Thursday, 26 February 2015

Karatani: On Yanagita Kunio and nomadism

Last year I read two new books in which Karatani Kôjin follows up on his ideas in The Structure of World History. One of them is Yûdôron - Yanagita Kunio to yamabito (Nomadism - Yanagita Kunio and the mountain people), the other is Teikoku no kôzô (The structure of empire). I'd like to make some remarks about the former here, postponing a discussion of the latter to some other day.

In Yûdôron Karatani presents an interesting and provocative reading of the folklorist Yanagita Kunio. A common criticism against Yanagita in recent decades has been that although he showed interest in marginal populations like the "mountain people" (yamabito) or various itinerant groups (hyôhakumin) when he was young, he turned his back to them in his mature writings, where he instead focused on establishing a nationalistically flavoured “one-nation ethnology” (ikkoku minzokugaku) centred on the image of settled, rice-cultivating jômin (abiding or permanent people). According to Karatani, it was no coincidence that such criticism started to be aired in the 1970s and 1980s, when the global turn of Japanese capitalism encouraged the spread of postmodernism, and ideas such as Deleuze & Guattari's "nomadology" and criticism of Japanese "closure" were in tune with the deterritorializing movement of Japanese global capital (Karatani 2014:9f, 39). 

Yanagita Kunio

Karatani defends Yanagita by pointing out that he was a person who went against and resisted the prevailing mood of the times – unlike his latter day postmodernist critics. The 1930s, the period when Yanagita started to focus on the jômin, was another period of Japanese expansion when nomadism was in vogue. Imperialism was bolstered by an ideology of breaking out of the constrained space of the Japanese islands, of new open horizons opening up in Manchuria, and by the celebration of "nomadic" rônin in films and literature.

By pointing this out, Karatani attempts to establish Yanagita’s credentials as a person who remained true to the radical political ideals of his earlier period, but who deliberately stopped voicing them - at least in a certain form - when he realized that they might be recuperated by the prevailing ideologies. As Japan turned towards imperialist expansion, ideologies like the “philosophy of world history” became dominant. This "philosophy" attempted to read a world-historical meaning into Japan's war with the Western powers and Western modernity. It was propagated by the Kyoto School, a philosophical school which is sometimes viewed as a forerunner of postmodernism and which regained popularity in Japan along with postmodernism. People dissatisfied with such ideologies, Karatani states, found rescue in Yanagita’s work and even today he remains a crucial resource for people dissatisfied with global capitalism (ibid. 31).

Shiiba village

Why did Yanagita start to focus on the "mountain people" to begin with? Not because of influence from romantic literature or any romantic fascination with supernatural, as some commentators like Ôtsuka Eiji have suggested. Instead, Karatani claims that Yanagita’s thought cannot be separated from the economy in the old sense of saving the people from starvation (as expressed in the term keisei saimin, "ordering the world and saving the people"which is the origin of the modern Japanese word for economy). What he strove for was a policy of collective self-help (kyôdô jijo) by farmers independent of the state (ibid. 58). 

Swidden (yakihata) is still practiced in Shiiba Village

During his travels as a bureaucrat and agricultural scholar, he was shocked by his visit to Shiiba Village, a mountain village on Kyushu whose inhabitants were living on swidden and boar-hunting. What he saw there was the idea of collective self-help in practice, and this awakened his interest in "mountain peoples" (ibid. 67f). Although the settled agriculturalists on the plains viewed these mountain dwellers as uncanny and primitive, Karatani follows James Scott’s work on “Zomia” in describing them as peoples who have made a voluntary choice to live a stateless life. Taking their refuge in the mountains they constructed egalitarian societies, living a mobile life of swidden and hunting, out of reach of the rice-cultivating "paddy kingdom" in the valleys with its centralized power and hierarchies. Yanagita himself referred to this lifestyle as socialism. Karatani claims that Yanagita never abandoned his interest in these mountain people, even though he stopped writing about them (ibid. 71f, 80, 88).

Two kinds of nomadism

To Karatani, it's important to distinguish between two kinds of nomadism. According to him, what Yanagita rejected in the 30’s when he turned to his “one-nation ethnology" was neither nomadism (yûdôsei) per se nor the socialist mutual help utopia of the society of hunters and gatherers he had seen in Shiiba Village, but only the nomadism of pastoralists (yûbokumin).

Before the nomadism of the pastoralists, there existed another kind, that of hunters and gatherers. Here a gift economy existed which was different from that described by Marcel Mauss. To Mauss there were no “pure gifts” - all gifts had to be returned according to a principle of mutuality. Karatani follows Marshall Sahlins in arguing that among hunters and gatherers gift giving was based on sharing or pooling rather than strict reciprocal exchange. Itinerant peoples share things since accumulating wealth is meaningless for them. Only when settled communities come into being does a form of mutual exchange based on strict reciprocity arise. Importantly, however, the idea of pooling or sharing continues to be important within communities even after settlement. While relations between communities take the form of mutual exchange, relations within communities are shaped according to the norm of sharing (ibid. 179). The continued importance of the ideal of sharing can be seen in the fact that it acts as a normative force that helps obstruct great inequalities even when accumulation of wealth and power become possible. Historically, this ideal of egalitarian sharing - which Karatani refers to a mode of exchange A (see Figure 1) - offers a possibility for checking the rise of the state and capital. For more on what Karatani means by modes of exchange, see my earlier post here.

Figure 1: Karatani's four modes of exchange

The nomadism of hunters and gatherers shouldn’t be confused with that of the pastoralists, who already live within a division of labour with settled agricultural communities and whose lifestyles are eminently compatible with state power as well as capitalism. As warriors (Deleuze & Guattari's nomadic war machine), the pastoralists created states and empires (mode of exchange B), and as itinerant merchants and artisans, they contributed to to the rise of capitalism (mode of exchange C).
Pastoral nomads move between communities, and by commodities or war they penetrate, invade and rule the interior of the communities. In terms of mode of exchange, the nomadism of pastoral nomads is not guided by that of A, but of B and C. (ibid. 189f)
Karatani points out that even Scott’s Zomian hill peoples take part in various exchanges with the "paddy kingdoms" of the plains, so they too differ from the primordial bands of hunters and gatherers. Deleuze & Guattari’s “nomadology” was modelled on the image of pastoral nomads, but such nomads cannot offer a principle for overcoming state and capital. Instead they "call" both state and capital into being, as modes of exchange suited to their own movement between settled communities. In order to find a key for overcoming state and capital, one needs to turn to the nomadism of the hunters and gatherers (ibid. 190ff).

Karatani's criticism of Yoshimoto and Amino

Among the most interesting pars of the book is where Karatani criticizes other leading intellectuals like Yoshimoto Takaaki and Amino Yoshihiko.

Yoshimoto Takaaki is criticized for merely being interested in the cultural aspects of Yanagita’s work. Yoshimoto’s work Kyôdôgensôron (A theory of communal illusion) was one of the works that popularized Yanagita in the 60's, but the way it treats Yanagita is typical of the tendency to read him as a mere researcher of folk beliefs and culture. Karatani remarks that Yoshimoto here follows the general trend among postwar Marxist critics, who tended to focus on culture, ideology or hegemony in response to the failure of revolution and the defeat of Marxism by fascism in previous decades. According to Karatani, what Yoshimoto called "communal illusion" was simply another word for the ideological superstructure. To Karatani, however, Yanagita's work can’t be separated from agricultural policy, i.e. from the economic “base”(ibid. 30-33). 

