20 May 2010

Eastern ideas, a western approach: an example in editorial philosophizing

The other day, I found a wonderful post on twitter. Made by Brian Ruh, the author of “Stray Dog of Anime,” he asked : “If anime/manga scholars in English aren't casting their nets wide enough, what else should they (we?) be considering?” My reply to this was: “Are we really studying anime/manga, or are we studying what the west thinks it sees in anime/manga.” Philosophical, I know. But anybody who has read this site knows that such a reply is commonplace for me, in fact anyone who’s ever met me or spoken with me for more than ten minutes knows I throw out nuggets like this with no real rhyme or reason. But the real reason I said this was that it falls in line with something that has been a real concern for my latest project of late.

I’ve been keeping a lot of it under wraps, for no real reason than it’s my baby and I want to work on it in peace, but if you’ve been paying attention to the site this past week, you already know that I’m appearing at Anime Mid Atlantic in a little over 3 weeks, and that there’s a new panel listed underneath “Abraham, Jesus and Shinji.” And if you haven’t, go look now. Seriously, take a look. I’m not going anywhere.


That’s right, Modern Mythology spinoff number two, “Dead Like Us”, or as I lovingly call it, “The Shinigami Project.” I’ve been working on for the past month, ever since the idea hit me upside the head. I have a shinigami section in “Modern Mythology” where I explore a bit of the history behind the shinigami concept, and how they are represented in Japanese media. But as with my explorations into the sacred and Neon Genesis Evangelion began to get me to dig deeper and deeper into symbolisms and philosophy, so too has the idea of the shinigami consumed me and driven me to read, read, read all about Japanese religion, death practices, cultural implications and the like. Why? Because, as a lot of you might have realized, shinigami aren’t Japanese.

I could go into length here about the origins of the shinigami, and how they came to represent black-clad samurai running around killing hungry ghosts, or how they became yakuza fetishists, but that is being saved for a later date. The point that I wish to make here is that shinigami, despite being the biggest thing in anime right now, are largely ignored. If you don’t believe me, log onto google, type in “shinigami” and see what pops up. Not a whole lot. The wikipedia entry is very short, there are some random collections of consensus threads from message boards, and a few other instances mentioning them, but as for scholarly looks into what they are, and what they embody, nothing. At least nothing when it comes to google. Wikipedia mentions an article about the Grim Reaper, but as it’s in Japanese, I won’t be able to read it until I can get it translated.

So instead of finding sources directly regarding the shinigami, I’ve had to improvise. I’ve found a lot of great books and articles relating to religion in Japan, death practices and death culture, yokai, I’ve even contacted the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Japan, asking for help. And while things are falling into place, they are also still a ways off, at least as far as my research is concerned.

Wow, another tangent. Not exactly surprising. Now where was I, before I launched into that mass of self indulgent ego-boosting? Oh yes, Brian Ruh’s twitter observation...

One of the long-standing critiques of western academia is that it’s both too narrow and too broad. We are a society, at least academically, that prides itself on being able to connect even the most esoteric of points. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the graduate program in anthropology or psychology at your local university. Since I’ve been a college student, I’ve seen, and participated in, some of the most blatant straw-gathering and binding ever. I’m not saying that this is bad, hardly. In fact, one of the true benefits of our academic system is we strive to find these esoteric connections and make them work, often surprising ourselves and our colleagues in the process. I remember back in my first semester of the grad program, I submitted a paper proposal to my ethnology professor that would have linked together concepts espoused in Victor Turner’s “A Forest of Symbols,” (a personal favorite of mine), Talal Asad’s “Genealogies of Religion,” and Robert Courtney Smith’s “Mexican New York.” If I can find the proposal, and the paper, I’ll post it up one day. But my professor, the great global ethnographer Marc Edelman, expressed concern with my idea, saying that he couldn’t see any correlations between all three books. He asked me if I was sure I knew what I was doing, and I said yes, and submitted an outline. With a smile, he said he was impressed I made my point so well, and told me to go ahead. I earned my “A” in that class, by managing to link together esoteric concepts that had evaded my professor. In this instance, I managed to succeed in tying together the concepts that seemed incompatible, and I found something, but that’s not always the case.

