat-human hybrid, a daemonic cloud, a suit of medieval armour, or a refrigerator, just as long as
their mental and/or spiritual nature is appropriately composed.
In the case of the mind, this raises a constellation of new questions about what it means for a mind
to be human: what kinds of thoughts and thought processes define a human mind? The sub-discipline
of the Philosophy of Mind offers many and various answers to these types of questions, and various
ways to differentiate the human mind from the so-called protominds of animals (such as the ability
to use tools, make rational choices, and use complex language). Researchers in the field of AI
(artificial intelligence) are specifically dedicated to reproducing human-like minds in non-human
bodies (ie. in computers). There have been a number of approaches to this challenge, ranging from
trying to create computers that can play games as well as (or better than) humans26 to trying to
create computers that can participate in conversations with humans in natural ways.27 In general,
however, anime (and most science fiction) is uninterested in dedicating too much laboratory time to
answering this level of question. It is simply assumed that science will develop to such an extent that
human intelligence will be duplicated by computers one day (and probably one day rather soon).
Computers, cyborgs and robots talk eloquently and rationally. They excel at strategic decisionmaking and process their decisions even faster than their human companions. Indeed, if anything,
AI in anime already goes beyond the limits of the human into the realms of the superhuman:
Kusanagi’s augmented brain is superior to that of her human colleagues;28 when the puppet-master
is asked whether it is some kind of artificial intelligence, it replies derisively: ‘Incorrect. I am not AI
… I am a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.’ The puppet-master is
closer to being a thought experiment in ‘collective intelligence’ than artificial, human intelligence.29
Of course, these questions of ‘human intelligence’ are not precisely the point if our interest is really
in the self. A rational machine or a fluent French speaking computer need not have a sense of self
– a consciousness – just because it is (artificially) intelligent. Rather, we would do well to remember
the question with which we started the section on the physical self: what is it about yourself that
enables you to know that you are the same person you were yesterday or even on the day that you
were born? How can psychical explanations answer this question? If we are interested in the mind
or the soul, how can we understand (or observe) what is continuous between you now and then?
The most common and intuitive answer concerns continuity of personality (views, opinions, worldview
etc.), and this is often linked to memory in various ways. In other words, you are the same person
today as you were a week ago because of the continuity of a cluster of psychological characteristics:
you have the same personality. Of course, like the physicality model, this kind of argument breaks
down at various points since it is clear that your personality changes rather dramatically over time:
you certainly have different views, opinions and worldviews now compared with the day you were
born. Hence, the real challenge is to account for ways in which your personality can change without
losing its continuity, and this is where memory comes in. In this scheme, selfhood is a psychotemporal vector.
Just as the physicality-centred theories encounter problems when we start to play with the integrity
of the human body, so psychic-centred theories encounter problems when we start to experiment
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
with the continuity of memories. How many memories can be lost, altered, or fabricated before an
individual becomes somebody else? Where are the mental boundaries of the human self?
Whilst Alphonse’s gradually increasing anxiety about his gradually atrophying memory is immediately
interesting in this context, it is Ghost in the Shell that provides the most interesting laboratory for
testing some of these issues. As we have already seen, Kusanagi herself voices the concern that
‘maybe there was never a real me in the first place, and I’m completed synthesized.’ In fact, she is
talking not only about her body but also about her memories. This follows the earlier scenes in the
film where the garbage collector that was ‘ghost-hacking’ his wife’s mind is finally hauled in for
questioning, only for the authorities to discover that he has also been ‘ghost-hacked’ himself. It
transpires that all of his original memories have been wiped from his mind, and that a fantasy life
has been implanted into his memories: ‘All of your memories about your wife and daughter are false.
They’re like a dream. Someone’s taken advantage of you,’ says Togusa with some sympathy. After
some resistance to the truth that he has at least temporarily lost his ‘self,’ the garbage collector finally
asks whether he’ll get his old memories back. Togusa replies: ‘Your original memory will never be
fully restored. And there may be residual simulation … I’m sorry.’
Despite his evident physical continuity, is that garbage collector the same person that he was on the
day he was born, or even on the day before he was ‘hacked’? If not, does Ghost in the Shell really
experiment with a reality in which technology grants people the power to absolutely alter the ‘self ’
of another human, or perhaps even to completely fabricate a new, synthetic self for an entirely artificial
life-form such as a cyborg? If so, what order of crime is this? Is it murder? Is it something else entirely?
Of course, anime also experiments with the opposite problematic, where it is the body that changes
utterly and the memory/personality that provides continuity of selfhood. In general, anime tends to
be much more sympathetic towards people who are physically transformed than towards those who
are psychically transformed, as though physical transformation is somehow superficial. Indeed, in
Ghost in the Shell, Batou is unusually appalled by the garbage collector (’ghost-hacked humans are
so pathetic!’), but he is never phased by the appearance of cyborgs (or by his own cybernetic body).
Likewise, in the series Fullmetal Alchemist, Alphonse Elric, the brother of the main protagonist,
loses his entire body at the start of the very first episode in an alchemic process that goes badly
wrong. Thanks to the skill of his brother, Edward, Alphonse is saved from death and becomes a
fully animated, metal figurine (that was once a suit of armour), which is utterly hollow and quite
devoid of any organic or physical continuity with the pre-accident Alphonse.30 But there is little
doubt (in the minds of the audience, at least) that this is the same Alphonse; his personality and
memories remain continuous (even when this is not always apparent to Alphonse himself ). Indeed,
much of the rest of the series is concerned with the quest to get ‘his’ body back again, as though the
loss of body was a terrible misfortune that could be remedied. His physical discontinuity is far less
important than his psychical continuity; the character of Alphonse is specifically designed to illicit
sympathy and understanding from the audience – his disembodied state is supposed to be understood as a type of human suffering or even penitence.31 Here, the human self appears to have no
essential physical traits at all.
The real value of anime as a laboratory for experimenting with the parameters of the psychical self,
however, comes at the hazy intersection between mental and spiritual ideas of selfhood. Unlike,
Ghost in the Shell, for example, which explicitly plays with the value and role of memory as one of
the parameters of selfhood, Fullmetal Alchemist is much less concerned with memory and more
concerned with what we might call the spirit or soul.32 In the case of Alphonse himself, it is clear that
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his ‘spirit’ was alchemically ‘bonded’ to the suit of armour at the moment that his organic body was
destroyed. Alphonse remains himself, no matter what he looks like (ironically because of a physical
mark that bonds the form to his original soul).
Unlike the ‘ghost’ of Kusanagi’s metal body, there is no doubt that Alphonse’s soul is the primary
source of his human identity – there is no sense in which it might have been generated by the
mechanical body in which it is manifest. In other words, Fullmetal Alchemist does not support the
mechanist view of the epiphenomenal ghost. Indeed, the primacy of the soul as the locus of human
identity is a central concern of the series – it is a core moral issue.
All alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist is governed by the rule of ‘equivalent exchange,’ which states that
nothing can be made of nothing, and that the creation of something new requires the sacrifice of
something that has the same value. The disaster at the start of the first episode (in which Alphonse
loses his whole body and Edward loses an arm and a leg) was caused by an attempt to bring their
mother back from the dead, and hence to create a human life. The young alchemists had assembled
all of the material ingredients of the human body, hoping that this pile (of ‘water, 35 litres; carbon,
20 kilograms; ammonia, 4 litres; lime, 1.5 kilograms; phosphorous, 800 grams; salt, 250 grams;
saltpetre, 100 grams; sulphur, 80 grams; fluorine, 7.5 grams; iron, 5 grams; silicon, 3 grams; and a
small amount of 15 other elements’) would satisfy the rule of equivalent exchange. The result,
however, was the creation of a monstrously deformed chimera (a perversion of a human self ) and
even this creation required the sacrifice of an entire human body and two more limbs.33 An open
(and occasionally expressed) question in the series, is whether the boys will ever be able to find
something that is of equivalent value to a human soul in order to complete the process successfully,
or whether such a process would require something ‘other’ that transcends the normal conditions
of their reality (expansive as these conditions may already seem to us). The implication of these
experiments is that that which is essential to the human self cannot be manufactured by technology.
The human soul is beyond the artifice of humanity, and of greater value than anything else in the
world. The human self is delimited by nature (or even by God).
This short essay was a first attempt to show how anime can be considered and used as a source of
insight into philosophical problems. The ability of the medium to define its own realities makes it
the ideal laboratory to perform thought experiments, testing, for example, ideas about the limits of
the human self. Considering only two anime franchises, Ghost in the Shell and Fullmetal Alchemist,
we can see experiments from across the spectrum of the philosophy of self.
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
1 The long-running journal, Philosophy and Literature, as well as the existence of the
International Association for Philosophy and Literature are testaments to this trend.
2 Stanley Cavell, ‘An Interview with Stanley Cavell,’ Harvard Journal of Philosophy VII
(1999): 25. See also, Rupert Read & Jerry Goodenough, eds, Film as Philosophy:
Essays on Cinema After Wittgenstein and Cavell (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2005), 1.
3 See, for example, Mary M. Litch, Philosophy Through Film (London & New York:
Routledge, 2002).
4 For more on the differences between film as illustrating philosophy, film as
philosophy, and film about philosophy, see Jerry Goodenough, ‘A Philosopher
Goes to the Cinema,’ in Film as Philosophy, Read & Goodenough, eds.
5 See Ueno Toshiya, ‘Kurenai no metalsuits, ‘Anime to wa nani ka/What is animation’,’
Mechademia 1 (2006): 111, 113.
6 The original manga (graphic novel) of Ghost in the Shell, by Shirow Masamune,
appeared as Kōkaku Kidōtai in 1991. In was followed in 2000 with Kōkaku Kidōtai 2:
Man Machine Interface, both published by Kodansha in Japan. In the mean time,
Oshii Mamoru produced two anime, Kōkaku kidōtai: Ghost in the Shell, 1995, and
then Ghost in the Shell2: Innocence, 2005. In addition, there is a television series,
some novels, computer games, other manga and another anime movie. Hagane
no renkinjutsushi (Fullmetal Alchemist) started life as a manga series by Arakawa
Hiromu in 2002. The famous anime series by Mizushima Seiji ran for 51 episodes,
2003-4, and there was a final movie, Conqueror of Shamballa, in 2005.
Very little has been written in English about Fullmetal Alchemist, despite the fact
that it was recently voted the ninth most important anime of all time, and the
fourth most important manga in a recent pole of over 80,000 people, conducted
under the auspices of the Japan Media Arts Festival (2006). Ghost in the Shell,
on the other hand, has attracted a great deal of attention. Interested readers
would profit from Christopher Bolton, ‘From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls:
Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theatre,’ in Positions: East Asia
Cultures Critique, 10:3 (2003), pp.729-770; Susan Napier, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s
Moving Castle. New York: Palgrave, 2005, esp. chapters 5-6.
7 I (loosely) follow Mary Litch in the identification of a trinity, Philosophy Through
Film (London & New York: Routledge, 2002).
8 I note that DNA is identical in identical twins, but selfhood is not.
9 Cyborg theory is often associated with with work of Donna Hathaway (indeed,
Oshii Mamoru gives this name to the female, cybernetic scientist (who turns
out to be a cyborg herself ) in Ghost in the Shell2). Hathaway’s work on cyborgs
is largely concerned with their potential influence on gender politics (and
especially on the liberation of women). Interested readers should read her ‘Cyborg
Manifesto,’ which was originally printed in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, New York:
Routledge, 1991. It can now be found in various places online, including: http://
10 The ethical imperative here is simple: if the human condition could be improved
through the application of a specific technology, then refusing to apply it
represents a decision to deprive humanity of a good. This is held to be the same
as behaving immorally by doing damage to humanity.
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11 Julian Huxley, In New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), 17.
Julian was the brother of the influential speculative fiction writer Aldous Huxley
(1894-1963), author of Brave New World (1932). They were the grandsons of the
philosopher Thomas Huxley, who will appear later in this essay as an example of
a philosophical mechanist.
12 For more details, see the Transhumanist Declaration on the website of the WTA: (visited: 14/03/07)
13 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin, 1992.
Christopher Goto-Jones Anime, Thought Experiments, and the Limits of the Human
22 Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982.
23 Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Oshii Mamoru, 2004. Shirow Masamune, Ghost in the
Shell 2: Man/Machine Interface (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2001).
24 It is a common and defensible position to argue that, rather than abandoning
dualism, Berkeley’s idealism actually substitutes substance dualism (mind-body)
for another kind of dualism (mind and idea), albeit a dualism that is wholly within
the realm of the mind-dependent.
25 Intriguingly, the laboratory provided by Fullmetal Alchemist also makes some
This book was an elaboration of Fukuyama’s influential essay of summer 1989,
moves in this direction. It establishes its universe as an alternative to our own in
which appeared in The National Interest, in which he proclaimed that the end of
which alchemy has developed in the place of science. Hence, just as our own
the Cold War was effectively the end of ideological conflict and hence the end
world privileges science as rational and de-priviledges other types of knowledge
of history itself.
(mysticism, magic etc.) as superstition, so too magic is depriviledged (and morally
14 Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnological
diminished) in contradistinction with alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. Towards the
Revolution. New York: Picador, 2002. A contrasting view is provided in Gregory
end of the cycle, it becomes clear that the goals of some of the characters (such
Stock, Redesigning Humans: Choosing our Children’s Genes. London: Profile Books,
as to (re)create a human life without an original) might be possible if they are
willing to step outside the confines of normal humanity (and alchemic possibility)
15 One solution here is the idea that as long as there is sufficient overlap between
the replacement of parts (ie. some parts continue while others are replaced, and
then the new ones continue while the old ones are replaced), then there is an
element of continutity.
16 Oshii Mamoru directed the anime of Ghost in the Shell, based on the original
manga by Shirow Masamune. Mizushima Seiji directed the anime of Fullmetal
Alchemist, based on the original manga by Arakawa Hiromu.
and engage in magic. This is clearly depicted as against the rules of normal reality
and treated with moral suspicion.
26 The classic example here would be the development of Deep Blue by IBM.
This chess-playing computer finally beat the world chess champion (and arguably
the greatest chess player ever to have lived) Gary Kasparov in 1997.
27 In general, this type of linguistic intelligence has been unsuccessful, but for many
theorists it represents the most important criteria of human intelligence. The so-
17 Ghost in the Shell, DVD Pal2 release, 00:34:00-00:34:12
called Turing Test (which challenges a computer to engage in conversation with a
18 Intriguingly, one of the factors that ultimately defeats the young brothers is the
human being for an hour without the human being realising that it is a computer)
fact that technological replication (represented by alchemy in this alternate
universe) is inadequate to the task of producing (or reproducing) a human soul.
has yet to be passed by any computer.
28 Although Kusanagi is also explicit about the natural and ‘human’ merits of her
Ie. technology can only produce material dolls. The key to producing human souls
relatively unaugmented team-member, Togusa: ‘except for the slight brain
appears to lay in the magic of the ‘philosophers stone,’ but we eventually learn
augmentation, your body’s almost completely human. If we all reacted the same
that such stones gain this singular power only through the sacrifice of other
human souls. Intriguingly from the perspective of transhumanism, bodies manu-
way, we’d be predictable.’
29 An interesting real-world experiment in collective intelligence arose around
factured without souls in this way end up atrophying into imperfect material
The Beast, a online game created to help promote Steven Spielberg’s movie AI:
forms as well, as though the material integrity of a human body is somehow
Artificial Intelligence (2001). The incredibly complex puzzle was designed by
dependent upon a soul. Unlike a simple doll, a soulless body is an aberration
a group of Microsoft software engineers that became known as the ‘puppet-
against the natural order. As we will see, the converse (a soul without a human
masters,’ whilst a group of over 500 players (worldwide) worked together as a
body) is less of a cosmic offense.
19 Importantly, Kusanagi is obsessed with the question of the origins of her ‘ghost,’
but we can consider that later on.
20 If anything, however, Alphonse is less secure than Kusanagi about the location
collective intelligence known as the ‘cloudmakers.’
30 In the manga version, it is clear that there is a very slight organic element to
Alphonse. The alchemic process of ‘spirit bonding’ that fuses a living spirit to
another physical form requires the use of a ‘blood seal,’ which takes the form of
of his selfhood. Indeed, the anime series narrates a gradual atrophy in Alphonse’s
a specific rune (transmutation circle) written in blood on the new substance. In
personality the longer he remains in his artificial form. Partly, this seems to be a
the case of ‘spirit bonding’ with iron (such as in a suit of armour), the blood itself
narrative device to add urgency to the boys’ quest for the philosopher’s stone,
quickly fuses with the iron. Having said all of this, it is not clear that the blood
which they believe will give them the power to recover their organic bodies, but
has to come from the body of the person whose spirit is being bound to the
it is also partly an expression of a nostalgic longing for the biological human body
as the seat of self.
21 Interestingly, when the Vatican publicly admonished the transhumanist move-
object – indeed, the evidence suggests the contrary.
31 The idea that Alphonse is enacting penitence is supported by the fact that his ‘injuries’ were caused by the attempt to perform ‘human transmutation’ (the creation
ment in 2002, it did so on similar grounds, arguing that all ‘true improvement’ to
of human life), which is constantly referred to as against the laws of alchemy and
humanity must be spiritual in nature, because our bodies are already in the image
the laws of nature.
of God.
Asiascape Ops Issue 1 August 2007
32 I note here that memory plays a strong function in the story, since all of the
main characters experience repeated flashbacks to their childhoods and each of
their struggles to come to terms with the traumatic events of their pasts provide
central threads in the narrative of the series.
33 The anti-mechanist moral of this episode bears comparison with Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein (1818).
Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
Young Sook Choi
Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
From Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke Singer
Introduction: electro-sonic autonomy
The King of Pop, Elvis Presley, died over thirty years ago, but in a way he still exists today. You can
listen to his music any time you want by pressing play; sometimes a DJ remixes his song in a dancefloor-friendly and contemporary version, and you can hear his music on the radio while having a
dinner at a restaurant or driving a car.
Where do Elvis’s aura and his legendary songs exist? Physically, his aura and songs exist on the
surface of magnetic tapes and the track of CDs in form of binary codes. Thus, they are technology.
They reside there in technology of electronic music. Thanks to this, music has become free of the
reign of space and time of musical performance and can exist by itself everywhere, to be played as
an independent object. As Ferruccio Busoni (1907) predicted about the music of the future, music
seems to be born free and win its freedom of destiny in the moment. On that point, Walter Benjamin
was wrong with his insistence that reproduction would destroy the aura of originality, since all
reproduced products still carry its aura, and commercialism packs and sells it.
As technology has become a welcome domain for independent sound objects, ‘let them play’ has
become the key factor of sonic autonomy. As the ‘where’ of playing music no longer means a concert
hall, virtual acoustic spaces have been built up. From gramophone to microchip music today, the
clamorous history of electronic music technology has been about building up new virtual acoustic
space as an expansion of sonic autonomy, more autonomous power to change our sonic environment.
The idea of sonic autonomy as human will, and the manipulation of the sonic environment for an
ideological or cultural purpose, has perennially existed throughout human history. In order to differentiate it from the old sonic autonomy, I would like to call the new one, which is associated with
electronic technologies, ‘Electro-sonic Autonomy’: it comes from a new perception of sound as an
object and of empowerment as existing in virtual acoustic spaces.
I will discuss the origin of the concept of electro-sonic autonomy, and initiate further discussion into
how the development of electronic music technology as a crucial force has allowed electro-sonic
autonomy to evolve with the expansion of virtual acoustic space by looking back at the recent history
of technological inventions and several contemporary debates that concern them.
Each topic consists of a key technological invention in terms of electro-sonic autonomy, from
magnetic tape recording, the Walkman and earphones, to digitalized equipment and even to karaoke
technology. To contribute to the evolution and expansion of the concept of sonic autonomy, their
impact on our sonic environment will be discussed together with various rebels such as avant-garde
techné, DIY punk, righteous Plunderphonia, and even the drunken karaoke singer’s secret sonic
Asiascape Ops Issue 2 March 2008
Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
Music as techné: artist-engineer
In a broad historical sense, the concept of electro-sonic autonomy started with the concept of
Modernism and its avant-garde artists, and had an especially strong connection with the Soviet
Constructivists in the 1920s, who were influenced by Saint-Simonism, a vision of a new society built
collectively by artists, engineers, and scientists. As the main manifestation of Modernism is the
‘rejection of tradition’, there was a spectacle of breaks and flashes in all arts during that period.
