Saturday, April 9, 2016

Genshiken and Western Political (Non)Discourse

A dozen or so unfinished blog posts have accumulated over the past few months.  Business, job search (my current job just doesn't pay the bills well enough), lecture planning and exam/paper grading, and Japanese study/practice (I attend a language-exchange meetup regularly) have put a real damper on my expository lifestyle and seen this blog languish in the pits of stagnation for many a month.  So, what could possibly drag me from complacency to pound my keyboard?

The March issue of Genshiken, specifically #122.  I've often discussed Genshiken on this blog--probably more than any other single thing with the exception of Dungeons & Dragons--and this latest issue marks the conclusion of a story arc that has gone on for over two years.  The fan reaction has been very mixed with regards to the result.  My own is one of extreme satisfaction and approval.  Kio Shimoku not only knows what he is doing but has done something superb.  That it hit all the readers right in the feels only demonstrates how well he's done but it also demonstrates how the readers are injecting their own personal identity politics far, far too much into Shimoku's work.

This post will not be focused on a singular aspect of Genshiken #122 but on a number of aspects that will take the entirety of the harem arc into consideration.  Thus, I will assume that the reader has already read up to and including #122 and as such, will not be spoiled.  Today, I would like to discuss the fan reaction to the conclusion of the arc.

Identity Politics and the Western Interpretation of Genshiken Nidaime
Please take a look at the comments section in Ogiue Maniax's blog posts here and here.  The common theme running through a great many of the comments is that of tremendous disappointment as though an important and decisive battle had been lost.  Indeed, numerous posts of Muda-kun's at Hearts of Furious Fancies charge headlong into the gender-and-identity-politics discourse.  In particular, three posts (here, here, and here) demonstrate a dramatic increase in tension as the conclusion of the harem arc became imminent.  The comments section of these three posts seethe with tension.

What was at stake?  Who stood to gain or lose depending on whom Madarame chose?  Why does it appear that so much was riding on whether or not Madarame chose Hato as a romantic partner?

When #122 was released, a number of groups felt totally defeated but none so much as the Hato-supporters.  A small group, myself among them, were satisfied with the result.  In my own case, I was tremendously pleased and impressed with the results (especially after Ogiue Maniax made translation clarifications for the chapter).  The amount of hurt feelings, bruised egos, and sour grapes might have puzzled me but it doesn't.

So, going back and answering the above questions, I will say, "Nothing," to the first and "No one" to the second.  The third question, "Why does it appear that so much was riding on whether or not Madarame chose Hato?" can be summarily answered with "gender and identity politics" but that response requires some explanation.

To begin with, the inclusion of a character such as Hato garnered a tremendously complex reaction from the fans of the original Genshiken run.  Internet fora referred to the "new" Genshiken club as "fujoshit," an obvious portmanteau of "fujoshi" and "shit" that served as a disparaging commentary on where many fans felt the series had gone.  Hato, in particular, was disliked.  In response, readers and fans sympathetic to gender and sexual identity politics locked shields and voiced support for Hato's legitimacy as a character.

Thus, Genshiken went from being a manga about how a few girls turned a homosocial group of hopeless otaku in university upside-down into a political battleground.  Yet neither group of readers actually had any armies to field and the battlefield itself was off in Japan.  The debates, arguments, and discussion could not help but be all for naught--the author resides in Japan and it is unknown how much the raging debate over his work reached him at all.  The stories of Hato and Madarame were actually being subverted and conformed to fit the political debate in the West.  Individuals sought validation for their chosen political ideology in the outcome of the harem arc.

"But ah," sayeth Muda-kun in the comments section of his blog, "Fandom without (secondary/ transformative) product is just consumption; interesting for marketing studies but ultimately disenchanted."

What is objectionable about all of this is that it isn't just transformative but, for lack of a better term, appropriative.  I admit to wincing when I use this term because "cultural appropriation" is the buzzword of choice on college campuses nowadays and I have to admit to disagreeing with the outright profligacy of its use and the Orwellian attempts to control discourse being employed.  Edward Said's seminal work, Orientalism, can be considered one of the sources for the current proliferation of the entire "cultural appropriation" argument.  Nevertheless, provides a framework from which to understand my criticisms of this appropriation.  Providing Said's definition of the term "Orientalism" is, perhaps, the best way to prime the reader to understand my premise.
"...Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious 'Western' imperialist plot to hold down the 'Oriental' world. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of 'interests' which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what 'we' do and what “they” cannot do or understand as 'we' do). Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with 'our' world.”