Amino Yoshihiko

Karatani's critique of Amino Yoshihiko is more respectful but also more thoroughgoing. With the vogue of interest in outcasts, indigenous people and minorities in the 70s and 80s, Amino - who until then had been isolated among Japanese historians - started to become widely read. Although Amino's writings on “non-agricultural peoples” in Japanese history looked like readymade for a critique of Yanagita, Amino never himself engaged in such a critique. Instead, his  target was the Kôzaha school of Marxism to which he had belonged in his youth. Unlike Yoshimoto, Amino never turned to focus solely on culture or the ideological superstructure. Instead he expanded the idea of the economic base to include not only modes of production but also what Karatani calls “modes of exchange”. As against the Kôzaha Marxists, who viewed feudalism as structured around the axis landlord-peasant, Amino emphasized a wider domain of circulation structured by the activities of non-agricultural peoples such as outcasts, artistic performers, traders, artisans, fishermen and religious specialists (ibid. 35f). By paying attention to these various groups, Amino showed that medieval Japanese society was structured by far more complex relations of authority and subordination as well as ideas about freedom than those characteristic of the landlord-peasant relation. He also showed that all of these relations had to be taken into account in order to understand the strength of the so-called emperor system in Japan.

Karatani argues that while Amino’s critique is valid against Kôzaha Marxism, it is not applicable to Yanagita (ibid. 37f). Karatani then delivers his basic criticism of Amino. Although it might look as if he and Amino have much in common - such as the focus on modes of exchange, the interest in exploring new ideas of the public suited to rootless, nomadic populations, and the question of how such ideas are linked freedom - he criticizes Amino for having mixed up two kinds of nomadism.

Firstly, there were the nomadic, non-agricultural strata Amino studied – artists and artisans – but as his own research bears out, these strata in fact functioned as a support for the emperor system and for many of the hierarchies structuring Japanese society. Capitalist merchants as well as warriors developed out of the non-agricultural stratum of artisans and performers of which they were originally part. While Amino starts out searching for ways to criticize the power of that system, he thus ends up painting a positive picture of the forces that support it.
Against the settled agriculturalists, Amino valorized the "non-agricultural peoples", i.e. itinerant artists. In them he tried to discern the key for overcoming the emperor system state. […]. However, although this type of nomads may negate setttledness and the hierarchies it brings with it, it should be noted that they at the same time directly link up with the state. In similar vein, nomadic pastoralists rejected settled society while forming a state ruling over the settled peoples. The emperor system state cannot be resisted by taking recourse to this type of nomadism, which is furthermore also unable to offer resistance to capital. (ibid. 40)
In Karatani's view, itinerant artists, traders and artisans are like pastoral nomads: by moving between settled communities, they nourish capitalist trade and "call" the imperial state into being as a power that transcends and integrates the local communities. 

Secondly, however, there are the mountain people Yanagita wrote about or the primitive bands of hunters and gatherers, where true equality and statelessness could be found. "Mountain peoples or nomadic hunters and gatherers may appears to resemble itinerant groups like artisans and performers, but are crucially different. Without paying attention to two varieties of nomadism [...] the predicament we find ourselves in today also cannot be understood" (ibid. 38).

Sanka, itinerant people of old Japan
Critical remarks

In my view, there are four points where Karatani's arguments fail to convince. 

Firstly, although his reinterpretation of Yanagita is interesting, I really cannot see that it explains Yanagita's move to focus on the jômin in the 30s. If Yanagita had really been pursuing a new form in which to realize his old dream of nomadism, then why would he focus on settled jômin which he himself portrayed as a mainspring of the settled, agricultural people and which he, as Karatani points out, believed “included the emperor” (ibid. 24)? Karatani’s rather feeble justification is that Yanagita at the same time turned to investigate individual religious beliefs which supposedly he thought were linked to the jômin, but this explanation still fails to clarify how a freedom associated with a "good" form of nomadism - that of hunters and gatherers - could be expressed in the figure of the jômin who where no nomads at all. To be sure, Karatani sees the "nation" as one way in which the ideal of egalitarian sharing can live on, but at least in this work Karatani fails do discuss the problems of the nation properly. What needs to be pointed out for the argument to advance in the direction Karatani wants to take it is that the nation too is nothing but a corrupt manifestation of the old ideal and that the nation as an ideology is just as complicit in supporting state and capitalism as the ideology of nomadism. This critique of the nation figures very prominently in other works by Karatani, but in this book it is for some reason almost wholly absent. The result is that Yanagita and his turn to a "one-nation ethnology" based on the jômin are left curiously uncriticized. The drawback of this for Karatani is that such a critique is exactly what would have been needed for his own argument to proceed properly. After all, what he wishes to show is that we mustn't rest satisfied with the egalitarian sharing of hunters and gatherers being resurrected in mode of exchange A (the nation), but proceed to the realization of mode of exchange D (the elusive "X" that resurrects all it on a higher plane beyond capital, state and nation). As he writes elsewhere, mode of exchange D is the only way to escape the present system, which is a "triad" or "borromean ring" in which nation, state and capital (mode of exchange A, B and C) mutually support and stabilize each other.

Shiiba Village

Secondly, the criticism of Amino seems unfair. To begin with, it seems strange to criticize Amino for the alleged emperor-worship of his non-agricultural “nomads” and to reject him in favor of Yanagita when, as Karatani makes clear, Yanagita himself also took part in this worship by including the emperor in the jôminWhat I would like to hold on to in Amino’s portrayal of the various itinerant peoples of the Japanese archipelago is that they, in various ways, embodied remnants of an older idea of freedom which he referred to in his writings as muen. Amino is explicit about the fact that muen was never more than partly realized in medieval Japan. It is best understood from a Blochian perspective, as a radical but elusive Utopian truth-content which is always mixed up with ideological elements in its historical manifestations. Amino thus never denied the presence of hierarchies in the various communities and groups he studied, nor the fact that the energies of muen were often recuperated by the forces supporting the emperor-system or capitalism. If that is so, is his standpoint really so different from Karatani’s? Karatani's own idea of freedom is the elusive “X” (mode of exchange D, which resurrects mode of exchange A on a higher plane). As he himself points out, this "X" is hardly ever present in real history except as a transcendental utopian semblance, e.g. in world religions or the "imperial principle" used by empires to legitimate their rule. Considering Karatani's own celebratory account of the utopian aspects of "empire" in Teikoku no kôzô, it seems unfair to accuse Amino of having discerned similar utopian aspects of the medieval emperor-system. Why not be generous enough to recognize the presence of such a utopian semblance also in what Amino called muen? To be sure, Karatani claims that the nomadism of the type Amino discusses “is not a genuine recovery of the nomadism that existed before settlement” (ibid. 192), but what are his grounds for that claim? I fail to see why it would be impossible to see the ideal of muen as a reflection of the same Utopian promise that Karatani associates with the free and egalitarian sharing among hunters and gatherers. In fact, in a recent text (Karatani 2014b), Karatani discerns an agreement between his and Amino’s projects. Here he admits that what Amino called gen-muen (primordial muen) is similar to what Karatani himself wants to capture with his discussion about primordial nomads and yamabito, namely a form of model for communism.