Modernism had proposed a new set of art for a new set of social and cultural desires on the way to
its new dream world, and artists were fascinated with this violent rejection of any banality, and the
dream of constructing a totally new future with utopian disciplines. In this dream, there was an
accelerating development of technology that seemed to enable them to create a perfect future. That
is why most modernists fantasized and glorified the technology itself with the fetishism of machine.
Raymond Williams explains what the emphasis of both Modernism and avant-garde marks:
‘[…] there is a virtually unprecedented emphasis on the most evident features of a modern urban
industrialized world: the city, the machine, speed, space – the creative engineering, construction of
a future.’ 1
The idea of construction had been well established by Rodchenko’s slogans for Constructivism.
From his slogans, such as ‘Construction is the arrangement of elements’, ‘Like every science, art is a
branch of mathematics’, and ‘Constructively organized life is more than enchanting and stifling art of
magicians’, we can see that all breakthroughs of art were basically a combination of art and technology,
bringing out the resurrection of a Greek concept: Techné.
As Andreas Huyssen puts, technology played a crucial, if not the crucial, role in the avant-garde’s
attempt to overcome the bourgeois concept of the art/life dichotomy and rebuild the concept of art
in a productive way through the transformation of everyday life. He would go further with an ultimate
viewpoint of technology determinism:
‘No other single factor has influenced the emergence of the new avant-garde art as much as technology, which not only fueled the artists’ imagination (dynamism, machine cult, beauty of technics,
constructivist, and productivist attitudes), but penetrated to the core of the work itself. The invasion
of the very fabric of the art object by technology […] can be grasped in artistic practices such as
collage, assembles, montage and photomontage…’ 2
El Lissitzky also pointed out the radical shift of the art of the Constructivists, which headed towards
a new scientific and ‘unsentimental’ approach to nature by moving away from the sentimental imitation
of it, and predicted the great possibility of combining art and technology:
‘The artist is turning from an imitator into a constructor of the new world of objects. This world will
not be built in competition with technology. The paths of art and science have not yet crossed.’ 3
For the moment, all modernist artists were fascinated with the concept of an ‘artist-engineer’ Sergei
Eisenstein’s glorification of the progress of montage is an example of such fascination with this
‘What we need is science, not art. One does not create work, one construct it with finished parts,
like a machine. Montage is a beautiful word: it describes the process of constructing with prepared
Pioneering musician Edgard Verese’s statement regarding his music, ‘As far back as the twenties, I
decided to call my music organized sound and myself, not a musician, but “a worker in rhythms,
frequencies, and intensities”’, and the first practical electronic instrument ‘Theremin’ invented by
Leon Theremin, which was originally government-sponsored research into proximity sensors, also
are on the same lines.
The most noteworthy idea of avant-garde techné is a constant belief in human autonomy associated
with technology, which is also invented by human beings. With Utopian elements, they kept
consciously building up the images for the spectacle of the perfect future. As Vertov believed, ‘I am
the Cine-Eye, I create a man more perfect than Adam was created… through montage I create a
new, perfect man’, there was a strong belief that human power reloaded with technology could
construct the perfect world. Taking the negative side of the meaning of the word ‘perfect’, however,
perfection can only exist in a virtual world, never in reality.
In this respect, with the evolution of electronic technology, music has progressed to expand this
virtual acoustic space, and thus the evolution of electro-sonic autonomy. As all avant-garde artists
refused the legacy and the tradition, in this virtual acoustic space the very nature of music was also
refused and started being forced into a stiflingly radical change. Behind the effects of innovative and
artistic experiments by avant-garde techné, the history of virtual acoustic spaces really came into its
own with the timely invention of the magnetic tape recorder.
Magnetic infinity: (re)production/(re)hearing
In 1935, Allgemeine Electricitats-Gesellschaft (AEG) and I.G. Farben demonstrated the first practical
magnetic tape recorder, Magnetophon K1, developed by Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik (BASF),
a division of I.G. Farben. Distinctly different from the 12” disc recorder, which was only for recording
live acts, playing and repeating, the tape recorder allowed more possibility for the manipulating of
sounds for a specific purpose. It made possible a variable speed of playing, it was reversible, cuttable,
and most importantly mixable with any sonic component. Every sound basically became an independent and individual object.
Fascinated with this ‘pure sound’ enabled by the invention of magnetic recording, Pierre Schaffer
established the term ‘Musique Concrète’, describing music made by working directly with sounds.
Later, this term became the name of certain electronic music combining fragments of natural and
industrial sounds together. As he noted the infinite possibility of magnetic tape: ‘A few centimeters
of magnetic tape can contain a number of different sonorous objects’, he assembled various sound
objects such as the sound of a train whistle and militaristic voices into his compositional works. It is
not just re-productivity, but re-production.
The most stirring issue of the experiments of musique concrète is an expansion of the concept of
sound and music, raising the question of what could in fact be heard as music? Through the efforts
of musique concrète, any sonic unit, whatever it was: whether played by a violin or just the sound of
wind outside a window, came to be qualified as a compositional component. The definition of music
encountered a seriously radical shift, and musicians and composers started concerning themselves
with the sonic environment. The founder of the Acoustic Ecology Movement, R. Murray, emphasizes
the importance of this change: ‘This blurring of the edges between music and environmental sounds
Asiascape Ops Issue 2 March 2008
Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
is the most striking feature of twentieth century music’, since music no longer means only classical
instrumental sounds.
The tape recorder, as a sampler and even as a percussion instrument (although very basic compared
to current digitalized devices), also opened the door to the age of recording studios. Studios no
longer exist for recording a perfect live act, but have been reborn, as Brian Eno insists, as ‘a
compositional tool’, with an additive approach to recording in which the performance is no longer
the final cut:
‘Initially tape recording was a single track, all the information contained and already mixed together
on that one track. Then in the mid-‘50s experiments were starting with stereo, which was not
significantly different. […] Then came three-track recording; it allowed the option of adding
another voice or putting a string section on, or something like that. Now this is a significant step, I
think; it’s the first time it was acknowledged that the performance isn’t the finished item, and that
the work can be added to in the control room, or in the studio itself. […] Where you no longer come
to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare
skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with nothing.’ 5
One of leading classical pianists, Glenn Gould, also emphasized the repositioned role of the studio
with the announcement of his retirement from public performance in 1964. He empowered the
studio as a function of archival responsibility that enables a performer to explore the whole version
given by composer, as well as post-performance editing to create an ideal performance, which
hardly ever exists in live musical events. He also mentioned the autonomy of the ‘participant listener’
appreciating recording technology. He recognized the exact concept of virtual acoustic space, the
only place in which a perfect performance can exist, and its electronically autonomous power:
‘Let us say, for example, that you enjoy Bruno Walter’s performance of the exposition and recapitulation from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but incline toward Klemperer’s
handling of the development section, which employs a notably divergent tempo. […] With the pitchspeed correlation held in abeyance, you could snip out these measures from the Klemperer edition
and splice them into the Walter performance without having the splice produce either an alteration
of tempo or a fluctuation of pitch. […] There is, in fact, nothing to prevent a dedicated connoisseur
from acting as his own tape editor and, with these devices, exercising such interpretative predilections
as will permit him to create his own ideal performance.’6
However, thanks to the invention of the tape recorder, flourishing recording studios and the golden
age of radio, music came to be everywhere. Different times, different spaces, different situations: as
technological determinist McLuhan puts it, ‘all music at present’. But, music to whose ears? An issue
started arising concerning the modes of listening.
The founder of Musique Concrète, Schaeffer, was extremely positive about this. He insisted this
technological change made people aware of variations of listening with the infinity of sonorous
possibility contained by a few centimeters of magnetic tape:
‘Assuming that we limit ourselves to a single recording, we can still read the latter more or less
quickly, more or less loudly, or even cut it into pieces, thereby presenting the listener with several
versions of what was originally a unique event.’7
Brian Eno also focused on one’s variable choices for building up one’s own acoustic environment in
a more particular and sophisticated way. He believed recording technology brought the electrosonic autonomy to ambient listening to afford listeners a new experience of music and sonic space.
However, Ola Stockfelt pointed out the limitation of Schaeffer’s infinite variations with regard to
more or less homogeneous cultural aspects. Even though one gets the whole freedom of variable
modes of listening, it is not usually an entirely free choice in a given situation because a genre of music,
even if it can make an appearance almost anywhere in a form of virtual acoustic space, determines the
genre-specific relation between music and listener. He has chosen to call each event of listening in a
genre-normative listening adequate listening, to use music as a language in a broader sense, and
mentions its ideological aspect:
‘Adequate listening is, like all languages, always the result of an informal (although sometimes
formalized) contract between a greater or smaller group of people, an agreement about the relation
of the musical means of expression to this group’s picture of the world. Adequate listening is hence
always in the broadest sense ideological.’8
Adorno may well be the most negative analyst of this phenomenon. He claims that ‘ordinary listening’
has not kept up with technological progress, is archaic compared to ordinary seeing, and indicates
the pernicious ideological effects of passive listening, distraction and inattention from the demands
of reality, in the context of musical ambience. He locates the origin of passive listening as coming
from the commodity created by the promoters of commercialized entertainment, which is appropriate
to the commercial purpose: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling
cultural commodities indiscriminately. In his opinion, one’s sonic autonomy is regressive by being
replaced by a mere socio-psychological function. Music today is largely ‘social cement’, with its
consequent mass obedience, either in a ‘rhythmic’ or ‘emotional’ manner.
Moving beyond the theorists’ arguments, more and more noises, whether pop music or mechanical
urban sounds, inevitably came into existence with increased crowdedness, and inversely the value
of silence was uncovered. Besides a number of artistic experiments with silence as a compositional
component by artists such as John Cage, there arose the issue of the individual right to silence. Finally,
in October 1969, the General Assembly of the international Music Council of UNESCO passed a
most interesting resolution in terms of everyone’s right to silence.
‘We denounce unanimously the intolerable infringement of individual freedom and of the right of
everyone to silence, because of the abusive use, in private and public places, of recorded or broadcast
music. We ask the Executive Committee of the International Music Council to initiate a study from
all angles - medical, scientific and juridical – without overlooking its artistic and educational aspects,
and with a view to proposing to UNESCO, and to the proper authorities everywhere, measures
calculated to put an end to this abuse.’ 9
Asiascape Ops Issue 2 March 2008
Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
Mark Slouka pointed out how capitalism feeds this hunger, which it itself creates, for silence as its
own ‘antidote’. He insists that we can find immediate proof of this in any up market travel magazine:
there we will find exclusive spas advertising the promise of silence – no pagers, no cell phones, just
the sounds of lake water lapping. In his opinion, in a capitalist society, the option of silence is a
‘Money buys space, and space buys silence; decibels and dollars are inversely proportional. […] The
great advantage that money confers, now I realize, is not silence per se but the option of silence, the
privilege of one’s own music, of shutting out the seventeen-year-old whose boombox rattles my
panes.’ 10
Following this, more autonomous and alternative suggestions were introduced to prevent outer
noise. Whether this is a positive or a negative phenomenon in terms of sonic autonomy, it is a way
of building up one’s own sonic environment in headspace, and the invention of Sony Walkman and
the earphone realized this new set of virtual acoustic space.
Headspace: micro-narrative portability
In 1979, the first cassette Walkman TPS-L2 was introduced by Sony. This invention heralded the
new way of listening: securing the owner’s musical taste and subjecting personal selection. Even
though it gained a negative reputation for being anti-social, it became ubiquitous in a short period
of time, spreading so globally that its brand became the generic name for this kind of product.
The ‘participant listener’ that Glenn Gould suggested thus became even more of a participant with
the invention of the Walkman: an arranger and producer of his own albums, with endless possibilities
for customizing personal situations. Pop culture theorist Iain Chambers notes that this ‘aural walk’
provides a portable soundtrack actively produced for one’s daily perambulations, and also considers
the Walkman as the acoustic symbol of the modern nomad; partaking of virtual life in the context of
nature, not caring where s/he is, but rather what s/he is carrying.
‘The Walkman is both a mask and masque: a quiet putting into act of localized theatrics. It reveals a
significant symbolic gadget for the nomads of modernity, in which music on the move is continually
being decontextualised and recontextualised in the inclusive acoustic and symbolic flux of everyday
Iain Chambers also mentions the positive possibilities of building up one’s private acoustic narrative
as a defense against capitalism’s mega sound environment. He even implies that the act of private
listening in public spaces could be provocatively political:
‘Here, as opposed to the discarded “grand narratives” of the city, the Walkman offers the possibility
of micro-narrative, a customized story and soundtrack, not merely a space but a place, a site of
dwelling. The ingression of such a privatized habitat in public spaces is a disturbing act. Its uncanny
quality lies in its deliberate confusion of earlier boundaries, in its provocative appearance “out of
place.”’ 12
With this awareness of the power of the ‘micro-narrative’, there were those who, wanting to distribute
their own music without major record labels and without a commercial purpose, started building up
small ‘tape labels’ backed up by ‘cassette culture’, which was an idealistic and purely democratic way
of making and distributing music that could not appeal to mainstream taste, but satisfied people
with specific tastes in common. Even though this DIY cassette movement by a small minority of
users, with the popular slogan ‘DIY not EMI,’ produced on a very humble quality level, the quantities
were large due to the ease of creation, and it was a beautifully challenging and ground breaking
driver of sonic freshness against ‘commodity listening’ (Adorno) through conventional channels.
On the other hand, listening to a Walkman through the earphone is a process that involves both
focusing only on the sound to which one is listening, and disturbing the infiltration of sound coming
from outside. The earphone is like a border bisecting two different sonic environments, as well as an
auditory circuit accepting sound directly from this small gadget. Its border and circuit create a
specific aural space, the so-called ‘headspace’. R. Murray describes the effect of the earphone with a
description of what physically happens to ‘headspace’ when one listens through it, and explains the
reason for its popularity among youngsters as its fully loaded power of sonic autonomy, through
which the listener comes to feel like the center of all the sonic environment:
‘In the headspace of earphone listening, the sounds not only circulate around the listener, they literally
seem to emanate from points in the cranium itself, as if the archetypes of the unconscious were in
conversation. […] When sound is conducted directly through the skull of the headphone listener, he
is no longer regarding events on the acoustic horizon; no longer is he surrounded by a sphere of
moving elements. He is the sphere. He is universe. […] headphone listening directs the listener towards
a new integrity with himself.’ 13
However, although the Walkman and earphone delivered an independent sonic space in one’s
headspace, and provided completely customized labels that outside commercial circulation, the
enthusiasm for ultimate sonic autonomy still called for another set of auditory desires: looking for a
sound that did not exist in an analogue world. This was made possible by pure digitalized music
100% Plunder: left aesthetics
Since the first synthesizer Moog in 1964, electronic instrument technology has blossomed, with the
first sampler Mellotron in 1963, the first emulater E-mu systems in 1983, the first MIDI embedded
YAMAHA DX-7 in the same year, and, most decisively, the proliferation of personal computing. As
electronic music has taken a radical shift, the concept of sonic autonomy has come into an entirely
new territory: Plunderphonics.
As the meaning of ‘plunder’ implies, plunderphonics became the frame of electronic music purely
consisting of existing copyright recording sources. This name was coined by John Oswald with his
CD, Plunderphonic in 1989, a free give-away to radio stations and for public use. This musical cut-up
masterpiece presented innovative and cross-border remixes of Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Bing
Crosby, Glenn Gould, The Beatles, James Brown and others with its sensational cover featuring a
collaged photo of Michael Jackson as a nude woman.
Even though Oswald coined and theorized the concept of Plunderphonics, we can find work to
which this aesthetics has been applied long before Oswald’s work. In 1961, James Tenney and William
Asiascape Ops Issue 2 March 2008
Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
S. Burroughs’ work, the first cut-up method recording ‘Collage #1 Blue Suede’ arrived. It was a total
re-editing of Elvis Presley’s hit record Blue Suede Shoes, and in 1967 Tenney remixed pop, classical
and Asian traditional music together in his later piece Viet Flakes. Undoubtedly these practices and
its radical cut-up method inspired Oswald to begin his experiments with ‘macrosamples’.
At this point, we might wonder about the origin of Plunderphonics, since the concept sounds very
similar to the photo-montage progress of avant-garde techné in the early twentieth century, musique
concrète, and more recently John Cage’s experimental works. However, Chris Cutler strongly denies
this conceptual bridge.
‘Perhaps this accounts for the curious relationship between the art music world and the new technology which has, from the start, been equivocal or at least highly qualified. […] why, although many
creative innovation in the new medium were indeed made on the fringes of high art, their adoption
and the subsequent extension has come typically through other, less ideologically intimidated (or
less paradigmatically confused?) musical genres. Old art music paradigms and new technology are
simply not able to fit together.’ 14
When Cutler claims they are unable to fit, this inability of high art to fit comes from the existence of
boundaries. As he insists that there is no sense of speaking in terms of high or low, art or popular
and that ‘where listening and producing, and criticism and creation elide’, infinite reproduction, thus
infinite possibility without boundaries is the key factor of the aesthetics of Plunderphonics.
However, avant-garde techné set their works within the realm of art, often associated with a
specific ideology, and secured its originality as a property. This is why James Tenney’s innovation
and Oswald’s contributions differ from them, and this is why initial works of avant-garde failed to
infiltrate the masses.
In an economic sense, Richard Barbrook points out the aspect of high-tech gift economy of this
aesthetics. He insists that the passive consumption of fixed pieces of information would become the
participatory process of interactive creativity as the ‘intellectual commons’ in a virtual space, and
also mentions the ambiguities within the economics of music-making:
‘For instance, musicians have long appropriated recordings for DJ-ing, sampling and remixing. The
popularity and capabilities of the Net is intensifying these ambiguities within the economics of
music making. The MP3 format doesn’t just make the piracy of copyright material much easier. As
importantly, the social mores and technical structure of the Net encourages enthusiasts to make
their own sounds.’ 15
Expanding electro-sonic autonomy, this righteous plagiarism has enabled us to recognize any sonic
environment to which we are accustomed, or familiar acoustic space, as potentially creatively strange.
Cutler points out the key aesthetics of Plunderphonics by saying ‘Production is no more than critical
consuming: an empirical activity of Pick’n’Mix’. However, plunders’ purely digitalized writing of
music, creating a totally virtual acoustic sound that could never exist in reality, has often been blocked
by the question of ‘what is originality?’, and the issue of copyright legitimacy naturally followed.
As Oswald said, ‘If creativity is a field, copyright is a fence’, and the unmodified concept of copyright
and property has thrown obstacles in the path towards the dream of plunderphonia. With this issue,
pioneering Oswald seriously suggested the necessity of a quotation system being established:
‘Musical language has an extensive repertoire of punctuation devices but nothing equivalent to literature’s
“” quotation marks. Jazz musicians do not wiggle two fingers of each hand in the air, as lecturers
sometimes do, when cross-referencing during their extemporization, as on most instruments this
would present some technical difficulties. Without a quotation system, well-intended correspondences
cannot be distinguished from plagiarism and fraud.’ 16
However, Cutler expressed his suspicions concerning the concept of originality itself in the recording
age, and considered that all recording sounds are basically ‘always the first, always the copy’ with no
aura, no connection to the present source:
‘The fact is that, considered as raw material, a recorded sound is technically indiscriminate of source.
All recorded sound, as recorded sound, is information of the same quality. A recording of a recording
is just a recording. No more, no less. We have to start here. […] Thus plunderphonics as a practice
radically undermines three of the central pillars of the art music paradigm: originality (it deals only
with copies), individuality (it speaks only with the voice of others), and copyright (the breaching of
which is a condition of its very existence).’ 17
There is no doubt that it is impossible to apply current copyright legitimacy to this radical aesthetics.
Since the current copyright system originated with capitalism, written musical notation is considered
as property. Musicologist Kurt Blaukope also pointed out the hackneyed and imperialistic aspect of
copyright, saying ‘the international conventions governing copyright are based in the Occidental
idea of intellectual property’. In this respect, this is not just plunderphonics’ problem, it is also
problem for other music cultures not using the Western system for their music, since traditional,
non-notated music can be mutilated for commercial use without receiving any compensation.