The drawback to our academic “open-ness” is sometimes we tend to approach things from either a slanted angle, or we ignore the obvious. While we are loathe to admit that Amero-centrism may cloud our judgement and bias our analyses, it does. We approach things as we always have, through the lens of an American academic, often to the disregard of more obvious or apparent ideas. A professor of mine once told me that some American scholars tend to always view their work as being in competition with others (I’m guilty of this), and always try to find ways to either “one up” their colleagues or find the tiniest, most esoteric idea and run with it, if only to say “I did it, you didn’t.” Adding “I’m smarter than you” to the previous sentence might also be appropriate, I’ve been to more than a few department parties where that phrase was thrown around with reckless abandon by an intoxicated scholar looking for, you guessed it, an ego boost. And because of this cycle, we tend to ignore other aspects of study that might be staring us right in the face, because they seem “too broad,” or because deep down we might think that something so broad and open cannot be academic at all, or else it would have been studied already. We are reluctant to take that first step, for fear it might damage our reputation, or get us criticism that we aren’t focused enough, or, god forbid, being “journalists.” I myself have tried to slim down my work in hopes of making it different enough from other’s to stand on its own, while completely ignoring the fact that there are plenty of things in anime and media culture that deserve exploration. Even the idea of studying anime itself took me most of my tenure in the Master’s program to accept, mostly because of the grilling by my colleagues that anime and media culture are not serious academia, rather they are firmly in the realm of popular journalism and not worth scholarly study. (These same people also thought that sociocultural anthropology was hopelessly outdated and needed to be abolished from the discipline as a whole, but that’s another entry for another date...and another website.) And I found myself hopelessly mired in depression, repeating the poisonous mantra of “I’m not good enough,” all while reading up on something new, and ignoring the fact that my passion for the subject matter is driving me to accomplish something wonderful, that hasn’t been given enough attention of late.

Where does the proverbial blame lie for this misconception of scholarly study? Going out on a limb here, I would like to point to one of the fundamentals of our academic system in the US: the Socratic methods. For those unfamiliar with it, put simply, the Socratic method (named, obviously, for the philosopher Socrates) insists that the student in pursuit of a higher understanding must question, question and question some more, until they are either satisfied or until the idea they are questioning is refuted. This is a beautiful concept that can lead to a thinker accomplishing great things, like connecting esoteric dots together. Unfortunately, the Socratic method is ill prepared for certain topics, like the physical sciences, past a certain point. It is also, above all, a philosophical concept, where once fact is marginalized or stripped away, the discussions turn to a realm of pure thought and idea, devoid of the “meat” so to say. It does drive us to reach new heights in our thinking, but it also tends to cause the same esoteric thoughts that got us into this predicament in the first place. I’m not saying the method is wrong, just over-applied, and I feel that at some point it begins to blind us to the rest of what is around our worlds, keeping us focused on ideas that ave long past run their course, all in the name of scholarship.

Wow...that was more long-winded than usual. A lot more philosophical as well. I need to get back on track...

I think I’m going to abandon the editorial style Philosophizing now, and give Mr. Ruh a real answer.

Take a look at the current state of anime academia. By and large, it’s focused on anime as a cultural force, as an extension of Japanese society and cultural syncretism. A lot of work has been done towards its effects on American media culture, and on the escapism inherent in ideas like cosplay and conventions. With the release of “Defining Anime” by Robert V Aldrich and “The Anime Machine” by Thomas Lamarre, we are seeing the first glimpses into the mechanics and aesthetics behind anime, and how they set it apart from western animation. There have been forays into the work of certain directors, and explorations into the appeal of anime worldwide. The majority of these studies, by and large, are focused within media studies, with some forays into anthropology, sociology, economics and psychology, and a lot of the new crop of anime researchers are sticking with these tried and true disciplines. So, if a scholar really wants to separate himself from the pack, wouldn’t it be a good idea to look at all the other disciplines found in academic study, and see how anime fits into it? Joseph Campbell did that with mythology, so why not one of us with anime?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, so many thoughts to ponder, so little time! I'm a little surprised you haven't tried to get someone to tackle this topic; there's just so much to learn, and that's just looking on how the Japanese do animation, not the artform as a whole and how the Japanese see it.

    Personally, I think in order to better understand the cultural impact anime has brought to us, we need to study the shows that started it all and and make up some academia research on why these shows are taken the way the are and figure out on why certain shows are beloved and why people don't remember others; Michael Barrier did this in his book "Hollywood Cartoons: American American in its' Golden Age" (which is a book I highly recommend if you want to find out on why classic cartoons way before out time and why animation is a complicated artform) and I'm hoping someone will expand on what he accomplished in that book (which is what I think you want to do); there's probably a MA paper with this idea with "Evangelion". And once we figure out the appeal of the shows, we'll better understand the impact anime brought us. In a way, it's good to bring up the Socratic method, since that way of thinking makes us want to take into consideration what's already said and write up new theories on animation, so there's really no problem of throwing Eastern ideas into the mix of what this post wants to express.

    But hey, I'm not an official academia writer, so what do I know?