Thirdly, I am skeptical against Karatani’s attempt to draw a water-tight line of demarcation between two types of nomads – those that affirm the state and those that reject it. Were the mountain peoples that he contrasts to the itinerant artists discussed by Amino really independent of the state? As Karatani points out, Scott acknowledges that a lot of trade and interaction took place between the Zomian hill tribes and the paddy kingdoms, and I wonder if something similar didn't also hold true of the Japanese mountain peoples (yamabito). Amino and other historians have documented how outcast groups (yama no min) similar to the mountain peoples were directly tied to the emperor or to temples, e.g. the Yasedôji living in the mountains north-east of Kyoto that were employed by the emperor as palanquin carriers and who were both despised and symbolically integrated into the state edifice as holy at the same time (e.g. Amino 2001:132). Is it really possible to uphold a strict line of demarcation between the yama no min and the yamabito? Even if hunters and gatherers existing before the state of course lacked such ties to the emperor, is it appropriate to let such hunters and gatherers be represented by the yamabito?

Finally, what is the way to genuinely resurrect the primordial freedom of hunters and gatherers in the form of mode of exchange D? Here Karatani disappoints. He writes almost nothing about it, except that “it doesn’t exist in reality” (sore wa gen ni sonzai suru mono de ha nai) but is nevertheless compulsively repeated in history as a striving and that it was originally expressed in the guise of universal religion (Karatani 2014:193). Apart from his speculation about how the bands of hunters and gatherers must have lived in primordial times, no historical examples are given. What hope does Karatani possibly see in them today, after the rise of the state and the capitalist market which has driven them out of history? Karatani is driven to this extraordinarily weak position by his insistence that mode of exchange D must be free from all entanglement with state and capital. But rather than insisting on an impossible purity lacking in historical substance which can only be speculated to have existed in primordial times before settlement, isn't it better to accept the dialectical entanglement of myth and truth, ideology and truth content, and work with that towards the purity, even though we may never be able to grasp it or realize it fully?

Yet to Karatani it appears that anything that is not a real solution must be rejected. He is not content with a mere Utopian Vor-Schein or promise of happiness. The elusive X he is searching for must be able to function as a mode of exchange, as a way of actually structuring the interaction holding together a society. Even though Karatani's position is weak, this insistence must be respected. Once he pursued the solution in NAM (the New Associationist Movement), which existed 2000-2003 and which was his attempt to start up a social movement against state, capital and nation. At that time, he clearly believed he had found the winning formula in the "associationist" organization of NAM, which he thought would be able to operate according to other modes of exchange that those of state, capital or nation. After the failure of NAM, he has been forced to rely on what appears to be an almost desperate hope that the mode of exchange D will one day be resurrected and realized. 

Even today, however, there are some phenomena that give substance to his hope. In 2011, he participated in the post-Fukushima street demonstrations against nuclear power. In a talk with Matsumoto Hajime, one of the arrangers, he praised Matsumoto's group - a gathering of young people often referred to as the Amateur Riot (Shirôto no ran) - as a resurrection of the primordial bands of hunters and gatherers. 
It's interesting that you engaged in circle activities around homelessness at the university. If we enlarge the picture, the earliest stage of humanity was the society of nomadic hunters and gatherers. Since they didn't settle down, they were like homeless people. They wandered around in groups. So they were like a demonstration. They were equal, sharing all food with each other. At that time, what anthropologists call reciprocity didn't yet exist. Since they were on the move, they had no use of prey and other possessions so they gave them away. Looking at what you have been doing from your very first activities like homelessness, I get the feeling that you are resurrecting this nomadic tradition. (Karatani & Matsumoto 2012:118)
Later in the talk, he also praises the group's attempts to set up their own small alternative economy that helps them survive without support from the state or companies. It's almost as if he sees them as a fulfillment of the dream he once pursued in NAM. 

Amateur Riot - presentday nomads?


Amino, Yoshihiko (2001 [1974]) Môko shûrai, Tokyo: Shôgakukan.

Karatani, Kôjin (2014) Yūdōron – Yanagita Kunio to yamabito, Tokyo: Bungei shunju.

Karatani (2014) “Amino Yoshihiko no komyunizumu”, Gendai shisô, Vol. 42-19 (Feb): 8-11

Karatani, Kôjin & Matsumoto, Hajime (2012) “Seikatsu to ittaika shita demo wa tezuyoi”, pp 116-129, in Genpatsu to demo, soshite minshushugi, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Towards a post-apocalyptic environmentalism?

Just some thoughts on what looks like an interesting development in environmentalist discourse. For a long time the environmental movement has talked about the catastrophe in the future tense. Its rallying cry has been that we must act before it's too late. Even when protests have been directed at ongoing examples of environmental destruction, the tendency has usually been to stress the fundamental threat against nature and human life in general that will follow if business goes on as usual. As Thörn points out, the environmental movement stands out compared to most other movements through its "future-oriented pessimism": Utopia is less important as a mobilizing tool than the coming catastrophe or collapse (Thörn 1997: 322, 372).

Apocalyptic imagery is still regularly invoked in environmentalist discourse, not only by activists and NGOs but also by establishment figures (think Al Gore). Indeed, so often have we heard about melting polar caps, coming water shortages, hurricanes, floods and growing chaos that we are increasingly starting to see all this as part of an establishment discourse. Instead of being oppositional and system-critical, invoking the apocalypse increasingly seems to be part of a standard jargon, the comme-il-faut of respectable discourse. Or as Timothy Luke puts it: “Climate change now appears to be a collectively acted, globally produced, and continuously staged new disaster movie without a single director, but with billions of producers following simple scripts” (Luke 2015:291).

However, recently I've come across quite a few voices offering a different perspective.

Apocalyptic imagery and depoliticization

Let me start with the geographer Erik Swyngedouw, who believes that apocalyptic imagery has become part and parcel of a post-political framing of the climate. Rather than radicalizing or politicizing the climate issue, it coexists with depoliticization. "At the symbolic level, apocalyptic imaginaries are extraordinarily powerful in disavowing or displacing social conflict and antagonisms”, he points out (Swyngedouw 2010:219). The environmental movement itself is not innocent of this depoliticization. Along with its endorsement of the organs of global governance (the UNFCCC process, the Kyoto Protocol etc), it has become integrated as a stakeholder in the negotiations, abandoning contestation and replacing politics with management.

Swyngedouw further argues that in response to the apocalyptic establishment discourse, one ought to point out that to many people the apocalypse is already here, especially in the global south. To him, it is this insight that is mobilizing. People today increasingly protest not only out of fear for the future, but also out of anger at an already ongoing catastrophe and to demand justice.
In the face of the cataclysmic imaginaries mobilized to assure that the apocalypse will NOT happen (if the right techno-managerial actions are taken), the only reasonable response is "Don’t worry (Al Gore, Prince Charles, many environmental activists...), you are really right, the environmental apocalypse WILL not only happen, it has already happened, IT IS ALREADY HERE". (ibid. 2013:15)
Bringing this message home also means to redirect the struggle, which has to become an anti-capitalist struggle as well. It is simply not true that "if the ship goes down, the first-class passengers drown too". As on Titanic, many of the first-class passengers will find themselves a lifeboat. "The apocalypse is combined and uneven. And it is within this reality that political choices have to be made and sides taken” (ibid. 17).