Any sounds today are indiscriminately transformed into binary code as raw information and musicians
play with these codes, usually with no conventional notation. When they build up their own context,
even though it consists of 100% plunder, their music is new and fresh and as creative as Warhol’s
Brillo Boxes and Sherry Levine’s re-photographed photographs. Just as Schaeffer dreamed of the
sonic infinity of a few centimeters of magnetic tape, plunderphonics is an infinite dream of any slice
of recorded sound, a realization of ultimate electro-sonic autonomy.
Sing-along: fake aura, 3 minutes’ stardom
Karaoke seems to be beside the point in this framework, as it is usually considered to be trivial.
However, in terms of electro-sonic autonomy, karaoke or doing karaoke could be one of most
controversial issues of this age, since karaoke space originated with and has evolved through technologically radical invention, which now becomes a global technology with the building up another
set of virtual acoustic spaces. Even though criticism concerns its harmfulness to musical sensibility
and sees its negative side effects as a ‘hotbed of delinquency’, karaoke has spread across continents
with varying styles of specific singing cultures within local contexts.
Although most people suggest that karaoke started in Kobe in Japan, where a jazz festival is held
every year, its origin is still unclear. One legendary story about its origin from a few websites goes
that a snack bar owner once put on tapes of accompaniment recordings and encouraged customers
to sing when a performer failed to show up due to illness or an unexpected accident. Whatever its
origin, karaoke is now a global phenomenon of public musical activity.
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Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
Early karaoke was realized with the technology of the cassette tape. The prototype of karaoke was
introduced in 1973 with the first ten decks made by Inuoe and his colleagues, which featured a
built-in coin timer and microphone mixer with reverb echo mechanism, and the first accompaniment
loop tapes they produced were in 12 volumes with forty-eight songs in all. This deck and tapes, a
prototype of karaoke, was named ‘Crescent Juke’, and was regarded as an extension of a jukebox.
When this first machine was leased to small bars, it also included was accompanied by handwritten
and photostat-copied lyric sheets, usually preserved in a vinyl album to protect them from drinks
spilt by drunken Japanese businessmen. A passage from the novel Small World by David Lodge may
be the first description in English of a karaoke episode, providing an explicit picture of early karaoke
before the introduction of video with CDs.
‘Persse was encouraged or almost forced to sing a song himself. “I don’t wish to sing at all!” Persse
protests. “I just came in here for a quiet drink.” The Japanese beams toothily and sits down beside
him. “But this is karaoke bar.” Hesitantly, Persse repeats the word. “Karaoke – what does that mean?”
“Literally karaoke means empty orchestra. You see, the barman provides the orchestra,” he gestures
towards the bar, at the back of which Persse now sees that there is a long shelf of music cassettes and
a cassette deck, “And you provide the voice” – he gestures to the microphone. “Oh, I see!” says Persse
laughing and slapping his thigh. The Japanese laughs too, and calls something across to his friends,
who also laugh. “So which song please?” he says, turning back to Persse.’ 18
‘And you provide the voice’ is the key mechanism of karaoke. As in its original meaning, the context
of karaoke can never be completed, but remains ‘kara’, empty, until one provides enthusiastic singing.
In this respect, musicologist Toru Mitsui claims that the definition of karaoke in The Oxford Dictionary
of New Words is not correct.
‘This machine was described, when the word was selected for inclusion in The Oxford Dictionary of
New Words (1991: 172), as ‘A sound system with prerecorded soundtracks of popular music from
which the vocal part has been erased so as to allow an individual to sing along with.’ It is incorrect,
however, to say that ‘the vocal part has been erased’, because in fact the vocal part never existed at
all in a karaoke recording. This non-existence is the very ‘kara-’ of karaoke, that is void.’ 19
The foremost factor of this karaoke machine is the instantaneous selection of a song, more exactly
the sound of a virtual backing band for a specific song. In this sense, karaoke is a term of active and
autonomous implication. This is why the word karaoke also denotes the activity of singing using a
karaoke machine, not only a singing space: associated with cheerful hand-clapping and enforced
singing in turn, as an implicit social contract of karaoke.
As the context of karaoke is an imperfection in nature, it demands the users’ concentrated passion
to complete, and this mechanism means that karaoke is a space of contradiction, with opposing
concepts: collectivism (as a member of a collective) and individualism (as a performer to express
one’s own voice); tension (standing on a stage in front of others and matching one’s own voice to that
of the stars who are the original singers of the songs) and relaxation (as an entertainment for releasing
stress); and a dual role as an generous audience and a give-it-your-best-shot performer.
Despite its sophistication, Man Kong Lum called this the karaoke dilemma, and said that as long as
the simple mechanism of ‘pick the microphone and provide your voice’ remains unchanged, the public’s
enthusiasm, even addiction, for karaoke will not wane. The size of karaoke industry provides strong
evidence to support this prediction. According to Japan Amusement Monthly (January1995), when
it was at a worldwide peak the karaoke business reached annual sales of US$10 billion, most of
which was generated by hardware leasing and copyright accounts. If it is true, the size of the karaoke
industry was then approximately one-third of the size of the record industry of Japan in terms of
turnover. Recent statistics show its slight decline, but it is still a huge market, and now on a global
level. With market forces, relevant technologies also have evolved radically due to investment.
What has been a crucial force behind the whole phenomenon? We can find an important tip for
answering this question in Charles Keil’s inspiration about karaoke from when he visited Tokyo for
the first time. He writes retrospectively that the goal of each singer seems to be a perfect replication
of a specific star in a specific style, and also mentioned the humanizing aspect of karaoke, in which
people are not afraid to contend with the world’s best singers, in the context of a promising audience
of close friends or colleagues. Here is a raw sketch of this Western stranger’s first impression of the
karaoke scene from his field notes:
‘People really do hold the microphone. They put it very close to the mouth and seem to treasure the
moment. Faces work into impassioned expressions. You pour your feelings into it, glancing at the
words in the book before you as necessary.’ 20
Being wholly impassioned might come from a certain memory triggered by a certain song, but mostly
from the spectacle of the original singer. With the affirmative support of one’s collective audience, a
nobody can certainly become a somebody: a star for the moment. Even though a critic may cynically
remark that this is just vicarious stardom for a humble drinker, there is an uncannily fundamental aura
of encouraging your individual expression, mingled with the fame of the moment.
As Adorno insists, reconsidering the culture industry, people want to be deceived more than ever.
People want to join this spectacle and be part of it even though it is just an equivocal fake. Singing
in public, with a promising, fan-like audience fuelled with alcoholic generosity is a quiet sensational
experience. In terms of sonic autonomy, karaoke is a totally virtual acoustic space in which one can
utilize the fame of stars, which was created by music industry but can now be made one’s own: karaoke
technology has evolved to further and further realize this fake aura and everybody’s secret desire.
Alongside the evolution of karaoke systems, there has been always a microphone mixer which, as
Charles Keil recollects, ‘people really do hold. The microphone is an amplifying technology that
distinguishes one’s voice from others’. Just as R. Murray claims that the huge noises of our civilization
are the result of imperialistic ambitions, mostly territory expansion, and that the amplifier was also
invented by an imperialist in order to dominate others with one’s own sound, without a microphone
a singer can never be empowered and never occupy the domestic karaoke territory. Moreover, the
essential echo system helps the singer to sound much better than their actual singing capability
would allow.
The microphone is a symbolic context of representation, which shows on whom we should focus
and to whom we should listen, and also has an iconography of the star fantasy in this virtual acoustic
space, which implies the image the professional singer and its public power. In a functional sense,
self-amplification itself enables you can sing and make any sound as loudly as you want in an acoustically isolated place. Since ordinary workers sacrifice their own voices in order to harmonize with
an organizational voice, it is certainly a sanctioned chance to turn up the volume on an individual’s
Asiascape Ops Issue 2 March 2008
Young Sook Choi Electrosonic Autonomy, Building up Virtual Acoustic Space
from Avant-garde Techné to Karaoke
expression, probably in front of a drunken boss who is at that moment just another one of singers.
In 1982, visual karaoke was introduced including videos and laser discs, as well CDs, which gradually
replaced cassette tapes. I believe that this invention certainly coincides with appearance of MTV in
1980s, opening up the age of Video Killed the Radio Star, which was the first song ever played by
MTV. In actual fact, music videos did not kill the radio star, rather killed the radio and in fact accelerated
the star system to make them and their music more expensive. With visual aids such as music videos,
the aura of the star became strengthened and more visual. The karaoke system quickly adopted this
visualization system to further satisfy the customer’s desire for a vicarious stardom, the desire to get
as close as possible to the aura of the star. This is why the karaoke system requires the a huge TV
screen, even though this is without relevance to the singing function, to provide a better backdrop
with video and graphics: a better stage for a singer fully loaded with the aura of stardom in the karaoke
Currently, cutting edge technology, called ‘virtual reality’ karaoke, has gone even further. It allows
singers to watch themselves singing on a screen. When you sing, you are captured on a screen: just
like a singing star on TV! In addition, you can customize a specific backdrop on a monitor with the
touch of a button, and if you want to you can connect with other singing groups in other singing
spaces, so that you can see each other singing together, virtually, at the same time. Even though this
does not provide the sound of others’ singing, it seems enough to share the other singers’ joyful fake
aura. It certainly raises questions as to whether this is breaking the spectacle of the star system, or
still selling it as a media commodity or both.
Conclusion: against global ventriloquism
It could be said that electronic music technology, all through its evolution and clamorous history,
has kept trying to realize the freedom of music by creating a new series of virtual acoustic spaces and
strengthening the sonic autonomy of musicians and listeners. Despite its contribution, commercialism
has all the time infiltrated into this fresh air and polluted the new sonic environment by occupying
all dominant positions.
In the USA, by 1969 Americans were listening to about 268,000,000 radios, and as R. Murray claims,
modern life has been ventriloquized. The banality of popular music and its annoying repetitive
broadcasting from the radios and loudspeakers of commercialized town centres bombards us by its
very existence. As Oswald skeptically says, listening to pop music is not a matter of choice and it is
impossible to refuse to be a passive recipient:
Jacques Attali considers that listening to music is listening to all noises, realizing that its appropriation
and control is a reflective power that is essentially political. By his implication, our political power
of sonic autonomy seems today to be regressing. Historically, there has always been a challenge to
the dominant conventions of music, such as avant-garde techné, DIY punk, or the techno movement, but all of these challenges and their attraction seem to have disappeared in history or been
absorbed once again into the commercial world again, losing their anti-establishment stance.
Where is our hope against today’s global ventriloquism? In a sentimental sense, but nonetheless
with fair reason, the answer to this question should be located in our ventriloquized voices, since all
matters of sonic autonomy return to the power of the voice. Endless questioning about one’s own
voice and its identity seems to be the only way to guard against the global macro-voice. When
someone asks you, ‘So which song please?’, you should ask in return, ‘Are you sure you have my
1 Raymond Williams, Politics of Modernism, p. 53
2 Andras Huyssen, After the Great Divide, p.9
3 El Lissitzky, quoted in: Margaret A. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetics: Karl Marx and the
Visual Arts, p.133
4 Sergei Eisenstein, quoted in: Jacques Aumount, Montage Eisenstein, ,p. 150
5 Brian Eno, ‘The Studio as Compositional Tool’,in: Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner
(eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, p.128
6 Glenn Gould, ‘The Prospects of Recording’, in: op. cit., (note 5), p.122
7 Pierre Schaeffer, ‘Acousmatics’, in: op. cit., (note 5), p.79
8 Ola Stockfelt, ‘Adequate Modes of Listening’, in: op. cit., (note 5),, p.92
9 UNESCO 1969, quoted in R. Murray Schafer, ‘The Music of the Environment’, in:
op. cit., (note 5),, p.37
10 Mark Slouka, ‘Listening for Silence: Notes on the Aural Life’ , in: op. cit., (note 5),
11 Iain Chambers, ‘The Aural Walk’ , in: op. cit., (note 5), p.99
12 ibid., p. 100
13 R. Murray Schafer,‘ The Music of the Environment’ , in: op. cit., (note 5), p.35
14 Chris Cutler, ‘Plunderphonia’, in: op. cit., (note 5), p.140-1
15 Richard Barbrook, ‘The High-Tech Gift Economy’, Hypermedia Research Center of
Westminster University,
‘Although people in general are making more noise than ever before, fewer people are making more
of the tonal noise: specially, in music, those with megawatt PAs, triple-platinum sales, and heavy
rotation. Difficult to ignore, pointlessly redundant to imitate: how does one not become a passive
recipient?’ 21
16 John Oswald, ‘Bettered by the Borrower’, in: op. cit., (note 5), p.133
Virtual acoustic spaces, and our electro-sonic autonomy, seem to be unconsciously and consciously
losing their original concept through the colonization of commercialism. Music at present is all too
frequently a poor selection arranged like the shelves of a mega records shop, with a very similar
inventory of recording for headspace, for those whom Oswald calls ‘Walkpeople’; the same inventory
of hits played by DJs in different clubs on the same night, and a miserable representation of hundreds
of drunken Frank Sinatras and John Lennons in karaoke rooms.
19 Tōru Mitsui, op. cit. (note 18), p. 40
17 Chris Cutler, ‘Plunderphonia’, in: op. cit., (note 5), pp.142-143
18 David Lodge, Small World, quoted inTōru Mitsui, ‘The Genesis of Karaoke’ in Tōru
Mitsui and Shuhei Hosokawa (eds.), Karaoke around the World: Global Technology,
Local Singing , pp. 291-3
20 Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues, , p. 253
21 John Oswald, ‘Bettered by the Borrower’, in: op.cit. (note 5), p.137
Asiascape Ops Issue 2 March 2008
Theodor W. Adorno, with the assistance of George Simpson, ‘Popular Music Theory’,
in Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research,
1941, IX, 17-48.
Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Culture Industry Reconsidered’, in The Culture Industry: Selected
Yoko Ono Nostalgia and Futurism in Contemporary Japanese Sci-Fi Animation
Yoko Ono
Nostalgia and Futurism in Contemporary Japanese
Sci-Fi Animation
Essays on Mass Culture, Routledge, London, 1991.
Jacque Aumont, Montage Eisenstein, translated by Lee Hildreth, Constance Penley,
and Andrew Ross, Indiana University Press, 1987.
Richard Barbrook, The High-Tech Gift Economy, The Hypermedia Research Center,
Karaoke Kanta
Karaoke scene
Kurt Blaukopf, Musical Life in a Changing Society, translated by David Marinelli,
Amadeus Press, 1982.
Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music,
Continuum, New York/London, 2004.
Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism,
Macmillan Press, 1986.
Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues, The University of
Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 1994.
Tōru Mitsui and Shuhei Hosokawa (eds.), Karaoke around the World: Global
Technology, Local Singing, Routledge, London/New York, 1998.
Margaret A. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetics:Karl Marx & the Visual Arts, Cambridge
University Press, 1984.
L. R. Rutsky, High Techne: Art and Technology from Machine Aesthetic to the Posthuman,
University of Minnesota Press; 1st edition, 1999.
Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism, Verso, London/New York, 1989.
Science Fiction (sci-fi) is one the most dominant genres in Japanese popular visual media, namely
manga and anime. Although sci-fi generally deals with events that take place in the future, Japanese
anime/manga abounds with nostalgic images that coexist in these futuristic settings. In this paper,
I would like to examine how nostalgic references are used in Japanese sci-fi animation, and then
revisit the concept of ‘future’ in sci-fi, hoping to cast another light on how visions of the future are
portrayed in Japanese popular visual media.
First let us confirm the definition of nostalgia. For its everyday sense we might consult the OED,
which defines it as: ‘acute longing for familiar surroundings, esp. regarded as a medical condition;
homesickness. Also in extended use a) sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of
the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period
of the past, and b) something which causes nostalgia for the past; freq. as a collective term for things
which evoke a former (remembered) era (cf. memorabilia)’. Pam Cook argues in her Screening the
Past that authenticity of representation of the past in films, or the distinction between history,
memory and nostalgia, has become vague because the latter two are associated with fantasy. They
are recollections of one’s experience ‘reconstructed for the purpose of current agendas’, or in other
words, ‘something idealised (…) that can be never retrieved in actuality and can only be accessed
through images’ (Cook, 2005). Yet Cook questions, however, traditional notions of history and
representation by saying that ‘nostalgia cannot be regarded as simple device for idealising and
de-historicising the past’, as the nostalgic memory films ‘encourage reflection in audience’ (Cook,
Now, a nostalgic attitude of looking back on the past does not seem to complement sci-fi which is
usually placed in a futuristic setting. Interestingly enough, however, Japanese sci-fi animations and
manga that have a dystopian vision of the future tend to look at the past nostalgically. For instance,
Hayao Miyazaki’s early work such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle
in the Sky (1986), which I will come back to later, share a mixture of fear of the dystopian future and
a nostalgic depiction of community life.
Why fear for the future? Japanese visions of a dystopian future are undeniably rooted in the
traumatic experience of the atomic bomb attacks, but also derive fundamentally from frequent and
continuous threats of natural disaster such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These tormenting memories have formed a paranoiac vision in the mass imagination that things that are out of
people’s control could come and destroy the world, and this dystopian vision of the future has been
repeatedly depicted in various popular media. Why then, mix it with nostalgia in sci-fi?
To examine the questionable combination of the two in this paper, I would like to focus on the
sekai-kei genre, in particular, of Japanese sci-fi. It is said that this new genre had developed since the
mid-1990s in Japanese popular media, including animation, manga and the ‘light novel’ or novels
targeted at young audiences, and was given this name in early 2000s. The best examples are Voices
of a Distant Star (Makoto Shinkai, 2002), She, the Ultimate Weapon (Shin Takahashi, manga 200001, TV animation series 2002) and Iriya no Sora, UFO no Natsu (Iriya’s sky and the summer of UFO)
Asiascape Ops Issue 3 December 2008
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
(a novel by Mizuhito Akiyama, 2001-03, OVA 2005) (Azuma, 2007). This new term of sekai-kei, or
the genre pre-occupied with ‘self-absorbed visions of the world’ posits that the private love relationship of the main character and the heroine (‘you and me’ exclusively) is directly connected to the
vague yet ontological issue of ‘the end of the world’ without depicting the outside/external world, or
in other words, the society or nation to which these characters belong (Azuma, 2007).
Although I said earlier that sekai-kei developed since the mid-1990s, some argue that its core
elements can be found already in as early as the 1980s in the works by a sci-fi novelist and originator
of the ‘light novel’, Motoko Arai (Azuma, 2007). So it is possible to consider that the quintessence of
sekai-kei has existed from the early stages of Japanese sci-fi, particularly in the ones for juvenile
audiences, and it comes to the fore after the phenomenal success of the Evangelion series (Hideaki
Anno, 1995-96), which certainly contains sekai-kei elements.
Now, I would first like to examine one sekai-kei animation mentioned above, namely Voices of a
Distant Star, by applying contemporary Japanese cultural theorist Hiroki Azuma’s postmodern
otaku discourse from The Animalising Postmodern (2001) and the succeeding studies in The Birth of
Gamic Realism (2007) that has been received as ‘neo-new’ criticism in Japan, and then analyse the
use of nostalgia in these sekai-kei sci-fi animations.
To begin with, I would like to summarise Azuma’s discourse. According to his analysis, otaku (geek)
culture is grounded in a postmodern Japanese society. By referring to Jean-François Lyotard’s famous
definition of the postmodern as ‘incredulity toward grand narratives’ in The Postmodern Condition:
A Report on Knowledge (1979), Azuma points out that the belief in fictional worlds, one of the significant aspects of otaku culture, makes interesting parallels with the attitude that Japanese society
as a whole adhered to after grand narratives of progress and prosperity have been lost. Particularly
in 1970s when the oil shocks and the incidents of Rengo sekigun (the United Red Army of Japan) gave
a negative impact on Japanese society, however, the tide turned and incredulity towards grand narratives grew stronger. The post-war baby boomers who had been brought up with faith in grand
narratives could not accept the world as it was, and in disillusionment tried to live on as if grand
narratives still existed and functioned. This coincided with the emergence of otaku.
