User Ricadan left the following on my last article.
Thank you for this article. My long-held love of moe anime and my more recent feminist development have long been at tension, and I think your analysis has done a lot to help me resolve that, especially your explanation of why marginalized groups (even women!) enjoy moe. To preface my questions I’ll summarize my understanding of this article: you argue that by taking moe anime purely on its own terms and tropes and failing to contextualize it historically (wrt to the emergence of ‘girl adolescence’ as an institution which produces domestic laborers) as well as socially (wrt its ability to resonate with alienated individuals who lack social stability), anti-moe feminism fails to grasp the political potential of moe anime, in that precisely through its complete repression of socio-political realities does it propose a utopian vision upon which we can produce a new “collective subjectivity”.
My question then is, what is the real political significance of appreciating these utopian visions? Specifically, what does it really mean to produce a “collective subjectivity”? Perhaps this is due to my unfamiliarity with critical theory, but it seems like this conclusion is precisely the utopianism that Marx criticized. Wasn’t Marx’s whole critique of utopian socialism that any socialist vision must first apprehend material reality or otherwise risk inadvertently supporting the dominant order? As fantastical as moe is, these works are often still underscored by commodity relations and merely present a nicer capitalism, or one that is hand-waved away. The easiest example to think of is when K-ON!’s Mugi literally hand waves away Yui’s struggle to buy a new guitar by revealing her family’s ownership of the music store. Perhaps more damning is that the scene uses the employees’ fear of getting fired and Mugi’s ignorance of such for comedic effect. To whatever extent these works ‘intervene’ in our understanding of social reality, they are still overwhelmingly ‘reflective’ of social reality, which makes the argument to reject these works much more compelling. I think you are aware of this since you allude to the Mugi example yourself, but that then leads back to the original question, which is, what does it mean in practice to “embrace” moe anime without avoiding the implicit support of capitalism that Marx identifies?
Going further, what is it that distinguishes moe anime from other media, or really any other ideological form, with regards to our ability to embrace or reject it? What distinguishes moe from, say, the invented mythologies of the reactionary nationalist or the heavenly teleologies of the religious fundamentalist? Surely these too present utopian visions of a unified social order, mostly divorced of social reality. Why then can we reject these, but not moe anime? It seems to me that if we can accept moe merely because it contains some implicit kernel of critique of alienation, in spite of all its reflective aspects, then we must also accept all ideological forms, since alienation is precisely what these try to resolve.
Overall I think your analysis and contextualization of moe anime is mostly correct, but I would love to see more elaboration on your conclusion. I look forward to your next article!
First of all, thank you for this excellent comment! You ask for some essential clarifications that I failed to include in the article. I’d like to answer you by considering the nature of the interpretive act.
Let me start by asking: is interpretation a revelation, where an enlightened critic exposes those elements of the artwork which were invisible to the ‘common reader’, or is it a (weak) form of rewriting, which, I should say, produces the work itself―at least produces a reading of it which did not exist prior to the interpretive gesture? I’d tend toward the latter, under the justification that no artwork is available to us ‘directly’: we always understand them―’common’ reader or not―through the prism of our habits and presuppositions, which are themselves not natural but socially constructed. Therefore, there is no work whose subtext we can merely reveal; all we can do is create a certain reading of it by ‘overcharging’ the work with our own theory(ies). If we agree on this, I think we can agree that my ultimate purpose in the article was not to expose some kind of utopian truth about moe (a kind of pretentious operation by which I would give those libfems the lesson they need), but rather produce the very theoretical conditions for the explosion of the political underside of that apolitically formulated fantasy which is that of moe anime’s unalienated space; by contrast, the liberal commentary I critiqued produces the conditions for the repression of these political fantasies which have, in my Marxist view, the more political impact (what I called “new collective fantasies”). What is clear from this is that the politics are not implicit in moe texts, but rather their necessary social charge, whether they will it or not: against the common belief that an artwork can be simply escapist, I assert that even the most innocuous piece of work is inextricably related to the social tissue on which it stands: and pursuing the text in such a way leads me to claiming that something like K-On!, far from being simply escapist, attempts to resolve the problems of space and time in postmodern capitalism by building an unalienated environment. The fantasy that was once apolitical becomes political when my reading produces the right conditions. More specifically, I assert that the political fantasy is necessarily one of ideological resolution; in other words, the clubroom in K-On! is not an environment merely safe from the issues mentioned above, but rather one where they are resolved. And under this reading I can claim the work’s utopian thrust: whatever we think of the world it fantasizes, it not an escape but a resolution to (some of) the issues facing our contemporary social life.