Next, let me turn to the political scientist Chris Methmann. Like Swyngedouw, he observes that the evidence is mounting that alarmist reports invoking future catastrophes are insufficient to move politicians to take the necessary steps to curb the environmental destruction. Despite the apocalyptic imagery, environmentalist discourse rarely results in exceptional or extraordinary measures.

Why then does this apocalyptic discourse fail to produce extraordinary measures? Following Foucault, Methmann asks what is served by this seeming failure. Taking the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) as an example, he argues that:
... the failure of CDM serves carbon governmentality to enfold its actual function. It brings about a way of governing the earth’s carbon cycle which purports to save the climate but in fact protects business as usual from climate protection. The failure of the CDM is the success of a depoliticization of climate change politics. (Methmann 2013:71)
He adds that “understanding the failure of the CDM as a success in depoliticization may enhance our understanding of the poor performance of present-day climate governance” (ibid. 86). Rather than destabilizing the hegemonic order, the apocalyptic imagery helps integrating environmentalist discourses into that very order without changing the basic structures of the world economy (for this more general argument, see also ibid. 2010). 

The Day After Tomorrow 

According to Methmann, then, the apocalyptic rhetoric is highly successful - if not in reducing emissions then in deflecting criticism of the system. This feat is achieved by constructing a "universal threat on a planetary scale" and invoking "humanity as a collective victim" while leaving the enemy unspecified. Meanwhile the discourse articulates climate change as "overstraining the capacity of political actors, and thus as ruling out exceptional measures" (Methmann & Rothe 2012:324, 329).
Both Swyngedouw and Methmann offer a critical perspective on the conventional environmental message about the coming catastrophe. That even established actors use an apocalyptic rhetoric does nothing to show that the climate summits are not depoliticized. On the contrary, as both Swyngedouw and Methmann show, this rhetoric is symbiotically connected to depoliticization.

Combined and uneven apocalypse
The picture offered by Swyngedouw and Methmann of a world in which apocalyptic destruction is allowed to play itself out unperturbed by an official "green" discourse which has become system-functional gives us glimpses into what could be called a post-apocalyptic sensibility. In literary theory, the "post-apocalypse" is already a well-established notion. James Berger, for instance, writes as follows:
Modernity is often said to be preoccupied by a sense of crisis, viewing it as imminent, perhaps even longing for, some conclusive catastrophe. This sense of crisis has not disappeared, but in the late twentieth century it exists together with another sense, that the conclusive catastrophe has already occurred, the crisis is over (perhaps we are not aware of exactly when it transpired), and the ceaseless activity of our time - the new with its procession of almost indistinguishable disasters - is only a complex form of stasis. (Berger 1999:xiii)
By a post-apocalyptic sensibility I mean a sensibility that becomes dominant when people start to experience themselves as powerless to prevent a loss which they once feared, when no-one hopes any longer that the ship mentioned by Swyngedouw can be saved. When that happens the loss is no longer experienced as a shock that needs to be averted or mastered, but is rather internalized as an inescapable fact which must be taken as the point of departure for all future political action, including attempts to salvage what can still be saved and demanding redress and settling wrongs. 
The third voice I would like to introduce here illuminates this stance. It is that of Evan Calder Williams, author of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011).  The title is a pun on Trotsky's notion of combined and uneven development. Here is the key sentence:
The world is already apocalyptic. Just not all at the same time. To be overcome: the notion of apocalypse as eventual, the ground-clearing revelatory trauma that immediately founds a new nomos of the earth. In its place: combined and uneven apocalypse. (Williams 2011: 149)
The book is an exploration of “the apocalyptic fantasies of late capitalism” as revealed in film and literature. It also provides a useful way to expand on the arguments on environmentalist discourse made by Swyngedouw and Methmann. It does so through its much more thorough exploration of the idea that the apocalypse is already occurring, the "conviction… that disaster is not just around the corner but that the corner has already been turned" (ibid. 4). 
Williams stresses that the post-apocalypse is not a simple reflection of actual and future destruction. It is not an "image of that-to-be" but rather "a perspectival stance to be taken up now" (ibid. 157). "We become post-apocalyptic", he writes, "when we accept the present as rubbish" (ibid. 9). 