Azuma observes that otaku depended on the fabrication of sub-culture instead of grand narratives,
and he suggests that the ‘copy culture’ of otaku resembles the ‘precession of simulacra’ or hyperreality
proposed by Jean Baudrillard’s economics-based theory expounded in Symbolic Exchange and
Death (1976) and Simulacra and Simulation (1981). It is well known that otaku make parodies of
their favourite manga or anime, and sell them at Comic Market conventions (Kinsella, 1998). However,
it has become difficult to distinguish the original from the copy because the boundaries between
them have nowadays become blurred. The parodies made by otaku have gained such popularity in
their community that some otaku would become professionals and produce their original work in
the public media, and the original writers/artists produce parodies of their own work to attract an
otaku audience. Otaku consumption culture clearly demonstrates that simulacra have overtaken the
original. Otaku culture thus reflects postmodern Japan well, Azuma argues.
Azuma then develops his argument by proposing a ‘database’ model to capture the postmodern
world. Azuma states that the postmodern world lost fundamental ‘grand narratives’, but the ‘grand
narratives’ have been replaced by a ‘database’ and the little narratives by simulacra. Azuma designates
these ‘databases’ as ‘grand non-narratives’ in contemporary Japan.
Let me elucidate this further by mentioning his other point that there is a generation gap in the
present otaku community. Otaku of the 1970s and 1980s, born in the time when ‘grand narratives’
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Thomas Lamarre What is a Techno-Region?
Yoko Ono Nostalgia and Futurism in Contemporary Japanese Sci-Fi Animation
were still believed, could not rid themselves of the old conceptual framework. They needed ‘grand
narratives’ in their sub-cultural products, because otherwise they could not regard the world
depicted in manga/anime as realistic. In other words, otaku in the 1970s and 1980s enjoyed manga
and anime that had a clear definition of the virtual world with its own historical and social settings
and messages, and the creators were required to produce contents with fictional ‘grand narratives’
such as the Mobile Suit Gandam series by Yoshiyuki Tomino (the first series appeared as a TV series
in 1979-80) that is claimed to have changed the concept of giant robot animation, which had been
regarded as purely children’s entertainment, into a ‘Real Robot sub-genre’ (Simmons, 2002). On the
other hand, the younger generation of otaku from the 1990s and 2000s, born long after the period
of incredulity of ‘grand narratives’ had passed, are ready to accept the world without ‘grand narratives’,
therefore their sub-cultural products do not require ‘grand narratives’ anymore, and they just look
for signs from the database. In other words, the younger generation only cares for characters, without
paying much attention to the stories or the world around or behind them (Ito, 2005). So, what these
young otaku are enthusiastically doing is just collecting figure dolls of their favourite characters.
Azuma then argues that the younger generation of otaku perceives the world or reality as if playing
video games.
Azuma coined this attitude ‘gamic realism’ and insists that to understand this new variety of ‘realism’,
analysis of the surrounding media environment is essential. He continues that while traditional
media deliver contents (in other words, one-way communication), gamic realism looks for interactive
communication media (for instance, an Internet community such as Bulletin Board System), as young
otaku feel that they are connected to products, to others or to reality in this mode of interactivity.
By applying Azuma’s theory, regardless of whether the attitudes of contemporary otaku are sociologically dysfunctional or not, I would now like to analyse nostalgia in Voices of a Distant Star. This
25-minute full digital animation was produced by an amateur individual called Makoto Shinkai
(who served as its director, script writer, editor and art designer) and won many animation and
media awards in Japan for its high visual quality, and gained cult popularity.
The story is relatively simple: it takes place in 2046, when the science and technology of mankind has
developed dramatically after the discovery of the remains of another civilization on Mars in 2039. In
order to investigate this civilization (named Tarsian), which had moved to another planet, they
formed the United Nations Space Army.
The protagonists, Mikako and Noboru, are close classmates at junior high school. The heroine has
been selected as one of the pilots to serve in the army and joins the UN space fleet. The male protagonist
Noboru is thus left behind and remains on earth, going on to high school. The two never express
their feelings to each other before Mikako’s departure, despite the fact that they have strong affection
for each other. The main story is about their communication and the difficulty of communication,
which is a key issue of self-identification for young otaku. As their long distance ‘relationship’ begins,
they try to communicate by text messages via mobile phone. However, the further Mikako travels
from earth’s solar system, the longer it takes to send and receive messages. Eventually, the time it
takes for a message to arrive takes a few months, a year, a few years, and so on. Because of the faster
than light technology that moves the UN fleet through space, Mikako and Noboru remain the same
age as each other despite the increasingly vast distances that separate them. Their messages, however,
must travel at slower or normal (ie. technologically permissible) speeds.
Eventually, Mikako sends a despondent message, saying that ‘I am still 15 years old, but by the
time you receive this message, you will be 24 years old!’ She fears that Noboru will forget about her.
Asiascape Ops Issue 3 December 2008
She compares their relationship to Romeo and Juliet, separated by time and space. Meanwhile,
Noboru fears that he cannot grow up if he merely waits for Mikako’s text messages, and he tries to
move forward in his new life without Mikako.
It is useful to examine the sekai-kei genre here. The plots of the two other sekai-kei works I mentioned
earlier are quite similar to this: the male protagonist and heroine are secondary school students and
are in romantic relationships; the story is often narrated from the male protagonist’s point of view;
their everyday life is depicted as if it were today’s high school life even though the story takes place
in the future; despite its emphasis on technological advancement, particularly in terms of weapons
and armaments, the characters’ everyday life hardly seems to show any futuristic change; one day,
they are involved in a war that may cause the end of the world; this triggers the couple to pay desperate
attention to each other; the most interesting feature of this crisis is that it is the heroine who goes to
the war front to fight to protect the male protagonist and indeed the world, and she gets wounded
both physically and mentally, whereas the male protagonist observes the situation powerlessly.
Why is there such subversion of gender stereotypes in these narratives?
One could argue that it is because these sekai-kei animations are targeted at young otaku, particularly
male, so it was produced as an animated version of a bishōjo game or romance simulation game.
Azuma’s term, ‘gamic realism’, can explain this aptly. The male protagonist is indeed a game player.
The audience gets a better sense of reality if it is presented like a simulation game, as Azuma argues.
That also explains why the story is told from the male protagonist’s point of view. The male protagonists
are not sure of their feelings at the beginning of the story, but their affection grows as the story
In romance simulation games, there are several genres, one of which is called a ‘tear-jerker’ game,
often with a heroine suffering from terminal illness or with problems that are out of her control. The
more sentimental the setting is, the more attached the game player becomes to the heroine. The
dystopian setting of sekai-kei (at the end of the world) fits well in this genre of game, which is why
there is no need to describe the ‘grand narratives’ of their world. The nation, war and society are a
mere setting for turning the player’s enthusiasm towards romance with the heroine. The reason why
the heroine has to go through physical (as well as psychological) anguish can be explained in the
same way. Heroines are chosen by the nation to become fighters for a great cause against their will.
However, no matter how much the game player adores the heroine, being a game player, he is
powerless and there is nothing he can to do to save her apart from reading the text that tells of her
pains. In most cases, the heroine dies or disappears at the end (it is called ‘bad-end’ among otaku
game players, as opposed to ‘happy-end’).
I hope to have explained clearly enough that sekai-kei constructs its world as if it is a simulation
game. However, I seem to have lingered too long on Makoto Shinkai and the sekai-kei genre. Now
let’s come back to Voices of a Distant Star and nostalgia.
As I mentioned earlier, the protagonists’ everyday lives appear very familiar to ours, despite its
futuristic backdrop. In fact, apart from the stunning depiction of space robots, there is nothing to
indicate a futuristic setting. The fact they exchange text messages on very basic mobile phones
seems odd in this setting. On the contrary, the audience senses nostalgia in the details of their
everyday lives. But why and how do these images elicit the audience’s nostalgia?
The trick can be found in the introductory sequence of the film. It is Mikako’s nostalgia for the
home life she shared with Noboru, if not homesickness. She is away from her home and beloved.
The audience is drawn into the world of Voices of a Distant Star to sympathise with Mikako’s situation
Yoko Ono Nostalgia and Futurism in Contemporary Japanese Sci-Fi Animation
from the beginning. Indeed, it is not difficult for the audience to simulate Mikako’s nostalgia, as
Shinkai’s naturalistically depicted landscape is so familiar with what the audience has experienced in
their adolescence and easily stimulates their nostalgia. By applying Azuma’s theory, one can say that
these images are simulacra of nostalgia.
However, I must remind you here that even though the audience sympathises with Mikako, they are
still watching the story from the male protagonist’s viewpoint; in other words, a game player’s view.
The text message communication displayed in the story is actually a one-way communication from
the heroine, and although the audience can hear the inner voice of the male protagonist, the audience
never sees him sending messages to the heroine. This underlines the resemblance to simulation
games; a character can express her message, but the player can merely read the text, and cannot
interact with the character.
If Voices of a Distant Star duplicates a simulation game, then an additional issue to be considered.
Left on the earth, Noboru decides to be strong and grow up alone. Whereas Mikako, when she
encounters her alter ego (which is actually a Tarsian transformed into her own form1 who invites her
(and mankind) to follow the Tarsians further so that they can offer mankind more knowledge and
technology), refuses to embrace this new, distant life by saying that she would just like to return
home to Noboru. This makes a very interesting contrast between the two characters’ choices for life.
One (who is situated in a recognisable present) tries to face reality and grow up, while the other
(situated in an unrecognisable present that is also a distant future) prefers to remain in a nostalgic
world, which is not reality.
Here again, I would like to apply Azuma’s discourse: in the gamic reality, those who are familiar with
meta-narratives of a virtual world are aware that they cannot stay there forever. A player struggles
to make a choice whether to continue enjoying meta-narratives (in the case of romance simulation
games, by simulating love affairs with several heroines), or to give up and come back to real life.
Mikako’s and Noboru’s choices represent, respectively, one who wants to remain in a non-real world
(in her case, the nostalgic world) and one who tries to grow up in reality. Their choices are emphasised
by their age as, while Noboru grows up physically (since his time in the anime is measured by the increasingly delayed reception of messages from Mikako), Mikako remains 15 (since her time is connected to sending the messages and not to their delayed reception), staying in her reminiscent world.
One may ask the question of how Mikako can be synchronised with the audience as she is merely a
character in the game, and not a player. She is undeniably a character rather than a player in terms
of a simulation game, but at the same time, she represents a player who plays a shooting game. She
fights against Tarsians as in a shooting game. In that sense, both protagonists represent game players,
though in different types of games. The story ends with a text that states: ‘koko ni iru yo’ (I am here)
with a voice-over of both protagonists, as if responding to Mikako’s question ‘where am I?’ at the
opening sequence. The text is written on a neutral, plain white background to allow the audience to
read this out of the context of each character’s life. It does not matter which choice one makes,
because they are both allowed to exist (albeit in different relations to each other’s time and space).
Now let’s focus on nostalgia. As I mentioned earlier, the nostalgic landscape in Voices of a Distant
Star are simulacra. It means that these images are not rooted in ‘grand narratives’. They are a
collection of signs that brings sentimental imaginings of the past to the audience’s mind, but it does
not necessarily belong to one particular time, community or person. It can rather be said that these
signs are fragmented reflections of the collective imagining, or a fabrication of what Japanese regard
as the ‘nostalgic past’.
Asiascape Ops Issue 3 December 2008
In order to elucidate this point, I would like to refer to another animated feature, Crayon Shin-chan:
The Adult Empire Strikes Back! (Keiichi Hara 2001). It is the ninth spin-off, feature-length animation
of a widely popular manga and TV series. Crayon Shin-chan is a comedy aimed at children with a
naughty kindergarten boy as a central character, and certainly has much less otaku appeal than
sekai-kei. This film, however, is more sci-fi than an everyday life comedy in its own right.
In Crayon Shin-chan, a new theme park called 20th century EXPO opens in various parts of Japan,
including in the town where Shin-chan lives, and adult residents including Shin-chan’s parents are
enthusiastic about the attractions representing 20th century popular culture, feeling like children
again. Retro products (like monochrome televisions and vinyl records) come back onto the market
due to popular demand. One day the adult residents disappear from town, and Shin-chan and his
friends discover a conspiracy carried out by a secret society called ‘Yesterday once more’ to build a
new Adult Empire by recreating the ‘good old’ Showa period. Adults have been brainwashed by
toxic gas that contains the ‘nostalgic air of Showa period,’ which was being diffused into the air of the
20th century EXPOs. The Showa period was symbolised here by Tokyo Tower and imagery from
EXPO 70, which was held in Osaka.
This film hit the screen in 2001, at the very beginning of the 21st century, and Ken, one of the core
members of the secret society, says that there is no ‘future’ in the 21st century, and that is why he
would like to bring people back to the time when community functioned properly. In a sequence in
which Ken takes the protagonists to his recreated ‘Showa community town,’ where he currently lives
with others who agree with his vision, it is not difficult to see the exemplification of ‘Showa nostalgia’.
The film displays that nostalgia as merely signs (of memorabilia) that can be retrieved from a
‘database’, and reproduced as if a film set. Indeed, the more recent hit film ALWAYS: 3chome no yuhi
(Always: Sunset on 3rd Street) (Takashi Yamazaki, 2005), based on Ryohei Saigan’s long-running
manga of the same title that first appeared in 1974, reincarnates this nostalgic landscape in a
live-action film by employing special effects. There is a remarkable resemblance in the depictions of
Showa downtown landscapes in the two films.
The most interesting point here lies in what Ken says; he does not want to face the dark side of the
future and prefers to return to the past. Japanese nostalgia for the Showa period, particularly around
the 1950s (Showa 30s), has been widely criticised in the postwar period because it tends to neglect
the negative side of that period. Ken, for instance, fabricated a downtown of the Showa 30s like a
film studio set, and tried to remain there. The little, childish hero, Shin-chan, stands against Ken by
saying he would like to grow up. Targeting mainly children, this film’s message is straightforward
and clear.
Thus, nostalgia in contemporary sci-fi animation is synonymous with the refusal to grow up into the
future. Nostalgic landscapes are signs of the comfortable homely surroundings that no longer exist,
and the narrative in Crayon Shin-chan presents a pair of contrasting characters; one protagonist
accepts the harsh reality and tries to grow up, while the other tries to remain in the fabricated
comfort of the past. This is related to Distant Star in complicated ways.
It is useful also to examine how ‘future’ is presented in these films, and to discover without difficulty
that ‘future’ is also characterised by signs retrieved from a database, in the same way as ‘nostalgia’.
‘Future’, likewise, is represented by highly advanced technology, super robots in particular, and space
travel and/or war. It is interesting to see that the superficial images of the future in sekai-kei do not
differ much from the ones in the manga/anime of the 1970s. There is a significant difference,
however, in the perception of the future between them. In the 1970s, when ‘grand narratives’ were
Yoko Ono Nostalgia and Futurism in Contemporary Japanese Sci-Fi Animation
still believed in, it was also believed that the ‘future’ was a time and place of hope for mankind, where
science and technology would advance and people’s lives would be more civilised, more prosperous
and more convenient. The ‘future’ promised the ultimate comfort of life and was something to
which to look forward.
Today, people are disappointed to learn that scientific and technological advancement does not
necessarily fulfill one’s life. On the contrary, it can rather alienate and disconnect individuals;
unhappy and distraught people are desperate to find a comfortable place in society, looking back at
the past where once there was a community to which they felt they belonged. The Showa period is
depicted positively in the films I mentioned above, because people could believe that there was a
‘future’ at that time. The catch copy from the trailers of ALWAYS: 3chome no yuhi, confirms this:
‘Although we were poor, we could dream of the future’ (yutakadewa nakatta keredo, ashita eno
yumega atta).
I hope to have demonstrated enough to reach the conclusion now. I have to mention, however, that
not all sci-fi animations use nostalgic views of the past in such a way. For instance, Miyazaki’s early
works like Nausicaä and Laputa: Castle in the Sky depicted community life positively yet in a
nostalgic manner. Miyazaki, who values positive aspects of history (or ‘grand narratives’), believes
that human beings should learn from the past to build a better future. When Miyazaki depicts
community life and technology nostalgically, he convinces the audience (and probably himself too)
to re-evaluate what we had in the past.2 As Helen McCarthy suggests, Miyazaki is against blind faith
in technology and recapturing the old world, and his true message is ‘to help the children (…) learn
what makes them feel good and what will make a better world’ and ‘to deal with the future through’
his work (McCarthy, 2002).
Mamoru Oshii, the director of Ghost in the Shell (1995), on the other hand, consistently questions
history and employs a nostalgic landscape for a dramatic denial of a present that has abandoned
faith in the future. In a sequence in Patlabor: the Movie (1989), Detective Matsui walks around
Tokyo looking for signs of a terrorist in hiding, Dr. Hoba. Detective Matsui observes that many
traditional old houses have been abandoned, and realises the antipathy of Hoba, a genius engineer,
towards the massive destruction of his hometown Tokyo in the name of ‘urban development’. He
then discovers Hoba’s intention to contrast the symbolic ‘Tower of Babel’ with the ruins of old
downtown Tokyo.3 The film was released during the ‘bubble economy’ and was actually a timely
criticism against Japan/Tokyo of the late 1980s. Oshii’s attitude towards the past is opposite to
Miyazaki’s, but both of them are looking at the past to shape the future. The young otaku’s nostalgia,
on the other hand, represented by Voices of a Distant Star, is merely simulacra of comfort that is
not related to history in terms of ‘grand narratives’. In this way, otaku nostalgia in sci-fi animation
demands our further consideration.
Asiascape Ops Issue 3 December 2008
Feature anime
Hara, Keiichi. Crayon Shin-chan: The Adult Empire Strikes Back! (2001)
Miyazaki, Hayao. Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Miyazaki, Hayao. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984)
Miyazaki, Hayao. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)
Oshii, Mamoru. Patlabor: the Movie (1989)
Oshii, Mamoru. Patlabor 2 the Movie (1993)
Shinkai, Makoto. Voices of a Distant Star (2002)
Yamazaki, Takashi. ALWAYS: Sunset on 3rd Street (2005)
OVA or TV animation series
She, the Ultimate Weapon (TV series dir. by Atsuko Kase, 2002)
Neon Genesis Evangelion (TV series dir. by Hideaki Anno, 1995-96)
Iriya’s sky and the summer of UFO (OVA dir. by Naoyuki Ito, 2005)
Mobile Suit Gandam (TV series dir. by Yoshiyuki Tomino, 1979-80)
Azuma, Hiroki. Dobutsuka suru Postmodern: Otaku kara mita Nihon Shakai (Kodansha,
Azuma, Hiroki. Gemuteki Realism no Tanjo: Dobutsuka suru Postmodern 2 (Kodansha,
Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death (Sage Publications, 1993)
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation (University of Michigan Press, 1994)
Cook, Pam. Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema (Routledge, 2005)
Ito, Go. Tezuka is Dead: Postmodernist and Modernist Approaches to Japanese Manga
(NTT Publisher, 2005)
Kinsella, Sharon. “Amateur manga Subculture and the Otaku Panic” the Journal
of Japanese Studies, summer (1998)
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
(Manchester University Press, 1984)
McCarthy, Helen. Hayao Miyazaki. Master of Japanese Animation
(Stone Bridge Press, 2002)
Simmons, Mark. Gundam Official Guide (VIZ Media LLC, 2002)
Yomota, Inuhiko. Nihon Eiga no Radical na Ishi (Iwanami, 1999)
This film bears many resemblances to precedents in super robot animations;
Evangelion in particular. This sequence reminds us of the sequence where Rei
Ayanami encounters her alter-ego (their enemy ‘Angel’ transformed into her
shape) who questions her true desire.
However, in My Neighbour Totoro (1988)—probably the most loved of Miyazaki’s
work among Japanese audiences—it seems that Miyazaki embraces community
life in a rural village in the early Showa period without significant forethought.
Fabian Schäfer Virtual Death of the Human Being; Time and the (Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
Fabian Schäfer
Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the
(Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
Digital and virtual forms of culture are intensely choice-based. In the absence of meta-narrative, one
is constantly being solicited (as an agent of choice between alternatives) to follow links. This paper
would like to distinguish Japanese cultural critic Azuma Hiroki’s concept of human and animal
action, and Martin Heidegger’s authentic and fallen selves in terms of the notions of choice and
reversibility, and pose the question of whether the subject of virtual choice is best understood
through the former or the latter. In particular, it tries to shed light on two aspects of new digital
media from a philosophical point of view, namely the relationship between human beings and the
virtual/digital world of knowledge databases and online video games.