Although I did not go into those problems you do very well to mention in your comment (the ignorance toward material struggle etc.), a full Marxist exegesis would also render their full political charge. I will develop on this further, but what we can say at this point is that the effect of Marxist interpretation is one of demystification, grounded in the belief that there is no fantasy without a political unconscious to support it: we must make fantasies that were once apolitical available for political breakdown, so that they can be redirected toward a political worldview.
At this point I think I can start claiming that it is absolutely possible to ‘embrace moe’ without implicitly supporting capitalism. If interpretation is an act of creation, then its goal is, I would like to believe, to reveal those contradictions―between the attempted resolution and those remaining issues which the work, by virtue of its very conditions of enunciation, leaves untouched, even turns into jokes as you mention―which both bestow the work with utopian potential while also keeping it mystified in ideology, rather than judge on the ‘goodness’ of such visions; it is to awaken ourselves to the sheer political charge of everything around us. In this sense a “utopian proposition” is not an inherently positive political vision, but rather the necessary result of an attempt at a resolution, what we find when, having fully explored the political meanings of the work’s various aspects, we reach the source of its fantasy: the political problem it attempts to resolve―and in this sense, moe is all the more utopian that it is apolitically formulated: the vision of a ‘pure’ unalienated world is revelatory of a subconscious desire in the Freudian sense, an impulse which is at the source of the genre’s projections; revealing the extent to which we are drawn to these works for their liberatory streak while exposing their ideological limits is an awakening to critical thinking―and in the final moment of the analysis, when it all becomes connected to the problem of capitalism itself, we can be redirected to the struggle against the mode of production. The point then is not to categorize and judge of what utopias are good or bad, but rather make a political redirecting of the desires that underlie possible; this is, far more than any type of facile lamentation on the bourgeois nature of all that surrounds us, the type of critical operation which is faithful to the Marxist vision of a “ruthless criticism of all that exists”.
To support this point, I’d like to go back to YoriMoi.
As I mention in the article, YoriMoi has a very nationalistic streak, and it may well be fair to criticize it harshly for this; but this would fail to explain the real contradictions which push it to run with such a fantasy in the first place. YoriMoi, for all its twists and turns, can only afford to stage such a nationalistic resolution by starting with the problem of a dull every day, of the wish to escape; and then, is it not fair to ask: why nationalism as a resolution to this original, very real anxiety? And I believe that, quite like in K-On!, it is because of the loss of temporality in postmodern capital, although K-On! doesn’t return to a grand narrative like its counterpart. YoriMoi’s ideological commitment to a fighting narrative where one battles against all odds to reach a seemingly impossible goal is at one with its adherence to a national fantasy, which gives a sense of destiny (a linear storyline, then) and guarantees a sense of purpose against a repetitive, purposeless everyday life: we could say that in its political fantasy, the only way to find a purpose in society is to connect with a national narrative (supposedly other narratives, such as the revolutionary one, are not available anymore). The story thus has two layers: firstly, the girls’ journey, and secondly, the national fantasy. It’s important to mention that the former is not an allegory for the latter: the individualization at play is crucial, because in episode nine the show attempts a connection between the two; however, it is then severed again, as the show restores focus on the girls’ story, which it keeps until it ends on the photo of Megu, a moment of passing of the baton from Mari to her best friend which may be interpreted as the show expressing its will to inspire the viewer―a full return to an individualized picture. After finishing the show the end of episode nine acquires an almost ironic quality, in that the shouting becomes self-serving and almost manic given it leads nowhere: the whole adventure in the Antarctic itself is filled with personal narratives.