Central to his argument is the distinction between catastrophe and apocalypse. The catastrophe is "end without revelation" (ibid. 4f), the sad, meaningless destruction we all dread even as we see it all around ourselves. What then is apocalypse? A central trope in the book that clarifies this is that of salvagepunk. This is a vision of the world as broken and dead, "a world of stealing from the ruins, robbing the graves, and making do" (ibid. 70). In this world "the cataclysmic catastrophe… has already happened" and the work is to "uncover the revelations that never showed themselves: they are buried in all the rubble" (ibid. 11). 
The salvaging activity Williams evokes here is reminiscent of that of Benjamin, who advocated a "tactile" getting used to the dream-world of capitalism as a first step in order to dispel it (Benjamin 1977a:167). This was a strategy, not of subjecting the dream to an external critique, but of groping one’s way inside it in search of the dialectics of awakening at work within it. Just as for the Jews “every second was a small gate through which Messiah might enter” (ibid 1977b:261), so for Benjamin every piece of rags or refuse was a potential “dialectical image” which might trigger the sudden flash of recognition, the involuntary memory, which would help dispel the nightmare.
The revelations that Williams hopes to salvage, however, do not  bring about a clarification “allowing you to know fully where good and evil stand” as in the Judeo-Christian model. To him, “apocalypse is not the clarification itself but a wound of the present that exposes the unseen… from which after-work can begin to dig out all the failed starts, possible histories” (Williams 2011:6). This unseen is no ineffable mystic matter, but that which remains unseen within capitalism, all that escapes the logic of surplus-value – “everything that is worth a damn yet which does not produce value” (ibid. 8).
He affirms the political potential of this attitude, which he describes as a lens that helps bring out the weak possibilities for counteracting the ongoing catastrophe: “until we think of ourselves as the post-apocalyptic agents of this system’s ongoing apocalypse, we cannot counter this bleak trendline toward catastrophe” (ibid. 13).
Williams stands out by his attempt to theorize the post-apocalypse in the light of the "combined and uneven" way capitalism is wreaking havoc with the earth. That the crisis is over doesn't mean that all is peace. On the contrary, life in the rubbles is seldom peaceful. One way to bring this out is through another of the book's tropes, that of the zombie - the emblem in popular culture for “the terminal crisis that never ends or resolves” and the projection of the fear for the hungering masses and anxieties about overpopulation (ibid. 11). Passing through a variety of incarnations - from the mindless laborer to the mindless consumer and back - he ends with evoking another, that of the accuser:
We start here with the bloodied, one-eyed glare of the accusing, raised up to get beaten down again, the endless cycle of not being allowed to die and being blamed for the fact. Not the campy schlock of the mass moaning ‘brains…’ but the quiet rage and planning of the group in formation. Bourgeois, you have understood nothing. (ibid. 75)
Five varieties of contemporary post-apocalyptic environmentalism
With differing emphasis the texts mentioned above suggest that what needs to be put in focus is the ongoing "uneven" catastrophe (Swyngedouw, Williams) rather than the future catastrophe evoked by an apocalyptic rhetoric which deflects attention from socio-economic inequality and depoliticizes the climate issue (Swyngedouw, Methmann). Taken together they form part of a common discourse, which is suited to an environmentalist movement driven more by outrage at catastrophes that are already happening than by fear of future catastrophes. 
This discourse is admittedly fragmentary and its contours hazy. Yet it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that it has assumed somewhat clearer form in recent years. The widespread disappointment generated by the failed negotiations at the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen 2009 may have been one factor behind the growing skepticism regarding mainstream established environmentalism, the institutions of global climate governance, and the discourses associated with them.
Meanwhile, almost all well-known waves of protest that have infused fresh anti-institutional energy in the environmental movement in recent years seem to be nourished by already ongoing rather than future catastrophes. Let me mention five examples:
(1) The wave of environmental activism referred to as "blockadia" by Naomi Klein. “Blockadia is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines” (Klein 2014:294f). The wave of youth activism associated with names and labels like, Power Shift and the Keystone XL pipeline to a considerable extent seems driven not by fear for the future so much as concern at what is being destroyed here and now, in specific locales and in a way that victimizes specific groups, in order to put new technologies of extraction to use. As Klein points out these technologies all depend on the creation of clearly identifiable sacrifice zones – “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress”. These places are often “bound up with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered deserving of sacrifice” (ibid. 169f).
(2) The struggles of indigenous peoples for whom the attempt to defend their autonomy and the rights of mother nature are a prolongation of their resistance against colonialism. Let me quote Arundhati Roy here: "If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them" (Roy 2010). For an example, take the Rights of Nature Tribunals, which were introduced an event I attended last year at the Cumbre de los pueblos in Peru, at the time of the COP20 in Lima. These are tribunals set up by activists, treating cases such as polluted water, oil spills, hydroelectric dams that will flood communities and cause major displacement, murdered anti-mining activists, "man-made earthquakes" caused by fracking, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the oil extraction in Yasuni in Ecuador, and attempts to commodify nature such as REDD+. It's impossible for me to do justice to the eloquence of the people presenting these cases. Suffice it to say that a message that was repeated, in various forms, by all speakers was this: we are suffering. Not in the future, but right now, already. Clearly what bothered them was not so much the threat of a catastrophe to come so much as the exploitation already going on, of nature as well as of the people living at the sites of extraction. 
(3) In the Japanese post-Fukushima anti-nuke movement, the catastrophe is certainly less perceived as a future possibility than as one that has already occurred. The disaster actualized a host of latent problems, not all of them environmental in a narrow sense. The impact on individuals, communities and economies was traumatic. Controversy engulfed reconstruction efforts, not least in regard to corruption and the involvement of organized crime in recruiting day laborers for the sanitation efforts. Fear of discrimination (similar to the discrimination of people who suffered radiation in Hiroshima or Nagasaki) also resurfaced. Mirroring the diverse array of issues, the anti-nuke movement is also heterogeneous. As one of its most sizable and visible contingents, it contains a "democracy movement" in which the role of freeter activists, many with a background in the precarity movement, has been central. Enraged in particular by the power of the nuclear establishment (the so-called "nuclear village") and more generally by the way power is exercised in Japan, many of these activists see the high-handed state as the prime enemy, rather than the threat to the environment per se. Also visible as distinct and forceful currents in the anti-nuke movement is a movement to support the destroyed Tōhoku communities through volunteerism and consumer initiatives, and a "zero becquerel" movement conducting radiation measurements in food, schoolyards and playgrounds. What fuels all these protests and activities is above all outrage at a catastrophe that has already occurred. To the extent that the future figures into the motivations it is in the form of fear of a repetition and anger at the persistence and survival of a deadly system in which the catastrophe may be repeated.
(4) In cultural movements like Dark Mountain, the catastrophe's arrival is accepted as inevitable. Even if it is still regarded as a future event, the basic stance expressed in documents such as the 2009 Uncivilisation manifesto is that since we can't stop it we'd better accept it and prepare ourselves. This too seems to be a stance that partakes of the post-apocalyptic sensibility, as one of its possible inflections or modifications. The founders of Dark Mountain are quite explicit that what motivated them to start the movement was disappointment in established environmentalism - the fact that none of its campaigns were succeeding and that environmentalists were not being honest with themselves. Instead of fearing the coming climate change with its attendant decline, depletion, chaos and hardships, they embrace it:
Together we are able to say it loud and clear: we are not going to 'save the planet'. The planet is not ours to save. The planet is not dying; but our civilisation might be, and neither green technology nor ethical shopping is going to prevent a serious crash. Curiously enough, accepting this reality brings about not despair, as some have suggested, but a great sense of hope. Once we stop pretending that the impossible can happen, we are released to think seriously about the future. This is what the Dark Mountain project is doing next. (Kingsnorth 2010)
Like in Williams, here too one seems to find a belief in salvage, that it is precisely by accepting the catastrophe that hope and possibilities for real action can be gained.
(5) In addition, the increasing weight given to adaptation and loss-and-damage at the expense of mitigation in the UNFCCC process can be seen as a weak reflex of the wider shift towards mobilization happening less because of the wish to prevent future catastrophe and more because of ongoing catastrophes or catastrophes regarded as inevitable. "Mitigation" in the UNFCCC parlance stands for emission reductions done to limit global warming, "adaptation" for efforts to adapt to the coming warming by limiting one's vulnerability, and "loss-and-damage" for efforts to compensate for the damage that will occur or that has already occurred.
The genealogy of post-apocalyptic environmentalism
If something like a post-apocalyptic environmentalist discourse is gaining sharper contours today, what is the genealogy of this discourse? It seems to me that there are at least two important sources. One is the shift towards a posttraumatic or postapocalyptic sensibility in film, literature and popular culture which I mentioned above (see Berger 1999, Cassegard 2007). The paradigmatic references here are probably cyberpunk and films like Blade Runner in the US and anime like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and AKIRA in Japan. This cultural current per se, however, is hardly a politicizing discourse. Being more linked to melancholia, sorrow, grief, and a vague longing for recovery and consolation, it is far from obvious how such a discourse plays in with movement activism.
Another and more politically energizing root of post-apocalyptic environmentalism can be found in early attempts, often by Marxist critics, of bringing back the issues of class and inequality into environmentalism. An early example is Cindi Katz, who in 1995 lambasted environmental apocalypticism for being "politically disabling", for disregarding inequalities of class and gender, and for focusing only on Malthusian solutions such as “limiting population and technology rather than attacking the social sources or resource inequality” (Katz 1995:276).
This argument is further developed in Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, a book written jointly by Sasha Lilley, Eddie Yuen, David McNally and James Davis. In this book, they offer a whole battery of arguments against what they call "catastrophism", the idea that society is headed for a collapse from which a new, better society will be born. As for capitalism, they deny that crises must presage its end. Indeed, capitalism lives of crises which fuel the system and open up new rounds of capital accumulation (Lilley et al 2012:6). They also criticize the idea, embraced by catastrophists, that the rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their slumber. Instead, catastrophe can often be paralyzing rather than mobilizing. The environmental movement  misses that fear can hinder rather than help preventing the disaster (ibid. 2, 16). Instead of "the cold porridge of climate catastrophe”, they argue that the Left needs a spirit of joyful rebellion, such as expressed in the slogan "caviar for all" (ibid. 39, 43). Furthermore, they criticize the “we” or “everybody” so often invoked by catastrophism for erasing meaningful class and geographic differences - "Beware of plutocrats speaking of Spaceship Earth” (ibid. 26).
The message in Catastrophism isn’t post-apocalyptic by itself. The book's message is above all that we should refrain from apocalyptic rhetoric because it is counter-productive and politically incapacitating, not that the apocalypse is already here or that it must be the starting point of struggle, protest or salvage work. However, there are passages where the book does come close to Swyngedouw or Williams, as when Eddie Yuen writes: “The question is no longer whether there will be environmental catastrophes, but for whom. To paraphrase William Gibson, ‘the catastrophe is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed’” (ibid. 130 n2).
The rhetoric of the coming catastrophe has been a major mobilizing force behind the environmental movement for a long time. While apocalyptic imagery still dominates much of environmentalism, my interest here has been drawn to those voices that see the apocalypse as something that is already occurring and to those forms of activism that are fuelled less by the risk of a future catastrophe than by the experience of catastrophes that are already here.
If these voices and forms of activism are indicative of a larger shift in the environmental movement, then we may need to rethink several assumptions about the latter. For instance, the prominent role of natural scientists in the environmental movement may be changing. If the apocalypse is already here, movements may no longer need to rely so much on the authority of science as before and can be grounded more in the lived experience of people. Furthermore, since the apocalypse is indeed socially and geographically uneven, issues such as justice and inequality may well become permanent features of environmentalist discourse.  
Lastly, might we not also expect "recovery" to become a major goal of much environmental activism, along with older goals such as preserving nature or limiting damage? To me this seems like a development that is both likely and reasonable. By "recovery" I mean forms of activism that take as their point of departure a damage already done. When a nuclear reactor has suffered a meltdown, your home is destroyed by a hurricane, or your children develop cancer because of fracking, then mere preservation becomes a senseless goal. Post-apocalypse doesn't mean that it won't get any worse. It may certainly grow worse. But while preventing that, people must also redress wrongs, help victims and do what they can in the ruins.