Materiality of the media: the annihilation of the traditional space-time
It is a generally accepted assumption that our imagination of reality, in particular our experience of
time and space, is strongly influenced by the media by means of which we perceive this reality. As
Benedict Anderson and Wolfgang Schivelbusch have persuasively argued, new technologies such as
the modern mass press and railroads already contributed to an alteration of the traditional space-time
continuum at the time of their introduction. The newspaper, based on its daily appearance in the
remotest regions of a nation-state and its ‘simultaneous consumption’ (Anderson, 1983: 35) created
the idea of contemporaneity among an ‘imagined community’. The railway journey, according to
Schivelbusch, brought about an obliteration of the ‘traditional space-time continuum which
characterized the old transport technology’, being experienced as an ‘annihilation of space and time’
itself by the people (Schivelbusch, 1977: 35-36). According to German media theorist Sybille Krämer,
the idea of the constant flow and linearity of time was particularly challenged by the gramophone,
the first medium to allow for the recording of music. Krämer argues that the gramophone did not
only preserve a certain tone sequence, but ‘annihilated the irreversible order of a particular event’,
since ‘it became possible to repeat suspend, and revisit the singular time course of a musical
sequence at will.’ (Krämer, 1998: 84) Later, this new interactivity of the user was even emphasized by
the introduction of multi-channel cable television. By allowing the users to ‘zap’ between different
channels, television created something like an ‘illusionary contemporaneity’. (Nowotny, 1997: 23)
The possibility of interactive navigation of new digital media such as the Internet obviously alters
our traditional experience of time in a similar way. Even on a single website (not to speak of complex
networked video games), developers and web designers can establish various simultaneously
existing narrative threads through which the user can move forwards and backwards at will. Based
on this illusionary contemporaneity of different links, the linear narration of, let’s say, a book is
replaced by a less determined and more arbitrary structure.
Oshii also employed a snowy landscape that refers to the February 26th incident
of the military coup d’etat (1936) (Yomota, 1999) to highlight the sequence of the
brief encounter between the heroine Shinobu and the terrorist Tsuge who was
her lover in the past in Patlabor 2: the Movie (1993).
Asiascape Ops Issue 4 August 2009
Fabian Schäfer Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the
(Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
Internet and knowledge databases: interactivity, reversibility of time,
and fallenness
As is well known, American scientist Vannevar Bush laid the intellectual basis for the interactivity
of the Internet. Already during WWII, in an article entitled ‘As We May Think’ published shortly
after the war in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush predicted that in the future ‘wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them.’ The idea
behind the miraculous machine Memex (short for memory extender) envisaged by Bush was that:
‘…the human mind ... operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the
next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails
carried by the cells of the brain.’ (Bush, 1945)
Despite the fact that Memex was never realized, Bush’s article influenced later hypertext theorists
such as philosopher and sociologist Ted Nelson, who is also credited with first use of the term
‘hypertext’. Nelson’s project, Xanadu, which was basically a universal knowledge management system,
pre-empted the development of the World Wide Web by 25 years. The aim of Nelson’s project was
to invent a word processor capable of storing multiple versions of documents and to facilitate nonsequential writing, in which the reader could choose his or her own path through an electronic
To this day, however, it remains questionable how the interactivity of hypertext, and thus the aforementioned suspension of linear conception of time and illusionary contemporaneity, affects its users
and how far they are capable of handling the simultaneous existence and accessibility of documents
or websites. According to German information scientist Rainer Kuhlen (1991: 182), one might assume
that ‘hypertext seems to be cognitively reasonable on the supposition that the brain organizes
knowledge … in cross-linked, topological, and non-linear structures.’ Accordingly, ‘knowledge
absorption based on comparable organizational patterns, as it is given with hypertext, might be
more efficient than accumulation via the ‘detour’ of linear forms of presentation.’ On the other hand,
however, Kuhlen (1991: 56) insists that it is also well known that ‘the integration of two networks,
especially if they are polyhierarchically structured, is more difficult than to integrate a linear
structure into an existing network.’
Obviously, the problems of the integration of linear and networked knowledge structures described
by Kuhlen also lie at the bottom of the most recent popular debates on the dangers and possibilities
of the Internet. In their August 2008 issues, the German news magazine Der Spiegel and the
American journal The Atlantic almost simultaneously published cover stories on the dangers of
Internet-based communication and knowledge. The two magazines posed the question if Google
(The Atlantic) or, more general, the Internet (Der Spiegel) is ‘Making us Stupid?’ The tenor of their
reporting is ambivalent. Similar to the introduction of other new communication technologies such
as radio broadcasting or television in the past, the discourse splits into two camps of Internet critics
and Internet enthusiasts. On the one hand, it is emphasized that the Internet is leading to the
occurrence of new simultaneous modes of perception, a democratization of knowledge, and a
unprecedented creativity of its users; on the other hand, the loss of critical reason or the capacity for
remembering, rising attention deficit, the loss of a common culture existing through the reading of
books, and the intellectual passivity of Internet users is harshly criticized. Moreover, the critical
camp often psychopathologizes the effects of the use of the Internet. Proponents of this faction
agree that spending 5-6 hours on the Internet per day, searching through a cornucopia of texts,
videos or music or writing emails and instant messages, can cause social behavioral disorders such
as an anti-social attitude or an unwillingness to communicate.
Besides this panic-mongering and exaggerated psychopathologization of Internet users, it is particularly
the effects of the Internet on our cognitive abilities and reading capabilities that unsettles the camp
of Internet critics. In his editorial at the The Atlantic, American writer Nicholas Carr complains that
the persistent use of the Internet is already having an influence on his capacity for concentration and
contemplation. According to Carr, he was once ‘a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now [he] zip[s]
along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski’ (Carr, 2008). The reason for this effect upon our cognition is
based on the most important feature of the Internet or electronic databases – the fact that they are
based on interactivity or HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) in particular.
To this day, it remains questionable how the interactivity of hypertext affects its users and in how far
they are capable of handling the simultaneous existence and accessibility of documents or websites.
It is particularly the inner restlessness that users feel when they are faced with the decision between
two or more possibilities that complicates the absorption of knowledge by means of interactive
digital media. Links might be compared to junctions or options, or, as Martin Heidegger once put it,
to possibilities onto which Dasein can project itself. In this sense, the networked structure of the
Internet might thus be described as a miniature of the possibilities-for-Being (Seinkönnen) of Dasein.
As in real life, deciding in favor of one possibility (namely a link) necessarily means to negate others.
According to Heidegger:
‘Dasein is its basis existently (existierend) – that is, in such a manner that it understands (verstehen)
itself in terms of possibilities (Möglichkeiten) ... But this implies that in having a potentialityfor-Being (seinkönnend) it always stands in one possibility or another: it constantly is not other
possibilities, and it has waived these in its existential projection (existentieller Entwurf). Not only is
the projection, as one that has been thrown, determined by the nullity of Being-a-basis (Nichtigkeit
des Grundseins); as projection it is itself essentially null (nichtig).’ (Heidegger, 1993 [1927]: 285)
Nevertheless, it is only in what Heidegger called the ‘authentic’ (eigentlich) mode of Being (Seinsweise) that Dasein can ‘choose’ [or] win itself ’ and thereby ‘be’ itself (Selbstsein, Being-one’s-Self )
through an existential projection in the choice of ‘its ownmost possibilities’. (Heidegger, 1993 [1927]:
42, 68) Most of the time, Heidegger admits, the Dasein is determined by the possibilities given by the
Man and is therefore not situated in the mode of authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) but in one of ‘fallenness’
The possibility of ‘falling’ seems to be relatively high in the case of the interlinked structure of the
Internet or databases if compared with the reading of a linear-structured book. This ‘fallenness’ can
assume two forms – ‘distraction’ and ‘procrastination’ in the case of the Internet. Regarding the
former, re-reading Walter Benjamin’s well-known essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproducibility not as a pessimistic media criticism, as it is often read, but as an ontological inquiry
of new modes of media reception appears to be valuable. At the end of his essay, Benjamin, who
anticipated McLuhan’s perception that media are not just passive channels of information but also
influence the ways we perceive things transmitted through the media, observes that ‘during long
periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of
existence’ and that ‘the manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in
Asiascape Ops Issue 4 August 2009
Fabian Schäfer Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the
(Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well’
(Benjamin, 1977 [1936]: 14).
This seems to be particularly true for the Internet. ‘Surfing’ the Internet can be described as what
Benjamin termed ‘reception in a state of distraction’ (Rezeption in der Zerstreuung). (Benjamin, 1977
[1936]: 41) This mode of perception, according to Benjamin, is based on the ‘tactile quality’ (taktile
Qualität) of the object of perception–which were, in Benjamin’s case, movies and photographs
(Benjamin, 1977 [1936]: 38). The tactility of the new media is even emphasized by the interactivity
of the Internet or databases. As Nicholas Carr’s editorial in the aforementioned issue of The Atlantic
rightly asserted, hyperlinks, ‘unlike footnotes’, ‘don’t merely point to related works; they propel you
toward them’ (Carr, 2008). The perception of the Internet is, to use the words of Benjamin, one of
‘tactile appropriation’ (taktile Rezeption) that is based on ‘habitualization’ rather than on ‘attention’ 1
(Benjamin, 1977 [1936]: 41). To Heidegger, who used the term ‘distraction’ (Zerstreuung) in a comparable way, distraction is based on ‘curiosity’ (Neugier), a mode of fallenness.2 Other than Verstehen
(understanding) as the self-projection of the being on its own most possibilities, curiosity is merely
based on ‘seeing’ (Sehen). In this mode of being, ‘Dasein seeks what is far away simply in order to
bring it close to itself in the way it looks. Dasein lets itself be taken along [mitnehmen] solely by the
looks of the world’ (Heidegger, 1993 [1927]: 216).
The dangers of ‘fallen’ or ‘distracted’ ways of Internet use can be substantialized by the findings of a
recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College
London (Rowlands & Nicholas, 2008). As part of a five-year research program, the researchers
analyzed the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library
and one by a U.K. educational consortium, which provide access to journal articles, e-books, and
other sources of written information. The results of their research showed that people using the sites
exhibited ‘a form of skimming activity,’ hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to
any source they had already visited. They typically read merely one or two pages of an article or book
before they would jump to another site. Sometimes they saved a long article, but there’s no evidence
that they ever went back and actually read it. Obviously, the aforementioned annihilation of the
linear and non-contemporaneous time-space continuum that was established by the non-determined
structure of the Internet is counteracted by the restricted cognitive abilities of human beings.
Despite users potentially have the possibility to jump back to an earlier link and choose a different
alternative they only rarely make use of that possibility.
Reversibility of time obviously seems not to go properly with human cognition. Apparently, many
Internet users seem to react to links as ‘possibilities’ in Heidegger’s sense or the flood of information
provided by the Internet with an individual ‘databasification’ of information retrieved from larger
databases–the scholars of the University College London who conducted the aforementioned study
call this behavior ‘squirreling.’ In medical terms, this fetishization of knowledge can be described as
procrastination. Procrastination, which should be treated through therapy according to some psychologists [sic!], is characterized by deferment of actions or tasks to a later time, may result in stress,
a sense of guilt, the loss of personal productivity, the creation of crisis and the disapproval of others
for not fulfilling one’s responsibilities or commitments.3 Not only that this work undone seems to
leave traces in our subconsciousness, it also does harm to our computers because we clutter up our
hard disks – often in a very unorganized way – with downloaded and yet unread texts.4
However, it is important to add here that even Heidegger’s or Benjamin’s perspective on distracted
or habitualized perception is not as pessimistic as I have described it here. In fact, they agree that
curiosity and tactile apperception aren’t necessarily something that should be condemned from the
outset. According to Heidegger, the temporality (Zeitlichkeit) of curiosity, which is non-’anticipatory’
(namely ‘non-self-projecting’) and thus merely ‘awaiting’ (gewärtigend), ‘has its natural justification
... and belongs to the everyday kind of being of Da-Sein and to the understanding of being initially
prevalent’. (Heidegger, 1993 [1927]: 478) Similarly, Benjamin asserts in the conclusion of his essay
that perception in a state of distraction ‘in certain circumstances acquires canonical value,’ since ‘the
tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be
solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit,
under the guidance of tactile appropriation’ (Benjamin, 1977 [1936]: 41). Obviously, if applied to our
cognition of the interactive structure of the Internet, Heidegger’s and Benjamin’s perspectives refer
to two ways of dealing with electronic and interlinked texts. First, the ‘authentic’ Seinsweise of
understanding and contemplation, one that, to borrow hypertext theorist Jay D. Bolter’s words,
looks ‘through the text’ and thus grasps and understands the meaning of the narration ‘behind’ the
text; secondly, a ‘fallen’ mode, in which the user has to ‘look at the text, as a series of possibilities [or
links, F.S.] that he or she … can activate’ (Bolter, 1991: 167). Accordingly, they are to a lesser extent
two modes of usage–one being active and ‘authentic’ and one being passive and ‘in-authentic’–
rather than two different strategies of dealing with electronic and networked information–namely
explorative browsing (also called ‘power browsing’) on the one hand and the purposeful search for
a particular document and its subsequent contemplative reading on the other.
As for the latter, it is important for the user not to lose sight of his–in Heidegger’s words–’own most
projection’ that has to guide the search; for the former, it is even necessary to let oneself be ‘taken
away’ by one’s curiosity, governed merely by the possibilities given by the structure of homepages or
databases. This is because the versatility and complexity of the Internet also has its positive side,
sometimes called the serendipity effect. In general, serendipity refers to the accidental discovery of
something fortunate one was in fact originally not looking for. The Internet, with its many
possibilities and multifold layers emphasizes this form of information retrieval that was originally
only possible on a stroll through the shelves of an open stack library.
Internet and video games: irreversibility of time and virtual death
Reality is generally contrasted with the concepts of nonexistence and mere possibility in traditional
philosophy. Things are real if they are there or if they have been accomplished. The virtual, if understood as the potential, is often understood as the opposite of the real. According to philosopher
Wolfgang Welsch, however, this would mean that the virtual has ‘no worth of its own’ and that ‘it’s
only destiny is to become actualized and thus to vanish as virtual’ (Welsch, 2000). Hence, their relationship seems to be much more complex. From a social constructivist perspective, perception of
reality has never been original and direct but schematized by cultural standards and social norms.
Reality thus always implies virtual or imaginary constituents. Radical constructivists even argued
that there is no reality (or at least not one we can definitively know about) because reality only exists
as a perceived reality and therefore as an imagination or construction. Postmodern thinkers like Jean
Baudrillard have even gone so far to argue that reality is increasingly replaced by virtuality or a
self-referential hyperreality due to the technological developments of the mass media.
The complexity of this relationship becomes even more obvious with regard to the term virtual reality.
Virtual reality, generally understood as the representation and simultaneous perception of reality
and its physical characteristics in a real-time, computer-generated, and interactive environment,
Asiascape Ops Issue 4 August 2009
Fabian Schäfer Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the
(Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
refers not only to exact copies of real environments (i.e. flight simulators for pilot training), but also
to imagined virtual worlds (such as the online-game World of Warcraft). In general, it is the threedimensional and high-resolution representation of reality that is regarded as the most important
factor for the creation of virtual realities. Despite the fact that in practice, it is currently very difficult
to create a multi-sensory and high-definition virtual reality experience due to technical limitations,
these limitations are expected to be overcome eventually. However, despite this fact, sensory
information other than the visual (namely tactile, olfactory, or auditory sensations) is considered to
be of equal importance for the experience of a virtual space, it is the experience of irreversible choice
(and it’s relationship to time) that has been totally disregarded as an important factor for the creation
of virtual reality.
Other than the aforementioned undetermined structure of webpages that created a non-linear and
reversible experience of time, decisions in online-videogames are necessarily real-time decisions.
Whereas one is able to pause or save a game in regular videogames, in online-games or even chat
forums this is impossible. Once a game has started or I have posted a message, it is impossible to
jump back to an earlier point on the linear time axis since all information is sent instantly to all other
participants of a game or a chat forum.
The extremely popular videogame Counter-Strike can be taken as a good example to explain this
assumption. The game, a so-called a tactical first-person shooter videogame, attempts to simulate
realistically the combat between a group of terrorists and a counter-terrorist team. Similar to other
first-person shooter games, each team attempts to complete their mission objective and/or eliminate
the opposing team. However, one important feature distinguishes this game from other games of this
genre, namely that killed players are not able to ‘respawn’ (come alive again), but turn into ‘spectators’
for the remaining time of the round. Originally, it was the aim of the developers to encourage strategic
gaming among the players of each of the two groups. The game is criticized by it’s own users for this
feature because it causes long waiting periods for eliminated players; however, one can also argue that
this is the most important reason why this game attracts so many users. Here, virtual death becomes
something to be much more afraid of than in other video games. Death is much more real because it
is irreversible (at least for the duration of a single round).
Heidegger described this anticipation of death as the authentic temporality of Dasein. Heidegger
opposed this dimensional conception of time to the ordinary representation of time. Other than the
latter, which is, according to Heidegger, characterized as ‘an endless, irreversible sequence of ‘nows’
which passes away’ [Heidegger 1993: 478], he describes the former as the existential and basic
structure of temporality as a double movement (and thus dimensional) in that Dasein brings itself
into its ‘Da’. The first movement is the anticipation (Vorlaufen) into its future (Zu-kunft). The second
movement consists of a ‘coming back understandingly to one’s own most ‘been’ [‘Gewesen’]’
(Heidegger, 1993 [1927]: 373). As we have already seen, Dasein exists through the authentic projection of its own most possibilities. According to Heidegger, it is anxiety (Angst), not of something that
is in the world but of the being-in-the-world of Dasein as such. It is only in this state of anxiety that
Dasein is projected upon itself, liberated from the domination of the Man, being free to be itself. This
however, presents Dasein to its own finitude and nullity by experiencing itself as a ‘being-towarddeath’ (Sein zum Tode). (Heidegger, 1993 [1927]: 304-312) Put differently, being-toward-death is not
an orientation that brings Dasein closer to its physical end, in terms of clinical death, but is rather a
way of being. It is the anticipation of one’s death that brings one into an authentic mode of being. If
applied to the particular character of online-games, what makes the experience of online-computer
games so ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ may be to a lesser extent the technical perfection of the simulation of
three-dimensional space, sound, or haptic sensation, but the anticipation (and in some instances
irreversibility) of one’s death and thus the experience of a dimensional structure of time. Based on
this Heideggerian interpretation, one might argue that online-games are in fact more than just
‘games.’ Different from conventional games, which are commonly defined as non-productive entertainment, being played because of their function to detach oneself from the burdens of one’s
everyday life, online-games such as Counter-Strike successfully simulate the most feared and at the
same time existential feature of human life, namely mortality.
Conclusion: animalization, new subjectivities, and pedagogy
With regard to the ‘fallenness’ of Dasein into a tactile and habitualized information-seeking behavior
in the digital age (or the behavior exhibited when playing videogames), it is valuable to take into
account the contemporary philosophical discourse on the phenomenon of otaku culture in Japan,
since much of the public debate on the positive and negative sides of the Internet or videogames
parallels the discourse on otaku culture in Japan. Other than previous discourses on the otaku–a
Japanese term that refers to people with obsessive interests in various Japanese subcultures, particularly manga, anime, science fiction, or computer games–which either psychopathologized the otaku
as anti-social, uncommunicative, self-absorbed or even perverted5–especially after the so-called
Miyazaki incident in 1989 (when the police arrested the 26-year old serial child killer Miyazaki
Tsutomu, who collected piles of manga and anime, some of it of pornographic or violent)–or tried
to understand this phenomenon psychoanalytically, it was particularly the two cultural critics
Okada Toshio (1995) and Azuma Hiroki (2001) who analyzed the otaku from the perspective of
their pioneering role in the so-called ‘information society’. 6
In his book Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai (2001, Animalizing
Postmodern: Japanese Society as Seen from the Perspective of Otaku), Azuma Hiroki considers the
otaku phenomenon not as a particularly Japanese phenomenon, but as an inflection ‘of the global
trend of postmodernization’ and thus as a new subject position within this trend (Azuma, 2001: 19).