You could then visualize YoriMoi as a stacking of two series on top of each other: the first relating to the girls’ journey (the main girls and their friends, the places in which they live and go about their daily activities), and the second relating to the national fantasy (this would be the adult crew, the boat, and all the institutional facilities which are visited); the creation of a point of fusion between the two being the story’s purpose. It is a fantasy of bridging the individual and society, the nation being the fantastical figure which alone can salvage the atomized subject from complete alienation from society: but YoriMoi fails to do this.
The question of why it must return to the individual quest without ever completing the link is obvious from one thing, I believe, and that’s Shirase’s mother. The name Shirase is a reference to Shirase Nobu, who lead the first Japanese expedition to the Antarctic: but Shirase Takako is dead! Isn’t that telling? The mother―the historical guardian of the nation-state―is dead! Let me draw the consequence of this: Shirase’s mother being dead is, ultimately, an allegory for the death of such a grand national narrative; chasing after it (to the end of the world, at that) to find only a relic of it is equivalent to lamenting that the grand national narrative is not available anymore: the gap between the girls and society cannot be filled. I’ve watched the scene a few times over and it’s never failed to make me emotional, but what is striking is the lack of intensity: it is a very contemplative moment, where Shirase’s hand trembles, the camera trembles, she shouts for her mother a few times, and the music takes over, effectively cutting us from any direct access to the emotions on display (there is a powerful play on the conventions of those explosive emotional moments which are a staple of, say, Okada melodramas); it is a contemplative moment, one where we are left with a result: there was nothing in the place further than the universe; all we can do is contemplate the nonsensical, asymmetrical immensity of the world in front of us, the passing of time that never waits for us; that is the meaning of this landscape we stare at for a good bit of this scene. Thus YoriMoi’s is another approach to the quandaries of postmodern capitalism, but a failed one. And I believe it is why it is such an immensely accomplished work: whether it wills it or not, it is a story that confronts us with our raw emotions, with the fact that we cannot attribute to them some grander meaning; it is a success insofar as it is a complete failure as a nationalist text.
Ultimately a Marxist analysis would diagnose that this is because capitalism’s neoliberal phase individualizes to the point where even nationalism becomes something of a ghost, available only for vain fantasizing, as an object of sheer libidinal investment: in our own society this is best exemplified by the evidently contradictory nature of the various new nationalisms, which claim to return to the Nation-state’s grandeur while also allowing for a thoroughgoing liberalization of the national economies.
The work of demystification complete, we can claim that the problem is not with the political substance of YoriMoi’s political fantasy, but rather the very subterranean processes at work which attempt to resolve really existing contradictions; any artwork must, after all, find its source in the tissue of social life, and understanding the extent to which this tissue has been modified by capitalism is necessary to our interpretation, the condition under which a reading can be produced which fully exposes the political meaning of the work. YoriMoi’s utopian thrust, then, may not be ‘receivable’ from a progressive perspective, but what truly matters is to unravel its deeper roots, as it is always telling of some deeper social ill. How we want this to inform our communist project I’d like to leave to the political economists; nevertheless, the picture we can gain from such an exegesis seems to be more than worthwhile in vivifying our political imagination, what we may want from the world to come, what are the messages that people are sensitive to, etc.
If we understand the utopian impulse as the object we must decode well-nigh everywhere, there are a few more things we can say that I think are helpful to answering your question, notably on how moe works ‘reflect’ our social condition. What is the social function of art, and especially mass culture, anyway? The natural answer would be to impose some form of cultural hegemony, and doubtlessly there is much truth to this. In this sense, art is what maintains some sense of pleasure and meaning in a life so thoroughly atomized and alienated as ours (this is, it has been argued, why our society is one of the Spectacle: the more alienated social life is, the more capital needs to aestheticize itself in order to maintain a semblance of seduction). But I’d like to come back to that Jameson quote I used in the article:
[W]e cannot fully do justice to the ideological function of works like these unless we are willing to concede the presence within them of a more positive function as well: of what I will call, following the Frankfurt School, their Utopian or transcendent potential—that dimension of even the most degraded type of mass culture which remains implicitly, and no matter how faintly, negative and critical of the social order from which, as a product and as a commodity, it springs. At this point in the argument, then, the hypothesis is that the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about so be so manipulated[.]