Motoda Hisaharu, Ginza


Benjamin, Walter (1977a) “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”, pp 136-169, in Illuminationen, Ausgewählte Schriften 1, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Benjamin, Walter (1977b) “Über den Begriff der Geschichte”, pp 251-261, in Illuminationen, Ausgewählte Schriften 1, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

Berger, James (1999) After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cassegard, Carl (2007) Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature, Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Katz, Cindi (1995) “Under the Falling Sky: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and the Production of Nature”, pp 276-282, in Antonion Callari et al (eds.) Marxism in the Postmodern Age: Confronting the New World Order, New York: The Guilford Press.

Kingsnorth, Paul (2010) “Why I stopped believing in environmentalism and started the Dark Mountain Project”, The Guardian, April 29.

Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lilley, Sasha & McNally, David & Yuen, Eddie & Davis, James (2012) Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Oakland: PM Press.

Luke, Timothy W. (2015) “The climate change imaginary”, Current Sociology 63(2) 280-296.

Methmann, Chris Paul (2010) “'Climate Protection' as Empty Signifier: A Discourse Theoretical Perspective on Climate Mainstreaming in World Politics”, Millennium - Journal of International Studies 39(2): 345-372.

Methmann, Chris Paul (2013) “The sky is the limit: Global warming as global governmentality”, European Journal of International Relations 19(1): 69-91.

Methmann, Chris Paul & Rothe, Delf (2012) “Politics for the day after tomorrow: The logic of apocalypse in global climate”, Security Dialogue 43(4): 323-344.

Roy, Arundhati (2010) “The Trickledown Revolution”, Outlook Magazine, September 20.

Swyngedouw Erik (2010) “Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change”, Theory Culture & Society 27(2-3): 213-232.

Swyngedouw, Erik (2013) “Apocalypse Now! Fear and Doomsday Pleasures”, Capitalism Nature Socialism 24(1): 9-18.

Thörn, Håkan (1997) Rörelser i det moderna: Politik, modernitet och kollektiv identitet i Europa 1789-1989, Stockholm: Tiden Athena.

Williams, Evan Calder (2011) Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Winchester: Zero Books.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Was Adorno culturally conservative?

I see the core of his thinking as consisting in the redemption of aesthetic experience as key to criticism. To be more specific, it consists in the idea that a “felt contact” with the object can provide the motor force for a special type of materialist critique of culture, which seeks not only to denounce the ideological content of cultural artifacts as false but also to show how ideology can be made to reveal a truth content of its own, a promesse du bonheur similar to Bloch's Utopian not-yet. He also tried to show that this Utopian function was preserved most faithfully in the bleakest and most mercilessly “black” cultural products, those that were seemingly most devoid of hope.

These ideas were central to Adorno from his early writings in the 20s to the end of his life. By contrast, the ideas that many associate him with today - those of the "culture industry", the administered society or the near total Verblendungszusammenhang - were only developed later.

Does this core idea necessarily leads to cultural conservativsm? I don’t think so. To begin with: was he really culturally conservative? Think of the situation in which he grew to maturity, the end of the war, the twenties. What did it mean to be progressive in those years? It meant to be driven by the urge to shock and tear down bourgeois culture, as in Dada, Kafka, atonal music, and psycho analysis. It also meant to be attracted to Marxism. All that fits in with Adorno. What he chose to like was in a sense the punk of his day.

What then is the reason that Adorno is today so often regarded as conservative? Because he was an elitist who disdained popular culture and “disliked jazz”? Well, but then you have to understand what popular culture was in those formative years of the 20s and 30s. Certainly, there were those, like Lukács, who believed that progressive art needed to be anchored in the masses (the proletariat) - a standpoint that in a certain fashion adumbrates the kneejerk tendency in recent cultural studies to see progressive qualities only in popular as opposed to high culture. But as the so-called "realism debate" showed, Lukács was marginal and isolated in the context of Western Marxism.

To Adorno and many of his intellectual fellow-travellers, popular culture was still not a major issue in those years, not as it would later become when several of them migrated to the USA. Instead, the major cultural struggle to most of them was between the older, established culture and modernist avant-garde art. To be sure, some of the people around Adorno developed an interest in popular culture. Kracauer, in particular, pioneered the study of it. In Kracauer’s early studies of film, cabarets etc, popular culture was the expression of mass society. But to him, popular culture was something ominous, a foreboding of fascism. Adorno may well have learnt a lot from Kracauer when it came to popular culture. To him, it becomes associated with danger, with the ascent of those social forces which he fears and detests most. When Adorno writes about popular culture in those years, what makes him critical is the foreboding of worse to come, a brutality and insensitivity to what is weak and powerless. As mentioned, nothing of this diminished the progressive nature of his stance in those years. During the interwar years, Adorno lived in a discursive universe in which there was nothing progressive about affirming popular culture. To put it bluntly, progressiveness tended to be associated with the blackest and most shocking aspects of modernist art, while much of what passed as popular culture was associated with conformism and the dangers of fascism.

What awaited him in the US wasn't just a culture in the iron grip of Hollywood and jazz, but a different discursive universe where the yardsticks that had worked in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna no longer made much sense. Only there did his fear of and disdain for popular culture lead him to take up a position that many today view as conservative and elitist.

Since then, of course, American popular culture has spread across and conquered the world. It's become the culture most of us have grown up with. A result of that culture's hegemony is that we, today, have become socialized into a position from which Adorno almost by necessarity appears like a quaint old fossil. So who is “really” conservative? Is it him, or is it us – who reject him because we are so immersed in the hegemonic culture that it's hard for us to think outside it?