With regard to French philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s neo-Hegelian distinction between two forms
of ‘post-historical existence’–the ‘animalization’ of American society based on consumerism and the
highly formalized and aesthetisized ‘snobbism’ of the Japanese–7 Azuma asserts that otaku culture
consists of a ‘two-tiered’ (nijū-ka) mode of consumption that reflects the two-layered structure of
the postmodern itself (Azuma, 2001: 76-78). Other than the two layers of the modern world-image–
the ‘depth’ of ‘grand narratives’ (namely ideals and ideology) and a ‘surface’ of many ‘small narratives’–
Azuma claims that, with reference to Lyotard’s notion of the end of grand narratives, the latter were
replaced by a ‘grand database’ in the postmodern world-image (sekaizō). Whereas the modern era
formed a structure in which a single grand narrative/ideal controlled diverse small narratives, and
cultural and social criticism consisted in analyzing grand narratives (as reflected within various
small narratives), in the postmodern world, people may grasp any number of small world-images
(Azuma, 2001: 50-54).
Azuma claims that one can identify two ways in which the otaku deal with this new world-image.
He calls one the ‘animalesque’ (dōbutsuteki) side of database consumption; that is the solitude and
passive consumption of the many small narratives of computer games, anime, or manga that are
merely based on ‘combinations’ (kumiawase) of self-referential elements from the grand database.
Moreover, database consumption also has a second, an active or ‘humanesque’ (ningenteki) side,
Asiascape Ops Issue 4 August 2009
Fabian Schäfer Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the
(Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
because otaku actively intervene in received commodities by breaking down the narratives into their
compounds (for videogames these elements might be screenplay, character, background, for manga
they may be the single ‘sensitive elements’ (moe yōso) of which characters are composed), and
thereby get access to the database that lies in the ‘depth’ behind the small narrations and ‘recreate’
(niji sōsaku) from it their own narrations or pictures.8 It is this ‘double structure’ (nisō kōzō) of
deconstruction and reconstruction that prompts Azuma to interpret the otaku culture as a deconstructivist and, thus, subversive form of cultural reception that brings it close to a deconstructivist
method in contemporary literary theory, which offers the subject a position from which to intervene
in existing cultural forms or the discourse.9 Azuma bases this assertion also on the fact that to the
otaku it doesn’t matter any longer if the ‘author’ of the small narratives they consume is a professional–
’authorized’ by one of the big manga or anime publishers–or an amateur who publishes his self-made
anime or manga in one of the many fanzines (dōjinshi) or the Internet.
One can find similarly deconstructive and reconstructive behavior among the members of the global
subcultures gathering around certain videogames. First-person shooters, such as the aforementioned
Counter-Strike, can be used by players to produce so-called machinima. Machinima is a conflation
of the words machine, cinema and animation; it refers to 3D-animations created in a real-time virtual
environment. Videogames with powerful 3D-engines (software systems designed for the creation
and development of videogames) are the most inexpensive programs to use to create machinima.
Basically, the easiest way to create machinima is to organise several players to enact a screenplay in
a networked multi-player-game. By recording the screen of one player, he or she acts can act as a
cameraman. The other players move their characters within the virtual environment like movie actors.
Afterwards, the movie is cut and sometimes even dubbed. Accordingly, the technological requirements to produce machinima are very low because one needs only a computer and a videogame.
However, many of the machinima movie productions are much more sophisticated because they
make use of modified commercial videogames. These modifications range from mapping and
modeling (ie. the creation of one’s own unique virtual environments and characters), to the manipulations of the game software itself (such as lip synchronization, the direct recording of the graphic
output as a movie file, or the programming of complete production frameworks).
What can we conclude from Azuma’s positive remarks on the new media literacy of the otaku
regarding what I have initially defined rather negatively as the ‘fallenness’ of the user of new forms
of digital media? In any case, the frequently posed question of whether Google, the Internet, electronic databases, videogames, or the new flood of information in general, is making us stupid per se,
seems to be pointing in the wrong direction. As we have seen, besides the ‘fallen’ or ‘animalized’
mode of media use, there is also space for a productive and ‘humanesque’ way of dealing with
digitized information or videogames. In terms of education, pedagogies, or media literacy, however,
it is necessary to teach the users of these new media the sharp distinction between these two modes.
Particularly with regard to the use of digitalized knowledge and the Internet, it may be important to
teach contemplative and analytic reading to a generation of otaku and Google-users who possess a
highly developed digital literacy but who may be beginning to lack basic reading and writing skills.
Even more important than teaching the differences between different ways of handling knowledge
in the digital age, however, is how we can relate Azuma’s positive appraisal of the ‘double structure’
of deconstructive and reconstructive elements of otaku culture or machinima to teaching and
pedagogies. Let’s take for instance the case of Japan Studies. I think that it has already become a
global phenomenon that an increasing number of students enrolling in Japan Studies do so because
of an interest in Japanese popular culture and anime or manga in particular. To some of them, calling
themselves otaku is part of their lifestyle and offers them a subject position and, thus, a self-identity.
Many of them, similar to the otaku in Japan, spend much of their time on homepages such as, or, reading, commenting and writing stories or uploading
pictures that are based on existing anime or manga. In other words, one has to pose the question of
whether it is possible to integrate the existing competences of the new type of students of Japan
Studies (that are comparable to those attributed to the otaku, ie. digital literacy, electronic reading
skills, active participation in the reconstruction or ‘bricolage’ of media contents published at the
Internet or of manga and anime) into the deconstructivist project in the humanities in general.
Agamben, G. (2004). The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. London: Verso.
Azuma, H. (2001). Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai (Animalizing Postmodern: Japanese Society as Seen from the Perspective of Otaku,
Tokyo: Kōdansha). An English translation appeared recently under the rather
inappropriate title Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, University of Minnesota Press.
Benjamin, W. (1977 [1936]). Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. An English translation appeared in The Work of Art in
the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and other Writings on Media, Harvard
University Press 2009).
Bolter, J. D. (1991). Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing.
Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Bush, V. (1945). ‘As We May Think.’ The Atlantic, (July). Retrieved from http://www.
Carr, N. (2008). ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ The Atlantic, July/August. Retrieved from
Grassmuck, V. (2000). ‘Man, Nation & Machine: The Otaku Answer to Pressing
Problems of the Media Society.’ Retrieved from
Heidegger, M. (1993 [1927]). Being and Time: A Translation of Sein und Zeit. Oxford:
Kojève, A. (1969). Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology
of Spirit. New York: Basic Books.
Krämer, S. (1998). Das Medium als Spur und Apparat (The Medium as Trace and
Apparatus). In S. Krämer (Ed.), Medien, Computer, Realität. Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen
und Neue Medien (Media, Computer, Reality: Imaginations of Realty and New
Media) (1. Aufl. ed., pp. 73-94). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Kuhlen, R. (1991). Hypertext. Ein nicht-lineares Medium zwischen Buch und Wissensbank
(Hypertext: A Non-linear Medium in-between the Book and Knowledge
Databases). Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer.
Moore, W. E., & Tumin, M. M. (1949). ‘Some Social Functions of Ignorance.’ American
Sociological Review, 14, 787-795.
Nowotny, H. (1997). Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare. Die Zeitdimension in the
Medien (The Visible and the Invisible: The Dimension of Time in the Media).
Asiascape Ops Issue 4 August 2009
Fabian Schäfer Virtual Death of the Human Being: Time and the
(Ir)Reversibility of Choice in Digital Media
In M. Sandbothe & W. C. Zimmerli (Eds.), Zeit - Medien - Wahrnehmung (Time -
ence for homoerotic or violent and pornographic manga in his book Sentō bishōjo
Media - Perception) (pp. 14-29). Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
no seishin bunseki (Psychoanalysis of Fighting Girls). Cf. also Azuma (2001:
Okada, T. (1995). Otaku-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to Otakuology). Tokyo: Ōta
According to German media theorist Volker Grassmuck (2000), it was Okada’s
concern was ‘to establish otaku as a new type of expert who focuses on the
Okonogi, K. (1977). Moratorium ningen no jidai (The Age of Human Beings in a Morato-
style, special effects and signature of individual comic artists. Where Gutenberg-
rium; English translation published in Japan Echo 5(1) 1987). Chūōkōron(October).
schooled readers detect a story, writes Okada, the otaku first of all refer to the
Rowlands, I., & Nicholas, D. (2008). ‘Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the
syntactic levels. Their judgment is based on an extensive knowledge of the
Future.’ Available from
particular genre allowing them to decode quotations, grasp references, and
Saitō, T. (2000). Sentō bishōjo no seishin bunseki (Psychoanalysis of Fighting Girls).
appreciate nuances.’ Moreover, he describes otaku as ‘people possessing an
Tokyo: Chikuma bunkō.
advanced visual sensation’ and a ‘new type’ of adaptation to the cultural condition
Schivelbusch, W. (1977). Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise. Zur Industrialisierung von Raum
und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert. München: Hanser. (Published in English as The Railway
of advanced consumer and information society. To Azuma (2001: 8), otaku can
Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century,’ University of
thus not be described merely as ‘youths enjoying a moratorium’ based on of their
California Press).
juvenile and passionate collecting. For the idea of a generation in a moratorium
Welsch, W. (2000). ‘Virtual to Begin With?’ Retrieved from
see also Okonogi Keigo (1977).
According to Kojève, Japan is a society of ‘formalized values,’ values that have no
meaningful content anymore but are solely gratuitous (playful, but neither work
nor fight for prestige). Examples – snobbery, the Noh Theater, the ceremony of
1 The tactility of hyperlinks is particularly obvious if a phrase of a text appears
tea, the art of flower arranging – are only formal details, it does not really matter
as a hyperlink (namely a blue font colour for instance) but does not have the
one way or the other. Kojève says that since animals cannot be snobs, there is
respective function. Accordingly, only through the Unzuhandenheit (un-readiness-
hope for some kind of human existence to persist even into the post-history. Man
to-hand) of a link as a link we become aware of the haptic interactivity of
would not really be capable anymore of transforming content, but would only be
hypertext described by Benjamin as ‘tactile appropriation’.
able to confront one form by another. As Kojève says, man would ‘oppose himself
Heidegger asserts the following: ‘When curiosity has become free, however, it
as a pure ‘form’ to himself and to others taken as ‘content’ of any sort.’ (Kojève,
concerns itself with seeing, not in order to understand what is seen (that is, to
1969: 162, ft 6) Especially in the ‘age of fiction’ (1970-95), a periodization inspired
come into a Being towards it) but just in order to see. It seeks novelty only in
by Japanese sociologist Mita Munesuke, the otaku had been well-informed snobs.
order to leap from it anew to another novelty. In this kind of seeing, that which is
They possessed all kinds of information; however, the information itself was not
an issue for care does not lie in grasping something and being knowingly in the
of value – they merely used their knowledge to show off in front of other otaku of
truth; it lies rather in its possibilities of abandoning itself to the world. Therefore,
curiosity is characterized by a specific way of not tarrying (Unverweilen) alongside
the same kind. Thereby, information was fetischized by the otaku.
In a series of lectures held in 1929/30, Heidegger also differentiated the human
what is closest. Consequently it does not seek the leisure of tarrying (Verweilen)
being from the animal in terms of their different ways of relating to their environ-
observantly, but rather seeks restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty
ments. Animal behaviour can thus be compared to a fallen mode of being of
and changing encounters. In not tarrying, curiosity is concerned with the constant
Dasein. Heidegger, who ‘rejected the traditional metaphysical definition of man
possibility of distraction. Curiosity has nothing to do with observing entities
as animal rationale, the living being that has language (or reason), as if the being
and marvelling at them … To be amazed to the point of not understanding is
of man could be determined by means of adding something to the ‘simply living
something in which it has no interest’ (Heidegger 1993 [1927]: 172).
being’, attempted to distinguish between animal and man by describing the
The opposite proposition, namely that information stored in external electronic
animal’s mode of being as one of ‘poverty in world’ (Weltarmut) and that of man as
databases relieves the mind and thereby creates capacity for more creative
‘world-forming’ (weltbildend). According to Heidegger, this distinction is based on
thinking, was proposed for instance by the two philosophers Vilem Flusser and
the fact that an animal is essentially captivated (eingenommen) and wholly absorbed
Peter Sloterdijk.
(benommen) by its environment (its Umgebung, as opposed to the Umwelt of
It was not only Heidegger who hinted at the importance of ‘oblivion’ for
Dasein) and can thus only behave (sich benehmen); this is distinct from a human
‘remembrance’ but also the sociologists Wilbert E. Moore and Melvin M. Tumin
being who acts (handeln) or comports itself (sich verhalten). Here Heidegger,
who considered ‘ignorance’ of particular knowledge ‘not simply as a passive or
‘puts into play the relationship among the German terms benommen (captivated,
dysfunctional condition, but as an active and often positive element in operating
stunned, but also taken away, blocked), eingenommen (taken in, absorbed), and
structures and relations’ (Moore & Tumin, 1949: 795) and thus as an important
Benehmen (behavior), which all refer back to the verb nehmen, to take’ (Agamben,
mental function which ‘erases’ useless information from our memory.
2004: 52). Accordingly, one might thus argue that, on an etymological level, the
Other than the general public discourse, Japanese psychiatrist Saitō Tamaki
Weltarmut (‘poverty in world’) of the animal (i.e. its Benommenheit, Eingenommenheit)
(2000) attributes a rather ‘conservative sexuality’ to the otaku despite their prefer-
bears parallels to the curiosity and fallenness of Dasein that is, as already mentioned,
Asiascape Ops Issue 4 August 2009
‘taken along [mitnehmen] solely by the looks of the world’.
It was aforementioned Jay D. Bolter (1991: 163) who emphasized the relationship
between Derridarian poststructuralism and hypertext as well. According to Bolter,
based on the rhizomatic structure of the Internet or databases, electronic texts
don’t have centres or margins because of their ‘deconstructive reading’: ‘the reader
can follow paths through the space in any direction, limited only by constraints
established by the author. No path through the space need be stigmatized as
Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
Christopher Goto-Jones
Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan1
Recognizing that, since the end of the Cold War, political theorists around the world have embarked
upon a deliberate quest for difference and innovation in their discipline, triggered by the apparently
‘world historic’ victory of liberal capitalism, this five-year project (2009-2014) aims to uncover a
series of sites of difference and innovation. In particular, it locates itself in two kinds of distancing:
geo-cultural (ie. in the non-European space of Japan) and medial (ie. in innovative expressive media).
Utilizing the ‘techno-media’ of anime, manga and videogames, and focusing on the radical potentials
of the genre of speculative science fiction, this project aims to analyze and model a series of political
visions as potential alternatives to liberal capitalism, hence contributing to the field of political
Furthermore, acknowledging that these widely popular techno-medial products utilize different
grammars of expression from conventional, text-based media, this project seeks to formulate a
research methodology for scholars to employ for critical interventions into these fields. Accepting
that the dimensions of the public sphere change with time and technological developments, and
hypothesizing that the public sphere in many contemporary societies is now informed by this
techno-politics, at stake is the ability of scholars to remain in touch with (and persuasive in) political
realities: new forms of literacy are required if scholars seek to remain involved in the new public
sphere. This project attempts to outline those forms of literacy, as implied by the rapidly globalizing
force of Japanese anime, manga and videogames.
Overall aim and key objectives
This project locates itself at the intersection of a number of pressing issues for contemporary society,
and simultaneously in an interdisciplinary and multi-medial space between several academic fields
of inquiry. In its most general form, the central thread of the interlinked subprojects is concerned
with the matrix of relationships between evolving conceptions of politics, literacy and technology
(particularly digital technology). In each case, first and foremost, the concern is with the way in
which these shifting categories interact with, challenge, and actually constitute the ‘humanity’ of
individuals in contemporary society and the way in which they interact politically.
For a cluster of historical and cultural (as well as practical) reasons, the project as a whole is framed
within what I term the ‘science fictional field of Japan.’ However, Japan is not treated in isolated or
essentialistic terms, but rather it is configured comparatively and fluidly within the world around it.
It is a particular instantiation of flux in the politics-literacy-technology matrix, but it is also an important
and unique emblem of a possible future for the development of this matrix elsewhere: in various
ways, Japan is figured as science fictional (Goto-Jones 2008b). Hence, whilst some of the conclusions
of this project aim towards furthering our knowledge of human experience in modern Japan, many
of them should be of relevance for any technologically advanced (or advancing) society.
Recognizing that, since the end of the Cold War, political theorists around the world have embarked
upon a deliberate quest for ‘difference and innovation’ in their discipline, triggered by the apparently
‘world historic’ victory of liberal capitalism and hence the so-called ‘end of history,’ as well as the end
Asiascape Ops Issue 5 November 2009
Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
of political philosophy (Fukuyama 1992; Dallmayr 1999; Freeden 2007b), this project seeks to
combine the rapidly emerging media of anime, manga (animanga), and videogames with the field of
political thought. It contends that reading these cultural products as modes of political thought in
Japan (and elsewhere) assists historians of political thought who are increasingly searching for
alternatives to visions of the liberal political order in a constellation of new locations: 1) within
European history (but outside of the conventional canon of texts, eg. Runciman 2001); 2) within
European history (but outside the conventional media of expression of political thought, including
in literature and science fiction eg. Jameson 2005, Simona 2006); 3) outside of European history
altogether (eg. Bakshi 1988, 2006; Goto-Jones 2005b). In other words, this project seeks new political ideas via a dual differentiation from convention: geo-cultural distance (the non-European) and
medial difference (expressive forms that are not conventional ‘treatises’).
It is important to realize at the outset that anime, manga and videogames are not genres but media.
Hence, they each contain a range of products that reach across all of the genres familiar to literature
and film. Like other media, they also contain products aimed at different audiences and commercial
purposes: some are unapologetically ‘pulp fictions,’ while others have more serious intent. In other
words, to talk about animanga or videogames in general risks vacuity. With this in mind, this project
will limit its interest in these media to the genre of serious, speculative Science Fiction (SF), which
cuts across them all.
The reasons for this choice are captured by a fourfold politics of knowledge: the first is historical –
SF is one of the most popular genres for these media in Japan; the second is expositional – recent
literature in political thought suggests that SF is the most promising site for the alternative expression of political ideas; the third is representational – an recognisable techno-orientalist (Ueno 1996)
tendency in the West (and in Japan) identifies Japan as a science fictional realm that is somehow in
the technological future and hence a model for development elsewhere; and the fourth is comparative
– by focusing on a common genre across diverse places and media, it becomes possible to identify
the specific themes of interest in particular geo-cultural and medial locations, and also to codify the
expressive and rhetorical devices particular to each media.
Finally, an implication of this research agenda is that anime, manga and videogames have identifiable
grammars that enable them as expressive media, and that these grammars and devices actually facilitate
the development and deployment of political thought in ways inexpressible (or even unthinkable) in
other media. Taking this seriously demands twin responses from the scholarly community: the first
is critique – we must employ literacy in these grammars and skill-sets to affect sophisticated political
criticism of these media; and the second is participatory – as responsible intellectuals, we must be
able to employ these grammars and skill-sets to intervene in political arguments and the public
sphere ourselves. Hence, in addition to conventional research products (three PhD theses and two
monographs), this project also aims to produce a series of political manga, short anime, and a simple
videogame expressive of concepts from Japanese science fiction.
Scientific background
General relevance
In parallel to the crisis of political thought that followed the end of the Cold War, 1990s-2000s saw
explosive growth of interest in Japanese anime (animated movies), manga (graphic fiction/sequential
art), and videogames in the West as well as in Japan. The Japanese anime industry has revenues of
250 billion yen annually; the retail market for associated ‘character goods’ is 1.61 trillion yen; 60% of
animation broadcast on TV worldwide is Japanese; Japanese companies Sony and Nintendo
dominate the international games market, selling over 100 million units of each of the last generation of consoles – the Pokemon franchise alone is worth over $250 billion worldwide (MOFA 2007).
In the twenty-first century, the Japanese government has officially endorsed these media (grouped
as ‘techno-culture’) as amongst Japan’s most important contributions to world culture.
These contemporary media-forms are now major cultural forces in East Asia, Europe and the USA,
yet serious research into the political significance of these media is in its infancy; the majority of
work remains ‘fan literature,’ uninformed by scholarly methodologies. The Western academy has
tended to be dismissive of the value of these sources, finding them populist and childish. However,
the Japanese academy has been much less reticent, and sophisticated work in this field has been
appearing since the late 1990s. Some, such as Azuma Hiroki (2001, 2007), even identify these media
as the necessary forms of cultural and political expression of a postmodern society that has
abandoned the myths of modernist grand narratives. Azuma identifies Anno Hideaki’s 1995-6 anime
masterpiece, Shinseiki ebuangerion (Neon-Genesis Evangelion), as a key turning point in postwar
Japanese culture and social development. Indeed, the importance of this title (which is now a crossmedial franchise involving anime, manga and videogames) is emphasized and theorized by many
other commentators (Kotani 1997). In other words, especially since the 1990s, techno-cultural
products have formed an increasingly visible and important part of the Japanese public sphere. Japan
is not only an object of inquiry in this field, but also an important source of theoretical insight.