I am tremendously critical as to the extent which Edward Said's Orientalism took claims of racist and colonialist/imperialist Western responses to Middle Eastern culture and society.  Yet the political debate surrounding Genshiken's harem arc and subsequent outcry at its resolution is actually a good application of Said's critical methods so long as I provide this one particular caveat: Genshiken, a Japanese cultural artifact for and about Japanese people, published in a Japanese context, and engaging in a dialectic that is specifically Japanese, is being repurposed as a political tool by Western audiences for the purposes of self-validation.  To be clear, I do not object specifically to Genshiken being "appropriated"--Genshiken is being converted into a political MacGuffin for the purposes of individuals seeking psychological validation.  This isn't transformation but misappropriation and misuse of a cultural artifact.

Said wrote that "Ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied."  Yet, with a few exceptions, this deliberately Japanese artifact is being reconfigured.  It is not being understood or studied in context or parallel to its own cultural force.  Instead, it is solipsistically being decontextualized and converted into a sort of ideological vehicle for the purposes of psychological validation in a Western context.  This results in being dismissive for the purpose of reifying the identity politics of the self--an act which is, ironically, something that is intrinsically Western and not Japanese.  It is to this very dismissal and repurposing that I object.  That the dismissal and repurposing is done to further a uniquely Western vision of identity politics is ultimately more violent to the original cultural content.  This is unique because Said's objection was to the West's taxonomization (among other things) of the Middle East as a means of possession.  What is going on here is not a taxonomization but it is no less an attempt at possessing a cultural product for political purposes quite detached from the original context.

And before Muda-kun jumps in with Said's own words in contradiction to, let me nod to his (I presume) opposition with yet another quote from Orientalism:
“What I am interested in doing now is suggesting how the general liberal consensus that 'true' knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not 'true' knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. No one is helped in understanding this today when the adjective 'political' is used as a label to discredit any work for daring to violate the protocol of pretended suprapolitical objectivity.”

Touché, Muda-kun.  To depoliticize discourse would be not only disingenuous but outright oppressive.  What I am advocating is not the depoliticization of Genshiken-related discourse.  Quite the contrary--I believe that Genshiken must be recontextualized to the Japanese milieu.  Western identity politics has become a sort of "tyranny of the individual" against society as a whole--the pendulum has swung so far that it has destabilized any and all discourse and poisoned the dialectical well beneath the Orwellian Newspeak of "that which is problematic."  This discourse occupies an opposite spectral pole from Japanese identity-politics discourse which seeks to strike a balance between the individual and society in a way that is beneficial to the whole and not the sum of the parts.  This is why I find the response to Madarame's decision to be unhelpful, selfish, and narcissistic--individuals have staked their claim on turf that is on the Moon, so to speak.

I won't go so far as Said and accuse those who are appropriating Genshiken of being racist or imperialist nor do I mean "appropriate" in such a manner that it is pregnant with current political meaning as to be intrinsically offensive.  I do believe that the current climate is divisive and having a balkanizing effect on Western society which stands in sharp contrast to the Japanese cultural milieu.  Even when one examines Genshiken through the lens of identity politics with an eye to maintaining the integrity of the cultural context, one runs the tremendous risk of subverting the context beneath the narcissistic individualism of a Western interpretive framework.  Indeed, it is almost inevitable that persistence with this view, especially the attribution of socio-cultural value on the results of the harem arc for purposes of the validation of the political individual identity of the self, results in ignoring, dismissing, and sublimating the group-centered collectivist context that is a defining characteristic of Japanese society as a whole and Kio Shimoku's work as a cultural artifact.

I am not leveling this criticism solely at those who supported Madarame choosing Hato as a means of personal identity validation.  This criticism is universal.  None of us have a stake in what happens in the story beyond the boundaries of narrative, character, and cultural fidelity.  If you want a contextually Western examination of the themes of gender, sexuality, and identity politics, watch the award-winning Transparent on Amazon Video.  As for Genshiken, Shimoku has adroitly exposed a number of throbbing nerve clusters within the Japanese context of sexual, gender, and social dynamics.  For a phenomenal analysis of the entire arc as a whole and the Issue #122 in particular, I point again to Muda-kun's blog post here.  In this particular instance, Muda-kun maintains a thorough grasp on the cultural and social context without subducting it beneath the (occasionally tectonic) weight of his ideologically-informed analytical toolkit.  (Muda-kun, I really hope that doesn't come off as a backhanded compliment--I mean it in no such way.)  Muda-kun is also self-aware and cognizant of the tendency to let his ideological toolkit get the better of him--this keeps him intellectually honest, albeit at the expense of excessive apologies for being a "privileged" cisgendered heterosexual male.

I, however, shall not apologize for being a stick-in-the-mud.  While it may indeed inform my perspective, I nevertheless strive toward an objective appraisal of Genshiken.  I am also not offended by this behavior.  Annoyed is more accurate.  Disappointed, to be sure--I'm no stranger to being disappointed by humanity, especially since I am a student of human events.  If anything, I find the narcissism behind the anti-Hato criticism of Nidaime to be just as annoying as the narcissism behind the pro-Hato response to the ending of the harem arc.