In any case, we who have grown up with this culture also, perhaps, have a better eye than Adorno for its ambivalence, for the presence in it of more than trash. Hopefully that means that we are also in a better position to do justice to his core idea and search not only for falsehoods to impatiently discard but also for ways to strike them against each other in order to produce a Utopian spark.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Newtypes: ideology and utopia in Gundam

Multidimensionality in a work of fiction is pleasant. It also helps generate a sense of reality. The sense of reality is generated in the unpredictable relation between a plurality of dimensions along which conflicts can be played out. Unpredictability is a key element here. A reality without surprises would neither feel real, nor arouse our interest. If reality can never be fully known, then what is known can never be felt to be fully real.

At the same time, the tension between dimensions generates ideologies. Ideologies are attempts to combine, in an "impossible" synthesis, the diverse and contradictory longings embodied in and played out along different dimensions. Borrowing a formulation from Fredric Jameson, they are ideal solutions to real contradictions. Because they are grounded in a real longing to solve or surpass the contradictions, they also contain a utopian element that points beyond them. Sparks of utopia reside even in the most ideological works.

Liberalism and fascism

For an example, let me turn to Mobile Suit Gundam, the classical Japanese anime that was aired  as a TV series in 1979 and reedited for theatrical release in 1981. The setting is the war waged between the Earth Federation and one of its breakaway colonies, called Zeon. Zeon is initially successful, achieving great military victories and wrecking havoc with the earth. The Earth Federation, however, manages to develop a gigantic robot-like "mobile suit" named Gundam. Piloted by a young boy called Amuro, Gundam helps turn the tide of war. 

Statue of Gundam in Odaiba
Zeon is ambiguious in a way that indicates that it lies at the crossroads of several separate axes or dimensions structuring the work. It appears equipped with all the attributes of a prototypical evil foe, such as militarism and authoritarianism. Many of its attributes evoke Nazism. At the end of the first film, during Gihren Zabi's "Sieg Zeon" speech, the grey masses are grouped in endless rectangular formations reminiscent of the Nuremberg rallies and the speaker calls Zeon a chosen people. And the flag of Zeon is a pastisch of the Nazi war flag.

230px-Degwin Zabi (Gundam)
Degwin Sodo Zabi, ruler of Zeon
Unlike Nazi Germany, however, Zeon styles itself as the leader of an anti-colonial war with the aim of liberating earth's colonies. Here the affinity seems rather to be with imperial Japan, which during WWII adopted a pan-Asian ideology according to which Japan would liberate Asia from the colonial yoke and lead all oppressed nations in a global crusade against the white race. There is also much else in Zeon that is reminiscent of imperial Japan. The Musai space cruisers, for instance, are evocative of Japanese wartime battleships with their towering pagodas. Char Aznable, Amuro's main antagonist, wears a helmet that looks like a samurai kabuto.
Lalah Sune and Char Aznable
The Earth Federation, by contrast, seems vagulely modelled on the UN or NATO. This suggests that the central conflict structuring the movie is the one between a liberal Pax Americana-type world order a rising, militaristic fascism. The function of Gundam would then (as its name suggests) be that of a “dam” protecting the earth against the rising tide of fascism. Translating this into contemporary politics, one might say that the filme takes the side of the US-led postwar order against the legacy of the prewar fascist powers defeated in WWII.

Newtypes and oldtypes

Yet the existence of another, even more important axis in the film makes things more complicated. This is the axis along which the conflict between "newtypes" and "oldtypes" is played out. The newtypes are human beings such as Amuro and Char who have developed paranormal abilities due to their exposure to the environment of outer space - abilities that include heightened powers of perception and intuition, increased agility of movement and the ability to communicate telepathically. The newtypes, however, suffer discrimination by the oldtypes, the old humanity on earth. 

Amuro & Sayla
Two newtypes: Amuro and Sayla Mass
Unlike the Earth Federation, Zeon explicitly embraces the evolutions of humans into “newtypes”. According to a prophetic statement by Zeon Zum Deikun, founder of the Republic of Zeon, "someday mankind would undergo a transformation. Should that come to pass, mankind may give birth to a new race of men who by themselves will rule the universe... What he called a ‘new type’ of human" (quoted in Drazen 2006:175). It is this “newtype” ideology that allows the people of Zeon to conceive of themselves as a racially superior "chosen people".

We can now note an important pecularity with the film that arises from the way in which the "newtype-oldtype" axis intersects with the "liberalism-fascism" axis. Although the film portrays Zeon as a quasi-Nazi dictatorship against which Gundam serves as a bulwark, it accepts an important part of its ideology. In the film, newtypes really exist and have superior abilities. The evolution of humanity prophesied by Zeon Zum Deikun really takes place. It’s a little bit as if an ostensibly anti-Nazi film had portrayed Germans as actually superior to Jews. Or, for that matter, an anti-colonial film in which white actors get all the important roles (not so uncommon, right?).

The film's very structure seems to privilege the newtypes. They are clearly portrayed as the principal players in the war, as the heroes on which the fate of the rest of humanity will depend. Amuro himself is a newtype who grew up on one of the Earth Federation's space colonies and therefore fights on its side. Newtypes thus take part on both sides of the war. All the film's climactic battle scenes depict newtypes flying around in their huge mobile suits fighting each other. The result, as Ian Condry observes, is that the war appears to be played out on an “action-movie scale", the battles hinging on "a limited number of heroes and rivals that hardly characterizes actual wars" (Condry 2013:126). A sense of commonality and even mutual respect seems to exists between newtypes on both sides in the war. Their relations are guided by a kind of warrior ethic which the film seems to endorse. Despite being Amuro's main antagonist, Char is sympathetically portrayed and appears to have been as popular among viewers as Amuro. Indeed, Amuro and Char are portrayed as “two worthy opponents… neither of which is more or less evil than the other” (Murakami 2005:31). Speaking of a warrior ethic, is it a coincidence that Gundam resembles a knight in shining white armour so much?

X5 Char and Amuro fight
Amuro and Char
From this point of view, it no longer makes sense to says that the film takes the side of the "liberal" Earth Federation. Instead the "liberalism-fascism" axis is displaced by thes "newtype-oldtype" axis. At this point in the argument it would be possible to visualize the relation between these two axes with the help of a Greimasian semiotic rectangle, but instead of actually drawing it, let me just pose the question of whether anything corresponding to what Greimas calls the "complex term" can be found in the film? In other words, does the film offer any kind of imaginary resolution of the tension between the two axes? The answer here, it seems to me, is Gundam. As mentioned above, it functions as a "dam" protecting the earth. However, being a mobile suit which needs to be piloted by the newtype Amuro, it can only function as such a “dam” by harnessing to itself the powers of space, powers more associated with Zeon than with the Earth. Gundam, then, doesn't represent the liberal order of the Earth Federation so much as the "impossible" desire to protect this liberal order through illiberal forces associated with elitist notions of racial superiority ("the chosen people") and hero worship.

Otaku and new ethnicities

This blend per se is not unfamiliar. One only need to think of Hollywood. How many movies exist that celebrate tough police officers who protect "liberal" America precisely by their readiness to break the rule book? One could also think of Kurosawa, whose films have been described as pervaded by an impossible desire to combine Confucian hierarchy with socialist egalitarianism (Wernström 1996).