I may reformulate, for comprehension’s sake, as follows: much as it wishes to sell a bourgeois worldview to its audience, mass culture must in some way deal with the reality that a large part of its addressees, whether it has intellectualized it or not, suffers from capitalism: resultingly, it is forced to address its struggles, even if to provide an illusory resolution to them. Mass culture, then, even if the product of a degraded subjectivity, is also utopian almost by necessity. The point is not to endorse the resolution, because utopia here is not understood as the resolution itself, but rather the impulse towards itーto reprise the famous Deleuzian comment on desire, when it comes to utopia, we should ask: how does it work? and not: what does it mean?
The same evidently goes for anime, whose subcultural position only reinforces this: is subculture after all not a becoming; much more than an event which inscribes itself in a lineage of resistances against the established order, is it not a force which builds its own space from within, against the alienated social reality that it doesn’t confront in direct (political) terms? Anime is not especially directed to a bourgeois audience, and its fantasies so often project an anxiety toward failure, a resentment toward the world which we are incapable of understanding for what it is; the truth is that even a harem anime is, in this sense, utopian; not because its solution is, but because it fantasizes one. So, you are both right and wrong: we must not endorse all forms; rather, we must decode them all equally―if contradiction is an essential Marxist category, then making these explode is the work of all Marxist exegesis, whatever its object; in doing so, we may distinguish between the desire and its resolution (its representation), the contradiction between both being the ultimate point of our work.
In this sense, I’d like to emphasize that my article was not an endorsement of moe’s utopian propositions per se, appealing―and retrospectively important to the formation of my own identity―as they may be, but a critique of those who claim to do political commentary without daring to invest themselves in those desiring machines which are the repressed political projections of moe anime.
Having understood all of the above, I can conclude by once again contesting reflection theory on the grounds of what a Marxist takes culture to be. Once we have answered the question of how it works, we can move to what does it mean, and this is the moment where we redirect to a political project. There is a complex mechanism here at play: desire cannot be represented adequately; that is to say, the movement toward an unalienated society is necessarily fantasized, in the sense that its formulation never quite reaches the real source of the impulse. Or, for the Marxist reformulation here, totality is not available for representation: if the unconscious is political, then that means the sense of an alienating social totality that we must resolve cannot be represented adequately in any one artwork. This means that the part of it represented in the artwork is necessarily fantasized, a never quite adequate representation of the real problem; which is why the resolution is itself inadequate (of course, Marxism itself requires a number of abstractions to function; our belief is merely that it is the best method in understand that totality, the one that gets us farthest in this project of effectively transforming the world). And at this point it’s naïve to say that any work reflects: rather, it gives shape to a localized view on the totality, which is to say, it builds an imaginary picture of it based on whatever its subject-position is: although it’s fair to say (as I have) that some works are submissive to the social order, it is more accurate to say that they actively support it, build a picture in which these issues stop being problems. So in K-On!, the fantasy of the unalienated world is grounded in the clubroom, but that is precisely the limit too: it’s a localized space; outside, the contradictions remain―or rather, they are rendered unimportant by the resolution within the space of the clubroom: for instance, Mugi’s ignorance that you mention is grounded in the fact that she is discovering the world, becoming part of the unalienated community; in other (rather more humanistic) words, discovering her humanity: all beyond that is sheer innocence and naiveté. So, what do we conclude? That K-On! projects a certain utopian impulse, which it expresses with a local (therefore contradictory) manifestation (the clubroom). We understand how the impulse works: the desire for direct communication and temporal stability; what does it mean? That neoliberal capitalism is fucked up as shit, maybe; after all, it’s atomized society enough that our utopia is now a clubroom―it’s imperfect, but incredibly telling, and powerful to the audience!
Totality is only available through its local manifestations, of which art is one―if we believe this, we must believe that it is art which plays a role in building our sense of that totality, that it’s not the totality which imposes itself on the art, but rather art which is constitutive of what we can say about it. In fact, that’s why I still believe decoding culture can be so useful to our political―utopian?―projects: because art is so constitutive to our fantasies, so decoding it can help us imagine what kind of world could get us closest to these impulses