Anonymous said...

Even in the japanese context, you have to consider that LGBT+ there suffer from invisibility. It's not the voice of the straight people context about what's the political problem that you also should hear, it's the japanese LGBT+ that you should give voice.
Also heteronormativity is a problem that exist in Japan too. Your opinion isn't even citing what the japanese LGBT+ thinks about it. You are just saying: "we can't judge by western standards"
Which doesn't invalidate that the author might have really done something REALLY wrong.
Queer Baiting impact in people view in institutionalized discrimination here, might not be that different from the impact there. And as Genshiken is published outside Japan, the negative impacts here for LGBT+ here doesn't lessen. Don't silence the impact queer baiting have on LGBT+ outside Japan!
The discriminator consequences here are real, and you can bet it have negative consequences for japanese LGBT+ too.

Dave Cesarano said...

I think you're missing my point, possibly because I was not clear enough. I'm not talking about LGBT+ politics, I'm talking about the individualistic response in the West. If Genshiken is giving a voice to the Japanese LGBT+ community, that is a separate topic entirely.

I'm not saying "we can't judge what is going on in Japan by Western standards." I'm not even discussing the Japanese LGBT+ situation whatsoever. Different topic. So... yeah, I'm not citing anything about it because it is off-topic.

What I am discussing are the people in the West that have a personal stake in a fictional situation--both pro-Hato and anti-Hato--that are upset about the harem arc. I am specifically talking about individuals in the West who are upset and ranting on the internet.

If you feel the author did something wrong, that's another topic entirely. If you have a blog and post what you think he did wrong, I'd be interested in reading it.

Aside from that, this post is not about discrimination or LGBT+ status whatsoever, in Japan or the West. It is about individualism and psychological narcissism of people posting their rage about a fictional story set in a foreign country. I'm not differentiating between the pro-Hato or anti-Hato camps whatsoever. The actual politics of identity don't actually enter into the discussion at all.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cesarano, thank you for this serious analysis on chapter 122 and the honor you do me referring to my posts, as well as - where you saw necessary- the warnings. I thank you also for you earlier comments on my posts and the links to my posts within this essay. I will post a link to this piece asap; as I believe that this kind of dialogue is some of, if not THE most important "secondary production" that can emerge from any fandom or larger field of study. Oh, and IT ROCKS!

I now have a lot more to mull over, especially Said - I really only have passing acquaintance with his works, and prefer Adrian Piper's approach, which is somewhere off along the Z axis to his admonitions. Further to this, I think I had better take more care in my analysis, if only to keep the fannish parts when I get caught up in the story, (yummy... narcissism! mmmmm!) from the (and you will excuse me if I use imprecise terms here) game of trying to intuit the larger wagers that Kio Shimoku makes in his tale, and whether of not he can meet them and raise them.

It might be unfair but I expect a lot from Kio Shimoku's Genshiken. I am sure lots of other readers do so as well; the trouble of course lies in all the different things we expect... Putting aside all of us outlanders, entering "Genshiken" into Twitter's search box brings up at least five Japanese University clubs inspired by his work. He has made a wager. You are right to point out that some of us in the West may judge that he has failed to make his bid, when by his rights and those of his core readership, he has. I am going to work on the presumption that he is ambitious, if only by the ambitions of the characters he has created.

To put it another way, I read UQHolder, but I would never expect from it what I expect from the Genshiken.

Chapter 122 is definitely far more complex than it appears. Definitely a "highlight the contradictions" crisis. For example, I never twigged to how hysterically "sewn into his(hir) girl suit" (to use a crude metaphor) Hato's chan character was before the Niko trip. (one can limit this to internal plotting and character consistency considerations without getting into gender expression politics - yeah, I tippy toe, some folks have a lot more skin in the game and it is rubbed raw, so I try to consider that as I traipse around...)

I remain indebted for your much earlier consideration of Yoshitake. I modified it a bit. Not evil or even Loki, but I sure see her as "stealth Kaminaga" or to narrow that down, a "conservative" defender of a female-exclusive fujoshi social. Given that fujoshi are easy targets, she would have her reasons for doing so if she considered them, but of course she acts mostly on impulse, following her instincts. She is in many ways "built" to do this; I must assume, to make a point and not just push the storyline along.

As for the main character, the club's "Wa" was preserved, for now, barely and in a strange way the resolution went beyond Kio Shimoku's colleague's "Everyone will be unhappy, equally, together" to ensuring as well that all parties were actively complicit in their state. (an observation on technique that I lifted from a very astute observer of Japanese politics)

Whether he closed a wound or opened one has yet to be seen. I'm waiting to see what he does next. I look forward to more dialogue with you on this great puzzle, your time permitting.