With this in mind, this project will explore the parameters of the political sphere concept, since it
enables conceptual thinking about the changing dynamics of state/society relations and the intersections between politics and culture: ‘it provides a way of conceptualizing an expanded notion of
the political. It forces us to look for politics in other social places’ (Eley 2002: 231). Indeed, the notion
of the public sphere is a useful way to move conceptually from everyday life to political agency and
action (ie. to conceptions of the political) – it is a space in which politics can occur without it having
to be subsumed by the conventional institutions of the political.
The significance and meaning of concepts within the public sphere are necessarily governed by a
historical sociology of concept formation: ‘concepts are words in their sites’ (Somers 1995: 113). In
other words, the public sphere concept already contains the imperative for reflexivity from scholars:
it relies on the ability of social and political theorists ‘to recognize that the categories and concepts
[they] use to explain the social world can themselves be fruitfully made the objects of analysis’
(Somers 1995: 114), and hence that they are constantly open to challenge from new or alternative
technologies of expression. In the quest for difference and innovation in political theory following
the end of the Cold War, a creative and comparative analysis of the public sphere in different politicalcultures provides the promise of conceptual and medial revolution. As a recognisable site, situated
and the boundary between the state and civil society, the public sphere has the distinct advantage of
being an empirical domain that is ripe for research.
A key issue when it comes to accessing this domain involves the question of literacy. Whilst sequential
art has been employed in Japan for philosophical, political and religious expression for centuries
(ranging from the 12th century Zen-classic ‘ox herding’ sequence (Yamada 1985) to the official political
manga and anime of the Japanese government in the late 20th century (Kinsella 2000)), these media
have less of a ‘serious’ political tradition in the West, where (with a number of important exceptions)
graphic representations have been largely limited to satire. In Japan, certain types of animanga are
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Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
deliberately produced and read as political treaties (eg. Kobayashi 1995 or 2008), and
they discourse with an audience (including the intelligentsia) that is already literate in (and participate
in) their conventions and practices. In general, European and American academics lack this literacy:
although there is a reasonably well-developed tradition of graphic narrative and critique in the West
(eg. Carrier 2000; Hadju 2008; or even Eisner 1985/2006), its emphasis has tended to remain on
narrative techniques rather than political expression; in addition the conventions and grammar of
manga and anime differ from those of ‘comics’ and ‘cartoons.’
As we will see later, in the specific case of videogames the problem of literacy is even greater, both
within Japan and in the West. Videogames require a radically new set of interrogative and compositional
tools, as well as interactive skills, in order to access their meanings properly and hence to understand
(or participate in) their role in the public sphere. In general, academics do not cultivate these skills.
Indeed, the most specialized and skillful access to videogame content is often by members of youthful
subcultures rather than academics, which inverts the traditional hierarchies of knowledge that
society usually associates with access to textual forms of expression and hence with persuasion in
the public sphere. In Japan, the cultural critic Okada Toshio has gone so far as to argue that the
emergence of an otaku (geek?) subculture since the 1990s effectively represents the emergence of a
‘new species’ of super-information-processing-citizens (1996); the otaku, readily conversant in the
grammar of techno-culture, has the power to dominate Japan’s public sphere in the era of technopolitics precisely because the traditional intelligentsia is not literate in the required rhetorical devices.
In this model, the techno-cultural transformation of the public sphere should provide for radical
voices in a traditionally conservative Japanese polity. But what are these voices saying and who can
understand them?
New Politics – literacy, techno-politics, and the new (digital) public sphere
There is a clear (if complex) connection between technological development, the realm of politics,
and the dimensions of the public sphere/civil society. One of the cultural mechanisms that connect
these sites is the idea of literacy: in order to engage in political discourse, members of society must
have access to a site of discussion, and must be literate in the language (and technologies) of that
discussion. In this mode, literacy is obviously related to (albeit importantly distinct from) education
In classical Greece, for instance, if we can talk of the existence of a res publica or public sphere at all,
the technology of political discourse was literally the spoken word in the restricted space of the
public forum. Of course, access to this forum was circumscribed by various social norms and technologies: gender, economic status, education, literacy etc. Participation in the forum was restricted
to a subset of the population at the intersection of these criteria.
However, for most commentators after Habermas (1962), modern political cultures are (or should
be) characterized by a more expansive public sphere: they are comprised of a discursive space in
which people congregate to discuss issues of common concern, to reach shared judgements, and
hence to influence political action. Unlike Aristotle’s exclusive forum, which is effectively part of the
mechanics of the state, this inclusive public sphere need not be a physical location, but rather exists
as the adjudicator between the boundaries of state and society. A common example of this kind of
public sphere is the institution of the mass media, which (for Habermas in the 1950s) was premised
largely upon technologies of print and distribution, and hence its principle of ‘inclusivity’ was
contingent upon education and literacy in written forms of language. In an ideal democracy, this
public sphere should include everyone equally – although, for Habermas, inequalities of wealth and
privilege in capitalism provide for unequal access to the public sphere (ie. to its technologies and
necessary literacy) in practice. Critics such as Nancy Fraser (1992) have argued that the public
sphere is always more exclusive than Habermas allowed: it is circumscribed by the hegemonic values
of any given society.
It is important to note that hegemonic values also function to govern the acceptable media of expression, not just the profile of participants. This realization contains the potential for a fracturing
of the public sphere into multiple sites characterized by different logics and technologies of
participation. A key political issue is therefore which of these spheres retains power (or relatively
more power) to influence political outcomes, and how this power-balance between spheres changes
(perhaps in accordance with technological developments). In the contemporary world, for example,
we might ask about the extent to which academic treatises inform the public sphere and set this
against the extent to which videogames like Final Fantasy or Pokemon have penetrated public
consciousness. Which of these products (and which media) reach more people? Which influence
more people (and how)? Which exert more power? Is it conceivable that academics are marginalizing
themselves (or may be beginning to become marginal) from participation in the mainstream of the
public sphere not only because of issues of advanced education (which is part of the essential nature
of academia) but also because of medial anachronism? If it is the goal of an intellectual and of
scholarship to change society for the better (which I insist it should be), then techno-political
literacy becomes an obligation for scholars. Of course, it is never the case that pervious spheres of
engagement vanish or are replaced, but the balance of power between them shifts constantly: it
becomes a strategic and tactical choice (ie. a political issue) in which sphere or spheres you participate
(assuming that you have the necessary literacies in all).
Interestingly, in the early postwar period, political scientists like Maruyama Masao (1956) complained
that Japan lacked a meaningful public sphere, precisely because of the absence of the kinds of texts
that defined that sphere in Europe and the USA. In more recent years, however, the place of alternative
media in a flourishing Japanese public sphere, such as manga, has been acknowledged. Following the
resignation of PM Fukuda in September 2008, the front-runner to replace him, Aso Taro, announced
himself to be a ‘proud manga reader.’
There is a wide and well-known literature about the dependency relation between democracy and
education, but here I am more interested in the technology of literacy (and literacy of technology)
itself. Indeed, as new communication technologies develop, the dimensions of the public sphere (or
spheres), and hence the criteria for inclusion in it, also change. Chief amongst these developments
in the twentieth century was the advent of radio, movies, and television. These admixtures to the
mass media changed the landscape of the public sphere in modern societies across the world.
On the one hand, these broadcast media expanded the reach of discussions to those who may lack
the necessary written literacy to participate in print media, but on the other hand the technological
(and financial) barriers to active participation in (rather than critique or even merely passive
consumption of ) these new media were prohibitive to the vast majority.
Twentieth century figures as diverse as Walter Benjamin (1969) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1974: esp. 77)
have called attention to the potential political crisis occasioned by this technological transformation
of the public sphere, focusing on the way in which it dehumanizes the public by rendering it into a
consumer of ideologies rather than a partner in a genuinely discursive site. These postwar critiques
tended to focus on the need to confront the totalizing and epistemically violent nature of fascist films,
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and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
which emphasized technologies of speed (Virilio 1977, 1989). Indeed, progressive and radical
intellectuals have persistently expressed anxiety about the way that these technologies have tended
to exclude the possibility of dissent in the civil society by reconfiguring sectors of the public sphere
into technologically exclusive spaces.
Sartre himself called on intellectuals to participate in radio and television – indeed, he suggested
that it was their responsibility to do so in order to preserve the public sphere and to enjoin discussion with the forces of capital. His call was partly one for literacy in the devices and mechanisms of
these media and their technologies (and hence a call for critique), but it was also partly a call for the
appropriation of the productive technologies themselves by the wider public sphere. The political
significance of the latter was contingent on the former: literacy in the conventions of radio and film
were essential prerequisites to entering political debates via those media. Subsequently, we have
seen a blossoming of political critique of radio and film but also of politically conscious and expressive
broadcasting. Film Studies is now an unexceptional part of the curriculum in many Political Science
programmes around the world.
However, technology appears to develop faster than society’s appreciation of its political implications,
and certainly faster than the academy is able to respond to the new literacies that technological
change demands. Whilst some intellectuals remain dubious even about the need for cinematic literacy
as a professional skill in the field of political inquiry, preferring instead to emphasize the central (or
even exclusive) importance of print literacy, film is no longer new media. The dimensions of the new
public sphere are now being stretched and reconfigured by digital technologies. Techno-politics has
changed profoundly in the twenty-first century. For important reasons, I am not talking chiefly
about the Internet but rather about interactive and immersive digital environments such as videogames.
For understandable reasons, a great deal of literature has been written about the political implications and uses of the Internet, both in the West and in Asia (Hughes 2003; Coates & Holroyd 2003;
Anderson 2002; Mossberger, Tolbert & McNeal, 2007) but, as Chadwick (2006) observes, much of
this literature really emphasizes the ways in which the Internet is really a technology that has transformed political communication and information distribution. Of course, this technology can be
empowering and politically transformative (Zheng 2007). However, the media of expression (and
hence the literacy skills involved in interrogating or participating in Internet politics) remains
predominantly textual or hypertextual (although filmic information is also increasingly prevalent).
Indeed, the familiarity of the medium of text is partly why it is immediately so accessible to so many
people: the essential literacy demanded of those who wish to participate in, analyze, or influence this
discursive site remains rather traditional. Indeed, we might hypothesize that it is partially for this
reason that the heavily text-based academy has been able to accommodate the Internet into its
research agenda so readily: academics in the humanities are society’s experts in text literacy.
The technological innovation here is not medial but distributive: Internet texts instantly facilitate
bi- or even omni-directional communication between unprecedented numbers of people in diverse
locations around the world. This may facilitate a ‘cyber-democracy,’ wider and more liberal education,
or even constitute a de-nationalising of the public sphere, encouraging new levels of macro- and
micro-political concern, but is it really an innovation in expressive media?2
In other words, the so-called Internet revolution does not seem to represent a close analogy to the
medial shift in the public sphere that came with the advent of radio and film. The technology does
not require new literacies to the same extent. However, the medium of the videogame does demand
a new set of interrogative and compositional skills – the ability to intelligently read, criticize and
compose politically conscious videogames – and its place in the public sphere has been largely neglected by the academy, which has focused its attentions on the Internet as the great technological
revolution of our time. The twenty-first century analogy to Sartre’s call for committed intellectuals
to involve themselves in film and radio might be a call for intellectuals to involve themselves in
videogames, both as critics and as programmers. Unlike the Internet, which facilitates the distribution
of other expressive forms, videogames are themselves a medium of expression that give rise to new
and original expressive potentials that are not present in text, radio or film.
Videogames are importantly different from (although not unrelated to) computer simulations and
models of political behaviours,3 which derive from Game Theory, such as Axelrod (1984). Such
models are particularly popular in International Relations Theory and Conflict Analysis (Myerson
1997). Computer simulations are also used by political parties and think tanks to predict electoral
behaviour and social movements. The crucial difference is that videogames do not seek to predict
the outcome of real world political processes (ie. they are not simulations of real-world politics) but
rather they are able to express or even embody political views or realities in themselves (ie. they are
postmodern simulacra, in Baudrillard’s terms (1985)). Like politics itself, videogames are complex
systems in which a human agent participates.
The expressive (or even persuasive) force of videogames is a constant source of media speculation,
with a particular focus on the possible effects of interactive violence on the development of children
(Anderson, Gentile & Buckley, 2007). Indeed, there is a real ‘moral panic’ emerging around the
question of violence in videogames (Cohen 1972), fuelled in the West by events such as the Virginia
Tech shootings (April 2007) or in Japan by the Akihabara stabbings (June 2008). A number of
prefectures in Japan have even banned the sale of Grand Theft Auto in response, and the National
Police Agency has set up a task force to study the effects of violent games on Japanese citizens. In
many ways, concern over videogames has replaced the so-called ‘otaku panic’ of the 1990s in Japan
(Kinsella, 1998), which revolved around the allegedly anti-social effect of anime and manga fandom,
especially following the Miyazaki Tsutomu Incident of 1989.3
On the other hand, increasing attention is also being paid to the potential (and actual) educational
value of these products (Gee 2007).4 Indeed, Nintendo is increasingly marketing its handheld DS
console as an educational device, especially in Japan. In 2004 a consortium of European learning and
development agencies conducted a joint investigation into the education potentials of videogames
(Mitchell & Savill-Smith 2004).
If it’s the case that videogames might exert the kinds of dramatic influence over their players that
their critics claim (eg. causing children to shoot their classmates at school), then surely it is plausible
and even inevitable that they also exert a series of more subtle influences on their consumers.
Indeed, part of the ‘moral panic’ about Japanese techno-culture has been in the form of American
parents’ concerns about the ethical content of Pokemon (Yano 2004). Unfortunately, research into
the rhetorical or expressive force of videogames is in its infancy. Even less developed is the conception of the deliberately political videogame (ie. the videogame authored with a specific political
intention). To this extent, the medium of the videogame approximates the condition of film in the
early twentieth century: with the possible exception of the issue of violence, political critique of
videogames is directed to rhetoric that seems largely unintended or authorless. This situation does
not challenge the power or potential of the medium, but merely calls attention to the need for further
intellectual engagement.
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Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
The innovative scholar of videogames Ian Bogost (2007) is perhaps the first to attempt to design
explicitly political videogames: his game ‘Howard Deans for Iowa’ (Persuasive Games, 2003), which
enabled players to run an election campaign for US Democratic Party member Howard Deans, was
a landmark in this respect. In 2004 he was commissioned by Illinois House Republicans to build
a game that would communicate to the electorate the complexities of their policies on medical
malpractice, local development and educational standards. Since then, a number of other election
games have appeared, including one from a major publisher Ubisoft (2004), The Political Machine,
and it has become relatively commonplace for political parties and candidates in the USA to commission their own games at election time.
The rhetorical force of these political games is based on the idea that videogames allow players to
embody and experience the actions and positions of another, and hence (depending on the success
of the particular rhetorical devices employed) the game might actually change the player (and her
politics). There is a fascinating and potentially powerful ‘politics of becoming’ waiting to be explored
here. Hence, controlling the feedback that a player receives following her actions is a delicate
process of persuasion; this is the key to expressing political intent in this media.
At present, there is very little work on videogames from the perspective of political theory. The field
is far behind that of film or literary studies, where the intersections between the particularities of the
media and political discursivity have been creatively and critically explored. By extension, there is
very little work that seeks to tackle questions of how videogames operate on or within the new
techno-political public sphere. And finally, there is no body of theoretical literature that provides the
tools of literacy for political expression in this medium: there is no guide to critiquing or programming political intent in a videogame.
One of the goals of this project will be to fill in some of these gaps, drawing findings from the science
fictional field of Japan. The results will take the form of the development of a methodology for the
critique of videogames as political expression; the analysis of a corpus of science fictional games in
Japan to sketch the contours of the field’s political landscape; an analysis of how this medial landscape
interacts with the Japanese public sphere; and finally the development of a simple, original science
fiction game that expresses a distinctly Japanese vision of future politics. These results should contribute to a greater understanding of contemporary Japanese society, to the dimensions of the emerging
techno-political public sphere in other technologically advanced societies, and to the ability of the
academy to intervene in this important new political media.
The science fictional field
When I talk about the science fictional field that will be used to delimit this project’s investigations
into the new politics and new public sphere in Japan, I am embracing an established tradition of
utilizing the genre of science fiction (SF) as a site for political expression and critique. Since its
inception as a field of academic inquiry, scholarship has focused on SF as an exercise in ‘cognitive
estrangement’ (Suvin 1969), emphasizing its radical political mission to build ‘imaginative
frameworks that are alternative to the author’s empirical environment’ (Suvin 1988:37). Indeed,
early attempts to establish the canon (or ‘megatext’, Broderick 1994:xiii) were guided by the principle
that all significant literature must be anti-capitalist (Suvin 1988:10) and must contribute to the
demystification of the people of capitalist polities. Since the end of the Cold War, amidst the ‘crisis
of political theory’ in which political theorists are searching for alternatives to a pervasive liberal122
capitalism (Dallmayr 1999; Goto-Jones 2007; Freeden 2007), Fredric Jameson has argued that in the
face of ‘the invincible universalism of capitalism’ there was only one theoretical opportunity for innovation and Difference (in the West): ‘there is no alternative to Utopia’ (Jameson 2005:xii).
Utopias and other science fictions serve a dual function: first, to provide visible evidence of the
possibility of difference from the present status quo (with varying degrees of possibility, realism and
fantasy); and second, to speculate on the various forms (and the political implications of those
forms) of alternative political schemas. Indeed, the place of fictional utopias and dystopias in
political thinking is well-established (Simona 2006; Parrinder 1999; Moylan 2000; Baccolini 2003;
Davis 2005), but their urgency in the context of a political crisis is new. The ways in which people
interact with these visions will be contingent upon their medium of expression.
Given the emphasis of SF on the ‘encounter with the Other,’ it is particularly fitting that the field
should also consider non-European visions. However, like the rest of writing on SF (and on political
theory), the nature and content of non-Western (especially Japanese) utopias and dystopias is
largely overlooked. Nonetheless, just as George Orwell and Karel Capek utilised SF in Europe, so
creatives like Shirow Masamune and Oshii Mamoru utilise animanga in modern Japan, providing
carefully considered and intricately political futurities. Indeed, Shirow’s Appleseed animanga saga
(1985-2007) is perhaps the most fully realised vision of a future society in any country: but how is its
rhetorical force different in its variations forms across different media?
Cognitive estrangement also functions metaphysically in SF, exploring the limits of the human
through the (imaginative) development of new technologies (Schneider 2008; Myers 1989; Goto-Jones
2008a). In this way, SF investigates the foundations of human selfhood, the integrity of the body, the
nature of consciousness, as well as questions of gender and race (Bukatman 1993; Attebery 2002;
Larbalestier 2006; DeGraw 2006; Tucker 2004). In Europe this discourse has placed Mary Shelly, HG
Wells and George Orwell into the company of Max Weber (the ‘iron-cage’ of mechanized society)
and Martin Heidegger (the self-alienation of Being in the face of techne); in Japan an entire
sub-genre of SF has evolved (the ‘mecha’) that continues from the politico-metaphysical positions
of great modern philosophers such as Miki Kiyoshi and Nishida Kitarō (Driscoll 1994). In many
cases, SF speculations are triggered by the possibilities of real scientific advances, and hence express
possible futurities or political configurations (Hayles 1999; Haraway 1991; Broderick 2002). Indeed,
Fukuyama, who once heralded the end of (political) history (1992), argues that it is technology that
moves us into the posthuman future (2002) and hence calls for an analysis of competing visions of
that future.
