Sunday, October 16, 2011

Machine Narratives and Database Animals

Hiroki Azuma argues in his book “Japan’s Database Animals” that the grand narratives of modernism were replaced, first by multiple small fictions of postmodernism, and more recently by attractive character elements (moe) that emerge from and relate to a database. He calls this process animalization as it constitutes a kind of compulsive affective grazing that does not require or even encourage the construction of narrative. He relates the relative social/political isolation of otaku as a symptom of this animalization.

Partially agreeing with Azuma, and, like him, rejecting a Lacanian model of subject construction in favor of one based on information systems, Thomas Lamarre argues that the database or “distributive field” is not an “infinitely symmetrical material structure without horizon or limits. Material limits emerge in the form of attractors and they emerge with affectively linked cooperators.” The distributive field does not generate subjective asymmetries. Rather it generates affective asymmetries, which, if reinforced over time, can become subjective positions/asymmetries. Or put in the language of Felix Guattari: “Machine is ontologically prior to structure and the subjective asymmetries that may come to inhabit the field.”

If we concur with Lamarre’s idea of subject position emerging from the distributive field (as opposed to being imposed from without) then we see that the distributive field, in so far as it is asymmetrical, is necessarily political. (That is not to say that asymmetries arise in an entirely predictable way. Because they are emergent, the sum is necessarily more than its parts.) I would argue that Azuma’s database animal is the end-position of the human subject in a late-capitalist system. With the bankrupting of the narratives that support the dominant political and economic structures, all that remains is the mechanism for empty/meaningless repetitive consumption, emotional lollipops devoid of historical or even grand fictional flavor.

For Lamarre, the move from grand narrative to database/moe elements does not necessitate the end of narrative, rather, storytelling “is a function that appears upon the distributive field which builds on the emergence of attractor-cooperator asymmetries and tends to settle on characters.” With manga’s exploded view of perception and affect, and action spread across pages, it is the character function that allows for a controlled explosion of the action image. Lamarre relates character to embodiment in the visual realm or form. This is critical, I think, because although the compulsion to construct an ontologically consistent subject position is subverted in limited anime and manga, the embodiment of the viewer remains. Material limits –physical, psychic, political, economic and cultural will determine the asymmetries that exist in the database at any given time. Moreover, attractors connected to the body have a gravitational pull that is difficult to overcome, though not impossible. Illness and pain usually have the effect of constricting the distributive field. In extreme pain, there is nothing but the experience of pain.

In relating otaku obsessions with various moe elements, Azuma is astute to point out that “the desire to remain with a transitional object in PERMANENT transition is precisely realm of perversion.” Perversion as such exists because the Law, which it defies, is acknowledged. Practiced within a social group or privately, it is a form of resistance to the Law. In the database model, reinforcement of multiple lines of sight including narrative, through which other asymmetries emerge, creates transitional or multiple subjects as opposed to fixed, singular, Cartesian subject positions.
It is unsurprising then, that manga and limited anime disrupt the most important of Capitalist/Lacanian subject positions/power relations—that of gender. The anime version of The Rose of Versailles (manga by Ikeda Riyoko, 1972) is perhaps the earliest example. Here, we see Oskar, the beautiful captain of the Queen’s Guard, raised as a man but clearly female, announcing her decision to join the Revolution and to remain with her husband, a fellow soldier.

The phallacy of the Lacanian/capitalist subject position is that the experience of lack is based upon the possibility of and desire for a fully constituted subject. If the idea of wholeness, completeness, that is to say selfhood and self-ownership is abandoned, then what was previously experienced as lack is experienced as ecstatic excess, not too little, but too much. The phallus turned inside out is a space, both receptive and generative. The truth is that an ontologically consistent subject is only one possible asymmetry among many. A viewer-retriever of information follows a sight line that depends on his or her own attraction. If the consistency of a line of sight is maintained, a traditional gendered object/subject may emerge, but this is also not necessary. For Lamarre, “asymmetry begins to implicate perception and imply emergent positions which hover between a viewing position (subject) and sheer delight, terror, disgust, or lust (affect).”

If I analyze my own hybrid media writing in terms of the Azuma/Lamarre database/distributive field model, it’s clear that I am interested in creating a non-random distributive field of information containing an attractor called a story. My predilection for using melodrama and genre codes makes this line of sight apparent while at the same time positing it in an exploded field of information elements. “Reading” the novel, the viewer experiences not lack, but an excess of information (this, in part, because I use an open system of collaboration, in the case of Mayakovsky through links rather than embedded information, and in Queerskins through appropriating objects from virtual communities Youtube and Flickr. ) Just as the filmmaker uses editing to overcome the partial/lacking view provided by the frame, the viewer/reader sews together fragments of text, image and sound-- suturing becomes overt and the spaces between them apparent. Thus, the process allows the viewer to perceive the limits of perception related to embodiment and to his or her own desired subjecthood. In constructing a narrative whole (or not) the viewer becomes aware of his or her decision to pursue certain asymmetries. Continuities of form and action is replaced by multiple possible asymmetries created through resonance, iteration, affinities of affect, media form, character, action, and rhythm (time) which can be followed, or not, according to the reader’s own desires/limitations.

Reading: Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals
Thomas LaMarre, The Anime Machine