But Gundam goes further than this. To appreciate why the film strives to create an ideological synthesis out of the two axes it is necessary to ask why the reigning "liberal" order of postwar Japan on its own is felt to be insufficient or oppressive at least to some groups in Japan. Critics have often linked the “newtype” idea to the otaku subculture. As the renowned pop-artist Murakami Takashi points out, it functions as a subcultural ideology portraying the seemingly sloppy, asocial and abnormal lifestyles of otaku as the seed of a new future humanity with superior abilities. Murakami describes Amuro as “an otaku-like, machine loving introvert who accidentally becomes the pilot of the Gundam; far from heroic… Amuro prefigured the purposeless Shinji Ikari of Neon Genesis Evangelion” (Murakami 2005:31).

This means that rather than rather than an abstract struggle between “liberalism” and “fascism”, the quandary from which the film departs is that contemporary Japan and its youth. The new types who have developed a new sensibility thanks to their adaptation to a new environment are the same as the young generation, living in a new time which they understand better than their parents, yet feeling discriminated and harassed by then as well as by teachers and mass media.

John of Patmos watches the descent of the New Jerusalem from God in a 14th century tapestry.
New Jerusalem 
Elements of a generational conflict are unmistakably present here, but there seems to be more than that. The sociologist Ueno Toshiya suggest that "the difference between newtypes and ‘old human beings’... functions as a stand-in for the difference between races and ethnicities as well as for the difference between classes” (Ueno 1998:138). Building on this, he goes on to interpret the film from what could be called a post-colonial, cultural studies perspective that makes the newtypes similar to what Stuart Hall (1992) and Les Back (1996) refer to as new ethnicities. Words like "Zeon" and "chosen people", in his reading, do not connote fascism but rather Zionism. The latter in turn is an ambiguous ideology, not just referring to the Israeli state ideology but also to the Zion of  reggae and rastafarism - an ideology linked to Etiopia, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial struggle. This would explain the prominence in the Gundam series of the colonial struggle for independence, the discrimination against the newtypes, the appearance of the word “Cosmo-Babylon”, the fact that so many of the newtypes appear to be "colored" (some like Lalah Sune are dark-skinned, other seem vaguely Chinese), and the prevalence of names of Third World cities which, as Ueno suggests, turns the space of the film into a “pseudo-colonial space” (Ueno 1998:129-137).

By reading the newtypes as "new ethnicities", Ueno affirms the utopian side of the newtype ideology as against its fascist appropriation. Zion is of course a word loaded with utopian connotations - the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem that will be free from oppression. It would even be possible to read the evolution of newtypes as heading in an angelic direction, with humans growing more spiritual and less limited by their material body.

Murakami Takashi offers a darker, more critical reading of this ideology which penetrates deeper into the problems of contemporary Japan. The newtype, he writes, is suggestive of the "savant syndrome" in people with mental disabilities that nonetheless possess astounding memories. He quotes the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran’s description of this syndrome: “Consider the possibility that savants suffer early brain damage before or shortly after birth… Is it possible that their brains undergo some form of remapping as seen in phantom limb patients?” (quoted in Murakami 2005: 147). To Murakami, the asocial otaku with their subcultural obsessions are emblematic of postwar Japan as a whole, a country mutilated through the trauma of war and the subsequent loss of independence. In such a country it is no wonder that fantasies of a compensatory development take root. "Amuro", he writes: a shy, antisocial New Type who awakens to war. It is inevitable that humans who are born and dwell in low-gravity space, with radiation levels that far surpass those on earth, will be fundamentally different from humans born and raised on this planet. For the Japanese, the hope that a New Type will emerge in this environment is an inevitability, born of the confluence of reality and postwar trauma. (ibid.)
Murakami's intention is not to criticize otaku culture, but rather to affirm it as a culture of "deformed monsters". From his perspective, it is precisely by identifying as a pathetic otaku in need of the newtype ideology that new possibilities of authentically grappling with postwar Japanese history open up. While this reading helps turn Gundam into a tool of criticism against the postwar Japanese order and superficial nationalist self-images of Japan as a country of refined beauty, a further merit is that it helps bring into view the pain and desperation fuelling the newtype ideology. If his interpretation is correct, it is out of despair at having failed as a normal human that some people simply must hope for the development of compensatory special abilities of the newtype sort.

Ian Condry sheds some light on this desperation in his recent book The Soul of Anime. Here he discusses petitions launched by self-proclaimed otaku for the legal recognition of marriage to 2D characters. He quotes the otaku spokesman Tôru Honda (a.k.a. "the Radiowave Man") who deliberately opts for 2D characters, dismissing those who prefer real people ("3D characters") as being behind the times. “One can read Radiowave Man’s manifesto not primarily as a rejection of relationships with real women but, more imporant, as a defense of failed men”, Condry comments (2013:194). To explain this sense of failure, Condry refers to masculinity studies which explain “why so much otaku-oriented anime contains troubled male protagonists who essentially reimagine the hero as vulnerable, and anything but all-powerful” (ibid.). The apex of this development is Shinji in Evangelion, but the prototype of this sort of male was Amuro. Condry continues that “an otaku perspective on masculinity reminds us of the vulnerability experienced by many men who live outside the dominant ideal of male success” (ibid. 195).

Dameren, a movement for defending failures and for a society in which no-one needs to be a loser
To "save" the newtype ideology in the sense of locating its possible utopian relevance, it is not enough to link it to reggae, as Ueno does. Probably, one must also link it to the “failure” of many young Japanese to live up to the norms of masculinity.  It is the losers’ utopia that is depicted here. The "revolution of good-for-nothings" (dame kakumei) is anonther of its expressions. In the group Dameren (the League of Good-for-nothings), which was active in the 90s and helped lay the groundwork for the precarity movement and other forms of youth activism in Japan today, the ideology is taken in a more progressive direction. Their revolt was against the “old” world that oppressed them, but unlike the otaku they were not asocial. They did their best to nourish alternative forms of living and communicating in their small alternative spaces. They too knew that the failure had to be affirmed in order to create a society in which failing is not so harshly judged but tolerated as something normal and ordinary (for more on Dameren, see my book). But to save an ideology is not simply to affirm it as it is. When Murakami Takeshi wrote that he wanted to affirm himself as a deformed monster, what he was saying was: instead of simply believing in the attractive ideology of new types, we must acknowledge ourselves as pathetic creatures who are attracted by it.


Back, Les (1996) New Ethnicities and Urban Culture, London: UCL Press.

Condry, Ian  (2013) The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Durham: Duke University Press.

Drazen, Patrick (2006) “The Shock of the Newtype: The Mobile Suit Gundam Novels of Tomino Yoshiyuki”, Mechademia, Vol. 1: 174-177.

Hall, Stuart (1992) ”New Ethnicities”, pp 252-259, in James Donald & Ali Rattansi (eds) ’Race’, Culture and Difference, London: Sage Publications.

Murakami, Takeshi (2005) “Earth in my Window”, pp 98-149, in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, New Haven: Yale University Press

Ueno Toshiya (1998) Kurenai no metaru sūtsu: anime to iu senjo (Red Metal Suits – Animation as Battleground), Tokyo: Kinokuniya shoten.

Wernström, Göran (1996) Medvetet/omedvetet och filmberättande: en studie i Akira Kurosawas film Sju samurajer, Lund: Lund University.
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