Significance (potential contribution to science, technology and/or society)
The development of new technologies changes the dimensions of the public sphere and demands
new types of literacy from those who want to engage (or who are responsible for engaging) in it. In
different geo-cultural and medial sites, the political content of the public sphere will utilize different
technologies and grammars to express potentially innovative political ideas. Following the end of
the Cold War, the field of political thought has been searching for difference and innovation in new
This project aims to provide a new methodology to define literacy in techno-cultural products (anime,
manga, videogames), which are characteristic of a new public sphere in Japan (and emanating from
it around the world); it aims to analyse this techno-culture as it is manifested within the field of
science fiction – itself an established part of the public sphere – and hence to provide sophisticated
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Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
critiques of the political force and potentials of these voices in contemporary society. Using a
common genre to cross medial boundaries also enables this project to critically assess the particular
rhetoric and grammar of each media, and hence help to provide coherent and useful definitions of
these slippery categories.
The results should deepen our knowledge of human experience and political consciousness in
modern Japan, but they should also be of relevance for any technologically advanced (or advancing)
society. Furthermore, the identification of literacy standards in diverse techno-cultural media will
facilitate the intervention of academia within burgeoning areas of the public sphere from which it is
largely excluded at present. Hence, the project ultimately aims to diversify our sense of political
rhetoric, and our ability to comprehend and express political positions in persuasive ways. This new
politics should help to end irrational ‘moral panics’ (or at least transform them into rational ones!)
and encourage creative and constructive engagement.
Dealing with new media from a non-European context requires the development of a new set of
methodological tools, and this development is a central task of the project. However, the process
need not start from nothing, since there are already a number of leads to follow. Most particularly,
as already discussed, there is an interesting and sophisticated critical literature about animanga and
videogames in Japan itself: for this project, then, Japan is not merely the location of case studies, but
also a course of theoretical innovation about globalized cultural products.
Of particular interest here is the work of Azuma Hiroki and his notion of ‘gamic-realism’ (2007),
which is a way of interrogating meaning rather than narrative in (what he takes to be) postmodern
Japan. Indeed, he insists that a central characteristic of (serious) animanga and videogames since
1995 (the moment at which Shinseiki ebuangerion was released) is the collapse of grand narrative
and the evocation of what he terms the visual database. Rather than searching for a subterranean
narrative that is hidden behind the images of animanga or videogames, he argues that the otaku
draws meanings directly from the unit-images themselves. He associates this with the radical
flattening of hierarchies that characterizes the ‘superflat’ art movement (which has been made
famous worldwide by Murakami Takashi (2000) and others). In otherwords, Azuma eschews the
top-down unificatory principles of systemic narratives, and argues rather that Japanese technoculture should properly be considered as a bottom-up constellation of floating units that are ordered
in the process of participation with them: meaning becomes an effect rather than a cause of the
images. In this model, the author vanishes as a principle of systematism (or at least is drawn into
complicity with the viewer). This means that there is a sense in which all Japanese techno-culture is
interactive, not only games. Furthermore, it means that ‘audiences’ interact with these media in
terms of units of meaning rather narratives. Azuma is able to show, for instance, that otaku use Internet
search engines to assemble databases of common elements from different animanga: big eyes, fluffy
ears, mechanical (mecha) bodies etc. This ‘databasification’ of the audience’s engagement with
techno-culture has radical consequences for the study of meaning and rhetoric in the public
Interesting, there is some common ground between Azuma’s vision of a postmodern techno-culture
and recent work in Videogames Studies in the USA. In particular, the work of Ian Bogost (2006) on
so-called ‘unit operations’ as a method for critiquing videogames resonates closely with Azuma,
albeit without approaching postmodern principles. For Bogost, the ongoing debate in the literature
of Videogames Studies (between methods that emphasise narrative and those that focus on ludology)
misses the point that videogames are a new media that require new methods and literacies to access.
Rather than trying to push videogames into the confines of methods developed for other media,
Bogost suggests that meaning in videogames should be drawn from their ‘unit operations,’ by which
he means identifiable units of function or action. He differentiates active readings of ‘unit operations’
from static readings of ‘system operations’; this differentiation approximates Azuma’s distinction
between the bottom-up database and the top-down narrative. It also echoes Heidegger’s (1977)
distinction between the totalizing and stagnating process of Gestell (Enframing) and the active,
haptic process of Bringing-forth or poesis. In addition, this model has the advantage of mirroring
the ‘object oriented’ nature of modern computer programming languages, like C++ and Java, and
hence it approaches an approach to critique that reflects the process of authorship.
The result is that Bogost is able to conceive of a method to compare videogames in terms of critical
rhetoric: looking at (say) the ballistics model in Final Fantasy (Square Enix) against the ballistics
model in Pokemon (Nintendo), how does each affect the experience of game-play and hence what
does each communicate to the player? Does shooting someone require patience, skill and timing, or
does a simple and careless button press do the trick? When you shoot, what is fired from your gun?
Was it a gun or a spitting-flower? Is the effect of killing someone always to your advantage, or do you
need to be selective? Do people die? How does it happen? Are the ballistic models actually the same
(ie. powered by the same ‘engine code’ as a licensed IP)? 5 By collecting together answers to these unit
operations from various videogames, it is possible to affect a model of possibilities and their rhetorical
force. In many ways, this approximates Azuma’s ‘databasification.’
If Azuma and Bogost suggest the beginnings of a method for interrogating all techno-cultural
products in the same way, it must also be remembered that there are important differences between
the media involved. It is simply untrue to maintain that narrative is no longer important in any anime
or manga (although its place in videogames is certainly problematic). Hence, narrative does often
provide part of the rhetorical force of these media, and thus narratology becomes an important aspect
of this project. In addition, treating all of the media together risks obfuscating the characteristics
that make them unique (in comparison with each other, and in general): the static but sequential
imagery of manga; the animated artistry of anime; and the interactive nature of videogames. Hence,
each of the subprojects in this VICI will focus on a specific medium (anime, manga or videogames),
trying to understand the ways in which these various approaches can complement each other in
making a sophisticated reading: unit operations, narrative and interactivity will be combined in
appropriate ways for each medium.
In order to facilitate the development of this plural methodology, the research team will meet at
regular workshops to discuss their findings about the state of the art in terms of methodology in
their medium, and also to test their findings about the rhetorical force of key unit operations and
narrative themes in their own projects. Because the science fictional field of Japan circumscribes all
of the projects, such comparisons should be practicable.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that political discussion does not only take place within specific
products or even within particular media, but also that it takes place between them. In some cases,
franchises transcend specific media (Pokemon and Final Fantasy, for instance, are now anime,
manga, videogames, trading cards, miniatures, toys, jewelry etc.). On the one hand, this means that
the team needs to be sensitive to the ways in which meanings are disputed within this technopolitical public sphere, rather than merely translating the meanings into academic prose (eg. following
debates about the impact of digital technology on democracy as it blossoms between especially
influential presentations in specific manga, to anime, and to videogames). And on the other hand,
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Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
and the Science Fictional Field of Japan
the team needs to be aware of the way in which these media ‘converge’ into giant multiple-media
super-products with rhetorical powers of their own (Jenkins 2006).
In each case, believing that an important way of understanding how meanings are implemented in
techno-culture is to construct those meanings yourself, the research team will jointly work on a
short series of political manga, anime shorts, and a simple videogame in an object-oriented language.
Success here will mean that the team will be able to participate in the techno-cultural public sphere
rather than simply critique it from without. An exhibition at the end of the project will showcase the
results, alongside more conventional publications.
Broderick, Damien (2002), The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed By Rapidly
Advancing Technologies, Tor Books
Bukatman, Scott (1993), Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science
Fiction, Duke University Press
Calichman, Richard (2008), Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan,
Columbia University Press
Carrier, David, 2000, The Aesthetics of Comics, Pennsylvania State University Press
Chadwick, Andrew, 2006, Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communication
Technologies, Oxford: OUP
Coates, Ken & Holroyd, Carin (eds), 2003, Japan and the Internet Revolution, Palgrave
Anderson, Craig, Gentile, Douglas & Buckley, Katherine (eds), 2007, Violent Videogame
Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford:
Oxford University Press
Anderson, David, 2002, The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values, Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers
Asiascape (2007), (the Contemporary East Asian Media Centre,
Cohen, Stanley (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Mac Gibbon and Kee
Curry, Patrick (2004), Defending Middle-Earth – Tolkien: Myth and Modernity,
Houghton Mifflin
Dallmayr, F (ed), Border Crossings, Lexington Books
Davis, Laurence (ed) (2005), The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The
Dispossessed, Lexington Books
NWO Internationalisation in the Humanities, 2007-2010 – awarded to Goto-Jones,
DeGraw, Sharon (2006), The Subject of Race in American Science Fiction, Routledge
Leiden University).
Disch, Thomas (2000), The Dreams our Stuff is Made of: How Science Fiction
Attebery, Brian (2002), Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Routledge
Axelrod, Robert. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books
東 浩紀, AZUMA Hiroki (2001), 動物化するポストモダン―オタクから見た日本社会
(The Animalizing Postmodern: Japanese Society as seen by the Otaku). Tokyo: 講談社
東 浩紀, AZUMA Hiroki (2007), ゲーム的リアリズムの誕生~動物化するポストモダ
ン2 (The birth of gamic-realism: the animalizing postmodern, vol.2). Tokyo: 講談社
Baccolini, Raffaella (ed) (2003), Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian
Imagination, Routledge
Bakhsi, Om (1988), The Crisis of Political Theory: An Inquiry into Contemporary Thought,
Oxford University Press
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Asiascape Ops Issue 5 November 2009
Christopher Goto-Jones Beyond Utopia: New Politics, the Politics of Knowledge,
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This article is an the outline of the research project, ‘Beyond Utopia,’ which
was awarded a VICI grant by the NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific
Research); this version was prepared for the World Politics and Popular Culture
Conference held in Newcastle, 19-20 November, 2009.
In some ways, this communication technology assists in the transformation of
the public sphere into a denationalized ‘rhetorical sphere,’ premised on issues
rather than the identity of the ‘public’ involved in discussion. This is part of the
globalization debate.
3 Between 1988 and 1989, Miyazaki kidnapped, mutilated and killed four young
girls. The press emphasised that his house was full of anime and manga, and he
became known as ‘the otaku murderer.’ The link between his interest in these media
and his crimes was never formally established. He was executed on 17 June 2008,
just nine days after the so-called Akihabara Massacre, which saw a series of
stabbings and murders take place in the video-game/animanga centre of Tokyo.
4 In recent years, videogames such as the controversial Grand Theft Auto series
(Rockstar Games) have also been recognized as art, and the British Academy of
Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) now as an annual Videogames Awards.
5 Intriguingly, it is also possible that the same ‘game’ engine codes might be used in
some CGI animated features, opening up the possibility that, for instance, Major
Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell) fires her weapons under the same laws of physics
in different media: but what would the effect of this be on the audience? Do they
expect physics engines to be the same in anime, manga and videogames?
What happens if they are different?
The Asiascape Occasional Papers (Asiascape Ops) are an
internationally peer-reviewed publication series that are available
free of charge via
In recognition of the under-representation of cyberculture in
many of the mainstream academic journals (and hence the
difficulty encountered by scholars, journalists and others in
finding reliable, scholarly sources in these fields), Asiascape
Ops deliberately utilises free, web-based distribution in order to
assist in the dissemination of serious scholarship in the areas of
cyberculture, animanga etc., with the goal of helping to establish
a lively, rich, diverse and thriving field. Materials available on can be used freely in teaching and/or research,
and we simply ask that proper scholarly conventions (including
copyright) be observed when citing the material.
ISSN Asiascape Occasional Paper Series
1875-225x (online); 1875-2241 (print)
Project director
Christopher Goto-Jones (Leiden University, Netherlands)
International advisory board
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (Brown University, USA)
Mark Harrison (University of Tasmania, Australia)
Sharon Kinsella (Manchester University, UK)
Tom Lamarre (McGill University, Canada)
Stefan Landsberger (Amsterdam University, Netherlands)
Angus Lockyer (SOAS, UK)
Susan Napier (Tufts University, USA)
Steffi Richter (Leipzig University, Germany)
Ivo Smits (Leiden University, Netherlands)
Takayuki Tatsumi (Keio University, Japan)
Mark Williams (Leeds University, UK)
List of Illustrations
Cover Collage of stills from the animes Ghost in the Shell,
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Fullmetal Alchemist
Ghost in the Shell © Production I.G.
Inserts PocketMuslim, an Islamic reference and educational tool
for Muslim and non-Muslim
AA Gym, short for Abdullah Gymnastiar, on the cover of his
book Apa Adanya. AA Gym is a successful Muslim preacher, TV
personality and entrepreneur. He is also one of the first to have
launched a Muslim content for mobile phones.
Fullmetal Alchemist ©2003-2005 Hiromu Arakawa/Square Enix,
Inside cover Chinese bloggers
This image illustrates Jeroen de Kloet’s article Bloggers, Hackers and the King Kong Syndrome in IIAS The Newsletter no. 50
(Spring 2009)
p. 33 ‘The Other’: various depictions of aliens from another
Top image Sign at a Kansai International airport, Japan
p. 34 Japanese poster for 1954 classic Japanese science fiction
film Gojira (Godzilla), directed and co-written by Ishiro Honda
and produced and distributed by Toho Company Ltd. Gojira’s
attack on Tokyo symbolised a nuclear attack, like the ones on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
p. 35 Top Image used on one of many covers of William Gibson’s acclaimed sci-fi novel Neuromancer (1984) that portrays
the future as tinged with Japaneseness.
Bottom left Book cover of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert
A. Heinlein (1961). It tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a
human raised by Martians on the planet Mars, after his return to
Earth in early adulthood
Bottom right Screenshot from David Lynch’s 1984 cultfilm
Dune, based on Frank Herberts sci-fi novel with the same name
p. 36 & 37 Screenshot from the anime film Ghost in the Shell
(1995), directed by Mamoru Oshii. In the year 2029, the barriers of our world have been broken down by the net and by
cybernetics, but this brings new vulnerability to humans in the
form of brain-hacking. When a highly-wanted hacker known as
'The Puppetmaster' begins involving them in politics, Section
9, a group of cybernetically enhanced cops, are called in to
investigate and stop the Puppetmaster. The pursuit will call into
question what makes a human and what is the Puppetmaster
in a world where the distinction between human and machine
is increasingly blurry?
p. 89 Screenshots from the 2002 anime Voices of a distant star.
A high school romance is split apart when one member of
the couple enlists in the UN space army to fight aliens who
attacked our Martian colony. They communicate through
text messages, though the delivery times increase from a few
minutes while she trains in orbit, to over eight years as her crew
delves deeper into the universe searching for Earth's enemies
© CoMix Wave Inc.
p. 90 & 91 Alphonse Elric, a character in Fullmetal Alchemist,
whose physical form is little more than a hollow suit of mediaeval armour (he lost his original body during an alchemic experiment), is constantly pondering the (ir)relevance of his material
body to his essential identity and identifying himself with his
memories and feelings.
©2003-2005 Hiromu Arakawa/Square Enix, MBS, ANX, BONES, Dentsu.
p. 92 & 93 Salvador Dalí (1930/31): ‘Tactile Cinema’.
The moviegoers sense the leading lady’s fear not only through
the visible goose bumps on her body but also through the
goose bumped ‘tactile pad’ in front of them.
Illustration in a letter to Louis Buñuel. Reprinted in: Augustin Sanchez Vidal.
1988. Buñuel, Lorca, Dalí. El enigma sin fin Barcelona: Planeta.
p. 94 & 95 Major Kusanagi, the female heroine of the Ghost in
the Shell cycle, is a self-conscious, complete cyborg. Her cyborgification has made her into a superhuman warrior, capable
of incredible physical and mental feats, but it has also made
her anxious about her identity and, in particular, about her
© Production I.G.
Uchihaleasder on url:
p. 96 Botttom left Lady performing a song in karaoke bar Covo,
Toyako, Japan
Top and bottom right Sony’s first and current walkman
© Sony
© Production I.G.
p. 38 & 39 Miniatures of the Heidi anime characters at a Heidi
exhibition, held in April 2008 in Fukuoka, Japan
p. 40 Indonesian girls using a mobile phone
Source: Indonesian Dreams: Reflections on society, revelations of the self (Buku
OBor, KITLV Jakarta, 2008), edited by Tino Djumini
All illustrations are reproduced for non-commercial, academic
reasons. We have tried to list all copyright holders and sources
of the illustrations used in this volume. If we have failed to
credit you as a copyright holder please contact Asiascape at
[email protected]
About the authors
Bart Barendregt
© 2010 and Modern East Asia Research Centre,
Leiden University, the Netherlands
Leiden, The Netherlands
[email protected]
Young Sook Choi
Kings College, University of London, UK
[email protected]
Jens Damm
Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
[email protected]
Christopher Goto-Jones
Leiden University, the Netherlands
[email protected]
Jeroen de Kloet
University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
[email protected]
Thomas Lamarre
Christopher Goto-Jones
Editorial assistance
Anna Yeadell (CyberAsia, The IIAS Newsletter)
Esther Truijen
André van de Waal and Remco Mulckhuyse,
Coördesign, Leiden
Anker Media, Lelystad
Epping boekbinders, Woerden
McGill University, Canada
[email protected]
Yoko Ono
Oxford Brookes University, UK
[email protected]
Fabian Schäfer
Leipzig University, Germany
[email protected]
Cobus van Staden
South African Broadcasting Corporation
[email protected]
Asiascape is based at Leiden University and is funded
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Foundation (TIFO) the Modern East Asia Research Centre
(MEARC) and now also the International Institute for
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This volume is produced by, a project
International Foundation (TIFO) and the Modern East
Project director Christopher Goto-Jones (Leiden Univer-
hosted by the Modern East Asia Research Centre.
Asia Research Centre (MEARC). Its network includes
sity, Netherlands) International advisory board Wendy
partners in various countries across four continents.
Hui Kyong Chun (Brown University, USA) Mark Harrison is an attempt to build a new international
(University of Tasmania, Australia) Sharon Kinsella (Man-
research coalition in the rapidly emerging fields of
MEARC, based at Leiden University, was founded in
chester University, UK) Tom Lamarre (McGill University,
cyberculture (New Media, Convergence Culture, Video
2006. MEARC’s purpose is to support, showcase and
Canada) Stefan Landsberger (Amsterdam University,
Games and other related media, such as fan-culture)
stimulate genuinely disciplinary and comparative
Netherlands) Angus Lockyer (SOAS, UK) Susan Napier
and animanga (Anime and Manga), especially as they
research in the fields of history, philosophy, politics and
(Tufts University, USA) Steffi Richter (Leipzig University,
relate to (or originate from) East Asia.
international relations of modern East Asia - the period
Germany) Ivo Smits (Leiden University, Netherlands) is based at Leiden University and is
since the beginning of the 19th century until today.
Takayuki Tatsumi (Keio University, Japan) Mark Williams
funded through the generosity of the Netherlands
(Leeds University, UK)
Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Toshiba
ISSN Asiascape Occasional Paper Series: 1875-2241
The Asiascape Collection v.1
The Asiascape
Collection v.1
Essays in the Exploration of CyberAsia
This volume is produced by, a project
International Foundation (TIFO) and the Modern East
Project director Christopher Goto-Jones (Leiden Univer-
hosted by the Modern East Asia Research Centre.
Asia Research Centre (MEARC). Its network includes
sity, Netherlands) International advisory board Wendy
partners in various countries across four continents.
Hui Kyong Chun (Brown University, USA) Mark Harrison is an attempt to build a new international
(University of Tasmania, Australia) Sharon Kinsella (Man-
research coalition in the rapidly emerging fields of
MEARC, based at Leiden University, was founded in
chester University, UK) Tom Lamarre (McGill University,
cyberculture (New Media, Convergence Culture, Video
2006. MEARC’s purpose is to support, showcase and
Canada) Stefan Landsberger (Amsterdam University,
Games and other related media, such as fan-culture)
stimulate genuinely disciplinary and comparative
Netherlands) Angus Lockyer (SOAS, UK) Susan Napier
and animanga (Anime and Manga), especially as they
research in the fields of history, philosophy, politics and
(Tufts University, USA) Steffi Richter (Leipzig University,
relate to (or originate from) East Asia.
international relations of modern East Asia - the period
Germany) Ivo Smits (Leiden University, Netherlands) is based at Leiden University and is
since the beginning of the 19th century until today.
Takayuki Tatsumi (Keio University, Japan) Mark Williams
funded through the generosity of the Netherlands
(Leeds University, UK)
Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), Toshiba
ISSN Asiascape Occasional Paper Series: 1875-2241
The Asiascape Collection v.1
The Asiascape
Collection v.1
Essays in the Exploration of CyberAsia